Dancing in death: a story of a Baha'i martyr

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 24, 2004

According to the stars, the robins, and our optimistic longings, it's the first week of spring. For members of the Baha'i Faith, it's also the first week of their new year – a time of celebration to end their annual 19-day fast.

For me, a guest at their Naw Ruz (New Year's) feast in Cochrane on March 21st, it was also a time to learn more about the joyful indomitability of the human spirit in the face of martyrdom, a hallmark of this religion that embraces the oneness of all peoples.

It was a potluck feast. There were balloons and games for the kids, visits for adults, and entertainment for all. The serving table offered a tantalizing assortment of traditional Western and Persian dishes. And, oh, the desserts!

I had the good fortune of sitting next to Taban Behin, one of the event organizers and a 1998 graduate of Cochrane High School. Taban just completed her bachelor's degree at the University of Calgary and is about to enter graduate studies. For the half-dozen years I've known this delightful young woman, she has been a well of wisdom for me. This occasion was no exception.

In the course of our conversation, Taban asked me what my favourite books were. She already knew the Bible was at the top of my list, but was intrigued when I included Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life, the diary of the Dutch Holocaust martyr about whom I've written recently.
I recounted for Taban some of the stories from the book that spoke of Hillesum's inner strength and beauty amidst the demoralizing ugliness of Nazi oppression.

Then Taban recounted a similar story of her own about a Baha'i martyr:

In the early days of the Baha'i Faith in Persia (Iran) a century ago, the government launched an official persecution of Baha'i followers. Their civil rights were denied, property demolished, cemeteries desecrated, and employment terminated.

Many were arrested and ordered to renounce their faith or face execution. Among these was a certain wealthy man by the name of Hájí Sulaymán Khán.

Hájí Sulaymán Khán, when told to choose between faith and fate, replied he would never recant his faith in his Beloved. "This world which the Commander of the Faithful has likened to carrion will never allure me from my heart's Desire," he said.

The manner of his death was decided according to his own wishes. Nine holes were cut into his chest, neck, shoulders and back, and candles were inserted and lit. As they continued burning till they scorched his flesh, he cried out:

"You have long lost your sting, O flames, and have been robbed of your power to pain me. Make haste, for from your very tongues of fire I can hear the voice that calls me to my Beloved!"

To further show his contempt for mere physical survival, he danced and sang before his executioners as they paraded him through the bazaar. Then they ended his life with an axe, cutting him in two.

When Taban had finished telling her story, she looked at me intently and said:

"I'm wondering if the martyrdom we're facing today isn't more difficult. It's not so much a physical martyrdom as a spiritual one – the numbing and dulling of our spirits by a society of indifference."

We can recognize unjust treatment and cope with it far better when it's only our body that is threatened, she was saying. But what if our hearts and minds have been so subtly abused that we are no longer even aware of it when there's a threat to our very essence as human beings?

Taban had begun the conversation by asking about my favourite books. She concluded by lending me one of her own: Shoghi Effendi's translation of The Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl's Narrative of the Early Days of the Baha'i Revelation.

Browsing through its pages, I found a beautiful addition to the story of Hájí Sulaymán Khán. As his executioners were preparing to cut him in half, he was overheard reciting these verses:

I hold this body as of little worth;
A brave man's spirit scorns its house of earth.
Dagger and sword like fragrant basil seem,
Or flowers to deck death's banquet with their gleam.

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page