Ruhanguise Rabbani Afnan

By Bahiyeh Afnan Shahid

Rouhanguise Khanum. My mother — second of Zia Khanum and Mirza Hadi Shirazi’s children — was born with the new 20th century (though her passport said 1904). She, together with her cousin Maryam, daughter of Rouha Khanum and Mirza Jalal Shahid, were what in Farsi they called ‘goleh sareh sabat’, or the flowers at the head of the basket. They were the two beauties among the five granddaughters of Abdul Baha. While in her teens, the Master had sought to give her in marriage, in the traditional manner, to a prominent Baha’i preacher quite a number of years her senior. She did not see eye to eye with her grandfather and luckily escaped a fate she dreaded when the gentleman in question had an epileptic seizure right before the Master’s eyes.

Having finished her high school studies at the Dames de Nazareth in Haifa, she went to England to continue her education. That however, was cut short both for her and for her brother Shoghi Effendi, when they both had to return to Haifa upon the passing away of their grandfather, Abdul Baha.

She was destined to marry Nayer Afnan, son of Seyyed Ali Afnan, and grandson of Afnaneh Kabir, the brother in law of the Bab. His mother was Forough Khanum, the daughter of Baha’u’llah from his third marriage to Gowhar Khanum. It was a love match not exactly blessed by Shoghi Effendi but neither did he put his foot down with a resounding No. The rest of the family, however, were on her side, and in 1928, upon one of his annual summer sojourns in Europe, the marriage took place in the [late] Master’s home, where his sister, Bahiyeh Khanum officiated at the wedding in the presence of Mounireh Khanum, the Master’s widow and other members of the family and of the community.

My father had studied agriculture at Reading University in England and upon graduation had worked at the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture dealing with the development and planting of cotton in that country.

My father’s older brother, Hussein Afnan, had, upon the recommendation of the Master to King Faisal (when the latter came to visit him in Haifa after the French had ousted him from Syria and the British set him up as King of Iraq), gone to work there and achieved prominence in various government and diplomatic posts. As such, Shoghi Effendi had asked him to try to convince the Iraqi authorities to release the house that Baha’u’llah had occupied in Baghdad, to the Baha’i community. This the authorities refused to do and the government remained adamant in its non-cooperation. At this point Shoghi Effendi asked Hussein Afnan to resign his post, in protest against the government’s negative attitude. This, Hussein Afnan refused to do, and was consequently ‘expelled’ by Shoghi Effendi. At the same time, my father was told to sever all relations with his brother. My father did not see the point in that and did not comply. All this placed my mother in a very difficult position and I well remember the tension in our household. Matters came to a head when Shoghi Effendi ordered my mother — though unwell — to go to Beirut to try to stop their sister Mehranguise from going to Baghdad to marry my uncle Hassan Afnan (my father’s youngest brother). When she failed in her mission, my parents were summarily ‘expelled’. Easily said, easily done. Both judgement and punishment were meted out and executed. Who was to say why and what for? Blind obedience was the name of the game. ‘Expulsion’ the punishment if you failed in your mission.

My mother was devastated. A beautiful, dignified, intelligent and well-read lady — truly a lady in every sense of the word — she withstood the blow and said nothing. She suffered in silence and avoided all recrimination. Her brother, Shoghi Effendi, had been appointed Guardian of the Faith that my father’s grandfather and her great grandfather, had, together with the Bab, established. Abdul Baha, Baha’u’llah’s son, had, in his will, appointed him as the Guardian and had described him in glowing colours. Her brother’s judgements and decisions, right or wrong, she did not dispute. She simply swallowed the bitter pill and maintained her silence. As time passed, all the family of Shoghi Effendi came to share that fate, but they all remained silent, refusing to do anything that would cast a shadow on the Cause of the Bab and Baha’u’llah. The group included his parents, his brothers and sisters, together with their respective families, his aunts, their spouses and children (his cousins). They were shunned by the community, and if anybody disobeyed, they were liable to share the same fate. In the same category were Baha’is who had disobeyed him when he ordered them to leave life and livelihood in Haifa and to go to various other assigned countries, towns and cities. Easily said, but how easily done, I wonder.

In our apartment at No. 6 Prophet Street, in Haifa, we led a quiet life, shunned by the community (with one exception that I recall) and out of the limelight and the activities of the Baha’i community. I well remember my parents’ bedroom in which hung a very good reproduction of Raphael’s Madonna of the Seggiola (Madonna of the Chair). The serenity on the Madonna’s face was not something that I could associate with my mother’s face, though she was as beautiful, as dignified and as feminine. With her brother she shared a streak of hot temper, but was very proud of him and loved him dearly till the end of her life. Together with her sister Mehranguise, they suffered at his hands, but there nevertheless was a very strong bond of affection, loyalty and desire to defend him, which bordered on reverence, in spite of the pain he had inflicted on them. I wish I knew exactly why.

During the 2nd World War and at the time of King Abdulla, my father worked in Jordan as the Director General of the Ministry of Agriculture. Not to interrupt our studies, my mother, my sister and I remained in Haifa, joining my father during school holidays.

By 1948 the hostilities between the Arabs and Jews had started in Palestine, and after a few frightening and disturbing incidents my parents saw fit, temporarily to leave for the peace and quiet of Lebanon. About a year later my father returned, — thanks to the good offices of the Iranian government on behalf of the Iranians who had lived in Palestine, — to what was now Israel, never to leave again, as he died there in 1952. My mother lived to be 92 — still in exile — this time in London, where she died in 1992 and where, according to her wishes, is buried in Southgate Cemetery, not far from the last resting place of Shoghi Effendi, a brother who wrongly accused her of many things (see my letter to Taherzadeh dated December 1994) but whom she loved dearly till the end of her life. There she is flanked by her brother Riaz and by our faithful nanny Jamileh who had ever been a blessing in our lives, and who had, since the age of thirteen, accompanied my mother and served her, keeping her company through thick and thin, until she too died, in London, two years after my mother.

My sister Maliheh, five years my junior, became an artist of international renown, and died in London on the 6th of January 2016, at the age of eighty.

My sister and I were the only two children of Rouhanguise and Nayer Afnan.