Obituary: Bruce Wannell (1971)

  • Bruce Wannell
  • Bruce Wannell
  • Bruce Wannell
20 February, 2020

We are sad to report the death of Orielensis Bruce Wannell (1971, Modern Languages) on 29 January 2020.

Described in the Times obituary published on 13 February 2020 as “a free spirit, an outsider, and a man with a deep knowledge of the Islamic world”, Bruce read French and German at Oriel in the early 1970s. He always dreamed of travelling around North Africa and South Asia and, a few years after graduating, this dream became a reality.

As mentioned in the Times obituary, Bruce was a writer, linguist and lecturer with a passion for travel. He spent a lengthy period of time in Peshawar in the late 1980s, where he initially worked for British charity Afghanaid assisting Afghan refugees. He utilised this experience later on in life, becoming a consultant to the UN and other agencies monitoring aid projects in Afghanistan. Bruce held a lifelong love for Afghanistan, and during the civil war travelled across the country on horseback. He also spent a lot of time in Iran, and had a passion for the Persian language. He read and spoke the language fluently, along with at least eight others. In an article in the former SOAS magazine The Middle East in London published in 2007, he explained what kindled his love for Islamic art and exotic travel.

Bruce’s aptitude for the Persian language led to his collaboration with historian William Dalrymple on his four histories of the East Indian Company, with Bruce translating texts from Persian and French. Dalyrmple referred to Bruce as “probably the best translator of 18th century Persian”. In addition to this legacy, Bruce contributed to a variety of academic texts on Islamic culture in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society.

During the last 15 years, Bruce had worked as a guide. He led and guest-lectured on cultural tours to Iran, Central Asia, Egypt, Pakistan and India. He also lectured at Durham, Goldsmiths, the University of London, the University of Oxford and the Institute of Ismaili Studies.

Although he did not lecture at SOAS formally, he was invited from time to time over the years to give one off talks or contribute to events and seminars.  One such event was a public lecture and readings held in July 2019 entitled “Intimations of Immortality: An Evening of Persian Poetry” as more fully described here, including a video where Bruce is introduced by Narguess Farzad, Chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies (from 31’54”) and he talks (from 32’40”). The SOAS website also carries an obituary to Bruce.

This anecdote by a fellow linguist perhaps illustrates how Bruce used his time at Oriel to the full. “As soon as he realised I had a car (a vintage Morris Minor Traveller), Bruce persuaded me to chauffeur him around some of the wonderful country houses near Oxford and I am indebted to him for broadening my cultural horizon in this way. On our way back from a visit to Chastleton House, we spotted a young man with a dog hitching a lift. It turned out that the young man was a shepherd. This suited Bruce admirably, as he was planning to put on a fête champêtre in his rooms in college but needed straw, a shepherd and, ideally, some sheep. The shepherd duly obliged and the evening was a great success. Possibly the college porter was otherwise engaged when the sheep entered the college!”

Another story illustrates how immersed he was in cultural activities: to mark the 40th anniversary of their matriculation, a group of fellow Oriel linguists organised a dinner in October 2011 at the Oxford & Cambridge Club to which Bruce was of course invited. Sadly, he could not attend, the reason being expressed as follows: “My apologies to all concerned - I've been asked to talk about the Achaemenid bas-reliefs at Persepolis in relation to the Naples / House of the Faun Alexander mosaic with its remarkable portrait of the defeated Persian king, and dates and places unfortunately clash. Then I leave for New York where I have 2 articles coming out with the Metropolitan Museum about the inscriptions on the great mausoleum of Ibrahim Adilshah at Bijapur in the Deccan, South India. I do hope I may make the next reunion. Best wishes to you all, and bon appetit. Bruce Wannell”.

In his latter years, Bruce moved to York and a Memorial Service for him was held at York Cemetery Chapel on 29 February 2020.