Farifteh Robb was born into a devout Iranian Muslim family – so what transformed her into an Edinburgh Christian? Joanna Moorhead hears her story.
The woman waiting at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station is a creature of two worlds, as her name suggests. Farifteh Robb was born to Iranian parents, and lived through that country’s toughest upheaval, the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. But she has been in Scotland for the last four decades – and most intriguingly, having been born into a devout Muslim family, she converted to Christianity after the work of priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Jesuit spirituality, persuaded her to rethink her faith.
‘Call me Frith,’ she smiles, as we settle into a socially-distanced cafe for coffee. We’re here to talk about her new book, which tells her extraordinary and sometimes heart-stopping story, wending its way from 1950s Switzerland through Tehran in its glamorous 1970s heyday, to a cold and lonely Nottingham and, eventually,
Frith’s book comprises two love stories, both played out across years and both punctuated by her quiet patience and belief that trusting in God, and being open to the possibilities of life, is the best way to live. The first love story centres on Christianity, and began on a day in Geneva when, aged nine, she spied the candles in the darkness through the open door of a Catholic church. ‘I was curious, and I wandered in,’ she tells me. ‘Straightaway I was mesmerised: awestruck by the peace and the sanctity of the place. Above all, I was struck by a beautiful cross with the figure of a man whose face was both kind and sad. I knew this was a place of peace, and I longed to know more.’
Her parents were middle-class Iranians: her father’s job as a doctor with the World Health Organisation had brought the family to Switzerland, where she was born. She was a teenager when the family returned to Iran. ‘Looking back, it was all very liberal. Zoroastrians, Jews, Muslims, Christians – all lived happily together. It felt very tolerant – like Beirut or Hong Kong, Tehran was an eastern city with a European vibe. I remember getting on a bus in Tehran one day wearing a miniskirt and
She read English at university – and after graduating, applied to go to the UK for postgraduate studies. She was accepted at Nottingham, and made the long journey to a very different culture, and definitely very different weather, in 1972. Being so far from home was often lonely – never more so than at her first Christmas. ‘It was too expensive and too far to go home, so I was told I could stay in a hall that turned out to be a prefab hut,’ she recalls. ‘It was Christmas Eve, and all feeling very bleak: I had one tin of corned beef and no can opener. I had no transport, there were no buses, and outside it was cold and foggy. And then a man put his head round my door and said he was the university’s Methodist chaplain. Would I like to go somewhere for lunch tomorrow as local Christians were offering to host overseas students?’
Frith spent Christmas with two elderly ladies, Elsie and Ivy. They knew hardly anything about Iran, and very little about Islam: but what they cared about was offering friendship to a young woman far from home. Christianity, they explained, was about fellowship and not just worship. Frith was hooked – again.
In truth, Christianity had been on her mind since that first encounter with the Church in Geneva years earlier. ‘I’d told my parents about it – they were devout Muslims, but also broad-minded. My father believed all religions lent towards the good. As a child I’d sneak into the school library and read the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer. So I’d always had this idea of Christ alive in my heart.’
But it was her brushes with Catholic spirituality that were to have the biggest impact on her faith. She’d decided to do her thesis on 19th century poets and of the six she studied, the one she was most interested in was Manley Hopkins. Her supervisor suggested she should immerse herself in Catholicism to understand him better: which is how she came to spend a month in a Passionist convent in Leeds. Next came a spell at the Jesuit centre at St Beuno’s in Wales, where her ‘guardian angel’ was an elderly priest called Fr Peter McIlhenny: ‘he was probably the single most influential person in my struggle for Christ,’ Frith writes in her book.
In 1977 she returned to St Beuno’s to do the 30-day spiritual exercises Jesuit retreat: but her time in the UK was running out, and the Iran she returned to was about to change out of all recognition. There was one huge sadness at heading off: she’d met a young doctor, and hoped their friendship might lead to marriage. But on the eve of her return to her family, he told the barriers to their relationship were too great to overcome. ‘I watched him walk away and I thought my heart would break,’ she remembers.
Back in Iran, she attended the Anglican Church – and in May 1978, she finally decided to take the step of baptism. ‘I was already a Christian in my heart, and the time had come to stop hiding it,’ she says.
It was a providential decision – because life began to turn very sour indeed in Iran, and becoming a Christian would have been off the agenda. ‘The revolution was terrible,’ she remembers. ‘There was a curfew, martial law, no electricity. And then people started to disappear.’ She volunteered as a translator at the British hospital – and one day the matron there, who had trained in Britain, gave her some advice. ‘She said, there’s nothing for you here. Go to Britain: they need nurses there.’
It seemed in some ways a backward step – her father was horrified that, after getting a doctorate, she was going to become a nurse. But Frith knew it was the right path: and a few months later, installed at St George’s Hospital in London, she chanced on the address of her doctor friend James’s parents, and decided to send him a card. ‘We’d had no contact for three years, and I thought he’d have got married, maybe even had children,’ she says.
He replied from Scotland, where he now lived, and suggested a phone call. Which is how, a few days later, the pair found themselves discovering that neither was in another relationship. ‘He said, I’ve got two bedrooms – you’re welcome to come and stay,’ Frith remembers. So she did just that.
Today Frith is 70, and she and James have been married for 40 years, and their family now encompasses four children and three grandchildren. She’s a parishioner at Christ Church Episcopal Church in Edinburgh; sometimes, she says, she worries that she’s transmuting into ‘Mrs Comfortable Morningside’, rather than the Iranian youngster who yearned so much for life as a Christian. ‘But I know I don’t want to lose that ardent and enquiring spirit of my youth,’ she says. ‘And I hope I never will.’
‘In the Shadow of the Shahs: Finding Unexpected Grace’ by Farifteh V Robb is published by Lion Publishing