Naw Ruz marks the end of the Fast and the beginning of a new year in the Baha’i calendar. Naw-Ruz is a celebration of a “spiritual springtime” that symbolizes both individual renewal and mankind’s revitalization.
Tom Lysaght is an accomplished playwright with some 30 plays in both English and Spanish to his name. He also founded “El Teatro de Pan y Paz” in rural Peru, where he wrote circus drama plays about economic and health challenges, utilizing masks, stilts, and 15-foot high puppets for open-air performances, and he’s travelled extensively to help launch similar community development theatre projects.
While his latest project is not a play, it is nevertheless dramatic. 35 years in the making, his novel, Persian Passion: Of Gods and Gargoyles, is a work of creative non-fiction set in Persia during the time of the Bab. Actor Rainn Wilson said it’s “… an expertly written look into the parallel histories of the founders of the Baha’i Faith, the Bab and Baha’u’llah. It evokes the spiritual passion and political complexity of mid-nineteenth century Persia in beautiful prose…”, and Dr. Nader Saiedi calls it “A captivating account of a dramatic summer that questioned traditionalism and patriarchy, and celebrated the resurrection of the human spirit”. This new book holds particular interest this year as Baha’is around the world celebrate the bicentenary of the Birth of the Bab, Prophet-Herald of the Baha’i Faith, so I was excited to hear from Tom about his new novel, and here’s what he had to say:
Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little bit about the book and what it’s about?
Of Gods and Gargoyles, the first book of my Persian Passion trilogy, focuses on the 1848 struggle for the Persian throne. A pseudo-mystic Grand Vazir (or Prime Minister) has Rasputin-like powers over a dying Muhammad Shah, whose unfaithful wife connives like a Persian version of Lady Macbeth. As the two rivals plot to put their favored royal prince on the throne, the Bab becomes a pawn in their game. The Grand Vazir, dubbed an “evil genius” by Shoghi Effendi, has the dubious distinction of being the only one to ever have issued death sentences for two Manifestations of God. But Providence had another plan. In July of 1848, the Bab and Baha’u’llah, separated in space, but united in purpose, dramatically set in motion world-shaking, world-directing events. The Bab transforms a public tribunal in Tabriz, convened to humiliate Him, into a platform for announcing that He is the Promised One of all religions. Meanwhile, Baha’u’llah, allied with Tahirih and Quddus, galvanizes the early Babis as dawn-breakers of this New Day of progressive change.
Baha’i Blog: Why did you decide to write it, and what was the process like?
In 1982, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States suggested that a historical novel of the early history of the Faith be written as a means of reaching large numbers of people with Baha’u’llah’s healing message. Trained as a playwright, I didn’t think I was qualified to do the job. I wrote to the NSA to ask if anyone was writing such a book. Two members wrote back saying no one to their knowledge was. So I decided to give it a try. Little did I know this project would become my life’s work! It began as on-the-job training. I attempted to write the story as one book and I tried — until just last year— to write it with a first person narrator. Over the course of 35 years, while writing some 30 plays, I wrote thousands of pages and dozens of drafts of this trilogy — on four continents! I started writing by hand, switched to portable typewriter (in the Andes), then electric typewriter, then computer monitor, and finally finished on a laptop.
Baha’i Blog: What do you hope readers will walk away with after reading the book?
I think readers will have a heightened appreciation of the dawn-breakers now that they see the dense, moral darkness those self-sacrificial souls broke through. Also, that the Bab and Baha’u’llah were active agents of social change. They courageously exemplified how Baha’is are part of a movement not members of a congregation. I’m also excited that both Manifestations of God come off the page and out of history as compelling, loving, charismatic and bold dramatis personae. Many readers will feel they come to know the historical Baha’u’llah for the first time.
Baha’i Blog: What’s something that really surprised you while researching and working on the book?
The lust, greed, and power hunger of the two chief antagonists of the Babi religion. Mirza Aqa Aqasi, the Haji, was dubbed by the Guardian as “Anti-Christ of the Babi Revelation.” Baha’u’llah’s father once referred to the Haji as a “satyr”. Meantime, the serially promiscuous wife of Muhammad Shah, Mahd Ulya, hated Baha’u’llah and manipulated to imprison him in the Siyah-Chal Black Pit through agency of her teenage son, Nasiri’d Din Shah. Readers of Baha’i history often focus on the early believers, the martyrs, and the three Central Figures of the Faith. And rightly so. But by learning about the darkest hour before the dawn of the New Day, we steel ourselves to battle the dark forces in our modern world (and within ourselves).
Baha’i Blog: What advice do you have to others who want to do something similar, but just don’t know where to start?
Re-read The Dawn-Breakers. Then take historical novelist Hilary Mantel’s advice: “I cannot describe to you what revulsion it inspires in me when people play around with the facts. If I were to distort something just to make it more convenient or dramatic, I would feel I’d failed as a writer. If you understand what you’re talking about, you should be drawing the drama out of real life, not putting it on, like icing on a cake.” Also study the Baha’i guidance regarding how the Central Figures of the Faith may — or may not — be portrayed in works of art. Lastly, delight in Shakespeare’s plays. You’ll learn from the bard not only how to write non-colloquial dialogue, but also how to dramatize the age-old struggle between forces of light and darkness. Too much modern drama indulges only the dark.
Baha’i Blog: When you think of the Dispensation of the Bab and the times which surrounded that era, what’s the first theme that come to mind? Can you tell us why?
Fearless courage. Beyond their willingness to sacrifice their lives, the early believers astound me by how they sacrificed their egos, careers, pensions and their families. We proudly cite how Tahirih removed her veil for women’s rights. But do we meditate upon how she gave up her children, her home life and any semblance of a personal life when she left for Badasht with Baha’u’llah? She was one of many Babis who lost their families well before they lost their lives. Meanwhile, today in the free West, I can sometimes hesitate to merely sacrifice my ego — or my fear of what others might think. I note this every time I cowardly forego mentioning the Faith to someone.
Baha’i Blog: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Yes, that “Nabil’s soul-stirring Narrative”, The Dawn-Breakers, should serve as a “source of inspiration,” according to Shoghi Effendi, “in all literary [and] artistic pursuits.” The Guardian goes on to say that the book itself can serve as an “invaluable companion in times of leisure.”
Many of the friends struggle with all the Persian names in The Dawn-Breakers. That text also lacks a clear “dramatic arc” common to the novels and movies readers are accustomed to. I have attempted to address those challenges in my trilogy Persian Passion. My hope is that its page-turning pace and dramatic style will pique readers’ interest to read the source material that is Nabil’s Narrative.
Shoghi Effendi continues. “Books such as…’The Dawn-Breakers’ should be mastered by every Baha’i […] They should read these books over and over again… The life of those heroes of the Faith should teach us what true sacrifice is, and to what extent we should forego our personal and worldly interests while endeavoring to carry the divine message to the four corners of the earth.”
Baha’i Blog: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview Tom, and thank you for giving us such a wonderful book.
You can purchase ‘Persian Passion: Of Gods and Gargoyles’ here on Amazon.
Naysan is passionate about using the arts and media to explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. Back in 2011, Naysan started up the Baha’i Blog project, channeling his experiences in both media and technology companies to help create a hub for Baha’i-inspired content online.
Due to a visual disability, I can only read books in digital format so I can enlarge the print. I so hope this book will be available in that format so I might enjoy it as it sounds totally fascinating.
Pat Johnson (August 8, 2019 at 5:28 PM)
It’s my pleasure to have this teaching kits
Zaldy Apolinario (August 8, 2019 at 2:32 AM)
Beyond looking forward to it ! As a fourth generation Bahai and living in America 40 years I am more proud than ever to be BAHAI and this trilogy sounds EPIC! Thank you for all
Of your work and talent
Dr maz jasbi
Maz jasbi Mohadjer (August 8, 2019 at 10:08 PM)
I have just ordered this book and am really looking forward to reading it. It sounds like it is a great contribution to the literature of the Faith and humanity in general.
I endorse Tom’s strong recommendation to read– or re-read — The Dawn-Breakers. A few pages a day is the way I savoured it.There is a good reason Shoghi Effendi went to such effort to translate it early in his ministry.
Once into the book, it far from a struggle. It is incredibly dramatic, powerful, overwhelming and inspiring.
Michael V Day (August 8, 2019 at 10:45 PM)
Of course, I can not read an English book, but I’ve read all of Nabil’s books about this awful time and keep reading it. But I can understand the novel very well in every detail. It is also without novel-a very traumatic, highly interesting story of the time. Your article was still very interesting. Thank you very much
Margrit Hurni (August 8, 2019 at 8:04 AM)