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Recollections of Pilgrimage:
Nine Days with the Guardian in 1957

by Bill Washington

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Chapter 1

Recollections of Pilgrimage – January 1957


To my dear grandchildren – Roslyn, Elissa and Steven

Now that you [my dear grandchildren Roslyn, Elissa and Steven] have experienced for yourselves the joy and the unique bounty of pilgrimage to the Holy Shrines at the World Centre, you may also be interested in your grandfather's recollections of pilgrimage, made when I was a fairly new Bahá'í and not much older than you are now yourselves.

One's experience on pilgrimage is really of inestimable benefit only to the one who makes that journey, and mine also would have been very commonplace, if it were not for one salient fact – and that is that I was able to make the pilgrimage during the Ministry of the beloved Guardian, during the final year of his blessed life, in fact. And for that reason – and that reason alone – I am moved to share with you some brief memories of that very special time when I was granted the unforgettable bounty and privilege of meeting with the Beloved of all hearts.

Pilgrimage in those days was very different to what one experiences now – not better, but simply different, as pilgrimage will always be a special bounty for any soul, whenever the journey is made. But it was different because the Faith itself was different. At that time there were probably no more than 300 Bahá'ís in the whole of Australia and the population of Bahá'ís worldwide was similarly small – hence the numbers wishing and able to go on pilgrimage was correspondingly small.

There were not the groups of several hundred at a time, as we have now – although the House of Justice, in its inestimable kindness, does arrange for those making the pilgrimage to do so in small groups, and so retain something of that intimacy that is so precious. But in those days, one went as the guest of Shoghi Effendi, arriving on the precise day he had indicated, and leaving on the day he directs – usually it was nine days, or rather ‘nine nights' so if you arrived in Haifa in the early morning and left in the evening, you had almost ten days. But, except for a few whose special service was needed, that was one's allotted time in Paradise. So a small handful of pilgrims would come for their nine days, independently of each other – though you were ‘on pilgrimage' with others, a few others, and that was also precious in its own way. (I understand some of the Iranian pilgrims there at the same time had stayed much longer – it was really up to the beloved Guardian, but the normal stay was nine days).

I remember that when I arrived in Haifa (1 January 1957) there were four other Western Bahá'ís there; a few more came during the period, and some who had arrived before I did, on completing their ‘nine days' had departed. There were also about a dozen ‘Eastern' Bahá'ís – believers from Iran – whose pilgrimage followed a slightly different path from those from ‘Western' lands, and this arrangement had been consciously implemented by the Guardian for good reason – customs differ, and the believers from these two different backgrounds had much less opportunity then to mingle, as we do now, and in exceeding kindness, the Guardian did not wish for anyone's experience of pilgrimage to be blemished by some simple clash of culture.

All were personal guests of the Guardian, but those of ‘Western' background stayed in what was known as the Western Pilgrim House, a stately, solid stone building on Haparsim (Persian) Street, opposite the House of the Master, where the Guardian and Rúhíyyih Khánum lived. The design for this building had been approved by ‘Abdu'l-Bahá in 1919 and building commenced with funds offered by an American pilgrim, William H. Randall, and construction was completed with a generous contribution from Amelia Collins who was on pilgrimage with her husband in 1923. In 1951 the building became the office for the International Bahá'í Council; from 1963 it was used as the temporary seat of the Universal House of Justice; and later by the International Teaching Centre as office and residence, when the permanent Seat of the Universal House of Justice was completed in 1982.

The Iranian pilgrims stayed at what was then known as the Eastern Pilgrim House – the building adjacent to the entrance to the Shrine of the Báb, which was used in more recent years as a gathering and resting place for all pilgrims, but not for sleeping. The ‘Western' pilgrims – both women and men - had the great bounty of meeting with the Guardian over the dinner table, for seven of the nights that one was there, as two of the nine nights were spent at the Mansion in Bahji; for the Iranian pilgrims, the men met with the Guardian each afternoon in the Shrine gardens, where the Guardian would speak with them, answer questions, and share with them prayers in the Shrines of the Báb and the Master – a privilege too precious for words – while the women pilgrims would meet with Rúhíyyih Khánum and other women at the World Centre who, I guess, represented the ladies of the Holy Family in earlier days (there were the Revell sisters, Jessie and Ethel; Hand of the Cause Amelia Collins and Sylvia Ioas). I understand that the Iranian ladies only met with the Guardian in a formal gathering on the final day of their pilgrimage, which was in keeping with eastern custom.

Perhaps this seeming discrimination can be better understood if I share with you a story that Rúhíyyih Khánum told us one evening. She spoke of an earlier time when some American pilgrims were there, and she was sitting with a group of women on the front steps of the Pilgrim House, enjoying the sunshine and chatting – when, to their surprise, she suddenly jumped to her feet and hurriedly bid them to do likewise. She had spied a couple of elderly, Arab ladies, who were somehow part of the household there, walking down the road towards them and, as they passed the gate, they stared inquisitively at the group inside and nodded their heads in greeting. As they moved on, Rúhíyyih Khánum explained to the startled ladies that had they – and she – been seen sitting casually on the steps of the house, a reasonable and acceptable action in our western culture but highly disrespectful, and even disgraceful, in the eyes of one from an eastern background, there would have been ‘hell to play" and a great embarrassment for the Guardian, in allowing his wife to do such a thing! That was the sort of cultural background that the Guardian and others at the World Centre had to deal with in those days.

As I say, when I arrived in Haifa there were four other Western pilgrim, all part-way through their nine days of pilgrimage. One was an elderly lady from Canada, one of the early believers of the community in Hamilton, Ontario – Amy Putnam; another, a young Italian girl, Caterina Bosio, from Florence, Italy, daughter of a long-time Bahá'í family there; also an English lady, ‘Bobbie' Leedham, who later spent time in the Pacific, pioneering in Fiji; and another had arrived a couple of days before, a very elderly gentleman from South Africa, Reginald Turvey – a painter of some renown, who had been for many years the lone believer in South Africa, until the arrival of pioneers in 1952-53, and had been named by the Guardian as "the spiritual father of South Africa". He was one of an illustrious trio of artists: Marc Tobey, the American painter; Bernard Leach, the potter and himself. Both he and Bernard Leach - whom he had known since studying together in the Slade School of Art, England, during the first decade of the 1900's - had learned of the Faith from Marc Tobey in 1933 while they were working together in the Dartington art community, and had accepted the Faith in 1936. From that time on he had been an isolated believer in South Africa, living mainly in Johannesburg, and it was in his home that Hand of the Cause Bill Sears and his family first lived when they pioneered to South Africa in 1953.

Reg had arrived in Haifa in some distress – well, not he but the airport officials were in disarray, as he had arrived without a passport, and did not understand what all the fuss was about. After all, as he told us, his father and he had travelled around the world in the latter part of the 1800's without having any passports or visas, and it was no problem – what were they fussing about? The passport turned up a few days later, found tucked into a seat on the plane that Reg had come on – obviously it had slipped out of his pocket during the flight – so all was well. Had he not been a Bahá'í, it may not have been so easy for him. During our pilgrimage we spent a lot of time together, in Haifa and in Bahji, even though he was old enough to be my grandfather.

Of the Iranian pilgrims at that time the most notable was Habib Sabet, one of the few millionaires in the Faith – and certainly the only one I've ever met. From street peddling in his teens, with a tray of buttons, thread and needles, and later working in a bicycle repair shop, he had built up a business complex that embraced some 40 major companies, including the franchise for manufacturing Pepsi Cola in the Middle East, a television monopoly in Tehran, Volkswagen Iran and was a director on the boards of a number of banks. He told us then that the secret of his business success was to employ only Bahá'ís, because they were to be trusted, and in this way he had provided a living for so many Bahá'ís who were otherwise unable to gain employment. It was during this pilgrimage – his 20th visit to the Holy Land – that the Guardian, in tribute to the great assistance he had been able to render many in the Iranian community, had given him the title of "Nasíri'd-Dín" (Defender of the Faith). I remember that he was so excited that he wanted to cable many of his friends to tell them the good news, and his wife (a strong and beautiful lady) was teasing him, telling him not to be so boastful, they would find out in due course. He was a very successful business magnate and entrepreneur but, at the same time, like a schoolboy who had won a precious award. It was really very touching.

Perhaps his greatest service to the Faith was acquiring the site of the Siyáh-Chál in Tehran, preserving this most holy site for the Faith – and I feel I was very privileged to have heard the story of this from his own lips. In his message to the first Intercontinental Conference in New Delhi, India in October 1953 which launched the Ten Year Crusade, the Guardian had named the purchase of the Siyáh-Chál as one of the goals of the Crusade. When this was announced, Mr Sabet rose and declared that he would buy the Siyáh-Chál, at whatever the cost. Returning to Tehran after the conference, he learned – because the actual site of the dungeon was not precisely known – that as the business centre of Tehran had grown and developed, the Siyáh-Chál was now partly under a block of office buildings, including one of the banks in the central business area of Tehran. Knowing that any attempt to purchase the actual site of the dungeon would stir serious opposition from the clergy, he negotiated to buy the properties of the whole city block – quite a reasonable action for a businessman of his stature - at a cost of a quarter of a million pound sterling (£125,000), which was a huge amount of money in those days. He then proceeded to sell off individual properties, until he was left with the land he needed to protect the site of the Siyáh-Chál, the ownership of which was then transferred to his wife, and then to Shoghi Effendi. I never understood the reason for the double transfer, but that is how it happened – and that was the story from Mr Sabet himself, and I later heard the story from friends in Karachi how he had eventually made a profit, gaining more from the piecemeal sale of the properties than the original cost of the city block.

Another of the Iranian pilgrims I didn't actually remember from that time but met up with later in Japan – that was Mr G.V. Tehrani. He was on pilgrimage at the time following the death of his wife and had sought guidance from the Guardian, who advised him to pioneer to Japan. During my first trip to Japan, following the usual tradition of marriage we had visited the north island of Hokkaido, and I had in my pocket the name and address of an Iranian pioneer there. We located him in Sapporo, in a small office from where he was selling brief cases and other luggage items, and found that he recognised me as a fellow pilgrim. His was a face I barely remembered – meeting so many Iranians on pilgrimage at that time – but he recognised me, embraced us and spoke lovingly of our previous meeting. After that, we came to know Mr Tehrani very well and loved him dearly.

One more pilgrim I well remember was a Persian gentleman I had met in Rome – Fereydoun Khazrai, who had been instructed by Dr Giachery to look after me. But perhaps I need to digress a little here to explain why I was in Rome.

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