Soheil Afnan

Soheil Mohsen Afnan, the third child of Mirza Muhsin and Touba Khanum, was, like his older brother Ruhi, an intellectual, who given the chance, would have been of great service to the Cause. Intelligent, academically gifted and ambitious, witty and straight backed, his green eyes stood out in his dark face and he was good at putting on a very clipped British accent and Effendi demeanour.

Educated at the College des Frères in Haifa and then at the American University ‘prep’ and the University proper in Beirut, he went on to the Sorbonne and Oxford. Financial constraints following the death of his father cut his education short and left him dejected and disappointed. However, when it came to his younger brother Fuad — about ten years his junior — he was determined that nothing should stand in the way of his education and prospects for the future. In 1938, when foreign students were being advised to leave England and go home, Fuad arrived in London to study engineering at the Imperial College. His death, during the London blitz, shattered Soheil. The shock caused him to disappear for almost a week, giving the grieving family cause to think that he had committed suicide. Fortunately that was not the case, and he came back — a changed man. Having failed to continue his own education, seeing his brother’s life cut short and his ambitions for him come to nothing, he now threw himself into research and study. Classical Greek was high on his list of priorities. His teacher was a Greek priest who was an accomplished tutor.

Soheil had perfected his Farsi ‘at his mother’s knee’, so to speak, though all the Master’s grandchildren, excepting for the three youngest boys (Hassan, Riaz and Fuad) had studied Farsi at home with Agha Mirza Abdullah Bahhage, a writer and poet in his own right. The Persian Bayan, not an easy book to read, was on the curriculum. His Greek studies however, resulted in a translation of Aristotle’s Poetics directly from the Greek to Farsi — something that had not been done before, and was published in Beirut in 1947. Upon seeing it, the well known Iranian poet Mehdi Akhawaneh Thaleth gave him full credit and kudos in a poem dedicated to Suheil Afnan with an Arabic title called ‘Fil Istijazah wal E’tithar’, (loosely translated as ‘I have taken the liberty and beg forgiveness’). At the time Akhawaneh Thaleth was the literary editor of the newspaper ‘Iraneh Ma’ (Our Iran). Unable to reach Soheil or to locate him, he took the liberty — he says — to serialize the whole thing in the newspaper and ended it with the above mentioned poem. In it he praises Soheil Afnan for breaking new ground and producing the first translation directly from the Greek, whereas previous translations had gone via other languages (see ‘Arghanoon’, a collection of poetry by Mehdi Akhawaneh Thaleth).

From there on, Soheil managed to go to Cambridge where he got his doctorate and went on to teach Iranian linguistics at the time when Professor Arberry was there. Later he was invited to teach at Harvard, but that did not work out.

The books he wrote included the following titles:

  • The Poetics of Aristotle. Translated from Greek to Persian. Luzac & Co., London, 1948
  • The Persai. Translated from Greek into Persian. Adrien Maisonneuve, Paris, 1952
  • Lexique des Termes de Logique en Grec, Anglais, Francais, Persan et Arab. Mimiographiee, Paris, 1954
  • Avicenna, His Life and Work. George Allen and Unwin, London, 1958
  • Philosophical Terminology in Arabic and Persian. E.J. Brill, 1964
  • A Philosophical Lexicon in Persian and Arabic. Imprimerie Catholique, Beirut, 1968
  • Dar Peyeh Khoshi: Short stories in Persian. Dar al Mashreq, Beirut, 1971
  • Concerning Dari Persian. Imprimerie Catholique, Beirut, 1973
  • Payameh Soroush: Two plays in Persian. Aarash, Stockholm, 1998

Though there does not seem to be any particular cable from Shoghi Effendi regarding Suheil, he was included in the cables that related to Ruhi and the accusation that he had gone to the US without the Guardian’s permission, that the family had acquiesced in the marriage of his sister Soraya to Dr. Feizy Afnan, whom Shoghi Effendi considered a covenant breaker, and that the already dead Fuad had gone to study in London without the Guardian’s knowledge or permission. No separate cable, but nevertheless ‘expelled’ along with all his family, dead and alive.

He spent his last years in Istanbul doing research at the Topkapi and other libraries there.

He set up a scholarship fund in the name of his brother Fuad at the American University of Beirut, for Iranian Baha’i students. But Baha’i students would have nothing to do with it. The University sought and obtained permission to open it to others.

He never married and died in Istanbul in 1990 aged 85.