My dear friend and prolific writer and scholar Hussein Ahdieh has just released a memoir of his experiences as a Baha’i in Iran and an immigrant to the United States. You may recognize his name from the books Awakening: A History of the Babi and Baha’i Faiths in Nayriz or The Calling: Tahirih of Persia and Her American Contemporaries. Both books were co-written with Hillary Chapman, and now the dynamic duo have teamed up again for their latest book based on Hussein Ahdieh’s life, called Foreigner. It’s funny, it’s tender, and it sheds a powerful light on what it feels like to be an immigrant.
Hussein agreed to tell us about his book and what inspired him to write it:
Baha’i Blog: Hi Hussein, can you tell us a little bit about your new book ‘Foreigner’, and what it’s all about?
‘Foreigner’ tells my story as an Iranian Baha’i immigrant to the United States in a series of moving and humorous episodes set against the backdrop of a changing Iran, the plight of the Baha’is there, and the tumult of the 60’s and 70’s in the United States. It’s a vivid re-telling of a foreigner’s experience — as a Baha’i in a Shi’a Muslim country, as an immigrant in a foreign land, as a poor person in New York City, as a Middle Easterner in the West – it’s full of my experiences with challenges and personalities from all walks of life.
Baha’i Blog: Why was this an important book for you to write personally, and what was that experience like?
I decided to write stories about my life to illuminate one corner of the experience of Iranian Baha’is in their home country, and as immigrants in the United States.
The stories range in setting, from the tiny, dusty, dark and perilous village of Nayriz, lacking plumbing or electricity, brimming with scorpions, wild animals, wolves, and snakes, all the way to New York City and many glittering capitals of the world.
I came from the rough streets of the small Iranian town of Nayriz to the streets of Harlem, New York, in the tumultuous late ‘60s. I grew up among the persecuted Baha’i religious minority in Iran, and then later worked at the Harlem Prep School, which helped guide hundreds of young African-Americans away from the streets and into college. In a series of stories told with honesty and humor, I am seen struggling with the harsh society of rural Iran and then with life on the margins of American society as an immigrant, misunderstanding the cultural norms of my new home, while trying to maintain my Baha’i and Iranian identities until I finally settled down into the American middle class in Queens.
Baha’i Blog: What do you hope readers will walk away with after having read the book?
I want the reader to see through the lenses of an independent searcher for a meaningful life, the hopes and promises given to the world by the Founders of this new, wondrous Faith, whose spirit is destined to unify the whole human race.
Witnessing the raising of the Baha’i House of Worship in Samoa, I, along with many Iranian Baha’i immigrants and refugees suffering from the Iranian regime, saw that Baha’u’llah, as He had promised, had raised up Baha’is in the midmost heart of the ocean, in a region completely dissimilar to our native Iran which had rejected Him. There is a quote from the Baha’i Writings clearly indicating that: “Should they attempt to conceal its light on the continent, it will assuredly rear its head in the midmost heart of the ocean, and, raising its voice, proclaim: ‘I am the life-giver of the world’”.1
Baha’i Blog: This is a very personal book about your experiences as a “foreigner”, and so many can definitely relate to that; I’m sure there are things covered in the book and the lessons learned that are still relevant to people today.
Everything that I knew about America I had learned from movies. I thought America had streets where Gene Kelly danced and sang in the rain! It had Broadway-lined streets with brightly lit movie houses and theaters. In my mind, American women were Marilyn Monroe, being teased on the train by Tony Curtis. American men were Gregory Peck, wooing Audrey Hepburn. America was full of beautiful people in colorful, expensive clothing, smiling happily in large chrome-trimmed cars going down a coastal highway in the sun, endlessly in love, casting their worries to the wind.
From the moment I arrived in the United States, I had the feeling of being foreign. I was inside the country, but outside society. I had arrived with a few pairs of Ali Baba style pants, canvas underwear made by my mother, an unsightly large black coat, pistachios in my pockets, and hair gel because I feared not finding any in the new country. After long years of wondering in between the worlds, I found myself home only at Baha’i gatherings, where differences were seen as an asset and a contribution to others.
Baha’i Blog: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Over the course of my life, like many Baha’is in Iran, the Baha’i Faith has sustained my soul, the United States of America has given me the opportunity to realize my professional potential, and the prayers of generations of my family has protected me. The moving stories of my personal spiritual journey described in the book are gently weaved with the larger historic fabric of the Baha’i emigrants seeking, finding and building Baha’i communities around the world.
Do you remember the quote from a letter by the Universal House of Justice about the suffering of the Iranian Baha’is? It says: “Every drop of blood shed by the valiant martyrs, every sigh heaved by the silent victims of oppression, every supplication for divine assistance offered by the faithful, has released, and will continue mysteriously to release, forces over which no antagonist of the Faith has any control, and which, as marshalled by an All-Watchful Providence, have served to noise abroad the name and fame of the Faith to the masses of humanity in all continents….”2
Baha’i Blog: Thank you so much, Hussein, and congratulations on another wonderful book!
You can purchase a copy of ‘Foreigner’ from your local Baha’i Bookstore, or here on Amazon.
Read Baha’i Blog’s interviews with Hussein Ahdieh about his other books using the following links: