I was born in England just before WWII. My mother was British and my father French as he was born in Paris, though his parents were from Russia and Norway.
My parents often travelled from London to Paris as my father’s main office was there but when war broke out (my father being Jewish) they travelled to the southern part of France and on to Monte Carlo.
My mother was Church of England and my father, although Jewish, was of no specific religion. Father said that when I became 21 I could choose for myself what religion I wanted to be but he taught me always to have the fear of God in my heart and to be upright and never to hurt anyone. By the time I was 18 my father had passed away. At the time I was studying in Paris. One day I received a letter from my mother in Monte-Carlo saying that she had met a very nice American lady who had taken her to a meeting where there were Persian people, and that she had invited them home for tea. I quickly wrote back advising her to “please be careful as you don’t know these people and they’ll take your money and furniture away from you…”. Little did I know!
The American lady was Knight of Bahá’u’lláh Olivia Kelsey. In fact, Monaco was allocated five knights by Shoghi Effendi : Mrs Nelly French was the first to arrive in the country aged 85 but she passed away in Monaco soon after; Mrs Kelsey arrived with Florence Ullrich (later Ullrich-Kelley) from the U.S.A.; Shamsi Navidi arrived from Persia with her daughters Vida and Guilda. Her husband Aziz joined the family a few months later; two friends from America and two from Persia, this is where most of the pioneers came from in those days, east and west.
Thus my mother became a Bahá’í during the Ten Year Crusade, through dear Mrs Olivia Kelsey. During the many years following, she wrote to Mrs Kelsey asking her prayers for me to become a Bahá’í, and Olivia always replied that I would one day… but it took me a few more years to accept the Faith myself. Meanwhile I got married and finally became a Bahá’í a few days before my son Daniel was born in 1965 (at Naw-Rúz) during the Nine Year Plan.
Three generations of Bahá’ís. I became a Bahá’í during the Nine Year Plan, my mother Dorothy became a Bahá’í during the 10 Year Crusade, and my son Daniel was born during the 9 Year Plan and declared on his 15th birthday in March 1980.
Extract: The following brief remembrance of Olivia Kelsey, Knight of Bahá’u’llah, was written by Florence Ullrich Kelley of Kaneohe, Hawaii (also Knight of Bahá’u’llah for Monaco) and Lois Bierly Walker of Alpha, Ohio. It appeared in the April 1982 US Bahá’í News.
After Arthur Kelsey’s death in 1937, Olivia began her long service as a Bahá’í. She became deeply interested in animal welfare, with her source of inspiration a Tablet from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to Roy Wilhelm on kindness to animals. She quoted from the Tablet on all of her many talks over radio and television on behalf of local and national humane organizations, and while pioneering in Monaco during the Ten Year World Crusade she presented a copy of the Tablet to Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. She retired from her profession and left the U.S. in March 1954 for Monaco, for which service she was given the honor of being named a Knight of Bahá’u’llah by the beloved Guardian, Shoghi Effendi.
She made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1954, and while she was there the Guardian told her that, after the first Bahá’í Assembly was assured in Monaco, she could go to France to teach the Faith there. And so in 1959, in response to a call from the Hands of the Cause, she went to Toulouse and later to Montpelier to help the Bahá’ís in those cities. During her years in Monaco and France she attended many European summer schools, the Frankfurt Conference in 1958, and the World Congress in London in 1963.
My first visit to the Holy Land was in November 1970 for a nine-day pilgrimage. It was Hand of the Cause of God Paul Haney who prepared us to visit the Shrine of the Báb. This first time was a unique experience different from the other feelings subsequently experienced during other pilgrimages. Mr Haney was able to instil in us a sense of profound love for the Báb, which culminated in our crossing His Sacred Threshold – a truly indescribable moment – in fact, I can’t remember anything of what happened between the time I stepped onto the marble threshold and when I reached the edge of the Shrine – a very unusual experience.
On the Tuesday afternoon the Universal House of Justice, whose seat at the time was at 10 Haparsim Street, received us. Mrs Florence Avis welcomed us at the door with these words, “Welcome Home!” Tears came to my eyes. Those two words were so deeply moving to me. It had been five years since I had accepted the Faith and it was only then that I understood that I had finally found my way home. It was not the end but the beginning of more reading, deepening and trying to find the wonders hidden in this glorious Faith, while my eyes began to open up to reality.
At the time there were about 20 Western pilgrims and I was seated in the front row whilst Dr Ruhe addressed the pilgrims on behalf of the Universal House of Justice. Dr Ruhe must have noticed that I was writing down in my notebook everything he was saying in French, because he suddenly turned towards me and commented, “The real miracle is that while I am speaking in English you are writing down everything directly in French, aren’t you?” I was!
A couple of days before the conclusion of my pilgrimage, House member Mr. Amoz Gibson came to ask me if I would like to help in translating some letters of the Universal House of Justice to French-speaking countries in Africa. How could I have refused such an offer and, naturally very touched by this request, I happily agreed to assist. That was to be the beginning of many experiences I was to undertake.
In about 1971 Daniel and I set off for the conferences in Reykjavik. In the bus en route to Heathrow airport we met Jan and Salma Mughrabi. In Reykjavik, among the participants were two great friends of mine, Counsellor Louis Henuzet and Lea Nys, a wonderful Bahá’í travelling teacher, both from Belgium.
One day we all went on a tour to visit the geyser area. Lea told us afterwards that among the geysers was a large one that had not appeared for a long time, and visitors drew close to hear the guide. Lea thought to herself ‘If I say a prayer, the geyser might come up and the Icelanders will say “Oh the Bahá’ís went to see the geyser and up it came!”, so she said aloud the Remover of Difficulties, and lo and behold the geyser went up. Thinking once was not enough, since the people might say it was a natural occurrence, she repeated the prayer and the geyser went up a second time. She dared not say it a third time. Those who were there witnessed it with their own eyes, and the next day there was an article in the local news paper describing the event. I have told that story to many people when trying to explain why we should pray and put our trust in Him.
For several years I was able to translate correspondence of the Universal House of Justice to the French-speaking African countries. At that time Joany and Albert Lincoln (whom I had met in France) and Jan (whom I had met at the Reykjavik Conference) and Jawad Mughrabi were living in the Central African Republic, where I spent almost two months with my son Daniel before going on to Chad and then to Cameroon with the Yeganeh family, for another month. Mrs Naz Yeganeh is the younger sister of the late Professor Bushrui. It was a wonderful experience to be with these wonderful pioneers and to learn of their sufferings, victories and devotion from their side and not from books, and to understand what service really meant. In Bangui, Central Africa, I had an experience which taught me a lot. I had just finished translating William Sears’ book Thief in the Night and I had the manuscript at home. No computers in those days. While packing, the question came to my mind, should I bring it with me or not? After a while I thought, what would be the use? I am going into the Centre of Africa, maybe in the jungle, what is the use of bringing that translation with me? It’s heavy to carry and I already have my slides and projector. Little girl from the city who knows nothing!
The day after my arrival in Bangui, there was a class with grown-ups which I was supposed to facilitate. The first question was a question from the Bible and I knew the answer was in Bill Sears’ book. I burst into tears feeling so ashamed of myself. I had brought slides and a projector to go into villages, not thinking about whether there would be electricity there or not, and did not bring the manuscript in which there were so many answers and which I could easily have carried with me instead. I never made that mistake again. Another thing happened in Cameroon. The Teaching Committee had sent me to Daroua, up north in a small village far away from the city. Daroua had an airport so I took the plane with Daniel and arrived not in the jungle but near enough. No one was waiting for us… we waited and waited and finally I left a message at the information desk and we went off to the local hotel and took a room there. There was a swimming pool and we went for a swim. I got dressed again and still nobody. Daniel wanted to go for a walk. So I took a picture I had of the Master to give to the man at the reception desk and said ‘’Someone is going to come and call for me, please show him the picture and if they recognize it, tell them that I went for a walk.’’ The receptionist replied “Is it your grandfather?” I said, “No it is Abdu’l-Bahá.” He asked if I was a Bahá’í, I said I was, then “Me too” was his cry, “I have been here four months and not had the chance to meet any of them.” Later on, the friends came to get me… on foot!
Another souvenir comes to my mind that shows again how little I knew of Africa and how we must be well prepared… The venue of the meeting was in a village quite some distance away. The Bahá’í friend who had come to get me, after a few minutes’ walk and seeing that Daniel was getting tired, took my son on his shoulders to carry him and left me walking behind with a useless slide projector and boxes of slides, and believe me, they were heavy. I walked behind that tall, strong guy all the way to where we were going to have our meeting!
After Cameroon we went to Chad, Fort Lamy at the time, now N’Djamena. Two wonderful pioneers were there then, the Macdonalds, if I remember correctly. Olive, the wife, a short sweet lady used to teach the locals by singing songs which they would all repeat and memorise. e.g. Le Báb, le Báb, qui est-Il ? Le Báb, le Báb, qui est-Il ? Il est le Messager. Qu’est-ce que c’est le Messager. Who is the Báb? He is the Messenger. She would go on going through the history of the Faith and the friends learned their lessons. I can still hear her sweet voice in my head. In Fort Lamy (Chad) there was also a group of three or four Persian youth who had just arrived, two of whom were twins. I had the pleasure of getting in touch with them again recently. One is now in Japan and the other in Virginia, USA.
Between 27 December 1973 and 2 January 1974, the Teaching Conference of the Mediterranean Area was held in Cagliari, Sardinia. Monaco stands on that sea and parts of France too, so I decided to go. I informed the French National Spiritual Assembly and, as no one else from France had the intention of going, I was asked by the NSA to be their representative and to read out a letter from them to the audience. Cagliari was my real big encounter with the Italian community. I always liked Italy and found their community very lovable. I had the French National Assembly letter to read out, to which I added a few lines of my own. Dear Manuela Fanti, who was to marry Farhad Vahdat, helped me in the drafting. Amongst the things I said was ‘’It is so encouraging and exciting to see so many local believers on the floor.’’ All of the 150 participants had black hair, some of the men were growing beards, some spoke Italian with no accent, so I thought they must all be Italians. A big roar came from the hall as probably half of them were Persians! But the two ethnic groups really looked alike and the sounds in the Italian language were similar as in Persian. Persians also roll the letter ‘r’ so this was my first real encounter with the Italian community. There I also met James Holmlund and his family but I cannot recall whether this was the first time I was meeting them as pioneers in Cagliari or whether I had met them before in Corsica.
In Corsica, also my area of jurisdiction, the city of Bastia had been opened by a wonderful Persian pioneer, Miss Tabrizi (I think during the 10 Year Crusade) long since passed away. Three or four friends remained and another wonderful pioneer arrived, Clarence Iverson who was American and had been a pioneer in El Salvador in Central America. He didn’t speak a word of French and did not have a penny to his name. All he was able to do was play the piano (he was a very good pianist) so he played in restaurants in order to earn his living, which was just from tips. He would sleep in a barn and eat whatever he could. However, somehow he always managed to get journalists to write about him and the Faith in the local newspaper. He passed away in Corsica in 1979. I don’t think that at the time we had really understood the sacrifice he had made by pioneering to that island. There are no words to describe the faith and the devotion of this dear Bahá’í and all the trials and tribulations he suffered. May the Blessed Beauty show him the path in the Abhá Kingdom. There were also two other wonderful pioneers, James Holmhund and his dear wife Marie (née Ciocca, 1929-1968, Knight of Bahá’u’lláh to Sardinia).
A Summer Campaign took place in Corsica with some American Bahá’í Youth, and believe it or not I was to meet again with one of the youth, Marily, some 40 years later in Quebec. We had a really great time going to different villages, the youth singing and playing the guitar. All the villagers were very kind to the youth, sometimes even inviting them to their houses, listening to them with a smile, but when the time came to speak about the Bahá’í faith the answer was a simple but sharp ‘’No! We remain as we are, but carry on !’’ In those days there were lots of pioneers going to Corsica and about 20 youth declared, besides also a group of gypsies. Lovely people! One evening they all came to the garden of one of our Persian pioneers, Mrs S. Nadjafabadi, with their guitars. They asked permission to light a bonfire and sang for more than two hours. It was really great, their voices, the music, the fire, the stars in the sky. I turned to another committee member and remarked that for the first time they had come without a drop of alcohol… at last they had understood, and we were so happy. At the end their leader came to us and asked if we had enjoyed their performance. We said that, yes, it was fantastic and he replied ‘’This time we came without any alcohol but next time we’ll bring some and you’ll see how much better it will be!
Around 1976/7 we had to form the Spiritual Assembly of Cagnes-sur-Mer, a city in France near to Monaco, so mother and I went there as pioneers. I was a Board member at the time and remained an LSA member until the following Ridván, by which time another local person had declared and was elected.
At the end of 1976 / beginning of 1977, I received a letter from the Universal House of Justice asking if I was able to assist them during the 1978 International Convention by doing simultaneous translation. I replied that I had never tried it but that I would make sure I learned how. I was convinced that, because of the many congresses that took place in Monaco where I lived, I would be sure to find a translator school. This was not the case, however, as the nearest school was 1,000 km away in Switzerland. I had a young child, Daniel, and a job, and I was unable to travel that far during the weekend, and besides, no school was open at that time. I had however informed the Universal House of Justice that I would learn how to translate and I felt I could not tell the House one thing and not do it. I did a lot of research in town but in vain and so I finally decided to phone the office of the Congress hostesses in Monaco and make enquiries from their manageress. She was very courteous and informed me: “Simultaneous translation is very simple; either you can do it or you can’t”. She also gave me some pointers and suggested that I buy two tape recorders, one to listen to conversations or speeches and one to talk into and then listen back to my translation and make any necessary corrections. That way I would be able to check the words that I did not know or had been unable to translate quickly enough, write them in a notebook and learn them. She kindly added that I could come back to her if necessary, which is exactly what I did. I chose some Bahá’í friends I knew who spoke English very well, to record some cassettes. For example, one of these was Youssef Ghadimi, who taped a text of several pages on ‘teaching’ which I found in the UK Bahá’í Journal written by Adib Taherzadeh (at the time a Continental Counsellor). There were also other texts for me to practise, spoken by different people with various English accents, so that I could get my ear accustomed to them. I did most of my practice on Mr Taherzadeh’s text, so I knew it almost off by heart.
The great day arrived and I found myself in Haifa. International Convention at that time (1978) took place in the old Merkaz Haifa Auditorium, which has long since been turned into a parking lot. The translation booths were set up on stage behind a row of potted shrubs which hid us from the view of the delegates. We, the translators, could see everything – the speakers, the audience, and later the backs of the newly elected members of the Universal House of Justice as they came on stage and their names were called out by the Chief Teller. It was very moving, especially the sight of them holding their hands behind their backs – so expressive!
One of the first speakers at the International Convention was Mr. Taherzadeh. I was very excited as I had practised so much with his talk and, lo and behold, that was exactly what he spoke about … teaching. Later, as we were leaving the hall, he came towards me and jokingly said: “Paulette, at times I had the impression that you were finishing my sentences for me…” As I explained to him the reasons why, he laughed. On another occasion Mrs. Louise Semple made the same comment during a visit to the Archives. Because she is fluent in French she was quietly listening to make sure I was translating everything properly. As each translation proceeded, we would wink at each other at the end of each phrase…
I remember with great fondness my translator friends: Annemie, Mahmoud, Brenda, Chicco, Diane, Jorge (with whom I worked again in New York in 1992 at the Bahá’í World Congress), Helene, Irina, Vadim, Annie, Sarah and Helen, Martha and others. Sometimes we would engage in a little competition with the Spanish translators to see who could speak the fastest while translating and finish at the same time. We were about equal with Jorge, Annie and Helen. Many of those I worked with eventually went on themselves to become members of National Spiritual Assemblies, and I would meet them again in their capacity as delegates. Seeing each other at these events was always so joyous. Then, in 2008, the Russian translators joined us for the first time.
During the first conference for the Counsellors and Auxiliary Board members in January 2001, I also had the privilege of being back there when the announcement was made about the Fifth Epoch.
But let’s return to Monaco which in those days had a very large community of 44 members which included two Knights of Bahá’u’lláh and a few years later the Hand of the Cause of God Dr Giachery and his wife Angeline. Then the main activities were the feasts and regular firesides. We always had lots of people attending and I became acquainted with Persian food. Thanks to Shamsi and Aziz Navidi I translated into French the Hand of the Cause William Sears’ book Thief in the Night and that helped me to understand the Faith better. In fact I had never been what is known today as a ‘seeker’. Yes, my mother had become a Bahá’í and she was anxious for me to become one too. She was writing to the Hand of the Cause Mr Faizi and also to Olivia Kelsey for their prayers that I could also see the light … but I was not really looking for anything at the time. Whether one was Christian or Jewish did not make any difference to me and in those days Islam was hardly spoken of, and particularly in my Roman Catholic Christian school. What really touched me later was the logic of the Faith and especially Shamsi Navidi’s clear explanations (never trying to force me into anything in the way my mother inadvertently had in wanting me so much to become a Bahá’í) and Bill Sears’ book Thief in the Night. After translating that book, I also had the privilege of translating Adib Taherzadeh’s four-volume The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, Mr Nakhjavani’s books about The Guardian, and more recently, The Maxwells of Montreal by Violette Nakhjavani.
The community was rather large and the Navidis decided to leave Monaco and pioneer to Mauritius. I was appointed to the National Committee for Corsica, for which I was secretary and so had to travel there quite often. I became well acquainted with the friends there, and a couple of years later I was appointed to the Auxiliary Board. When Counsellor Hénuzet phoned to inform me, I didn’t know what to say. I stuttered, ‘but I don’t know what to say or do’ and his reply was: ‘that’s good, because had you said you did I would have been worried’! Then he went on to say that there would be plenty of meetings where I would receive instructions and directions and get to meet people. In those days the Counsellors were Aziz Yazdi, Eric Blumenthal, Dorothy Ferraby (wife of Hand of the Cause John Ferraby), Betty Reed, Anneliese Bopp and Ursula Mühlschlegel (wife of Hand of the Cause Adelbert Mühlschlegel). It is only now that I can begin to realise and understand precisely who these great souls really were and what they had accomplished in their lives. Regrettably, at that time I did not have the vision of the Faith that the Universal House has given us in past decades; I was merely obeying the directives given by the Counsellors. It was in much later years that I was to learn what Anneliese Bopp and the German Bahá’ís had had to suffer during WWII.
There is a joke in the French army : never tell your superior what you can do…
I live about 15 kms (9 miles) from the Italian border and I speak Italian, one of the languages spoken in Monaco. One day we were having a meeting of Board members in Geneva (I think 1975/6) at which there was an Italian Board member present. I started talking to him in Italian and we chatted for a while… then Counsellor Henuzet arrived at the meeting. Turning towards me he said : You speak Italian? Yes I do, I said. Interesting. And that was it. A few months later I received a message: Many NSA’s are having their National Conventions on the same day and no Counsellors are available to go to Italy; we would like you to go on our behalf. Bang! Oh my God, what to do? I can’t say no, can I? So off I went to Rome. It was an excellent occasion for me to get acquainted with the Italian friends and it was the best Convention of my life. First, I had the pleasure of meeting the friends and among them were M. Bausani, Sohrab Youssefian, Giuseppe Robiati, Manuela, Vafa, Ahmad, Haideh, Homa and many others whose names I can’t recall just now, but such wonderful souls. When the NSA secretary read out the Plan for the following year to the delegates, fingers were lifted up for consultation and the questions were: Why did the NSA suggest ONLY 10 000 000 liras for the budget ; could we aspire to 15 000 000 ; can we save on movies and clothes??? Why only five new LSAs, why not eight? We can pioneer to another city… These were the kind of questions and suggestions put to the NSA during the Convention. I was so excited! And in my speech I told the friends: I came here to encourage you but you have uplifted me instead! At that time the main goals were the strenghtening of existing local spiritual assemblies and the opening of new cities to the Faith.
In the nearby city of Nice lived Salim Nounou and a little further away Taraz Abrar. These two well- known Bahá’í friends often had illustrious guests visit them such as Hands of the Cause or members of the House of Justice, i.e. Mr Nakhjavani and David Hofman; also Bill Hatcher, so we often had the blessing of meeting with these people. In Monaco were also living the Hakim family, Gholam-Hossein, Manavieh and their daughter Nina. Dr Hakim was the brother of Professor Hakim who later was assasinated in Teheran during the revolution.
I also had the pleasure of travelling a few times to Iran where I met more wonderful people: Yussef Ghadimi who got arrested in August 1980, together with the other 8 members of the Persian National Assembly, Hand of the Cause Jalal Khazeh, Counsellor Dr M. Faranghi who regularly very kindly deepened me in studying the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and asking in return that I do the same with the friends in France (Dr Faranghi was murdered a few years afterwards); Counsellor Iraj Ayman and his wife Lily, Riaz Ghadimi and many others who were able to escape to Canada and elsewhere. Becoming acquainted with these people was to become very useful some years later when, at the beginning of the revolution, I served as a liaison between members of the Iranian National Spiritual Assembly and the Universal House of Justice through dearest Mr Fatheazam. This liaison lasted until the arrest of the nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly. One day I was on a three day visit in Haifa and sitting in the lounge of the old pilgrim house. Mrs Violette Nakhjavani and Rúhíyyih Khánum were present and while looking towards me Violette whispered something to Khánum. They then both got up and Khánum came up to me, took my hand and kissed me on the left cheek. WOW! And then they left. I was left standing there in a daze!
I remember my son Daniel when we visited the house of the Báb in Shiraz, he was aged about 9 at the time, saying, after the guide had given directives… I am not going to climb those steps, much too high for me (indeed they were…) I said Shhh… I am not going to kneel on the floor upstairs… Shhh… and the first one to go upstairs and to kneel, was my little boy. Such was the power surrounding this room. After that Daniel was very happy. But I did not utter a word.
In around 1975 I was also very privileged to do some research work for Hand of the Cause Mr Balyuzi at the Library of the French Foreign Exchange and thus worked with Moojan Momen whom I met in Paris. Moojan was, if I remember rightly, still a medical intern at the time and also a research assistant for Mr Balyuzi in his work. Moojan had a list of dates and events concerning Bahá’u’llah. He knew exactly what Mr Balyuzi wanted, dates, places and all, and I was to find any relevant archives the French consulars and ambassadors had reported of these events. So I went to the French Foreign Affairs Archives in Paris and after five days of searching, I found exactly what he was looking for. You can read an extract of this report in his book the Bábi and Bahá’í Revelation, concerning ‘The dispatches of Lieutenant Ferrier and Adrionople Material’. Mr Balyuzi was kind enough to mention my name in this book.
The city of Nice had a Bahá’í Centre and we decided to hold classes there for our children which I organised for roughly two to three years with about 12 children attending. This was about 40 years ago. The little girl in the centre, with long hair, is today a member of the French National Assembly.
In 1976 an international Bahá’í Conference was held in Paris and Jeanne Mezbah and I were appointed to serve on the Archives Committee. We were required to collect the talks from all the participants, prepare interviews with the media for Amatu‘l Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum, and to protect her from being mobbed by over enthusiastic friends!
In Monaco we had the pleasure of celebrating the wedding of Christine Hakim, the daughter of Germaine and Professor Manucher Hakim, the brother of one of our community members Dr G. Hakim and his family. Professor Hakim later was assassinated in Tehran at the begining of the revolution. A couple of years later we attended the wedding of Paul Hakim, Christine’s brother, with Mojdeh Rassegh, daughter of Mrs and M. Shapour Rassegh.
Going through some papers, I have found a letter dating back to 1980 when my son was going to college (a Roman Catholic school) in Monte Carlo, asking the school principal if my son could be exempted from the catechism class as we were Bahá’ís etc. His written reply was ‘’We respect the opinion of everyone in this school and in this case there can be no question of refusing the exemption of catechism for Daniel’’. In fact, this open-minded conduct has always been the way the Monégasque Government has answered our pleas for our brethren in Iran and has always supported them in the United Nations votes for freedom.
I was still a Board member and travelled regularly in the southern part of France. My area of jurisdiction was very wide; in those days the mission of the Board members was different from today and every weekend I was off to some different place. From Bordeaux to Annecy and from Lyon to Marseille and, in addition, there was Corsica. At the same time I was bringing up my son Daniel. When he reached the age of 8, I started to take him on my travels so he became friends with lots of Bahá’ i youth around the South. Apart from being Bahá’ís, we remained very close with all the friends encountered – like family ties with some people. Is that how Bahá’í love should really be? I cannot say, but the children of these people, who were between 8 and 15 years at the time, are still friends with me and some even call me ‘aunty’ and they are now in their mid-forties. I really do feel like we are one close family.
In 1982 I went on my second pilgrimage and as I was still a Board member I had the honour of being invited by the Hands of the Cause for a consultation which was held in the sitting room of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s House on Haparsim street. I entered the room where the Hands of the Cause were seated on the sofa which was running around the room. What to do or what to say when all these beautiful and well known faces were staring at you? Mr Furútan asked me to please sit down. There was an empty place close to the door so I sat there very shyly and mute while trying to stammer something that sounded like Allah-u-Abha! They all smiled and started to talk to me and I began to feel more comfortable. Then the door opened again and Mr Faizi came in and discreetly sat behind me. I knew I was turning my back on him at the same time as I was facing the Hand who was talking to me but I did not dare move! Finally Mr Furutan’s joking voice said ‘’You are turning your back to Mr Faizi, why don’t you sit back comfortably so that you can see every one’’ ! Phew! I then felt better.
Another thing happened that time regarding Mr Faizi who, to us as pilgrims ‘knew eveything …’ We pilgrims were gathered as usual in the sitting room of the Old Pilgrim House, asking questions. Someone asked Mr Faizi a question and his answer was ‘’I am afraid I’m not quite sure of the answer, I’ll look it up and let you know tomorrow.’’ WOW! What a lesson in humility. What an example! I have never forgotten this and have always tried to remember it at the right time…
In a sense, regarding deepening, I was very lucky. Those who helped me in particular were Shamsi and Aziz Navidi who had opened my eyes to the Faith, Counsellor Hénuzet who taught me the importance of the Institutions and the Administrative Order, Adib Taherzadeh – at the time a member of the NSA of the Republic of Ireland and later a Counsellor – who explained so many Tablets and whose four book series The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh I was given the opportunity to translate into French; beloved Hand of the Cause of God Dr Ugo Giachery who was so strict with the implementation of Bahá’í laws but at the end, thanks to him, doing the right thing became so easy just because we got used to obeying.
Let me tell you a little story about Dr. Giachery. One day a couple who had just got married outside Monaco wanted to celebrate the event with Dr. Giachery and his wife Angelina. They also invited the members of the Monaco Spiritual Assembly. The couple who, I think, came from the Middle East appeared to be quite wealthy and they invited us to eat with them in one of the private ‘salons’ of the Hôtel de Paris. Well this hotel in Monte-Carlo was THE hotel. Everything was supposed to be best – the food, the service, everything. All went perfectly well; the meal was tip-top, and then came the time for the beautiful wedding cake to be served. The Maître d’Hôtel brought it in with lots of ceremony. He showed it to the newly-wed couple and then to the guests. Everybody was exclaiming – lovely, beautiful, yummy and the like. The waiters gave each of us a plate, and we waited for everyone to be served before starting. We also waited for Dr. Giachery to start eating before we started. Noblesse oblige. Dr. Giachery took a piece of cake with his spoon and we quickly followed. It was divine! I looked at Dr. Giachery with a happy smile and to my horror I saw him putting his spoon back on the plate and pushing his plate away from him. He uttered just one word, “alcohol”. We could not eat it either, could we? Each of us swallowed the piece we had in our mouths, put the spoon back on the plate and that was it.
It was a great joy and delight for me to be invited several times to be present at the International Conventions taking place in Haifa as a simultaneous translator. To see the elections for us as staff presented a different perspective from that of delegates; we saw many things that others didn’t. I remember once, during the voting period which lasted four solid hours, no one talking in the audience, just praying silently while the names of the countries and the delegates were called out from the stage. The Israeli engineer behind me whispered ‘what are they doing ?’ I answered back ‘voting’. He replied ‘silently like that, I have never seen that before, we usually speak very loudly to attract people so that they vote for us’.
On these occasions I have learned many things, such as the example set by the members of the House of Justice as regards consultation, punctuality, obedience, deepening in some aspects of the Faith, etc. but also in Iran from Dr. M. Faranghi who explained ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s ‘Will and Testament’ and the ‘Seven Valleys’ with so much love. He didn’t have to do it, he was working as a physician and was very busy, yet he found one hour every day to deepen me in the Cause, provided I would do the same upon my return to Europe… All these wonderful souls helped me to acquire a better understanding of the Faith and prompted me to read a lot of books and not to hesitate to re-read the sacred Texts. As former member of the House of Justice Mr. Dunbar would say: one has to read, re-read, and read again the Sacred Writings.
I could of course go into a lot of detail about the pioneers I encountered during these International Conventions. Their stories are so much more interesting and moving, such as the way they held firm to their pioneering posts until their first Local Spiritual Assemblies were formed, and then their National Spiritual Assemblies. When I first went to an International Convention, the delegates were mostly Americans and Persians. Some years later the pioneers were getting older and there were more local people, and the time after that, the delegates were mostly from the host country, with a few American and Persian friends.
The Faith had grown so much. Then there was the time the first Bahá’í from Vanuatu attended, dressed in his national costume. He had never left his island before, and as for flying… I remember the young lady from Cape Verde. She was the only woman serving on her National Assembly and all of the friends from this group of islands had got together to pay for her plane ticket, the other male members remaining home for lack of money. They had chosen to send the one woman on their NSA to Convention. Many of the local people from Cape Verde were involved in growing cocoa and worked on the plantations harvesting it. This young lady had never eaten chocolate as it was too expensive. The first time she did so was in Haifa.
In 1983 I witnessed the first Russian National Spiritual Assembly being present in Haifa. There was the story of the Bahá’í friend from Albania who walked most of the way to Haifa, just having enough money to reach there, and that was it; no food, but so strong was his Faith. When we heard the story the delegates all wanted to give him their coffee-break vouchers.
Another time a deadly and terrible civil war was being fought in Rwanda. The Tutsis and Hutus were slaughtering each other. Meanwhile in Haifa an International Convention was being held. The NSA members of Rwanda were explaining that the members of their Institution consisted of both Tutsis and Hutus and there was no problem amongst them. We asked them how this worked. They simply said that before their meetings they prayed to Baha’u’llah for help and guidance and started to work for the betterment of their fellow men! Then together they began an African dance. There was something really special in the air. I had better stop as it is bringing tears to my eyes… and there are so many more wonderful stories that I haven’t mentioned.
The story behind the above picture is interesting. It was taken in front of the International Teaching Centre on the 16th of January 2001 and, if I remember correctly, a few hours before the announcement by the House of Justice of the Fifth Epoch.
It was the first meeting held for Counsellors and Board members, some 900 people altogether.The Members of the House of Jutice and the Counsellors were waiting inside the back entrance of the House. The Board members arrived first and stood on the premises, then the Counsellors were called out and stood in front of the Board members – as you can see, they are more or less standing in a line, and finally the members of the House were called out and they are standing in front of the Counsellors. This was done as it shoud be, with no pushing or trying to get nearer the members of the House. It was also quite sweet to see the members of the House waiting in the lobby of the back entrance of the House for their turn. It was a great example.
Around 1984/85 a five year term period of service was implemented for Board members and I was not re-appointed. However, the following week I was appointed to the National Teaching Committee and my responsibilities lasted until the new ways of teaching came into being, i.e. the four core activities were introduced into France, and younger friends became very active in the clusters. In my home town of Monaco the community was declining, and not having any more activities in France, I returned there to help. Monaco is an independent State mentioned by Abdu’l-Bahá in The Tablets of the Divine Plan. It is temporarily under the French NSA, but we cannot vote in France because it is a different country. The same ruling goes for Liechtenstein with Switzerland and San Marino with Italy.
Serving on the National Teaching Committe was also a great experience for me with wonderful co-workers such as Shiva Abrar, Annette Zahrai and Ezzat Ta’i. We even worked for a couple of years with Bernard Lo Cascio who was recently appointed to the Board of Counsellors for Europe. We all got on very well. Throughout the years we organised quite a number of conferences, both regional and national. France, having eight different frontiers, we organised activities with eight different border countries. I remember a meeting once which took place in the Bahá’í Centre, Paris, to which we invited two members from each National Teaching Committee. We had a great consultation, talking in three or four different languages, at the same time preparing for further activities. With the real spirit of consultation it can really be done in harmony.
In January 2000 I had the pleasure of going travel-teaching a little while in Guinea Conakry with my daughter-in-law Lyse who is a professor and now Vice-dean for research at Laval university in Québec. In Conakry we met Susan and Shidan Kouchek-zadeh, an English couple who were pioneers in that country. I met Susan again at an English summer school a few years later.
Another wonderful time was the centenary of the Faith in Hawaii which took place in Honolulu, at which there were more than 1,000 participants from all over the world. I was there representing the National Spiritual Assembly of France while my little grandaughter represented Monaco, wearing its national costume, which she enjoyed very much. After I had read on stage the letter sent by the NSA of France and returned to my seat, a lady came up to me and asked if I knew Florence Kelley, saying she would like to see me. Florence was one of the Knights of Bahá’u’lláh to Monaco. I was delighted to be able to meet her and when we got together we hugged each other strongly, and tears were pouring from our eyes. It was great! We had some pictures taken and I went back to my group of Italian friends representing their NSA. As usual, when I meet friends I start talking about Monaco and the need for pioneers… and one of them, Mario Donato, whom I had met some years before said ‘’Why not ?’’, and he came! Funnily enough, Mario had met the Faith some 50 years earlier while hitch-hiking on an Italian road, and guess who picked him up? – the Navidis! A real brother in the Faith.
Meanwhile we were enjoying the wonderful programme provided by the Bahá’ís, enjoying the atmosphere, the exchanges, the happiness and excitement and then a little idea started drilling into my brain… What about celebrating our Jubilee in Monaco? I thought this might be a stupid thought and that it would have to go away. It went, but not very far! In 2003 a new pioneer came to Monaco for awhile, Dr. Mashid Sabet. I had known Mashid’s family for many decades and was pleased to have her with us for a year.
We had a wonderful time in Hawaii, after which I took my granddaughter back home to Québec and then I was off back to Monaco. I hardly ever sleep on a plane; I usually doze and when I doze I think, and what kept coming to the back of my mind? The Jubilee. Mario came to Monaco and I shared the idea with him and, as I mentioned earlier, he said, “why not?” We consulted with the local friends who thought it was a great idea and so it went forward and a committee was formed.
A Jubilee was to be held in Sicily so with Mario we decided that we would go and get some ideas and also get some Sicilian friends involved… after all Doctor Giachery was Sicilian and lived 15 years in Monaco so Sicily is in a sense our sister community.They agreed to send a group of singers/dancers but after adding all the pennies together for their trip it turned out to be too expensive so unfortunately that was that and we could not have them.
In September 2003 dearest Mr. Nakhjavani, after consulting with the French NSA under whose jurisdiction we are, agreed to come and in October we started to send out invitations to most of the world’s National Assemblies, and we found suitable hotel accommodation both in and outside of Monaco. We acquired a theatre which could hold 275 people with 50 more upstairs but they said they would not allow us the use of these extra seats in the mezzanine. It was to be held from 24-25th April 2004. By December we had registered 50 names (we were a bit disappointed) and during January another 25. The French NSA told us not to worry as 75 people was a good number for a small community like ours! Well, we all know the friends and their last minute habits, and by the 21st of April we had 325 registrations and three days later there were 340 from 32 different countries! The registrar of the theatre willingly opened the mezzanine and all the friends managed to get a seat. Two Knights of Bahá’u’llah for Monaco, Shamsi Navidi and Florence Kelley, Mr. Nakhjavani, different NSA members, Counsellor Tirandaz, members of the Swiss NSA (Monaco was for a while under their jurisdiction when there was one Italo-Swiss NSA in the 50s-60s). In the evening there was a glorious soirée with Ranzie Mensah, the well known Bahá’í singer from Ghana/Italy and Atef, a French Bahá’í singer and his group. We were supposed to leave the theatre by 11.30 pm without being charged. The soirée lasted until nearly near 1.00 a.m. but it was so good, a fantastic performance which the theatre manager and his staff enjoyed so much, that they did not charge any extra. Was I pleased! Wonderful memories!
Unfortunately Mashid left in May and Mario in June as his health was not too good, so by 2006 our Spiritual Assembly had vanished.
Since then we have had a dozen declarations. One is a friend who lives in Monaco and eleven come from outside the country, even from places in Eastern Europe such as Sarajevo, and they come here regularly. So what to do? We do the work, we get newcomers but they are not from our country or at least don’t live here so we can’t form a Spiritual Assembly with them. There must be a reason, but what? Now in 2017 we are just four Bahá’ís left, the youngest is 55.
Monaco is mentioned in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Tablets of the Divine Plan but the Bahá’í friends have forgotten. It is hard, after having served so many decades in France, to find that no one seems to want to help Monaco; it breaks my heart. Thank God I have the chance to go regularly for two months a year to Quebec in Canada to see my family and participate in their activities. It reinvigorates me and gives me the power and the capacity to live the remaining ten months remote from most activities. I also go once a year to Sarajevo to see the four friends who declared in Monaco and do some teaching with them. Their questions are very focussed so I have to prepare myself and study well. They don’t have many books translated into their own language so I have to take with me two or three subjects each time to share with them with the help of a translator. They are like sponges and always wishing for more…
These are but a few reminiscences of 50 years of serving our beloved Faith. I know that I have forgotten many things but I am very grateful to UK Bahá’í Histories for giving me this chance of bringing back these souvenirs to mind. May the Blessed Beauty allow me the joy of serving His Faith for many more years.
To conclude, preparing my Bahá’í story has brought back so many wonderful memories, that I can only thank Bahá’u’lláh for having given me this opportunity. In those days I did the work as I was told to. Now I understand a little more the portent of what we did in those the days, the joy it had brought us, the friendships we have made…and the fact that Bahá’u’lláh always shows us the way and give us much more than we know of or even can imagine. He answers our questions before we ask them.
Monaco, April 2017