Daphne Selbert (Part 1)
Librarian Living in Iran
One of the most fascinating aspects of Daphne Selbert is that she's lived and worked as a librarian in Iran and the United Arab Emirates -- in two different centuries (1970s and 2000s). Daphne is currently the Dean of Library at Dixie State College of Utah. During the interview, Daphne explained how living in Iran gave her a better perspective on the Bible, and experiencing the Iranian Revolution showed her how God is always taking care of her. (Next month, Part 2 of the interview will focus on her experience in the UAE.)
Has living in Middle Eastern countries increased your understanding of the Bible?
Living in an Iranian neighborhood from 1974-79 definitely gave me a better sense of the Bible. Our upstairs apartment looked down over a garden. It was customary for people to go up on their roofs and enjoy their gardens. These gardens were their own personal space. So when a woman was in her garden, she did not have to be clothed. It made me realize that when King David looked down at Bath-sheba, he was violating her space and committing a crime. I had never had that concept of this Bible story before.
And that was the beginning of the end for David. Did you have any other Biblical insights?
I did have another encounter with a Bible story. My son and I went with a friend to look at caves. We encountered a shepherd in his field who had built mud huts out in the desert where his sheep could have their lambs. The shepherd spoke only Farsi, and my Farsi was limited. But he showed us his huts, the lambs, and the other things he had done. It was clear he was ever so proud.
As we were engaged in conversation, I couldn't help but think of the line from the Bible: "Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law" (Ex 3:1 KJV). I had always pictured a grassy place, but now I realized that this was not the case. It was a desert, and this was the kind of thing Moses may have had to do -- build these little huts to protect the sheep when they had their lambs.
The shepherd was totally illiterate, but totally content. He could drive these sheep back and forth across the desert, trusting in the stars and however else he was measuring his way. I came to a realization: I think this man has been more content than I have ever been. I think I have been both happier and sadder, but I have not experienced the degree of steady contentment he has. He seemed to have complete trust regarding what he was doing and how he was being provided for. This illiterate man could survive better than I could in the challenges of crossing a desert.
Did that help you find contentment?
I'm someone who's very positive and happy, but I think that in our modern society, we don't carry around within ourselves the same degree of inner peace that this shepherd exhibited. It's not to say I'm not very grateful for all the blessings I've had. But this man sits "beside the still waters" (Ps 23:2). I don't think we pause long enough to feel that stillness. We did have some beautiful times walking along the Zayende Rud, "river of life," in the beautiful town of Esfahan which, in translation, means "half the world." The Iranians loved picnicking, and so many times as we walked along the river, they invited us to share their food with them.
You must have had some challenges living in Iran during that time period.
We did. We went through the Iranian Revolution, and my first marriage fell apart. People say that it's not wise to take a troubled marriage overseas. I didn't know my marriage had problems until we got overseas. My superintendant wanted me to talk to the psychiatrist about the complicated problem that was causing our marriage to disintegrate. I asked him later why he had not recommended drugs or therapy, and he responded, "I trusted your sense of humor."
At one point during a conversation, I asked him what he thought about the revolution. He said, "I think seventeenth century principles are better than no principles." He considered the rule of the Shah as corrupt and sinful. Knowing how a return to Islamic rule would affect women, I replied, "What about your sister?" She was a well-known published author, and we had her books in our library. He was silent for a whole minute, and said, "I have never thought about this from a woman's perspective."
What's interesting is that he and his children ended up having to walk out of the country over the mountains to Turkey. He had American-looking children with blond hair and blue eyes, which presented problems. But the sister is still in Iran, still writing and still greatly respected. She is valued as a scholar and as a religious thinker.
How did you "go through" the Iranian Revolution?
When I went home the summer before my last year in Iran to file for divorce, I had the most incredible sense that it was time for me to leave Iran. It was almost as if a voice spoke to me. But I said, "No, God. You don't understand. I've gone through a traumatic experience, and I need the security and the familiarity of this job (I could do it with my hands tied behind my back) until I do something else." I didn't listen to this true sense of direction.
So on our lay-over in Bangkok on the way back to Iran, my young son saw the newspaper headline and told me, "Mom, it says, 'Revolution hits Iran.'" I assured my son they wouldn't let our Air France plane land in Iran if there was a revolution. I was wrong. For the next five months, I learned what security is and what it isn't. I learned about the power of prayer and trusting.
Were you ever in difficult or scary situations?
Yes. People had already fled, so I was the only librarian still around for our school in Shahinshar. On one particular day, I had promised to do a story hour for young students. The school-provided busses did not travel at a schedule that would allow me to be early for the story hour, so my son and I decided to ride our bicycles the two or three miles across the desert. The Iranians have a great respect for women, and my having a male child with an olive complexion engendered more respect, as people assumed I was married to an Iranian. I had always been treated well.
I think the volatility of the revolution destroyed the normal sense of order and respect. As we rode across the desert, we were jumped by a bunch of teenage boys. I told my son, "David, get on your bike and ride as fast as you can to school," but he didn't move. I turned around and asked God, "Father, what do I do?" In Farsi and in words I didn't know I knew, I told the boys, "I am the mother of this child; I am your sister; you need to treat me with respect. Where are your manners; where is your respect?" They were so astonished, they backed away, and we rode quickly to our destination. We took the bus from then on.
How did you get out of the country? Did you feel God helping you?
We were told that our flight out of the country was going to leave on January 24. So I gave away all my food and went home, planning to leave the next day. I had very little money, perhaps 70 rials. We were not in danger exactly—I did have friends who were not scheduled to leave on our flight who would share their food—but it was a very strange feeling. David and I had not hoarded propane tanks (used for heating and cooking) as people left, and we had not stored Molotov cocktails on our roof, as had some of our neighbors, and we were chided for this by some of them. We opted for normalcy.
I told David that we were going to go watch the movie, "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo," which David could almost recite. I had been showing films in the evening since the personnel who had been hired to show movies had left on earlier evacuations, and I was familiar with the audiovisual equipment because I used it in my job as high school librarian. When we arrived, the manager of the center said that they had so appreciated my volunteering to show movies, that they wanted to pay me a small amount from their petty cash. It was enough money to pay for our meals at the cafeteria for a week.
The blessings continued the next day. Some of my colleagues who were new to the country asked if I could accompany them in a car to Esfahan so that they could get money from the bank. I could speak some Farsi. As the banks were open just a few hours a week, and those hours were not scheduled, this was an iffy proposition. They assured me their son would watch David. We were able to remove our funds from our accounts. Then the electricity went out, and a demonstration was being held outside. We could hear the chanting, "Amrika BAD" over and over. We quietly slipped out the back, and our car avoided the main roads on the way back to our compound. I used my money to purchase gold bracelets and a Pahlavi coin that I still have to this day—a wonderful reminder of God's bounty.
We were finally evacuated from an airbase outside Esfahan on January 31st. When we got to New York, I put our four suitcases down and told my son, who was totally wiped out, that I was going to get a cart. A NY cop said, "You can't put them there, lady." I replied, "We've just been evacuated out of the Iranian Revolution, and now we're home in America. It's so good to be home." He went and got us a cart. A friend of my sister's gave us a beautiful place to stay on Commonwealth Ave. for a little bit. I ended up being able to get a job in the Pacific Northwest and then found a job at a college in the Midwest.
It sounds like God took great care of you.
And God has continued to provide for us. I can say that I became better at heeding the "still small voice." After returning to the Middle East for the second time (with my second husband), we did feel that we should return home the summer of 2008. I thought about retiring, but I found out my savings had ridden the roller coaster of the stock market. So I decided to look for a job and found one in Utah, which has presented a new opportunity for adventure and service. Now, we're having an incredible time living out here.
What have you learned from living and working in Iran?
One of the biggest lessons I've learned came from the time I went back to Iran when I was directed to do otherwise. I discovered that whatever my decision, even if it's a wrong decision, there is no way I can put myself beyond God's care. Whatever the decision, one can always find an opportunity to do good, to be of service, to learn, and to grow. That has stuck with me forever. In my experience in Iran, I was able to provide a voice of calm and share with new arrivals the reasons that I love the Iranian people and their special country.
hrough stubborn self-will, I put myself and my son in the middle of the chaos of a revolution. I had experiences I did not need to have. I strongly feel, though, that my being there was a real blessing ... and I was blessed through these experiences.