Denise Samari with her husband Sohrab

I was born on the 10th of February 1963, the youngest child of four children. It was one of the coldest winters ever recorded, and snow had lain on the ground for months when my mother brought me home from Middlesex hospital to our home in Finchley, North London. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic. My father was half Irish; his mother, my grandmother converted to Catholicism initially to provide unity in the family but she became deeply devout and the gentle way she lived her life and related to others was an inspiration to me. My mother was also a convert to Catholicism. Brought up in a family indifferent to religion, she had gone on her own search in her teens, trying all the branches of Christianity until she found one that touched her the most deeply; that was also where she met my father. I had a happy childhood and am grateful to my parents for bringing me up with an idea of there being a higher power that influenced our lives.   Most of the time I enjoyed attending mass with the family, singing hymns, watching the spectacle of ritual and feeling the specialness of it all, but also sometimes it felt like a boring duty.  Questions came up for me at the age of seven, the time I had to make my first Holy Communion. In order to be ready to receive the divine host we had to make our first confession, the confessing of one’s sins being an important part of being pure enough to partake of the body of Christ. My friends and I sat terrified and shaking in the hallway outside of the head teacher’s office whilst the priest called us in one by one. I had no idea what I was going to say; I tried so hard to think of some sins but couldn’t think of any. One of the livelier boys came out smiling, ‘What did you say’ we asked him, thinking it must be easy for him, he was one of the naughtiest boys in the school. “Oh it was simple”, he replied, “I just made something up”.

With trepidation I went in next and managed to cobble together a story about stealing my brother’s toys. The feeling of having been forced into committing the sin of lying in order to confess my so-called sins to a priest never really left me. I avoided confession from then on and that began my questioning attitude into the role of priests. I began to feel that a priest was a human being just like me or anyone else and had no right to be able to absolve me of sin. My personal relationship with God did not change and prayer remained a constant in my life throughout my childhood. When I was fourteen I managed to persuade my parents that I no longer wished to attend mass, although I would still attend occasionally and on feast days. During one of these visits back to mass I picked up some magazines in the church porch. I found them fascinating, they were about an organisation called ‘Opus Dei’ and in particular about a priest called ‘Monsignor Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas. This priest did a lot of work for the poor, he had died a few years previously and people were praying for him to intercede on their behalf. For example, they would pray for healing or a family member to get a job. In many cases their wishes were fulfilled and these were recorded as miracles by the Vatican. I think a certain number of miracles attributed to someone who has led a holy life can elevate their station to sainthood. At this time, I wanted very much to believe in God but I had many doubts. I thought I would put God to the test by praying to Monsignor for my own miracle.

 

For many years my grandmother on my mother’s side had been ill with a type of Parkinson’s Disease, her mobility was severely restricted and her lively personality completely subdued. Once a great conversationalist, she was reduced to hardly uttering a word. I prayed long and hard on my knees in my bedroom for her healing. Two weeks after I started this, she went into a home for some respite while my grandfather went away for a few days’ rest. During the time she was in the home a doctor decided she was on the wrong kind of medication and put her on a completely different regime. She came out of the home having completely regained her speech; in fact she didn’t stop talking. It was as if she was making up for lost time. It was unexpected and the whole family were delighted. She never made a full recovery but this to me was a sign….God existed!

By this time, I was attending a large overcrowded Catholic comprehensive school. There was a high turnover of teachers and morale at the school was low. I did not feel encouraged or appreciated at this school and couldn’t wait to leave. When I was sixteen I thought the best way to do this was to attend a further education college to study child care.

During my first year in college, away from the narrow constraints of the belief system I was surrounded with in school, I began to feel the first stirrings of becoming spiritually aware. During this time one of my sisters had become a Sanyassin, a follower of the Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. It was 1979 and the streets of London were awash with happy followers in bright orange clothes and beads with the Guru’s picture on, swinging around their necks. My sister, who was eight years older than me, was on a journey and had found deep meaning in her life. I started to read some of Bhagwan’s books and became very moved by his writings. There was much advice on accepting oneself, creativity, living in the moment, problem-solving, loving and laughing. I felt I was starting to understand who I really was and what it meant to be human. I started to attend Sufi dancing at the Sanyassin centre in Chalk Farm. I loved the dancing, the giving up of myself in a whirl of music and abandon. The people felt real and supportive and seemed to epitomise a completely different way of living to the one I had grown up with. I was experiencing a deep sense of connection with what felt like my soul. In short I was falling in love with life/love/God in a vital and pulsing way quite unlike anything I had experienced in Church or anywhere else. It felt real, tangible and beautiful, as though I had been plugged into an electric current that was always there before but I hadn’t been able to understand or access it. I felt like a flower opening up and realising there is a thing called sunshine. During those heady times I started experimenting with wearing orange clothes and penned a letter to Bhagwan asking for his permission to become a Sanyassin. My sister left for India to join the Ashram. I never sent the letter and I gradually came down from my spiritual high and looked around me. I began to feel that although I was and remain grateful for this opportunity which had opened my inner eye, there was still something missing.

I started noticing current events and world news and thought that there had to be something bigger, something that encompassed all the world’s beliefs. My spiritual understanding was growing but my awareness of the world’s needs was too. Surely God wouldn’t abandon the world. On 6th July, 1980, I wrote in my diary ‘I was almost a Sanyassin and I lost it, I can never be one now. God cannot have wanted it of me. But what does he want me to do, I am lost and blank. I don’t understand.’ My father gave me a Good News bible which I began to read avidly. I tried going to mass again but still couldn’t find any answers to my questions. I remembered how prayer to the Monsignor had worked before so I got down on my knees and prayed every day to be led to the right path.

Then one day I came across the beautiful lines from the Bahá’í Writings… ‘At every step, aid from the Invisible Realm will attend him and the heat of his search will grow.’ (Seven Valleys, Bahá’u’lláh)

It’s amazing to me now, when I look back, to realise that the faith wasn’t very far away from me, because family members had become Bahá’í’s.   My uncle, Brian East, who had emigrated to Canada, married a Bahá’í and became one himself. On 9th of August 1980 I met my cousin Clifford East and his fiancée Dawn for the first time when they came to visit family in England. We were all seventeen years old and I had the task of showing these Canadian visitors around in London. I may have heard the name ‘Bahá’í’ with reference to my uncle in the past but no one seemed to know what it meant. He had given strict instructions to his son and his newly declared fiancée not to mention the faith to any of our family as we were devout Catholics and he didn’t want to upset us. They tried their best to adhere to this rule but their enthusiasm to teach and my constant questioning soon changed their minds. I took them to all the tourist spots and they took me to the Bahá’í National Office in Rutland Gate for a youth talk, which I still remember was a slide show on travel teaching in Wales. Towards the end of the visit they gave me some leaflets about the faith. I remember rushing up to my room to digest them in private. In one of them was a very short account of Mulla Husayn meeting the Báb. As I read it I felt a great stirring in my heart, a connection with Mulla Husayn’s searching, for was this not what I was trying to do too? In that incredible moment I felt the veils lifting from my sight. This was what I had been searching for and I had been led to it. I still didn’t know much about the faith but that would come. A calmness and acceptance flooded me.

That should have been the end of this story but unfortunately it isn’t, I had to make many mistakes and lots of poor choices until I finally signed my declaration card three years later.

With my cousins back in Canada, I was on my own with no Bahá’í contacts and very concerned with what my parents would say. I already felt their sadness that one daughter had left the fold, and wasn’t sure whether I could face my father’s displeasure. I wrote to the National Office for more information. They sent me a nice letter back with a copy of the book ‘Bahá’u’lláh and the new Era’ and the phone number of the secretary of the Spiritual Assembly in Barnet. If the internet had been around then, it would have been simple to have sent an impersonal email inquiring into events etc., but as it was, the thought of my using the phone in the hall with my parents listening to every word I said absolutely paralysed me.

I decided to fall back on my previously foolproof method, praying. This time I prayed to be led to some Bahá’ís. It was around the time of the Iranian revolution and Barnet College was full of Iranian students. One day whilst sitting in the crowded canteen with a friend who had no interest in my ‘spiritual stuff’, I saw an Iranian boy sitting at a table across from me hand over ‘Bahá’u’lláh and the new Era’ to another person. I should have jumped up, rushed over and talked to them but I remained in my seat, overcome with the shyness I have had to battle all my life but which at age seventeen was particularly bad. Those who have experienced it will know it as an affliction that renders a person speechless. What powers above had moved, worked and engineered that situation to occur at that time and place as a result of my prayers, only for this inadequate seeker to be struck dumb!

I finally plucked up the courage to speak to my mother about wanting to be a Bahá’í. She was supportive but wanted me to wait until I was eighteen or more. There followed two and a half years where I never forgot the Faith, would read and re-read Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era but I was a teenager with no Bahá’ís around me for guidance and I stupidly got sucked into the hedonism and excesses that can accompany that age group.

Fast forward to the spring of 1983 and I was working in a nursery centre in West Kilburn, enjoying being in a very multicultural part of London. I had come out of what I had thought was an amazing relationship but which in reality was very stifling. After the initial grief of breaking up, I slowly started to come alive, a mist was lifting and I felt happy and optimistic once more. I felt a strong desire to investigate the Bahá’í faith more thoroughly. I had tickets to attend the festival of Mind, Body and Spirit at Wembley Stadium. I had been before and loved browsing the diverse and sometimes whacky stalls offering everything from Greek Orthodox liturgy to crystal healing. Suddenly I saw a stall with ‘Bahá’í Faith’ in large letters. I was drawn like a moth to a candle. There was absolutely no way I was going to let this go now. I chatted to a lovely young man who gave me leaflets and invited me to the regular Thursday evening talks at the Bahá’í Centre.

The following Thursday as I travelled down on the tube, I knew that my life was changing. I wanted order, I was hungry for knowledge and thirsty for answers. At last Bahá’ís came into my life. I met a wonderful soul called Nora Evans, who lived not far from where I worked. I started to go to her house for meals on Thursdays and then go in her car with her husband, Basil, to the Bahá’í Centre for the firesides. I bought a prayer book and the book Bahá’í World Faith and revelled in being able to read the writings and say the revealed prayers at last. I spent a few weeks away that summer and when I returned, I resumed my weekly visits to the Bahá’í Centre. I knew that I wanted to officially become a Bahá’í. I had recognised Bahá’u’lláh three years previously and was now desperate to not have it fall through my fingers again. I was perplexed as to how to go about it and no one ever asked me. I knew there was some kind of card you had to sign, so one Thursday evening after the talk I went upstairs to the book shop where a lovely girl called Mahin was working and asked her for one of the cards. She looked startled but gave me one which I immediately signed with a huge sense of relief. At last I had done it, no more searching, no more trying to live a life without Bahá’u’lláh in it, I was home! I went downstairs and calmly told Nora what I had done, quite unprepared for her reaction. The room burst into applause followed by lots of hugging and congratulations and Mary Hardy, the secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly, came downstairs and warmly welcomed me to the Bahá’í faith. I had a mixed response from friends and family but the most encouraging was from my dear Nanny Sullivan. She was a very spiritually aware lady and we had lots of discussions about the faith, sharing prayers and inspiration over cups of tea and her well-loved cheese straws and jam tarts.

I still hadn’t met the friends in my area, but soon became part of the beautiful, largely Persian community of Barnet. I was lucky enough to attend youth deepenings with Mr John Wade who had served in the Holy Land for many years. Peter Hulme had also recently declared and was running deepening classes. Azita and Foad Saberian were very good to me, driving me to feasts and gatherings.   One person whom I will never forget and who was to have a big influence in guiding and deepening me was dear Mr Salah Jarrah, the first custodian of the Guardian’s Resting Place. Salah had been in the service of the Guardian and a pioneer in Africa. When Salah learnt I was a new Bahá’í, he took me under his wing and nurtured my love for the faith. He gave me my first ever picture of Abdul-Bahá and the greatest name, explaining that every Bahá’í needed to have these in their homes. I would visit him many times at the Guardian’s Resting Place, and we would go to his small home in Arnos Grove where he cooked simple meals of rice, cabbage with garlic and baked beans. He explained so much about the Faith to me and encouraged me to go on pilgrimage. Salah had a talent for reading coffee cups and one day he read mine. He told me that he saw me drowning in a lake but an old man who looked very holy, like a priest, was sitting in the middle of the lake praying and this was saving me from drowning. This period of drowning had happened about two or three years previously but I was thankfully saved by this man. As I pondered this I realised that this could have been the Monsignor that I had prayed to and I knew I had literally had been drowning during those years when I was away from the faith.

During this time, I met a lovely Bahá’í friend from Ghana, Christine Asare. Another person who helped me a lot in those early days was Said u’llah Arjomand who drove me to firesides and talks in various parts of London and helped me to get to know the different communities.

I attended a youth school at Charlbury youth hostel that winter which offered more opportunity for furthering my understanding of the faith.

I met Angelika Pertl at the Guardian’s Resting Place, a German au pair for a Bahá’í family in Bromley. We hit it off straight away and together we made a trip following Abdul-Bahá’s footsteps in the United Kingdom. We made a beautiful slide show of all the places where He stayed and gave talks.   We showed this in our two month travel teaching trip around Europe which culminated in a week long summer school in Finland in 1984. This was my first summer school and will always be indelibly linked with joy on my memory.

From August – December 1984 I went to live with my relatives in Canada and attended my first International Bahá’í youth conference in London, Ontario with my cousin Steve East. Jack Lenz and Doug Cameron had just released their video ‘Mona and the children’ and were performing ‘live’ at the conference. It was an exciting and dynamic time and I loved the experience of being amongst youth from all over the world.

On my return to Barnet community I went to a feast where I met Mr Taherzadeh who, representing the Universal House of Justice, had come to London to encourage Persian Bahá’ís to pioneer to other parts of the United Kingdom. His talk was kindly translated for me. I hadn’t realised that the talk was mainly directed at the Persians and I left with a deep desire to pioneer out of London. In those days pioneering meant helping an area have an assembly.

With Salah’s encouragement I made my first pilgrimage in the spring of 1985 and was allowed to stay for an extra three days for Angelika’s wedding, who was by then working at the World Centre. The pilgrimage was an unbelievable experience and I had the joy of meeting and listening to Hands of the Cause Rúhíyyih Khánum and Mr Furutan. Rúhíyyih Khánum and Mr Ali Nakhjavani were witnesses at Angelika’s wedding to Kevin Brown.

Whilst in the Shrines, I prayed to find where I could be a pioneer. On my pilgrimage I met Tish and Bill Williams with their son Gawain and they talked to me about the possibility of pioneering to Wales. So without any consultation with my parents or my Local Spiritual Assembly, I found myself on April 21st, 1985, in the village of Dyffryn Ardudwy, in the home of dear Ena Coulson, forming the Spiritual Assembly of Merriyonedd by becoming its ninth member. I was twenty-two years old. A clear image comes to my mind from that time of being together with the other members of the assembly on the 1st day of Ridván in Ena’s cosy sitting room, the sound of new-born lambs bleating in the field outside her window.

I fell in love with the dramatic landscape of North Wales and spent my time on solitary walks and trying to find a job. But I learnt that pioneering was an isolating experience and it was a test of reliance on Bahá’u’lláh. There was no institute process in place then and most of the time I felt unsure of what I was supposed to be doing other than attending Assembly meetings. The members all lived great distances from one another and I had to rely on public transport which I soon realised in a rural area was not as efficient as London. I left a city where it was very easy to find work and had come to a place that to work with children again would mean being fluent in Welsh. After a couple of months of living with Ena, one of her neighbours reported to the council that she had a lodger. Although I was her guest and as Ena was elderly this would have meant her losing her housing benefit. I moved to a youth hostel briefly and then to another Welsh lady with two Scottie dogs for a couple more months. An opportunity came about to live with a young couple in the former slate mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. The mother of the girl had recently become a Bahá’í. The whole family were very kind and warm towards me; nevertheless I suffered from loneliness. When I could I would attend meetings in Joy Behi’s home in Penmaenmawr, often staying over because of the transport situation. At a unit convention I met Sohrab Samari who was a pioneer in Colwyn Bay. He had made a very beautiful and artistic exhibition on the Bahá’í faith which was placed in libraries in the area. His sister and brother in law, Badieh and Rostam Behi were and still are pioneers in Pwlhelli on the Llyn Peninsular. When we decided to get married we consulted with the National Teaching committee about where we should live as one of the areas would lose its assembly as a result of our marriage. They suggested Colwyn bay.

We were married in February 1986 in my parents’ home in London. John Wade officiated at our wedding and Lydia Nazerian and my sister were witnesses. Shortly after our wedding we went on pilgrimage. I hadn’t expected to go again so soon but Sohrab had a nine-day permission to attend with his sister and mother and had asked the Universal House of Justice that I be allowed to go too, which was granted.

On our return from pilgrimage we lived in Colwyn Bay for a few months until the National Teaching Committee said they had made a mistake and asked us to move back to Merionydd. We hired a craft unit in the craft village of Maes Artro in LLanbeder, where Sohrab was able to sell his artwork and cards. It was an unsettled time as we lived in holiday lets and a caravan on a farm for quite a while. Finally, we rented a house in LLanbeder and prepared for the birth of our first child. Nadeem was born in St David’s Hospital, Bangor on the 15th January, 1987. It was a freezing winter and while I was in hospital the pipes burst and flooded our house and we had no home to return to with our new baby. There followed another unsettled period where we lived in a guest house, my parents’ home, in-laws home and a rented flat.

Later on in that year we took our baby son to a youth conference in Manchester where we were privileged to listen to Hand of the Cause Dr Ugo Giachery.

After a year of living with family and in another rented flat, we moved to Penrhyndeudraeth, where our second son Yusef was born on 26th November, 1988.

I tried hard to integrate into village life but I recognised in myself that I was getting depressed with two small children at home and few friends. Maybe it was because I was from a city but I yearned to be somewhere with a bit more going on. We used prayer to help us with searching for our next move, out of Wales, and that led us to Shrewsbury, conveniently situated on the border.

We bought a small house in the town in October 1989. A year after that I went through the pain of losing my mum to cancer. The writings on life after death helped me to cope with that very challenging time. We settled well in Shrewsbury and made lots of friends and I eventually went back to work in playgroups and nurseries. There was one other Bahá’í in the town, Chris Kamutikaoma, but within a few years, more had joined us and we were able to form an assembly. It was wonderful to be joined by Lou and Zoe Turner and Zoe’s daughter Anisa. There were lots of other Bahá’ís scattered across Shropshire, all with young families. For a long time we had children’s classes at the home of Bob and Tina Griffith and later we hired a classroom in a school in Shrewsbury. It was a happy and dynamic community with many active believers in neighbouring Telford too.

In 1996 our third son, Kian, was born and the following year we left Shrewsbury for Saipan, part of the Mariana islands in the Pacific Ocean. Sohrab’s brother and his American wife Sohale, and Jeanne Samari with their children, had pioneered there a couple of years earlier. Sohrab got a job right away in an architect’s office and the children settled into school. We ended up staying for about nine months. I have so many beautiful memories from that time, picking up the local children and taking them to Bahá’í classes, the simple hut that served as a Bahá’í centre, the bonfires and barbecues on holy days. Various family reasons and visa difficulties brought us back to the UK where we resumed our life in Shrewsbury and I returned to work in a school.

In 2004 when the Ruhi courses were being rolled out, Sohrab went to Cranmore Tower (with immense gratitude to Farhad Shabahrami for facilitating) to study them intensively in order that he could become a tutor for our area. We started a neighbourhood children’s class about this time which was very successful. We continue to tutor, hold devotionals, feasts and holy days and are involved in local interfaith activities and SACRE.

As I write this on the last day of the Fast, 2017, thinking back, I can’t believe I have been a Bahá’í for thirty-four years! I am so grateful that my prayers were answered and I was led to the object of my search. However, I have learnt that the search doesn’t end. It carries on as I strive to live a Bahá’í life through the many tests and challenges human existence brings. It has been a huge comfort, during those tests and trials, to have to hand the writings to help and guide me. There are so many words in the glorious ocean of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation that it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand them straight away for you have a life time and beyond to unravel their mysteries.

‘In the ocean he findeth a drop, in a drop he beholdeth the secrets of the sea.’ (Seven Valleys)

So many times I read a quotation and the truth of it shines like a ray of sun on my soul even though I may have read it a hundred times before without taking it in. It’s as if the heart, mind and soul become synchronised at that moment and understanding accompanied by love floods my being.

I still have a fairly shy nature, arising from low expectations during my childhood, but study of the faith has helped me to overcome a lot of that. Feeling confident to teach the faith, and fear of the rejection people have shown towards it, has challenged me in the past, but reaching out with love to people has always been easy and we continue to seek new ways of opening our house to people from all walks of life.

‘That which he hath reserved for Himself are the cities of men’s hearts; and of these the loved ones of Him Who is the Sovereign Truth are, in this Day, as the keys. Please God they may, one and all, be enabled to unlock, through the power of the Most Great Name, the gates of these cities.’ (Bahá’u’lláh)

______________________

Denise Samari

Shropshire, March 2017

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