Aghi Clovis was a devout young Muslim, says Joanna Bogle, until she had a life-changing encounter with the Church
The Clovis family have one of those homes where there always seems to be space at the table for one more visitor, and cheerful hospitality is a routine part of daily life. With their own large family, plus overseas students who lodge with them, the Clovis's meals are always on a generous scale, and guests are simply folded into the general scheme and find themselves part of a lively and talkative gathering with lots going on. Their home is also something of a campaigning centre, as they sell Catholic tapes and books and organise meetings with a particular focus on marriage and family.
Aghi and Greg met through the international Catholic students' chaplaincy in London. But when Aghi first went there from Iran she never expected to end up marrying a Catholic. She was an enthusiastic follower of Islam, having been brought up initially under the Shah and then joining, with others of her generation, the great revival of Islam and acceptance of a new order under the Ayatolla Khomeni.
"Looking back, people lived well under the Shah,she says, recalling her schooldays. "Educational facilities were very good in Tehran. We had big modern buildings, light and airy, and fruit distributed to the children every day. When I first came to London I was appalled at how shabby some of the schools seemed.
"Persia — that's what we called it, rather than Iran was an Islamic country, but in my childhood many women wore Europeanstyle clothing and the hijab, covering a woman from head to toe, was not compulsory. Only a minority were strict about Islamic prayer and rituals.
"Then, when I was in my teens, a teacher asked if we'd like to meet after school for a religion class. Many of us accepted. It was inspiring, she introduced us to the idea of being really Islamic. I came to love it, especially waking before sunrise to do ritual washing and the first prayers of the day, out in the courtyard. It was a beautiful feeling and I felt I was living the right way."
She was 17 years old when the Islamic revolution swept away the royal family and caught up the population — especially the young — in a wave of religious fervour. Aghi was among those whose birth certificate was freshly stamped to show that she had voted for the Revolution. She adopted Islamic dress, which was now also being enforced by teams of young men called the Guardians of the Revolution who patrolled the streets, and felt herself to be part of something . large and important.
"It seemed as though the solution to life's questions had arrived," she explains. "The world belonged to Islam. Islam rules how you should think and how life should be, for individuals and for the whole community. I felt that the whole world must fall to Islam and everyone would be happy and at peace. If we thought about the West, we believed they wouldn't be happy until they submitted to Islam. It didn't seem possible that there was any other way of looking at things."
But life was also offering fresh challenges: she had done well at school and when relatives suggested that she should travel with them to America and pursue studies there, she was keen to go. As a first step, they all came to England. Here, she discovered that there would be a delay in getting an American visa so her family arranged for her to stay in a Catholic hostel and start some studies in London.
"The priest in charge, Fr Hugh Thwaites, was to become a close friend. I laugh now when I think of my first meetings with him, I was convinced I'd convert him to Islam! There was absolutely no doubt in my mind. I knew that the rest of the world must fall to it and submit."
Fr Thwaites gave Aghi a Persian New Testament which she started to read. "I was 18 years old and thought I knew everything. I had my ritual prayers and assumed that God was pan of that and there was nothing more I could know. But I had never encountered Christ. No one had told me about him, about the things he said and taught, about his life and message. I was amazed. I was shattered. How did this extraordinary person exist. and how had I been kept in ignorance about him?
-I faced the possibility that, up to this point in my life, a truth had been kept from me. It was shattering. In considering the possibility that I might become a Christian,1 felt as if every cell in my body was changing.
"It's difficult to explain how total the Islamic idea is. It is a culture, a way of He, a way of thinking, and much more. It absorbs you totally."
Then came some visits to meetings of the Legion of Mary, initially simply for social contact and for the interest produced by the talks on aspects of the Catholic Faith. She also made a promise to herself to read the Koran properly — she had never actually done this before.
"I was amazed at how dull it seemed after the New Testament, which had been such a compelling read. This seemed wordy and complicated. 1 didn't find the answers I was seeking. I found it lifeless. It was just text." The monthly Legion meetings provided scope for questions and discussion, and she came to know more about the Catholic Faith. Meanwhile, unable to resolve her visa difficulties, she had opted to stay in Britain. And she met Greg a devout West Indian from a strong Catholic family — "a chaste, kind, intelligent person".
Their friendship grew and they got engaged. But Aghi wanted to talk to her family before embarking on marriage, so went home. Her father was not happy about her marriage plans, but after some time with her family she nevertheless decided to return to Britain. Shortly after she did so, Iran's borders were closed and for
eign travel became impossible. When she and Greg chose their wedding date and made their plans, none of her family could attend a source of sadness to them both.
And she had become a Christian. "I was young, and the future was calling me, fresh and new," she recalls. "1 must admit I didn't tell my family about my conversion. In fact, to my shame. I gave them to understand instead that Greg converted to Islam on our marriage. I simply couldn't tell them at that stage that we were to have a Catholic marriage and establish a Catholic family. Under Islam, to be a Christian is to be the lowest of the low — to be worse than a dog, which is a terribly insulting expression in Islam."
Over a quarter of a century later, Aghi and Greg have celebrated their silver wedding, seen their eldest son married and recently welcomed their first grandchild.
Aghi is enthusiastic about the Catholic idea of marriage "In Islam, your husband is your lord and, bluntly, some men become bullies. But Christianity teaches a different approach. For, me, the discovery of this dear companionship, this mutual bond that creates a home, was a wonderful thing." •
She is now able to visit her family again, and wears Islamic dress when she does so.
"Anything else would be regarded as quite horrible and wrong and I wouldn't be able to relax with those I love. And I do see the whole lifestyle of Islam, including its aspects of real belief and the great idea of God.
"One time when I was home, it was the month of Moharam, a great Islamic religious season. Men wear black and beat their breasts in mourning and call out the name of the Islamic martyr, Hussein, who died in battle 1,300 years ago. They stand in the streets and do this, and the whole month has this air of solemnity and awe.
"I found myself thinking: if they only knew Christ! If they knew him, what hearts they could give him!"