I became a Bahá’í, that is, I realised that I’d become a believer, early one morning in October 1980 in Saudi Arabia, close to the Yemen border. That declaration of faith – to an equally surprised devout Muslim – changed the arc of my life. I was 27 years old.
I had travelled around Saudi for the previous six weeks as part of a three-person consulting team surveying the Kingdom’s ports to make recommendations for their development.
It was in the initial preparations in Riyadh that I met Ahmad, who was to be our local host – translator, driver and fixer – for our first expedition down the western coastline. His kindly nature and patience struck me from the start. I enjoyed being with him and his English was quite good so conversation was possible. He quickly realised that I was interested in religion. One day while we were out he bought for me an illuminated English translation of the Qur’án.
Mostly I was in the company of my professional colleagues. We flew north to Tabuk then drove further north, up to the Israeli border, near Eilat. Then we started south – much of it on gravel roads – for well over a thousand miles, along the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea coasts, to Jizan and the Farasan Islands, close to Yemen. We were all in awe of the unexpectedly stunning beauty of Saudi – its mountains and fertile oases, even its deserts.
Ahmad was earnest, sincere and a devoted Muslim. Sometimes the two of us would travel alone. In our time together, we must have talked for hours about faith and life.
I saw something compelling about the way daily life would stop at the time for prayer. Travelling once on a straight and quite empty desert road in the late afternoon, we stopped close to a handful of other vehicles. The occupants gathered together on ground next to the road, each with a prayer mat, the burly truck driver next to the smartly-dressed occupant of the limo. As they turned to Mecca for the afternoon prayer, this impromptu congregation created a shared sacred moment, surrounded by sand dunes as far as the eye could see. In small towns too, I saw busy streets transformed for the midday prayer, without fuss or direction, shopkeepers bringing out rugs which together carpeted the street in a mosaic matched by the diversity of those coming together to pray. I was struck by these acts of solidarity woven into the fabric of everyday life.
Mostly we stayed in hotels or inns but we regularly stayed in remote places where we set up camp beds in the open desert of the Hijaz, talking in the evenings around a fire – often about philosophy or religion, and especially Islam – and then slept under the stars. Gazing up into that amazing firmament seemed to stir something deep within all of us.
I had with me a Bahá’í prayer book. I knew that it was risky. At that time, every suitcase was searched on arrival. Just leaving a Marks & Spencer label on an item of clothing could mean immediate deportation. I reasoned that I wasn’t in fact a Bahá’í so it was OK. Which was, from the perspective of my employer, slightly reckless since it risked serious disruption to the project. Thankfully the prayer book passed unnoticed through Customs.
But for all the risks I had taken, my prayer book was in fact as new, almost untouched.
I had come to know something of the Bahá’í Faith two years earlier through knowing Michael and Sarah Richards while working in Malawi. From the little I knew, the Bahá’í teachings seemed quite sensible but it never occurred to me that they were more than interesting. I think I saw religion as make-believe, a prop for people who couldn’t cope.
I had always been searching in a way. As a child, I loved Christmas but remember gazing into the empty street outside our shop – no buses, no cars, time stilled – and wondered how it could be that for millions of Muslims in other parts of the world, it was a normal day. Were they wrong, or were we? In my youth I was concerned to build a better world but my search was so framed by politics and economics – as a young student I briefly enrolled as a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain – that it never seriously occurred to me that religion might have any connection to a happier and more just world.
Six months before travelling to Saudi, I had visited Michael and Sarah Richards, who were then living in Sri Lanka. Michael at that time was not himself a Bahá’í though he was very sympathetic. Sarah arranged for me to meet Bahá’ís and encouraged me to read introductory books. By then I was more open-minded. The pain of the failure of my marriage a year earlier had shaken me. I had come to see that I didn’t know everything. I was less arrogant and, though I would have squirmed to admit it, I was searching. But still I was intensely sceptical, looking for loopholes and inconsistencies. I was an economist and the zeitgeist was free market economics; Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman seemed more capable of steering humanity towards a better world.
When I came back to London, I continued to investigate – wholeheartedly but always expecting to find the catch. I attended firesides and other meetings, mostly through the encouragement of Susie Howard, Sarah’s sister, who was then living in south London. Susie looked beyond my mission to disprove and persevered in quietly nudging me to investigate the Faith further.
By the time I arrived in Riyadh, I had come to an impasse. I struggled with making a commitment, with letting go and crossing a threshold into belief. It seemed like a surrender of reason. My questions and objections had been answered or resolved, but I couldn’t take that final step. I was stuck. I couldn’t believe in God. Either Bahá’u’lláh was an extraordinarily wise man or he was what he claimed to be, the Promised One of all faiths.
The prayer book was an attempt to explore what it felt like to live a Bahá’í life. Prayer was a difficult idea for me. I was christened in the Church of England but never confirmed despite going to a school where we had chapel every morning. My parents had become agnostics. They hated hypocrisy and saw too much of it in organised religion. Our family preferred to believe in reason and debate. We saw religion mostly as part of the problem, not part of any possible solution.
Shortly before visiting Saudi, I had experimented with saying prayers, terrified of the embarrassment should anyone realise. Once there, immersed in a society where faith was the norm, I felt more comfortable to open my prayer book albeit still very discreetly. Out with Ahmad once, when he stopped for his midday prayers, I slipped away behind a dune to recite privately for the first time the Bahá’í short obligatory prayer.
So when Ahmad turned to me on that bright October morning, as he drove the pick-up down a dirt road towards Jizan, and said ‘So, what are you?’, my response was immediate: ‘I’m a Bahá’í’.
I was amazed but I knew that it was true. I had come to be able to pray and so to believe. My intellectual acceptance of the Bahá’í teachings, which had happened much earlier, had matured into an acceptance of the existence of God, which opened the door to recognition of Bahá’u’lláh as His Messenger for today.
Ahmad’s response was equally surprised. ‘What’s that?’, he asked. I gave him a brief explanation, conscious that the Faith was banned in Saudi Arabia. He was sincere though so over the few days we had remaining I told him as much as I knew. He never once asked why I hadn’t become a Muslim. He asked me to send him Bahá’í books after I got back to London, which sadly, in retrospect, I never did. It seemed to be inviting difficulties for Ahmad and his family to send them banned literature, knowing that it would almost certainly be discovered. He was a beautiful soul, and Heaven-sent.
Back in London, I delayed a few days to sign my declaration card and enrol as a member of the UK Bahá’í community until 5th November, which was the birthday of my late maternal grandmother, who had been a central figure in my life. I wanted to connect this new start with her.
I attended my first Bahá’í Holy Day – a celebration of the Birth of Bahá’u’lláh – on 12 November 1980 at the home of Susie Howard in Stockwell, and my first Nineteen Day Feast – at the start of the month of Masá’il (Questions) – at the home of the Amanat family in the community of Hammersmith and Fulham. I will never forget my first fast: cycling through empty streets from Shepherd’s Bush to Baron’s Court as first light was breaking for dawn prayers and breakfast before sunrise at the home of the Alaee family, before going off to work.
Within a year of that conversation with Ahmad, I had found work in Papua New Guinea that allowed me to assist in the development of the local Bahá’í community. Anticipating my departure, in July 1981 I resigned from my job and left London to stay with my parents at their home just outside Northampton. I contacted the local Bahá’í community, who happily arranged an introductory meeting. In those summer weeks, between farewell trips to say goodbye to old friends before my departure – I came to know the Secretary of the Northampton Assembly, Jita Yazdani, quite well. We attended firesides and talks; we travelled to Daventry, which at that time had no Bahá’í community, to donate books to the library, put up posters and say prayers in the parish church. Little did we know that two and a half years later, while on leave from Papua New Guinea in December 1983, we would be back in Daventry – where I would propose. Happily, she accepted and we were married the following June, a few days after the completion of her final exams.
That inspired moment of declaration of my faith to Ahmad has been the pivot of my life. But when did I really become a Bahá’í? That’s another story, probably a never-ending one. I’ve wished that I’d found the Faith earlier, that I could have benefitted from its good counsels earlier in my life – but then realised that actually, I did. I just couldn’t see it. I’ve wished too that after turning towards the light of the divine teachings I had been wiser and less zealous – and focussed first on transforming my own deeds and actions. But for all the tests I’ve failed since, it was a defining moment in my life.
I’ve been blessed in so many ways but the gift of faith opened a new consciousness and marked the beginning of a life on a new foundation. Among many favourite passages from the Bahá’í scriptures, this verse has always moved me, thankful that this broken-wing bird was healed by the grace of God.
“I am the Sun of Wisdom and the Ocean of Knowledge. I cheer the faint and revive the dead. I am the guiding Light that illumineth the way. I am the royal Falcon on the arm of the Almighty. I unfold the drooping wings of every broken bird and start it on its flight.”
Berkshire, March 2017