Today is the commemoration of the declaration of the Báb. The Báb is many things to many people: to those few Bábis who remain today, he is a tragic messiah; to Soviet Marxist historiographers like M.S. Ivanov, he was a tragic revolutionary; to Baha’is, he was the brave trailblazer of the Promised One of all religions and a new cycle in human history; to me, he was a metaphysical jester, but more importantly, he was the being who brought me home.
I actually discovered the Baha’i Faith in 2004, during the weekend of Halloween, in the Holy Land herself. At the time I was on vacation from my job in Neve Shalom, Israel’s first and only purpose-built Arab-Jewish cooperative village. I was traveling through the north of Israel, visiting the Galilee region, and ultimately ended in Acca and Haifa. What follows is a brief account of those personally momentous days.*
I immediately liked Acca. Although the city is something of a crime-ridden backwater and I had a frustrating encounter with little Palestinian children who enjoy throwing stones at strangers a little too much, there was something really relaxing and welcoming about the place. For one, I was very impressed by its history, not for only its antiquity, but for the fact that it was a tough little place, having withstood the likes of Napoleon. Indeed, I took a nap on the very walls which had defeated Hegel’s Great Man, and although there were wild dogs roaming around up there, rarely had I felt so safe.
During my wanderings in the Old City, I stumbled upon a strange building. A nearby sign said it was the “House of Abbúd“, in which the prophet of a religion called “Baha’i”, whose name was unpronounceably Persian, had written a certain holy book that was apparently a big deal. I spent an hour examining its simple but relaxing facade. Later, I asked the manager of my hostel about the building, and he suggested that I go to Haifa, which I did the next day.
Once in Haifa, the locals strongly suggested that I go to the top of the north slope of Mount Carmel and take a tour of the “Baha’i terraces”. I snapped my fingers, remembering my father once remarking years ago, when I was a little boy, that during his own visit to Israel he had visited some “hanging gardens”. I had also been intrigued about Mount Carmel ever since I arrived in Israel several months earlier. And so I made my way to the what turned out to be the Baha’i World Center.
The first thing I saw was the Shrine of the Báb [I took the fuzzy photograph on the right from the perspective of a nearby garden with my ailing digital camera]. Yet, my memories of the Shrine are actually fuzzy, mostly because I was inexplicably in a very sour mood. Here’s what I remember clearly: puzzling over an inscription of the Baha’i ringstone on one of the columns and thinking to myself, very negatively, What a load of bullshit.
As to the Shrine itself, sometimes I recall that the doors were shut; other times, I seem to remember actually being inside the structure. I specifically recall seeing reddish carpets and several columns, but I’m told that this isn’t what the inside actually looks like. Whatever actually happened, I was in some kind of strange reverie, part repulsed, part fascinated. It was abruptly ended when a very angry Baha’i woman appeared next to me, shouting that I shouldn’t be there and shooing me away toward the tourist center. Well, after that my mood was even more sour.
I spent a few hours in the tourist center overlooking the harbor of Haifa and finishing my journal with a long reflection of my time in Israel up to that point, including a few cartoonish sketches of Acca and Haifa. I then submitted to a tour of the terraces, and what a crappy tour it was: the guides didn’t seem to know anything about the place, and they wouldn’t let us look at anything, either. We were hurried down the slope to the exit.
For whatever reason, I had come there in a cynical state of mind; I left even more cynical, convinced that the Baha’is, whatever the hell they were, were secretive and elitist.** Afterward, I totally forgot about the religion — I mean truly, utterly forgot about it, to the extent that a few years later, when I ran into the Baha’i Faith again, I didn’t even recognize the name.
That happened in August of 2008, while I was writing the thesis paper for my first Master’s degree. I was researching the Muqatta’at on Wikipedia when I encountered a reference to the Báb’s Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’; curious, I began to read up about the Bábis and then the Baha’is. Indeed, it turned out that by the end of that summer I would finally get Islam’d out, breaking once and for all with the religion. In retrospection, I had been experiencing a similar break with Islam when I had visited Acca and Haifa, which may have contributed to my bad mood.
Shortly after the discovery of the Báb’s writings, I began reading Baha’u’llah’s The Hidden Words. Meanwhile, my then-girlfriend Zita convinced me, as she put it, to stop rejecting something that my heart genuinely liked — again, in retrospection, my tendency to reject the deeper inclinations of my heart as somehow invalid and inadequate may have been another contribution to the cynicism that affected me in the World Center. But Zita helped me to overcome my self-destructiveness, which led me to decide to take the dive.
When I look back upon October 2004 and August 2008, I’m surprised by several things. To begin with, that my original introduction to the faith was in its very heart. Indeed, of all the major sites in the Baha’i pilgrimage, the only one I didn’t see was the Mansion of Bahjí. Secondly, that my initial reaction to the faith was so negative: it was as though I had been personally invited unto the Primu Mobile, only to ridicule it for bestowing such an honor upon me. Yet despite my petulance and egotism, the abiding power that first ushered me to the heart of the Baha’i Faith didn’t give up on me.
Finally, both times the locus point, like a compass guiding me home, was the Báb. I remember, before I even stumbled upon the House of Abbúd, standing on the marina of Acca and staring across the Mediterranean to the distant slope of Mount Carmel and somehow feeling called there. [I took the photograph of Carmel at right during that moment.]
You’ll understand why, then, I will conclude this post with the following words from the Báb — words which resonate deeply with my own feelings…
Thou didst create Me, O Lord, through Thy gracious favour and didst protect Me through Thy bounty in the darkness of the womb and didst nourish Me, through Thy loving-kindness, with life-giving blood. After having fashioned Me in a most comely form, through Thy tender providence, and having perfected My creation through Thine excellent handiwork and breathed Thy Spirit into My body through Thine infinite mercy and by the revelation of Thy transcendent unity, Thou didst cause Me to issue forth from the world of concealment into the visible world, naked, ignorant of all things, and powerless to achieve aught.
Thou didst then nourish Me with refreshing milk and didst rear Me in the arms of My parents with manifest compassion, until Thou didst graciously acquaint Me with the realities of Thy Revelation and apprised Me of the straight path of Thy Faith as set forth in Thy Book. And when I attained full maturity Thou didst cause Me to bear allegiance unto Thine inaccessible Remembrance, and enabled Me to advance towards the designated station, where Thou didst educate Me through the subtle operations of Thy handiwork and didst nurture Me in that land with Thy most gracious gifts.
When that which had been preordained in Thy Book came to pass Thou didst cause Me, through Thy kindness, to reach Thy holy precincts and didst suffer Me, through Thy tender mercy, to dwell within the court of fellowship, until I discerned therein that which I witnessed of the clear tokens of Thy mercifulness, the compelling evidences of Thy oneness, the effulgent splendours of Thy majesty, the source of Thy supreme singleness, the heights of Thy transcendent sovereignty, the signs of Thy peerlessness, the manifestations of Thine exalted glory, the retreats of Thy sanctity, and whatsoever is inscrutable to all but Thee.
* If you’re curious, you can read my original account of the journey, including photographs, at the old Thinking-East blog here. The journey actually didn’t climax at the Baha’i World Center, but later that evening, during my return trip to Neve Shalom, about which you can read in this blog here.
** It was sunset by the time I left the World Center. I then proceeded to make my way back home, which resulted in the quixotic adventure which I described elsewhere in this blog, entitled, “A Wrong Turn in Israel“.