The day starts promisingly — I get up early, write some in my journal, do laundry in my sink. Unfortunately, I don’t leave enough time for the things I wash to dry, and when Nina calls me mid-morning to say that Farideh has spent the night and they are both lounging around in kimonos, I am still vainly trying to air out my jeans with a hairdryer. I run downstairs to the communal hotel iron, hoping that will help, but I take too long and miss the kimonos and the lounging — a mistake I’m sure I will regret for some time to come.
Instead, they get dressed and come fetch me from the hotel, where I am still lazily getting ready — it is after 11, and we are meeting Jamshid at 12, but I have failed to read the schedule and don’t realize that we are meeting at the House of the Master (‘Abdu’l-Bahá), #7 Haparsim St., and not at the Pilgrim Reception Centre. We are late to start with.
Strangely, we don’t act like late people until it’s, well, too late. We take the Carmelit to the bottom of the mountain, and Nina and I stop for a falafel while Farideh drops by her hotel (actually a convent) to change clothes. Then follows a confusing half hour in which our map never quite lines up with reality. The challenge is simple — we are on Jaffa Rd., and we need to get to Haparsim, which is literally three blocks away. But we are using, not the clever fold-out maps we’ve been using all along, but the less detailed map in our pilgrim books, which doesn’t have all the streets and which, crucially, doesn’t mention that Ein Dor turns into Hatzionut St. two blocks up. Also, there are no street signs anywhere on Jaffa, so it took us some time even to find Ein Dor.
The girls, with some justification, begin to doubt my land nav skills and want to take a cab. But I’ve got the bit in my teeth and my head down at this point, and I don’t want to stop. I ask an elderly man where Hatzionut St. is — he eyes me warily to see if I’m putting him on. “This is Hazionut St.”
Now I know we’re close — I start blazing ahead; Nina and Farideh lag behind dubiously, like two people who wish they were in a cab. But we’re achingly close to Haparsim; I can feel it.
Of course, with every street we cross, I am in terrible danger of looking like a complete fool, and worse, I am quite aware that if I don’t find it, soon, I will really have screwed us over. But we find the odd, crooked intersection with Allenby and then in a minute we are on Haparsim and surrounded by Bahá’ís.
(Farideh is pulled aside by a friend — apparently word has somehow gotten around that the nuns at her convent/hotel were very worried when she didn’t come home. Nuns….)
Somehow we are only about five minutes late, and although we miss one of Jamshid’s great introductory lectures, we arrive just in time to go into the house with our group.
This was the last house of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Whose life was a map of the movement of the Faith in its first century — from Persia, where He was born the same night that the Báb declared His mission to Mulla Husayn, to Baghdad, Adrianople, ‘Akka, and then to Europe and America. He made that last journey at the age of 66, by boat and by train, narrowly avoiding sailing on the Titanic, and returning to Haifa in 1913. It was the first travel of His life that wasn’t prompted by exile. When He returned, He spent the remaining portion of His life — another eight years — in this modest house. His room, too small for all of us to sit in at once, is light and airy, with greenery swaying outside the window, though he slept in another room, panelled with wood to protect His joints from the humidity, in the last days of His life. Just down the hall is the room of His sister, the Greatest Holy Leaf.
But we spend a good amount of time in the Tea Room, where He also spent a good deal of time. After exploring the house a little and praying in His room, we assemble in the Tea Room and Jamshid tells us more stories of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and then he mentions that it was in this house that the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was first read, introducing the friends to the institution of the Guardianship and setting forth in detail the administrative plan which Bahá’ís have followed ever since.
Then it is time to cross the street to visit the Western Pilgrim House, which is a treat, because it contains pictures of many of the early pilgrims, as well as rare candid photos of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá — on His donkey, or walking, or greeting the pilgrims — that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Jamshid tells us that Mary Maxwell, later Rúhíyyih Khanum, stayed there with her mother while in her early teens. One day, while her mother was resting, there was a knock on the door, and Mary answered the door. A young man requested to see Mrs. Maxwell, and Mary, somewhat imperiously, demanded to know who was calling. “Please tell her Shoghi Effendi is here to see her,” he said gently. Overwhelmed and embarrassed, she ran away and hid. (They were later married.)
It is the last day, and just before we leave the Western Pilgrim House, Jamshid gathers us together, offers his goodbyes, and gives us the gift which pilgrims always receive, but which we had not been sure we would receive — rose petals from the Thresholds of the Holy Shrines. Previously, he tells us, petals had been used from the flower arrangements inside the Shrines, but the House of Justice ruled that only petals which had actually been lain on the Threshold should be used. So there were very few, and we were encouraged to take only two or three. I took two, and, in one of my more sentimental moments, tucked them away into the section on Marriage in my prayer book — to be given, perhaps, to the right person, at the right time.
We embrace Jamshid and thank him over and over again, but as we walk away down the street, there erupts a spontaneous mock-argument over who will miss Jamshid the most.
Farideh goes back to the convent for the shower she didn’t have time for earlier, and Nina and I console ourselves with gelatto, one of the best things about Ben Gurion. We sit and chat for a while; I manage, somehow, to spill ice cream all along the side of the collar of my shirt, as though I had been trying to eat it with my ear. Farideh shows up, and the two of them suggest that if I go wash it with cold water right now the chocolate might come out.
They are right, and I return a few minutes later with a soggy shirt, trying to wring it out. Nina watches me for a few seconds and then takes over, shaking her head. “Well,” I say, “this is your field.” She is a dressmaker by trade (when not singing and playing blues harp), but there’s an awkward moment in which it sounds as though I’ve made some kind of sexist jibe about laundry. I add, “You know… fabrics.” They relax, but the incident sticks out in my mind, a demonstration of how even innocent remarks can take on a sinister tone in a culture so loaded with the freight of the past.
And the sexist freight of the past is never far from us. A few minutes later, while I am still wandering around in my undershirt, three young Israeli guys sit down across from us on the terrace of the gelatto place. They glance over at Nina several times; she is chatting animatedly, as she always does. I am the first to notice them noticing us, and I can tell who they are right away. They wear sunglasses and fleece pullovers and baggy shorts and sneakers, and their eyes keep sliding back to Nina. Eventually one of them leans over and asks, “Excuse me — where are you from?”
She smiles her brilliant smile, largely oblivious. “I’m from New Zealand. And she’s from Canada,” nodding to Farideh.
“I’m from the States,” I add. They seem reluctant to look at me.
They chat her up for a good five minutes, in pretty good English. Farideh gets some appraising looks too; I get the hairy eyeball. The alpha dog (you can tell which one he is) tells her he’s just come back from a long trip through Asia — Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia. He’s a world traveller, sure — but deep, you know, ’cause he went to a lot of poor countries. All right, now I’m being judgemental.
“Are you here for a while?”
“No, we’re on pilgrimage, this is our last night.”
“Oh, your last night — you should come out with us and celebrate.”
Beautifully, she doesn’t get the hint, even when it’s lobbed at her, and it’s up to me and Farideh to explain, as we’re walking up Ben Gurion a minute later, exactly how he wants to help her celebrate her last night. She is, of course, scandalized, and doesn’t entirely believe us.
We walk up the Terraces again, this time without incident and very happily, although we do stop at a bench for a while, sit and talk and laugh and ponder that this is almost over, that it is coming to an end much too suddenly.
We do another speed-prayer in the Shrine of the Báb, but this time it feels a lot like getting ready to say goodbye.
Back at the PRC we talk a little about our prayers, our discoveries, the immediate results of our pilgrimage. Farideh has been contemplating a career as — I’m not making this up — a statistician to avoid having to follow her passion for music. Which, if you’ve heard her sing, is ridiculous. As Nina says, “Farideh, you pursuing a career in statistics is like Shoghi Effendi deciding to devote his life to dance.”
But after days of keeping quiet about it, she talks about her experience in the Shrine as a conversation with God, in which He sets her straight about her talents and why they were given to her. We refrain from pointing out that we told her so before she even asked God.
Dinner is a repeat of Sunday — Giraffe Asian Food — with slightly different dishes. Also fewer. I go over the menu very carefully with the guy on the phone, and although we agree that there should be two Pad Thais (no coriander) and an order of sushi, at the end he quotes me a price that seems markedly low for that amount of food. I’m sure I misheard him, or that he miscalculated, and, in one of those moments when I substitute confidence in “it will all work out” for the troubled feeling in my gut, I don’t call him on it.
We get only one Pad Thai. Also the sushi is much smaller than we’d anticipated. But it’s not a night for disappointment, and the enormous box of Pad Thai turns out to be quite enough for us. We eat our humble portions, talk idly, joke about things that don’t have to do with leaving.
The final official act of pilgrimage is to circumambulate the Shrine of the Báb. The pilgrims crowd in front of the Pilgrim House and one of the House members reads the Tablet of Visitation for the Báb, and then one of the Counsellors reads the Tablet of Visitation for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and then they quietly lead us up the path, over the stones from the Sea of Galilee, to the Shrine and onto the deep rose slabs and under the great white columns that support the brilliantly illuminated superstructure. Our little gang, we walk mostly together, sometimes ending up a little apart, but always coming back together.
And then, finally, we finish our circuit, and pilgrimage, the organized part, is over. The Shrine is still open until ten, but a lot of us have a bus leaving at 11:00. Nina and Farideh and I head back to the Shrine to say our final prayers (there is nothing to worry about or ask for this time, only a final reminder of the joyful intimacy of communion), and, although we have all always prayed at different rates, we somehow finish more-or-less at the same time and meet again, for the last time, at the Pilgrim Center. There are goodbyes, of course, but for me they happen in stages; Farideh and Nina say goodbye, but I will see Farideh later on the bus. She heads down the hill to the convent, and I walk Nina to a friend’s house where she will spend her last evening. We joke around most of the way there, rather than try to say all the inadequate things you have to say when you say goodbye, and I leave her at the gate, and pilgrimage draws to a close.
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