Project Canterbury

Mary Bird in Persia

By Clara C. Rice

London: Church Missionary Society, 1916.

Chapter V. Mary Bird as a Pioneer

PERSIA was spoken of by the Church Missionary Society as a field for missionary work as early as 1800, but for various reasons it was not occupied. About 1812 parts of the Prayer Book were translated and printed in. Persian. Henry Martyn's Persian translation of the New Testament was printed in Russia in 1815, and received with eagerness in Persia, even by the Shah. An English traveller, Captain Gordon, is cited as saying, "You little think how generally the English mullá Martyn is known throughout Persia, and with what affection his memory is cherished." In 1869 the Rev. R. Bruce (afterwards the Rev. Canon Bruce, D.D.) obtained permission from the C.M.S. to return to India by way of Persia so that he might "ascertain how far there might be opportunities for mission work in that country." As early as 1858 the majority of the Mohammedan inquirers and visitors in Constantinople, Smyrna, and Tabriz, had been Persians. Mr. Bruce went to Persia expecting to find a spiritual famine, but was soon confronted by the overwhelming calamity of a great famine for bread, to help in the relief of which he did everything possible. The constant cry was, "God bless you; you Christians have more pity than our people." Old inhabitants of Isfahan and Julfa still talk of what he and Mrs. Bruce did. For six years they worked on, living in Julfa, as it was impossible then for any foreigner to live in the fanatical city of Isfahan. In June, 1875, the C.M.S. decided that the time had come "to open a Mission in the Persian-speaking districts of the Persian empire," and Mr. Bruce was asked to do this. The work was begun in a very small way, chiefly among the Armenians, but in time two doctors and a clergyman were added to the staff, and one lady for work in the Armenian girls' school.

It was not until 1891 that work among Mohammedan women was considered possible, and for this most difficult and unknown task, Mary Bird was chosen. The late Rev. H. Carless, writing in December, 1891, said:--

"The country is most surely opening up for the Gospel. Rulers and traders are all in God's hand, and He uses them for His own designs. There has been a large advent of Europeans this year into the country. ... A British Consul has been appointed to Isfahan who shows a most cordial and friendly spirit to the Mission. Everything shows a quiet advance forward and a steadily opening door. . . . Converse with inquiring Mohammedans is frequent, and God's love is surely touching men's hearts. It is a day perhaps of small things; but we do not despise it. ... Miss Bird and Miss Stubbs reached us in May last."

So it happened that Mary Bird came to do the work of a pioneer, of a sapper, of a gatherer out of stones, of a ploughman, of a sower in that "dry-as-dust Mohammedan land," and now, twenty-four years later, it is said that, "In the death of Mary Bird Persia has experienced the greatest loss it has had since the days of Henry Martyn." How has it come about that Mary Bird has meant so much to Persia, and what did she do that her loss is so universally felt? It may be gathered that she was no ordinary woman, yet she was simple, unpretentious, unassuming, and this probably was the secret of her usefulness; she only wanted to be an instrument in the hand of the Great Worker, and this she certainly was. No woman's name is better known in Persia to-day than that of Khánum Maryam, or "Lady Mary," the name by which she was usually known, Hakim Maryam, or "Doctor Mary," being sometimes substituted.

On her arrival Mary Bird lived with Dr. and Mrs. Bruce in the mission house, Julfa, and at once began to look for her work--that of a pioneer is seldom ready to hand. She had had no special training, but possessed a great deal of tact and common sense, and a good general knowledge of life. The first things to be done were to learn the language and make friends with the women. Education for Moslem women was not thought of, medical work had been carried on by a male doctor, and even this had lapsed. Miss Bird quickly acquired an excellent knowledge of Persian, and also spent an hour daily on Arabic, this being a great help in the clear understanding of Persian, and, as the language of the Qur'án, a knowledge of it being much appreciated by the educated classes. She spoke of her first Persian lesson as follows:--

"Thursday a mirza came for the first time, a tall, well-made man. White shirt, pea-green coat, wide dark-blue trousers, loose dark-blue outer robe, and white turban make a picturesque costume. His stock of English consists of 'good,' 'good-bye' and 'both,' so there is no temptation to talk. The method is, he reads first, then I repeat it after him until I can catch the sound, then I have to spell it out, and try to supply the right vowels (which are never written), and name the different signs. Then he sets me a copy. They hold the paper in the left hand, and do not put it on a table while writing, and use a reed pen. The mirza tells me I should talk in a slow and dignified manner like the mullás, and not chatter fast like the princesses."

Some of Miss Bird's early impressions may be of interest. She wrote:--

"I went to the Persian service in the morning. The church was well filled with Armenians. There were a few Mohammedans in the gallery. I had a class of five Armenians in the afternoon who knew simple English, we all sat on the ground. After service Dr. Bruce took us for a walk in the fields; we had a long talk on Mohammedanism. I did not know that every country where it prevails is desert. Arabia, Persia, Baluchistan, Afghanistan, Northern Africa; formerly these lands were more fruitful and much more inhabited. Yesterday in the fields I saw a brown snake quite a yard long. We can hear jackals at night; they come at this time of the year to steal grapes from the vineyards. They never come through the gates into the streets, nor do they attack people."

"Last Saturday I had my first Persian visitors! A bride of 12 years old, dressed in brilliant green silk trousers, which have attached socks of the same material, beautifully fitted to the foot; crimson silk jacket with gold embroidery round it, left open in front to show the white shirt; short full divided skirt of crimson flowered silk; red and yellow slippers. Of course over this finery she had her outdoor dress of black chadar and white veil reaching to her knees, with a fine embroidery over the eyes. She was such a pretty child, with lovely eyes. It was very embarrassing, for I had no one to interpret, and my words are few. They were too polite to laugh, but sometimes their eyes twinkled. The moment they saw my chair they exclaimed 'throne,' so I gave it to the bride and sat at her feet, with the mother-in-law, the most fearful-looking old witch of a woman, and her four friends. Givork brought some pears to the door, which I tried to offer properly, putting the dish on the floor in front of the principal guest, then offering a pear in both hands, saying, 'God be with you and give health.' They are village people and live about a mile from here; they invited me to go as soon as I can talk; 'Learn quickly, quickly. We will send a horse or donkey for you.' At present I can only understand and speak a little Persian, and the only person I have visited alone is a poor old woman. She started on a pilgrimage to Mecca, as Mohammedans believe that if they die there they are certain to go to heaven; but she had only gone a short way when she fell off the mule she was riding and broke her arm, so her friends brought her back. Now she is unhappy, she thinks she will not get to heaven. I do so long to tell her all about the true way there. A young Armenian bride was in church on Sunday morning in her bridal dress, always given by the bridegroom, a handsome figured cream satin; a sort of little black velvet cap studded with silver ornaments, and small white net veil; black silk chadar with broad bands of gold work down the front but no veil; four bracelets, five rings, and handsome brooch and earrings in filigree gold. She waited at the door for me, and I invited her, in spite of her grandeur, to class. She came and was so nice, thoughtful, and unaffected, and begged to have her name entered as a regular member."

"My Persian friend came and brought me a present of some mást--sour milk. She looked very ill. I made out that she is a widow with no sons, and her daughters are married. I told her I had a mother, one brother with one wife (she repeated 'One! one!' as if astonished), and two sisters. She said: 'Married?' 'No.' 'Twelve years old?' 'More.' She shook her head solemnly. She would be my 'friend for life' was all I really understood."

"The Europeans declare the character of the Persian people is summed up in the word 'tomorrow,' so great is their procrastination and love of ease. The women seem dreadfully ignorant, only a few wealthy ones can read or write. Two who called on me said they liked pictures, but when I gave them some to look at, they held them upside down. Their delight was great over my clock and watch; they had never seen any before."

"Miss Bruce has taken me to visit some Persians who live near. It all seemed so strange. At the door you take off your shoes; there are no chairs or tables in the rooms, you sit cross-legged on the floor. Soon cups of very, very sweet tea without milk, and fruits, are brought in on trays and set before the principal guest; taking the cup in both hands they hand it, saying, 'You are welcome in the name of God'; you must answer, 'May your hands never be tired '; they reply, 'May your head never be tired.' Then the questions begin. 'Why do you not paint your face?' 'Why are your nails and hair not dyed red?'--this is supposed to show holiness--'Does your hair grow round?' From babyhood to old age they have their hair in long plaits, varying in number from four to fifteen, hanging down their backs. They only unfasten the plaits when they go to the bath, and the woman there does it up again while quite wet, which makes it keep wonderfully smooth."

"I am sure this waiting time is very good for my impatient spirit. Oh! that childlike faith and trust may grow as well as power of speech. I try not to mind mistakes, but to talk and make friends with those who come, and they afterwards introduce me to their friends; but I do not attempt to speak on religion just yet, as they would begin to argue, and many words with totally different meanings are so alike in sound, that I might assent when I ought not to."

"I think I never felt so unfit for the work as now that I see it waiting around me. The terrible ignorance and superstition of the people is dreadful. Nearly all the people wear charms, the mother fastens a dried sheep's eye round her baby's neck, or on his cap, to keep off the evil eye. In visiting you must never notice or pet the children, as, if a Christian does so, they think the evil eye will fall on the child, and some harm will happen to it. The proper thing to say is, 'What an ugly child,' or, 'Whatever God wills.' It is very saddening: sin, sorrow, suffering, oppression, avarice, and injustice seem everywhere; and God's loving mercy, the gift of His Son our Saviour, and the Holy Spirit the Comforter, unknown. Judging from the vast influence of Christian mothers in England, it must surely be a matter of the greatest importance in the evangelization of Persia, that the women and girls should be reached as soon as possible; besides they are the greatest sufferers. What steps can we take to get at the children before they be ruined soul and body by daily contact with deceit and impurity? In the anderiin where all self-restraint is laid aside, they hear and see from infancy such things, that before they are able to judge for themselves, their minds are utterly depraved. Life in these big anderuns is degrading, wicked beyond description."

"I have seen poor little brides sobbing bitterly for their mothers. I wonder what you would think of a Persian girl's life! Certainly it needs protection and extension. Fancy childhood over at 9 years old and married life beginning! I called on a proud mamma of 13 years old lately, rejoicing over her son and heir."

"The mullás stopped a girl's class by assuring the parents that any girl reading with a foreigner would probably be childless."

As a result of a little "first aid" rendered to her neighbours, Khánum Maryam's fame as a "doctor," or, as she called herself, a "quack," quickly spread. She wrote:--

"People come daily from the villages for medicine--ten, twenty, or even forty miles--which means two or three days' journey, and this to consult an unqualified person. Several times when wanting to send them to the dispensary for treatment they have said: 'Our husbands have not given us leave to see a man.' Surely this proves the need of lady doctors. Among the women there seems an uncertainty as to whether there is a life beyond the grave. Their frantic grief and wailing, 'To-day my child or husband is lost, lost, lost,' is dreadful to hear. The other day, when a village woman was moaning over the death of her only boy, I tried to tell of the 'home for little children.' She and her friends listened eagerly, and then broke out into louder wailing, for 'No one had told him, he never knew.'"

"Last night we found every one busy lighting up their houses with native lamps, just small shallow cups with oil and floating wicks. We had none, and Givork was dancing frantically in front of our door, wild that it was not done. 'Did we not know it was the Shah's birthday? Bruce Sahib's was done--he was English and Persian--why were not we?' We assured him we were, and got ten candles, which he stuck on bits of wood and hammered into the mud wall. They burnt beautifully in the still, warm air, and he was quite happy."

"The other night, a poor girl of 11 was beaten to death by her father for not having finished making a pair of shoes. The man--I hear--will probably be fined! When I begin visiting I must go and see the poor mother, whom I know a little. No Persian woman has ever been baptized here, nor has one ever declared herself a Christian; the Americans in Teheran up till last year had no women converts, no Christian mothers. No wonder the land is in such a state."

Three months after coming to Persia, Miss Bird wrote to her home people:--

"I cannot help longing for a good talk with you all sometimes, but am not pining, for that would be wrong. I think it is far harder for those left behind. I am afraid you are missing me a little bit, and I cannot bear to think you should have one hour's less happiness because of me, and yet I am afraid I am not unselfish enough to wish to be loved less. I do not regret coming, though at times my unfitness for the work is overpowering. You know when I was confirmed father gave me for my text: 'Be not afraid, only believe,' and the admonition is more than ever necessary for me. Gideon is so encouraging for weak characters like me. I am sure if God should see fit to use me to help any of these poor people, they will see at once the power is His, not mine."

Miss Bird was unaccustomed to riding and found it nervous work, yet, as with other difficulties, she overcame this, and outwardly was invariably brave. She wrote:--

"When visiting in town I nearly had a nasty accident. We were riding along a very narrow alley and came close to a blind corner round which a camel came heavily laden. The driver called, 'Stand still, there is not room to pass farther on.' I drew Whitey close up to the wall, and by bending down escaped being knocked by the loads of that and four other following camels, which were fastened in a long line. The sixth rounded the corner with a tremendous box, and I saw I must be crushed. I could not dismount as my feet were jammed against the wall. There was no room to turn, and the driver being ahead with the first camel of course could not see. Often twenty or thirty are thus roped together. There was nothing to be done but keep still, and be crushed or killed. Involuntarily I reined Whitey up tighter. It saw the danger, trembled, and flung itself down; the box only knocked my shoulder, and the danger was passed. ... I never saw such an instance of the instinct of an animal. We were both unhurt, got up, and I went on my way with another Ebenezer to recount."

From the first the native women were attracted to Khánum Maryam, but as time went on, her popularity became so great that those in high places were alarmed. Was not this woman getting at their women? What would this mean for Persia? The Persian knows, though he may not put it into so many words, that no country can rise above the level of its women. They have the first innings with the children, and though they are despised and "sit behind the curtain," they are very powerful. But under existing conditions they are powerful only to keep down, not to exalt; they are powerful to hinder, not to advance, their people in their relative position to the great nations of the world.

Miss Bird was the object of most of the opposition which was called out during the years 1891-95. All that was said and done caused her much suffering, but she was apparently fearless and ready for all emergencies. A few extracts from her letters at this period will give some idea of what she had to face. By "town" is meant Isfahan, as these letters were written from Julfa, two miles away:--

"The Armenian Governor of Julfa has appointed a policeman to accompany me! I did not want him, but as the proposal came from him it is best to accept. He is such a lazy fellow, hates walking fast, which does not suit the wicked wild Tabbie. I have been free from all fear, though you know what a coward I naturally am. Lately even the nervous feeling on going to a new house has been taken from me. How much better God is to us than our fears! You must not have an anxious thought for me. God can restrain the passions of evil men, and keep my faith in Himself. And then, humanly speaking, we have so much protection as British subjects. It is such a comfort to feel it is not my weakness and faithlessness that has to be relied upon, but the upholding hand of my Almighty loving Father. If the work be true and beginning to gain a foothold we must have opposition."

"On Monday, in consequence of a mullá having taken 'Khánum doctor farangi' ('the European lady doctor') as his text the previous day, a number of women who had heard the sermon came to see me. Apparently he was a little doubtful whether I am the incarnation of the evil one, or only one of his agents! We read and talked from 10 a.m. to 1.30 p.m., when they came to the conclusion that the Gospel was a good book--' from seeming evil still educing good.' "

"All was quiet and pleasant in town, though the mullás have also been preaching bitterly against me in the big mosque, Musjid-i-Shah, and telling the people not to admit me to their houses. So many women coming here had attracted attention, and spies informed the head mullá in town, who also issued an order forbidding any to come to see me, as they thought I was a Babi, and taught the women to be so. For ten days only a few ventured, in the early morning or at noon, when they thought the spy would be sleeping; then some of the husbands took up the matter, and represented it was a false report. Since then we have been undisturbed though still watched."

"On Tuesday I set off for the town dispensary in accordance with the message I had received inviting me to return, but we found the doors locked and a few turbanned friends awaiting us; they were perfectly civil to me personally, but they had nailed up my dispensary door, and locked the street door. The men answered all my questions civilly, and we wished each other a friendly good-bye. My man said as I rode down the street that the mullás regretted that I was not afraid of them, and feared that my talking pleasantly was enough to draw the women over to Christianity. Then I went visiting, and the mullá sent his servant to watch where I went, but nothing was said. The people gave me a warm welcome, but were frightened."

"Last Monday a formal complaint was laid against the Kád Khudá, head man of the village, for having come on my roof and tried to frighten my patients away, there being a strict Persian rule about people not looking into their neighbours' compounds. This was written out, sealed and forwarded to the 'Pillar of the Kingdom,' who replied denying the charge altogether, and saying he was sorry that the word of one weak woman was believed rather than that of one hundred men. The charge was repeated, and to-day has been denied again. 'It never was or will be done,' was the answer, which is considered most favourable, for it shows they know they were in the wrong and are afraid. On Wednesday, when reaching the dispensary street, the women surrounded me, begging me to doctor them in the street. I said it was impossible--I had no medicine--and invited them to the dispensary. Outside the door no one was visible, but as I stepped into the passage an almost nude fiendish-looking man rose and put up his arms to prevent my entering. 'Who can forbid my entering my own house? This is my house.' His arms dropped and I passed. Two women, seeing this, made a rush to get in; the man, who proved to be the Kad Khuda's servant, struck one in the chest; the other struck him between the eyes. He staggered, six other women leapt forward and swept him against the wall, and about twenty-five rushed in shouting, 'Bravo! Bravo!' You ask if such little scenes unnerve me. Not in the least; in fact this wicked wild Tabbie often feels more inclined to laugh than anything else."

"Last Saturday, when leaving Husainabád, the Kad Khudá told me not to come again, as the mullas had had a meeting and determined to give me the bastinado--sticks--next time I came. One man threw a spade down in front of me, evidently to make me jump. I could hardly help smiling as I stepped over the handle, it was so childish."

"On Wednesday the Kad Khudá of Julfa and a policeman stood in the street close to the dispensary door, and told the women the mujtahids had forbidden their coming, as I wanted to make them Christians. When the women still tried to enter they beat them with a donkey's chain (a chain with a prod at the end, which is used instead of a whip in this land). Nevertheless, sixty-four women struggled past and were so attentive. They seemed struck by the different results of our religion. Perhaps this is God's way of opening their eyes to the truth. The Kad Khudá of Husainabád came himself on Tuesday, saying he was sorry I was insulted there before, it was all his fault, and would I come and see a sick relative? I have been twice and all was quiet, but he advised my not going to other houses for fear of a row!

"Thursday. Went to the town dispensary, followed by my two men. All was perfectly quiet, thank God, both there and on the road. The bridge-keeper gave me a piece of lilac, saying, 'Welcome back to town!' We hear the civil governor of the town, under the Prince, has sent a message to the head man of the district, in which the dispensary stands, to say he is to see that no one speaks rudely to me."

Yet, such is the treachery of the Oriental, within a week the following happened:--

"Tuesday. One hundred and two patients in Julfa made a busy morning for us. All had just gone when a friendly Jew appeared saying that my town dispensary was to be locked, I was not to be admitted, but, possibly, beaten. Bishop Stuart and I agreed it would be best to go, as otherwise how could we tell it was true? and for them to think a rumour would prevent us coming would be enough to teach them to do such things. [Bishop Stuart resigned the see of Waiapu, New Zealand, in order to devote his life to work among Moslems.] So next day I started. On the bridge we met friendly Jews, who said, 'Don't go, the mullas are waiting for you.' Farther on, several friendly people hinted at a storm, and one could see sayyids and mullas were on the look-out along the road. I had promised to visit a woman with acute rheumatic fever at the first house in the dispensary street. Here news was more definite--' a crowd waiting, the door locked, students headed by mullá sticks.' I asked the men if they would go with me? 'Oh, yes.' We remounted, and went forward. The bend in the street prevented our seeing till close at hand; then, in the middle of the narrow street, under an archway, I saw the Kad Khuda's three servants, who had always done their best to help me; they looked quite kindly at me, and then followed close behind my own men. All was just as we had heard: two big padlocks on the door. 'Knock at the door.' 'You shall not defile the door,' and some sayyids came forward to prevent our getting near. I salaamed and inquired, 'Who has done this? Who has issued the orders?' 'The inhabitants of the district.' 'All the inhabitants of the district would hardly come to lock one door--who has done it?' Laughter, and the same reply. The men asked whether I would try to force my way in through the stable. This was not locked, but it was strongly guarded, and I saw it would be folly, and useless to attempt it. Of course some bad language was used; twice sticks were raised, but not one blow struck. There was no use in waiting. 'Turn back!' 'No, we will drive her back.' With the customary farewell, 'God watch over you,' I turned--I had never realized so much the beauty of the words. He was there watching, protecting us, yearning over His lost sheep. The crowd followed threateningly, and thanking God that they had turned the infidel out of the district. Then, I am ashamed to own it, I was afraid. I saw the crowd had pushed between my men and me, and I could not see them. I tried to turn, but the students held my donkey's head, and I feared they were going to wreak their vengeance on the men; but in a moment the crowd separated and they came forward. Afterwards they said they had not been insulted, only a message had been given them for me that I was not dismissed for that day only, but for ever--a bold statement! I like to think that God holds the key of my dispensary and can open or shut it just as He sees best, and no mullá can prevent Him. To-day the mullas think they have won, but ours is the victory, certain, complete." Dr. D. W. Carr, writing at this time, said:--"The chief mullá sent once or twice to the owner of the house in which the dispensary is held saying that he would send men to kill him and pull down the house if he allowed us to come any more. It was thereupon represented to the governor of the city that he had given permission a week or two before for the work to go on, and the threatened interference came to nothing. Threatenings have been frequent, but we have been allowed to go on. Seed is being sown, the ground is being prepared, hearts are being softened, bigotry is being broken down, prejudice is disarmed. Many come to us to stay for a longer or a shorter time, then pass away from us, some we believe with the seed of eternal life beginning to germinate and spring up in their hearts, and most, at any rate, with a more kindly feeling towards Christianity, which may pave the way to better things."

In 1897 there was trouble again, but this time it was because one here and another there had confessed their faith in Christ, and the suffering fell on them as well as on those who had taught them. But this, as before, only brought larger and wider opportunities, until to-day the members of the visible Church, gathered out from among the Mohammedans of Persia, may be numbered by hundreds. It is even now likely that opposition from the mullas and their students may have to be faced from time to time. Yet hospitals and schools will hold their own, not only because the cause is God's, but because the Persians put a high value upon medical work, and appreciate sound moral training for their children. These no Mohammedan country can produce, and it is for the lack of them that they are so far behind in the race for progress and power.

Blessed Spirit, lift Thy standard, pour Thy grace and shed Thy light!
Lift the veil and loose the fetter; come with new and quickening might;
Make the desert places blossom, shower Thy sevenfold gifts abroad;
Make Thy servants wise and steadfast, valiant for the truth of God.


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