Marion-Jack

Vahid Houston Ranjbar
17 min readNov 17, 2016

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(Part III of my Will and Testament)

After a few days on my own in the Academic City, I was summoned to Novosibirsk to help make preparations for the arrival of the ‘Marion Jack’ group from the US. Marion Jack was a famous early western Baha’i who had gone to Bulgaria during the tumultuous mid 20th Century and despite age and ill health, stayed through World War II and the decent of the iron curtain passing away there in 1957. So it was in her memory that this group was formed not long after the opening of the Soviet Union and eastern bloc. They would travel to Russia and other places in eastern Europe as a group every summer, to reconnect and encourage the budding Baha’i communities there.

This year was very special however, since Amitul-Baha Ruhiyyia Khanum was going to be visiting Novosibirsk. It is safe to say that she was the most important living Baha’i at that time. The last member of Baha’u’llah’s holy family, consort of the last and only Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghie Effendi, Hand of the Cause of God and the Daughter of one of the most preeminent North American Baha’is, May Maxwell. After the passing of her husband she had made a habit of periodically traveling the world to help inspire the Baha’i community. When I was a child of 4 I had met her in Tanzania when she traversed the African continent by jeep. Later I met her when I served at the Baha’i world center in Haifa. Now I would meet her again in what would be one of her final trips of her earthly life. Needless to say the Russian Baha’is of Novosibirsk were very excited and making every perpetration for her visit. Setting up lectures for the scientists at the Academic City and in Novosibirsk for the general public.

In Novosibirsk the Marion-Jack team had rented an apartment, which I would visit from time to time during that summer. Suddenly I didn’t feel as isolated as I had felt before. There were several types of Russians who would gravitate to these groups. There were of course many sincere recent converts to the Baha’i faith and seekers. But also there were many who were drawn by the prospects of contact with the west and the ability to practice the coveted language of English. The old Soviet system had ironically generated its own form of colonial-like hierarchy similar to what the Europeans had built in India and Africa where at the top the white westerner sat in a privileged place. The Europeans enforced this class or apartheid system from the outside. In the Soviet Union the state set up a privileged class system where senior party members and strangely enough foreigners sat at the top. They had access to exclusive “valootnye” or hard currency stores, Hotels and restaurants. Even special airport lounges, which were reserved only for foreigners. These stores where well stocked and carried all of the coveted items. For the average Russian, a foreign passport, or sometimes just the English language could provide entrance to this class. Though the soviet system had ostensibly collapsed, still vestiges of this continued. On many occasions I would observe my Russian friends speak English and pretend not to know Russian just for the access to stores, hotels, and the feeling of prestige it gave them. I recall a couple years later; I was leaving Petersburg late one evening and the staff there had to open a huge lounge area just for me, complete with a stewardess and special bus to ferry me to the plane, all this just because I held a foreign passport.

At the Marion-Jack apartment in Novosibirsk I met a young, large round-faced Russian named Slava. He wore round wire rimed glasses and seemed easily tired by any physical activity. He was very fluent in English and quickly attached himself to me. For a bit of time he became my new Russian mentor, guiding me, translating for me and engaging in conversations about religion, history and life. Slava carried a terrible cynicism around with him. Despite the fact that he professed to be a Baha’i you had the feeling that he probably thought that most religion was basically bullshit. But he still somehow was obsessed by all religions. He would joke how in addition to the Baha’i Faith he wanted to start a branch of Zoroastrianism in Krasnoyarsk and he got some white robes and mask so he could do the fire rituals. However, he hated the western Christian missionaries with a passion. “They are coming to teach us about Jesus? Shit what do you think we had for 2000 years?” Following us like a kind of minion of his was another young bearded Russian with a cane. He was of slight build and couldn’t speak English, but was clearly very religious and a devout Russian orthodox. He later gave me a small card with the icon of St. Nicholas on it for protection. I liked him and his sincerity, so I kept that little icon in my window during my whole stay in Novosibirsk.

The Baha’i faith has surprisingly deep historical roots in Russia and the old soviet republics for a faith so young. Baha’u’llah the prophet founder of the Baha’i faith owed his life to the intersession of the Russian council in Persia in 1852. Due to the friendship established between his daughter and Baha’u’llah, the Russian diplomat insisted that Baha’u’llah not be executed, as was the fate of other followers of the Bab. Instead he was first imprisoned in the infamous black pit of Tehran and later banished to the then Ottoman City of Bagdad. Interestingly he politely declined the offer of exile to Russia, which was extended to him. Later the first Baha’i house of Worship was built in Tsarist Russian controlled Ashkhabad, enjoying the relative freedom of worship denied them in Persia. The Babi faith and later Baha’i faith enjoyed some popularity among the intellectuals and artists of Russia. A play about the life of the Bab was even performed in St. Petersburg, also a lengthy correspondence developed between Tolstoy and Abdu’l-Baha the son and chosen successor of Baha’u’llah.

Later, during the soviet times a statue in Azerbaijan would be erected showing a lady throwing off her veil named ‘liberated women’, the inspiration for this statue was apparently an incident which was central to the birth of the Babi and Baha’i faith. In the Iranian town of Badasht, the early followers of the Bab had gathered together to decided on how they could liberate their imprisoned leader the Bab. At this meeting was present the famous Babi poetess and disciple, Tahirh. During a sermon she gave, she threw off her veil to shock and terror of the assemble men present and announced “I am the Word which the Qá’im is to utter, the Word which shall put to flight the chiefs and nobles of the earth!” This act for Baha’is signalized the termination of old Islamic sharia law and the birth of a new divine law, which demanded equality for women. On the other side of the planet that very day the first conference to address the emancipation of women was held in Seneca falls New York. Later Tahirh would be executed via strangulation with a silk scarf and thrown into a well on orders of the Shah and clergy. Her last words were reported to have been “You can kill me as soon as you like. But you cannot stop the emancipation of women!”

Physics

By the end of summer the festival that was Marion Jack was over and I was again alone in the academic city. The school year was beginning with classes in functional analysis, electrodynamics and classical mechanics. Functional analysis was taught in a large auditorium with tall glass windows on either side. Later when the winter set in I would realize what a bad idea those glass windows were, as the blue ink from my pen coagulated freezing, making writing near impossible. I had bought a notebook filled with some dark cream colored paper with the consistency of cardboard. I still was very far from being fluent in Russian despite my best efforts. I remember sitting near the top back rows of the lecture hall trying my best to copy the notes written on the chalkboard in Russian Cyrillic without any real understanding of the words. I reasoned I would understand later. This became very difficult and I eventually would write only the words I knew and then the many equations. So I had pages filled with the Russian word for ‘Let’ “Pust” several dots and a series of equations. Then I had the mathematics books in Russian. I would sit in the evening with my dictionary and slowly try to connect my notes to the book.

Early on the Rector had given me access to the singular email computer on campus so that I could coordinate the acquisition of the coveted Sun Sparks station with my parents. The email computer was guarded in this small room near the rector’s office, which was staffed by a lone blond haired female student. I had my parents send my old physics books from my college days and their arrival made my studies much easier. They sent me that together with a puffy green winter coat and warm boots, which I both loved for being warm and hated for how stupid I looked.

I remember the day I finally gave up on my coveted combat boots. I was returning from Novosibirsk after a meeting with the few Baha’is in the city. I had taken the slow and cheap bus from Richnoya vogzal (River metro station) to the academic city. It cost only 40 Rubles but was very very slow and dilapidated. It was 30 below zero Celsius that night and about halfway to home the bus broke down. With heat from the engine off, I felt my feet pressing against the two layers of socks freezing through the boots. The driver finally got the bus started again and we slowly made our way under the bridge which marks the entrance to the academic city. Then it broke down again and again was restarted. I then decided I would fair better on foot and that running I would have less a chance of frost bite. So I exited the bus and ran through the snow paths to my apartment. Once through the door I stripped off my clothes, boots and socks and put my freezing toes under the hot tap of the bathtub.

It wasn’t long before some of my classmates realized that I wasn’t Russian. The first to approach me was a pale, blond freckled faced boy named Alexi. He sat next to me in the lecture hall and asked “do you speak English?”, “what is your name?” when I told him my name was Vahid he puzzled a bit and said “where are you from?”. I told him I was from the United States, but you could see he was still puzzling over my name. I added my father is originally from Iran and my mother from America.

Alexi was eager to become my new mentor and practice his English. Alexi’s family lived in Tashkent Uzbekistan, but he was ethnically a Russian. Later he invited me to the dorm room he shared with about four other students distributed over two bunk beds and offered me tea with the most delicious home made strawberry preserves I have ever had. Over several weeks I would visit him to talk about schoolwork. They would ask about life in America. I would ask about the details of how and when homework was due. I remember being initially relieved when they explained to me that our homework didn’t count towards our final grade. Our grade was only the product of our performance on the final exams. After learning that, much to my future regret, I stopped trying so hard to complete the homework assignments. Only later I learned that in fact one needed to pass all the homework problems to obtain the “Za-datche” signature from your professor so that you might have the ‘privilege’ of taking the final exam. I recall after learning this several weeks before the final exam, I secluded myself in my room for several days to try and complete all the very difficult homework problems.

There was no formal kitchen in their dorm room, except a sink in the bathroom. They had hotplates sitting atop their desks and if they needed to keep something cold they would put it in a cloth sack and hang it out the window. Alexi’s closest friend was a tall Russian boy who reminded me of Rocky’s Soviet nemesis in Rocky IV. As if to reinforce the connection he had a poster of Dolph Lundgren from his Universal Soldier movie over his bed.

I remember him and his friends playing for me the latest Swedish musical export to the world; Ace of Base and Roxette. These were not Russian hippies. They were very different from the generation, which existed before the collapse. These students had to become tough to survive in this new world. I remember when I was visiting their dorm room on another occasion and in rushed Alexi’s friend sweating in his tank top, full of urgency. Both of them ran outside to confront the bald forest barbarians. Due to this constant threat they had organized informal patrols of students. This generation of students had re-branded themselves as fighters, for them athletic pursuits such as boxing, karate and weight training were logical necessities. There was now little time for the sophistries of eclectic music.

The Tajiks

When Mahmoud discovered my Persian heritage he was eager to introduce me to his other Tajik friends. Mahmoud was a very soft-spoken boy in my class from Tajikistan, regarded as a prodigy by our professor of electro-magnetism. I got to know him through Alexi. His black hair was groomed very neatly; he was clean-shaven with the exception of a faint outline of a budding adolescent mustache on his olive colored skin. He wore a grey sweater with dark green corduroy pants and these ankle high black boots with a zipper on the side. After class he escorted me to the dormitory of his Tajik friends. They were brothers, El’Hom and El’Chrom, both masters’ students in the mathematics institute. I found them dressed in long blue and white quilted robes with a white skullcap and glasses. El-Hom had elongated profile with a well-trimmed full beard. El’Chrom had a more rounded face, also with a full beard but a bit sparser. They greeted me very graciously. The room had two cots and pillows on the floor for one to sit with a make shift long coffee table in the middle. They offered to share their dinner, a lamb stew and rice of sorts that was cooked on hotplate in the hallway to the bathroom. After going through the obligatory Persian ritual of ‘Taroof’ , refusing several times, I acceded to their request. Several others joined us, Uzbeks and Tajiks. The brothers were ethnic Tajiks whose family lived in Uzbekistan.

Since the collapse of the Soviet system in the republics many were hungry to reconnect with their ethnic heritage and religion. Tajiks are ethnically and linguistically really Persians and consider themselves as much. So the fact that I was only half Persian was still enough for them to embrace me like their lost relative. The brothers had recently converted to Islam due to the efforts of a Syrian Doctoral student in mathematics, Abdul-Salam. They claimed to be descended from some of the artisans who helped do the tile work for the old Mosques in Tashkent.

From then until I met Oleg, I would visit them almost daily and we would discuss life in America, religion and Islam. Despite the fact that when I introduced myself, I did so as non-Muslim Baha’i, still they initially thought the Baha’i faith was just another small Iranian-Shia sect of Islam. I remember giving the Syrian fellow Abdul-Salam a copy of some of Baha’u’llah’s prayers and writings in Arabic. I recall the next day he complemented the writings saying how nice they were and that Baha’u’llah seemed like just another holy man. I told him to read more, Baha’u’llah’s claims are much, much more than that. Several days later he came to my room looking rather ill and somewhat scared, he handed the book back to me, shaking his head saying “no, no”. I think the gravity of the heresy was beginning to dawn on him; just how dramatically we had broken from Islam and magnitude of the claims made by Baha’u’llah.

I didn’t talk too much about religion with Abdul-Salam after that, but the brothers and I would talk at length almost daily, about Qiyamah or the Islamic Day of Judgment, which for Baha’is had already occurred. I remember El’Hom turning to me with all earnestness and saying, “Qiyamah strashnaya vermya! Qiyamah ne-prezashlo!”, ‘the day of Judgment is a terrible time it hasn’t come yet!’ To them such things were to be understood literally without symbolism or metaphor. So the fact that fire was not blazing, stars falling from the sky was clear evidence of no such thing. I recall asking him. Do you as man of science really think such things described are even physically possible? Perhaps they should be understood symbolically? I must admit I was rather amazed, how one could go from being mathematician raised to believe in purely rational atheism to believing in such a literal understanding of religious scripture.

Of course the other big thing for them was that Muhammad was the ‘Seal of the Prophets’ and the Quran was perfect without any need for amends. El’Chrom explained; “God tried first with the Jews. He gave them the Quran but they corrupted it. Next he gave it to the Christians but they also corrupted it. Finally he gave it to Muhammad and since it was written down nicely and accurately it can’t be corrupted. So there is no way any new revelation from God is necessary.” I asked him “Do you think corruption means they ruined the actual text? Why would believers do such a thing to text, which they believed was from God?”. Yes he would say and go on to explain some apocryphal incident where priest changed the text of the bible. I responded, “Doesn’t corruption really mean twisting the meaning of the words of God, not altering the actual text? Isn’t this the way that God refers to corruption in the Quran?” I would go on to explain, “This is how the word ‘corruption’ was applied in the Quran when referring to the actions of the Jews in not applying the laws of God as they were revealed? Also think for yourself can you honestly read the Evangel and understand that these are not the words of God? If religion has been perfected for all time then why are you taught that the Mahdi and Christ are coming? If the laws of God are unchanging why is it that Muhammad could change the very direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca during his ministry?”. Finally I would end with “Are not your objections not exactly the same as those of both the Jews and Christians to Islam? The Jews claim the Law was inviolable, yet Jesus changed many laws. The Christians likewise claimed that revelation was terminated with Christ, yet Muhammad brought the Quran with new Laws.” Such was the nature of our religious debates.

Unlike El’Hom and El’Chrom, Mahmoud seemed more interested in his ethnic identity as a Persian. We would exchange Farsi and Tajik pronunciations for different words and discuss different food items. Islam was interesting only as much as it was part of his lost culture. He accepted instructions from Abdul-Salam about how to perform Namaz (prayer) properly, how to space your feet properly, how to sit, bow and raise your hands, but he wasn’t too interested in theology. He liked the Baha’i faith due to its Persian origins and references. He never objected about our interpretation of Qiyamah or finality of revelation. I gave him a tape, which had a lady chanting Baha’i writings and prayers in Farsi to music. He loved it so much that I made him a copy. A year or so later he would eventually join the Baha’i community.

The soap opera Santa Barbra was being shown on TV and was immensely popular. The brothers as well as just about everyone I came into contact with were very curious if that was really how Americans lived? Do they really have telephones everywhere? Does everyone have a personal automobile? Are there really these big houses? I tried to explain that though the ubiquitousness of the car and telephone was real, still most people didn’t live in such wealth. It seemed most Russians were struggling with the same questions about life in the west and the wealth they now suddenly saw on display in their TV and news. At that time this wealth was seen as a testimony to the failure of communism and an exposition of the fact that they had been lied to for half a century.

The result was that they headed full on into the ‘glories’ of an unregulated market. Egged on by the West and its proxies; the IMF and world Bank, they denationalized huge industries, liberalized property ownership rights and drove the whole Soviet industrial apparatus careening into a ditch. Newly de-nationalized industries where forced to sink or swim in this new ‘free market’, despite the fact that no one knew what the hell they were doing how to even begin to operate in this system. The result was pure devastation across Russia especially in the villages. There was hyperinflation, mass unemployment, hunger and desperation. Alcohol soaked the countryside like the wet mud, which coated everything after the deep snow, melted in spring. Unemployed despairing drunken men and mean bald youths staggered through the villages, lying sprawled on buses and trains only to be kicked and cursed at by angry old lady conductors.

I recall how later Oleg and I visited a large radio factory in the nearby town of Iskitim. We were at the time looking for place to possibly set up a factory for the fabrication of PVC insulated windows. The director took us on a tour of the facility; it had been built not more than four years ago, with tremendous capital assets. There was new injection molding presses and assembly lines, which were all idle and vacant. All four hundred employees were out of work. Yet the product was in demand so why was it closed? It was due to the confluence of hyperinflation and bad taxation policy. In the time between the acquisition of the raw materials and completion of the production cycle, the prices would jump to such a level that on paper it would seem that the company was making profits which would be taxed. However these were ‘fake’ gains and in fact they were being taxed on inflation. Thus they believed that it was more costly to produce than to remain idle. It seemed pure insanity. They were forced to swim in this complex financial environment which I am sure would challenge even the most experienced and savvy western accountant or marketing strategist, with basically zero experience or training.

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Vahid Houston Ranjbar

I am a research physicist working on beam and spin dynamics. I like to write about connections between science and religion.