An Appreciation of Marzieh Gail

Marzieh Gail (1 April 1908 - 16 October 1993). Photo courtesy of the Baha'i International Community.

In this article I would like to pay tribute to one of the most distinguished authors of Baha’i literature, Marzieh Gail, by offering a brief biographical sketch of her life1 and by providing some excerpts of her writing.

My reason for paying tribute to her is that I believe she is an individual whose life and service illustrates two core principles of the Baha’i Faith; the equality of women and men, and the oneness of mankind. She embodied these principles through her outstanding services to Baha’i scholarship as a writer and translator at a time when women often found doors closed to them, and by her serving to humanity in both Western and Eastern communities.

Marzieh was born April 1st, 1908 and her parents, Ali Kuli Khan and Florence Breed, were the first Persian and American Baha’i couple. This cross-cultural family upbringing prepared her for a life of service to both the East and the West. She later recorded some of the details of her childhood and youth in a relatable and humorous tone in her biographical book about her father, Summon Up Remembrance. In addition to being raised by a Persian father and American mother Marzieh spent her childhood from the age of 10 travelling across Europe and the Middle East with her family, learning from tutors along the way. She also had a profound connection to the Baha’i Faith from her early years, meeting Abdu’l-Baha when she was a child and receiving a Tablet from Him, and later meeting Shoghi Effendi.

She returned to America, the country of her birth, in her late teenage years and pursued higher education by enrolling at Vassar College in New York in 1925, and later enrolling in Mills College when her family moved to California. I find this to be quite an outstanding achievement, as of 1940 only 3.8% of women in America had completed four years of study at a college.2 Even more remarkably, she enrolled in Stanford University in 1927. To provide context to this achievement it must be noted that at the time Stanford University had a quota which greatly restricted the admittance of female students. At one point in the 1920s the university had around 2,400 women on a waiting list to be admitted and was only admitting around 100 a year,3 making Marzieh’s admittance both a testament to her academic prowess and the significant obstacles that she, and all women, had to face when pursuing higher education at the time. She also began contributing to Baha’i literature during her academic studies by producing essays for the periodical Star of the West. Here is an excerpt from one of her Star of the West articles regarding the role of religion in education:

According to the Baha’i teachings, education is made up of three components—the material, the intellectual, and the spiritual. A well educated person must be developed along all three lines; a hermit, for instance, who eats and reads in negligible quantities, but prays profusely, is not well-educated; neither is a profound scholar who disregards the spiritual element in life. The direction which education is to follow is pointed out by a Buddha, a Christ, a Muhammad, or in other words, the Divine Messenger in every age. These are the perfect educators, because they alone are qualified to give forth not only material and intellectual but also the spiritual aspects of education. It is their duty to make known and to solve the problems of the time in which they appear.4

Marzieh married Howard Carpenter, a graduate of Stanford Medical School, in 1929 and in the early 1930s they travelled Europe to teach the Faith, for a time accompanying the notable Baha’i travel teachers Martha Root and Marion Jack. Marzieh would later contribute an introductory essay to an edition of Martha Root’s biography of Tahirih, the notable Persian poetess and Letter of the Living, which is both a moving tribute to Root and a wonderful example of Marzieh’s talent for writing. Here is an excerpt:

Again I thought, Tahirih was a heroine, first of all the women in the Dispensation of the Bab; and Martha was the ‘star-servant’ and she felt an affinity for stars. In this book she reached out to Tahirih, as she had reached out to a reigning queen.

As for what I see to be exactly the same in both: their implacable, never deviating, undeflectible resolve. Their eyes (the beauteous, great black ones, the lovely, wide-spaced blue-green) fixed forever on one single goal: to herald far and wide the birth of the New Day.5

They then visited the Holy Land for three weeks where they met with Shoghi Effendi, who directed them to move to Persia in order to assist the Baha’i community in developing its administrative institutions. During their time there Marzieh began translating the Baha’i Writings, working with another notable Baha’i scholar, Fadil Mazandarani. Unfortunately Howard’s health failed him, and although they returned to America for medical treatment he passed away in 1935.

For the remainder of the 1930s Marzieh continued to write about the Faith, contributing articles to the Baha’i magazine World Order. In 1939 she married Harold Gail, who became a Baha’i shortly after their marriage, and his support for her allowed Marzieh to contribute a vast body of work to Baha’i literature from then on. Some highlights include her translations of The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys (which she translated with her father in 1945) and Abdu’l-Baha’s Memorials of the Faithful. In 1953 she finished the book Six Lessons on Islam in which she seeks to offer a counterweight to the centuries of publications which interpret the religion in a hostile manner, and in 1959 she completed the book The Sheltering Branch which was about Abdu’l-Baha.  Below is an excerpt from that book:

To study a man’s life is to live in his presence, through his words and the words of those who saw him or who have thought about him; and especially it is to see him in the lives of those he has influenced. Now that His pen is stilled, His voice hushed, Abdu’l-Baha’s words are the Baha’is; they are His message to the world; His conversation with mankind; and they reflect, however tentatively at this early stage of apprenticeship in Baha’i living, the life of Abdu’l-Baha—of Him Who is ‘the Master’, ‘the Centre of the Covenant’, ‘the Mystery of God’, ‘the Limb of the Law of God’, ‘the Interpreter’ of the mind of Baha’u’llah, ‘the Architect of His World Order’, ‘the Exemplar of His faith’, and ‘the Ensign of His Most Great Peace’.6

In the 1950s the Gails pioneered to Europe serving the Faith in France, where they helped establish the Local Spiritual Assembly of Nice, and Austria, where Marzieh served on the National Spiritual Assembly for a time. In 1963 they returned to the United States where they remained for the rest of their lives.

Marzieh continued writing and it was in her later years that she wrote the two books of hers which I enjoy the most, Summon Up Remembrance and Arches of the Years: two biographical volumes chronicling the life of her father, Ali Kuli Khan, published in 1987 and 1991 respectively. In them she offers a frequently humourous and always inspiring portrait of her father, and she also provides robust descriptions and explanations of many facets of Persian culture in a way that effectively communicates their significance to a western reader. The excerpts from Marzieh’s works included in this article are far too brief to capture the quality of her writing but I hope that they, along with this outline of her life, will inspire you to read at least one book or article by Marzieh Gail.


 

  1. The biographical details are drawn from the obituary of Marzieh written by Constance M. Chen published in Baha’i Studies Review, Volume 6 []
  2. Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/184272/educational-attainment-of-college-diploma-or-higher-by-gender/ []
  3. retrieved from: https://medium.com/stanford-magazine/why-jane-stanford-limited-womens-enrollment-to-500-85355b8aa731 []
  4. Star of the West, Vol. 19, p 248 []
  5. Root, Martha.; Tahirih the Pure, Kalimat Press, 1981, p 26 []
  6. Gail, M.; The Sheltering Branch, George Ronald, 1959, pp 4-5 []

About the Author

Ben is a young Baha'i with an interest in history.

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Discussion 6 Comments

  1. Thank you for this lovely homage to the life of Marzieh Gail! There is a home in Washington DC where a photo was taken with Abdu’l-Baha, her and her siblings – I often walk by the home and peer at the window of the room that photo was taken, and feel close to her, her family, and of course the Master Himself. But your article made me feel even closer! Look forward to reading the books you suggested.

  2. Thank you for bringing us into remembrance of this gifted writer whose words and phrases are epigrammatic. As Martin Luther King said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history”.

    Well done, Ben.

  3. In our small New Hampshire town, in a small group of Baha’is-1970s, we came to know that this imminent writer resided not far away in the same state. We invited her to come and speak at the town municipal building. We were excited and could hardly believe it when she said she would! Her speaking was eloquent and powerful, just like her writing. What I remember most about this petite, fashionable woman was how directly she responded to a question from the audience: “There are many religions. What good is another one going to do?” She replied, (close but not verbatim), that every age requires social guidance which addresses the problems of its day and that Baha’u’llah specifies rules of conduct which are intended just for this day. Then she asked the questioner, “Does Christianity hold the answers that are needed now, for today? For you?” At that point, her directness was powerful in the room. The person dropped his gaze, said he wasn’t sure. It was a meaningful occasion.

  4. Great article, Ben. Marzieh Gail is one of my favourite Baha’i writers and a few years back I had the great fortune to say a prayer at her graveside, visit her apartment, and sit in her chair. I love Marzieh Gail.

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