Marzieh Nabil Carpenter Gail, Translator and Author,(1 April 1908-16 October 1993)
"Patron Saint" of Women Bahá'í Scholars
Constance M. ChenPublished in the Baha'i Studies Review, vol. 6 (1996)
As a little girl, Marzieh Khanum(1) wrote a letter to the Master: "Dear 'Abdu'l-Bahá, I love you. I hope you will come to see us." And He wrote His reply in Persian on the same letter, turning it into a Tablet: "Oh God, make Marzieh, Razieh." The reference was from the Qur'án (89:28), and it voiced His desire that she who is pleasing to God (Marzieh), might be well-pleased with God (Razieh).(2)For the rest of her life, the second child and eldest daughter born of the first Persian-American marriage in the Bahá'í Faith would devote herself with heart and soul to the Cause of God. Her parents, Persian diplomat Ali-Kuli Khan and Boston debutante Florence Breed, were called upon by 'Abdu'l-Bahá to unite East and West. Like her parents before her, Marzieh would spread the Bahá'í Message in the United States, Europe, and Persia, seeking always to promote greater understanding between two cultures, Persia being only slightly less obscure in the West than the Cause she championed. Self-described as a mischievous and autocratic child, she once ordered a guest from the White House to go home, told a butler to "give me a cake, or you will get right out of my Legation," and defied Phoebe Hearst's instructions to go play with other children.(3) Her parent's position took her to the Versailles Peace Conference, where her father was a member of Persia's peace delegation, and in Tehran she was presented at the Court of the then Crown Prince Regent, from whom she would one day receive a proposal of marriage.
At age ten, Marzieh left the United States with her family for Europe, and she would spend her formative years in Paris, Constantinople, Tiflis, and Tehran. Her education became unorthodox, derived from a succession of tutors. Lacking other children to play with, she and her two siblings, Rahim and Hamideh, found companionship with each other and the adults around them. During this period, Marzieh met and became friends with the future Guardian as he passed through France on his way to Oxford. Her parents had been nurtured by the Master, with whom Marzieh and her siblings had been photographed, and on her finger she always wore a ring given to her by the Greatest Holy Leaf. Part of a small circle of Bahá'í families whose interests had become synonymous with those of the Faith, her love for the Holy Family would carry her throughout her life and this love would eventually become devotion to the Universal House of Justice, as her heart followed the Covenant and that which was at its centre. Her faithfulness was learned from her mother and father, the latter having once told Howard MacNutt that he would sacrifice his three children for the Cause if need be.
Suitors began to pursue Marzieh as early as age 13, but her parents, following the directives of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, wished for her to be educated. Enrolled in Vassar College in 1925, Marzieh transferred to Mills College for her sophomore year when her family moved to California. In 1927, David Starr Jordan broke the quota on women to allow Marzieh to finish her last two years at Stanford University, where she was known among her classmates as "our Persian princess." Using the attention to great advantage, she and Howard Carpenter organized small weekly discussion groups on the Bahá'í Faith. In 1929, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and obtained her BA with Great Distinction (the honours being the non-Latin equivalent of summa cum laude); in June 1929, she also became Marzieh Carpenter.
Marzieh had begun to write for the Faith during her junior year at Stanford, producing several essays for Star of the West. In 1932, she went on to receive her MA in English from the University of California at Berkeley, the same year Howard received his MD from Stanford Medical School. In September, the two sailed for Vienna, where Howard received a certificate in advanced ophthalmology. At the request of Shoghi Effendi, they travelled with Martha Root for three weeks in Central Europe and the Balkans, teaching the Faith and following up on contacts 'Abdu'l-Bahá had made during his Budapest journey. This was followed by five weeks of teaching in Bulgaria with Marion Jack, and then more teaching in Greece and Albania en route to Haifa.
In 1933, Marzieh and Howard Carpenter spent three weeks in Haifa receiving instructions from Shoghi Effendi, who hoped that they would be the "vital link connecting the East and the West in the Bahá'í World." Specifically, the Guardian wanted them to bring seeds of the developing Administrative Order from the West to the East. In an unpublished letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi dated 26 November 1933, the Carpenters were advised: "Our Persian believers have had as yet no training in the Administration. Their knowledge of its basic principles, & of the ways in which it should function is too vague & fragmentary. So, your presence in their midst & particularly in such an important committee [Unity of the East and West Committee] as the one in which you are so ardently working is a real blessing & a unique opportunity of which your Persian brethren should take the fullest advantage possible."(4)
Marzieh found a job as the first female reporter on the staff of a Tehran newspaper. Fluent in English, French, Persian, and Arabic, as well as some Russian, she also worked on various Bahá'í translations, including one of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas with Fadil Mazandarani.(5) Howard, however, was prevented by the authorities from obtaining a medical license for over a year. Once the license was granted, he was stricken with poliomyelitis and paralysed from the waist down. For seven months, he lay in a hospital bed until Rahmat and Najmia 'Ala'i lovingly took him into their home, caring for him as they had for Keith Ransom-Kehler a year earlier. In letter after letter, the Guardian urged the Carpenters to be patient, to consult competent physicians, and to continue their labours in Persia. Marzieh and Howard were obedient, but when doctors advised a return to the United States as Howard's only hope for recovery, the Guardian contributed funds for their release from Tehran and to their long journey by plane and ship back to San Francisco. On 24 November 1935, within months after arriving back home, Howard Carpenter passed to the Abhá Kingdom.
Such are the sacrifices made for the love of God. As Marzieh herself would write of a fellow believer, "The same test which drives one soul away only confirms another."(6) Never to have children of her own, she published an article in the December 1937 World Order, two years after the death of Howard, called "Til Death Do Us Part," in which she briefly bemoaned the childless marriage. In an unpublished letter to Marzieh Carpenter on 10 June 1939, Shoghi Effendi wrote: "I truly prize your services and the spirit that prompts you to render them. Your perseverance is magnificent, your accomplishments notable, and your loyalty exemplary."(7)
Always focussed on serving the Cause, Marzieh continued by translating Bahá'í Scripture and writing essays. She worked closely with her father, and at times their relationship presented her with tests and the challenge to grow. Poet Roger White would say of his friend: "She is the first lady of Bahá'í literature and I and many writers are indebted to her for leading the way."(8) If a Bahá'í scholar is to be evaluated by her ability to open people's eyes to the truth, inspiring them to transform spiritually and perform greater acts of service, then Marzieh was consummate. Yet it was her second husband, Harold Gail, whom she met in a boarding house on Sacramento Street while visiting Ella Goodall Cooper in San Francisco, who would help her organize her writings and pull her life back together. Harold became a Bahá'í soon after their marriage in 1939, and the pair would go on to serve the Faith together for over fifty years.
In 1954, the Gails sold a factory that Harold had established two years earlier in Portland, Oregon, to sail for Europe in response to the Guardian's call. After consulting with the European Teaching Committee, they settled in France, where, along with other pioneers, they helped to form the first local Spiritual Assembly of Nice in 1956. After two years in Nice, they moved to Austria, where they lived for six years and formed the local Spiritual Assembly of Salzburg, with Marzieh also serving for a time as chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly of Austria. This was followed by a year in Holland, where they helped to form the local Spiritual Assembly of Arnhem, and then a number of months travelling in Italy, England, and Spain. At the conclusion of the Ten-Year Crusade, the Gails moved back to the United States, where they helped to form the first local Spiritual Assembly of Keene, New Hampshire.
Marzieh Gail may be considered a sort of "patron saint" of women Bahá'í scholars, always conscious of her audience, unveiling the Cause in her books and essays, lectures and talks. Her contributions to Bahá'í scholarship were perhaps most evident in her many translations, which continued up to 1992 for the Universal House of Justice. These included The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys (1945) and The Secret of Divine Civilization(1957) with her father; Memorials of the Faithful (1971); Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá (1976) with a Committee at the Bahá'í World Centre; and My Memories of Bahá'u'lláh (1982).
Marzieh was productive, due in large part to the sacrificial services of her husband, who typed, cooked, did the laundry, and otherwise took care of all domestic and practical matters for his wife. The two were very private, exceedingly fond of each other, and often lived without a phone. Such circumstances freed Marzieh to write a dozen Bahá'í and non-Bahá'í books in addition to countless essays, articles, and short stories. Her remembrances of 'Abdu'l-Bahá are contained in The Sheltering Branch (1959), and those of His Exalted Sister in Khanum: The Greatest Holy Leaf (1981). Many of her essays and pioneering stories are contained inDawn Over Mount Hira (1976) and Other People, Other Places (1982). While in Europe, Marzieh conducted historical research on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, resulting in the publication of The Three Popes(1969). Several of her non-Bahá'í books also met with some critical success: Persia and the Victorians (1951) was a Book Society recommendation, Six Lessons in Islam (1953) was translated into German, and Life in the Renaissance (1968) was translated into Italian, French, and Spanish. Her other books included Summon Up Remembrance (1987), Arches of the Years (1991), Bahá'í Glossary (1955), and Avignon in Flower: 1309-1403 (1966).
In 1981, Harold and Marzieh Gail moved back to San Francisco, where they had met over four decades earlier. Known for an absolutely wild sense of humour, Marzieh was considered fondly by her friends to be "dangerous" for her quick wit. Selfless and self-effacing, she was also remembered for her ingenuity in turning every possible human interaction into a teaching opportunity. Her local communities revered her, and her life served as an example of total consecration to the Cause. On 16 October 1993, a year after the death of her second husband, Marzieh Gail passed away in San Francisco, California, leaving behind her literary work as a legacy for future generations.
DEEPLY SADDENED PASSING MARZIEH GAIL FAITHFUL MAIDSERVANT BAHÁ'U'LLÁH. HER PIONEERING EFFORTS AND HER VARIOUS ENDEAVORS AS ENGLISH TRANSLATOR ORIGINAL BAHÁ'Í LITERATURE AND AS AUTHOR BOOKS AND ARTICLES ENSURE ENDURING REMEMBRANCE HER OUTSTANDING SERVICES CAUSE GOD. FERVENTLY PRAYING HOLY SHRINES PROGRESS HER SOUL ABHÁ REALM.
(The Universal House of Justice, 19 October 1993)Constance M. Chen(9)
- Like many women, Marzieh's name would change many times over the course of her life. As a three-and-a-half year old, she was enrolled in school with the addendum "Khanum." By the time she entered Stanford University, it was "Marzia Nabil Khan." When she married the first time, the "Khan" was exchanged for "Carpenter." During the period between her marriages, it was "Mardiyyih Nabil," according to the new transliteration rules adopted by the Guardian. Finally, after she married the second time, it would be "Marzieh Gail" for the duration of her earthly existence.
- Marzieh Gail, Arches of the Years (Oxford: George Ronald, 1991) 82.
- Gail, Arches of the Years 87.
- Shoghi Effendi to Marzieh Carpenter, 26 November 1933, Roll 2, Shoghi Effendi Letters Collection, Bahá'í National Archives, Wilmette, Illinois, USA.
- The translation was of high quality and accuracy, and Shoghi Effendi would later make use of it in his work. The translation was also used during the more recent translation of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas.
- Gail, Arches of the Years 99.
- Shoghi Effendi to Marzieh Carpenter, 10 June 1939, Roll 2, Shoghi Effendi Letters Collection, Bahá'í National Archives, Wilmette, Illinois, USA.
- Roger White to Nushin Mavaddat, 14 February 1988, cablegram to be read at "A Recognition of Marzieh Gail's Contribution to World Peace."
I grateful to Nushin Mavaddat, Don Jacobs, Shayda Safapour, and others who have generously contributed source materials for this essay.