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Interview: Farifteh Robb, midwife and author

18 December 2020

‘It took 20 years for me to become a Christian’

As a family, we always attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, in the centre of Edinburgh. It’s a very moving and special divine service, marking the real meaning of Christmas for all of us. I love the sound of the peal of church bells.
 

We decorate a tree at home, but I always display a lovely ceramic Eastern cross on the mantelpiece, too.
 

I was born of Persian parents, in Geneva, Switzerland. My father worked for the World Health Organization since its inception, and I attended the international school. As a child of eight, out of curiosity, I wandered into a Catholic church near our home. Once inside, I was awed and wonderstruck by its peace and holy beauty. I felt a presence there, and he spoke to my heart. I’m sure it was God.
 

I have no memories of a Persian Christmas, because we were Muslims, but Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Muslims all lived peacefully together and respected each other. The Eastern Orthodox churches pre-dated Islam in Iran, and are still very respected members of Iranian society. The Armenians, Syrians, and Orthodox always celebrated Christmas. It wasn’t an overt celebration: it was very much a religious festival, going by the old Gregorian calendar, on the feast of the Kings.
 

My parents retired to Iran when I was 16. Iran under the Shah was thriving, and life was good, especially for the middle classes.
 

It took 20 years for me to become a Christian. I was very cautious, under the parental thumb, not wanting to put a foot wrong, though my family realised I had a particular interest in religion, unlike my sister.
 

My father had particular Sufi leanings, and was observant, but not over-pious. Sufis believe that we all go to the same God, and they told me the worst thing in life is not to believe in anything, because all religions give you an ethical background and lead you towards goodness. Shiites have a visionary ethos, unlike the Sunni tradition, which is much more rooted into the law.
 

My father asked me if I had to take the public step towards baptism — though they knew I had been a Christian for many years in my heart — because that would reflect on them. But, fortunately, the revolution had not then happened, and we were in a fairly tolerant society. Ten months later, we lost all our priests, and there probably wouldn’t have been a baptism, and I didn’t want to bring any more adversity on my family. My father lost his job, and my uncles in the army were imprisoned or killed.
 

My sister now lives in the north of Iran. Unfortunately, she was arrested and imprisoned five months ago. There has been no news of her since then.
 

I was a lecturer in 19th-century English literature, but the revolution closed all the universities. All foreign-literature lecturers were sacked; so I volunteered as a translator in the public British hospital, Notre Dame de Fatima, for the poor, funded by the Order of St John. I was a new Christian and loved it. The matron encouraged me to train as a nurse at St George’s Hospital, in the new Tooting hospital.
 

My parents couldn’t understand why someone with a Ph.D. would want to wash patients, but life there then was untenable. I had an aunt in London, married to a British doctor. St George’s accepted me on a three-month probation, and I made a go of it and was very happy.
 

I married and had four children, and we lived in France, then Leeds, and then Edinburgh, but I retrained as a midwife when I was 50 and bringing up a family. In my last years, I worked in antenatal clinics for women with high-risk pregnancies.
 

I do worry about the current state of midwifery. Staffing levels have been pared down to the minimum, so that, even if just one or two midwives are off on any given shift, the service is short-staffed.
 

The most exciting birth I helped with was of twins born a few minutes on either side of midnight on the night of the millennium. Their respective dates of birth are 31/12/99 and 01/01/00.
 

My parents and their friends who went through the war and the Holocaust never talked about it. Now they’ve died, that history is all lost; so I wrote my memoir for my children. Now, I realise it’s more than a family record. It’s a saga of conversion and reconciliation of two cultures within one person. Multiculturalism is growing, and so many people are trying to reconcile their cultures.
 

There is always a fear of putting a foot wrong if you’ve lived through the revolution. When I came, I was classed as an alien, although I was married to a British subject, and hounded by the police in Glasgow a year on for not re-registering as an alien. It’s easier now I’m 70 and no one is going to cart me off anywhere, and there’s a generation of second-generation immigrants who identify as British. I don’t look stereotypically Iranian, and I don’t sound foreign, but I do feel a foreigner both here and there. Now, I’m just completely upfront about it. People couldn’t pronounce my name here so I became “Frith” — but now I’ll explain that Frith’s from the Persian Farifteh.
 

I really don’t know what I would do if I was managing this pandemic. I feel so sorry for the people in Parliament: they can’t win, whatever they do. One daughter, a freelance musician in the US, is out of work, and so she has no health insurance, either.
 

When the pandemic’s over, people might look back and see God is working here. Not that we’re being punished; but it’s only in times of struggle and strife that you find where your faith and fortitude lies, and who your friends are. As Christians say, “Everything will be fine in the end, and if it’s not fine, it’s not the end.”
 

Meanwhile, we might appreciate more the basic things in life. Disability, homelessness, misery are mostly well hidden here, whereas it’s very much on show in the Middle East.
 

I always think of myself as British, but I do have great love of Scotland, and the Scottish people who accepted me. I didn’t feel very at home in London in the ’70s, but when I was a student nurse in Glasgow, it was much more welcoming, outgoing, and family-orientated, which is much more Middle Eastern.
 

False accusations make me angry.
 

Knowing that all my children are happy and thriving is what makes me happy.
 

I am so grateful for grandchildren, being able glimpse life through their eyes and catch their sunny optimism for the brave new world that lies in their future.
 

My main prayer is always to accept willingly and without question all that God has in store for me, and for his help to bear what I feel I cannot. There’s always been a thread of gold running through my life: God’s love and infinite care for me.
 

If I were locked in a church for a few hours, I’d choose to be with Eric Liddell, the Scottish sportsman and missionary. He was a truly committed Christian who never deviated from his faith. And he worshipped in an Edinburgh church not far from where we now live; so I feel a real connection with him.

 

Farifteh Robb was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

In the Shadow of the Shahs: Finding unexpected grace by Farifteh Robb is published by Lion Hudson at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9).

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