Project Canterbury

Mary Bird in Persia

By Clara C. Rice

London: Church Missionary Society, 1916.

Chapter VII. The Attitude of the Persians to "Khánum Maryam"

THE love that desires to spend itself for others always realizes that it is a debtor to the world, while the love that desires to be loved will always find the world in its debt, and will complain bitterly of the unpaid score. Mary Bird was one of those who always felt her debt to the world. She did not love in order to receive but to give. Yet, not asked for, not sought for, love came back to her, and she was loved. Mary Bird never looked for approbation, but it came; the people loved her, they thronged her, they believed in her. This was not easy; she was a foreigner, she was only a woman, she was physically weak and frail; but as far as possible the wall of partition was ignored; men believed in her, she was outwardly fearless, and brought comfort and strength to many. Love is a faith, and it calls out much that is best in others. It is the love and kindness of human hearts, given often unconsciously, through which the divine love comes home to men.

Kindliness of heart may not be the most brilliant or beneficial of human qualities; some look upon it as a dowdy virtue, but it is the greatest of human qualities in friendship; in fellow-feeling for mankind it is the least dispensable quality. It has the great advantage of always going with a broad mind. Narrow-minded people seldom appear kind hearted; their view point is straight in front, they cannot, or will not, look to the right and the left. If not inborn, kindliness of heart is difficult though not impossible to inculcate, but with Mary Bird, as with so many of her clan, she came into the world endowed with a broad mind and a broad outlook. A friend said that on this account she was not cut out for married life and its details; be this as it may, she had mother instincts which the Persians were quick to appreciate and appropriate.

The reader may think that it can scarcely be right to conclude that the Persians looked upon Khánum Maryam as a friend, if the foregoing accounts of opposition are true. If the reception given to Mrs. Bishop the traveller by Isfahanis in 1890 is compared with what her cousin encountered in the following years, it will be seen how the attitude of the people improved. [See Vol. I, p. 247, "Persia and Kurdistan."]

At a time when there was much opposition in Isfahan, Mary Bird was asked to call on the wife of one of the mullas who had shown himself violently opposed to Christianity. This lady presided at the samovar, and poured out tea, a cup being handed by a servant to her guest. The latter, however, observed that her hostess did not herself take any tea. Something seemed to warn her of danger, and she bethought herself of the Persian custom of asking any one remarkable for holiness to bless the cup by taking the first sip. This compliment she paid to her hostess, and an awkward pause ensued, during which she turned and examined some of the pictures on the walls. At last the hostess said to her servant: "Take away this tea, it is quite cold, and bring me another teapot." The teapot was brought, fresh tea made, and hostess and visitor each had a cup. Mary Bird eventually withdrew after a prolonged visit, without having shown the least sign of alarm. A negro servant who followed her to the door of the house whispered to her in the passage, "How did you know that it was poisoned?" The habitual coolness which she exhibited in danger was the result of her faith, and made a strong impression.

Persians showed their affection by wishing her to become a Moslem, or, as many put it, "return to the true faith." They said: "You were born a Mohammedan, but as your parents were Christians they brought you up to be the same." About this, she wrote:--

"At a mulla's house on Thursday the mullá was walking in the compound, I sitting with his wives in a curtained room. He called: 'Ask the Khánum if I shall pray for her that she may soon become a true Mohammedan?' The head wife looked at me. 'Say I shall be truly grateful if he will pray that I may be enabled to serve God aright.' Mulla, in a disconcerted tone: 'What answer can we give to that?' One woman said she prayed every night that I might become a good Mohammedan."

"Spent all day in town, visiting in thirteen houses. In nearly all I found many sick friends and neighbours. There is an impression among the people that there is to be more religious liberty, and no one seemed afraid of my reading the Gospel. One dear old woman said, 'I am so sorry for you; my heart boils for you that you are in darkness, and do not know the true Prophet.' "

"Saturday.--The week has flown! Never have I known so much liberty, the people salaam in the streets! men will show me the way. If one says, 'Why do you trouble about the infidel dog?' they reply, 'She is doing a good work, perhaps she will believe presently!'"

The people also showed their love for Khánum Maryam by small personal attentions, and by appreciating hers for them.

"The longed-for rain came on Monday night, turned to snow on Tuesday morning, and again to rain later on. Supporting myself with a stick, I waded through the slippery mud and water to see seven bad cases. One house was down a passage under one of the shops in the brass bazar; the water had accumulated and was over my ankles. When I had dressed the poor woman's boils and was coming out I found the waterway had been opened, and the passage was comparatively dry.

My man told me that the men in the bazar had said, if a foreigner would come down to see a Moslem on such a day they would not let her walk through water, so they had opened the choked-up drain. I was very much surprised and gratified, as in every town the brass-workers are considered the roughest class; but God can turn the hearts of all."

"7 a.m.--To town for sick visiting. Some of the typhoid cases have got a turn for the better. Every one very friendly, and many glad to listen. One former patient had invited me to meet a friend at her house, and 'bring the Gospel.' I found the room beautifully cleaned, and an elaborate pattern of real pink roses all down the centre of the floor. The neighbours who came in were surprised, some rather shocked, at the attention to a Christian!"

"A woman from the next house to that where there had been some disturbance came to see me. She kissed me, saying, 'Khánum, did they frighten you? I heard all, but dared not come out. You said God and Jesus were always with you. Did They keep you from being afraid?' And then she asked me to come and see her, which was a very bold step, seeing her house is between the one where the disturbance was and the mulla's who caused it."

"Did I tell you poor old Guli, the one who used to carry letters for me, sent me about half a stone of dried sultanas and apricots? She was quite sure those to be had in Isfahan were not so good as those in her village, so walked there and back, forty miles, on purpose to get them. Was it not touching?"

"The people are so kind in Kerman. The other morning I was hobbling up to the hospital--my ankle being inflamed and swollen--when a shopkeeper mounted on a beautiful white donkey passed me. He drew up, jumped off, and asked my servant if I were going to the hospital. 'Yes.' 'Then your Khánum must ride my donkey; tell her it is hers this morning.' I accepted, but said I was ashamed to be the cause of his walking. 'That does not matter,' he answered. 'You are going for God's sake to doctor sick people.' I am so glad some begin to see the reason of our work. I have been so touched by the welcome granted me and the numbers of all classes that greet me in the street. Truly it is wonderful how God has put it into the hearts of these people to receive a poor little stranger."

"Lately I have been greatly cheered by the quiet attention of many, even some of the Parsis really listen, and speak of me as their friend, and greet me in the street; truly a trifling thing in itself, but it marks a difference. At first, like most downtrodden people, they expected to be cheated and not get their turn, and fought for it; now, though not perfect, they are quite amenable, and are becoming much more friendly. The wife of the high priest came with bad rheumatism the other day, but she could only have some liniment, as she has never been permitted to defile herself with medicine not prepared by her own people; the other Parsis were most surprised at her coming at all."

Another incident which shows how much Miss Bird was appreciated is told by Dr. Stileman, the first Anglican bishop in Persia. In December, 1913, he was calling upon the acting Governor of Kerman. The latter had just received a letter telling him that Miss Bird was coming from Yezd to work in his town. He asked, "Can you tell me who Miss Bird is?" The Bishop replied that the Persians always called her "Khánum Maryam." The Governor's face lighted up immediately and he said, "Oh, is Khánum Maryam coming back to Kerman? That is excellent news; rich and poor alike will give her a warm welcome. She loves them all and they all love her." It was a remarkable testimony from a man who probably knew the people of Kerman better than any one else.

This attitude of friendliness was shown wherever she went, and people constantly asked her to come and see them "as a friend, not as a doctor." Thus she wrote:--

"This week has been busy and interesting, I have been invited to several houses where there were no invalids merely for friendly visits, and in most cases found them very willing to listen to the Gospel story, though sometimes not caring for reading. I think many of them are like children, and find it easier both to understand and attend when spoken to without a book."

"Wednesday.--All day in town; bitterly cold outside, but some warm welcomes, more than balancing any slight discomforts. At the sayyid's house, where they used to be such bitter enemies, they asked for reading and were so attentive. In some of the houses found quite a number assembled for reading, not doctoring, and several asked for gospels for their boys to read. One said, 'If we heard four words every day from your book we should soon learn, it is so plain, not like what our mullas read.' The people at T----- seem either very bigoted or very friendly; some of the sayyids warned the people we had come to take them from the true faith, but a man replied, 'It is evident that if the Christian religion is bad, the Christians have more mercy than we have; we would not wash scrofulous wounds.' Nothing more was said. Truly the life speaks louder than words; how I need wisdom, love, tact, and patience!"

"Out all to-day visiting sick and well, having lunch at one of the houses--bread, eggs lightly boiled, broken up in a saucer and sprinkled with sugar, lettuce, and pickles. I tried to eat the two former neatly with my fingers, and one woman who considers herself my special friend kept taking pieces in her fingers, holding them out to me, and saying, 'Eat it from my hand,' adding, 'I washed my hands this morning.' I am glad she told me, for I am so dense that I do not think the fact would have dawned upon me! In every house but one the people were willing for prayer and reading, often asking if I had brought the Gospel; of course, this is generally mere curiosity, but people must hear before they can believe."

"To-day I went to see the Princess in her garden. She was very gracious this time, even sipping some coffee and then handing it to me, a mark of friendship to show there was no poison in it. The Prince's band had been sent out; it was quite a treat; they really play very well. The laughing chorus was too comical, instead of laughing they say, 'Ha, ha, ha,' in a solemn funereal manner! The Princess gave me no opportunity of talking about religion, but I hope prejudice is giving way."

"Thirteen ladies came for the Bible class this week, and four nurses with young babies. They were mostly of a higher class, titled ladies, and one a princess; though I really love the poor best, I realize the much greater power of influence of the rich, and, that seeing them come, makes the poor much less afraid to do so."

"Last Monday we were invited by a wealthy merchant's wife, who has been coming to me at the dispensary for treatment, to visit her. I found a gay company of ladies to meet us. I had just had an interesting Gospel talk with three of them when the wife of the chief of the tax-gatherers asked me to examine her eyes. She is considered the greatest lady in town, having been the wife of Shah Ali for one day! and several of her daughters have married princes. She is very tall, slight, clever, rather sarcastic, and dignified, but on the two occasions when I have met her she has been most friendly. Another interesting lady was there, so gentle and sad. She listened willingly, and invited me to her own house, saying, 'My own religion has brought me no happiness; if there is happiness in yours I will listen.' On Thursday I went and had such a good time reading and talking to her, and am to go again in a fortnight."

"It is strange that among my list to be visited this week are Turkish, Jewish, Arab, and Bahai ladies. The Jews have been keeping the Feasts of Trumpets and of Tabernacles. Some of them make booths of willow branches on the flat roofs, others in the compounds, and some roof in the compounds with willows. On Tuesday morning I was invited by one who has been my patient for long, and found all her relatives waiting to receive me, men and women, as Jews do not live apart. We talked of the institution of their feasts, and they did not resent it when I told them of the one great difference in our religion--our joy in the one perfect sacrifice of Christ. One man especially struck me; he followed the prophecies so eagerly and owned 'how much Christ fulfilled.'"

"I have paid several social visits this week, the first was to a wealthy Arab family. The ladies were most friendly, taking us into the orange house, opening out of which is a Rúza Khání. The ladies asked a good many questions and invited us to come again before long. On Wednesday called on the governor's wife, who was very friendly, feeding us on fresh dates, and, what is considered a new delicacy, the pith of the crown of the palm tree. I fear the governor is not likely to remain after the spring; we shall be sorry, for he is an unusually good, just man. The Khánum asked if it were true that I prayed with the sick people every morning; she has never read the Gospel, but the governor has. She asked me why I had come to Persia, and if I had your consent. Your willingness struck her very much. The next afternoon we called on the wife of the Farash Báshí (head of the police). They, too, are Teheranis and belong to this governor's retinue. The wife is very unhappy and lonely; she told us as a rule the inhabitants of any town who wanted to be intimate with the governor's party did not call on the retinue, so as to show their superiority. This seemed to make our visit the more acceptable, and I hope she will be allowed to come and see us; she is a very pretty girl of 15, and most affectionate. She cannot read, and pines for her mother."

Eastern men have little to do with European women, but Persian men of all classes treated Khánum Maryam in an unusual way, taking opportunities of listening to and arguing with her, and entrusting their women folk to her. We see this in the following extracts:--

"We started from Kashan in glorious moonlight at 11.30 p.m., riding first about ten miles across the plain, and then uphill, but nothing really steep till daybreak, by which time we were at the foot of the Kuhrúd Mountains, and were climbing up till at 8.30 a.m. we reached the village. At Kashan it was as hot as an August day, and at Kuhrud there was still snow in the streets. My old muleteer, Ahmad Agha, met us as we entered the village, and said he would come to see me at the caravanserai. He came, and had a Bible lesson; he still declares his faith in Christ, and seems bolder than before, begging for books which he said his boy could read. He invited me to go to his house, where I found a room full of people. After seeing the sick ones, all were quite ready to listen, and later a number visited me at the caravanserai, and another set came at 5.45 a.m. next morning, for an hour before we started, and this we used to consider a very bigoted village! "

"The sister-in-law of the Rukn'-ul-Mulk (Pillar of the Kingdom) being ill, a servant was sent for me. About half way to town he suddenly turned round. 'Do you know me? I used to be sent to keep women out of your dispensary, in Der Dasht, now I am to bring you for our lady. Strange! strange!' Returning we had a long talk about religion at his own request. He said, 'I always thought you had no proofs for your religion, but you have; only show me what your faith does. You do not believe in works of supererogation, or pilgrimages, your faith does nothing.' I told of love, mercy, truth, purity. He said, 'We talk of these but have not got them, that is a very strong proof.'"

"I went to visit some of the old Sechun friends. While sitting in one house a reader at the mosque who used to be a bigoted enemy came in, was most polite, and began to speak of religion, but not bitterly as formerly. After telling him, and the women who were present, a good deal of our Lord's life and work, he said if I would give him a Bible he would promise to read it. I gladly sent one, as he asked, after dark. He is an intelligent man, with a great deal of influence in Sechun."

"The people were most friendly and so ready to listen, even asking for the Gospel. From 2 p.m. till 9.45 p.m. I had a succession of visitors, the last being a wealthy woman whose husband had allowed her to come and see me after dark so that no one might know."

"After English service I went to read to Nejif Ali and his wife. His father had died that morning, and according to Persian custom he would have remained at the house to wail. Instead he made an excuse that he had business in town, and raced round by the town back to his own house (about five miles and a half) in time for the reading. We read St. John xii. He seemed so eager, and is anxious for his wife to learn too."

"Yesterday I was called to see an old Isfahani patient who was lately married to a Yezdi merchant. She is very miserable here and wondered how I could be happy, which gave a good opportunity for a talk and reading, to which evidently the husband was listening through the curtained door, for suddenly he said, 'Ask your friend to let me have that book.' It was the Gospel of St. John. When he saw it he was disappointed and said, 'It is the whole gospel I want,' so I have promised him one." "On Saturday my one guard recognized me and addressed me by name, telling me he had constantly read the gospel I had given him ten years before, and that now he is reading it to ten of his friends and would like teaching; so I begged Bishop Stileman to try and see him."

"I was invited to the house of a Kerman merchant on Wednesday and found the people so friendly, and most anxious to know our reasons for leaving home and coming here. They said, 'Yours cannot be a bad religion; tell us about it,' and for two hours I tried to answer their questions. When discussing whether we ought to read the Bible, I gave a Persian translation of passages from the Qur'an, where Mohammed speaks of the Bible as being a light and a guide. They acknowledged that though several of them had read the Qur'an in Arabic, they did not understand its meaning, and one added, 'That is the worst of you Christians, you explain your Book so that people must understand.' I was so glad."

"The husband of my erysipelas lady now asks me to read for them; I think he is the most interested. It is such a surprise to him to find the Gospel was written by eye-witnesses; he had thought it was compiled like their own book of traditions. The husband and uncle are both reading. One day we had a talk on our Lord's divinity, and the non-divinity of all other prophets; while willing to admit the former they seemed to take almost a Bahai view, 'that the same spirit and light has been incarnate in all the prophets."

Children were specially drawn to Khánum Maryam, and during a holiday she wrote:--

"I spend till nearly sunset in the village, and then try to meet the shepherdesses and spend the last half hour before dusk sitting on the ground close to the fold. Most of the people here are very poor, only owning five or six sheep or goats, which their daughters take out every day to the mountain side. I had been telling these little girls of God's love one evening, and the next morning one of them ran into the dispensary to ask if God was still loving her, or whether He only loved at night. Sometimes a few women returning from their reaping join us, and seem quite as ignorant as their daughters; they are very affectionate. I trust some of them will learn to love and trust God, they know so little of their own religion. Unless controversial subjects are started, I try to avoid them, and leave the truth itself to cast out the falsehoods."

"A large party arrived 'only to hear the Book.' The Lost Sheep is a favourite story; they see it pictured every day, and so have little difficulty in following it. I asked a little girl, who is a shepherdess, what they did if a lamb fell or was hurt. At once she put up both hands as if carrying a lamb round her neck and holding its feet to prevent it falling and said, 'We carry it on our own shoulders, and pet it,' moving her head as she spoke as if rubbing it against the lamb, and then turned her face and kissed. It was a perfect illustration."

Mary Bird did much to break down prejudice, and the following story, told by a lady travelling in Persia, is a touching picture of the attitude of the people to her:--

"I remember, when going with her through the bazar, the crowd that came round asking for advice and visits. She rode a tiny little donkey, and though she was a timid rider she never showed it. ... My muleteer, a great stalwart fellow, over six feet, was tramping alongside me on the march, and said to me, 'Do you know the Khánum Maryam?' I replied in the affirmative. 'There is but one Khánum Maryam,' he said, 'and she is an angel that came down from heaven.' The hot rare tears sprang into my eyes at the man's simple appreciation."

The present attitude of the Persians to all missionaries is one of strong confidence and appreciation.

The moon of Mahomet
Arose, and it shall set:
While blazoned as on heaven's immortal noon
The Cross leads generations on.


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