Article
Culture
Freedom of belief
5 min read

Translating heart-languages

For two Iranian women, home and danger are often synonymous. Belle Tindall shares why they translate a defiant message.

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen &Unseen 

An illustration of a woman with dark long hair looking to the right.
'Miriam'
Open Doors.

This weekend (16th September) marked the first anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini. Mahsa, also known as ‘Jina’, was a 22-year-old Iranian woman who was arrested by the Iranian ‘morality police’ and tragically died while being held in police custody. Her (alleged) crime was a violation of Iran’s strict dress code, as she was caught in the city of Tehran without her hair adequately covered.  

News of Mahsa’s unjust arrest and harrowing death quickly spread throughout the world, building a momentum of grief, shock, and defiance.  

Of course, we mourned the tragic loss of a precious life. A woman was lost; a daughter, a sister, a friend, a person. Mahsa’s life was taken away and we watched the world grieve as if she belonged to us all. Billions of hearts were breaking at the loss. However, accompanying such deep grief was a profound sense of rage. We were faced with the reality that women in Iran aren’t safe. On the contrary, they are in danger of arrest, violence and death – all at the hands of those who are supposed to protect, all under the guise of that which is meant to empower. In Iran, as in so many countries, a woman is simply a dangerous thing to be.  

Another people group who find themselves living in continual danger in Iran is its Christian population. In a population of 86 million, 1.2 million are believed to be Christians. With Christianity perceived as a threat to the State and an insult to Islam, Christians in Iran are often severely discriminated against. What’s more, the Human Rights charity, Open Doors, have observed that the tightening of the Penal Code in 2021, the force of which was keenly felt in the way in which protestors of Mahsa Amini’s death were so harshly dealt with, are making things increasingly difficult for Christians.  

So, to be an Iranian woman is hazardous. To be an Iranian Christin is hazardous. It therefore goes without saying that to be an Iranian woman who is also a Christian – well, such an identity comes with such difficulty, it can be hard to fathom. For such women, home and danger are often synonymous. Which is why the stories of Miriam and Stella, two Iranian women who are secretly translating the Bible into their own languages, is so astonishing.  

‘Miriam’  

Miriam is Iranian, but she also belongs to the fifty per-cent of the Iranian population who do not speak Farsi/Persian (the national language) as their first language. Azeri, Kurdish, Baluchi, Armenian Gilaki, Luri, and Arabic are all spoken throughout the country. Therefore, despite Farsi being the official language of Iran, almost half of the population aren’t fluent, while millions of Iranians are visually illiterate in the Farsi script. 

Miram, who despite it not being her first language, has learnt to speak and read Farsi to a high level, became a Christian through secretly watching online classes on Christianity. Being married into a strict Muslim family, Miriam kept her Christianity a secret from her husband. That was, until he walked in on her watching one of her classes. Despite the immense dangers she faces as a result of the minimal rights that a Christian woman holds in Iran, Miriam decided that she would be honest with her husband about her new-found Christian faith. Miriam still marvels at the unexpected response from her husband, who said,  

‘I know you are a serious-minded woman and if this is important to you, it’s OK.’ 

Out of curiosity, Miriam’s husband joined her in watching the online classes, until he too became a Christian.  

For the past three years Miriam has been secretly working on translating the Bible from Farsi into her ‘heart-language’ (for the sake of Miriam’s anonymity, she has kept her ‘heart-language’ confidential). She tells us that she is willing to take the profound risk of doing this work because, 

‘We are not allowed to study our heart languages in Iranian public schools. This is a limitation for our people. Iranian leaders use my people as political tools. I wanted to do something good for my people. I have this language specialty and experience, this expertise, so I can help my own people. People like my mother can read this book.’ 

Being the first person from her community to do such work, Miriam states that,  

‘Despite having two children and knowing that my life is at risk for believing in Jesus in Iran, I cannot even imagine leaving this work unfinished. I must complete this work and see the result.’ 

'Stella'

A woman with dark hair looks straight at us.

'Stella'

Stella is also Iranian, and also speaks a ‘heart-language’, one that is shared with even fewer people than Miriam’s.  

After tragically losing her husband in 2013, Stella had to battle her late husband’s family to keep custody of her then seven-year-old son. As the battle continued to rage on, Stella fled Iran with her son, leaving behind her entire life in order to keep hold of her child. As a refugee, Stella’s life is not without its ever-present difficulties as she is continually fighting to stay in the country that she and her son have now called home for ten years.  

Stella became a Christian twelve years ago, while she was in the middle of the fierce battle to keep hold of her son while mourning the loss of her husband. As sorrow and desperation raged around her, Stella simply knelt on her floor and spoke into the silence ‘if you are God, save me’. She has been a Christian ever since.  

Just like Miriam, Stella is secretly working to translate the Bible from Farsi into the language of her community. With tears in her eyes, she says,  

‘There is no other job that your boss is God. I love my mother language. I'm telling the poetry; I write the context. I write the sentence, I record it… I am thinking about my mum, my father, my childhood. And everyone that doesn’t have it (the Bible) right now. I really want to bring God to my town and my people.’ 

Stella can’t return home, but she is nevertheless determined to work for the spiritual well-being of those whom she was forced to leave, regardless of the immense risk. 

The heart language that both Miriam and Stella speak of, and are translating the Bible into, is the vernacular that binds their communities together in their home country of Iran. But to me, hearing these stories; the term that Miriam coined feels loaded with depth of multifaceted meaning.  

The language with which they speak of their faith is unfused with resilient hope and faith-fueled boldness. 

Their words when they speak of their home are dripping with resilient affection, obvious frustration and forgiveness.  

The way in which they speak of themselves, and their dangerous task, is undeniably defiant and astonishingly selfless. 

Article
Art
Culture
1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 

 

Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.