Project Canterbury

Mary Bird in Persia

By Clara C. Rice

London: Church Missionary Society, 1916.

Chapter VI. "Khánum Maryam," the Friend of the Persians

MARY BIRD went very far towards meeting the people of Persia, but she never lost her individuality; though she conceded nothing of all that goes to make a truly English gentlewoman, she saw things, as it were, through Eastern eyes, and as little as possible let the people feel that she was "foreign." For while the Eastern delights in a tamáshá or a show, and his curiosity is one of his strongest traits, he does not love what is foreign. But the Persians loved Mary Bird, or, as they put it, they "had a friend" in her. One who knew her well calls her "the most beloved woman in southern Persia." To a certain extent her own character and personality account for this, but this character and personality had to be adjusted both by divine and human means to be able to respond in the marvellous way it did to what was racially alien and personally uncongenial. Among the Persians, Khánum Maryam's name became a household word, and the title is now often used by the uneducated of any woman missionary.

Her work was "all round"--it was for body, mind, and soul. Her genuine, loving sympathy, the result of a clear understanding of all their disabilities, attracted them. Khánum Maryam never looked down upon them, and they realized it. She saw things at their native value, and was invariably ready to respond, if at all possible, to any demand of theirs at any time, however unreasonable it would seem to an ordinary European. She knew them intimately, understood their language of signs and all their colloquialisms, and unconsciously became their friend.

Blending their souls' sublimest needs
With talks of every day.

To her, too, Christianity was Christ--the simplicity of her faith was constantly requisitioning His power to work in the hearts of the people, and through her as a channel. As with the disciples, who lived with their Master and were continuously and unconsciously moulded by Him, so Mary Bird was in an unusual degree in a line with the divine will because she followed so closely with the Christ, and her life was one in which "wide, sweet spaces were kept, where holy thoughts passed up and down," and as the need arose the help was hers. In spite of her busy days, time was always found for public prayer and worship--a thing which counts for much in the opinion of the Oriental. Another trait appreciated by the Persians was her courtesy; to really win their hearts you must be patient enough to be always courteous. She often bemoaned her lack of patience, but she had more of this necessary Eastern possession than most.

Khánum Maryam's own words explain better than any others how and why she became a friend to the people of Persia. She wrote in 1892:--

"In the spring I gradually made friends with a good many Persian women living in Julfa and the two neighbouring villages, they coming to see me and inviting me to their houses. These women have such sad, dreadful lives, and are so ignorant; several have told me, 'Our husbands say we have no souls.' One wonders where to begin. I tried telling the little girls about Jesus blessing children, and soon the mothers were listening. One weary woman said, 'It is pretty, and it rests one to hear about it.' St. Matt. xi. 28 seemed just for her, she said. 'I will try to think of this when everything goes wrong.'"

"Stayed in to receive a Marnoon visitor, but the spy had spoken roughly to her in the street, and asked what she was coming for, and frightened her so much that she was trembling from head to foot and would not sit down. 'Kiss me, I won't come again for a year, but I will think about you.' However, to-day, just before prayers, she arrived with a neighbour with bad eyes, and was so attentive. This woman rebukes me; she is so ugly that at first I felt set against her; and now, when the soft gleam comes into her eyes, I can see there is a fine jewel inside."

"I have been busy making up the attendances at the dispensary. How many of these thousands have seen even a dim light shining, a faint reflection of the rays of the Sun of Righteousness, when they have come? Too often I fear that my impatience, if they have been noisy, may have been a stumbling-block. Have I been a faithful, loving friend? God grant that amid the deadening influence of hourly contact with sin, our manner and actions, which are noted and credited much more than our words, may be only always for God's glory."

"As soon as the mirza left (after a good rating from 'little Turk' for being late--half an hour) I went to see the typhoid child and others, in Marnoon, and then to Husainabad to two diphtheria cases, back to find that the mirza had arrived, meek as a mouse, to read another hour if I liked! I felt idle, but was ashamed to own it, so we ground away. Preparing medicines took till 3 o'clock, when the people came for tea and the working party. When they left at 5.30 I had twelve little Persians from this street to a melon feast, and a talk about the pictures in my room."

When staying in a village which travellers call the Switzerland of Persia, Khánum Maryam chose a small downstairs room, so that the women might come to her more easily. She wrote:--

"In the morning about twenty patients came in, and a good many friendly women, whom we tried to teach. We had just had our midday meal, and I had begun to write, when my door opened and the woman of the house came in with fourteen friends. 'Are you reading your prayers? If you will read aloud, we will listen.' And they did listen for nearly an hour, when some forty patients came in to be seen and taught."

Her love and sympathy for the people in no way blinded her to their faults; and her keen sense of humour and powers of observation were of the greatest help.

"News came that the Persian general's Khánum and nine friends were coming to see me. They were only an hour and a half late! They enjoyed blanc mange with jam, sweets, fruit, and cake. Most of them took two slices at once, but one managed better, for she helped herself to the uncut half of the cake! It was the first time they had been to a Christian's house; one counted her beads all the time; the rest were willing for a short Gospel talk. Ten men-servants came with them, who also had to have tea. When they left at 4 p.m., N. went with me to Sechoon to graft skin on the big wound on the boy's leg. The relatives were quite willing so long as it was my skin! Now don't fancy it hurt me; N. only took six tiny, tiny scraps off my arm--I am sure she felt doing it much more than I felt the pain. She has a loving, sensitive nature, and I am a bit of old shoe-leather; and, besides, she was not prepared for a room full of curious spectators, and it made her nervous."

"To-day my first visit was to the wife of the Imam Jum'ah. Of all the vain, frivolous, selfish women I have seen, she beats them all. She is now 24 years old, has had four husbands and seven children, boasts that she does not let her present husband go to see his three other wives, has had them turned out of all the good rooms, and their dowries reduced! She was gorgeous in pale pink tights, crimson velvet jacket, and short skirt worked in gold, pink muslin head-kerchief, rose silk house chadar, and sat between two mirrors to admire herself. She gave me lunch--rice, plain and savoury, chicken stewed with plums, very greasy soup, melon, cheese, and bitter herbs. Afterwards we retired to a small room alone to talk. After listening for a few minutes, she said, 'Yes, true, you need not trouble about salvation; God willing, the Prophet and Imáms will arrange for us one way or another.' Poor thing! From there to the house of the Mushíru'l Mulk. He was the richest and most popular man in the town formerly; but the prince became jealous of him, and plundered him of most of his property. He died a painful, unaccountable death shortly after; the widow whispers, 'Poison, I fancy.' She is a very clever, staunch Moslem, with more reasoning power than most, and we had a long talk. St. Matt. vii. 16 and 20 struck her much, and we parted good friends. 'We must have another talk,' she said."

The following extracts from her letters give some incidents in Khánum Maryam's intercourse with one family. Whether in Isfahan, Yezd, or Kerman, she always had friendly relations with the aristocracy, whom she found more difficult to reach than the poor, but whom she understood equally well.

"I had a visit from the Zan-i-javad Agha and her sister, attended by two negro slaves, ten Turkish slaves, and ten Persian servants--rather impressive to see them all standing at attention round the room! Her husband is one of the Prince's household. She, the lady, is a typical Persian beauty, very fat, soft skin, large eyes, plenty of colour, and good hair. She is almost as broad as long, and well adorned, gold Qur'án boxes set with emeralds, bracelets, rings, necklaces, earrings, and very handsome anklets; green and purple plush coat worked in gold, covered with a crimson plush chadar. She is nice, not bigoted, and is reading the gospel I gave her, though at present she only looks upon it as an interesting book."

Some months later this lady's little boy died, and Miss Bird, with a good deal of labour, wrote a Persian letter to her. It would have been easy to let the mirza write one with all the correct Persian phrases, but she knew that her personal expression of sympathy would give more comfort. A fortnight later she wrote:--

"Last Wednesday, when in town, this lady invited me to lunch. I gladly accepted, as I had started early, and did not expect to get back till 7 p.m. What do you think we had? Served on beautiful silver trays, with a large English bath-towel for a cloth spread on the floor, Turkish delight and other sweets, small cold boiled potatoes, pepper and salt, iced lump sugar and water, apple juice and rose-water, pomegranate juice and rose-water, iced lemon juice and tea! The thing seemed to be to eat a sweet and a potato alternately, the potatoes being handed with sugar-tongs by negro slaves. The daughter is to be married in a week, and they most kindly invited me for the five days and nights of the feast, but I have declined! The bride is to have for her dowry 1000 tomans (about £262), ten changes of raiment, two negress slaves, and all the cushions, quilts, mirrors, candlesticks, and samovars she needs. She is just 12 years old, such a timid, clinging sort of child. One of the slaves is only 8 years old. She was smuggled up-country three years ago, and sold for £26. This is a good price; an older woman goes for much less. We had no reading, but a nice talk, and a pressing invitation to the wedding. The wedding-day came, and, as promised, I went. Thirty-two relatives were there, all very smart in rose silk house chadars, velvet and silk jackets and skirts, oh! so short! and tights! Many had very handsome jewels, and were well rouged and painted. Timbrels and tom-toms kept up a lively noise, and a girl danced. The orders were that the dancer was to be fully dressed not to shock my feelings, but, as it is a vulgar performance, I never watch, to show my disapproval. The poor bride had a dull time sitting in a little room apart, as the company are not supposed to see her till an hour before she leaves her home. I asked to see her, and had a nice talk with her and prayer. She asked what English brides did, and then said tearfully, 'No one has prayed or asked God to bless me; perhaps I shall not have one blessing.' She was charmed with her gospel, and sent her slave off at once to lock it in her own box. Then came lunch--piled-up dishes of plain boiled rice, curry, chicken, savoury rice, boiled lamb's head, soup, meat and plums stewed together, cheese, lettuce, pickles, melon, and iced sherbets. No plates, but flat cakes of bread instead, and fingers instead of forks, knives, or spoons. Everyone takes a handful out of the dish, but I wait to be helped for fear I should defile the whole.

"It was difficult to get much conversation on religious subjects. The rich are, I think, more shameless than the poor, and it is dreadful to hear them talk. Of course I would not join in such conversation. After a time they asked why I was silent. When I told them of Phil. iv. 3, and the last six Commandments, they said, 'That is good, but what can you talk about?'

"At 1.30 I left and went to call on the Princess Jallal, having obtained a promise that the Prince would not enter the anderún whilst I was there. She had heard of my English saddle, but had never seen one, so I called Musá to bring my donkey to the door of the anderún, and then led it in and mounted the Princess. These women are just like children, so pleased with a new trifle, and sometimes I find it breaks the ice and makes them glad to receive me."

A fellow missionary writes:--

"The gates of the city of Kerman were shut at sunset, and none could get through save those who knew the password for the night. One evening Miss Bird had been sent for to attend a small child who had been badly burnt. She set out immediately on her little donkey, with her man-servant by her side. How would his Khánum Maryam get through the shut gates of the city? At the entrance the word was promptly given: 'Let her through, she is the friend of the little Mohammedan children,' said the gate-keeper."

Her own letters show how true this was:--

"There is such a pet of a child at the hospital, not quite 2 years old. When I dress a bad wound on the mother's arm, the child comes and holds the arm, saying, in baby Persian: 'Mammie, do not be afraid.' Then she runs and hides, and calls: 'Where is my Khánum, where?' Then she climbs on my knee or back, and clings on while I do other dressings. Children don't worry me now a bit."

"My dear burnt baby died yesterday; the wound was nearly well, but the child had no strength to battle with measles and fever. The mother came at 11.30, saying it was much worse. I went as soon as my patients left, and it died with its hand in mine a few minutes after I arrived. Oh, the haste is dreadful. The little limbs were straightened, wrapped in a chadar and carried on a little mattress at once to the jube (stream) to be washed, when it would be wrapped in cottonwool and camphor, and buried within an hour. I must go this afternoon to see the mother, a very nice woman."

"Near the Maidan, Julfa, where the only son had died, the mother was weeping, and roughly throwing about her baby girl, who she wishes would die, poor little pet! She snuggled up so closely when I took her; I longed to bring her away."

As Khánum Maryam understood the Persian point of view, she never hurt their susceptibilities, or gave offence to the people.

"I went for a walk to the fields, for being Thursday the Moslem women had all been to pray at the Imám zádeh or shrine, and so many came and wanted to talk, that I went with them to a quiet part of the field and sat down. On the way back I went to see the relatives of the poor woman who died on Tuesday evening. They were all seated round the room wailing, beating their breasts and tearing their hair and clothes, whilst a professional reader, a woman, read a sort of service, calling on them to 'weep for their dead sister.' 'Weep, weep for a child of the family of the prophet who is dead---weep for a spirit, a stranger in another land.' As soon as there was a pause, I said: 'Surely the believers in a true God were not like the heathen, without hope?' and I had an attentive audience as I tried to tell of Him Who is the Resurrection and the Life."

"Accidentally we came upon a large gathering for a weeping service; there was no other way to my patient's house, but the people were so nice. I would not let my servants call, 'Take your foot away,' but explained to a man at the edge of the crowd what had happened. When he heard I had come three miles to see a poor patient, he said 'I will get you through.' He walked ahead,' whispering to the people to make way. When we returned the service was over, but I saw my friend and thanked him, and again apologized for interrupting. Several mullas were near, and said that not having spoken aloud we had not defiled their prayers, and then expressed surprise that Christians should look after patients who could not pay."

"To-night is the Shah's birthday, in honour of whom we have burnt up nearly all our stock of candles! I mentioned him specially at prayers, which seemed greatly to surprise the women. 'It's our Shah Nasru'd Din she is praying for, not her own!' 'Are you sure hers has not the same name?' 'No, it's a woman over there.'"

On a journey she wrote:--

"This afternoon I was talking with my men about their families, their homes, and the journey. I don't want them to think I have no interest in them. The muleteer seems a bigoted man, and at present I have not been able to do more than interest him in the account of English ways, and give a few object lessons as we go along; but yesterday he was more friendly, and listened when I was talking to the others about prayer. Both Aratoon's friends are village Armenians, and are so terribly ignorant of the Gospel; I trust that we may be able to help them a little during the journey. Yesterday an Ilyat lad, who only speaks Turkish, joined us, and I found by speaking slowly I could make him understand. I began on the two roads, old and new, and then asked him if he knew of the two roads in this world. For an hour and a half he walked beside me, asking me to tell him again and again of the roads, until at last he mastered the main points, and learnt a brief summary by heart, which he promised he would repeat to his villagers, and took a tract as a present for his mullá."

Mary Bird recognized few limitations in her work for others. Hot sun or deep mud were nothing to her--meal hours mattered still less. She would eat in a native house, and, if necessary, sleep for a few minutes, and be ready to go on again. She would send her fellow-workers to lunch, but not go herself until she had seen the last of a big dispensary. She said some engines required less fuel than others.

"Wednesday.--To town. I hired a donkey for Musa, so we went along gaily. About five inches of snow had fallen in the night, and it snowed all the way, but not heavily. The sick people gave me a very warm welcome, and in every house listened willingly to the Gospel. At the Imam Jum'ah's they said: 'We discussed this morning if you would come, and the Imam said, "If it is possible she will--those Christians think it so wrong to tell a lie." 'I was so glad I had gone; before I came away they gave me money to buy a lahaf, or padded quilt, for a very poor woman I had told them of last week. This is the first time a wealthy Persian has given me anything for the poor. The people are always extra willing to listen on wet days, looking upon it as a proof of the goodness of our religion that it makes us willing to go out on disagreeable days."

During her last year in Julfa, 1897, she is reported, during a time of special stress, to have "worked nineteen hours a day"! One with whom she lived says that during her last year she practically slept one minute out of every five, and worked the other four, night and day! Often instead of going to bed, she would sit up with a bright light, so that after a short rest she could continue her work, writing or sewing or studying. A new missionary going to Persia twas told by a member of the home Committee, "You are going to have a fellow-worker who does the work of six men and lives on biscuits and eggs. Don't copy her!" If Mary Bird had taken more care of "Brother Body" she might have worked longer. Latterly it took two men on foot to relieve each other and keep up with her during a day's visiting in town. Truly she "held not her life as of any account, as dear unto herself."

Yet much of the secret of her detachment and consequent power was her appreciation of existing conditions. She writes: "I love and am wholly absorbed in the work, and very happy in it, only longing to serve better. The other morning when I was riding to town, I was wondering if any of the other Europeans have so much enjoyment in their lives as I have. My work, which I thoroughly enjoy, is never wearisome; I have loving friends both in England and here; plenty of variety; I receive longer and far more interesting letters than any one I know; I have good health; and only too great an aptitude for hammering fun out of everything; and oh! such countless mercies."

During a severe epidemic of diphtheria she took it badly herself, and seemed surprised to think that the people cared for her as she cared for them. She said: "Fancy the Khan, whose wife and mother I go to teach, coming last night to inquire for me, and bringing such loving messages from them!" And again: "Fancy two townspeople have sent purposely to inquire for me, and so many of the poor things from the new villages come every morning; the men are weary of answering the door. Have they really grasped the idea, I am their friend?" And she continued to be "their friend" all through her years of loving service for them, but to the end felt that she was still "their debtor."

Teach what I owe to man below,
And to Thyself in Heaven?


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