This limitless universe is like the human body, all the members of which are connected and linked with one another with the greatest strength. How much the organs, the members and the parts of the body of man are intermingled and connected for mutual aid and help, and how much they influence one another! In the same way, the parts of this infinite universe have their members and elements connected with one another, and influence one another spiritually and materially. – Abdu’l-Baha
Ever since small boats could sail beyond the horizon, each person who has journeyed to a new home has a unique story, with their own motivation for leaving the home of their ancestors and for starting out as a foreigner in a new land. There is sometimes a push: famine or war. There is sometimes a pull: freedom or economic stability. For Baha’is, the strongest reason for their exodus from Iran over the past fifty years is religious persecution.
Immigrants the world over have acted upon the innate human hope and thirst for tranquility and peace, and followed the quest for education, safe shelter and economic opportunities for the progress of future generations. Whatever the motivation, the millions of individuals who decided to pack what they could carry and start moving resulted in diversifying every corner of the world. Immigration has profoundly changed the Earth’s complexion.
I feel honored to be among the ranks of immigrants and refugees who have sacrificed and persevered, who have been tested and become resilient. The world is a better place because of immigration. This is true for the individual immigrant and for society in general. It allows the members of the human race to integrate rather than remain isolated.
I have been an outsider or foreigner for much of my life. During my childhood and adolescence, I was a Baha’i in the Shi’a Muslim society of Iran, whose religious leaders reviled my family because of our faith. At the age of 19, I fled my home country and tasted the freedom of America, but continued to be a foreigner as an immigrant in New York City. I joined generations before me who came to America as outsiders but who somehow, through the mercy of God and hard work, survived and found a home.
Many people feel “foreign” like I did, but I’m not complaining. I am deeply grateful to my belief in the Baha’i Faith for being a constant source of guidance, to the United States for ultimately having allowed me to exercise my talents, and even to the many people of my small Iranian hometown for rejecting me and unknowingly pushing me out into the wider world.
The actions of people in the country of my birth made me leave my village where my ancestors lived for thousands of years. Although I endured much pain, I feel grateful that I had a choice.
My story starts in the dusty alleys of the village of Nayriz in southern Iran. I remember only darkness when the sun went down, except for the hazy orange glow of a small kerosene lamp. I remember a torrent of refuse and mud running over the unpaved streets when it rained. I remember women covered in dark ‘chadors’ (veils), moving like shadows. I remember mullas in mosques exhorting the faithful to weep for the martyrs. I remember Nayriz as a sad society of timeless routine permeated by ignorance. I was a Baha’i, who had to tolerate daily abuses on top of all this misery.
The month of Muharram was a time of particular suffering for the Baha’i community as I recall. It is during this month that Iman Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was martyred over 1000 years ago. It is the first month of the Islamic calendar and a time for commemoration for Shi’a Muslims.
When I was 5 years old, on the 10th day of this month (Ashura), we closed our large wooden door to protect us from the crowds that were marching in the streets and that wanted to hurt us. Our family dog was still outside on the street when we sought refuge, and sadly he was stoned to death.
In the streets, Baha’is were vulnerable to the deeply-held prejudices of the townspeople, who had been taught by the mullas to despise us. Their narrow mental horizons kept them content in their ignorance, and their hardscrabble lives blunted any sensitivity towards their neighbors. The mosque had long ceased to exercise a leavening effect on their hearts, and many men escaped the oppressiveness of daily life by smoking the opium grown on small plots of land.
My father was a frequent target for the mullas – perhaps because of his gentle but resolute staunchness. He was a point of contact between the Baha’is in Nayriz and other cities, as well as the government authorities, and was seen as a threat. One day, a few henchmen of a particularly powerful mulla kidnapped my father when he was on his way to his orchards. Our relatives and friends spread the word of this aggression, and several Muslim family members rode out to the mountain to rescue him. My father was brought back greatly bruised and with a broken nose.
Soon afterwards, and finally after years of suffering and persecution, my father and I boarded a truck headed out of Nayriz for Shiraz with our old suitcases, two blankets, and a bag of bread and feta cheese. Sitting on top of almond bags that had been loaded on the truck, I thought about my dog whom the mob had killed out in the street, the young Baha’i men who had gone up onto our roof to protect us during my father’s recent kidnapping, and the constant petty harassments in the streets and alleys of this little town. This was the life I was leaving behind.
You can find out more about the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran from this Baha’i Blog article called ‘Some Background to the Persecution of the Baha’is in Iran‘, and from www.bic.org.
You can also read the author Hussein Ahdieh’s interview about his book ‘Foreigner’ here on Baha’i Blog: Foreigner – Hussein Ahdieh’s New Book about His Journey from Iran to New York