Susan and Shidan Kouchek-zadeh (Slovenia)

My father, who should have been a writer or a journalist, was an insurance agent by force of circumstances, and a chronic asthmatic, so when he married my mother in 1932, they settled in Bournemouth on the South Coast for the sake of his health.  My mother, a Londoner, was trained as a telephonist but it was not until I was about 10 or 11 that she started to work again, in the evenings.  I remember resenting her absence from the house in the evenings for a long time.  Thanks to the persistence and help of my mother’s father, my parents bought a house.  Their income was always low and it took them 25 years or so to pay off something in the region of £750 but at least at the end of that time they were house owners.

My parents were very good people and very interested in the truth. They had both rejected the Christianity of the churches and become socialists of a very international outlook with a serious desire to improve the world for everyone in it.  Meal times were always interesting as discussion ranged over all kinds of topics, and we all took part – my elder brother and sister, myself, and any visiting relatives, and there were always plenty in the summer.

It was either during or just after the second world war, when I was a baby or toddler, that they began going to evening classes to learn Esperanto.  Their first Esperanto pen pals were a German family in Munich with the tongue twisting name of Schwingenschlegel.  At the Esperanto classes they became friendly with two Bahá’ís, Elsie Paterson Cranmer and her sister-in-law Maudie Flowers.  Elsie and Maudie became friends of the family and when it was decided that I should learn to play the piano at about the age of 6, Elsie was asked to teach me.  After about six months she told my parents that they were wasting their half crowns for I was very lazy and had become clever at side tracking Elsie into playing pieces of music for me or listening to my poetry instead of having proper lessons during which it would be evident that I hadn’t practised my scales.  If you are my age you will remember how difficult it was to go into an unheated `front’ room to practise on the piano.  So the piano lessons stopped but I had become very fond of Elsie.

When I was 11 our local primary school had a bonanza year at the 11+ exams.  Many of us had gained entrance into the Grammar Schools and four of the girls had won prestigious scholarships to the grant aided grammar Talbot Heath.  It was considered a great advantage but unfortunately I was very unhappy at Talbot Heath.  It had a large boarding section and most of the girls came from homes considerably wealthier than my own.  None of the other 11 and 12 year olds were in the least interested in what was going on in the world, whereas I remember on at least one occasion crying myself to sleep because I could see no way out of the problems in Cyprus.

Naturally I considered myself a keen socialist but I began to lack my parents’ faith in the efficacy of socialist solutions or rather perhaps I sensed their disillusionment with politics as practised.  I was also attracted to religion.  My parents had sent all three of their children to our evangelical doctor’s Sunday school.  We had all been top of the school but as far as I know, I was the only one who wanted something more and when I was around 13 or 14 I began to attend my school friend’s congregational church.  But after a year I had grown impatient with their insularity;  they seemed to have no interest in the existence of other religions and could not explain them to me.

In March 1958, just before my 16th birthday, I met Elsie in the local shopping centre and she asked me to go along to a youth meeting at her house the following Sunday.  I told her I would come but had no real intention of doing so as I was painfully shy but when I reported this to my mother, she encouraged me to go along.  I think she thought I was too solitary and needed to go out more.  So I rang Elsie, apologized for missing the meeting she’d invited me to, and asked if I could go to the next.

Elsie and Maudie lived in a tiny terraced house at Woodside Road, (now knocked down in order to make a car park) Elsie upstairs and Maudie down.  Elsie’s room was very attractive to me.  It was a poet’s room.  Most people would have considered it very uncomfortable and impractical but I loved the strange shaped chairs and the bright multicoloured quilt covering the bed and the very delicate gate-legged table painted orange and gold in a Japanese style.  At that first meeting there were five or six young people and Elsie, who must have been in her sixties;  we read together from Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era.  I don’t know how much I understood that day but I do know that I felt as if I had arrived where I belonged and I took Paris Talks home with me and fell in love with it.  Every Sunday thereafter I went to Elsie’s house and we studied the New Era together … no other youth ever showed up again … and I was very happy.  Not only had I found the answer to all the world’s troubles and an administrative system bringing world government, but I had also found out why there were so many religions and how they were related and could be reconciled.

Soon after this the Bournemouth Bahá’ís rented a room near the town centre and began to have Sunday meetings there.  One Sunday Elsie explained to me that I couldn’t come as it was a 19 day feast for Bahá’ís only.  “But I AM a Bahá’í”, I protested.  Whereupon we read `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament together and I signed my card, which was returned to me with the signatures of Hasan Balyuzi and John Ferraby on it – signatures which I only began to appreciate many years after.

For two years I attended the Sunday afternoon Bournemouth Bahá’í meeting.  It was my job to make and serve the tea for I was invariably the only youth.  Most of the Bahá’ís and their friends were elderly ladies with an occasional elderly man.  But what wonderful people they were.  Between 16 and 18  I was experimenting with all kinds of clothes and make-up.  My mother would often exclaim, “You can’t wear that to a Bahá’í meeting!” as I left the house but nobody there ever uttered a negative word.  They accepted it all with love.  At the time of course I had little appreciation of the station of these dear people.

Except for those months when she would be pioneering to another town, which often happened, Aileen Beale was always at the meeting and often took charge of it.  Her entire life was devoted to the teaching of the Faith;  to me her talks often seemed to lack logic but she attracted so many people to the Faith with her absolute sincerity.  During all the time I knew her she was battling with cancer and great pain but she never stopped teaching activities.

Every now and then Florence Pinchon would come along and speak.  She was a very knowledgeable lady and I wish I had listened more closely now, but then I allowed myself to be distracted by her false teeth!  Again it was only  years later that I realized that she lived out the last years of her life in a tiny bed sitter facing what had been Dr Esslemont’s sanatorium.

And Else Cranmer was for me the very heart of the community.  She was already in poor health, suffering from Meniere’s disease, and also some kind of hernia.  She was susceptible to extreme giddiness and could rarely eat anything without becoming sick after it so that going out was very difficult for her, but she attended every Bahá’í meeting that she could.  Years later I also realized what an indefatigable writer she had always been.  She wrote article after article about the Faith, sending them off to all sorts of magazines and digests and maintained lots of correspondence with interested people.  She was also a poet.

In 1986, when my father moved house, I discovered in a bottom drawer of his desk a Christmas card my parents had received from Elsie when I was a small child;  it was a complete pamphlet about the Faith written and typed out by Elsie.  How hard she had worked on my behalf.

One of the most wonderful early experiences in the Faith that I had was going to the first Harlech Summer School in 1958.  Stuart Sweet drove some of us there.  Mr and Mrs Ali Nakhjavani and their two young children happened to be there, and Mr and Mrs Adib Taherzadeh from Ireland.  John Ferraby and Hassan Balyuzi both gave talks.  It was another world.  Harlech continued for years to be one of the most glorious places on earth to me and I remember with much gratitude the presence of John and Vera Long, Madeline and Bill Hellaby, John and Valerie Morley, John and Rose Wade, the Munsiffs, Ian Semple and hosts of other people.

Leaving the gentle environs of the Bournemouth Bahá’í community I experienced a younger community in Leeds where I went to University. The address of Leeds’ Bahá’í Centre at the time was 9 Hope Chambers, Sheepshanks Yard, Vicar Lane;  Malcolm Lee was a member of the community. And after Shidan and I married in 1963 we settled in Gatley just south of Manchester where we had the great privilege of being on the Local Spiritual Assembly with the Yool family and Shahla and Bahadur Haqjoo.  Manchester itself was quite a large community and there were busy communities around such as at Eccles and Swinton so there were lots of activities.

From 1958 onwards I was able to attend most, if not all, UK National Conventions and National Teaching Conferences and of course the most exciting of all the World Congress at the Royal Albert Hall, London.  In 1966, inspired by a wonderful teaching conference talk by Marion Hofman and encouraged by the National Secretary Betty Reed, we pioneered to Sierra Leone where there were no Bahá’ís – the last having died in a road accident while on his way to Convention in Liberia.

We made our way to Freetown, Sierra Leone by an unusual route in order to visit Shidan’s uncle Zoghollah Momen, via Italy and Dakar, and on the last leg the Ghana Airways plane had an advertisement for Daraprim, a malaria prophylactic, in each seat pocket.  Ask the air hostess if you don’t have any it said.  Somehow we had managed to remain unaware of the dangers of malaria and so we asked the air hostess and received our first weekly tablet of Daraprim which the medical world was already beginning to have doubts about.  However it kept us and our family free of malaria for nearly 40 years with no apparent side effects.  We never saw such an advertisement on an airline again

On our first day in Freetown we met a rather unpleasant British Bank Manager who refused to open an account for us but insisted on our accompanying him to a night club that evening.  Neither of us had ever been in a night club before.  There the Bank Manager introduced us to an Armenian Persian who, after testing us for several months, gave Shidan a job and years later enabled us to open Guinea to the Faith.  I had obtained a teaching job and Shidan later became a university teacher and as we were employed locally we lived on a par with other middle class Sierra Leoneans.

Within a short time we found ourselves serving on the National Spiritual Assembly for West Africa which then had ten countries under its jurisdiction; this involved monthly trips (sometimes by land) to its seat, Monrovia and I served as vice chairman, chairman and recording secretary for several years.  In 1969 Shidan was appointed Auxiliary Board Member and he served in this capacity for 31 years.

Liberia had had a series of wonderful American pioneers.  One of them burst into song during our first visit to the Monrovian Bahá’í community which shocked me to the core as at that time the British Bahá’í communities never sang!  Another, Vivian Wesson, then in her late sixties adopted us as grandchildren and came to live with us in Freetown benefiting us and the early Freetown Bahá’ís with her knowledge, experience and warmth.  Vivian had known Ruhiyyih Khanum as a young girl and had also been close to Hand of the Cause Louis Gregory and his wife Louise.

While in Monrovia for NSA meetings I was blessed to be able to stay in the home of William and Laura Hill and doubly blessed on one occasion when Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum and Violette Nakhjavani were also fellow guests for a couple of nights.  This was during their tour of Africa and they flew back to Freetown with me and stayed for several days including Naw Rúz.  Their stay was prolonged by a day or two as there was an attempted coup on the last day and as their hotel was opposite the presidential palace they were under fire for a short while.  I remember Violette telling us that she had had a hard time preventing Khánum from going out to investigate.  Other highlights of our nine years in Sierra Leone include visits from Hands of the Cause Dr Muhajir and Enoch Olinga and American Bahá’í, Eulalia Bobo, sister of the famous Joe Louis..

Other pioneers came to Sierra Leone while we were there.  Horace Brown from the USA stayed for several years.  Reza Haidari came directly from Iran; the first member of his family to go to university he had studied agriculture.  He found a teaching job in a school in a village many miles from Freetown, contracted cerebral malaria and died in 24 hours just after helping to form the first Local Assembly in the nearest town.

In 1975 Sierra Leone formed its own National Spiritual Assembly just a few months after we had pioneered on to Guinea, the only one country amongst those ten (and in Africa I believe) that had never been opened.  The first Convention of the Bahá’ís of Sierra Leone, at which Hand of the Cause Enoch Olinga was present, was a wonderful experience for us.

The People’s Democratic Republic of Guinea proved to be very different from Sierra Leone for us. When we arrived in Sierra Leone they had a democratic system of government and a civil service based on the UK’s.  Immediately after our arrival began a series of coups and counter coups but they were quite low key with little violence during our time there.  Sierra Leoneans were gentle and friendly and full of goodwill towards Britain.

The rupture between France and Guinea had been abrupt and painful to both sides.  The first president Ahmad Sekou Toure had gradually tightened his grip on power and was virtually dictator;  Guinea had become a police state and many Guineans had fled to neighbouring countries for both economic and political reasons.

We arrived in the capital, Conakry, as foreign experts which immediately set us apart from Guineans who, we soon discovered, were afraid to be seen associating with us.  There were very few other foreigners there, no possibility of travel within the country without government permission or of teaching the Faith so our first years there would have been quite a lonely time  except for the arrival of our two daughters, Vadiay within a year of our arrival and Vafa three years later.  A small miracle considering that we had been childless for 12 years and told that we probably would not be able to have children.  We could also, unlike other foreigners, travel to Sierra Leone which we did every month or so to obtain provisions.

The Faith first began to develop in the Forest Region, 900 km from the capital, where many villagers taught by Ivorian counsellor Kassimi Fofana became Bahá’ís.  We were unable to visit them and Mr Fofana’s visits soon ceased as he found himself in danger of arrest and imprisonment.

The situation eased when the President began to seek to rebuild relations with France and the Western world and after he died, in 1984, we were able to visit the Forest communities.   Conakry also developed a small community.  Finally in 1988 Guinea formed its own National Spiritual Assembly on which I served for about 16 years as either Secretary or Treasurer.

Serving on the two National Assemblies, West Africa and then Guinea, meant that I had the great bounty of attending three International Conventions, 1973, 1993 and 1998.   Thanks to Shidan’s energy, determination and financial ingenuity I have been on pilgrimage five times, three with the whole family.  We have also been blessed by being present at the commemoration of the Ascension of Baha’u’llah, the opening of the terraces, the dedication of the Delhi Temple, the New York Congress.

In 2005 we finally left West Africa as Shidan retired ; he was 65 and had been working under increasingly difficult working conditions for many years in order to enable us to remain in Guinea.  We returned to Bournemouth, my home town and the place of my Bahá’í birth, and became involved in the work of the Bahá’í community there, very soon being elected to the Assembly and offices on it, and helping with children’s classes.

Following the 2010 National Convention, at which an appeal was made for pioneers to arise to enable the UK to fulfil its five year plan goal, we received a phone call from a member of the pioneer committee who asked us very sweetly and politely if there was any reason preventing us from pioneering!  We pleaded old age and an inability to learn another language and were told that many people in Slovenia speak English (absolutely true) so here we are in Ljubljana; we arrived in January 2011 just in time to help with the refurbishment of the Bahá’í Centre here.

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Susan, Vafa, Vadiay, Shidan Kouchek-zadeh in Guinea c.1985

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