My daughter seemed ill at ease in her first grade classroom. We had recently moved to the town in which we have now lived for more than a decade, a university town in the northern part of one of the most culturally homogeneous states in the union—Maine. It was Christmas time, and the children were singing carols, none of which my daughter knew. “Christmas is for Christians” read a sign posted in front of one of the frat houses on campus.
Even at the age of six, my daughter understood that as Baha’is we accept the prophetic mission, the teachings and the divine station of Jesus Christ. But she also knew that we don’t celebrate his birth on December 25th, nor do we necessarily feel that this occasion is the most significant of his life and ministry (what about his Sermon on the Mount, where he told us how to live?)
Blonde, blue-eyed, and with the exceedingly fair skin of her Swiss-German ancestors, my daughter blended well into the sea of faces in her first grade classroom. But the truth was then and is now that she feels more at home with the one Iranian Muslim family in town, which shares with us one of our major holidays—Naw Ruz—as well as the practices of fasting and daily obligatory prayer.
The Baha’i faith is a universal religion with distinct cultural manifestations all over the globe, but its Iranian roots are, for us, a familiar and much-loved part of our faith. We feel “at home” when we hear the musical sound of Farsi. My husband can even speak it. I can cook a mean dish of fesenjoon and often invite my friends to share Persian food with us on our holy days. On one of these occasions, I observed with irony, not a single Iranian was in the room to enjoy the feast!
Like the Muslim family down the street, we do not approve of dating for our teenage daughter. We think she should go out in groups and be supervised when alone with someone of the opposite sex. Our daughter is not allowed to wear revealing clothing or to go to the local club on “Chem-free” nights because in the next and easily accessible room, alcohol is served.
My daughter is growing up in the “Middle (W)east”— either an oasis of diverse religious and cultural traditions, or a kind of no man’s land of cultural intersections, depending on how you look at it.
It all started with me. I grew up in a family of liberal-minded intellectuals who were strong advocates of the individual investigation of the truth. My mother had eschewed her Irish father’s Catholicism and her English mother’s Methodism and embraced the high-Anglicanism of my father’s Scottish family.
Where did that leave me? Seeking, is where. And when I discovered the Baha’i Faith at age 17, I joined. Any religion that asserted the truth of the divinely-inspired mission of all the prophets, claiming that religions were revealed progressively throughout history, the same message of love and peace to different societies at different times, but with social laws and teachings appropriate to the day—that was something I could accept without a qualm
The claim that a new prophet named Baha’u’llah, the Glory of God, had come to bring teachings for this modern age, and that these teachings revolved around the need for the universal recognition of the oneness of humanity and the oneness of religion—I could accept that too.
Then came my husband—also a Baha’i, also a young convert, from Methodist and Brethren roots, with the Swiss-German thrown in. We met on his pilgrimage to the Baha’i holy places in Haifa, where I was working as a researcher, and married soon afterwards, thus beginning our long cross cultural journey.
We started off in Manhattan, moved within the year to Hong Kong, where our daughter was born on the colony’s highest peak in the days just after the handover. Faculty at the university where we taught hailed from all over the world, Germany to India. Wherever we went, we felt at home—in play groups where many languages were spoken, many kinds of dress were worn and many different colors of eyes and skins made the tapestry. As for religion, there were Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jews and even other Baha’is. None of us stood out, and we all respected one another, living peacefully together in a large apartment complex, with social life revolving around our precious children.
We traveled— Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and a sojourn in mainland China during which my blonde-haired daughter learned to speak as much Chinese as she did English. At Anhui University, where I had taught before I was married, my former colleagues thought she was a marvel.
When we finally came “home” to the U.S., we found ourselves strangers in a strange land—the only Baha’i family for miles in a world in which cultural diversity was not a daily fact of life. There was one black family in our town, one Muslim family and one Baha’i family—us. The black family soon moved on. As for the Muslim family, well, we got to know them pretty fast.
Neither of the East or the West, we are living somewhere and sometimes uncomfortably in between. Not only are we out of sync with the school calendar—there are holidays for Christmas but not for our Baha’i gift-giving occasion, Ayyam-i-Ha—we always feel as if we are walking the straight and narrow compared with the much more permissive parents who form the majority in our community.
A decade later, I’ve come to the conclusion that my husband and I will never feel completely at home in “the Middle “W(east). But I am confident my daughter will. Now 14, she knows the words to all the Christmas carols, but she also stays home from school to observe the Baha’i holy days. She has gotten used to living a not-so-secret “double life”—the one she leads in the mainstream community and the Baha’i life she leads at home and in her own religious community.
In one more year, she will reach the Baha’i age of maturity, and be entitled to officially declare her faith in Baha’u’llah and formally join the Baha’i community. During the February school vacation that year, she will make her first pilgrimage to the Middle East—a once in a lifetime religious obligation for Baha’is (another parallel with Islam)—to the our holy places in Israel. She will also begin to fast and be required to say, daily, one of the obligatory prayers revealed by Baha’u’llah.
She now attends a private school in a nearby town, where there are many foreign students with names that are as difficult to pronounce as her own name—Shira (a short “i” but so often pronounced with a long one by Americans). It’s a Hebrew name, one I learned about when I lived in Israel. Meaning “poem” or “song,” her name always reminds me that my daughter is one note in a worldwide symphony playing in any town you can name, even in northern Maine, proclaiming that we all belong to one human family and that someday the Middle (W)east will be subsumed into the new spiritual geography mapped out by Baha’u’llah more than a century ago when he declared, “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”