Two news stories caught my eye this week: first, the YouGov poll that proclaimed love and nostalgia for the British Empire is alive and well; and second, the news that the publisher Tiny Owl (tinyowl.co.uk) had their Iranian illustrator, Ehsan Abdollahi, rejected for a visa to come to the Edinburgh Festival. On the face of it, these stories seem totally unrelated. After all, Iran was never a part of the vast British Empire, although many of its neighbors, including Iraq, were.
But Iran’s escape from domination by the British Empire was not for want of trying on the part of the British, who saw control over Iran as a way “to defend her imperialist interests in India and the Persian Gulf” according to Younes Parsa Benab (http://www.iranchamber.com/history/articles/origin_development_imperialist_contention_iran1.php)particularly against the threat of the other regional superpower, Russia. By the late Victorian period, the British had established control over the construction of infrastructure (including the railroads), mining, and banking; and by 1901, Britain had been granted the right throughout most of Iran to search for stocks of petroleum. In many ways, then, the British did in Iran what they did in countries officially within the empire; the description of Iraq from The Adventures of Peter and Tess Through the British Commonwealth (Amex, 1944), written by Stella Mead and illustrated by Eulalie, could just as easily have been written about Iran, with a few of the dates and place-names changed. Peter and Tess’s father note that, “the British were in charge until 1932 . . . A friend of mine was here, helping to build the famous Rowanduz Road that pierces the mountain barrier of Kurdistan, a simply marvellous bit of engineering” (n.p.). When Tess asks what the country produces “besides all the dates” they have been eating, her father tells her, “I see you’ve marked Mosul up there in the North. That’s the oilfields district” (n.p.).
Iran, like Iraq, received “marvellous engineering” in return for control over industry, banking, and precious resources. I had an Indian friend once who told me that the British were great because “they built the railways” throughout India and, indeed, the world; he seemed untroubled by the cultural, economic and political chaos that the British left in their wake when retreating from their colonial responsibilities. In a very similar fashion, the YouGov poll that appeared this week argued that although “Economically, the British Empire invested in infrastructure, established trading routes and installed institutions . . . it also extracted resources, oversaw famines and in some cases left behind instability. Though many (36%) are unsure, British people do tend to think that, overall, former British colonies are now better off for having been part of the empire, by 49-15%” (https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/07/26/britain-proud-its-empire/)
The YouGov poll is also significant for what it says about British ideas of the empire. “The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this year are the latest reminder of the British Empire, and of a determination to present its legacy as constructive. YouGov also asked which countries British people would especially like to do well at the events, with Australia, New Zealand and Canada being most favoured” (https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/07/26/britain-proud-its-empire/). Even Kipling, in his School History of England written with CRL Fletcher in 1911, agreed that it was best to stick with these whiter colonies. “In Canada, we had really little difficulty in making good friends with our new French subjects . . . In Australia we had nothing but a few miserable blacks, who could hardly use even bows and arrows in fight. In New Zealand we had a more warlike race, the Maoris . . . to deal with” (238-239) but once these minor problems were accomplished, Canada, Australia and New Zealand became England’s most “important” colonies.
Which brings me back to Tiny Owl and Iran. In 2008, the UK government abolished the Artist, Writer and Composer visa in favor of an Australian-style points system in which writers—whose income is typically irregular—have to prove they have a regular income and strong ties to their home nation. This year is the third year that Tiny Owl author/illustrators have been denied visas; in addition to Abdollahi, Marjan Vafaian (in 2016) and Ali Seidabadi (in 2015). Other publishers and organizers of book festivals have had similar problems when their authors or illustrators come from places such as the Middle East or Africa, according to Heloise Wood’s article in the Bookseller, “Outrage after children’s author denied visa” (19 July 2017). Individual Home Office decisions may be perfectly legitimate, but the pattern of denials does suggest that certain areas of the world are deemed less desirable.
And this is a real shame, because the Iranian illustrators from Tiny Owl offer British children art that is totally different from artistic styles found in British picture books. The swoopy arms and big dresses (yes, these ARE the technical terms used by artists) of the characters connect them with children’s own drawings, but are at the same time highly stylized and graphically distinct in their patterned backgrounds and color pallet.
Illustrator Ali Seidabadi was denied a visa in 2015.
Iranian illustrators, if they were able to talk about their work in the UK, could have useful dialogue with British illustrators, people such as the current Children’s Laureate Lauren Child (whose drawings also have a childlike quality), and the cross-cultural interaction could only improve the overall picture of British illustration.
Illustrator Marjan Vafaian was denied a visa in 2016.
I think back to how Eastern European influence after World War I, through artists like Miska Petersham and Willy Pogany, influenced picture book trends in America. Had American officials been suspicious of artists coming from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, picture books in the period might not have enjoyed the golden age that they did. Pogany and Petersham settled in the US, while the Iranian illustrators are only asking for a chance to visit and discuss their works. For Britain to only allow authors and illustrators from certain countries access to visas, they impoverish their own authors and illustrators—not to mention the children who need to read beyond their own borders, and see the world through others’ eyes.