Bahai News -- UW Daily - From East to West

From East to West

Photo courtesy Vida Alavi
Vida Alavi stands outside a park in Tehran. Alavi, a
member of the Baha’i faith, left Iran five years ago
to pursue her freedom and education in the West.

Adriana Farhodi

It was about three weeks ago that Seattle’s Baha’i community was observing the festival of Ridvan, one of the holiest of all Baha’i celebrations. Ridvan, known as the Festival of God, lasts from April 21 to May 2, though only the festival’s first, ninth and last days are deemed holy enough to suspend work. Each year, the festival — which represents the time Baha’u’llah, the Baha’is’ profit, spent in the Baghdad garden of Ridvan, or “paradise,” where he declared himself the “manifestation of God” — spurs many varieties of gatherings among the 6 million Baha’is worldwide, each event usually beginning with prayers and music.

This year, a large celebration occurred on the last day of the festival at a Mercer Island middle school, where a large crowd of Baha’is was treated to food and refreshments, as well as programs in both English and Farsi.

Vida Alavi, a senior zoology major at the UW, decided to play drums at the Baha’i prayer for the festival, and was glad to invite her family for celebration at the middle school.

Vida left her home country of Iran five years ago in search of freedom in the West. Vida is from Shiraz, one of Iran’s richest and most historical cities, also one of the biggest tourist sites in the country. Shiraz is known for its poetry, and holds the tombstone of two of the most famous Persian poets, Hafez and Saddi. The city is also known for its famous wine, prohibited by the Islamic government of Iran.

Born during the outset of Iran’s 1979 revolution, Vida has faced uncertainty from the beginning. Her future, and those of many other Baha’is, was upended when the country’s newly established regime started harassing Baha’is. Although Baha’is were originally Muslims who later converted to the Baha’i religion, and believe in all religions, the new Islamic government rejected their beliefs.

After the revolution, many Baha’is were persecuted, including a 17-year-old girl from Vida’s hometown. Vida’s mother, a midwife, was laid off simply because she refused to claim that she was not a Baha’i.

“They told me that I could get my job back simply if I signed that I was a Muslim,” she said.

But her faith did not allow her to lie, so she decided to work at home, sewing, while Vida’s father made baby shoes and sold them in the market.

“Basically, [the regime] did not consider us as human beings,” Vida said.

According to the Islamic regime of Iran, Vida was banned from public gatherings; she was denied a passport and her parents were not allowed to work in public. Vida was also not able to attend college, while her fellow friends were accepted into universities. Technically, she wasn’t even allowed to go to school, though Vida went anyway, without anyone knowing she was a Baha’i.

“I always made sure I would not get into trouble, because then I could have been expelled from the school,” she said.

Vida’s principal was kind enough to accept her into high school, but her belief had to be kept a secret.

Today, many Baha’is throughout Iran attend regular Muslim schools. However, their admission almost fully depends on the leniency of the schools’ principals. If word gets out that a student is a Baha’i, the principal will be held accountable for the supposed admissions breakdown — and responsible for the ensuing shock.

“When I told my best friend in school that I was a Baha’i one day,” Vida said, “she didn’t talk to me for three weeks.”

Since 90 percent and the majority of the Iranians are Shi’ite Muslims, it is hard to recognize the religious minorities in the crowd. The Persians who founded the Persian Empire were Zoroastrians, during the Achaemenian times. However, after Arab and Iranian attacks in seventh century, Islam and the Arabic language was forced into the Persian culture.

Besides the Baha’i faith, the major minorities of today’s Iranians are Christians and Jews, but because their religions are known and accepted by Islam, they do not have much problem living and going to school. Vida, however, was forced to study the Islamic religion in school, and sometimes had to hide in the bathroom to escape the daily prayers.

After nearly two decades of struggle with the government, Baha’is were finally allowed to have passports — and Vida’s future changed drastically when she decided to leave Iran. Vida’s brother, who left Iran at the beginning of the revolution — when Vida was only six months old — was living in Mexico when he was finally able to return home to visit his family.
“When we finally reunited in Iran, after 17 years, my mom pointed to me and told my brother, ‘This is your little sister,’ and tears rolled down his eyes,” Vida said.

Vida’s brother, now an electrical engineer working as one of the prominent salesmen in Mexico, was able to support his family and bring it to Mexico, though some relatives remained behind. Vida immediately started to learn Spanish, thinking she was going to live in Mexico. That soon changed, however, when she came to Seattle to visit some of her relatives. Vida extended her six-month visa, and a lawyer allowed her, her mother and her older sister to remain in the United States.

Vida, an active member of the Baha’i community, said she has learned what struggle is and enjoys her freedom in the United States, although she is still deeply connected to her culture. Vida misses her family members in Iran, who she has not seen for more than five years, and is still much enamored with her homeland — and her faith.

She keeps a picture of Baha’u’llah and repeats what the prophet once said: “Each religion is true, is beautiful, is valid for the age in which appears. It is the only truth for that particular age, yet it is but one part of the single, great, progressive, never-ending religion of God. The world of God is one, though the speakers are many.”

©Copyright 2003, The Daily, Univeristy of Washington (Seattle, WA, USA)

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