By Masoud Lavasani (1), journalist, living in Turkey
I was six or seven years old, walking with my father and mother along the winding alley of the “Imamzadeh Yahya” neighborhood (2) to my Grandfather’s house. A narrow street with a small stream in the center, which passes by “Pesteh-Bak” outdoor market place with a ceiling and the smell of fresh baked sheermal bread (3) was so inviting.
Just before the alley to get to my grandfather’s house was an old public bath with ten to twenty steps down to a basement, where scenes from the movie “Qeysar” were shot at that location, directed by Masoud Kimiai (4). Also there was a small mosque, which was modest relative in those years. An old mullah was performing his daily obligatory prayers there. He was a popular man in the realm of my childhood, with his tall white beard and black turban full of dignity, though he seemed unreachable.
People were saying that this mullah had forced some Baha’i families to recant their faith and become Muslim in the heat of the Islamic revolution in 1979.
My first encounter with this word (Baha’i) was at the same age. When I got older, I once went to a sandwich shop, I saw written on the windows: “This deli is owned by religious minorities”. I asked my father, “What is a religious minority?” He said: “Christians’, Jews and Baha’is live amongst the Shi’ite majority. I asked my father about the Baha’is. He explained that unlike the Shi’ites, they believe that Imam Mahdi has emerged, and then he told me the story about his contact with Baha’is.
Before the revolution, my father had a Baha’i friend, who was born into a Shi’ite family. However, he was curious about the Baha’i faith and asked his friend about his faith and their religious traditions. My father told me that it was very strange having a Baha’i friend in his family, especially as he had been unaware of what Baha’is were before. Even before the revolution, a lot of negative propaganda had been promulgated against Baha’is. Among these illiterate and ignorant people, a common belief was that Baha’is do not forbid marriage between brother and sister.
My father heard from his friend about some of the traditions and beliefs of the Baha’i religion, but most of all he was attracted to the idea that Baha’is don’t tell lies.
Although my father was showing me his perception through the eyes of a Shi’ite Muslim, I understood it was coming from a caring, humanitarian viewpoint that no Bahai’s would tell a lie.
That’s why I always ignored the anti-Baha’i propaganda.
Years passed by, and I never had to deal with any Baha’i, until in 2009 circumstances threw me into a corner where I met some of them. I first became acquainted with a Baha’i, Peyman Kashfi (5), in section 350 of Evin prison; he was a few years older than me. Engineering graduate (if I am not mistaken) from the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE – 6). Because he was a Baha’i, he was denied entry to any regular University. He was arrested for holding a religious ceremony and imprisoned with a heavy sentence. Once Peyman was brought in, I heard from the inmates that he was a Baha’i. His presence didn’t phase me, but only because I had never encountered any Baha’i until that day.
In a society where citizens are subjected to an endless onslaught of unanswered allegations against Baha’is, which are unilateral, when you are forced to live in a small space next to the “others” you become interested enough to survey them.
At first Peyman greeted everyone. He participated beyond what was expected in the work around the prison. He performed tasks such as washing the dishes and cleaning up the food, clothes after everyone has eaten, etc, even when it was not his turn. This would sometimes cause me to become angry and I would say to him:
Peyman jan: you are the character who will be martyred at the end of a film.
I was fascinated by Peyman’s character. What attracted me to him was his calm demeanor and dignity in all aspects of his personality and behavior. He spoke so softly and slowly, and exhibited such empathy in conversation about your loved ones that you would find yourself wanting to talk to him for hours. That is how in my first few days we became good friends, and we spent many hours together.
We would discuss literature, poetry and music. We would also sometimes talk about our way of life and culture. I asked Peyman to talk to me about the Baha’i faith, but it seemed he didn’t want to tell me. When I insisted, he said: “Before they put us into section 350 the authorities told us Bahai’s not to mingle with the other inmates. Otherwise, we will receive extra sentences for teaching the Baha’i religion in a prison cell.”
It was like a prison inside a prison, but we had no other choice. For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 30 days a month and 12 months a year we lived in a 20-meter jail cell, not even able to talk to each other. So while Peyman and I were in section 350 of Evin prison together, he did not say much about the Baha’i faith. There were about five or six subjects that I asked him to explain to me. The first thing he explained was the engagement and marriage customs in the Baha’i faith. We talked about women’s rights, divorce, abortion, gay marriage, drinking alcohol, Baha’i worship, obligatory acts and actions that are forbidden.
He never insisted on his beliefs for propagating the Baha’i faith. He never mentioned the faith unless we asked him questions. As time passed, our friendship grew, and I felt more and more shameful as a Muslim, born a Shi’ite: why do my fellow Muslims inflict such cruelty and injustice on Baha’is?
Some people say that in the Islamic republic of Iran Baha’is are secondary citizens, but what I witnessed was that the Islamic republic give them no living rights at all – their lives and all belongings are free to be taken by any Muslim citizen. A Baha’i has no right to his property nor to his destiny.
What I have seen with my own eyes are despicable acts of injustice perpetrated by one human being against another that I had never before seen in the twenty-first century.
In this era, humankind has attained the point of maturity of knowledge. The color of our skin and what we choose to believe is no reason to judge anyone to be above another. I just don’t understand why a Baha’i human being in Iran is not given the right to higher education, or even to a graveyard! Don’t they have rights just like other Iranians who share the same land?
In the intial stages of getting to know Peyman I had a lot of questions. I still have not found the answers to this day.
Peyman Kashfi was characteristically peaceful and kind. I personally apologize for injustices done to Baha’is and for all the cruelty – but I remember that he showed not even the slightest amount of hate toward the interrogators who had caused him to land in prison.
I told him that it is interesting to me that if the world is turned upside down, you would not have any reaction.
He smiled and said these famous words of Kurt Vonnegut Jr (7): “Yes! So it goes…”
Peyman, I am ashamed to call myself a human being while you are a prisoner of my ignorant fellow religionists.
2. A map of the Imamzadeh Yahya mausoleum & environs is here: http://wikimapia.org/11164198/Imamzadeh-Yahya
3. Iranian flatbread: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheermal
5. A somewhat detailed report of Peyman Kashfi’s arrest, charges and sentence can be found under the date “17 July” here: http://sensday.wordpress.com/old-news/2010-5-6-june-july/
6. The BIHE website is here: http://www.bihe.org/
7. Most famously at a number of points in the 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five.
Translation by Iran Press Watch