Rafie Mavaddat

Rafie Mavaddat

Eight Years in England (1955-1963)

I was born in Iran in 1935 into a Bahá’í family in the capital city, Tehran. My father’s forefathers were of the first Bábis and later accepted the Bahá’í Faith. My mother was from the Alai family, a well-known Bahá’í family in Tehran who later pioneered to many parts of the world. Both my father (Nasr’u’llah) and my mother (Talieh) were very active in the Faith and served at the Research Department at the World Centre for a period of time. During his lifetime my father also translated two of Shoghi Effendi’s books, namely, God Passes By and The Advent of Divine Justice, from English to Persian. I had an older brother who passed away when he was in his thirties. He had a great interest in physics, philosophy and the mystical aspects of the Faith.

The year 1953, when I was in the last year of High School in Tehran, was a momentous year for the Bahá’ís of  Iran. In that year, the Guardian (Shoghi Effendi) launched the Ten Year Crusade and called for the Bahá’ís in Iran and elsewhere to arise, leave their homes and pioneer to the remotest parts of the world, opening new territories for the Faith and fulfilling the Ten Year Plan. There was a sense of excitement, a stirring within the Iranian Bahá’í community, and a desire to serve and fulfill the wishes of their beloved Guardian. There were four International conferences held that year – in Kampala, Chicago, Stockholm, and New Delhi. Those who attended were moved and their stories inspired many others who could not participate to arise and serve the Faith.  1953 was also the year that the superstructure of the Shrine of the Báb was completed, adding to the excitement of the friends.

Subsequently the tumult that was created in 1955 by Falsafi, a cleric who denounced the Bahá’í Faith over the National Radio every day during the month of Ramadan, and the harassment of the Bahá’ís across the country, as well as the destruction of the Bahá’í Centre in Tehran that followed, added to the zeal of the friends in Iran.

Being born in a Bahá’í family in Iran and attending Bahá’í youth activities, it was little wonder that I was also moved by the events and had a desire to respond to the call of the Guardian. Not wishing to leave my studies, I thought I might be able to combine both study and service to the Faith by enrolling at a university in South Africa. It was not before 1955 that I was eventually able to move from Tehran to London in the hope of obtaining a university place and the required visa for South Africa from there. From London I soon moved to Leeds where a friend of mine was studying. While I enrolled in a college to improve my English and take some matriculation subjects, I wrote to many universities in South Africa with the hope of enrolling there as a student. Their response always implied that the admission to the university was conditional on securing first an entry visa to that country. It was clear that without an admission by a university and with restrictive apartheid policies I would not be able to continue my studies in South Africa.

With this outcome, I decided to stay in the UK and pursue my studies. Life in Leeds at that time, with its very cold winters and the smog of an industrial city, was not easy. The only solace was the weekly meetings of a few Bahá’í friends in a small room on the first floor of an old building acting as a Bahá’í Centre. Occasionally we had Bahá’í visitors who had encouraging words and inspiring teaching stories to relate.

The year 1957 was the eventful and memorable year of the passing of the Guardian. The Bahá’í World was plunged into grief and disbelief. Not only had they lost their beloved Guardian, they were utterly unsure of the future course of their Faith. He had left no Will and had not appointed a successor. But when the friends gathered at the Great Northern Cemetery in London, it was not the thoughts of what the future would hold in their minds, but the feeling of sadness and love in their hearts for him who was no longer with them. That sudden event and the gathering of the friends at the Guardian’s resting place filled our hearts with unforgettable emotions.

Within the Bahá’í Community in the UK at that time, Teaching Conferences were the highlight of Bahá’í activities. Hands of the Cause, members of the National Spiritual Assembly and most Bahá’ís residing and visiting the UK were all there. Here at first the messages from the Guardian, and later those from the Hands of the Cause of God, were read. These were followed by inspiring talks and discussion on what should be done to reach the goals of the Ten Year Crusade.

At one of these Teaching Conferences, shortly before my graduation from Leeds University, we were informed that the NSA had appointed several goal areas for home-front pioneering. One of these places was Bangor in North Wales. I thought that this might perhaps be my pioneering opportunity. I volunteered to go there, provided that it was also possible for me to continue my postgraduate studies. Returning to Leeds, I discussed the matter with my Professor and the Head of Department. To my astonishment he told me that they were just starting a new Electronic Engineering Department in Bangor and that he was willing to support my application to do my Ph.D. with the newly appointed Professor. Writing a letter of recommendation for me, I soon found myself undertaking postgraduate research at Bangor University in a new building and a well-equipped laboratory.

Bangor is a small university city with a population of a few thousand on the coast of North Wales, with the Menai Straits separating it from the Island of Anglesey. The town itself consisted of just two main streets, one running over a hill that passed by the university’s main building and the other at the foot of the hill with small supermarkets and coffee shops. The non-eventful town, however, was surrounded by scenic nature, green pastures, brooks and hills – a haven for those  with love for the countryside. Most people spoke Welsh and they loved singing, playing musical instruments and having open fairs.

I spent four years in Bangor (1959-1963) as the only Bahá’í in that city, three years as a student and one as a post-doctoral Research Fellow.  Actually there was one other Bahá’í in Bangor when I first went there, but she didn’t stay more than a few months. The most memorable occasions were the visits from Bahá’í friends who would come to encourage and help with the teaching work. Most notable were Mr. David Hofman and Mr. Ian Semple, who in 1963 were both elected as members of the newly formed Universal House of Justice.  Mr. Semple’s talk organized at the University inspired a student, Patrick Beer together with his wife Christine, to investigate the Faith. This is how Patrick related to me the sequence of events: “It must have been 1961 that Ian Semple came to Bangor and gave a talk at the University. We met you again after that and had tea in your digs a couple of times. I graduated and left that year, but Christine continued for another year and attended another meeting at the University. I declared in 1962 and it was Christine who declared just after the world Congress in 1963. … In 1965, we pioneered to Ghana for three and a half years and then later to South Africa in 1974 for five and a half years.  We do remember meeting you once again many years ago but not where or when.”

That occasion, however, I remember very well, since it was one of the happiest of my life!  It was at a Bahá’í conference in London a couple of years later where, with a great degree of astonishment, I met Patrick again.  I had received no news of him after he left Bangor and had no idea that he had joined the Bahá’í Faith!  It made that most inspiring Bahá’í conference doubly memorable. Perhaps it is of interest to note that Patrick and his wife later pioneered to South Africa, where I had originally intended to go, but was not permitted.

Mrs. Violette Nakhjavani (wife of Mr. Nakhjavani, former member of the Universal House of Justice) also visited Bangor and spoke to some seekers. A few wonderful Bahá’í travel teachers came also from Chester, the closest city to Bangor, and also from South Wales. I should mention too a very precious soul in Anglesey, Dr. Miller, an old retired medical doctor. To observe the devotional part of the Feast with me, Dr. Miller would travel in his modest car all the way from Anglesey and park it next to where I worked. We would then read some prayers and Bahá’í Writings together in his car for the Feast and he would drive back to his home in Anglesey!

The last event I attended in the UK before returning to Iran (1963) was the World Congress in London. To all who attended the function, it was a never to be forgotten event. I doubt that the streets around the Royal Albert Hall in London had ever seen such amazing scenes before, with people from all around the world dressed in colourful national dress, talking and hugging each other. Daily newspapers didn’t miss reporting the event and publishing many interesting photos. For those who attended the World Congress, it was not just a joyous occasion to see so many Bahá’ís gathered together or meeting with old friends they had not seen for many years. With the Universal House of Justice just elected, it was a confirmation that the Faith of God, which had struggled through many years of persecution and crisis and loss of the Guardian, with the election of that Supreme Institution was now destined to move forward to victory.

On returning to Iran I met and married Nina in Tehran, and not long after, we left for Shiraz. I was invited to start a School of Engineering at Shiraz University with two other academics. Curiously, not only were we from three different Engineering disciplines, but also from three religious backgrounds: a Moslem, a Zoroastrian and a Bahá’í. Initially with a few students, the School of Engineering soon expanded to become one of the top Engineering Schools in Iran. It was a privilege to be able to work at that institution, serving the people of Iran, and especially the young students in the city of Shiraz.

The house of the Báb, where He declared His mission, was in an old section of Shiraz on an unpaved winding alley. At the time many Bahá’ís came from all over the world as pilgrims. As my wife Nina was a member of the committee organizing pilgrimage there, we met and invited many of the pilgrims to our house. Amongst them were Mr. and Mrs. Enoch Olinga, Mr. William Sears, Drs. Peter and Janet Khan, Mr. and Mrs. Glenford Mitchell, and many more. An old lady from Alaska had with her a prayer bead from which she would never part. This had belonged to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and was to be given to the first believer of Alaskan origin. The stories of these beautiful souls and their pilgrimage to the House of the Báb cannot be given in this short account.

In 1977 my wife and I, together with our children and my parents, went to Australia for my sabbatical leave from the University in Shiraz. While in Australia, the political situation in Iran became very uncertain, leading to the 1979 revolution. Subsequently we had the news that I was expelled from the university and my wife from her teaching position. Soon both our home and my parents’ home in Iran and all our belongings were confiscated. We were lucky as many of our Bahá’í friends in Shiraz not only lost their properties, but also suffered much personal hardship and persecution and some even sacrificed their lives.

With two young children and unfavourable conditions for Bahá’ís in Iran, we decided to seek permanent residency in Australia. Australia is a nice country with friendly people and an active and vibrant Bahá’í community. We have been living there ever since, but fortunately I have had the opportunity of being able to travel and visit other countries so combining travel teaching with academic work in Eastern Europe and also in South Korea, where I spent about 15 months.

Apart from a short visit, I did not return to the UK until a few years ago, when I made several extended trips to visit my daughters Nasim and Nahal who completed their studies in Cambridge and are now working there. For much of those periods I also collaborated in research with the Photonics group at Cambridge University.

I was born in Iran, and now reside in Australia with my wife Nina and son Navid, but I feel much at home in the UK, and remember fondly the warmth and bonds of unity and friendship of the UK Bahá’í community in those earlier years.


Rafie Mavaddat

Australia, July 2013

Rafie's graduation photo

Rafie’s graduation photo