I was born into a Bahá’í family on 18th August 1931. My father was born a Muslim in rural Egypt, and my mother a Maronite Christian, a part of the Roman Catholic Church, in the Lebanese uplands. They had become Bahá’ís independently before marriage.
The story of how my parents became Bahá’ís is very interesting, and even more is that of the services they performed as part of the community of the earliest Bahá’ís in Egypt. I was thus brought up in a truly Bahá’í home with a full appreciation of my responsibilities. The combination of an Anglican education, a Muslim society and my Bahá’í family made an ideal setting for my aspirations and appreciation of the three major religions, of course in addition to our Bahá’í Faith.
Crucially, I grew up at a time of extreme movement of Bahá’ís from every corner of the world to every other corner, in response to the call by the beloved Guardian for pioneers to open up especially the virgin territories, remote areas and ethnic groups. My generation was thus brought up on the ethos of pioneering and most, if not all of us, actually did so, some with remarkable success.
My parents’ move to Cairo placed some financial strain on them. I and my brother were placed in the English Mission College and my sister went to the Lycée Franco-Egyptien. Our spacious house with garden and surrounding fields became a centre and a hive of social and Bahá’í activity. The College enabled me to become bilingual, well acquainted with English Literature, art and tradition, and gave me a good grounding in the Bible. The overall environment of Egypt however was mainly Islamic but with an important part played by the large Coptic Christian minority, which compelled me to resolve some conflicts in my own mind. I was helped by my awareness of the Guardian’s fondness for the Egyptian Bahá’í community with its history of establishing the third National Spiritual Assembly in the Bahá’í world, and its pivotal place in the centre of Sunni Islam. He would periodically ask eminent Bahá’ís from different parts of the world to visit Egypt. Imagine my excitement when we were blessed with the presence of Mr Furútan, who even prior to being appointed a Hand of the Cause of God was renowned as an eminent scholar and educationalist. He gave us talks in English and Persian. I ventured once to ask him how I might write a worthwhile Bahá’í essay. To this day I vividly remember his answer. “Look up ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talks. He starts with a short introduction, then a description of reasonable length, and finishes off with a conclusion”. For me as a young boy, his advice was a revelation and I have followed it all my life.
Other visitors were Mrs Amelia Collins, again prior to her appointment as a Hand of the Cause of God. She was put up at the old Shepheard Hotel in downtown Cairo, one of the most prestigious and colonial-style hotels. As an English-speaking youth I was asked by the National Spiritual Assembly to accompany her whenever my time allowed. I could never forget her angelic motherly attitude, the atmosphere of spirituality wherever she happened to be, and the joy of listening to her reports of the advance of the Faith in other countries. She loved the beloved Guardian and increased our love for him. I remember the tears we all shed upon her departure, and in subsequent years the joy of hearing of her generous contributions to the projects on Mount Carmel. The Guardian lovingly called her Milly; the Collins Gate at Bahji is named after her in her honour.
In my late teens the Bahá’í world seemed to have sprung into action like a dormant giant poked into a growling arousal from slumber. Suddenly we found Bahá’ís coming through Cairo from the North and the East. The formerly pivotal role of sea voyages and thus the importance of the port-city of Port-Said was gradually being eroded as Cairo became a hub of the airline world of the time. The flying range of passenger aircraft at that time necessitated a stopover in Cairo for the Persian, British, or European Bahá’ís responding to the Guardian’s call to open up Africa over its evolving countries and territories in the North, East, Centre and West. We were blessed with short stays of those wonderful souls who left their former livelihoods and set off for places with no idea where they were on the map. I can never forget the devotion, dedication and utter submission to the Guardian’s call demonstrated by these souls.
My brother and I and a few other youth were ‘conscripted’ by the NSA and Cairo Local Spiritual Assembly to accompany these souls. Going to meet them in the airport was an adventure in those days, involving long walks, poor transport and the totally uncivilised hours of aircraft arrivals and departures. Cairo airport at the time was just a windy desert strip with some sort of reception area left over by the Americans who used it as their wartime airbase. Cold nights were really cold!
One day at the age of eleven or twelve I happened to be alone in my Uncle Philip’s watch and jewellery shop when a tall, well-built British officer came in, and in an imperious tone asked: Is this Philip Naimi’s shop? I was frightened because the British at the time had some authority in Egypt. I stammered “y-y-y—es” and he instantly proclaimed “Allah’u’Abha!”. For an instant I felt I might drop dead on the spot but I recovered quickly and screamed back “Allah’u’Abha” and threw myself into his embrace. The officer was Philip Hainsworth. What joy! His stay was short but he managed to meet the friends in Ismailia, Cairo and I believe Alexandria. My name is mentioned in Philip’s book Looking Back in Wonder.
On another exciting occasion, because of my knowledge of English I was asked by the NSA to help two friends locate two German Bahá’ís, prisoners of war, billeted in the area. Finding their whereabouts was like looking for a needle in a haystack. But we did find them and we were given special permission by the British Army to visit them. They were surprised and exhilarated when we met and their mates were astonished that such a thing could happen, just by being fellow Bahá’ís. Our visit had to be short but we had time to hand over cigarettes, tea, coffee, biscuits, and sweets – manna from heaven in their eyes. The encounter with the POWs reminded me of the power of the spiritual bonds between Bahá’ís all over the world that transcends the perversity of war or any feeling of animosity towards fellow human beings.
Our Youth Activity
In my earliest years, the Faith had no permanent centre in Cairo or indeed anywhere in Egypt but as a child I attended meetings in a special wing of a flat that belonged to one of the Persian friends, Mr Taqi Esfahani; he was a renowned early Bahá’í posthumously appointed a Hand of the Cause of God. We used to sit cross-legged on the floor while our elders sat on rows of chairs behind us. Chanting the prayers was almost all we had to listen to. One day the performer made such an odious sound that I was unable to suppress a cheeky thought. I hummed with him for a second or two and then pronounced the voice as that of a donkey. I was given a hiding! However, we were always respectful, and despite being children we attended with as much reverence and patience as we could. The friends were few, a cobbler and a tailor, but here was the beginning of a younger generation of educated friends – which included the renowned Hassan Sabri.
As advised by the Guardian, the National Spiritual Assembly purchased a piece of land in a central residential area of Cairo for the construction of a Haziratu’l-Quds – a mammoth task. The Egyptian Bahá’ís with limited resources were stretched to the limit in order to pay for the land and eventually to raise the building. I remember the pennies or Egyptian piastres we as children contributed but our main input proved much more valuable. As young adolescents we were to use all our spare time to help the builders with mundane lifting or clearing jobs in order to reduce costs. When the building was about to be inaugurated we spent a whole school holiday period cleaning and washing and scrubbing, from the stairs on the outside to every nook and cranny inside. The neighbours watched with incredulity. They asked who were these young boys working so diligently, and were amazed to hear they were pupils of some of the best schools in the country. Such a spirit of service was totally foreign to the neighbourhood culture. We were proud and happy, and even more so were our parents. The inauguration was by our standards a grand occasion. We were able to invite dignitaries, the press, our friends and our neighbours. In 1960 the building was confiscated by Gamal Abdel Nasser who issued a presidential decree banning all Bahá’í activity, but the nine-sided main edifice with a dome on the top, borne on pillars and rising with a smaller circumference, is still there, standing defiantly, even though used as a Muslim centre.
Preparation for the first Centenary of the declaration of the Báb was frenetic. I remember the adult members of our community, not only in Cairo, but in other cities, working very hard for the days of celebration. I am not sure I appreciated the significance of the occasion but later in life, when I attended the World Congress in London in 1963, and subsequently the one in New York in 1992, I realised how lucky I have been to be present at so many historical firsts.
Between 1945 and 1948
In 1948 the first Arab Israeli war, with Egypt having the major role from the Arab side, heralded the start of difficulties for the Bahá’ís in Egypt. The location of the shrines being in Israel fed the notion that the Bahá’ís were not to be trusted, which nourished the Islamists’ case against the Faith; it was an important motive for the president’s banning order and the confiscation of Bahá’í property, which included a wonderful piece of land along the Nile river purchased at a relatively high cost and earmarked as the site of a future Mashriqu’l Adhkar (House of Worship).
Nevertheless, during that period and prior to the ban, communications between the Egyptian NSA and the Bahá’í World Centre were quite regular, and the Bahá’í community was blessed with messages from the Guardian, received directly or through some NSAs or other trusted friends. Great stress was placed on the urgent need to expand the teaching work in Egypt and for the NSA to consider the Continent of Africa as falling within its direct sphere of responsibility. There developed an ethos among the youth of those days that anything anyone was doing was for the sole purpose of preparing to pioneer. We were all pursuing our education and impatiently waiting for the day when we could pack our suitcases and go – anywhere.
1950 and the start of the Ten Year Plan in 1952
By 1950 I had entered University to study Medicine. Already the flow of pioneers was gaining momentum as the friends from the west and from Iran responded to the call of the Guardian and his two-year plan for pioneers to North, Central and Southern Africa. Cairo being almost an essential stop for all air travellers from the North or the East, we were able to meet most of the early pioneers, including Philip Hainsworth, Ted Cardell, Mr and Mrs Banani, and their angel-faced daughter Violette and her husband, Ali Nakhjavani, who were pioneering to East Africa. We also saw some of the early Hands of the Cause of God, including Dorothy Baker and Mr Samandari, who both brought messages and attended many meetings.
I was elected to the Local Spiritual Assembly of Cairo while a student (1954-56), which put a great sense of responsibility on me because it was almost unheard of that a youth would become a member of the Cairo Spiritual Assembly when there were so many mature Bahá’ís around.
My personal challenges
As an LSA member, I had a front seat at the meetings when messages from the Guardian arrived, especially those delivered by Mr Banani, who was blessed with being enormously trusted and loved by the Guardian, even before his appointment as a Hand of the Cause of God. He could only speak Persian, which he did slowly, carefully, and in a manner that exuded love and sincerity even to those who did not understand Persian. His trusted communicator was Mr. Ali Nakhjavani, who being fluent in Arabic, English and Persian, knew how to present Mr. Banani’s addresses with all their nuances and meanings.
I remember the powerful emotions evoked in all the members of the LSA during the meetings with Mr Banani. Receiving a message from the Guardian was like an electric current that galvanised oneself and generated a swelling urge to throw oneself onto the floor in an act of sublimation. That was an era that has passed; I’m glad I had a glimpse of it.
On one of these visits I asked Mr. Nakhjavani what I could do for the Faith during a four-week break from my studies. He replied ‘Nabil, I think you should arrange for yourself to go somewhere far in Egypt, virgin to the Faith, pray, and see what response you get from Bahá’u’lláh.’ I chose the farthest point I could reach, Aswan, the most southerly town in the country, which was then sleepy, primitive, and sparsely populated.
I arrived early one morning after an overnight train journey of some 425 miles, and managed to find a very cheap hotel – 10 piastres a night (about one penny). That night I went up a hill overlooking the Nile. The balmy evening and the clear sky was the epitome of serenity, tranquillity and dreaminess. I prayed and prayed. I saw a dark man strolling aimlessly; we exchanged greetings and started talking. I found an opportunity to mention the Faith, he showed interest, and we had a pleasant discussion. We agreed to meet again the next evening.
During the day, I found I could take a ferry to an island in the Nile, where I met some youth who had absolutely no work and no daily activity of any worth. They asked me about life in Cairo, the roads, the cars, and if there were donkeys. It was as if I were a Martian, yet though illiterate they were kind and simple. I could only tell them sketchily about the Faith, and how we believe that all people are equal in the eyes of God, believe in all religions, and that one day the world will become united. They listened carefully, while struggling with some of the principles.
In the town’s market area I made acquaintance with more youth, this time a little more educated, and they would invite me to their primitive homes, and we would talk and talk, including about the Faith in greater detail. Returning to Cairo I had lots of stories to tell. I was congratulated because all the friends, as well as the LSA and the NSA realised I had undertaken the first travel-teaching endeavour in Egypt when it was almost unknown at the time in the Bahá’í world.
First offer of a job
In 1955 the Ten Year Crusade was in full swing. Many of the Bahá’ís in Egypt had gone to pioneering posts in Africa, and we even had three Knights of Bahá’u’lláh, one of whom was my father, Muhammad Mustafá Sulaiman. I qualified as a doctor in December of that year, and later learned of one Dr. Jamal Jarrah, a Bahá’í of Palestinian origin, who had started a private hospital in Damascus, Syria. He was of the Jarrah family who had been devout Bahá’ís since the days of Bahá’u’lláh. His brother, Youssef, a pioneer to Libya and a friend of the family, was on a visit to Cairo when he approached me with a request from the doctor to join him at his hospital on a substantial salary. Syria was not in the Ten Year Plan so I asked the LSA of Cairo for guidance. No reply came, then after about four months I received a letter from the Guardian – a bolt from the blue! It transpired that the LSA had passed my letter on to the NSA, who in turn had sent it on to the Guardian. His reply could not have been clearer: “If Dr. Nabil Mustapha wishes to serve the Faith, he should go and establish himself in a virgin territory in Africa.”
My medical career starts
My first post as a qualified doctor had been at the University Hospital in Ein-Shams, Cairo. One day the Orthopaedics professor there offered me a registrarship in Suez, and understandably expected me to be suitably grateful. To his dismay I declined the job; in obedience to the Guardian I was heading for the Sudan. In spite of his disappointment, the professor gave me his card and a favourable reference to be shown to a relative in Khartoum, who just happened to be the Egyptian Consul! I packed my suitcase (not much to pack but including my degree certificate!) and embarked by Nile riverboat and a primitive railway to the capital, on a journey of uncertainty, with no element of security other than meagre savings, my faith in Bahá’u’lláh, and the offer of accommodation by a close Baha’i friend.
SUDAN: An ordeal that turned into a blessing
Although a now qualified doctor, I had not completed the two years’ housemanship mandatory in Sudan. The door had slammed shut on my prospects. Returning to Egypt was not an option I ever entertained. I was in Africa, and sink or swim I had to succeed in achieving my aim of fulfilling what I believed was the Guardian’s guidance.
Now for a brief digression, which apart from its relevance to me is significant with regard to Bahá’í law. A little while before leaving Egypt my relationship with my future wife Laila had reached the stage of acceptance by the parents on both sides. Our unofficial engagement became well known within the community, but I had assumed that because we had notified the Local Spiritual Assembly of Cairo officially, the stipulated maximum period of ninety-five days between the start of the engagement and the date of marriage did not apply. I was wrong. The National Spiritual Assembly of Egypt informed me that the engagement, being so widely publicised, amounted to an official announcement; the ninety-five days would have to be observed or the engagement annulled. Such a step in our Eastern tradition is a serious matter, indicating either serious disagreement or a rejection by either party, the mere hint of which would be especially devastating for the girl; no honourable prospective groom would allow it. The ninety-five day period was coming to an end, and I had no job, no place of abode of my own, and no immediate prospect for a solution, so I prayed fervently, day and night, and things worked out in the end. The Asian flu of 1957 put many of the handful of doctors in the Sudan to the sick list, and the shortage forced the Health Authorities to wave the strict requirements, and I was offered a job.
My beautiful princess fiancée and I were duly married in a ceremony conducted by the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Khartoum, a simple wedding with all the friends invited, and the usual photo session. The following day we took the train to my place of work and Laila was thrilled to see that her honeymoon had begun with a ride from the station to our home in the only form of transport available to us, the hospital ambulance van.
Of course we had to have a civil marriage ceremony to legalise our marriage. The law included an arrangement for the marriage of non-Mohammedans, much as Muslims had their marriages under Sharia law. We made our application and met the registrar, who turned out to be the Governor of Khartoum. He was a venerable, avuncular and kind man, but said he had no authority to adjudicate on a person’s religion when someone’s names were so obviously Muslim – and he knew nothing of the Bahá’í Faith. The decision lay with the Grand Qadi (Mufti) of Sudan, from whom we had to obtain a verdict or fatwa that Bahá’ís were not Muslims.
By dint of great effort we managed to meet the Grand Qadi. During our conversation he suddenly realised that I was “that Egyptian doctor who saved the life of my nephew”, and announced with gratitude, “I am prepared to grant you any wish you ask of me”. In recalling the case of the sick boy, I remembered I had stubbornly defended my diagnosis of an early appendicitis, in the face of the unanimous opposition of many more-experienced doctors, including that of the Chief Surgeon of the Sudanese Government! My father was visiting us at the time and helped draft the memorandum for the Grand Qadi, deftly including the assertion that the Bahá’í Faith was totally separate from all other religions, including Islam, and that Bahá’ís could have names that would normally be considered Muslim or Christian, which should in no way identify them with these religions if they indicated that they were Bahá’ís.
The Grand Qadi duly signed and sealed the document and wished us a very happy marriage. The Governor in turn arranged a new appointment, conducted the marriage ceremony and handed us the certificate as Non-Mohammedans. The signed document and the marriage certificate were duly posted to the presiding International Bahá’í Council, a development hailed as a victory in reinforcing the independence of the faith in another Islamic country. Ours was the first marriage of Bahá’ís in the Sudan to be certified under the Non-Mohammedan statute, and many Bahá’í couples followed our route to become married.
To our complete surprise, joy and delight, our marriage certificate is displayed in the Mansion at Bahjí, and I have felt overwhelmed to gaze upon it myself twice during pilgrimage.
Where is that virgin territory in Africa?
During one of the periodic visits of the Provincial Public Health Inspector, my request to be transferred to south of Sudan was granted, and my posting was in Rombek. The journey included a nine-day riverboat trip, rough riding in a truck and much sighting of jungle animals in the wild. Rombek was known at that time as the Apple of the South, and the heart of the Dinka tribe, the largest single tribe in Africa. I was the only doctor there, covering a vast area and serving approximately a third of a million people. Conditions were very basic, and much worse in the hinterland. There was no electricity and no running water but we were lucky to have our own well and we hired a servant who cleaned the house, hand-washed the clothes and cooked on a stove or wood burner.
Opening the South to the Faith
A few months after our arrival, the local school, closed for about two years, was re-opened, and soon all the town’s students came to us. At the same time my father-in-law, Mr Ali Ruhi, a Sudan Government secondary school mathematics teacher, was transferred to Rombek. He and my mother-in-law came to live with us. Our house was historically linked with the Faith. About three years earlier, a Bahá’í doctor, Hussein Gollestaneh, had qualified in my medical school, been given a post in Rombek, and had lived in our house. It was as if Bahá’u’lláh had earmarked Rombek for His blessings. Dr. Gollestaneh did not stay long, and left without having had the opportunity to open up the area to the Faith; I surmised that Bahá’u’lláh decided to send a second arrow in that direction, and before we could possibly fail, unleashed a third one, my in-laws. So we were there in strength, spiritually, morally, socially, numerically and professionally.
We succeeded in attracting some young souls to the Faith, and although unable to form a local Assembly, we felt at the time when both my father-in-law and myself were subsequently transferred from Rombek (to Khartoum in his case, and Darfur in mine) that we had received at least some of the blessings of Bahá’u’lláh.
One day Leila and I were summoned to the presence of the Assistant Director of the Ministry of Health. He said we had been seen, along with my father-in-law, to be proselytising for the Bahá’í faith, which was forbidden. State Security had been instructed to expel us from the country within twenty-four hours, but he had intervened on our behalf, and begged us not to mention the Bahá’í faith again. I answered that I was sorry I could not make such a promise; on being asked for religion I would certainly say Bahá’í. “Well, OK, but don’t say anything more”, he said, but I could not promise even that. If asked about the Bahá’í Faith I should give at least minimal information. He accepted my standpoint, I remained in Sudan and we remained friends.
I was then posted to the remote Nubian town of Talodi in the north of Darfur. Teaching the inhabitants was arduous; they had their own language and were not Arabic-speaking. I knew however that one of the goals of the Ten Year Plan was the translating of Baha’i literature into a selection of languages that included Nubian. A local young school teacher who could speak a little English and some Arabic worked with me to create a Nubian edition of a Baha’i pamphlet, a copy of which I sent to the Baha’i World Centre.
I had reached a stage where I wanted to go to Britain to pursue my ambition to train and qualify as a surgeon. I applied to the Egyptian Consulate in Khartoum to add the UK and Ireland to the countries allowed on my passport after having applied for a course in Dublin for the Primary FRCS or Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons. I then waited and waited, during which period I was posted to El Jeneina, a town bordering on Chad, where I befriended the Sultan and he learned of the Faith. He was a large, urbane, kindly man, and carried tremendous local prestige, respect and authority within the framework of the State. One day we heard that El-Jeneina was to have a semi-official visit by an Egyptian cleric from Al-Azhar, the renowned Muslim University in Cairo, one of the oldest in the world, and the focal point for Sunni Islam worldwide.
What surprised me most at the end of his visit was when he quietly said “Dr. Nabil, you applied for the addition of the UK and Ireland to your passport”. I said I had. He then went on in a quiet but authoritative manner “You will receive your passport duly endorsed”. I thanked him but was intrigued. The passport arrived within a few days, but how? I puzzled over the matter for a while, but concluded that the Cleric’s visit to El-Jeneina was part of Egypt’s policy at that time of sending innocently detached and unlikely persons to visit many places under one guise or another, discreetly gathering intelligence. Apparently what he had learned about ‘the Egyptian doctor’ had gained his approval.
Shortly after El-Jeneina the Ministry of Health allowed me to be transferred to Khartoum, which would give me a period to prepare myself to leave Sudan for Britain. There was a fairly active Bahá’í community in the north of the city and the LSA decided to purchase land for the country’s first Haziratu’l Quds. A piece of land was found and the friends, as usual, contributed with all they had, including jewellery and any other easily-disposable asset. Two friends, myself and a man who accommodated me initially, Mr Rashad El Hamamsy, were assigned to register the land after payment to the vendor. The registry officer became stuck at our wish for the application to be registered in the name of the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Khartoum North. “The bye-laws do not permit that” he said. As we were discussing the issue, another officer came in, whom by chance I had dealt with medically and had befriended in the process. He greeted me warmly, and offered to help. He turned out to be the head of the registry office, and when told our problem, turned to the registry officer and said: “Go ahead with the registration as requested”. He evidently had the authority to be flexible with bye-laws and our land was duly registered, a victory for the recognition of the Faith as legitimately entitled to own property. The Haziratu’l Quds was duly built and is in use to this day.
The land registration in the name of the Local Spiritual Assembly was a significant step, not only because it established legal ownership of the land, but more importantly because it was the closest the LSA could get to the procedure of incorporation as understood in many countries, especially in the West. The status of incorporation was greatly favoured by the Guardian and recommended in his guidance and Ten Year Plan as a step to be achieved as soon as possible.
The UK and beyond
Laila and I reached London two days before the opening of the 1963 World Congress. Having never lived within a Bahá’í group of more than a handful or so, we suddenly felt the full immensity and value of the worldwide Bahá’í community. It was overwhelming, as was the historic election of the first Universal House of Justice. After the euphoria of the Congress, we faced the real world. We had only a few pounds sterling, and home was a simple, tight bed-sitter in Sussex Gardens, West London. Laila worked as a nursing auxiliary and I signed up to a three-month course at the Royal College of Surgeons for the first part of the FRCS, half way through which I sat the examination and, to my surprise, passed. We were delighted when the College management then refunded half the course fee! To my mind it was Bahá’u’lláh’s blessings to us, as passing the exam meant I was able to apply for a decent job in an NHS hospital, earning money and gaining the required training programme for the final FRCS.
Opportunity to fulfil a goal for England
At that stage in our lives it was difficult for both of us to look at pioneering goals in the UK. Laila had started her training for the UK midwifery qualification and I took a few short-term training jobs and worked through a series of medical examinations in order to become British-qualified. About a year later I became a registrar in general surgery in Aylesbury, and we were able to fulfil the goal of opening Buckinghamshire to the Faith.
I served in three hospitals: Tindal General (now no more), the Royal Buckinghamshire Hospital, and Stoke Mandeville. I was the first ever Egyptian-born graduate surgical registrar in that group. We lived in a cottage within the grounds of Tindal Hospital, and had our first baby, our daughter May, in 1965. Our son Hany, arriving in 1966, scored a first by being born in the Royal Air force Hospital, Halton, the first non-British baby to be born there.
We had marvellous opportunities to set up public meetings attended by such notables as John Long, John Wade, Betty Reed, Betty Goode and other stalwart Bahá’ís of the early British community. It was a very exciting time, characterised for example by large meetings and feasts at Rutland Gate, some of which, being not too far away, we were able to attend. It is difficult to imagine there being only one LSA for the whole of London at that time. In Aylesbury we managed to locate a Bahá’í lady of long standing who had lost touch with the Bahá’ís. I believe she was Mrs. Pauline Forster, who as a young woman had attended Lady Blomfield’s soirees in the 1920s. She was very pleased that we ‘found’ her; although too frail to participate actively in events, she gladly agreed to occasional meetings in her house. I passed my final FRCS while in Aylesbury, so Laila and I had the triple blessings of serving a goal of the Faith, my becoming a qualified surgeon, and Laila having our two babies, all in twenty-eight months. When we had to leave the town, another Bahá’í family had taken up residence, so the goal stayed open and remains a thriving community.
Further services in my capacity as a surgeon
I was now a qualified surgeon and our distant relative, Dr. Jamal Jarrah had offered me a job in his new hospital in Libya, serving the urgent needs of the newly-arrived multinational oil companies. But the Universal House of Justice wanted us to go back to southern Africa. However, on another turn of events the House gave us the go ahead for Libya. With our two children aged four and five, we reached Tripoli on 23rd. August 1969. Dr. Jarrah, by then married to my brother’s sister-in-law (the second daughter of almost the first Tunisian Bahá’í, Moustafa Boushousha) housed us in his vast property within a small ranch, until we could find a suitable place of our own.
In one of my musings with Dr Jarrah, I suggested very strongly that Libya was ready for a coup and regime change. Literally three days later it happened. Soon many soldier casualties were arriving at our hospital. We treated all equally, regardless of rank. I was meticulous in dealing with each according to surgical need and urgency. Thankfully the top members of the junta, many of them Colonel Gaddafi’s relatives, informed me that they had been secretly observing my actions and realised with approval how much I adhered to professional integrity and dedicated care, and did not discriminate on grounds of rank.
Later I was transferred to Tripoli Central Hospital and became head of the surgical department of the Base Military Hospital. I was allowed great privileges there, including being allowed to keep my private practice in addition to my military-hospital work. I had many encounters with Col. Gaddafi and his entourage as well as with many other dignitaries, including President Sadat of Egypt and Idi Amin of Uganda. I enjoyed life in Tripoli for a while but then things started to turn sour in the country as a whole, and I felt I could no longer serve the Faith there, nor did I wish my children to grow up in such an unsettled environment. We left Libya on 30th December 1973, returning to Southampton, where we had our house.
Where next ?
While financially secure for the time being, I could not rest on my laurels, and began looking for another opportunity to further my career while hopefully being of service to the Faith.
I had been contacted by the Ministry of Overseas Development, and attended orientation sessions in various Foreign & Commonwealth Desks for posts in far off places such as the Solomon Islands, the New Hebrides, and even the Falkland Islands. My thoughts were centred however on the Middle East, Africa, and perhaps the USA or Canada, so when a firm offer came of post of surgeon for the Duchess of Kent Hospital in the State of Sabah (then considered a part of so-called East Malaysia) I was intrigued. Laila agreed that the indications were positive and we decided that I should go there on my own at first; only if I found conditions suitable would she and the children join me. I prayed to Bahá’u’lláh to guide me once I was in Sabah regarding whether there would be any merit in staying, at least for the duration of the contract.
My initial short stay in Kota Kinabalu, the capital, was most useful and reassuring. The senior Health Officer was helpful and the spirit of the local Bahá’ís very uplifting, such that when I left for Sandakan I had a positive attitude to the whole adventure, reinforced by an extremely warm welcome from the hospital staff and a feeling that the Bahá’ís of Sandakan had seen me as a boost to their flagging spirits. In an uncanny repetition of my time in Rombek, when I had found myself in a house once occupied by Baha’i doctor Hussein Gollestaneh and doing the same job as him, the pattern was being repeated. I was now living in a house formerly occupied by lifetime servant of Baha’u’llah Dr. John Fozdar, who had been a surgeon at the same hospital!
I had to fill those renowned shoes of his, both in my work and in dealing with the Bahá’í community. He had introduced the Faith to Sandakan and left about twelve years before. The Bahá’í community had shrunk to just a few families of Chinese origin, with poor foreign language skills. They were small shopkeepers with few resources and limited understanding of the nuances of the Faith but they were ‘good’ Bahá’ís in a simplistic sense. One or two families had children who were mere infants when Dr Fozdar left. They did not imbibe his wisdom or knowledge for long enough, so that though enthusiastic and youthful in their attitude, they needed deepening. Dr Fozdar’s memory was so lovingly and reverently recalled to me even by the local people of Sandakan, such that everything I did that they deemed worthy prompted them to recount Dr Fozdar’s achievements. I was most encouraged to see them associate my attitude with that of John because we were both Bahá’ís.
I served the people of Sandakan to the best of my ability, and developed excellent relations with the people. I felt confident as a surgeon and in spite of very basic staffing and equipment, managed to raise the level of surgical procedures, both in quantity and complexity. In the years between Dr. Fozdar’s departure and my arrival there had been a period when a surgeon from another country, also trained in Britain, had held the post. He had left a negative impression and bad memories with the people and hospital staff, so when they heard that someone with the surname Mustapha was coming, unknown to me they felt great trepidation. Fortunately, within a couple of days I was able to dispel their fears. I felt that Bahá’u’lláh had infused in me an attitude that quickly turned their misgivings to admiration and an attitude of goodwill and cooperation; it also had an effect on the Bahá’í community, who once again felt ready to proclaim their Bahá’í identity more freely, as well as their Bahá’í association with Dr Fozdar.
To add to my Bahá’í role, I was privileged to be appointed to the role of Auxiliary Board member, which was quite testing in that I was unable to travel because of my essential presence and total responsibility for the surgical needs at the hospital, but I did manage to make a few visits to Kota Kinabalu and to Tawau, which had become a thriving city after the discovery of oil locally beneath the sea bed. I also attended a teaching conference in Port Dickson, Peninsular Malaysia, which was honoured with the presence of Hands of the Cause of God Dr. Rahmatu’lláh Muhájir, and Mr Collis Featherstone and his wife Madge.
At this point I wish to record a nerve-racking event in my medical history when the Universal House of Justice asked me to perform an operation on one of the Hands of the Cause of God, at which prospect I nearly fainted. The procedure itself was one I could normally do blindfold; it was not at all life-threatening or dangerous in any way, but I would rather the ground had opened and swallowed me up than have undertaken such a task. Needless to say, all went well but I don’t think I have ever prayed so fervently in my life!
In July 1974, with our children happily installed in boarding school in England, Laila joined me in Malaysia and we had a wonderful life up to July 1977. The children would come to visit us three times a year via Singapore on the so-called ‘lollipop flights’ that brought all the children of the expatriate community to spend Christmas, Easter and summer holidays with their parents. We, the parents, would prepare all the entertainment and activities in anticipation. We even staged pantomimes, with all the professionals – bankers and business people – taking part. My darker complexion made me a natural ‘Aladdin’. We also started to develop the Bahá’í activities and rejuvenate the community. Local youth became really productive, and several were attracted to the Faith, and I felt our coming to Sandakan had been a blessing for us all.
With about six months of my contract left to run, Laila and I felt we needed to be more together as a family with our children, yet bear in mind the state of the Bahá’í community we would leave behind if we did not return. I felt that although the younger generation was still active, without some deepening of the parents’ generation the youth activity might fade, so I started holding weekly ‘intimate’ evening meetings. Mindful of the fondness of the Chinese for storytelling, with one of the young English speaking friends as an interpreter I conducted storytelling sessions. We presented insights into the history of the Faith, about which they knew virtually nothing, and described the nuances and circumstances surrounding events. I had to cover as clearly as I was able the situation in such diverse countries as Persia, Baghdad, Turkey and Palestine, parts of the world which were a mystery to them. I tried to put events within context and give comparable descriptions if such things had happened in, say, Sabah – or China.
I seemed to have managed to enhance their intuitive faith and belief in Bahá’u’lláh with a little more substance to stimulate their minds, the way their hearts had been previously excited in their acceptance of the Faith. When we left, I felt at least reassured I had done my best, and if we were to return, would be able to pursue my efforts according to local needs. In the event, we decided not to go back to Malaysia, but along the following years we have been pleased to receive regular news of the progress of the faith there. We are still in touch with the Sandakan Baha’is and indeed we made what we called a loyalty visit to them thirty years after we had left. The progress we saw there was nothing short of miraculous.
Re-settlement in UK
Although extremely happy in Sandakan, and with the air tickets and contracts for a second tour in hand, Laila and I had to search our inner feelings as to whether we could justify leaving our children in boarding schools at such a critical age. We reached the conclusion that we should re-settle in the UK and I took a job that started in Liverpool. For two years we savoured the high spiritual and effective activity of the Merseyside Bahá’ís. Then I was transferred to the Headquarters of the Artificial Limb Service in Roehampton in London, where I remained for about 10 years. This was a period of intense oppression of the Bahá’ís in Egypt, and we found that our presence in London offered us opportunities to play a supportive role, especially in that we were able to spend periods in Egypt with the community we know very well.
Engagement in Community work: Elmbridge Multifaith Forum (EMF)
On my retirement, we moved to Hinchley Wood in Esher, Surrey, and we joined a Ruhi 1 study group. We finished that book and were looking for an activity that punctuates the study. That was the time when the clouds of the (second Iraq) war were gathering. We thought that as a group we could arrange a meeting at the Civic Centre and invite the Mayor of Elmbridge and representatives of some religions to speak on the subject of “Peace and World Unity”. That was in 2003. The response was overwhelming. More importantly, there was a unanimous clamour for the process not to end there. Two meetings later Elmbridge Multifaith was born, officially declared as such by the then Mayor. Little did we imagine how many people would eventually join EMF, and what opportunities this organisation would open up. Supported by some Bahá’ís and enthusiastic members of other religions, we found it an excellent medium to promulgate not only the Bahá’í principles, but indeed the value of religion in general.
We demonstrated that through the spirit of people united in their love of religion, and dropping or at least suspending any prejudice, we could serve the community and extend our ethos to other statutory and non statutory agencies. The reputation of EMF has grown, and is still growing.
Just as importantly, we found that we learned much about other religions through our visits to their places of worship and, of course, they learned about our Faith too. We are still “plodding” on, but feel gratified at achieving something that will probably outlast us, and will be a continuous source of inspiration to all.
Modest literary achievements
It is probably appropriate to mention that during this last phase I managed to translate the compilation of “Stories of Bahá’u’lláh” into Arabic as well as to translate Hussein Danesh’s book: “Psychology of Spirituality”. This was snapped up by the second biggest publishing company in Egypt, and is available to Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’ís. I also managed to publish my book “Economics, the Historical, Religious and Contemporary Perspectives” in English. Also, I have been given a 10 minute slot on a local web based radio station, under the title: “Viewpoint” every Sunday morning. It is an opportunity to publicise our principles and my thoughts, and it has been going on with no interruption for the past three years. A significant achievement, mainly resulting from my local broadcasts, was the BBC World Service’s broadcast “Something Understood” programme in March 2011, which I put together as a guest presenter, exploring the idea that “the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens”. It was challenging but received acclaim from far and wide.
Your prayers are my strength.