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Tea Leaves

Twilight of the West's Orientalists

Academic study of the East has changed but earlier views linger on

"We're organizing a concert of Bach and traditional Uzbek Muqam music in Samarkand. You must come!" My new acquaintance eyed me with deep conviction. Orientalist, explorer, gifted pianist and accomplished scholar, this was Bruce Wannell, whose enthusiasm could reveal a whole new world in a brief encounter. I met him in January this year in London. His recent death left me musing on the ambivalent legacy of his generation of experts on the lands of Islam and the East as they fade from the scene.

Wannell studied Farsi in Esfahan, Iran, in 1978. The Iranian revolution that year brought violent death to his hosts and forced him to flee. Moving on to Pakistan, he performed relief work for refugees during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which began in 1979, following a communist coup in 1978. In Peshawar and Lahore he delved more deeply into Indo-Persian culture. He visited Sufi shrines, organized concerts of classical Persian, Afghan and Hindustani music, and added Arabic, Pashto, Urdu and Turkish to his already rich, literary Persian.

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