I decide to tell the ladies about what I do for a living. It’s actually a decision I’d made days ago, but there never seemed to be a good time. But I end up telling Julie first.
I start the day by myself. At 8:30 I put on a sweater, lamenting that it’s got a small hole in the front, but with no other even remotely nice clothes left to wear. I leave the hotel from the back door and trot smartly down the many, many stairs from Yefe Nof to Hillel St. At 8:50 I ring the Personnel office, which is located in what seems to be a gently decaying apartment building from, say, 1965. After navigating a confusing double-buzzer entry system, I run up the narrow, dark stairwell to the office and knock on the door. It opens on a nice, brightly lit office full of people, who all look up, a little surprised, when I come in. One asks, “Are you here to see Julie?”
I wait for a minute or so in a conference room until Julie comes in with her hand out. “Eric?”
Julie is puzzled. “What’s your last name?”
I tell her. “My appointment isn’t until nine,” I add. “I might be a little early.” This is true, although it’s also shameless interview grease.
“No, no, the time is not a problem, but I think somebody took your name down wrong.”
But we get down pretty quickly to what I’m here for. I admit to being slightly unnerved, now that I’m here, and Julie has a way of listening that betrays not the slightest reaction, which also throws me off my game a little. But she is warm and encouraging when she talks. We discuss my background a little, and then we talk about when I should apply. I tell her I have to finish my contract, but I’ll be available in about a year and a half.
“Well, the thing is that there’s a very high turnover at the World Centre, and there are only a fixed number of positions in the budget, so you should probably apply no more than a year ahead of when you’re available.”
“Well….” Oh, why not tell her? “The thing is, I’ll probably be in Iraq during that whole year.” I tell her about deployment and that I’ll have little phone access and only limited email access. She nods, seriously.
“Actually, if you’re in Iraq, we won’t be able to communicate with you at all. The World Centre doesn’t have direct contact with certain countries, including Iraq.” Whether this is a policy of the state of Israel or for the safety of the believers in those countries, she doesn’t say. “Let me… let me ask someone. Hold on just one minute.”
She steps out and talks to someone in an office across the hall. I take the opportunity to get a cup of water from the water cooler in the corner, and when she comes back I’m standing and she’s standing, and I have a plastic cup in my hand, and I feel like I’m at a cocktail party. It’s weird, but we drive on.
“Okay, so go ahead and submit your application now, and be sure to indicate the dates you won’t be available. Also, if you could include some writing samples in English, because it seems like you have strong English communication skills….?” I nod, not really proving her point. “And maybe something you’ve written in Arabic, as well.” This is a little trickier, but I silently thank my Arabic teacher for making us write those stupid reports; somewhere I have a ten-page paper on Nizar Qabbani.
And that’s basically it — it can all be done online, from the comfort of my own home. Julie offers me the cards and pamphlets on offering to serve, but I have them already from the wall display at the Pilgrim Reception Centre. We shake hands and I thank her, and then I’m out the door and thinking about what I need to apply.
Back at the PRC the ladies arrive, gather their morning coffee, and chat, and go to the bathroom. I watch the clock. I want to pick my moment. Finally, I suggest that we go upstairs; for some reason, the upstairs dining room is drastically underused.
I sit them down, perhaps too solemnly, and tell them I want to talk about something serious. I confess that I haven’t entirely truthful about my job. I tell them that I’m a soldier, that I’ll be going to Iraq, that I may have to kill people in the line of duty. And I ask them to pray for me. “I’ll be praying on it, too,” I say, “but I’d just like someone else to pray.”
“Of course,” says Nina.
“I thought you were going to tell us you had AIDS,” says Farideh.
Later they argue over how I should describe them to all the guys in my platoon when I get home. We float over “hot babes” and something with “chicks” before they settle on “vivacious beauties.” Which, of course, they are.
On the schedule for the day are the Ridván Garden, a small garden near the Mansion of Mazra’ih where Bahá’u’lláh spent much of His time, and the House of ‘Abdu’lláh Pasha, where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá lived for some time after the ascension of Bahá’u’lláh.
Ridván, meaning “Paradise” in Persian, is mostly cultivated greenery — many rows of pomegranates, some oranges, some pommolos. The centerpiece of the garden is a small sitting area with a fountain, where Bahá’u’lláh and His family would eat and relax and talk together. He Himself describes a meal they prepared there in a letter:
On the morning of the blessed Friday we proceeded from the Mansion and entered the Garden. Every tree uttered a word, and every leaf sang a melody. The trees proclaimed: ‘Behold the evidences of God’s Mercy’ and the twin streams recited in the eloquent tongue the sacred verse ‘From us all things were made alive’. …[I]n which school were they educated, and from whose presence had they acquired their learning? Yea! This Wronged One knoweth and He saith: ‘From God, the All-Encompassing, the Self-Subsistent.’
Upon Our being seated, Rádíyih, upon her be My glory, attained Our presence on thy behalf, laid the table of God’s bounty and in thy name extended hospitality to all present. In truth, all that which stimulateth the appetite and pleaseth the eye was offered, and indeed that which delighteth the ear could also be heard as the leaves were stirred by the Will of God, and from this movement a refreshing voice was raised, as if uttering a blissful call inviting the absent to this Feast.
The benches around the area are all painted the vivid, vibrant blue of the shutters at Bahji and other historical sites associated with Bahá’u’lláh; here, removed from their ordinary fields of white and thrust into the muted green of a Mediterranean garden in November, they practically sing.
We can’t see them this time of year, but there are also many brilliantly flowering plants in the garden. Jamshid tells us the story of Iranian believers bringing narcissus plants, which are extraordinarily fragile and won’t usually survive transplantation, all the way from Persia by planting them inside a watermelon.
We spend a little time praying in the tiny room of Bahá’u’lláh in the house, and then we wander around the garden for an hour or so. There’s a small pen of peacocks behind the house. I feel sorry for the peahens in their drab garments — but not sorry enough to take pictures of them.
Near the end one of our group gets us all together for a group picture in front of the fountain (or perhaps, obscuring the fountain), but what starts out as a good idea goes sour quickly; the timer doesn’t work, and people quickly become agitated — especially Jamshid, who doesn’t seem to like having his picture taken. Fortunately, our gang has already gotten its group shots.
Next we visit the House of ‘Abdu’lláh Pasha, which is weirdly fortified, with a big wall and barbed wire. We ask Jamshid about it; he sighs and says that ‘Akka was not a very safe city when the house, and it’s still not. “Bahá’u’lláh called the people a ‘generation of vipers,’ ” — a reference, actually, to Matthew — “and unfortunately, not much has changed.” But then he briskly dismisses the subject, and we are on to the house.
There is a definite, deliberate tapering off of the historical significance and mystical splendor of the sites we visit toward the end of the pilgrimage; I think perhaps this is the House of Justice’s way of gradually weaning us off the intensity of the experience. Of course, it is also because the program moves in roughly chronological order, and however much we may love and adore and desire to emulate ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, drawing near to the places He has been doesn’t carry quite the same potency as entering the rooms of Bahá’u’lláh.
Still, there is a great deal here to be touched by, and a great deal of historical interest. This is the house where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote the first two parts of His Will and Testament, which, along with the Kitáb-i-Aqdas comprises the charter of Bahá’í civilization. It is also the place where He, pacing and meditating in His tiny rooftop apartment, awaited the ship coming to take Him to prison. (While the ship was en route, however, the Young Turks’ rebellion deposed the Ottoman government; things were thrown in chaos, those on the ship were now fugitives, and He was never arrested.)
Jamshid also tells us a sweet story about a young girl who desired that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would simply look at her. She stood carefully by His door, watching Him pace back and forth dictating to a secretary. He crossed the floor several times, then suddenly stopped and looked directly at her. She, of course, became woozy and lost all composure. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continued pacing and reciting.
There is, in one of the rooms of this house, a small Tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s, written hastily on a piece of scrap paper. Apparently Shoghi Effendi, when he was still a very little boy, noticed all the time his Grandfather spent writing Tablets and letters to the believers, and asked ‘Abdu’l-Baha to reveal a Tablet for him. The result is kept on display there, and although I do not read Persian, the translation is something like this (according to my memory):
My dear Shoghi,
I am very busy. I have no time for anything…. Now is not the time for you to read and write — now is the time for you to run and play and chant the Holy Words very loudly so I can hear them!
A long staircase runs up the wall of the inner courtyard of the house of ‘Abdu’lláh Pasha, and little Shoghi would dash up and down the steps chanting from the Writings at the top of his lungs. When his parents asked him to stop, he would say, “Go talk to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá!” Which is, I suppose, not what a parent wants to hear.
We are scheduled to have dinner with some friends of Nina’s so she and Farideh go back ahead of me, but I feel a pressing need to finish my business in nearby Bahji. I go back and I pray for all the things I’ve prayed for before — the departed, my parents, my sisters, my community, my fellow pilgrims. Then I open my heart. The pilgrim is supposed to unburden his heart in the Shrine, and although I have concentrated mostly on either communing with Bahá’u’lláh, praying for others, or praying for guidance, now, at the last, I open the most private chambers of my heart and unashamedly ask for three things. I ask not to have to kill anyone in war. I ask to be allowed to serve in Haifa, if that is the will of God. And I ask to be married.
When I leave the Shrine, I find myself completely contented on all three counts. In particular, the problem of marriage, which I have struggled with for so long, now seems completely taken out of my hands. I have prayed about this for years, of course, near-on decades, but now, finally, in this place, I find that I am absolutely confident that my prayer has been answered, and that I need only go forward in life and that answer will reveal itself. I am not impatient. But from now on, all my prayers for marriage will be — as perhaps they always should have been — for the good of my future wife and our marriage.
I speed back to Haifa on a sherut with some of the other friends from my group, dash into the Pilgrim Reception Centre, and call Sean, one half of the couple hosting dinner for us. He gives me directions which basically consist of “cross the street,” but Nina comes out to meet me anyway. I tell her about my fantastic prayers, and we go upstairs to a cozy apartment where a bunch of young Bahá’ís are already cutting into a gigantic cheesecake (I have missed dinner, though Sean kindly helps me to the leftovers).
We eat and laugh and play and sing, and then it’s time to go to our nightly talk, which again hits on the theme of home visits. (Bahá’ís are enthusiastic and loving, but often not that good at listening; the Counsellors and the House are very patient and loving in explaining things again… and again… follow the bouncing ball, dear friends….)
Afterwards, some of us go to another apartment, Ryan’s and his roommate’s. The Bahá’ís who work at the World Centre have no salary, and only a tiny stipend, so they are provided with apartments, owned by the Bahá’ís, around the city. These apartments are nice, if basic, like decent college living, and usually shared by a couple of people. My friend Tahereh, from Brasil, who is now working at the Pilgrim Reception Centre, joins us, and between her and Nina and Farideh (both of whom are professional singers) and Kevin who plays guitar and sings very high, we have live jams for a couple of hours. I sing along very quietly and not that well, and drum on my chair. Ryan, who works in video and photography, records the proceedings.
At one point we find Nina’s limit with bit of crass joking about the awful Extreme song “More Than Words,” which I am loudly encouraging Kevin to play. (He refuses, quite sensibly.) She cringes, and we knock it off. (We never do find Farideh’s limit.) Instead we sing along to Tahereh’s beautiful rendition of “With or Without You” and Farideh’s terrific original songs and some Bahá’í songs, and Kevin and I somehow manage, I think, to harmonize on “Why Does The Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescant Gas),” made famous by They Might Be Giants; it wins us some very odd looks.
Read the entire journal: