So it will come to pass that when women participate fully and equally in the affairs of the world, when they enter confidently and capably the great arena of law and politics, war will cease; for women will be the obstacle and hindrance to it. ‘Abdu’ l-Bahá the son of the founder of Bahai, May 1012
Metanoia – a Greek word meaning “change of mind.” Its full meaning implies repentance, making a decision to turn around, to face a new direction, to experience a transformative change of heart. _______________________________
Chapter 1 Shoot At Their Feet August of 2023, Bangladesh
In sultry heat a small convoy of limousines, vans, and motorcycles—sharing the road with belching diesel trucks, buses, taxis and man-powered rickshaws—ascended low hills through the Chittagong District of Bangladesh, cutting its way through the teeming city of over six million people. The Bangladeshi Minister of Education had warned of local opposition and for safety he rode in the middle limo. He’d suggested that a “controversial celebrity” such as Claire Alden should ride directly behind him, yet Claire, as a gesture of good will, chose to ride in the first car. Seated now in air-conditioned comfort, she turned away from the window and gripped the hand of Aminah Roy, the headmistress of the Chittagong Academy for Nonviolent Conflict resolution. Such a capable hand, Claire thought. Warm. Sturdy. An army of well-funded Aminahs could educate every child on the planet. “It’s because of you, Aminah, that the Academy is getting this national recognition. This day is a triumph. I’m so grateful. AFWW is too.” Aminah squeezed back. Ramin Ali, Aminah’s assistant, smiled. “They should be.” Distressingly thin, yet handsome, he seemed to Claire to be in his late twenties. At forty-four, Aminah was two years younger than Claire, but while Claire’s blonde hair had not yet begun to turn, Aminah’s many steely gray streaks in ink black hair implied a life of hardship. The Chittagong school was the first of thirty-seven primary schools that Claire’s eleven-year-old international charity, A Future Without War, had opened in the poorest of poor countries. Twenty-five of them had not survived the 2020 pandemic. Because of Aminah and Ali, the Chittagong Academy had. Today her camera team would capture stunning footage to take home to use for promoting AFWW’s efforts. Exotic buildings and foliage. Thrilling colors, including her red sari worn over a short-sleeved orange blouse and Aminah’s blue one over rose. Their saris were a striking contrast to Ramin’s white pants and tunic. Shops lining the busy road to the Academy sold curries, dal, and chapatti stacked like tortillas. Even inside the limo Claire smelled the savory aroma of saffron and fried parata bread. Tables and racks offered colorful baskets, sunglasses, shoes, and cell phones. People they passed stopped, pointed, stared or waved at the passing motorcade. A few yelled or heckled. The caravan’s Ansar motorcycle escort, armed state paramilitary guards dressed in black helmets and Kevlar vests, had positioned themselves three in front, three behind. Following the lead motorcycles, Claire’s limousine turned a sharp left into a wider, tree-lined street to face at least a hundred angry bearded men in white turbans and robes. Fists raised, they rushed forward, blocking the entourage. A shiver rippled up Claire’s spine. Beyond them an even larger crowd hovered around the Academy’s entrance. Ramin squared his shoulders. “Oh, no, not again. Not today of all days.” The quaver in his voice, which only moments before had been full of good spirits, alarmed Claire even more. She searched the protestors’ banners bearing snaky green letters for something in English, some clue. The bearer of a sign yelled in accented English, “The academy is a school of whores!” He charged past the three lead Ansars to the front of her limo. Sweat streaked the young man’s bearded face. Eyes wild with rage stared at her as he yelled at her window and spit. Claire raised her purse in a shielding reflex. “Zealot!” their turbaned driver yelled back at the young man. “That boy is the son of Imam Kamal Islami.” Aminah sounded worried. Their driver cranked the wheel hard to the right, entered a side street, spoke urgently into his cell phone and then clicked it off. “You are having nothing for to worry.” He steered the caravan away from the angry throng. “We enter the Academy from another way.” Claire had seen three or four oxblood-colored turbans of the Village Defense among the protesters. These local constables usually avoided helping the Academy against Islamic extremists, partly out of fear and partly because some didn’t approve of the school’s high enrollment of teen-aged girls. She watched as one of the three Ansar guards dropped behind and disappeared. Had he done so to help manage the protestors at the front gate? Shouldn’t he stay with the caravan? The Minister of Education had assured her during their planning that half a dozen Ansars would send a strong message without appearing heavy-handed or provocative. Claire had not been entirely reassured. Lately her appearances incited increasingly hostile protests in predominantly Islamic countries. Looking to head off any need to use force, something about which she felt great concern, she had insisted on hiring extra guards and expected to see at least some of them at the gate. She asked, “Where are our Blue Tigers?” Aminah, frowning, peered out the window for a better view. “Maybe they keep the mob from the main entrance. I see another one of our Ansars has also stayed behind.” The limos zigzagged past rust-streaked whitewashed buildings, then along a muddy canal that smelled of fish, moss and rot. It finally slowed alongside mud-brick walls. Bright green weeds sprouted everywhere, even from the pavement cracks. A small sign read in Bangla and English, “Academy of Nonviolent Conflict Resolution, North Gate.” Several dozen waiting protesters began yelling. “Oh good…” Ramin said, his tone ironic. “Only a handful.” A shadow fell over the scene. During monsoon season dark clouds often blocked the intense sunshine, but everyone here would be used to rain, so if anything spoiled the day’s award ceremony, it wouldn’t be the weather. Ramin pointed toward a grove on the right. “The young mulberry trees.” Claire knew the trees were significant beyond feeding the silk worms of this self-sustaining silk farm, but couldn’t remember why. “Do you not recall the salish against us six years ago?” he said. “Fools like those behind us burned three hundred trees because some of our young women were using them to become independent.” Aminah added, “I keep thinking things will settle down, but the more we succeed, the more hostile the fundamentalists become. Change is very frightening to so many. I think they must be especially angry today that a government minister is recognizing our achievements.” Claire looked back at the pale green leaves on the small mulberry trees. “Should we hire guards for your tender little grove?” “If only we could afford to,” Aminah said. “I do not yet trust the locals, and outside guards like the Blue Tigers are expensive.” She and Ramin exchanged looks. “And easily bribed.” These were brave people. They defied the comforts of tradition every day and could never feel secure. And AFWW required this sacrifice of them. Claire looked directly into Aminah’s soulful brown eyes. “I won’t let anyone defeat us. Your school will thrive. I promise you. We’ll survive and succeed.” The limo stopped. A second limo pulled in and then the third, out of which stepped the Minister and other dignitaries. The minivans disgorged assistants, including two of Claire’s staff, one of whom, the videographer, was five months pregnant. Claire gathered the hem of her sari and stepped from the limo into tropical heat. Aminah wrapped her rose and gold silk scarf around her head. The group trekked toward the school’s amphitheater. Claire inhaled lush afternoon air. Birds trilled, reminding her of the songs of meadowlarks on the ranch of her childhood. Then a call like the “go-away” birds she’d loved in the African bush. Distant yammering from the horde at the main campus gate blended with the buzz of flies and cicadas. Ahead, several blue-helmeted, blue-shirted “Tigers” stood smoking by an Olympic-sized, green aquaculture pond. Two of the young men, sullen-faced, armed, and not looking a day over fifteen to Claire, flicked cigarette butts into the pond. Casually slinging rifles over their shoulders, they sauntered off toward the campus perimeter. Thunder rumbled somewhere in the east, a storm rolling in from the Ganges delta. Finally at the outdoor amphitheater, the group ascended to the stage. A seated overflow crowd of perhaps a thousand parents and children cheered. The Academy’s band struck up the theme song from Claire’s old TV show, “Cooking for Lovers,” a song everyone still delighted in playing for her. “Hey good lookin’, Whatcha got cookin’?” She chuckled and waved. She was never going to escape from that wacky song—not even in Bangladesh, not even though that part of her life seemed to belong to someone else in some other lifetime. Flowers garlanded the dais and side pillars of the stage, perfuming the air with Jasmine. A girl in her early teens took Claire’s hand and led her to one of the seats of honor. On her green-cushioned chair lay a single pink rose in full bloom, a bit wilted with the heat. Claire’s breath caught, but she picked the rose up along with the card beside it. She could feel eyes watching her. The Minister of Education sat down beside her. Of all things…could the rose be from the mysterious person who’d started sending them to her every so often? Here? Now? The carefully handwritten note said, “We most gratefully do honor of your presence here today as you do honor of us. Please accept this Bashra rose. It is descending from the roses which the Mughal Emperor Babar brought for us in 1500 C.E.” The president of the Student Society of Future Leaders of Bangladesh had signed it with her name. Other women picked up roses too, so her secret friend hadn’t sent it. Feeling a bit silly over her mistake, Claire smiled. The idea of the anonymous rose sender being here in Chittgong was ridiculous. From the audience screams erupted. Claire looked up to see an onrushing mass of white clad bearded men charging toward the stage. The band stopped. Everything spun into turmoil. Students, parents, and guests roared. Chaos! Her pulse raced; her heart seemed jammed into her throat. Two Ansar guards charged into the crowd. Toting rifles and yelling in Bangla, each fired a warning shot into the air. The third, protecting the Education Minister, also fired a warning shot. Where were her hired Blue Tigers? Four men grabbed Aminah. Ramin tried to free her, and others grabbed him as well. “Stop!” Claire screamed. The attackers paid no attention. It was as though the thugs knew they wouldn’t actually be fired on, especially here in this place dedicated to nonviolence. Did they think, maybe even know, that the warning shots were merely for show? One man yelled at Aminah. “Whore!” He stepped forward and pulled something from the bag slung across his shoulder. “A holy fatwah denounces you. One hundred and one stones!” The imam from the crowd at the front gate. But fatwahs were illegal now. They couldn’t possibly think they could get away with this. Stones the size of potatoes began flying. A jagged one hit Ramin on the cheek. Blood flowed. Others on the stage, including the education minister, ducked their heads under chairs. A stone hit Claire above her right breast, a white-hot bolt. She fell, then scrambled behind the podium. “Get back! Take cover!” she yelled at her assistants, fear flashing like scalding water through her. The pregnant young woman was kneeling, only partially protected by her chair, her camera aimed at the stoners. “Get down for God’s sake!” The camera crashed to the floor and then to the ground as another assistant pulled the woman back. The lone guard on stage seemed frozen. Claire screamed at him. “Shoot at their feet!” The air stank of gunsmoke and dust. Aminah lay on the ground, red wounds on her face, neck, and arms, struggling to creep to the of the stage, coughing. Claire fought a wave of nausea. The warning shots had had no effect. A barrage of stones hit the guard’s shoulder, knocking his rifle from his hands. With a clunk audible over the crowd’s roar, it landed at the feet of the crouching Minister of Education. Another barrage of stones caused the guard to duck, then he froze. He simply stared down at his rifle, What the hell is wrong with him!? A handful of men from the rabble charged toward Aminah. The leader, the imam, carried a fist-sized stone. On hands and knees, Claire lunged, scrambled to the rifle, landed on her belly, and grabbed it. The rifle weighed more than those she’d used at the ranch in her old life. Instinctively she rolled into a firing position. She aimed at the imam’s feet. Even as she pulled the trigger three times, she had the thought, Violence! Why, dear God, can’t it be otherwise?Will we never change? The sound deafened her, the recoils walloped her shoulder. The imam braked to a halt, almost comical with a look of astonishment, mouth slack and eyes wide. The men behind him stopped as well. Clearly they had not expected anyone to fire on them. The guards had all been bribed, she was sure of it. “Take another step and I’ll blow off your kneecaps!” she screamed at him in English, knowing that he probably wouldn’t understand the words but would, without doubt, understand her intention. Aminah lay still, a dark red pool widening around her head. Aminah! People huddled and many appeared to be screaming or wailing but Claire heard only a ringing in her ears. Aminah! Rocks had stopped flying. A gust of wind brought a sudden downpour of rain—and at long long last, the Blue Tigers. Under the onslaught of rain and the guards, the churning crowd scattered. Within fifteen minutes Claire sat in frozen shock in the seat of a medivac helicopter. Earmuffs dimmed the beating sound of the blades above her head but the vibration rattled her bones as the craft lifted and headed toward Dhaka. One medic adjusted Aminah’s oxygen. The other probed her vein with an IV needle as Claire held onto Aminah’s other hand.