Welcome to an adventure in making friends

Skyline of Tehran, Iran, todayThis is the 1st story in the new book, “Friendship and Faith”—and the 1st in our new weekly magazine of stories about women making friends across religious and cultural boundaries.

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 Sweet shop in Tehran, Iran, todayToday’s Story by Azar Alizadeh
“A Friendship Despite a Secret”

Azar was born in Iran and is fourth-generation Baha’i. She has been a U.S. Citizen since 1975 and, in recent years, has hosted a weekly television program, “Interfaith Odyssey.” Her story takes place long ago and in the big city of Tehran, Iran. It involves two little girls and sweets like those displayed in this Tehran shop shown at right. Here is Azar’s story …

When I was growing up, my best friend kept a secret from me for a long time. Let me tell you that story:

I grew up on the north side of Tehran, Iran, in a happy family. My father had a store that sold imported fabrics from Europe. Our house was made up of two flats; we lived downstairs, and my aunt lived upstairs. My grandparents lived about a mile away from us.

Most of the people in Iran are Muslim, but I grew up around people of other faiths as well. There were some Jewish people, some Zoroastrians and I am a fourth-generation Baha’i. In the 1950s—under the Shah, things were not easy for Baha’is—but conditions were not as bad as they became later. We heard the Shah had a doctor who was Baha’i.

We felt secure, even though sometimes bad things happened. In my third-grade class in the public school, I was singled out by a teacher who asked Baha’i students to raise their hands. I know three of us in that class were Baha’i, but I wasn’t as smart as the others. I actually raised my hand. The teacher singled me out to go sit in the corner, and she punished me by saying that I had to hold one of my feet off the floor for a while. All of this only because I was Baha’i.

Later, my parents moved me to a private school. My best friend thorugh these years was named Tahmineh, a Muslim girl whose family lived near mine in Tehran. She had a very good sense of humor, and I did, too. We became best friends and we often walked back and forth to school together, or sometimes took a bus.

Tahmineh and I were selected by the producer of a national radio show who was looking for children to appear in weekly broadcasts in Tehran—so that was something else I shared with Tahmineh. This was a children’s program that aired every Friday, which is like Sunday in the U.S. It was an idea similar to Sesame Street. These were not religious broadcasts, but just nice weekly stories for children with good lessons behind them. Every week there was a different story about 20 or 25 minutes long. The children who worked with the show each played a part in telling the story. The director and producer would meet with us to show us our parts so we could practice. It was a lot of fun. I had a great-aunt who lived far away from us, but she would say, “Every Friday, I can turn on the radio and know that you are doing well, because I hear your voice on the radio!”

Tahmineh and I spent a lot of time together. There was no way, just by looking at us, that one could tell that Tahmineh was Muslim and I was Baha’i. We wore the same kinds of clothes. During the Shah’s regime, women did not cover their hair as much.

We visited each other’s homes. At first, we played together. As we got older, we read books together or listened to the radio. We’d spend an hour or two together visiting like this in our homes. Eventually I began to notice that, when I visited Tahmineh’s house, her mother would give us things to eat, but I could not recall Tahmineh eating anything at my house.

One day, when we were about 12 or 13, I visited her house and her mother gave me something good to eat. This time, I said, “Tahmineh never eats at our house.”

There was silence. They didn’t say anything. I knew that there was something they did not want to talk about, so I let the subject drop.

The next day when Tahmineh and I were walking to school, I asked, “Why is it that you never eat our food? Don’t you like our food? When I asked about this yesterday at your house, no one answered me.”

Again, there was silence. We had never talked about this before. Finally, she said, “It’s a secret.”

“A secret?” I said, “Tell me! Tell me!”

Then she explained, “My parents say that Baha’is put things in their food and drink that will make other people become Baha’i.”

I didn’t cry, but this hurt me; we were just children, and this was painful. I told her: “Tahmineh! This is just a myth!”

The secret was out and, as we talked, we both understood what had happened. There was a fanatical mullah (an Islamic clergyman) who was spreading hatred against Baha’is across the country. One of the myths that he was spreading was this claim that Baha’is had things they would mix into food and drink to convert people. Tahmineh’s parents had heard this and had refused to let her eat at our house.

She said to me, “I’ve always known it’s a myth. I know that, but I didn’t know what to do! My parents told me never to eat at your house. But, I love you. I love your parents. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“This just doesn’t make sense!” I said. It seemed so unfair. I thought: Oh, her parents are so mean! Then, I said to my friend, “Tahmineh, you must not eat at our house. I won’t offer you food at my home anymore. You’ve got to do what your parents say.” That was a very important thing we were taught in Baha’i Sunday School—always follow what your parents tell you. There was no question about disobeying her parents.

We were best friends—now closer than ever. I hoped we would get around this somehow, and we did. I told my parents about it, but I never said a word to her parents. I kept Tahmineh’s secret with her family.

Then, do you know what we did? We started going to the neighborhood store together, because there we could buy things and eat them together on neutral ground. We enjoyed candies. We loved ice cream. Now, that was fun!

That was a difficult experience for a girl. Tahmineh and I were friends. We loved each other, yet she had heard this terrible thing about my family from her parents and she carried that secret for a long time. Through the years, I have lost track of her; in 1960, my family moved to Germany and later I moved to the United States and became a citizen. I’d love to find my friend again. I’ve Googled her and I keep looking for her on Facebook, but her name has probably changed through marriage.

I am hopeful about the future. We all are born to do something for the betterment of humanity. We need to share our stories, like this one, to help encourage a greater understanding of our diversity. The world’s many faiths are all gifts from God for us. If we just set our individual egos aside a little bit, we can see that truth.

Children understand it. I have seen the goodness in children myself. It melts my heart when I see friendships made—and kept—between different faiths. Sometimes that may mean sharing each other’s secrets, but it is thorugh friendship that we can see hope for our world.

(Originally published in www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)


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