The Missionary Who Became a Superhero By Randolph Dobbs
There must be some kind of missionary muscle some people develop during the course of their religious service. Nayyereh Aminian would become a virtual superhero during hers. She and her husband, Ata, waited a long time for their assignment. Now after two years of uncertainty and setting aside future plans, the letter they had been waiting for finally arrived. The national leadership of the Bahá’í Faith in Iran had approved their assignment with the understanding that their missionary service would be a long-term commitment of at least a few years. All over the world, hundreds of other Bahá’í families had also applied for missionary service in a special plan during the 1950s known to Bahá’ís as the “Ten Year Crusade.”
Nayyereh and Ata opened the letter and held their breath as they read the details: They were to serve in Borujerd in the Province of Lorestan. They were pleased, of course, but also a little surprised. They had heard about Borujerd, the ancient city in the mountainous region of western Iran so old that it predates Islam, but neither one of them had actually been there. Other than Borujerd being known for its agriculture and cold winters, neither one of them really knew much about the place.
No matter. It would be a chance to serve their religion and help make a better world in the process. The way to do that, their religion told them, was to teach virtue by way of example. They were ordinary people about to be immersed in an extraordinary environment, one that was isolated, culturally backward and, as they would find out soon enough, hostile to new ways of doing things — especially when it came to religion. It was the mid-1950s, they were both young and idealistic and life seemed full of possibilities.
The growing Aminian family included the young couple and their four boys: Ahmad, aged 8, Mahmoud 4, Hamid 2, and the baby, Hamed, who had been born earlier that year in Tehran, the capital of Iran where Nayyereh and Ata had both been raised, fell in love and married. Over the course of the next 13 years, two more boys and a girl would be added to the family.
They had no way of knowing it at the time, but their religious service would wind up shaping the family’s capacity to adapt to life’s harsh realities. Their lives would be forever changed by the hardship and privation they would endure. This was true for every member of the family but especially so for Nayyereh, who in time would become something of a chief executive officer for the family, a devoted helpmate for her husband and a superhero in the eyes of her seven children.
American Christian missionaries had introduced aspects of Western culture into Iran starting in the early 1800s, especially in the areas of education and medicine. In time, Christian missions were opened in Tehran, Tabriz, Hamadan, Kermanshah, Kazvin, Resht, and Meshed. The Bahá’í Faith dates its origins to roughly the same period of time but unlike the Christian or Jewish traditions, the Baha’i Faith exists outside of the protection of religious liberty guaranteed by the Iranian constitution.
From the very beginning, members of the Bahá’í Faith in Iran were considered apostates and deniers of the Prophet Muhammad, even though the basic tenets of the new religion affirm the divinity of all the world’s great religions including the panoply of their respective Prophet-Founders: Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. The Bahá’í Faith adds two more: the Bab as its Prophet-Herald and Baha’u’llah as its Founder. To this day life is difficult for Bahá’ís in Muslim-majority countries throughout the Middle East.
New religions have always been problematic — equal parts disruption and enlightenment. There are still parts of the world today in which religious intolerance is so deeply rooted that anyone willing to promote religious freedom quickly risks losing theirs. Nowhere on earth is it more difficult to be a member of a different religion than in modern-day Iran where the Bahá’í Faith first started.
Almost completely Shi’ite Muslim, Iran in the mid-20th century was a country of contradictions. Like his long-ruling father before him, Reza Shah Pahlavi, the heir to the Naderi Throne, Mohammad Reza Shah, embraced modernity and aggressively sought to emulate the West and its material success. Still, many people in the country were resistant to change.
Iran briefly tried secular democracy in the early 1950s but the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown in a 1953 coup orchestrated by the Western powers, primarily the United States. The re-installed shah would then rule with practically unlimited power until his own overthrow in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
But all this social upheaval lay in the future. For the Aminian family in 1955, their first priority was to pack up and move to their assigned post. A little less than 400 kilometers (around 250 miles) from Tehran, the drive to Borujerd takes about 4½ hours nowadays if you go by way of the Arak-Khorramabad Highway. But modern roads weren’t common back then and it took the family three days to get there — all in a run-down, mid-1930s, Ford utility-van.
There wasn’t enough room in the van for everyone to sit comfortably so the second-oldest son, Mahmoud, sat on the transmission hump between the two front seats. It was rough going over unpaved roads so they had to drive slowly. Whenever the van hit an especially bad bump in the road the little boy would bounce up almost to the ceiling of the cab.
After many stops along the way to fix flat tires or ask directions, the family arrived at last at the outskirts of Borujerd where their first home was located near the “Pol-e Dara-Rooa” or Dara-Rooa Bridge. The house they rented was a long way from the city center and very much isolated without any street lights, paved roads or sidewalks. That first night they could hear the sound of wolves in the distance but the children were too exhausted to be afraid.
With no modern plumbing inside the house, just getting water was the first obstacle to overcome. The two oldest boys were dispatched with a two-gallon bucket to walk the half-mile to an underground community faucet called the Aab-Anbar. They had to carefully negotiate a slippery stone staircase down to an enormous faucet below street-level. It was difficult descending the steps but even harder coming back up carrying the bucket of water. Sometimes they slipped on the mossy steps and slid back down to the bottom. The one good thing was that the water was fresh and clear and came from the pristine Goldasht Valley just west of the city.
News of the family’s arrival soon spread to the people who lived in the area. Many residents welcomed them but some were openly hostile to the Bahá’í family that had moved in to the neighborhood. One day as the two boys carried their bucket of water back to the house, a Muslim man recognized them as Baha’is and spat in the bucket. Ahmad and Mahmoud had to empty the water out and walk all the way back to refill the bucket.
In short order, the family moved closer to the center of town — into an apartment about three kilometers (two miles) from the main bazaar. The father, Ata, opened a fabric store less than a hundred meters from their apartment. It was convenient to home but ultimately unsuccessful for two reasons: first, it wasn’t near the main bazaar where people did their shopping and, second, most people preferred not to do business with a Bahá’í — even to the point of considering Bahá’ís as “najes” (unclean).
In the meantime, Nayyereh did what she could to beat back poverty. She took clothes apart in order to better understand how they were constructed and soon became the family tailor. Using a hand-cranked sewing machine she was able to make their clothing including the school uniforms the children had to have for school.
Although he tried his best, Ata eventually had to close his store and take a job in a zinc mine to make ends meet. The mine was some distance away in the Zagros Mountains that ringed the valley. It meant being away from the family for days, sometimes weeks at a time, but they had little choice. They would keep the children in school and Nayyereh would carry on.
She instilled a passion for education in each of her children, making sure they understood that the pathway to success was dependent on getting a good education. In addition to reading the Qur’án from beginning to end, all students were required to take three Islamic courses in school: Arabic, Islam, and “Fekh” (Islamic rules). To make sure they did well in their Islamic studies, Nayyereh tutored her children in Arabic. She made sure they memorized Islamic prayers in addition to their Bahá’í prayers in both Arabic and Persian.
Later, when they needed to know English, she first learned it herself and then taught it to her children. The obstacles she was forced to overcome helped shape Nayyereh’s inner landscape. Her difficulties became the means to look deeply inside herself to find hidden strength.
Although the road to these life-lessons was long, circuitous and painfully arduous, in the end the family endured. In fact, given the context of their mission and the harsh conditions they faced, one can fairly say they even thrived.
It wasn’t easy. Nayyereh drew on the power of prayer to give her courage. A hundred years after the 19th century Persian-poet Tahirih removed her veil in defiance of male domination, Nayyereh was the first woman in Borujerd to remove her veil in 1965. She promoted the equality of women and men at a time when it was scandalous to do so.
Nayyereh died giving birth to her seventh child, Azita, in 1968. Her husband, Ata, passed away 45 years later. With the exception of Hamed, who died at the age of 18, all the children graduated from university. Today, Ahmad and Azita both serve as Bahá’í missionaries in a small town outside of Frankfurt, Germany, and Navid lives in Zhuhai, China. Vahid, Mahmoud and Hamid all became civil engineers. Vahid has since passed on but Mahmoud and Hamid still live and work in the U.S.
Nayyereh Aminian was indomitable. What she didn’t have she made. What she couldn’t make she improvised. And when she couldn’t make something or improvise its replacement, she learned how to do without and taught her children to do the same. She prevailed against all odds and couldn’t have been more of a superhero to her children had she worn a cape and a golden letter on her chest.
Randolph Dobbs was born in Oakland, California, and raised in Salinas near Monterey where he attended Hartnell College. Dobbs is a member of the Regional Bahá’í Council of the State of California. He was elected to the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Los Angeles in the mid-90’s and serves as its secretary. He is a past-president of the Inter-Religious Council of Southern California and serves on its Executive Committee as well as the Advisory Board of the Guibord Center – Religion Inside Out. In addition to serving as a religious director in the Office of Religious Life at USC, he is also a member of the Board of Directors of the University Religious Conference at UCLA and part of the Interfaith Collective in the Mayor’s Office for the City of Los Angeles. His articles on religious matters appear on various websites including Examiner.com, Beliefnet.com, Iranian.com and Iranshahr.com, Iranpresswatch.org and Bahais.us.