Christine & Rafi Abbas (centre) with their daughter Naja + husband Greg Hui Yanning, and his parents in China
My ‘ethnic’ classification’ has always presented a difficulty. My father is from Sussex and my mother from Newport, South Wales. Her mother came there from Sheffield (I believe) as a young child and always insisted we were English. But my cousins have Welsh accents and my grandfather, a Morgan, was from a humble Monmouthshire woodsman’s family. Even my father’s uncle lived in Aberfan (the other end of the street where the school was engulfed by a tip) with a very Welsh wife, Morfydd. All preparation for me to readily accept the earth as one country!
My parents made their home in Brighton in a bungalow that had been built by my paternal grandfather – 36 Warmdene Road, Patcham. This was where my younger sister, Carole, and I were brought up. Mum was Church of England whilst Dad was a Methodist so I saw division within Christianity. The Methodist church was more inviting than the C. of E., as far as a child was concerned, so we attended Sunday School at Bristol Road, Kemp Town, where my father was the organist and, later, Patcham Sunday School when our neighbour’s daughter took us there. It was affectionately known as ‘The Barn’ because the original building was a huge, drafty barn, with endless hidey-holes and great character. It was a big school, still thriving, and we both went right through the ranks becoming Sunday-School teachers ourselves. In my teens I became head of the Primary Department and was held in great respect. This was a strange situation because I was also known as a rebel and often I would arrive in a really short skirt or hot pants because some ‘old dear’ would ask the minister to have a quiet word with me! I really felt the need to be part of a community and to assist with the administrative side but in all the years I was involved I rebelled against signing a card and becoming a member so I was never able to serve on church committees. Carole and I were involved with the Girls’ Brigade and the youth club. The club was open to all youth, not just church users, which disturbed some members, but that was a condition laid upon it when the new church was built. So I had contact with youth that probably, had my parents known, would have made their hair stand on end! I can only think that an invisible divine hand helped me steer a course through this because I never got drunk, did not smoke, take drugs or get pregnant. I was not without faults however!
A few of us youth were regular church attendees but it was not quite modern enough for us so we found some older members who helped us set up a youth fellowship to meet after the evening service. We had discussions and other activities; for example, we wrote our own musical about Saul and performed it in the church. It was not so strange when one of the members said she had a Bahá’í in her school for us to invite her along. Invite one Bahá’í and half a dozen come! Yasmin Mottahedin brought Cecilia Smith to talk about her life as an air hostess, complete with slides, Ed Povey to play his guitar, and Cyril Seegoolam amongst a few others. All the youth agreed with everything they said, except on the station of Bahá’u’lláh, and I noted that the father of the girl who had initiated the event felt strongly against certain things which seemed to make us youth more in line with the Bahá’ís.
The Bahá’ís must have had an effect on me because I started to pin up Bahá’í leaflets on the church notice-board and often wondered what had happened to ‘those nice people’, although I eventually forgot the name. About a year later a typical teenage tragedy struck. My boyfriend of four years decided to marry a girl from his office. He met me off a train in London and told me before we met up with friends for a theatre outing. A strange night as I sobbed through the musical, whilst drawn into the production at the same time. My poor friends, Anny and Peter Wise, had to cope with me after and I was so miserable. We were practically engaged, as I thought, so my life which had been mapped out for me was in turmoil. Looking back, if we had married, I don’t think it would have lasted.
After a few months Anny invited me to a meeting because ‘I had nothing better to do’ she said. Peter had been at the youth meeting in the church and had since attended firesides in London, where he worked. After a while he wanted Anny to hear what they had to say so arranged for her to come to a fireside in Brighton. She did not know what they did, even suggesting we would sit around the floor on cushions. They were my best friends so I was happy to go along and when they went every week, I went too. I was so shy I never said anything but the lovely atmosphere helped me. A while later Peter and Anny became Bahá’ís and they lent me books. Anny always put a declaration card inside every one but, although I read them all, I never saw a card in them. Then, one evening I went alone. I had seen a lot of people go through the firesides and we had even brought several of our own friends, mostly to enjoy the Tahzib family’s hospitality. At this fireside Mr Mehrnoosh took the opportunity to ask if I believed in Bahá’u’lláh. Just a brief moment to think and I realised I did. ‘Then you are a Bahá’í’ he said and promptly produced a card for me to sign, which I did! The other Bahá’ís were surprised because they just could not work out how I felt. They did not know that they had answered my unasked questions and, eventually, I realised where I had first met the Bahá’ís.
In the firesides I kept hearing the name of Mrs Kouchekzadeh and I recalled a girl at my school with that name. There could not be many people with such an unusual name I thought and, sure enough, Mehri Kouchekzadeh was her mother. I had been at school with Shadab Kouchekzadeh and not known she was a Bahá’í. She was in a different class but once, when she was Head Girl, she stopped me in the corridor to ask me how I was doing. I was so impressed that she should even consider me worthy of such attention. Later I found out that another friend, again in a different class, had been present at a talk about the Faith at the school – a talk that my class did not attend!
I went home from the meeting on air and could not wait to tell Anny and Peter. It was a wonderful feeling. The bubble burst when I told my Mum, the same evening, and she replied, ‘Oh, Christine!’ and warned me from telling my father. He found out some months later and did not give me such a hard time as I thought. In fact, over the years he has been the one to mention Bahá’í activities he had noticed in the press.
A book presented to me by the Local Spiritual Assembly of Brighton shortly after that fireside is dated 14th November 1973. I was 19 years old.
In my thoughts, as I continue, is Eve Javeri-Wise, the daughter of Anny and Peter Wise who, sadly, was killed in a car accident on Friday 26th April, 1996, in Ireland.
Before reaching the age of 21 I was in Brighton and then Hove communities, until Mr Mehrnoosh decided that as an adult I was the one to fill the ninth place on the first Eastbourne assembly. I stayed there about two years and then Wales beckoned. On a few visits to relatives I had managed to meet Bahá’ís in Newport and they kept on asking me to join them. When my sister went to Caerleon College I felt that it would be good to be near my relatives and to help this small Local Spiritual Assembly which was under numbers. Then on 29th April 1980 I moved into my own house which I bought in the extension teaching goal of Blaenau Gwent, about 20 miles north of Newport. In 1983 I married Rafi Karmil Abbas, originally from Baghdad and after two years we moved from Abertillery to Blaina, in the same area. We have been there ever since and it has been both hard and interesting getting the Faith known in these parts. We met Mavis Bodenham, from Cwmbran, who declared in our Abertillery home, and years later David Watkins from Brynmawr declared in our Blaina home, but he later left the area. In April 1985 Olya Roohizadegan visited and at a meeting there were three declarations. One was a lady in Viv and Rita Bartlett’s area, two in ours. The following day I spoke to my friend Mandy Howells and convinced her that she was really the first of these latest Bahá’ís and she said she was happy to call herself a Bahá’í if she did not have to sign anything.
We have four children; they are second generation Bahá’í on my side and fourth on their father’s. Rafi’s grandfather was the first Bahá’í in the family. His dad was an Auxiliary Board member in Iraq, travelling to several middle eastern countries, and was a Knight of Bahá’u’lláh for the Seychelles. He was also imprisoned in Iraq for seven years along with many other Bahá’ís. He died in the hospital which stands on the site of the Ridván Garden in Baghdad. His mother is of Turkish origin and she, as a small child, had sat on the knee of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
We have been twice to the World Centre, on pilgrimage, and once on a family visit whilst our son Thenna did a year of service. In 2001 I was one of two representatives from Wales who went to the Opening of the Terraces (Branwen Owen was the other).
Our eldest, Thenna, married Tessa neé Roche-Saunders in 2010. They were living in Cardiff then but have spent a year in China since. Now they are back in the U.K. and expecting their first child. Our daughter Naja has also been living in China and now she is married to a lovely Chinese man.
2012 – four children and 20 foster children later. Our daughter Mona is going to Australia and our youngest daughter, Hana, and I have graduated from university.
Wales, September 2012