News from Tabriz, Iran

Francois (left) with SliwaFrancois (left) with SliwaSliwa left for good on 4th March . In a few months, I shall be doing the same. I have started to sort things out, to tidy up and decide what I shall give away. I am like the Happy Prince in the story by Oscar Wilde, which tells the story of how, at the end of autumn, a statue of a prince covered in precious stones asks the last remaining swallow to pluck off the stones, which have become useless to him, one by one and carry them to every poor person… At the moment, there are so many things in the house I need to get rid of. Keeping objects going back over a lifetime is not just hoarding, it is retaining a link with the people you love or have loved, with yourself, with what you once were, in other words with little bits of yourself, with little bits of your life.

Tabriz, at the end of winter, night is falling; another day nears its end, a day no better or worse than all the others, a day just like the others, during which one has said almost nothing, done almost nothing. In life, there is so little we can say, so little we can do. "Please help me cross the road; there are no traffic lights here, I will miss the bus, and I have already got a bad mark at school." It is a child's soft voice. "Hold my hand, and we will cross together, between two cars. I am catching the bus too, to go home." Before leaving me, he says once more, happily, "You see, the bus waited for me. I will give it a good mark." I reply: "Good bye! But tell me your name; what are you called?"
Brrum, brrum. At last the driver switches on, and the engine starts up. The bus, pink in the evening light, sets off on the road from Tabriz town centre to Baba-Baghi, a journey of 15 km (10 miles), a third of it in town, a third in the suburbs and a third in the desert. It takes half an hour, assuming the bus does not fall by the wayside. This particular one is dirty, old, badly lit and empty. The drivers are surprised that I use it, or in particular that I don't have a car. For a long time the local authority let me have a small car. It was white, hard-working, dented and worn out, and had worked so hard for so many different drivers that it often stopped or broke down, but at sensible times and in sensible places. Then an Islamic decree was issued which put a stop to such privileges. Out with the white car, a remnant of the imperial era. In with the public transport of the modern age. In with the bus, with its icy, misted-up windows. All the traffic now followed the bus routes. Thinking back to that time, I am reminded of being at school, and of having to calculate the length of a journey and the arrival times of different trains leaving at different times and travelling at different speeds - but they were heated trains full of passengers, and everything was always resolved into a simple answer. That is not at all like having to close down a fraternity since I had the help of my friends, and got full marks for the trains. Not at all like this bus, pink outside and black inside, which scores no higher than 3 or 5 out of 20. And all this traffic is like people's lives, a mystery to others. Lives travelling at different speeds and in different ways, so often unrelated to each other. Lives often imbued with nostalgia for a different dream life, one that could replace this real one which receives such a bad or unfair mark from oneself or others.
Once upon a time there was a Baba-Baghi Fraternity, founded, I think, 48 years ago, at the beginning of winter 1959. The Chaldean Christian community offered no help or subsidy as it could not understand then, or now, why we should settle among the lepers, and Muslim lepers at that. We brothers regarded it as quite normal, and could not imagine why Iranian Christians should find it provocative, both provocative and unheard of. The two went together. They always go together.

We brothers were looking at the question of human salvation as a whole, while the local Christians could not see beyond the interests of their own community, something also seen as totally respectable. At that time, in our prayers we were requesting, seeking, hoping for great things regarding Islam, some sort of revelation – "and they all lived happily ever after". This time I am asking a selfish, self-interested question: where and when do we find these big surprises the parables promise will be in our fields or in our nets?
Here in Baba-Baghi we took nothing, found nothing, reaped nothing. Zilch. At least as far as local statistics go. We bore no fruit. Soon a whole lifetime came and went, with little, if anything, changed by the few things we did or said. The mystery of our chosen life and our free choice, our tiny contribution. What was provocative and unheard of for others when we arrived remains provocative and unheard of as our stay starts to come to its close. It is as if 'people' had forgotten that we existed, as if our 'please' and 'help me' were of no importance, as if our life, presence and calling had no value for others, for the Other Being. Now it is for me to adapt, and to consider the plans and projects of the real Director, who has set a scene of which I find the uncertain outcome ever more provocative and unheard of.
No, I am not frustrated, but I do now know, rather better than before, what it is to feel loneliness, want, emptiness. I did not know these things when I arrived in Baba-Baghi. I did not know how illusory my ideas were. I thought I really was going to discover a new, different life – I thought I had forsaken the old existence, and taken on a new one. The months and years passed. Going through life following the Gospel truth erodes any idea of omnipotence, so much so that I wonder what remains of the initial desires and promises, what re-adjustment of my faith still needs to take place. Nought out of ten, again. Am I disillusioned? No. The longer, the slower the journey, the more pressing the requests we encounter, the "Sorry to trouble you"s, the "Can you help me?"s. Years after we arrived, Bishop X said: "Your calling is a good one, but you would have done better, and been more useful, working in a Christian dispensary, helping other Christians."

Our 'Nazareth life' here was, and still is, poorly valued as a contribution to the overall 'spiritual wealth' which, like any financial organisation, must 'make a profit', be it through words, deeds or community projects. The Christian minority in this country assesses things in terms of prestige and of the 'truth'. What Christians here respond to are magnificent ceremonies following Vatican rites and protocols. They watch them on TV, they long for them, they clamour for them all the time, and after they have watched them, they circulate CDs of them, full of crimson, purple, mitres, crosiers, filmed from all angles with zoom lenses. It relieves the emptiness and vicissitudes of their life here. But what really makes us feel that we exist are not so much events, people, things, all the outside world – it is the richness of the life-giving, interior, secret spring that waters the days and these sun-filled lands, something that cannot be measured.

In Baba-Baghi we have never encountered a young Iranian Christian interested in joining the Fraternity. No, never. In any case, the normal first step for a young man with a vocation would be to seek to serve the community, which is badly in need of Christian teaching and training, before embarking on God knows what adventure in the Fraternity. The Little Sisters, who settled in Tehran shortly before us, had one or two enquiries from women who did not stick with them either. Is there any point in trying to discover why we have remained trees that bear no fruit? I ask the question just to try out the 'truth game', not to make anyone feel guilty or rebellious.
The fact that we have deeply integrated into the Muslim community and sought to serve them has created a barrier between ourselves and the ethnic Christian community, which speaks Chaldean or Armenian. Without knowing one of those two languages, you cannot penetrate those communities. You have to choose black or white, odds or evens, like when gambling. It is understandable, because the Christian communities have been persecuted and consequently live in tight-knit ethnic groups, retaining their culture and remaining wary of Islam. It is always like that. We, on the other hand, are like some sort of turncoats who have gone over to the other side and made them score against our own team. We have got through life by extending a hand to the lepers, and some lepers have held out their hands and helped us get through life.

Perhaps it has also got something to do with the lifestyle of the brothers, who come from a very westernised generation and are living in a Middle Eastern world of the sacred, alongside a traditional Christian culture of the sacred which is so different from that to be found in Europe. Here, the way we live seems totally eccentric, fanciful and unconventional.

A priest or a monk should be someone serious, set apart, traditional, with a beard and a cassock. You do not need a telescope to spot one, they are unmistakable. They defend the honour and prestige and smooth running of the community of which they are the guarantors; their life, activity and service is devoted to the Church, through pastoral work and celebrating the liturgy. They do not do any paid work, or course, least of all manual work; that would represent a loss of dignity. And this dignity must also be maintained by their lifestyle, in accordance with the normal rules established by the conventions of their community: they must live in a particular kind of house, furnished in a particular way, employ a specified number of staff, drive a particular kind of car, and so on. Bishop X once said to me: "Here is some good news - my car is the same as that of the Ambassador of Y". And the community of the Armenian priest of Tabriz have given him a 4x4, like that of the Turkish consul of course. Both vehicles score 10/10. The Bishop and the priest would not be found on the bum-freezer of a pink bus crawling out beyond the suburbs of Tabriz (score 2 or 3/10), through a moonless night in the pitch black desert. Yet this bus crosses the desert, a single moving point of light.

And what about the Sisters? Well, the Little Sisters have attracted no vocations, but another congregation who look after the community have, over the last few years, taken in seven young Christian women. Some of them have a school-leaving certificate, and the Sisters raise their social status while they are abroad. They receive training and gain qualifications, and become nurses, social workers or kindergarten teachers.
The Christians know that the Sisters choose to promote European culture and civilisation, while the Fraternity adopts the customs of impoverished Muslims from the leper colony and belonged (and some Christians will say still do belong) to the suburbs of the Kingdom and definitely to the past, not to the future of increasing knowledge and word development. The Nazareth values of the Fraternity are too paradoxical or difficult to get one's head around. It is a bit like they way you feel when you lend someone a book which you have enjoyed. The person reads it, gives it back and you talk about it together, but there is a strange or mysterious feeling that you have not read the same book, or got the same message. It is a mystery.

But then, unlike the Little Sisters, other congregations can offer the guarantee of hundreds of years of establishment in Iran and in the Middle East; their values are 'classic', 'solid', 'typical', 'visible', 'useful'. They can be trusted because they are there to serve the Christians. They live in houses, very large houses, with considerable means. Could it be that it is this impression of security – or dare I say, of wealth – that attracts vocations? It is not that I am envious or jealous, is it just that, outside the West, The Fraternity's lifestyle appears, in a different cultural context, as too novel, too difficult, too strange, too vulnerable, too lacking in security, compared to the traditional context where all is conventional, rule-bound and 'holy'? It is like driving against the traffic on the wrong side of the road! Or like little Mohammed who’s afraid of missing the bus, and thinks all is lost, when he encounters all the cars clubbing together aggressively and preventing him from crossing the road.

Yet the new, the seemingly difficult, the things that appear strange, insecure or unsettling, are all part of the Gospel! Jack was a young electronics engineer, who gave up everything to go into a seminary. I admire him. He was ordained in Tehran in July 2005. One must be able to give everything up, without knowing the future, without fear of the unknown, as when coping with aggressive traffic, or looking out of frosted-up windows. Yet, for a lot of other 'vocations' I sometimes tend to feel that people are drawn by an attractive and reassuring guarantee of training, prospects and promotion.
Brr, brr, clunk, clunk, whoosh. We have broken down. One of the guaranteed and predictable things in life! I was too kind when I marked the bus as 3 out of 20 I knew it was ailing. And of course it has happened a third of the way into the desert, in the night and the cold, at the most inconvenient of times, and in the most tiresome of places. My imperial car would never have let me down at night, especially in the middle of the desert. And to cap it all, there is a howling all around us, or rather a suspicious "whoo, whoo, whoo". Deeply suspicious. Wolves, in other words. Time for a few Hail Marys, and some other prayers.

Click, click, bling, bling - the engine is turning again, in 4:4 rock-and-roll rhythm. The miracle has happened! I will go to Father de Foucauld’s canonisation in Rome, even if it is by the pink bus! The bus moves off again, while we sing the departure song, "Allah Akbar". A nip of whisky would have gone down well, even a little 'whisky baby', together with a "Cheers!" and before, during, after a few Ave Allahs and Maria Akbars, shaken not stirred in a cocktail. The bus moves on without a hitch – no casualties, no drama. But I was wrong – the pink bus deserves 20/20, like the Armenian 4x4, like its ambassador’s twin, like the Sisters’ Peugeot. I didn’t know how lucky I was. One always learns too late how much happiness and warmth and gentleness and tenderness are lingering in the shadows of life. Like earlier on, when I was crossing the road, with Mohammed’s hand protecting mine like a glove – he was entrusting me with not just his hand, but his soul.

What a wonderful opportunity it was, the unknown treasure of a passing encounter with a child. "Please, help me cross the road." A child’s prayer, which suddenly seemed to make one's own life change into a prayer. "Please, help me" – an opportunity to be seized - or ignored. For ever. A 'please', a 'help me' to say goodbye, an unheard of and challenging goodbye which takes one’s whole heart. A goodbye like a few bright pixels on a darkened screen – the dark screen of the end of the day. Another day, another life, just like all the others. Because in fact virtually nothing happened.