Health workers are the front line in our defense against the coronavirus pandemic – including hundreds of Iranian Baha’i doctors and nurses. But they are not in Iran; instead, they live in countries around the world, treating their patients, where they are admired and praised by the people and governments of the countries where they live. The one country where they cannot do their work is Iran.
Many of these doctors and nurses – who studied and served in Iran – lost their jobs after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. They were expelled from the universities and their public sector jobs, barred from practicing medicine, jailed and tortured, and a considerable number of them perished on the gallows or in front of firing squads.
The crime of these Baha’i doctors, nurses and other health workers was their faith in a religion that the rulers of the Islamic Republic believe is a “deviant” faith.
In a series of articles, IranWire tells the stories of some of these Iranian Baha’i doctors and nurses. In this segment we at the life of Dr. Faramarz Samandari, a dedicated physician who was executed in the post-revolutionary Iran for his Baha’i faith.
If you know a Baha’i health worker and have a first-hand story of his or her life, let IranWire know.
“Now that I am spending the last hours of my life in prison, I want to say a few words as my last will and testament. I am not guilty of anything except of being a Baha’i. I have served this people and this country ... Farewell, my venerable parents, farewell dear Anita, farewell dear Kiumars, Maryam and Kamiar, farewell my Baha’i and non-Baha’i friends. I will face the firing squad, next to my dear brother Yadollah Astani ... I am grateful to everyone. Please pray for the elevation of my soul. [Signed] Dr. Faramarz Samandari, July 13, 1980. [Certified by official stamp of the detention center].”
The above is taken from the farewell letter of Dr. Faramarz Samandari, professor at Tabriz Medical School, written to his family just hours before he was executed by firing squad in Tabriz. The 48-year-old Baha’i doctor was one of the top microscopic ear surgeons in the world. He was an innovator who devised a new method of ear surgery for the treatment of deafness. The method, now used in a modernized form around the world, allows a surgeon to implant a small hearing aid behind the ear of a hearing impaired person in a way that cannot been seen.
Childhood and Education
Faramarz Samandari was born on February 17, 1933, in Babol in the province of Mazandaran by the Caspian Sea. He was the oldest of seven children and the only son of Agha Borar Samandari and Tavous Alavian. When his father was young, he had become a Baha’i through a person by the name of Tarazollah who was known among the Baha’is as Samandar. After converting to the Baha’is faith, he choose “Samandari” as his family name in honor of the man who first shared with him the faith.
Agha Borar made a living as a farmer outside Babol. Faramarz was his father’s friend ever since he was a child. He was on good terms with Muslims and others outside the Baha’i community since childhood and always had many Muslim friends. He believed there was no difference between a Baha’i and a Muslim, because of their beliefs, and this attitude did not change throughout his life. He married a Christian woman and most of his closest friends were Muslim doctors and professors who, at the end, tried to get him out of prison and to save his life.
Faramarz spent his primary and high school years in Babol. He moved to Tabriz in 1951 to attend the city’s medical school. Life at university and in the larger society of Tabriz was the beginning of a new chapter for Faramarz. Studying medicine gave him a new perspective on the world and he later credited Tabriz and its people for this evolution. Despite many better job offers, both in Iran and in foreign countries, he saw serving the people of Tabriz as his duty and lived and worked in this city until the last moments of his life.
Years later, after he returned from Canada as a distinguished otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist), he ignored more lucrative job offers from Tehran and chose to again live in Tabriz and to work at its medical school. When asked why he had chosen to teach at Tabriz Medical School, he would answer that he owed his job to the people of the city and its university. They had educated him and it was now his duty to serve them.
In 1958, after graduating from Tabriz Medical School, Dr. Samandari left for Tehran for his military service during which he treated many poor and needy patients.
Immediately after he was discharged from the military, the young Dr. Samandari went to the United Kingdom to improve his English. Following a short stay in that country, he left for Canada to continue his education. After specializing in ear, nose and throat medicine, he succeeded in graduating as a specialist in microsurgery at a time when not many such specialists existed. In 1968, after seven year of studying in Canada, he returned to Iran. His job prospects in Canada were compelling but he said that he belonged to Iran and must live in his homeland. Even before completing his studies, Dr. Samandari applied for a teaching job at Tabriz Medical School and was accepted.
While in Canada, he came to know a Canadian health worker by the name of Anita and they decided to marry. After returning to Iran and receiving the consent of his parents, Dr. Samandari invited Anita to Iran. They were married in early 1971 and had two sons and one daughter. Anita was Christian but she later converted to the Baha’i faith and, during the 10 years that they lived together, she was a kind and selfless spouse. Anita learned Persian and Azeri, the language of her adopted city, and became close to the people of Tabriz.
Dr. Samandari’s execution because of his faith shocked the academic community around the world. He was a prominent specialist known for his innovations in ear surgery. Many news outlets followed his story and Anita, despite the shock of losing her husband, and despite having to care for three small children of two, five and years of age, responded to all news agencies and, in her interviews, talked about her husband’s scientific contributions and his unjust execution because of his faith.
Dr. Samandari was also a brilliant teacher and was admired by his students and colleagues. He trained many of the discipline’s current specialists and experts. But Dr. Samandari was not popular for giving his students an easy time; on the contrary, the exams he devised included challenging questions that sometimes even specialists in the field found difficult to answer.
Besides teaching and research, Dr. Samandari also spent a good amount time treating patients at the university hospitals. A number of these knew his reputation and traveled from other cities to be treated by him. Dr. Samandari never accepted money from needy patients.
Revolution, Arrest and Execution
Early after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Canadian embassy in Tehran asked all Canadian nationals to leave Iran. Dr. Samandari sent his wife and his three children, who were all under seven, to Canada. When told that his children were too young and that he should have accompanied them, he said: “This is the time to serve people. Hospitals are crowded and they need doctors. I can serve better if I am not worried about the safety of my family.” Dr. Samandari stayed true to his commitment to the people of Tabriz until he was arrested. He did not allow the mayhem of the Revolution and threats against the Baha’is to distract him from serving his patients.
In the winter of 1980 Dr. Samandari traveled to Canada to visit his wife and children. The Baha’i community in Iran was deeply apprehensive about the future – nobody knew what was going to happen to this large religious minority under the newly established Islamic Republic. Baha’i religious sites and cemeteries were being confiscated or destroyed, the government had started expelling Baha’i employees from their jobs, and hundreds of Baha’is had been thrown out of their properties and villages. Arrests of Baha’is in cities across Iran had begun and there was no legal accountability for the persecution of the Baha’is. It was in such a situation that Dr. Samandari decided to return to Iran after visiting his family. He was asked to remain in Canada. He was a well-known doctor and could remain and work there – but he insisted that he must return to his country. He knew that, like many other Baha’is, he could be arrested upon his return; he said: “The Iranian people paid for my education, so I must serve these people and use my knowledge to treat and cure the people of my country, even if I am imprisoned.”
Dr. Samandari returned to Tabriz. He and his wife agreed that the family would travel to Iran the next summer to visit him – but this was to be the last time they were together.
After Dr. Samandari returned to Iran, his father and a number of his Baha’i and Muslim friends urged him to leave; again, he said: “Even if they expel me from the university I shall not leave Iran. This is my home.”
On April 22, 1980, Dr. Samandari and a number of other Baha’is in Tabriz had gathered to discuss what could be done about the Baha’is who had been expelled from government employment. Revolutionary agents burst into the property, raiding it, and arresting Dr. Samandari and some of the others.
Little information is available about the time Dr. Samandari spent in prison. All that is clear is that, since Dr. Samandari was popular among the people of Tabriz, he was not allowed to appear at the prison’s yard and open spaces so that nobody would learn he had been arrested.
Dr. Samandari worked as the prison doctor during his imprisonment. He was even taken to outside hospitals to visit patients. And even though he appeared at the hospitals in prison uniforms, accompanied by guards, the medical interns and others would always stand when he arrived to show their respect.
Dr. Samandari’s arrest shocked the medical community in Tabriz, university professors, his students and his patients. They had lost a trusted colleague, a learned teacher and a capable doctor. They all scrambled to have Dr. Samandari freed by petitioning various authorities and parliamentary representatives. The president of the Tabriz Legal Medicine Organization went to Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, head of the Supreme Court of the Islamic Republic, and told him that Dr. Samandari was the best in his field and highly popular among all his colleagues and patients. “If he would only say that he is not a Baha’i, I would immediately release him and would send him to his wife and his children on a private plane,” said Ayatollah Beheshti. The president of the Legal Medicine Organization was filled with joy. He returned to Tabriz, went to prison and told Dr. Samandari what Ayatollah Beheshti had told him. “What are you saying?” Dr. Samandari told him when he was finished. “I am a Baha’i and I cannot say that I am not. The whole thing is over this one word.”
Efforts by the medical community to secure the release of Dr. Samandari was one reason why Ayatollah Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi, head of the Tabriz Revolutionary Court, expedited his execution and that of another Baha’i by the name of Yadollah Astani, a reputable Tabriz merchant. He sent both of them to face the firing squad at midnight on July 13, 1980, after two and a half months in detention. The Revolutionary Court did not even bother to mount a sham trial. Everybody had expected one on the following month but, at 2pm the next day, the radio announced that Dr. Samandari had been executed.
More than a thousand people in Tabriz, from university professors, students, doctors, nurses, his relatives and friends to admirers among the general public, attended Dr. Samandari’s funeral and joined its procession. Three days later the Revolutionary Court of Tabriz announced that Dr. Samandari had been guilty of cooperating with the deposed Shah’s regime, Savak (the Shah’s secret police) and Israel.
In his last will and testament, Dr. Samandari dismissed these baseless accusations: “I write these lines in Tabriz Prison. I am a Baha’i but I have absolutely nothing to do with things like interfering in politics, providing Israel with financial help and connections with Zionism, which I said during my interrogations. Tell my wife Anita, and my children Kiumars, Maryam and Kamiar, that I lived a clean life, have done nothing but serve humanity and that perhaps I owe both of these to being a Baha’i.”