Refugees: Custodians of a Nation’s History

Book cover with face of Manijeh Saatchi

Manijeh: Not only a change of name by Manijeh Saatchi with the assistance of Fereshteh Hooshmand (George Ronald: 2014).

The people we share a train carriage with on the way to work, the hundreds we pass in a busy shopping centre, all these people carry a story within them. Each story is changing, developing and interlinked with others. Each story is a multi-faceted tile that helps to build the complex, mosaic of human life on this planet.

Fortunately for us Brisbane resident, Manijeh Saatchi, with the help of her daughter, Fereshteh Hooshmand, has shared her memories in the book, Manijeh: Not only a change of name. It is a classic tale of an ostensibly ordinary person who has faced extraordinary hurdles in her life. In telling it, she takes us to a culture, time and place very different to our own.

Manijeh Saatchi was born in 1929 in Iran to a poor family. It was a hard life, and was not made easier when Manijeh and her husband, Javad, decided to change their religion and become members of the Baha’i Faith.

Manijeh and Javad lived in the southern city of Shiraz. Less than one hundred years before they became members of the Baha’i community, a young Shirazi merchant had caused a tumult throughout the Persia, as Iran was then called. He became known as The Báb (pronounced Bahb) and urged all to prepare themselves for the imminent coming of the long-awaited Messenger of God. His message captivated the nation but many were opposed and the followers of The Báb suffered terribly from the prejudice and violence which ensued. Nineteen years later Baha’u’llah, the son of a Persian nobleman, declared He was the Messenger of God about Whom The Báb was referring. Baha’u’llah founded the Baha’i Faith on the principle of bringing harmony among the diverse peoples of the world, yet the followers of this new religion suffered terribly from prejudice and repression fanned by those in power. Waves of violence against Baha’is in Persia were always around the corner.

Despite his peace-loving nature, the neighbourhood children could often be heard calling him ‘kafar’, which meant infidel. The children would not include him in any game which included physical contact, as they would say that he was ‘najess’ or unclean.

Manijeh had witnessed the harassment of Baha’is during her childhood. She and Javad knew her lives would not be easy when they became Baha’is. Facing poverty and rejected by their families they moved to the southern port city of Bushehr where they became custodians for the building from which The Báb had worked a century before.

Here they raised their nine children. They had little money but following the precepts of the Baha’i Faith they ensured that all their children, girls as well as boys, attended school and encouraged them to do well. The House of The Báb in Bushehr attracted Baha’i pilgrims from around the world. Manijeh and Javad had the task of hosting visitors from places such as North America and Africa without attracting the malevolent attention of other residents. In this they were sometimes assisted by neighbours who were custodians for a Muslim holy place in the city. Kindness exists in all religions.

Manijeh and Javad lived through many periods of official repression against Baha’is during their lives. Over the years Baha’i holy places have been deliberately destroyed – an attempt to erase visual reminders of the existence of the Baha’i Faith. Manijeh and her family were distraught as the House of The Báb in Bushehr which they had looked after and where they lived was torn down by authorities in 1967.

Another period of persecution occurred after the revolution in 1979 and continues to this day. This had a direct affect on Manijeh’s family as it did on Baha’is throughout the country. Children were expelled from school, Baha’is were forced to leave university, sacked from their jobs and had their businesses seized. Some Baha’is were physically attacked and many were unjustly imprisoned. Manijeh’s family experienced all this.

The Baha’is are the largest non-Muslim religious group in Iran but the only religious group not recognised in Iran’s constitution (see article 13 of Iran’s constitution). They can be represented in the country’s legal system, but as Manijeh knew, lawyers seeking justice for Baha’is are subject to harassment themselves and need to be extraordinarily courageous to do this work (read about how one of these courageous Iranian lawyers has been treated).

In the aftermath of the revolution some of her children and their families sought refuge in other countries. As an elderly woman Manijeh made the difficult journey out of Iran and found sanctuary in Australia.

Manijeh Saatchi’s life has been eventful. Her story has a deep emotional impact on the reader. While at times it is distressing, it is also the tale of people rising above the injustices meted out to them and drawing on their religious beliefs to make a contribution for a better world. Manijeh allows the story to tell itself by employing a simple narrative style. This makes this memoir engrossing and helps the reader connect across the cultural boundaries. Manijeh may have lived in a very different culture and place to that experienced by most Australians but her life as a mother is instantly recognisable. This brings into sharp relief the poverty and prejudice she endured but which she rose above.

Manijeh: Not only a change of name, is a good example of the value of family history. Manijeh’s daughter, Fereshteh Hooshmand recognised the significance of her mother’s story and spent many hours with her mother helping Manijeh tell her story to an Australian audience. This book is not an exercise in the aggrandisement of ancestors but an important snapshot of the social and religious history of another country. Many of those who have migrated to Australia have fled from violence and repression, from armies or governments seeking to expunge the history of minorities from their land. Our country is home to many families such as Manijeh’s who are the custodians of another nation’s history.

The migrants of Australia are a living repository of world history. Their stories need to be recorded and shared.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 logo

You can also read the reflections by the editor of this book, Michael Day. A few years ago I wrote about preserving the history of persecuted minorities in ‘When Family History is All That is Left‘. I covered the issue of destruction of culturally significant buildings in ‘The Destruction of Memory‘ which was about a powerful new documentary of the same name and directed by Tim Slade. 

This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Disclosure

I became a Baha’i in 1987 and worked as a public information officer for the Australian Baha’i Community between 2003 and the beginning of 2007.

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2 thoughts on “Refugees: Custodians of a Nation’s History

  1. Pingback: May Roundup – History, Memoir, Biography (HMB) | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  2. Pingback: April–June 2016 Roundup: Diversity | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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