Anne Hailes: Comedian Omid Djalili one man show about Bahá'í Faith enthralling

Anne Hailes

Anne Hailes

Anne is Northern Ireland's first lady of journalism, having worked in the media since she joined Ulster Television when she was 17. Her columns have been entertaining and informing Irish News readers for 25 years.

Stand-up comedian Omid Djalili brought his show A Strange Bit of History to Stranmillis College
Stand-up comedian Omid Djalili brought his show A Strange Bit of History to Stranmillis College

IT’S not often a stand-up comic will bring genuine tears of sadness to your eyes. For me that’s just what Omid Djalili did when he appeared in the theatre at Stranmillis College last week. He’s better known for his acerbic wit, a comedian, an actor, a man with a voice and a face which can transport you into a history which is only 200 years old.

This time, in A Strange Bit of History, he’s a storyteller. Perhaps some of the 17 characters he brings alive on stage are imagined but the story is real: he’s recounting the foundation of the Bahá’í Faith through the eyes of a diverse cast, from the prophet The Báb, to the Iranian executioner graphically describing the beheading of infidels, the camel driver foretelling news of a new religion, a gentle London lady and her daughter, an Irish doctor, poets and peasants.

We are transported back into the mid-1800s when 20,000 followers were put to death in an attempt to destroy a fledgling faith.

The evening was both funny and sad but above all extremely moving.

Before the show I met a gentleman who simplified his faith for me, drawing the sun in the sky representing God with the rays shining out, explaining that each one symbolises a prophet – Moses, Buddha, Jesus and the others including the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u’lláh; then all those rays extend down to Earth and to touch the lives of men, women and children.

The show is a tapestry with vibrant coloured threads intertwined into a picture of the trials and tribulations of those who chose to follow the words of The Báb, the man who foretold the establishment of a new religion and a new young leader who would be known as Bahá’u’lláh.

History recalls that on a spring evening in 1844, this Persian merchant announced that he was the bearer of a divine revelation destined to transform the spiritual life of humanity.

The merchant was The Báb, meaning 'the Gate' in Arabic, for him a symbolic gate between the past and a new age of fulfilment. His message was one of spiritual and moral reformation, improving conditions for women in his country and looking after the environment; during the six years of his mission many risked their lives and thousands more lost their lives in following this controversial new order which intended to bring people of all nationalities and faiths under an umbrella of unity.

For this, in 1850, he was condemned to death by firing squad. Here we are held by Omid’s story as he recalls that on the day of his execution The Báb told the guards that no "earthly power" could silence him until he had finished his writings. Thousands crowded the rooftops overlooking the barracks square in Tabríz where the firing squad waited.

Powerful historical event

In the intense heat of the noonday sun, he and a young follower were suspended by ropes against a wall of the barracks. A regiment of 750 soldiers opened fire in three successive volleys. When the smoke and dust cleared, The Báb had vanished from sight.

His companion remained unscathed, the ropes by which they’d been hung alone were severed. After a search, The Báb was found back in his cell, continuing the conversation with his secretary.

“Now you may proceed to fulfil your intention,” he told his captors. Again, he was brought out for execution. After the first regiment refused to fire, another was assembled and ordered to shoot. This time the bodies of the Báb and His companion were shattered. A whirlwind of dust engulfed the city, blotting out the light of the sun until nightfall. He was only 30 years of age.

The Báb’s mission was taken up by one of his young followers, Bahá’u'lláh, who is acknowledged as the founder of the Bahá’í faith which advocates universal peace and unity among all races, nations, and religions.

In 1892, when Bahá’u'lláh died in prison, the London Times reported the circumstances and the story was taken up by other newspapers, especially in Ireland, and so the message reached a wider audience.

Originally 'A Strange Bit of History' was written by Omid’s wife Annabel Knight as an experiment for the 1994 Edinburgh Fringe Festival but since then this dedicated couple’s production has played round the world to rave reviews and many awards and giving a deeper understanding of the continuing persecution of these devoted people.

Talking to Omid after his performance I learned that although born in Chelsea to Iranian parents, his family’s Bahá’í roots were as travelling troubadours so a life on the stage and in films was second nature although he credits his comic talents to his father, Ahmad Djalili, a journalist and photographer who settled in London in 1957.

Omid gained a degree in English and theatre studies from the University of Ulster Coleraine and, as his daughter and her husband live in Belfast, he’s no stranger to this part of the world where he is always welcomed into the local community.

There are no churches or preachers; meetings are held in each other's homes and an activity hub in Lower Windsor Avenue.

On a worldwide scale, this is the second most geographically widespread religion after Christianity.

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