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Hands of the Cause of God:
Personal Recollections

by Bill Washington

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Chapter 4

Amatu’l-Baha Rúhíyyih Khánum

My first meeting with Rúhíyyih Khánum came while on pilgrimage in 1957. To put this meeting into perspective, I need to digress a little. Frank Wyss and I had planned to go on pilgrimage together, even before I had formally declared – Frank was one of the handful of Bahá’í youth in Australia at the time and had played an important part in my nurturing in the Faith. But these plans had to be postponed due to serious persecution of the Faith that erupted in Iran in 1956, and Frank went on his own in January 1956, while I went a year later. Having been there the year before, Frank had ‘coached’ me on what I needed to know and, as he was aware of Rúhíyyih Khánum passionate interest in indigenous peoples, sent with me, as gifts to her, several aboriginal articles: a boomerang, a woomera (throwing stick) and short spear, and a stick of wood on the end of a piece of twine called a ‘bull-roarer’ that was used to warn womenfolk of a men’s-only corroboree in process.

Arriving at the pilgrim house – in those days it was the Western Pilgrim House, over the road from the House of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, which was later used as the temporary seat of the Universal House of Justice – I was ushered into the main entrance foyer and was warmly greeted by Rúhíyyih Khánum herself. As the gifts that Frank had sent were accessible – the spear and woomera were actually strapped to the outside of my suitcase, being too large to fit inside – I immediately offered them to her. Her fascination and delight were evident; she remembered Frank with fondness (pilgrims were few in those days) and was so happy that he had remembered her interest in such things. But simply accepting the gifts was not her way; she insisted that they must be demonstrated on the spot. Asking what the ‘bull-roarer’ was for – and not really waiting for an answer, she swung it around there in the foyer, beneath an exquisite crystal chandelier. The whirring noise very quickly brought out Jessie Revell – who without any hesitation chastised Rúhíyyih Khánum quite sharply: that was not the place for such antics. Undeterred, Rúhíyyih Khánum marched me out to a small park beside the Pilgrim House where she had room to try out the boomerang – she knew what it was for and how to throw it, roughly. The boomerang took off, gained height and disappeared over the hedge at the end of the garden – perhaps it was not a ‘returning’ model. A moment later the surprised face of an old Arab gentleman popped up over the hedge; she had nearly decapitated him with the boomerang.

But that was her way – such gifts were not to be admired or set for decorating a shelf; they demanded to be used. One recalls the description of her that Marcus Bach gives in his book The Circle of Faith, recording his meeting with Shoghi Effendi in 1956: “… the door opened and a trim, attractive woman entered, suddenly and unannounced. She had a dog on a leash, a fur stole around her neck, and she walked like a Persian queen. Only she was American, at least I thought she was, and the piquancy with which she came in must have pleased or shocked the spirits of the old prophets who haunted the mansion room.” That describes very clearly the impression that she gave on first meeting. She gathered up the gifts that Frank had sent, obviously appreciating them, and we returned to the Pilgrim House where I was taken to the room where I would be sleeping.

During those nine unforgettable days I was to see a great deal of Rúhíyyih Khánum, for in those days the pilgrim was very much a part of the household that she managed in a quiet and effective way. She was at the dinner table each evening – or the seven evenings that were spent in Haifa, two more being in Bahji – and she played an important role in ensuring that the pilgrims were comfortable. I was quite over-awed by the experience and spoke very little, preferring to spend as much time as possible listening to Shoghi Effendi and the others there. Noticing this, on one evening she asked me directly whether I had any questions for the Guardian – for myself I didn’t, but I asked one question on behalf of someone else, as I had been requested, and it was she who made sure that I had that opportunity.

Another very personal example of this kindness she had for all who came in contact with her was again at the dinner table when the Guardian had been speaking of the plans in hand for the construction of the House of Worship in Sydney. Noting the look of surprise on my face, he added: “The friends in Australia do not know about this, except for the members of the National Assembly, and you must say nothing of it when you return home.” Rúhíyyih Khánum immediately intervened: “Oh, Shoghi Effendi, that’s a very heavy burden to place on the shoulders of a young Bahá’í.” He looked directly at me, and simply said: “He will learn”. And it was the kindness of her intervention on my behalf that I remembered.

On one occasion I accompanied her to a local second-hand dealer, helping to carry some rather heavy items. In those days many gifts – some quite expensive – were received from believers around the world, particularly from Iran, and most of these were promptly converted into funds for the International work of the Faith. She explained to me that gifts that could be used or some more personal gifts were retained, carpets were usually placed in the Shrines, as requested, often on top of several dozen other carpets, but through the services of a friendly and fair dealer, most had to be sold – there was just not room for them and the Cause was always in need of funds, somewhere. This was the practical, down-to-earth side of her nature.

On another occasion I spent the day helping Rúhíyyih Khánum and Jessie Revell paint inside a building adjoining the Eastern Pilgrim House – I think it was part of the sleeping quarters for the Iranian pilgrims. Both were practically dressed, in overalls, and were wielding large brushes to apply the kalsomine (white-wash) to the walls. Suddenly Rúhíyyih Khánum noticed a small lizard high up on the wall, being painted into the corner of the room, and she called an abrupt halt to the work while she ‘rescued’ the small creature and carried it outside to the safety of the garden. It was a small action but reflected her great love for all life and creatures.

Many years later, while on a three-day visit to the World Centre, I saw again this love of small creatures that so characterised Rúhíyyih Khánum. She had invited me to join her for afternoon tea – ‘sticky bun and tea’, as members of the World Centre staff called it – along with a family from Italy – he had worked closely with Dr Giachery in arranging for the shipment of marble stone from Italy for the Shrine and Archives building – and again this great love for creatures of all sorts was evident: the family included two young children, and at one point Rúhíyyih Khánum took them out to an adjoining area, with pot-plants and ferns, where she had some pets – small animals from South America which some friends had given her and she nurtured with great love and care.

Each evening following dinner the pilgrims would gather in the upstairs lounge, exchanging news of activities in their home countries and Bahá’í experiences. Much of this precious evening conversation was led by Rúhíyyih Khánum, sharing her own experiences and those of other recent pilgrims. She spoke of her early years in Canada when she was one of a handful of youth in the whole of North America – and how they expected the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh to materialise full-blown and almost immediately, certainly in their lifetime, and talked about establishing ‘Bahá’í villages’ – like small communes – until the Guardian told them it was not yet the time for that.

She told us stories of friends who had recently been on pilgrimage – a story of Bill Carr, pioneer to Thule, in Greenland, at that time the northern-most Bahá’í community, mentioned by the Guardian in his 1957 Ridván Message. Bill had tried to climb the terraces below the shrine, two of which the Guardian had created at the base of Mount Carmel and two more just below the Shrine gardens, and now locked off as a safety measure, as the steps built many years before were now in disrepair and not really secure. Bill had managed to climb the two barricades at the base but was stopped by the first barrier near the top – and had felt ‘spiritually unworthy’ in his inability to complete the climb of the terraces. Rúhíyyih Khánum had had to reassure him that this was not so – and this story led to further discussion on the spiritual merits of our actions. In ways such as this, Rúhíyyih Khánum added greatly to the spiritual enlightenment of the pilgrims, sharing unstintingly of her own wide experiences.

On another evening she related the story of a group of pilgrims discussing Shoghi Effendi and wondering what coloured eyes he had – some thought blue, others a darker hue. Present with the group was Saleh Jarrah who was at that time the caretaker/custodian of the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh and worked very closely with the Guardian in the development of the gardens. One of the pilgrims said to him: “You are close to the Guardian, you should know what colour his eyes are.” Saleh’s response clearly demonstrated the awe and reverence with which he regarded the Guardian: “But who could look into the eyes of the Guardian?” That question has, of course, been answered in Rúhíyyih Khánum’s precious book: The Priceless Pearl in which she records for posterity so many facets of the beloved Guardian’s personality and life. For this alone we owe her an immense debt of gratitude, and for sharing so much of herself and her life with the Guardian.

This seemed to be one of her most precious contributions to the maturation of the Bahá’ís around the world, through the years following the passing of the beloved Guardian and up until her own death. She had shared a large part of her life with the beloved Guardian, living and working alongside him, and was as close to him as any other soul could be, and in this way she had absorbed a great deal of his thinking and attitude. In her extensive travels and with pilgrims at the World Centre, she was able – and very willing – to share all she had learned from him, as well as her own thoughts and views which in themselves revealed a mine rich in gems.

In the years immediately following pilgrimage, we exchanged a number of letters – initiated at first by my own need to query issues that had been raised and understandings reached during pilgrimage, seeking a fuller comprehension of these points, and later when she had some news or project that she felt would be of interest to me a letter would come. These gradually ceased as her own life became busy with travels but I always felt secure in knowing that such guidance could be sought from her at any time – it was an open sort of relationship which, I am sure, she had established with countless souls around the Bahá’í world. She was a ‘mother’ figure to so many believers.

My next personal contact with her came with the dedication of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár in Sydney, in September 1961. Rúhíyyih Khánum came to Australia to officiate at this dedication – as she had with two other Houses of Worship: Wilmette in 1953 and Kampala earlier that same year (January 1961). The story of the dedication is well recorded but during her visit to Australia Rúhíyyih Khánum was not well. Her itinerary had included New Zealand and Jessie Revell, who accompanied her on the trip, had to go to Auckland in her stead. As she told the friends in Sydney at an informal gathering with the believers, her main purpose in coming was to dedicate the House of Worship and all her energies had to be reserved for that. An informal gathering of the friends in Adelaide – at that time one of the larger communities in Australia – also gave many of the believers there the opportunity to meet with her and listen to the inspiring guidance she offered us. For many at those gatherings, her words opened up new vistas of what the Faith was destined to achieve

Following the dedication, on her return journey through Malaysia and other countries, it was planned for her to stay briefly in Darwin, where the community was small – only six believers at that time – and she could have intimate contact with some of the Australian aborigines. She had met with ‘Uncle’ Fred Murray and others living around Renmark, South Australia, but this would be an opportunity to meet with aborigines who were still living within a tribal structure. It was also a great bounty for the small community of Darwin, to have Rúhíyyih Khánum and Jessie Revell all to ourselves for that brief time. They stayed in the Hotel Darwin – the only really respectable accommodation available in those days – and the smallness of the community allowed us a maximum of time with these precious visitors.

Although the break of her journey in Darwin was principally a ‘rest’ period, there was an official program: a public meeting in the CWA rooms, chaired by the Mayor of Darwin – with a talk on “All men are needed”; an interview over the local radio and with the press – we had a very close relationship with the editor of the local paper and he was very sympathetic to our need for publicity; but I also recall some of the unofficial activities: looking for an open ice-cream shop on the way home from the public meeting, because Rúhíyyih Khánum insisted that that was what she needed at that time of night – we found one – and a barbecue in the home of one of the friends with a group of young aboriginals with whom we were in contact at that time – and Rúhíyyih Khánum added a Canadian flavour to the evening by bringing some marsh-mallows, toasting them on the open barbecue fire, rather unsuccessfully as the local marsh-mallows were not quite the same as their Canadian counterpart, and drizzled into a sticky mass when toasted. But the most enduring effect of their brief visit was the contact that was made with friends of the community – and the goal of forming the first local assembly was achieved some months later, at Ridván.

In the years after that our paths did not cross, but Rúhíyyih Khánum offered constant inspiration to the entire Bahá’í world community – in her many talks at various gatherings – full of enlightenment and encouragement; her Great African Safari and her Green Light Expedition, visiting native believers along the Amazon and its tributaries and in Bolivia at its source; her travels through India and many other countries; the books she authored, especially that immensely precious The Priceless Pearl in which she told us more about the beloved Guardian than had come from any other source. Through all these years her actions and words provided a real ‘fountain’ of understanding for the friends everywhere.

There was, however, some contact between us, as Hiroko met up with her in Japan at the end of 1978. Hiroko had gone there for travel teaching, at the request of the Universal House of Justice, and Rúhíyyih Khánum was at the same time visiting Japan. They met at a gathering in the Bahá’í centre in Tokyo and, learning that Hiroko was carrying our third child at the time – she herself had only just realized it – she insisted that one of the American pioneers who had been in Japan for many years, Barbara Sims, ‘take good care of her’ while they were travelling in the north island of Hokkaido. It was mid-winter and travelling conditions were arduous, and Hiroko thoroughly appreciated the extra care that Rúhíyyih Khánum’s words had ensured.

Our final personal contact came when I was able to make a three-day visit to the World Centre in 1996 and she, obviously keeping an eye on the names of pilgrims and other visitors, phoned a message inviting me to join her for afternoon tea. As mentioned previously, her other visitors that day included an Italian family, and she was joined as hostess by Violette Nakhjavání, her constant companion for so many of her extensive travels. Much of the conversation centred around stories that both she and Mrs Nakhjavání shared of their travels, and invariably when one was telling a story, the other would intervene with some small correction of time or place. It was just like an elderly couple, relating stories that were familiar to both and each wanting to join in with the telling. We were joined later in the afternoon by Alí Nakhjavání, which was an added bounty and pleasure for us, and at one point when one of them wished to correct the other’s story, they both turned to him for support. He raised both hands – as in silent protest – with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, and declined to get involved. It was dangerous ground for him – caught between the two women in his life.

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