Today, a very dear friend, philosopher, guide and mentor Zerbanoo Gifford turns 70. In a small intimate gathering at the beautiful ASHA Center in the Forest of Dean, Zerbanoo’s life was celebrated at a beautiful lunch event.
Like most people I had heard of Zerbanoo, but had never met her in person till that day in December 2015 when she and her biographer; and dear friend Farida Master spoke at the Ripon Club. Needless to say she left a huge impression on me, more so after reading the book “An Uncensored Life” that Farida had written.
In 2017, Zerbanoo and Farida visited the United States on an extended book tour and I had the opportunity to interact with her during her stay in NYC.
Zerbanoo is legendary in her accomplishments. There are too many to list here. My dear friend Jim Engineer from Chicago USA sums it up beautifully in an article he wrote titled: “A Stream Runs Through It”
The harmonious sound of the stream, the purity of the water, and the relentless zeal of the stream to never stop running for thousands of years is a reflection of the spirit and courage of Zerbanoo Gifford. Zerbanoo has been a progressive, forward-thinking champion of social justice, women’s rights, racial equality, interfaith tolerance and environmental sustainability for decades. Faced with death threats when she ran for elected office in early 1980s London. She went on to serve as a Councillor for Harrow and chaired the Race Relations Forum set up by the Home Secretary leading to a storied career championing human rights causes. Her example of courage and depth of historical context provided rare color to our efforts, as we sat in awe of Zerbanoo’s trailblazing example. Our goal was to celebrate our interconnectedness as a group, to trust each other, to respect each other’s views, and to form a vision for future Zoroastrian generations living in harmony and thriving as a united community.
Zerbanoo at the outset spotlighted the contributions of legendary Iranian and Parsi Zoroastrians who went beyond the Zoroastrian community to lead the world. She described her admiration for her heroes: from the iconic Dadabhai Noaroji, Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and Jamsetjee Tata, to well-known modern-day Zoroastrians including Ratan Tata, Zubin Mehta, Freddie Mercury, and authors Bapsi Sidhwa and Rohinton Mistry. Zerbanoo’s example is tied to going beyond one’s traditional comfort zone, to affect change in the world, and to pursue our dreams and endeavors without fear or favor.
Every big endeavor, from grassroots movements to a sea change in thinking, is ultimately challenged by naysayers and doubters; by a small few who aim to polarize and marginalize a more silent majority, instead of uniting and coming together in spite of our differences.
It is through this thread of common decency and mutual respect for one another that we were able to maintain a focus on our shared obligations: to form the fabric for an interconnected working group inspired to turn ideas into action and fostering dialogue focused on our commonality and shared beliefs.
The above passage was part of a longform article that spoke about the first ever World Zoroastrian Youth Leaders Forum. The WZYLF was the brainchild of Zerbanoo, and like most things that she thinks of, she pulled out all the stops and made it happen. It brought 20 Zoroastrian youth leaders from all over the world for a magical 10 days at the ASHA Center, the beautiful estate that Zerbanoo conceptualized and built exactly 10 years ago, and it opened today in 2010.
The ASHA Center was conceptualized as
A Space for all Cultures and Religions
At ASHA people from around the world come to experience the richness of each other’s cultures and to practice living together in a spirit of human unity; this often includes young people coming from places torn apart by conflict and war. The ASHA Centre is a place of safety and beauty, where all faiths are honoured and where people of different nationalities and religions live and work side by side. On many of our courses we explore the spiritual and philosophical wisdom of the world’s cultures, and look at what they offer today to young adults facing their own unique challenges.
To celebrate Zerbanoo’s 70th, many of the WZYLF alumni including myself, were to return to the ASHA Center in a few days. However COVID-19 put a spanner in the works, and we hope to now do that later this year once things get back a “new” normal.
It goes without saying that I’ve personally learnt a lot from just knowing Zerbanoo. Her spirit of giving, of achieving, of standing up for what is right and fair and of thinking for the betterment of all mankind and nature are some of her most amazing qualities. It is no coincidence that these stem from her Zarathushti roots, something she is very proud of and an area that she has always devoted time, effort and money towards, her entire life. By simply living her life the way she has, she embodies a Zarathushti ideal that we all could look up to and emulate in our own small and big ways.
As one of her biggest fans I cannot wait to see what Zerbanoo does in the next decade and more.
Here is a video montage put together by Sanaya Master who put together the World Zoroastrian Youth Leaders Forum during her 9 month stint at the ASHA Center.
Zerbanoo celebrates her 70th birthday under lockdown
Like everyone, Zerbanoo Gifford has been in lockdown due to the global coronavirus epidemic. Finally, she has been given time to reflect on her life, and especially the last ten years, since the ASHA Centre, which she founded, was officially opened on 11th May 2010 with a grand celebration of her 60th birthday. This was attended by many distinguished guests from around the world, including leaders of the major faith communities and guest of honour, the colourful Marquess of Bath, who has sadly recently died with coronavirus.
Celebrations for Zerbanoo’s 70th birthday on 11th May have sadly been called off due to the pandemic. The only presents she wanted were the presence of the young Zoroastrian leaders who were due to return two years after their first global meeting at the ASHA Centre to join the celebrations. Although heart broken, Zerbanoo takes comfort in the thought that she can at least focus on her other wish to plant an enchanted forest in ASHA’s nearby newly acquired 54-acre estate for future generations to enjoy and be inspired by. She also plans to take up tango dancing, a long-held ambition of hers, before it’s too late!
Since its opening, the ASHA Centre has enjoyed ten years of creative activities at its beautiful house and gardens in Gloucestershire, England. These include courses, volunteering programmes and special events, which many Zoroastrians have participated in and enjoyed. There has been a wedding of a Parsi and Persian Zoroastrian, Pree and Shah Irani, who first met on a summer retreat at the ASHA Centre and are now living in Hong Kong, an annual youth camp for young Zoroastrians from Europe and the first global forum of young Zoroastrian leaders. ‘It has been ten years of rewarding work, for which I am deeply grateful’, says Zerbanoo, quoting the Dalai Lama, who she met many years ago: ‘Happiness is not something ready-made, it comes from your own actions’.
For many, Zerbanoo is seen as the epitome of a true Zoroastrian. Her actions have impacted not just on her own community, but throughout the world. From her social justice campaigns to stop modern slavery, especially child labour, to organising housing for the homeless and also opening her own home to those that need temporary accommodation. She was also involved with the Anti-Apartheid movement, being chosen to present the People’s Petition to Mrs Thatcher at 10 Downing Street, calling for full mandatory sanctions against the racist regime in South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela. Her work in the interfaith movement has led her to interact with many religious leaders, including being blessed by Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and launching a global appeal for equal education in South Africa at Lambeth Palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Her seven books have highlighted the noble campaigns of outstanding individuals, including her hero our Zoroastrian Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Asian to become a Member of Parliament in Britain in 1892, in whose footsteps she followed by being elected as a political Councillor in Harrow with a historic landslide victory in 1982. Like Dadabhai, Zerbanoo has turned down honours offered as not appropriate by a British Government that still glorifies Empire. Also, like Dadabhai, Zerbanoo is known for fighting for other’s rights and always promoting their needs and welfare, especially those of the young.
In 2004 Zerbanoo was awarded a NESTA Fellowship (Britain’s National Endowment of Science, Technology and Art) for which she interviewed and wrote about 300 women from 60 countries, whose inspirational lives have changed our world. Many of those women were Zoroastrians, whose unique contribution she brought to the attention of a world audience.
Zerbanoo is also recognised as an inspirational speaker. During her tour of America with editor Farida Master form New Zealand, who wrote her biography ‘An Uncensored Life’, Zerbanoo was given a standing ovation after her rousing talk at NASA. But Zerbanoo has no wish to lift off into outer space, as she says: ‘We have too much work to do on the ground!’.
Undoubtedly, Zerbanoo’s greatest achievement on the ground has been the founding of the ASHA Centre, which works for the empowerment of young people and has come to be regarded as a dynamic form of modern Zoroastrianism in action.
Zerbanoo loves and follows the prophet Zoroaster’s life-affirming message and is devoted to her community worldwide. She believes access to beauty and being cherished should be the birth right of everyone. She insists it is our duty to nurture and empower the young to unlock their potential and fulfil their unique destiny. She always wanted to create a place, such as the ASHA Centre, where people from all backgrounds and cultures are respected and could connect to Nature and each other.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought these goals very much to the fore. As Zerbanoo says: ‘Who would have thought that mother Nature would have grounded the whole world and insisted we have forced time to reconsider our behaviour both towards our planet and other people. It’s given us all an opportunity to collectively awaken to our responsibilities to protect and beautify our world and ensure that future generations will always have places like the ASHA Centre to enjoy and inspire them’.
Over the years, the ASHA charity has established an outstanding track record in delivering transformative education in the fields of sustainable development, interfaith and intercultural understanding and the performing arts. It has built up an extensive network of partner organisations throughout Britain, Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East, South Africa and India. Over 5,000 young people, and many from our Zoroastrian community, have had life-transforming experiences through taking part in residential training courses, gardening apprenticeships and volunteering placements.
‘We have forgotten the sacredness of life’, says Zerbanoo. ‘The young are angry with the older generations for the state of the world we have left them. After decades of consumerism, pollution and social injustice, we need to rediscover the power of kindness, solidarity and generosity’.
Looking back over the last ten years, Zerbanoo is reminded of a quote by the poet Goethe:
Destiny grants us our wishes – but in its own way, in order to give us something beyond our wishes!