Under the Staircase – A Biography of Fatollah Ferdowsi

Baha’i communities around the world have been founded and are strengthened by heroism and sacrifice. It is an honour to learn about recent publications that offer us glimpses of the indomitable strength of character of Baha’is, both from the early years of the Baha’i Faith’s inception and its more recent history.

Under the Staircase: A Martyr’s Journey is the moving memoir written by a son, Farsheed, about his father, Fatollah Ferdowsi. Fatollah was a remarkable man who was executed by the Islamic Republic of Iran on the morning of January 4, 1982. His only crime was his belief in the teachings of the Baha’i Faith.

Farsheed graciously agreed to tell us about this book, its significance to his family, and he shares some wisdom for aspiring Baha’i writers:

Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born and raised in Tehran, Iran. I came to America in 1973 to pursue higher education. I hold a master’s degree in structural engineering from U.C. Berkeley and a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and mathematics from Vanderbilt University. However, I have never practiced my engineering profession.

Following a year of postgraduate studies at Vanderbilt, I started my first company—a business software firm in 1979 when I was only 24 years old. That was followed by a string of other companies in the information technology industry including PayMaxx which was ranked among the top-10 payroll service providers in America. Currently, I am the President and CEO of Inova Payroll, which is one of the top three privately held companies in America in the payroll and human resource industry.

I have been married to Aram Jazab for more than 40 years. Together we have two grown children—Kimia Kline and Donesh Ferdowsi. We have one granddaughter named Cora Shiraz who is three and a half years old and warms our lives with her beautiful presence. Aside from business and family, I enjoy traveling and writing.

Baha’i Blog: Could you please tell us a little about your book?

Author Farsheed Ferdowsi

Under the Staircase is a biography of my father, Fatollah Ferdowsi, a remarkable man who was executed by the Islamic Republic of Iran on the morning of January 4, 1982. His only crime was his belief. He was a Baha’i, a persecuted minority in Iran. The regime gave him a choice: “Recant your faith and go free, or you will die.” Fatollah remained steadfast. He chose faith over life—the eternal over the ephemeral.

Under the Staircase is more than a story of the unjust killing of an innocent man. It is much more than that. It is the spiritual triumph of a man over the awesome power of the state. The Islamic Republic imprisoned and tortured Fatollah. They tried to force him to utter the words, “I reject the Baha’i Faith and agree to become a Muslim.” His response was a knowing smile. The Islamic Republic seized his assets and belongings and promised their return if Fatollah would simply recant his faith. His response was a nonchalant shrug. “My faith can’t be bought.” The Islamic Republic condemned him to death unless he signed a piece of paper that said, “I renounce my faith.” Fatollah’s response was “Never!” So, the Islamic Republic crushed Fatollah’s body, but could not vanquish his soul.

To comprehend the powerful force that drove my father throughout his eventful life, one needs to understand the Baha’i Faith. His life story is deeply intertwined with his religion. A number of chapters in Under the Staircase are devoted to the history, teachings, and administrative structure of the Baha’i Faith to provide the proper framework for Fatollah’s story. Likewise, a basic history of Iran during the second half of the nineteenth century to the present, and the convulsion of the Islamic Revolution are presented for context.

Baha’i Blog: Who is its target audience?

Knowing your audience is one of the many challenges a writer must face. Who is going to read this? I have asked myself countless times. What are their perspectives, expectations, and biases? Over the years as I have contemplated these questions, and the answers have been in a constant state of flux. Am I writing this mostly for the Iranians? Does the reader have to be a person of faith to “get it?” Or is it a story meant just for my friends and family?

In time, I have arrived at a mental picture of a series of concentric circles for my audience. The outer circle is the public at large. Any curious mind would appreciate this story and the associated historical context. The second circle is people who profess a set of deeply-held beliefs. I suspect they will connect with the protagonists of this drama on a personal level. The third circle includes all Iranians. More than any population on earth, they are the ones who need to know about the atrocities committed in their name. They cannot avoid the personal and communal responsibility that they bear. The fourth circle is the worldwide Baha’i community. My father’s story is part of our history and we must preserve it. The fifth circle encompasses the people who knew my father—his friends and his associates. The sixth circle is his extended family and descendants. This narrative and his photographs will surely summon fond memories of him and introduce him to his descendants who never had the joy of meeting him. And in the middle of the seventh circle, my daughter and son, Kimia and Donesh, stand together. In the final analysis, I am writing this for them. They need to know the story of their grandfather. They need to tell it to their children and grandchildren. Whomsoever is remembered, lives.

Baha’i Blog: What was something unexpected that you learned in the process of creating this book?

In the summer of 2006, over the course of four months, I sat with my mother on Saturdays to write down her life story and record her memoirs. She shared many details about her life with my father that I was not aware of, which I have included in the book. One striking story was about an exchange with her father who was a skilled astrologer and made a stunning prophecy that came true with amazing accuracy. My mother said:

“On one of these occasions when I was relaxing at my parents’ house, it must have been the winter of the year we married [probably late 1941 or early 1942], I asked my father to perform his astrological calculations and reveal what the future held for me. I thought of it more as a game or something intriguing. He obliged and consulted his astrolabe and charts and then told me something that struck me like a knife. He said, ‘Dokhtar jan—dear daughter—you will have a happy life for only forty years. Beyond that is unclear.’ I was stunned as I took his words in. Recognizing the shock on my face he said, ‘Only God knows our destiny.’ Incredibly, exactly forty years after that prediction the great calamity struck our family and these savages killed your father. And with that my happiness ended.”

Then, as if a burden was lifted off her shoulders she said, “You should put this in your book.”

Baha’i Blog: What do you hope readers will take away with them, long after they’ve finished reading?

That my father was truly a unique and remarkable man. That his persona was shaped by the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. Every word, every action, and every decision he made was animated by his understanding of the teachings. That he lived an authentic life exemplified by maintaining a balance between family, faith, and work. That he was truly detached from the material aspects of life. That the transforming power of the Baha’i Revelation can indeed create such luminaries—people who “possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart.” I close the book by quoting William Shakespeare: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”

Baha’i Blog: What words of encouragement might you have for other aspiring Baha’i authors?

Writing is quintessentially a solitary yet incredibly rewarding enterprise. It takes years if not decades to properly research and write a book. Reflecting on my own thirty-year endeavour to write Under the Staircase, I am reminded that in the grand scheme of human history, our lives are shorter than a finger’s snap. It is hard to accept but, for most of us, our identities and any signs that we tarried here will be buried under the avalanche of time. After our friends and family are dead and gone, less than a century from now, no one will ever know or care we existed. All that we achieve is fleeting and shall vanish soon after our days are over. But books remain on the dusty shelves of libraries forever. Benjamin Franklin said, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing about.”

Baha’i Blog: Thank you very much for taking the time to tell us about your book.

You can find Farsheed Ferdowsi’s memoir of his father, Fatollah Ferdowsi, here on Amazon: Under the Staircase

Below is a trailer for the book:

About the Author

In her innermost heart, Sonjel is a stay-at-home parent and a bookworm with a maxed out library card but professionally she is a museologist with a background in English Literature. She currently lives on Prince Edward Island, an isle in the shape of a smile on the eastern Canadian coast. Sonjel is a writer who loves to listen to jazz when she's driving at night.

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