This time of year is always poignant. That's because May 14, 2008, was the day when the informal leaders of Iran's Bahá’í community were rounded up on false charges during dawn raids and bundled off to prison, where they remain today. Each year, there is an international public awareness campaign designed in equal measure to highlight the injustice and to remind Iranian government leaders that their actions, though conducted in the dark, will not stay in the dark.
Yesterday marked a related anniversary for me. Last year, I had just been accepted into my MFA program. In my application, I'd offered two or three true stories that I might use as the focus of the nonfiction book I'd be writing as the core work of my graduate career (and, with luck, my entry into the publishing world). In a call with the faculty director for the class of 2017, it became apparent that the faculty committee was particularly interested in my proposal to write about the persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran. But, Stephen advised, his voice jovial and encouraging even from a time zone away, the story would be so much richer if I could identify someone whose experiences I could use as a narrative through-line for the book.
I was well into that enormous task when the 2015 awareness campaign started, with each day for a week spotlighting one of the two imprisoned women and five imprisoned men who had made up the Yaran ("friends"), the informal leaders who tended the basic needs of Iran's Bahá’í community. It's worth noting that all of the formal Bahá’í leadership structures that exist in most of the rest of the world were outlawed in Iran in 1983. Many Baha'is around the globe hosted gatherings for prayers in honor of one of the prisoners that week. I chose the Saturday and teamed prayers with a picnic. As I set to work selecting music and readings for the event, I also started trying to learn as much as I could about the man who was being spotlighted that day: Jamálu’d-Dín Khánjání, the eldest of the prisoners at about 83. The program I selected was this:
- "O ye servants...," 'Abdu'l-Bahá
- Forgotten, Grant Hindin Miller
- "My God, My Adored One, My King...," Bahá'u'lláh
- My God, My Adored One, Boston Praise Collective
- "In this city the heaven of ecstasy is upraised...," Bahá'u'lláh
- Fire, Tara Ellis
- "He is the King, the All-Knowing, the Wise...," Bahá'u'lláh
- Armed, Devon Gundry
- "Praise be to Thee...," Bahá'u'lláh
- Ki Lót Moun, Leonor Dely & Millero Congo
- "Is there any Remover...," The Báb
The more I learned about Mr. Khánjání, the more I realized that there was no better subject for my book. Despite having only scraps of information available, I was enchanted by the bits of information I gleaned about his character, his generosity, and his steadfastness in the face of a lifetime of adversity.
Now, nearly half of the first (and dare I say, very rough) draft of the book is written and sitting with the Office of Public Affairs, one of the offices of the U.S. Baha'i National Center, for a mandatory review. To most writers, that might seem like censorship. It's not. The fact is, because I'm a Bahá’í, some of the people I interview share lots of information that makes for a great story here in the land of the free and the home of the brave ... but it could cause a lot of harm to individual Bahá’ís in Iran without me having a clue. The Office of Public Affairs review is essentially a security check on their behalf, and I'm grateful for it.
The lag time caused by those reviews, however, makes it difficult to share work in progress. In honor of this anniversary, though, I hope you'll enjoy this carefully selected (and slightly edited) excerpt.
From what is currently Chapter 11/Prison ("Kamiar" is Dr. Kamiar Alaei, a world-renowned HIV/AIDS public health expert who was arrested for his work and imprisoned in the same cell unit with three of the Bahá’í men for several months in 2009):
A week or so before my visit with Kamiar, I stopped in to see Ferida in her rambling farmhouse on the Maine coast, intending to ask her about her father’s condition and what he had to say about Rajai Shahr. She sipped breakfast tea and munched on toast first thing on a Saturday morning, a red-and-black buffalo plaid flannel shirt half-buttoned over her white t-shirt and black jeans, looking like any working mother whose elementary school daughter had been on break all week. After peeling a hard-boiled egg and then addressing me with “avocado … onion,” which I took to be other things someone might peel, Mei bopped out to the living room—a happy kid in search of her Legos and books, warm and cozy in thick grey tights, a turtleneck, and a corduroy jumper.
“About the conditions he’s in,” Ferida began. In the early stages, at Evin and when her father first arrived at Rajai Shahr, she worried about his physical condition and that of the men with him. Some people told her the prisons were cold, others said they were fine. From China, she tried to send a set of long johns, but her family said her dad was okay. She called her sister, wondering if her father’s cell had a window. “My brother-in-law was overhearing. He was in prison two or three times actually himself … and he was behind her, saying ‘Yes, tell her when they went in, [the guards] asked them if they wanted the mountain view or the ocean view.’” Ferida erupted in belly laughs and I couldn’t help but join her. She gasped for air as she thought of her own question. “So he said, ‘Ferida, it's a prison, not a hotel.’ I learned later, they had a window high on the wall that let light in.”
By the time of our chat, Ferida explained, she knew the men could go out into the prison yard for two hours each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, although those allowances changed all the time. “You can see the yard where they are. I Googled it.” As she often did, Ferida veered sideways in her story. “The son of Mr. Naeimi—he came to China with very bad back problems. He couldn’t walk and was in bed for three months, and then apparently his dad and my dad, in prison, decided for him to come to China [so I could treat him].” She gave in to more laughter as she rolled her eyes about the way this all made perfect sense to the dads. “He showed me the yard on Google.”
Directly, Ferida didn’t receive much information from her father. “He never complains. Even they go to the prison and my father is saying, ‘The condition we are in, it’s okay. What can you expect? It’s not a hotel!’” Ferida repeated herself. “He never complains, but you can see the pictures online, of the corridor and basically stalls.” There were two people housed in each cell, and Jamál and Behrouz were sharing. They had access to a bathroom and shower, although Ferida wasn’t sure how many people the facilities accommodated—whether it was the six or eight who shared meals together, or more.
A week later, when I mentioned my conversation with Ferida to Kamiar, he nodded. “It’s good from one side they are together. They are more comfortable. On the other side, it’s not good because they used to have greater access to the general population, which could remove a lot of misunderstandings and beliefs about Bahá’ís.”
Kamiar’s voice and face both dropped. “I can’t forget the time that I was with him. So I always pray if he and his group…” His words caught in his throat and he collected himself. “Even in that situation, they tried to help other prisoners even while they were suffering the same way. A lot of people, when they get to prison, get selfish. ‘Why should I care about others?’ But for them to first, overcome this feeling, and second, serve other people as their neighbors, even if [those people] didn’t know them, respect them, or appreciate their religion, is amazing.”
As I stood up to leave his office, Kamiar thanked me for my work, giving a slight courtly bow from the waist with his hand to his heart, a gesture so familiar to me from my Persian friends, yet always a reminder of the formality lacking in my everyday life. His words were humbling. I am just telling the story, I mused. It was almost as though he heard the thought. “I hope he gets out so you can get the last part of the story from him.” Kamiar’s sunny smile returned. “And I’d like to give him a hug.”