The Story of Tahirih, Part 2
About the Author
Simon de Laat is a third-year History student who is currently doing a Psychology minor in Leiden. In his free time, he likes to play guitar, play volleyball, drink coffee all day long and try out new craft beers. This is the first year in which he is part of an ACE committee
Disclaimer: I do not claim to have any authority over the story of Tahirih, nor should this story be considered a critique on Shiism or Islam in general. This entirely fictional portrayal of a historical character is meant for entertainment and possibly as a source of inspiration. Nothing more, nothing less.
The Story of Tahirih, Part 2
It was a warm, April afternoon, around 1 pm when Javad came into the courtyard and said to me: “Father has arrived and he has to tell us something. He sounded worried.”
After my return to Qazvin, I had refused to return to my husband. During the months I had spent in Karbala, I had promised myself that I would certainly not go back to a place where my hands would be tied behind my back and where I had to live with an infidel. Javad, the cousin who owned the library where I had learned about the teachings of Kazim, had offered me a place to stay and since I had returned to Qazvin, I had slept there. I noticed that a few angry-looking men were standing outside Javad’s house. One of those men was my husband, who did not look happy. His watery eyes and his red, almost purple face were not entirely new to me, but I had never seen him this enraged before, which worried me. My father came into the living quarter and asked me to sit down. He had massive bags under his eyes and he also smelled worse than normal. We seated ourselves in a corner where the crowd outside would not be able to see us. Then, he started talking: “Tahirih, I have some sad news to bring. Unfortunately, my dear brother and your uncle Taqi were murdered last night in his sleep.”
This sweeping announcement shocked me to my core. For a few seconds, I felt like I needed to grasp my breath. Then, my father continued: “Because of all of the clashes between Shia Muslims and Bábis lately and the fact that you’re the most important Bábi in town, the people outside think that you are the murderer. Now, I know that you wouldn’t do anything like that, but they don’t care. They want you in prison, Tahirih, maybe even dead.”
In the last few months, Qazvin, like many other cities in Iran, had become a tumultuous place. After the return of the Mahdi in Shiraz (the Mahdi was a man named Ali Muhammad Shirazi, but everyone knew of him as the Báb and, as a consequence, his followers were called Bábis), the new Bábi faith had spread like wildfire. Between Bábis, there was some conflict over the true course of the new religion. Some believed that Bábism should be a new, revised form of Islam, but I, and with me, many others, believed that Bábism had to break with Islam altogether. Powerful Shia clerics and government officials had not been happy with the introduction of the new faith. Word had reached me that in Isfahan and Tehran, Bábis were killed or imprisoned if they refused to fend off their religion. Even the Báb himself had been thrown in prison in Tehran. In Qazvin, some local officials and powerful clerics, uncle Taqi and my husband among them, had publicly denounced the Bábi faith and had claimed that all Bábis were heretics who should be prosecuted. Though father’s announcement had shocked me, deep inside I knew that something like this was likely to happen.
“Then let them take me. My possible martyrdom, along with the imprisonment of the Báb, will only strengthen our cause,” I replied.
“God damn it, Tahirih, why are you doing this to me! First, you lie about why you’re going to Karbala, where you publicly cross swords with the clerics in what should be place of peace and fulfilment. Then, you bring the great Persia on the brink of a crisis and to top it all off, you openly battle with my brother and nephew and seem to be completely okay with sacrificing yourself for the greater good. Do you have any idea what you’re putting me through! Did you ever think just once about how your actions affect the people around you who love you!”
I knew that my father had a point, and that this was unfair that he, as a loving father and devote Shia, had end up in the middle of a conflict that he never wanted to be a part of. But this entire movement was so big, that my devotion to it was more important than anything else. Going back to the life I had before I went to Karbala was impossible, and deep inside I knew that following the Mahdi into a new era was my destiny.
“You know I love you father. I knew that you always looked after me. That you bent the rules for me and that you took the time to teach me the sciences, even though you knew that it was frowned upon by some. Your teachings have put me on the righteous path, the path that will lead to a better Persia. I am truly sorry that I caused you harm. I know that you loved your brother, and I am sorry that Taqi has passed away as a result of all this. Even though Taqi and I had our differences, I never wanted this, and I truly hope that there is a peaceful way forward.”
For a moment, my father looked down in disarray, but then he said: “Then let me help you. Let me put you under house arrest.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I replied, but my father was dead serious.
“I know it doesn’t sound ideal, but trust me, it is a lot better than prison. Let me talk to the people outside and convince them that your ‘house arrest’ would be best for everyone involved.”
For a moment I considered my options. Running and escaping seemed impossible, and the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to become a martyr. As the Báb himself was already imprisoned, the leaders who were left had to keep fighting, if the movement were to succeed. I looked at my father and nodded: “Okay, I’m in.”
He went back outside, where he started talking to the crowd in a calm, conserved manner. With a strange mix of pride (about my father’s refusal to give up on me) and nervousness, I peeked through the door, as I saw my father try to pacify the situation and convince the angry mob that house arrest would be best in this situation.
But despite father’s best effort, it was doomed to fail. The death of uncle Taqi had left such a big stain, that someone had to suffer the consequences. And if that someone was not the murderer himself, then it had to be someone important, someone influential, someone like me. Three men, my husband among them, walked past my father, bulldozed through the dour, grabbed me by the shoulder and took me to the palace, where I would be imprisoned for two months. Two very, very long months.
“Tahirih, there is someone for you.”
I was still lying on my bed, despite the fact that the sun had long risen from the sky. My father was getting ready to teach, when someone knocked on the door.
I got out of bed and stumbled my way to the door. The bruises that I had carried with me since prison had not completely healed, but I knew I was getting better every day. I opened the door, where I saw a very familiar face in front of me.
“Good morning, Tahirih, long time no see. As you have probably already heard, all the prominent Bábi leaders will come together in the desert town of Badasht in a few weeks. Let us prepare ourselves for departure and travel together.”
The person standing in front of me was the man that, back in Karbala, had climbed onto the hill and had given that final speech before my banishment. His name was Farzin. Anxiously, I looked around. When I couldn’t see anyone nearby, I pulled him inside. With a confused look on his face, he asked: “What, what is it?”
“People are still regularly observing anything that might be going on in here. You cannot just come to me through the front door in broad daylight!”
Since I had been released from prison, local officials and others who despised the Bábi faith had continuously spied father’s house. Despite the fact that the real murderer had come forward and I was no longer a suspect, Shia clerics were still deeply suspicious of me and had forced me to stay inside. Even though the worst seemed to have passed, I was still wary of my surroundings. I knew that I had to go to that conference, but I also realized that it would be very hard to get out of the city unnoticed. The arrival of someone entirely unknown to the city of Qazvin also did not make things any easier. I was aware that leaving early would have the most chance of success, as it would be just light enough to travel, but not so light that we could easily be detected.
“For now, we will sit tight. Tomorrow just before dawn, we will leave,” I ordered
I was still unsure if someone had seen Farzin go in, but no one bothered us for the rest of the day. Our departure also went smoother than expected and by sunrise, we had left Qazvin behind us.
It was a hot afternoon in June. What started as just a duo traveling to Badasht by foot, had turned into a mass movement of eighty-one prominent Bábi’s traveling by horse. As a group, we had rented three gardens in Badasht, where we would spend the next three weeks debating over the true course of the Bábi faith. On arrival, however, everyone was completely exhausted, and we decided to just relax and settle ourselves. Business was gonna have to wait for one day. The next day, I was awake early. I was excited about what the day would bring and started to get dressed. However, I also knew that there were Bábi’s here who did not agree with me and believed that the Bábi faith should just be a new, rejuvenated type of Islam. Still, I felt confident and knew I had it in me to win them over. As I was almost ready, I reached for my hijab, but then I stopped. This piece of silk was staring at me with despair as if it didn’t want to be there. I eventually picked it up, but just as I was about to put in on, a gust of wind blew it out of my hands. It was almost as if some divine power was sending me a message. I took a deep breath. I always liked the idea of being able to walk in public unveiled, but sheer fear had prevented me from doing so. But a voice inside my head screamed at me to leave the hijab where it is and go to the conference unveiled. Suddenly, I heard a familiar, squeaky voice outside the tent: “Are you ready, Tahirih?”. It was Farzin. Even though I was completely ready, I still replied with: “Just go without me, I’ll be there in a few minutes.” After a few minutes of contemplating, I stood up, went outside, closed the tent behind me and started walking to the garden where the conference would be held.
I was unveiled.
It took a while before anyone noticed me, but once I approached the center of the garden, I noticed that several faces had become as white as a sheet. Eighty startled pairs of eyes were focused on my straight, dark brown hair. A few meters away from me, someone passed out and fell on the floor, unable to cope with the shock of seeing feminine hair. For a moment, I had hope, as I saw several hopeful faces around me. But I also spotted quite a few people who seemed deeply disturbed by the sight of an unveiled woman. Somewhere in the back, I heard a man shout: “This is heresy. Our Báb, the great Ali Muhammad Shirazi, would have never accepted this if he were here, I’m out of here,” after which he left.
After a moment of hesitance, several people followed him and the group of eighty-one was suddenly reduced to a mere fourty-seven. Disillusioned, though not completely surprised, I took a deep breath, turned around and focused on the people who had decided to stay: “My fellow Bábi’s. The great Mahdi has put us on the path towards a new order. Too long have corrupt chiefs blinded us from what is possible. The seat of truth is not meant for just those at the top. It is meant for all of those bright enough to search for it, young or old, man or women, noble or peasant. I shall put to fight the chiefs and nobles who have ravaged the earth. Join me in this quest, and together, we will free the Báb and open the sea of truth to everyone!”
After a few seconds, the most frightful seconds of my life, the remaining forty-seven Bábi’s began cheering at me in such loud fashion, that for a few weeks after, I heard a very uncomfortable, very annoying high-pitched sound in my right ear. But it was all worth it. After the conference, we spread-out all-over Persia and beyond, where we continued to spread our faith to those suppressed by the old order. But now, for the first time, completely unified.