Through the desert
A message of religious tolerance
June 8, 2006
Excerpt from "Veiled Souls" by Katrin Kassiri & Reza Safarnejad (PublishAmerica 2006).
In 1976 Iran is a peaceful, prosperous and Westernized country. Katrin is an eight year old girl growing up in Northern Iran in a family who follows a minority religion known as the Bahai Religion. Katrin's seventeen year old sister, Nassrin, commits suicide when Katrin's father disapproves of Nassrin's relationship with Hossein who came from a Moslem family.
As the family works through their grief, Iran's political situation destabilizes when various political factions such as pro-democracy students and Islamic fundamentalists vie to overthrow the government through a violent revolution. The bloody revolution is followed by a full-scale with Iraq, as Iran's government cracks down on the civil rights of its citizens and openly discriminates against Bahais. Katrin who sees no future for herself in Iran decides to leave for the United States, but she has to brave a trip through the desert of Eastern Iran into Pakistan with the aid of human traffickers.
Her story in the United States is a personal account with a fresh view of an Iranian Bahai who is new to the Western culture as she struggles to find her place in life. There are more twists and turns when she falls in love with a Moslem man who is younger than her and his mother will not give her blessing to their marriage.
The main subject of this "Veiled Souls" is Katrin's emotional story with a message of religious tolerance. It is an allegorical tale for all who have ever lost control of their lives as a consequence of unforeseen events or prejudices of society. This book is very unique because it gives the readers a first hand and unbiased view of Iran's revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and the changes that took place in post-revolution Iran. It is also unique because this is the only known book written by a Bahai without the review and approval of the Bahai religious governing council.
Passage from beginning of the book:
I was cleaning the basement when I came across a shoebox full of old family photos; pictures of my parents, some of them taken before I was born. Looking through the pictures was like taking a trip into the past. I came across an old picture of my mother; so old that I do not remember ever seeing her that way. She was standing near an orange tree in a white dress, with a sweet smile on her face. I tried to picture her in my mind. The photograph did not resemble the woman I remembered. It must have been taken long before the tragedies of her life stole her smile. I remember her, always dressed in black, as if no other color existed for her, and the lines on her face bore the signs of her sufferings.
I put the picture in a frame in plain view to help me remember her from a kinder, gentler time of her life. Perhaps someday it would help me tell my children the story of where their parents and grandparents came from, to pass on the lessons of our lives onto my children. How would I tell them my story, when so much of it took place in a different world? A world that is completely unknown to them. It scares me to think that my children and I come from two different worlds. How can I bridge the gap between these two worlds? How can I make them understand? Then again, I think that all parents and their children come from different worlds; some separated by the physical distance of their cultures, others by the generation gap.
My parents came from a small village in northern Iran by the Caspian Sea where everything is lush green and beautiful unspoiled beaches are just a brisk walk away. This quiet and inconsequential farming village was where they grew up, fell in love and got married. My mother was only seventeen and two years younger than my father when they married, although they had a good reason to get married at such a young age. My mother was already pregnant with their first child and in such a small community this was about as scandalous as it could get. Having a child so soon into their marriage was not a problem for my parents because they both loved children. Naturally they did not stop after the first one. I was the last of eight children; four boys followed by four girls, as they reached for hormonal balance in the house.
My parents had a wonderful relationship. They used to play cards and joke around when they were together. My father had a government job administering basic health exams and vaccinating children in small towns that paid enough to make a modest living. Even though we could not afford most luxuries, it never bothered us. The economy had been growing rapidly in the last thirty years and the country’s standard of living was in line with most Western nations. My family moved to a town about a hundred miles away called Gonbad before I was born when my father received a well deserved promotion. Gonbad is made of a mix population of mostly Turkman, Mazandarani, Persian and Azari ethnics.
The Turkmans are descendants of Mongolian tribes. They would be considered Asian in America. The Persians look Middle Eastern by American standards and the Mazandarani are fair skinned and lite colored people, although the various races have been mixing for so many generations that it is impossible to find anyone of a single pure background. The Turkmans are mostly Sunni Moslems, while the Persians and Mazandaranis are mostly Shiite. A trip to Gonbad would leave a lasting impression on even the most unimaginative visitor, as the visions of men and women dressed in traditional Mongolian tribesmen clothing clashes with the machinery and glitter of modern day life in this thousand year old city.
Iran is one of the few countries in the world like the United States or Canada where people of all colors, ethnic and religious backgrounds live on the same street peacefully. This becomes an important issue to my story because my family follows a small and little known religion called the Bahai faith. The Bahai religion is not accepted by Moslems because Moslems believe Mohammad was the last prophet, while the Bahai faith was started by a man known as The Báb (The Gate) who promised a new prophet was to come about twelve hundred years after Mohammad.
Our home was a modest three bedroom with a large courtyard in the front that led to the street. The front courtyard was surrounded by tall brick walls with a metal gate that opened to the sidewalk outside. The yard’s ground was covered with white mosaic tiles and there was a small fountain pool at the center of the yard. Adjacent to each wall there was a flower garden.
Growing up in a Bahai family, I felt no different from other children my age. My earliest childhood memories are of playing with my sisters and friends. But my most vivid childhood memory is of a terrible night when I woke up to the sound of my mother screaming. It was still dark outside. I slipped out of bed rubbing my eyes and stumbled toward the door as I made my way through my room side stepping the toys on the floor. There were about a dozen men and women in our living room. Four women surrounded my mother who was sitting on the couch and sobbing out loud. I heard the words death and tragic over and over again as the men and women whispered to each other. I looked around the room for my sisters and my dad but I could not find them. Had something happened to my father? I felt confused and scared and I began to cry. So much had changed in the past year. We had lived in the same house as long as I could remember and life was just a comfortable childish routine for me, but then everything began to change.
By winter of 1976, my four brothers and my oldest sister had all left the house. Only the three youngest girls, Nassrin, Jacklyn and I were still living in the house. My youngest brother, Ghobaud, who had recently finished his military duty, was living with us temporarily until he found a job. Having Ghobaud in the house was both good and bad. My father was away most of the time on business trips. It was nice having a man in the house. It made me feel safe. At the same time Ghobaud was very strict with us, especially with my sister Nassrin who was seventeen and a high school senior. Like most Iranian teenagers in the seventies she wanted to freely date whomever she wished. I used to hear Ghobaud and Nassrin argue often about her makeup, whom she was with, and how late she came home. But to be completely honest, being a kid I was distracted easily by my friends playing outside and never paid much attention to their fights.
I was in the second grade and I envied Jacklyn who was four years older than me and sometimes got away with wearing make up. But of all my siblings, I loved Nassrin the most. She always looked out for me and bought me toys or ice cream when she had money. I used to watch Nassrin in the morning as she brushed her long straight brown hair and put on her makeup. She was beautiful. I wanted to be like her when I grew up. I tried to mimic her by brushing my hair with her brush and putting on her makeup. But I had curly hair and always ended up with knots in my hair and makeup ended up everywhere on my face except where it should go.
Nassrin had been spending less time with me since she started dating Hossein in early fall. I was jealous that Nassrin was not spending as much time with me as she used to, but I noticed how happy my mom was for the two of them. My mom invited Hossein over for dinner often and she always cooked something fancy when he came over. Through winter Nassrin and Hossein became closer and they were spending more and more time together. I asked my mother why they were always together. I did not quite understand the whole being in love thing, but I had heard enough love stories to accept it. I had seen them kiss, although they never kissed in public. But being the youngest child I could sometimes go unnoticed and see things others in the house did not.
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