I became a Bahá’í at three o’clock in the morning on 14th July 1975 in the city of Liverpool without knowing anything about the Faith. An Iranian student who happened to be living in the same house at the time, a certain Hooman Momen, had lent me a book – The Reality of Man by ‘Abdul-Bahá. It had been lying by my bedside for seven months unopened. I read just one line ‘This evening I will speak to you concerning the meaning of sacrifice’ and that was it! I did not know who Bahá’u’lláh was or anything about Bahá’í belief, just that I was a Bahá’í.
I might just preface the above with a further comment which is that I had moved to Liverpool in late September 1974 to study for a Master’s Degree. As was the system, I went to the accommodation officer to obtain a list of possible lodgings. There was one that I decided to focus upon and which I visited three times but each time the landlord was not there. Somewhat frustrated, I opted to look at another house – a fine Victorian house, actually – situated a bit closer to the university. Here I found the landlord ready and waiting and he showed me a truly magnificent room with an enormous bay window overlooking a park. Unfortunately a law student had just beaten me to it and so he had the first choice, and I assumed that he would take it. But as it happened, he opted for a much smaller room that was also available (one that had its own bathroom) that struck me as cramped, dark and dingy and had no view at all. And so to my amazement and delight I found myself accepting the room with the magnificent view.
I subsequently met the other occupants of the house – a medical student from Afghanistan, and also, in the next room to me, a quiet Iranian student by the name of Hooman. One day in late November I invited Hooman in for a cup of tea and he shared with me that he was soon to travel to Paris to attend a Bahá’í conference but he did not tell me anything about the Bahá’í Faith, nor did I ask, except, more out of politeness than any real interest, to request that he lend me a book on the subject. This he did and, as mentioned above, it lay by my bedside unopened until 3am in the morning of July 14th the following year. In that same life-altering moment I got up and went for a walk around the park, my whole being wrapped in bliss and feeling ‘light and untrammelled as the breeze’.
I wanted to knock on Hooman’s door to share with him the news but I did not dare disturb him at this unearthly hour. Instead, I waited until about 6.30 am when I could contain myself no longer and then rapped loudly on the door. He opened immediately. ‘Hooman!’, I blurted out, ‘I am a Bahá’í! Please tell me what it is we believe!’ He was extremely pleased, of course, but took it all rather calmly under the circumstances. He told me later that the Bahá’í community of Liverpool had just a few days before said prayers to have a new believer in the community.
For the record I am the first Bahá’í in a family that hails from Bristol. I first pioneered to Sudan in January 1978 and have been pioneering pretty much ever since, the countries being: Tanzania, Barbados, St. Lucia, Ecuador, Guinea, Angola, Uganda, Rwanda and then finally, back where I started all those years ago in Sudan. Hooman, for his part, after obtaining his own degree, pioneered to Brazil with his new wife.
As a post script to the above I must mention that I recently discovered that Hooman is now living and working in Geneva and I got in touch with him and shared with him my account of how I became a Bahá’í. He kindly added his own recollection of the event which serves to complete the picture:
“We first met when I was trying to get my car started in the front yard of the house where we both rented accommodation. You were passing by and I think I asked you to help (which is unusual for me, which is why I remember it). I can’t remember if we were successful but you invited me to your room afterwards for a cup of tea. We had a chat and the subject of religion came up (perhaps because of the Paris conference, I do not remember this). I do remember you describing how you had been searching for a religious truth and that you had gone to meetings of several different religions but had not been satisfied with any of them. I also remember being impressed by the pure motives of your search for truth and thinking how close you were to the faith and that you were a “ripe fruit ready to be picked”. I felt you would naturally become a Bahá’í and that my main duty was not to create any barriers to your acceptance of the faith. In fact I have not met anyone before or since who I felt was as ready as you were then to become a Bahá’í. You expressed an interest in reading the actual scriptures of the faith and that is why I gave you The Reality of Man and not an introductory book on the faith.
Afterwards I remember asking once when we met in the corridor if you had read the book and you said you had not had time. On this or another occasion you told me that you had asked our Afghan neighbour if he knew about the faith and he had told you that it was something bad (I think you said he told you it came from the Devil and should be consigned to the flames). In any case I remember thinking that his comments may have deterred you from investigating the faith further at that time. I also remember (but I could be mistaken ) that the evening before your declaration we had had a conversation in your room where we had again spoken of religion and I think this may have been the spark that caused you to finally read the book I had lent you. Shortly after your declaration you moved to London to the same community (Wandsworth) as my brother (Moojan) and sister-in-law (Wendi). I received news about you from them for a while and then I lost contact.”
I am proud of my upbringing, humble though it was. I grew up on a prefab estate on the outskirts of Bristol and my father and mother were shop assistants at the local Co-op. Later they progressed to become a factory safety officer and a hospital administrator respectively. Now, with the hindsight of having worked for thirty years in developing countries, I can see that what was considered lowly by UK standards in fact put me in the top ten percent of humanity. To always have more than enough to eat, to have a detached bungalow to live in, with a garden front and back, running water (hot and cold), a constant electricity supply, a very good primary school just two hundred yards away, a doctor just down the road whom we could consult free of charge, and a hospital close by in case of need – all these were privileges that I only came to fully value later in life. And to these we may add an honest and incorruptible police force and a public administration that always did its very best to be competent and fair. They say ‘travel broadens the mind’ and it certainly has in my case. It has given me a wider perspective and an appreciation of what the UK has provided for its citizens and for which I believe we should all be perpetually grateful.
Like most people on the prefab estate, my parents were honest, decent people who had an innate respect for the values of Christianity but never went to church apart from weddings and funerals. There was a church on the estate – St. Giles – but its presence along with its peripatetic vicar were largely ignored by the residents and it was soon put to other non-religious uses, most notably, an additional classroom for an expanding primary school, a place where the boy scouts and girl guides could hold their meetings, and occasionally a cinema. In retrospect I can now see that we were blessed by the values that prevailed on the estate in those days which, although no longer the product of daily worship, were still the legacy of a once vibrant Christianity and provided stability and direction. During these years – 1947-1964 – there was no crime on the estate to speak of. Such things as burglary, vandalism, alcoholism, wife-beating, divorce, and even bad language, were virtually unknown. And of course there were no drugs beyond those prescribed by the local GP.
I need to return to St. Giles for a brief moment because I realise now that Sunday School must have continued for some good while since I clearly recall attending classes over a period of several weeks when I was about thirteen or fourteen, and I found myself actually enjoying it. I soon yielded, however, to the persuasion of friends who felt that my time could be better spent in other pursuits. And thus began my journey into a spiritual wilderness that lasted until that miraculous day in Liverpool seventeen years later. And a wilderness it truly was – a terrible time in which I searched in vain for an identity and wandered aimlessly around in a permanent state of fear, a genuinely lost soul who lacked the courage to admit as much, even to himself. Bahá’u’lláh has said that ‘there is no oppression worse than to long for the truth and not know where to find it’. This summed up my situation perfectly. My existence was one of quiet despair into which the light of day never entered, a living nightmare that left me alienated from the world and longing for release at every moment. Small wonder that I eventually went to university to study literature where the notion of life as absurd had taken hold. To know that I was not alone may have helped somewhat, but it did not provide the answers that I needed.
Later on in the villages of Africa I came to recognise a truth that the world at large is still unwilling to accept, namely, that an African child with nothing is infinitely happier than a British child with everything. The faces of African children, in the midst of abject poverty, are only too ready to explode with joy and laughter at the first opportunity. This is not the time or place to examine all the reasons why this should be, but one of the central ones is surely that their culture teaches them from birth that life is eternal and that something better than this present existence awaits us just around the corner – if we behave ourselves, that is. Africans seem to have few doubts on this score; in fact they never seem to question it.
Since becoming a Bahá’í
Surprisingly, I find myself with precious little to say on this subject except perhaps to make this one observation. Somewhat curiously, immediately after becoming a Bahá’í I found myself endowed with a strange ability. I found that I no longer needed to make drafts of the many letters that I had to write at work. I would put pen to paper and the words would just flow of their own accord, something that had never happened before. This eventually led me to think that I might one day be able to write a book on my experiences, which I have now done, one on Ecuador, one on Sudan, and one on Guinea.
Listed above are the countries in which I have been privileged to serve the Faith as a pioneer. To be honest, as I have communicated to Thelma (Batchelor) on a number of occasions, I have never felt worthy of the title of ‘pioneer’, moving from one good job to another as I have done. ‘The prince of goodly deeds’ is how the Guardian chose to describe it but I have seldom felt it so. Perhaps it is because I have enjoyed it so much when all the while I was expecting to suffer miserably? Instead of the darkness upon darkness of those ‘wilderness’ years, all I have known since has been light upon light with one amazing door of opportunity opening effortlessly after the other.
I had a premonition of my change of fortune in a dream about six months before I moved to Liverpool. I was lying face-down in a cave, barely able to move, in total darkness. Then a light appeared at the mouth of the cave like the gentle light of dawn, and it was only this that allowed me to see the full extent of my captivity. Next I found myself outside walking through a sunlit wood with two kindly soldiers protecting me, one on either side. The following night the same dream continued and this time I found myself playing rugby – a game that I was never very good at – where I easily evaded the tackles of my opponents and basked in the glory of triumphant victory.
And I have wondered too about Liverpool. I recall reading somewhere that Liverpool was considered at one time to be a place of pilgrimage. The seat of the soul in those ancient days was believed to be the liver rather than the heart, and the pool relates to the pool of life – spiritual life. It certainly is a vibrant city as anyone who has lived there will know.
Perhaps this is what ‘bounty’ is all about – receiving more, much more than we deserve or could ever imagine, to the point that it is futile to try to understand it? And this is the point that I have now reached – allowing the wonder of it all to wash over me without trying to understand too much. All I can say with absolute certainty is that at 3am on 14th July 1975 in that room in Liverpool I entered paradise and have not left it since. God willing, I never will.