Review of the book “Foreigner” by Richard W. Thomas,Professor Emeritus of History at Michigan State University
FOREIGNER: From an Iranian village to New York City and the Lights that led the way.
This book by Hussein Ahdieh and Hillary Chapman on the journey of Hussein from a Baha’i child in the tiny Iranian village of Nayriz to an adult Baha’i and successful professional in New York, City, is a multilayered narrative of relentless religious persecution, immigrant struggles and personal resilience. It begins with “Life in Nayriz” and how the “Call to prayer” surrounded and permeated the entire social fabric of the village. The authors take the reader into the little understood cultural and social world of the Baha’is in the village and the intimate details of their households. We observe the daily harassments and brutal persecutions Baha’is endured at the hands of Muslim fanatics dating back to the days of the Bab and the heroic deeds and sacrifices of generations of Hussein’s family. We get a glimpse into the lives of the Baha’i women relatives who nurtured him yet were themselves restricted from learning about “the greater world” outside their household.
The authors tell their intriguing stories within several larger historical frameworks of Bahai history. They inform the reader of the brave and gallant individuals such as Mirza Ahmad Vahidi, Haji Abdul-Husayn along with Hussein’s own relatives, his grandfathers, grandmothers and great aunts. His father Shaykh Baha’i, was “A man of Letters” who “committed many prayers and poems to memory and chanted excerpts regularly during talks he gave.” He also “studied the Quran, the Hadiths, and the Baha’i writings, and as a result, became very knowledgeable about the Qur’anic traditions regarding the Qa’im and the Baha’i proofs demonstrating the Bab and Baha ‘u’ llah’s claims.”
Not only was Hussein blessed with having a very learned father, he was surrounded with “outstanding Baha’i teachers” who regularly visited his home. Among them were such luminaries as: Tarazu’llah Samandari, Muhammad Ali Faizi and Ali Akbar Furutan! His father’s dedication to his faith prompted a fanatical Mulla to kidnap and abuse him. Once released, he relocated his family to Shiraz. Hussien was now thrust into a series of larger cultural and social worlds, cities bustling with new, exciting and strange objects and habits: a doorbell, a lightbulb, “streets illuminated by electric lights.”
As a student in Tihran, Hussein was a bit of a problem, forcing Mr. Furutan to chase him around a pond in the National Baha’i Center which led to him being sent back home to Abadan a city where they had relocated. This was the period of the Ten-Year Crusade which Hussein integrates into the narrative to provide a context for understanding the experiences of both his family and the Persian Baha’i community of Abadan.
Hussein’s teenage years in 1956 and 1957 were “my traveling years, my years of restlessness, my years of exploration, and they would lead to the biggest journey of my life.” And indeed, they did! His Aunt Mahin took him “on a four-month trip to discover the history and beauty of Northern Iran and experience the sites associated with the dramatic origins of the Baha’i Faith.” He had learned from Baha’i school “the spiritual significant of Qazvin: this was the home of three of the Bab’s Letters of the Living, most notably the only female, Tahereh.” Their journey included Zanjan, Urmia, Azerbaijan, Anzali among others, each with its own unique religious and cultural history, dutifully explained by his Aunt.
Hussein’s journey to the United States would be among his most life-changing experience. Like other immigrants he confessed: “Everything that I knew about America I had learned from movies.” He arrived in the United States in 1961. His first shock was “realizing that [he] had made a mistake when applying to colleges.” He thought he was applying to “Harvard” but “had in fact applied to ‘Howard’ a name that sounded identical to my Persian ears.” Howard did not have a nuclear engineering program. After a few years of menial jobs, firings, some homelessness, Hussein completed a bachelor’s degree in engineering at the New York Institute of Technology in 1968. He would later receive a master’s degree in European Intellectual History from Fordham University.
His first encounter with the American Baha’i community occurred in New Jersey. He lived in Teaneck, “a racially diverse suburban town…” He was shocked when he visited the Baha’i Center in New York City, however. It was “off the lobby of a dingy hotel on 72nd St and next to the restrooms, which meant that the unpleasant odors pervaded the meeting.” Fortunately, some years later New York Baha’is would obtain a much nicer center; and Hussein could be proud of the fact that he played a role in obtaining it. The high point of this period of his life was his marriage to Tahereh, a medical doctor from Iran, devoted to the Faith. Being a poor student, Hussein gave her a “$10-dollar fake diamond ring” that he would later replace with one costing several thousand dollars that she in turn would donate to a Baha’i fundraising effort.
Hussein’s life expanded and blossomed with new opportunities and achievements as he made every effort to serve both the Baha’i and non-Baha’i communities. He taught math at Harlem Prep, a college preparatory high school, and “was soon appointed assistant headmaster with the responsibility of hiring faculty among others.” He would later write his doctoral dissertation on the school at the University of Massachusetts, under the Dean of Education, Dwight Allen. He served as a member of the Spiritual Assembly of New York City; he was involved in the Association of Baha’i Studies during its inception and assisted with the establishment of the Baha’i Office of Public Information. During a rare visit to New York, Hand of the Cause, Mr. Olinga, asked Hussein if he could meet Dizzy Gillespie. Hussein took Mr. Olinga to an upscale jazz club where Dizzy was playing. “When we entered the smoky club, Dizzy saw Mr. Olinga and announced that here was the conqueror of Africa and that he had written a piece in his honor titled ‘Olinga’ which he would now play. Most people looked around thinking Mr. Olinga was some head of state.”
Anyone not familiar with Baha’i history –and even those who are—cannot help but be moved by the delicate and profound way the authors weave the story of Hussein’s personal spiritual journey into the larger historical fabric of his family, Baha’i teachers and martyrs. He tells his story as part of the greater story of Baha’i immigrants seeking, finding and building Baha’i communities around the world.
Richard W. Thomas,Professor Emeritus of History at Michigan State University