Latifeh Rowlands

I was born in Iran (Teheran) and came to England in September 1956 with my parents Eshagh Anvar and Ashraf Anvar (née Achraghian).   Although I had been to many English language classes and had private lessons my knowledge of English, in my own estimation, was poor.  Two of my sisters and brother had been in this country for many years studying, so with the call for pioneering during the Ten Year Crusade my parents decided that we should come to England, for me to go to school here, and for them to settle in a pioneering post.

After our arrival in England we visited the Haziratu’l-Quds at Rutland Gate.  There we met for the first time John Ferraby, then the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly.  I got to know his daughter Brigitte some years later when we were part of the youth group in London and other gatherings.   My parents were invited to consult with the pioneering/teaching committee and it was suggested to them that they should go to Jersey to boost the numbers there.  My father wrote a petition to the Guardian requesting his approval of this move and when he received his confirmation of the plan they moved to Jersey.  Unfortunately the Home Office would not give them a residence permit for long so their stay in Jersey only lasted a few months and they returned to London.  After further consultation with the Teaching Committee, they moved to Dublin.

Before their departure to Jersey I was sent to a boarding school in North London.  During our initial visit to the school we were informed that there was already a Bahá’í girl in the school, Freda Nazar who attended the school as a day pupil.  This was very lucky for me as in the years that followed the Nazar family gave me a lot of hospitality and were an important link for me with the Bahá’í activities at the Bahá’í Centre at Rutland Gate.

During the school holidays I went to Dublin to stay with my parents.  At that time Southern Ireland did not have its own National Assembly, and the Bahá’ís residing there were all part of the one Bahá’í community of the British Isles.  It was during these visits that I met the Taherzadeh family – Adib, his wife Zarin and their two children Ronald and Vida, as well as many other friends from around the world.  I remember Adib saying several times to my parents … what a shame it was that they hadn’t been there earlier to meet Hand of the Cause George Townsend, who had died only a few years before.  My only contact with the Townsend family was that his son Brian came to give my parents English lessons and I was at home during one of these sessions.

I wish that I could say that I had some interesting anecdotes about Brian’s father, but all that I can recall is his guidance to my parents about how to pronounce the `wh` in words such as when or who.  To follow his instruction, you purse your lips as if about to blow out a candle and then say the words.  It certainly avoids saying ven and vot instead of when and what!

Back at school in England I would sometimes be invited to go and stay with the Nazar family and go to a 19 day feast or perhaps to some other event.  One morning after school assembly Freda came up to me and whispered something.  Partly because of the noise around, and partly because I couldn’t believe what she had said, I thought that I had not heard her correctly. So I went after her and asked her to repeat what she had said, and that is how I learnt of the Guardian’s passing.  It did not seem real, particularly being caught up in the daily routine of a boarding school where no one else knew or cared.

My parents came over from Ireland for the funeral and we all gathered at the Bahá’í   Centre at Rutland Gate.  There seemed to be hundreds of people crammed into that building.  There was a long convoy of black limousines that slowly drove through the streets of London to Arnos Grove.  A couple of times we caught sight of the hearse ahead of us.  Someone in our car commented on how the route taken ensured that the journey took less than one hour.

There must be many accounts of the Guardian’s funeral more authoritative then mine.  We were lucky to be able to find room inside the chapel as, due to the numbers, many people had to remain outside.  The wall at the end of the chapel was completely covered with flowers so that nothing could be seen of the wall or the cross suspended there.  By the graveside everyone was allowed to go close and touch or kiss the coffin and pay their personal respects.  The whole event was a most moving and sad experience.  It was during these days, the funeral and meetings after it, that I first saw Rúhíyyih Khánum.  Although she must have felt the grief of the Guardian’s passing so much more than anyone else, she was the one comforting others and giving people words of encouragement.

The summer before this, in August 1957, my parents and I went to the Summer School in Kilkeel in Northern Ireland.  There I met many Bahá’ís whom it has been a pleasure to meet many times again over the years such as the Macdonalds and Villiers-Stuarts.  Adib Taherzadeh ran a session for the children aided, or perhaps hindered, by the help of his son Ronald!  One evening my father was asked to talk about his memories of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, whom he had met on several occasions.  I think it was Adib who translated for him.  At the end of his talk many people were gathered round him asking questions, one of whom was Betty Reed.  My father told me some years later that he had given her some of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s hair which he himself had been given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself on one of his pilgrimages.  This may have been a gesture of thanks, as he had sent my father on some errands to visit some Bahá’ís in different places and to take messages.  Several years later when I met Betty at some national event and introduced myself to her, understandably she did not remember me so I told her of my father and of his gift to her.  She told me that she had given it to the UK National Archives for safe-keeping.   A few years ago, on the advice of Wendi Momen, I wrote to the then Secretary of the N.S.A (Kishan Manocha) relating the above events and my conversation with Betty Reed.  I have another memento from that Summer School. A copy of God and His Messengers given to me by David Lewis.  His inscription inside the cover confirms the place and date of the Summer School.

The next major Bahá’í event was the International Conference in Frankfurt in 1958.  At that stage it was the largest Bahá’í gathering I had attended with a large number of people from many countries.  It had for me the personal pleasure of seeing many relatives whom I had not seen for several years, but the major occasion of the event was being allowed to see the photograph of Bahá’u’lláh.  Even though we had only a few seconds in front of it as we filed past, the significance and solemnity of the moment was immense.  I only saw the photograph again when I went on Pilgrimage to Haifa in 1986 and again in 1998.

When I returned to school in September of 1958, I was joined by two of my cousins Soheirieh and Samireh Anvar.  Sammi was only about six years old at this time and was given a lot of  ‘encouragement’ (to put it euphemistically) by the nuns to understand Christianity from a Catholic point of view.  I got into trouble and was told off when I answered some of her queries from a Bahá’í perspective on what she had been told!

[Recently the school premises featured in the ITV programme as Jamie Oliver’s Dream School].

In August 1958 I reached my fifteenth birthday and, as was required then, had to declare my faith by signing a card or writing a letter.  I went to the Bahá’í Centre to do this and was met by John Wade.  He went through the declaration card with me and asked me many questions.  One of them was … had I read and understood the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’-Bahá?  I was too shy to admit that my English wasn’t good enough to understand it all.  John must have appreciated the situation to some extent, as he asked me whether I accepted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as the Centre of the Covenant and The Guardian’s Station.  He must have been happy with my answer of ‘yes’ to these questions and so the formalities were finalised.  This was around the time when Rúhíyyih Khánum was coming to London on a few visits to arrange and oversee the construction of the memorial for the Guardian’s Grave.  She was present at the first 19 Day Feast after my declaration and, when I was introduced as a new declarant, she asked me to go forward, shook hands with me, and wished me well.

Early on in the sixties my parents returned to Iran and I stayed on to carry on with my studies. Their home in Dublin later became the first Bahá’í centre after my father gifted it to the Faith.  Years later I visited the Bahá’í centre in Dublin (not the one that had been our home, but a larger property purchased after the sale of the first Centre).  I spent some moments on my own in the meeting room which has been named after my father ‘Eshagh Anvar Room’.  When I stood by his photograph which hangs on the front wall I had a strong sense of being very close to him, even more so than I had done when I had stood by his grave in Teheran several years earlier.

In 1962 my mother returned to carry on in a pioneering post.  She said that she had promised herself to hold a pioneering post until the end of the 10 Year Crusade.  The pioneering committee suggested that she go to Wokingham Rural District to help form the Local Spiritual Assembly there.  She lived in the house next to the station at Earley for the next two years and was a member of that Spiritual Assembly.  She said that she found it hard being in the country as she loved towns and cities.  I did not realise how hard she had found it until many years later, standing at our kitchen window looking out across the garden and the golf course beyond, she said “If I lived here I would die in a week.  There are no people or traffic to see”.  But she kept her promise and stayed in Earley for over six months after the World Congress.

It was whilst staying with my mother during the holiday that I met the Morley and the Battrick families.  John and Val Morley lived in Reading and were good friends to my mother.  I also got to know their daughter Liz.  John and Val took me one evening to the theatre in Coventry where their son was the set designer for the play.

One day, visiting Owen and Jeanette Battrick, she asked me whether I had been given any jobs for the duration of the Congress?  I said that I had volunteered but had not yet heard anything.  She told me she was looking for people to greet new arrivals at the air terminals and direct them to different places as needed.  So it was that on several occasions I was at one of the terminals in London.

I think on one occasion I was with May Hofman, meeting Bahá’ís coming from different parts of the world; the majority were from Iran, many of whom had never travelled abroad before so it was essential to have someone Persian-speaking there.  Some already had hotels booked so we found them taxis or directed them to the underground and on to their destinations.  Those who were still looking were guided to a hotel in Russell Square where other volunteers there helped them find accommodation.   This was also a venue for friends to gather and meet in the days prior to the start of the Congress.  It was quite amusing to remember London taxi drivers standing and looking at me in bemusement asking for guidance as we found taxis for different groups and asked for them to be take to different places.

Many of the friends and family who had already arrived in London gathered at an air terminal to see off the numerous members of National Spiritual Assemblies from various countries who were all flying off to Haifa for the election of the members of the first Universal House of Justice.  There was a happy and excited atmosphere and some of us went to the newsagent W.H. Smith on site to buy a booklet and collect autographs of those about to take part in the first international convention.   My happy memory of this occasion is marred with some sadness. The husband of one of my cousins was then a member of the NSA of Norway and was in the contingent going to Israel. Many years later as a member of the NSA of Iran; he was one of those who was abducted and was never seen again.  My cousin and her children had to flee over the mountains to a neighbouring country and later took asylum in the USA.

The 1963 Congress at the Royal Albert Hall was an unforgettable experience.  There must be so many official records and photographs of the event that will produce hours of reading for future generations so I will leave that to historians.  On a personal note for me the immensity of the occasion and the mixing of so many nationalities was very impressive.  Every time I see a broadcast on TV from the Royal Albert Hall I can’t help but think how once that number of Bahai’s were all gathered together.  It was interesting to observe the reactions of the Royal Albert Hall staff. The day after the public meeting one of them told me how it all made more sense to him.

The large number of Iranians there resonated even in the cafeterias.  One day while purchasing a sandwich or a cake,  I asked the lady behind the counter if she would put it in a bag for me.  She had an amused smile on her face and asked “not in an envelope?’”

It was during the days of the World Congress that Ilona Rodgers had her 21st birthday.  I had met her several times at her mother’s house (Jeanette Battrick).  Being quite well known as an actress at that time she was having publicity photos taken.  She was being photographed at the front of the Royal Albert Hall with people in different national costumes around her.  It was pleasing to see that and many other photographs of those at the Congress in the specially produced pages of some of the national newspapers.

The most moving moment understandably was when the newly elected members of the Universal House of Justice were on the stage and introduced to those assembled.  It was a moment which I had heard talked about and eagerly anticipated since I had been a young child.  The great occasion was made a little more personal for me as I already knew and had met two of the members, namely David Hofman and Ian Semple.

Latifeh Rowlands

Milton Keynes, March 2012