I have taken to waking up ridiculously early — for some reason, although it doesn’t correspond at all to my wake-up time in my normal time zone, I wake every morning between 5 and 5:30. The first few days I am paranoid about being late and set my phone or ask for a wake-up call. But in fact the dull orange glow of the sun behind the mountains opens my eyes long before any alarms go off. Some days I do push-ups and sit-ups, just to stay in some kind of shape, but most days I write in my journal or read, and of course pray. The first day is the big shift, when I realize that rather than turning generally “east” to face the Qiblih, I can actually look north along the coast and almost find a direct sightline to ‘Akka.
Saman books a sherut to take us to ‘Akka on Saturday morning, our free day. Apparently, so have some other Bahá’ís, and when we get there at 9 none of our party has arrived yet, but the sheruts all have — I have to fight off the other Bahá’ís with some firmness to keep them from getting in our taxi. The drivers aren’t exactly pleased by this — after all, everyone’s going to ‘Akka, and they want to go with a full van. Only one of them — not our driver — speaks English, and in desperation I break out my Arabic: in a fairly formal way, I tell him I’m going inside to find the others. He’s surprised, but he nods and waits. Four minutes later, the cat-herding expo ends and we all get into the sherut, but that’s it — there will be no more English for me. For the rest of the day I am the translator and negotiator for all taxi service. This is actually a lot of fun, although, to tell the truth, they understand me perfectly, but I only sort of understand them.
Isma’il, our first driver, drops us off right across from the Al-Jazzar mosque, just down the road from the “White Market.” We meet up by chance with another sherutfull of the friends, and after an enormous and very touristy group photo to announce our presence, and the purchase of fresh pomegranate juice by nearly everyone, we break up into smaller groups.
Of course, our gang sticks together, and we soon lose the others while exploring the market. I take the lead in exploring the city, while Nina and Farideh cheerfully express doubt that I know where I’m going. We end up, sort of by accident, at the Khan-i-Amavid, the “Inn of the Columns,” where the believers and pilgrims used to stay when they came to visit Bahá’u’lláh. It’s pretty cool-looking, but it’s been a long walk, and the girls are pretty much at the end of their patience with my experimental approach to navigation. Fortunately, Nina’s friend Ryan, who works at the World Centre and knows ‘Akka pretty well, shows up and leads us around for a while.
Along the way, we stop by a pay toilet — or, at any rate, it seems to be a pay toilet. The attendant, if he is the attendant, lurks around the corner, chatting with his friend who runs a juice cart. When we approach the toilet, he strolls up the cobblestone walkway and stands in front of the door, demanding a shekel. But we had heard that the attendant was a woman, and that the price was 2 shekels. We can’t tell if he’s actually in charge, or just on the lookout for a free shekel.
We go visit the Sea Gate, where Bahá’u’lláh entered the city after a miserable voyage by ship; it’s a cafe now, and the cafe owners are apparently not crazy about Bahá’í pilgrims congregating around their ancient door and taking pictures of it, so we move on to the sea wall. Daniel, a Bahá’í from Canada, slips while climbing up onto the rocks and tears his knee open, and after some wandering we end up at a falafel/shawarma place where we can all sit down and relax. There is some pretty serious conversation at the table, but to be honest I remember it mostly for the really incredible shawarma. Also the Arab coffee the owner brings out in a steel thermos and pours into tiny plastic cups — it’s basically coffee paste with cardamom, but it’s incredibly delicious.
We dive back into the market to buy lunch. It’s Shabbat, but the place is packed anyway with Arab Christians and secular Jews. We weave through, a disconnected train (though Nina, who is small, takes hold of my backpack as I try to push my way past the crowds), buying flatbread and pita and cheese and a candy that is something like peanut brittle, except softer and stickier and you can get it with any nut you want (I get almonds). I go into a stall to buy figs; the shop owner professes not to speak any English, but when I speak to him in Arabic, he conducts the rest of our transaction in perfectly serviceable English.
Eventually we all make our way back to the sherut stop, where Isma’il has promised us that a different driver will come in the same minivan. It does show up, but a block away, and once again I can see other Bahá’ís horning in on our sherut. I hurry to stop them (there is a certain ruthlessness in sherut wrangling that seems at odds with our brotherhood as pilgrims), and we all pile into the cab with our new driver, Mahmud. Mahmud drives us to Bahji and I ask him to come back at 8:00. He looks at me skeptically. “They close at 5:00,” he says in Arabic.
“No,” I say, “the doors are open until 8 tonight. For us.”
He shrugs, but when I get off he calls out to me from the driver’s side window. I jog back to the van, and he hands me his cell phone number on a slip of paper. “If anything happens,” he says.
Bahji is open from 1 to 8 this evening. This is a new part of the pilgrim experience, recently approved by the House of Justice, and we are the first group to get to take advantage of it. We arrive well after it opens, past 2:00, and the Pilgrim House is already abuzz with pilgrims and World Centre staffers, for whom this is also a new thing. We try to come in, set our things down, have some coffee and some oranges, but we’ve had lunch so recently, and the place is so full of a nervous, crowded energy, that we can’t stay long; there’s a strong need to get to the Shrine.
All day is spent going in and out of the Shrine. We pray in different rhythms, and are quickly split up. I find that I can’t spend more than an hour or so in prayer, so I leave the Shrine, walk around the garden a little bit, walk up to the Mansion. Jamshid and his wife are the caretakers of the Mansion, and he stands at the door to the courtyard smiling beatifically, greeting visitors to Bahá’u’lláh’s house with obvious joy. I walk up the steps, and he says “Allah-u-Abhá” and I say “Allah-u-Abhá” and he embraces me sweetly. I enter the courtyard, remove my shoes, and go upstairs to the rooms. I look around for a while, observing things I hadn’t seen before (though my favorite item probably remains the photostats of various licenses to perform marriages — in most of them, the word “Minister” has been neatly crossed out and in some early Bahá’í’s neat hand replaced with “Chairman, Local Spiritual Assembly”). I pray for a little while in Bahá’u’lláh’s room, which is serene and beautiful in the afternoon light.
After a while I go back down to the Shrine, then back to the gardens. I decide that since we have so much time, I don’t actually need to spend all of it in supplication, so I decide to relax in the Shrine and do some reading for a while. I go inside, find a quiet room, start reading some prayers and then peruse the newly-translated volume of Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings, Tabernacle of Unity.
But this doesn’t work out at all. I find myself disturbed in my reading — the words seem distant, and merely human; I can’t connect to the Divine in them at all. I seem to have reached a breaking point thinking about spiritual things. Suddenly I am full of doubt; my very faith in Bahá’u’lláh is violently shaken. What if all of this is a put-on? Do I really see God in this man? I have that uncomfortable feeling of reality sliding away; I can’t seem to put thoughts together. Unhappily, I turn to prayer, and as I read the words of the Tablet of Ahmad, the feeling passes, but something is still unsettled. I leave the Shrine.
It is nearly 6:00, the time when we had agreed to meet up again for dinner. But when I head back along the path to the Pilgrim House, I find Farideh approaching from the opposite direction. “I already ate a little, but I want to get back to the Shrines,” she says apologetically. I nod and go on alone, find a table, and eat a little something. I wish for company, suddenly.
I walk around the grounds for a while, praying and contemplating my negative experience. I am hesitant to go back to the Shrine. I go back into the Mansion and walk around the balcony. I pass a woman with a little girl, then another woman. By now the grounds are filled with Bahá’ís — besides the 270 pilgrims, nearly all of whom are here, there must be at least 200 visitors and staff from the World Centre.
As I circumambulate the Shrine once more, I realize that the last time I was in the Shrine I neither prostrated myself at the Threshold nor recited the Tablet of Visitation. Instead I entered the Shrine as a reading room, a nicely spiritual library. What am I doing here? This is no time to be casual, to recline in comfort. This is my pilgrimage! This is the time to rush to my Lord in praise!
A weight lifts from my heart as I am reunited with the Spirit which has otherwise been so consistently with me in this place, but I am still, despite the presence of my brothers and sisters in the hundreds, a little lonely. Walking away from the Shrine in the near-darkness, I see Nina and a couple of her friends coming toward me in the path. I whisper to her — for we often whisper on the path, especially within the Collins Gate — and ask if they are going to the Shrine. She says yes and asks if I want to go.
And I do — I go back to the Shrine with her — I feel miraculously guided by her to return here — and I recite the Tablet of Visitation, serenely meditating on the words:
Waft, then, unto me, O my God and my Beloved, from the right hand of Thy mercy and Thy loving-kindness, the holy breaths of Thy favours, that they may draw me away from myself and from the world unto the courts of Thy nearness and Thy presence.
I prostrate myself before the Threshold, now lit brilliantly from within, and meditate on Bahá’u’lláh, and His station, and my own joy at being here, drawn away from myself and closer to God.
Nina, as usual, prays for much longer than I do — or maybe I don’t want to push my luck — and Farideh had left as we were coming in, so I am on my own again for one last trip to the Mansion. The sun is long gone now, and as I enter the upper floor, I remember Jamshid’s remark about how special tonight will be in the Mansion. I approach Bahá’u’lláh’s room, where the curtain is partly drawn aside and several Bahá’ís kneel and sit in the dark room, illuminated only by a small oil lamp lit beside His bedding. My prayer-book is useless, of course, and I instead silently recite prayers from memories. A small girl of perhaps seven or eight prostrates herself on the floor for a long series of minutes, lost in her own raptures. I am touched by her sincerity and her intensity, and I devote the rest of my time in that room to praying for her. I prayer that she will never doubt, that she will never lose her way, asking, in the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá,
that she may remain firm and steadfast in thy Cause and that she may, even as a nightingale of the rose garden of mysteries, warble melodies in the Abhá Kingdom in the most wondrous tones, thereby bringing happiness to everyone.
After a while, we both leave, and although I am by now quite emotionally drained, I am also excited to pray again, and I return to the Shrine one more time. And this time, although the Spirit is there, I find the flesh flagging; after perhaps ten minutes I can barely keep my eyes open during a recitation of the Tablet of Ahmad, and I decide that not praying would be preferable to falling asleep in the Most Sacred Precincts, so I quietly back out of the Shrine and decide to spend the rest of the time — it is already after 7 — walking the gardens and circumambulating the Shrine: good, wakeful, vigorous activities which are also spiritual and contemplative.
After walking once around the Shrine, I sit for a moment on the steps behind the Shrine (where, surprisingly but thoughtfully, there are bathrooms) and try to take a long-exposure picture of one of my beloved path-breaking trees. The photo never really comes off, but while I’m taking it, tiny drops of rain land on the screen. Thinking about the theological implications of a tree in one’s path, it pleases me to seek shelter under the tree. But as soon as I do, the gentle mist of rain immediately erupts into an unrestrained downpour. I stand there for a moment in the rain, already drenched, wondering where I can possibly go that is dry and warm. The Pilgrim House is too far, I can’t possibly… and, of course, it’s right in front of me. I run to the front door of the Shrine.
The attendants have covered everyone’s shoes with plastic, but the water is creeping up on them slowly. They direct us around the side door, and I and a few other soaked pilgrims jog through the rain, at last entering the dry, clean semi-permanent passageway that’s been erected here. We remove our shoes, and my socks are miraculously not too damp, but I am so wet, from a mere minute or two in the rain, that I drip water everywhere. I step into one of the prayer rooms and stand close to the wall as I pray so I will only get the straw mats wet and not the Persian rugs. The slick pages of my Arabic prayer book stick together at the edges.
But it is warm in the Shrine, and eventually I am dry enough that I’m not too embarrassed to go and bow my forehead down to, at least, the carpet in front of the Threshold of Bahá’u’lláh’s resting-place. (The actual Threshold is covered in silk, and I don’t want any part of leaving water-marks on it.) Then I sit and pray for a few minutes more, but soon it’s perilously close to time to go. I manage to communicate this successfully to Saman, who’s praying nearby, in pantomime, but when I try to rouse Farideh, she looks at me queerly. I motion to my wrist. She frowns, then looks at her watch. She flashes three fingers, then five, mouthing “Thirty-five.” I give up. She’ll figure it out.
I leave the Shrine and put my shoes back on. It’s quite dry out now.
Back at the Pilgrim House it’s a bit of a circus; there are a dozen sheruts, and it takes a moment to get ours — and then finding the friends… we get it all together. Nina has sent word that she’s gone somewhere with her friends who work here, but we find another friend of ours named Badi who doesn’t have a ride back. Farideh shows up at 8:00 on the dot, and we go.
The group elects me, as the Arabic speaker, to negotiate for three drop-offs, one for people who live down the hill, by Ben Gurion, and another for people who want to return to the Pilgrim Reception Centre, and a third for people up at the top of the mountain near the Merkaz (Center). Mahmud is very cool about it all (he tells me at the end of the ride that I speak Arabic very well), but there’s a flurry of money-changing as people are dropped off, and I end up being the central bank. And after I get off the sherut and walk to my hotel and go up to my room, I realize I don’t have my wallet.
This is bad. My wallet was in the pocket with a medium-sized hole in the bottom — did it finally become a large hole? Is my wallet lying on the street somewhere? I begin to run through the scenarios — I have no money to live on for the next three days; I’ll have to go to the Embassy; I’m so screwed. Okay, call the cab company. Maybe it’s on the sherut.
I go to the front desk, and they look for “Nabil’s Service,” the cab company, in the phone book, but perhaps Nabil does business under some other name, because they can’t find it. Then I remember Mahmud’s phone number. By now it’s a damp, crumpled fragment, and I peel it open carefully, like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The night clerk calls the number and addresses Mahmud in rapid-fire Hebrew. After a moment, she rolls her eyes and gives me a look that says, precisely, “These people….” She makes a disgusted noise, says a few more things, and hangs up.
“He wants 25 shekels to come back. I told him to give you a receipt,” she adds, clearly disgusted by the idea of charging someone to return their property. But I am in no mood to be upset by a $5 meter charge to get back, well, everything financial instrument I own.
After some confusion about where to meet him, I find Mahmud across the street and up a little ways. He gives me the wallet, insisting that I count everything to make sure it’s there. It is, of course, and I dig out a twenty and hand it to him. I look for the other five in coin, but he waves it off. He gives me a receipt for the twenty — not that I know what to do with it, and tells me, in Arabic, to go in peace, and good morning. I say good morning too, although it is only very late night, and we part ways.
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