I was born in Maryam Aabaad, Yazd, Iran on 26 August 1944. My parents were from a Zoroastrian background and had become Bahá’ís before I was born. Whilst on pilgrimage in the early 1950s they consulted Shoghi Effendi as to where they should send their eldest son Rustam for education. The beloved Guardian recommended the British Isles, where Rustam could study medicine and serve the Faith as a pioneer. The National Spiritual Assembly of the British Isles was consulted, and suggested either Edinburgh or Belfast. Lady Hornell, then a pioneer to Belfast, was first to come forward, and suggested that Rustam settle there, so he did. She had met a Protestant couple during an Esperanto meeting in Belfast, Eileen and Reginald Campbell. They were an enlightened, childless couple who lived at 15 Delhi Street off the Ormeau Road. Rustam arrived in Belfast in 1956 and stayed in the Campbells’ home. In the autumn of 1958 my brother Qudrat and I went to live and study at Vernon College Boarding School, Blacks Road, Dunmurry, just outside Belfast.
Leaving home at the age of fourteen with no knowledge of the English language, and boarding at a school with a different culture, food, and basically having to organise my daily life, was very challenging. However, having Qudrat at the school with me provided support, as he could speak a little English. Everyone around us was supportive and friendly. The prayers and sacrifices that my parents had made, and were making, in sending us to Northern Ireland was no doubt the reason why I was able to settle down to a completely new way of life and focus on my studies.
Qudrat and I, while boarding at College, would stay with Rustam on occasion in the home of the Campbells. They had become known to our family as ‘our Irish Ma and Pa’, as well as to the Bahá’ís living in Belfast and the surrounding areas, who soon became my Irish family. Their warmth and support was life affirming. We attended all the Feasts and Holy Days held at the Bahá’í Centre in Shaftsbury Square, Belfast, and spent our first Christmas at ‘Loughside’, Greenisland, the home of Michael and Jane Villiers-Stuart and their delightful family, who were around my age. Their hospitality was instrumental in enabling me to settle comfortably into my new life in Northern Ireland.
I spent two and a half years at the boarding school and then in 1962 moved to Belfast to live at 4 Cameron St. From then until 1964 I attended a ‘crammer school’ called Renshaws during the day and Belfast Technical College in the evening. The education and guidance I received here enabled me to gain entry to Queens University where I studied electrical engineering.
The Bahá’í community was very active and I attended everything, including regular firesides, deepenings, youth gatherings and weekend schools in both the North and the Irish Republic. I also participated in Summer Schools in Mourne Grange School, Kilkeel, Portora Royal School in Enniskillen in the 1980s, and The Friends School, Lisburn, in the early 1990s, The Catering College, Portrush, in 2000, Lorne House, Holywood, and more recently Campbell College, Belfast. In addition to these activities there were regular weekend schools and public talks in hotels, including Belfast Castle, which were supported by Adib Taherzadeh and many experienced speakers from England. Their knowledge and enthusiasm was truly inspirational, and their spiritual guidance was instrumental in nurturing the fledging Bahá’í community in Ireland.
There were frequent gatherings at the home of Alec and Amy Shields, devoted Bahá’ís who regularly opened their home.
From the left: Alec Shields; Cyril & Freda Shields; Rosemary Jamshidi, Jamshid Arjomandi; Qudrat Jamshidi; Gabrielle Barfoot; Lisbeth Greeves; Amy Shields.
On the floor from left: Harold Shields; Hilary McCavanagh; Dr Rustam Jamshidi
Northern Irish Summer School held at Mourne Grange School, Kilkeel in 1961.
From the top two rows from the left (some are unnamed):
Zarin Taherzadeh, Hushang Jamshidi, Mehraban Jamshidi, Qudrat Jamshidi, Ciara Hogg, Marjory Hogg, Yvonne Macdonald, Sheila McCarthy, Brian Townshend, Harry & Jean King, Beman Khosravi, Tony McCarthy, David Browne, Colin King, Charles Macdonald (kneeling,
Middle row from the left (some unnamed):
Margaret Wade, John Wade, Joan Gregory, Stella Johnson (arms dangling), Betty Reed, Dr Faye Yazdani, John Long, Vera Long,
Front row from the left (some unnamed);
Iain Macdonald, Rustam Jamshidi, Jeremy Fox, Tom Mackenzie, Gladys Browne
Some of the ‘younger’ ones present at Mourne Grange Summer School (1961).
Left to right: Jamshid Arjomandi, Hushang Jamshidi, Sally Villiers-Stuart, Jeremy Fox, Beman Khosravinezhad, Tony McCarthy, Colin King, Ronald Taherzadeh, Katherine Villiers-Stuart
In 1963 I attended the Bahá’í World Congress at the Royal Albert Hall. I had volunteered to help as a guide at the resting place of Shoghi Effendi in Southgate Cemetery. It was a delight to meet Dr Rasti at this international conference. He had been instrumental in saving my life when I was four years old and seriously ill with typhoid. Dr Rasti used to cycle daily from a nearby village to care for me, and I very much doubt if I would be alive today were it not for God’s will and Dr Rasti’s outstanding care and compassion.
In 1965, Hand of the Cause Mr Samandari visited Belfast and spoke at the home of Yvonne and Charles Macdonald at 75 Eglantine Avenue, Belfast. The Macdonalds’ home was very important to me. I attended regular youth firesides there and I was also nourished with spiritual food and a sense of identity. A recording of the talk Mr Samandari gave is still available from Keith Munro. A friend from Bangor, Winnie Whelan, was present at that meeting She was mesmerised by the eyes that had once gazed upon Baha’u’llah. At the end of the meeting Winnie approached Mr Samandari to request if she might kiss his eyes. He stood up, pointed to his forehead and with his arms folded across his chest she fulfilled her heart’s desire and kissed his forehead.
The Belfast Bahá’í Centre was moved from Shaftsbury Square to 25 Malone Road and, after several years, to 53 High Street in the 1960s. The departure from Malone Road was hastened due to an incident at a fireside when the rotten floorboards gave way and one of the ladies in the community disappeared into the hole. Fortunately it was not deep and she was uninjured. The building was obviously considered unsafe but the large room in the High Street also had its drawbacks. The room for meetings was on the 3rd floor and was accessed by a flight of fifty stairs. A couple of rows of cinema seats were purchased and fixed to the floor to be used for our larger meetings. Blankets were sewn together and hung from rails from the ceiling to divide the large attic area into smaller spaces for meetings. The Bahá’í youth gathered here on Sunday nights for firesides and socialising, and soon we were attracting up to 60 teenagers on a regular basis. We tried to organise refreshments and structured meetings but it soon became clear that some of the teenagers were intent on using the room as a social club for illicit activities. As a result, the Belfast Spiritual Assembly asked us to suspend their activities. For several years afterwards we would meet young adults who recalled memories of their Sunday nights at the Bahá’í Centre.
I also have particularly fond memories of the Bahá’í Centre in High Street because it was there that I met my future wife, Patricia Montgomery. We were married on 27 September 1973 and we have been blessed with three children, Kaihaan, Shohreh and Shirin Dowlat, and seven grandchildren, Yasmin, Noah, Charlie, Riaz, Theo, Milo and Leila.
Probably the most complete picture of the Bahá’ís of Northern Ireland and friends at that time. It was taken at the engagement party for Hushang Jamshidi and Patricia Montgomery in early September 1973. It was held at ‘Altona’ the Seat of the Greeves family
In 1966, at the age of 21, I was elected onto the Belfast Assembly, which gave me an opportunity to learn from other members elected to the Bahá’í administration, and this proved invaluable when I pioneered to Castlereagh District to maintain that Spiritual Assembly. My new role provided me with the opportunity to attend the Bahá’í Conference in Palermo (Sicily) which was followed by my first visit to the Holy Land and Haifa. For the first time I was among the pilgrims walking the steep and narrow path up Mount Carmel to the Shrine. It was the first time the Universal House of Justice had opened up that approach to the Shrine, which will one day come to be known as the Avenue of the Kings. The narrow pathway has now been replaced with the magnificent terraces that enhance one’s spiritual journey and make it more accessible for modern day pilgrims. In 1986 I undertook a family pilgrimage with my wife and our children. In 2011 Patricia, Shirin Dowlat and I made another pilgrimage and in 2018 I undertook a five-day visit which encompassed the holy days that commemorate the Births of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.
The Spiritual Assembly of Belfast in the early 1960s
Charles Macdonald; Colin King; Sheila McCarthy; Rustam Jamshidi; Beman Khosravinezhad;
Mustapha; Lisbeth Greeves; Yvonne Macdonald, Harry King
I had graduated from Queens University (1971) with a Masters’ Degree in Micro-Electronics and I was recruited by Grundig to work as the head of the electrical lab. That was quite a journey for someone who had arrived in Belfast in 1958 with little English and the ambition to be an engineer. My new career coincided with the Oceanic Conference of the North Atlantic in Reykjavik, Iceland, in September 1971, which was attended by some 800 people from 36 countries and included Hand of the Cause, John Robarts. At one point during the conference, Mr Robarts came onto the stage and announced the passing of Hand of the Cause Musa Banani in Kampala, Africa, on 4th September. The Guardian of the Faith had said that his ‘arising’ had conquered the Continent.
The Bahá’í conference was organised by the National Assembly of Canada and the friends in Iceland. I have fond memories of the sea of smiling faces both inside and outside the conference hall throughout the event. We were also afforded the opportunity to experience Iceland’s unique landscape and natural wonders. While our group was visiting The Great Geyser, the 8th largest in the world, the guide explained that it had not been active for some years and was extremely unlikely to erupt on that day. While our group stood around it, suddenly and unexpectedly it erupted, gushing a jet of hot steam and water over 100 feet into the air. We scattered in haste but continued to take photos as we ran. However, all we got were blurred photos of steam! A photo showing the geyser erupting appeared next day in one of the Icelandic Newspapers announcing that THE GREAT GESYER WORKS FOR THE BAHA’IS!
When the time came for the definitive conference photograph of all participants, outside the venue the rain was falling heavily. However, the ‘Remover of Difficulties’ was said and, miraculously, the rain stopped and we went out to capture our own memories of that joyous event without the aid of umbrellas!
In the early 1970s the address of the Belfast Baha’i Centre changed to 75 Upper Newtownards Road, which was where Mr George Hackney practised as a masseur. The old Belfast house was too costly to maintain and therefore, despite my best efforts at do-it-yourself (DIY), the decision was made to sell the house. Since then the Belfast Baha’i community have held their gatherings at the homes of believers, which has provided a more comfortable and homely environment, enabling the community to thrive.
George Hackney handing over the deeds of 75 Upper Newtownards Road to Mrs Lisbeth Greeves, Secretary of the Spiritual Assembly of Belfast
During 1972 a land-mark Weekend School was held in Bangor which had maintained a Local Assembly since 1958. Nearly 40 Bahá’ís and their friends attended, including myself.
Bangor Weekend School – 1972
Listed from the top row left:
Alistair Wilson; Dr Beman and Marion Khosravi; Maxine Lethbridge; Anne; George Kissick (senior); George Kissick (junior); Adib Zarai; Oliver McKenzie; Billy Glass;
Second row down from the right:
Dr Keith Munro; Barry Watson; Ruth Bradley; Eddie Whiteside; Dr Rustam Jamshidi; Peggy Harrison; Wendy Harrison; Gerry O’Brien; ? ; Peter Roddie; Hushang Jamshidi (holding Alistair Jamshidi (1yr); Joe Watson; David Rose.
Second row from the bottom from the left:
Gillian Phillips; Rosemary Jamshidi; Pat Story; Richard ‘Dick’ Backwell; Veda Backwell; Violet Ferguson (Marie Whiteside’s mother); Pat Harrowell; Lisbeth Greeves; Ivy Dominick; Jim Ringland.
Front row from the left:
Ron ? ; Jack Costello; Eugene Tobin; Malcolm Lake; Marie Whiteside; Jennifer Whiteside; John Kissick
In 1976 I attended a large Bahá’í Conference in Nairobi, where I experienced the joy of meeting many local believers. It was a unique conference in that delegates arrived by bus every morning and then engaged in a lengthy ritual of hand-shaking before it was deemed appropriate to enter the conference building. Hand of the Cause, Dr Muhajir, was at the conference and his unique style of chanting created a special memory for me of this event. Hands of the Cause John Robarts, Enoch Olinga and William Sears also attended.
Over the years, I have had the bounty of meeting numerous ‘Hands of the Cause of God’, a title bestowed by the Central Figures of the Faith on special souls with spiritual capacity. Their sacred role has been to teach and protect the Faith. At various times I met Mr Tarazu’llah Samandari, Mr Abu’l-Qasim Faizi, Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhiyyih Khánum, Mr William Sears, Mr John Robarts, Mr Leroy Ioas, Mr Shu’a’u’llah ‘Ala’i , Mr ‘Ali-Akbar Furután, Dr Rahmatu’llah Muhajir, Mr Ugo Giachery, Mr Enoch Olinga, Mr Adelbert Muhschlegel, Mr Jalal Khazeh, Mr Paul Edmond Haney, Mr Hasan Muvaqqar Balyuzi, Mr John Ferraby and Mr Harold Collis Featherstone. I was inspired by all of them to devote my energies to spreading the Faith in Ireland. I have served on Assemblies, Teaching Committees, Summer School Committees for Ireland, both North and South, and as an Assistant to Auxiliary Board members. I was also involved in setting up and managing Bahá’í Children’s classes and schools, contributing at firesides and deepenings and participating in the study of the Ruhi materials and tutoring groups in the study of Ruhi Institute books. In May 1972 I had the privilege of witnessing the formation of the National Spiritual Assembly of Ireland at the Friends Meeting House in Monkstown, Country Dublin. I also made an audio recording of that event for posterity. I also had the honour of recording the International Bahá’í Conference in Dublin (1982) which commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the passing of the daughter of Bahá’u’lláh, Bahíyyih Khánum.
The First National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the Republic of Ireland (1972)
Left-Right standing: Patrick Dawson; Margaret Magill; Eleanor O’Callaghan; Hand of the Cause William Sears; Lesley Taherzadeh; John Turner (junior); Zebby Whitehead.
Hunkering in front: Philip O’Brien; Adib Taherzadeh; Joseph Watson
In 2005 the youth group ‘Lights of Unity’ spent many months living in the Hackney House (Dundonald) and serving the Faith through their brilliant talents all over Northern Ireland. As we lived nearby it was a wonderful period of socialising, deepening with them and experiencing the joy of service to the community.
I honour and hold dear every Bahá’í I have met throughout my life. However, there are three particular individual life-stories that I would like to share.
Firstly, Stan Wrout who lived in England and served as a member of the National Teaching and Pioneering Committee, which was responsible for assisting the formation of the Local Spiritual Assemblies in Ireland. These Local Assemblies would then be responsible for the election of the National Spiritual Assembly of Ireland. However, when Limerick needed pioneers to form one of the Assemblies, Stan volunteered and became an eager pioneer. Before going to Limerick, Stan stayed with me in my flat at 3 Mount Charles (Belfast) and we collaborated on the ‘New Age Exhibition’ which was based on the history and the writings of the faith. The exhibition was first held in the Guildhall (Londonderry) and then in the War Memorial Hall in Waring Street (Belfast). Stan was the lynchpin of our group through his sincerity and dedicated spirit of service; for example, he would sit for hours in the hallway of the exhibition welcoming the small number of visitors and passing his time familiarising himself with local news and job opportunities in the newspapers.
After the exhibition Stan joined the pioneers in Limerick and the Local Spiritual Assembly was finally formed. During his short tenure there was a steady stream of young people joining the faith and I met him later at the Baha’i Summer School in Monkstown, Dún Laoghaire, near Dublin. This was a particularly poignant meeting due to the fact that later, upon his return to Limerick, Stan drowned while swimming in the estuary near Limerick. His body was washed ashore some days later just outside a small village called Kilbaha (Church of Life). Stan was the only ‘outsider’ to be buried in the graveyard up to that point. Many of the young people had enrolled under Stan, followed his lead and become pioneers, forming communities and assemblies throughout Ireland. As a final tribute to Stan’s sacrifice for the Faith when Ireland was divided into clusters, one of them was blessed with the title the ‘Stan Wrout Cluster’.
The second individual I wish to mention is George Hackney, whom I met in 1960 at the Weekend School in Belfast Castle. He was recording the talks which he would then take home to study and then make a list of questions to ask at subsequent meetings. I offered to help carry the heavy reel-to reel-recorder to his car and that was the beginning of our friendship. He had been invited to the meeting by Charles Macdonald, who due to having back pain had phoned George who was practising as a masseur. George recalled to me many times that around the age of 70, as he was winding down his work load, Charles phoned him for an appointment. As George began to explain that he was not taking on new patients he heard a still small voice inside him saying, “Take Him”, and the appointment was made.
The Week-end School held in Belfast Castle (1960)
George Hackney is seen to the extreme left. Others present, from left to right were:
Vida Backwell; Colin Pritchard; Ethel De Coster; Jean King; Billy Glass; Winnie Whelan; Christina Baillie; June Glover; Ann Brew; Charles Macdonald; Una Haldane; Gretta Galbraith; Keith Munro; Marie Baillie; Harry King; Beman Khosravinezhad; Jane Villiers-Stuart; Richard ‘Dick’ Backwell; Mrs Brew; Alec Shields; Amy Shields; Pat Baillie; Elsie Bowers, Brian Townshend, Jamshid Arjomandi; Tony McCarthy; Lois Chin;
Keith Backwell; Lisbeth Greeves; Sheila McCarthy; Mr Robertson(Scotland); Ronald Taherzadeh; Rustam Jamshidi, Qudrat Jamshidi; Peggy Harrison; Hushang Jamshidi; Geraldine Haldane, Zoe Backwell; Louis Backwell
From the age of fifteen George had been searching for the fulfilment of his Faith. He attended church services regularly and he was fully involved in all Church activities at St Enoch’s Church in Carlisle Circus (Belfast) and he also served for years as senior Elder. When a new church hall was being built, George laid the foundation stone. The church was burnt down during the period of civil unrest but the church hall survived and the foundation stone with George Hackney’s name on it is still there today.
During their first meeting, George had enquired about Charles’ faith. Charles said he was a Bahá’í and he then elaborated on the nature of the faith. George’s instant response was that this was the fulfilment of what he had been searching for all his life.
Charles made a further appointment and George gave him £1 to acquire some Bahá’í literature. George said from that moment he knew that his prayers had been answered and that he had found the fulfilment of his Faith. George attended as many meetings as he could, in the face of opposition from his wife, and studied the writings of the Baha’i Faith diligently to ensure that he would be honouring Jesus by accepting Bahá’u’lláh. He declared his Faith in 1963 as a deep and firm believer and he served the community as a member of Castlereagh Assembly until his passing to the Abha Kingdom in 1977. George wrote to 86 members of his congregation as well as the minister, asking them to meet him to discuss his actions but none of them responded. He then told the minister that he would stay on in the Church on condition that he would be free to proclaim his Faith to the parishioners as was his duty as senior Elder. The minister refused and so George had no option but to resign from the church.
George bequeathed a property and an area of land at Dundonald to the Bahá’í National Spiritual Assembly of the United Kingdom and I helped to maintain the property until it was sold several years ago. However, his legacy to the Bahá’í Community both spiritually and materially will always remain. George’s many visitors would often leave with a jar of honey which he had decanted from a large tank or a bag of sugar and he would say, “Just to keep you sweet”. George also had an unspoken history linked to his service during the Great War (1914-18). A documentary called, The Man Who Shot the Great War, made for BBC NI to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, is now in the National Bahá’í Archives. The documentary contains many photos taken by George and it also details the traumatic experiences that undoubtedly inspired his spiritual quest throughout his lifetime.
Finally, Oliver McKenzie who lived in Belfast and became a Bahá’í in the early 1950s. However, his Catholic family and community made it very difficult for him to be an active Bahá’í. He had served as a rear gunner in the Air-Force during the Second World War (1939-45) and was badly affected by ‘shell shock’ afterwards. During the ‘Troubles’ and civil unrest of the mid-1970s Oliver’s home was in an area that witnessed regular conflict between the paramilitaries and the Army. He endured appalling conditions until several members of the Belfast Bahá’í community realised the nature of his plight and moved him to a refuge in the Bahá’í Centre in High Street. This gave him respite and the necessary support while the local authorities found him new accommodation in Redburn Estate, near Holywood. Lisbeth Greeves and members from the local Baha’i community visited him regularly and he also offered his flat as a venue for meetings and small weekend schools. It was heart-warming to see Oliver, despite his mental and physical illness, always most welcoming and hospitable. The first question he always asked when anyone called was; “Would you like some tea?” Oliver read prayers with great sincerity and the light in his face illumined his whole being. Unfortunately Oliver’s mental illness resulted in his family placing him in Downshire Psychiatric Hospital, in Downpatrick, County Down. The Bahá’í community was only made aware of his plight after he had passed away.
I have welcomed the development of the Bahá’í Faith throughout my life through the guidance of the Universal House of Justice since its formation in1963, and all other institutions appointed or elected. I have witnessed encouraging growth and development of new inclusive strategies to promote the Faith. However, there is still much work to be done if we are to establish the vision of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation for humanity.
Belfast, N. Ireland, December 2020