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Recollections of Pilgrimage:
Nine Days with the Guardian in 1957

by Bill Washington

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Chapter 7

Visit to the ‘centre of the universe'

Two out of the nine days of pilgrimage were spent at Bahji, sleeping in the Mansion – and this was a truly moving experience: to spend the nights and as much time as you wished in the building where the Blessed Beauty spent His last days, so close to His own room. Reg and I went together and were accommodated in small rooms leading off the main hall of the Mansion, which reeked of the history of the Faith, models of temples in the centre of the hall and the walls adorned with historic photographs. The rooms where we slept were lined with books, several copies of each – it must have been the official collection of published material that goes to the World Centre, to the Guardian then and to the House of Justice now. Two others who had been there when I arrived – Amy Putnam and Caterina Bosio – were also with us in Bahji and 'Akká but were accommodated somewhere else.

Time was spent in the room where Bahá'u'lláh lived and slept – just soaking up the atmosphere of peace and sanctity; in the building that backs onto the Shrine which some of the Covenant-breakers had recently vacated; wandering around the gardens, then but a fraction of what is there now, with only one quarter of the circle spread with grass and garden borders – the recently completed Milly Collins gate standing out on its own. We wandered in the grove of pine trees standing to one side – true Lebanon cedars, we were told – and inspected the small stone building nearby, out on its own, not far from the Collins Gate, from where the Guardian planned the gardens – and no doubt many other things. It was painted a stark white with blue door and windows – typical Mediterranean colours, and we were told that the Guardian often sat – and slept when it was warm – on its roof, from where he could view the whole property.

But most precious of all was the time spent around and in the Most Holy Shrine, kneeling on the threshold to the Tomb itself – trying to remember a prayer and wondering why the mind was so blank. All thought was gone, out of reach; the mind was filled with ‘feeling' – no thought, just ‘feeling'. One felt overwhelmed by the presence in the Shrine, something almost palpable but quite out of reach when you tried to think about it. So you just knelt and enjoyed it, waves of pure emotion swept over you, and you just knelt there. I was asked on my return home what it was like to be in the Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh, and I remember saying that each of the Shrines was different – the Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh was infused with a feeling of peace – perhaps a foretaste of the Most Great Peace which He had come to bring to mankind; perhaps something much simpler than that, the peace of a soul that ‘knows' it has ‘come home'.

It was quite different to the feeling I experienced in the Shrines of the Báb and ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, where I spent perhaps more time: the Shrine of the Báb was, to me – and this is very much a personal thing – somehow filled with sadness, yet triumph. They had tried to put Him down, and here He was now, on the side of the Holy Mountain of Carmel, in the heart of what his persecutors and many others regard as the Holy Land. The Shrine of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá was, on the other hand, filled with happiness, a feeling of joy that tribulations had been overcome and were no more. But it is all a personal thing.

From Bahji we also visited 'Akká; walked along the sea wall; visited the Prison and saw the room in which Bahá'u'lláh and His immediate family had spent some two years; looked through the tiny barred windows at the view that had been His for that long period, all He could see of the outside world, and you fully understood why He was yearning to see some green fields, some vegetation of nature. One also marvelled at the stories of the early pilgrims walking the distance from Iran, only to see His hand waving at one of these small windows, and then returning with their hearts satisfied, to the teaching field or to martyrdom. The room itself was in the process of being renovated, with care to ensure that it remained as it was in the days when Bahá'u'lláh was there, but the rest of the building seemed very dilapidated.

We also visited the House of ‘Abbúd, and saw the room where the Kitáb-i-Aqdas had been revealed, the outer porch where Bahá'u'lláh might have paced while He was revealing Tablets, and the chambers where the Master and his bride, Munírih Khánum, had been married – and marvelled at the smallness of it all. We could then appreciate why the merchant ‘Abbúd had offered his home to be joined with that of Údí Khammár to make their prison quarters more liveable. We were also told that much of the furnishing and decoration in these rooms had been the work of the Greatest Holy Leaf, Bahíyyih Khánum, who was able to arrange the rooms as they had been when they were occupied.

We walked through the caravanserai where many of those early believers, who were fortunate to be able to enter 'Akká, had stayed until other quarters could be found. We saw the sea-gate through which Bahá'u'lláh had entered the city on His arrival and walked through alleyways where we felt strongly the presence of the Master and others who had been able to walk more freely in those days. At that time no other Holy Places were open to pilgrims.

On another day – I think we came by car from Haifa – we visited the Garden of Na'mayn (or Ridván Garden, as they called it) close by to 'Akká – a place of perfect quiet. It was a still day, after some cold and rainy weather, and the sun was a little warmer. We went to the tea-room, upstairs where they told us Bahá'u'lláh used to take tea and sometimes nap when He visited the garden. It was truly a refuge from the constant noise and dilapidated stone walls and narrow alleyways of 'Akká – one could imagine the relief it must have been for Bahá'u'lláh to have been able to see some verdure, trees and flowers – with the flowing water that is so precious to Iranians. We were told that ‘Abdu'l-Bahá had created this little oasis of peace, where a small river divides around an island, separating as it flows through the gardens He had made. There we saw the blue and white wooden benches where Bahá'u'lláh used to sit, enjoying the peace and quiet, and the greenery that ‘Abdu'l-Bahá had created for Him. There were old fruit trees; the elderly gardener picked some mandarins for us, but they seemed far too precious to eat.

The same day we also visited the Mansion of Mazra'ih, where Bahá'u'lláh had lived for two years, still a prisoner but with a relaxation of the severity of confinement He had experienced in 'Akká. He could at least look out over the plains of Sharon to the distant mountains, and the Mansion was surrounded by olive groves and cultivated land. At the head of the main stairs was a full-length painting of one who had been His guard, an Arab who had come to ‘Akká with the Egyptian army, fighting the Turks in the 1830s, and then settled there and, in his old age, serving as a guard of a Prisoner who was to be despised. But as it was with so many others in a similar situation, Bahá'u'lláh won his heart and his full allegiance. His name was Ahmad Jarráh; he came to love Bahá'u'lláh dearly and many of his family and their descendants were believers.

One of them we met at Bahji – Ahmad's great-nephew, Saláh Jarráh. Following Ahmad's acceptance of the Faith, two of his brothers – Khálid and Amín – also became Bahá'ís, and many of both families followed. Saláh was a grandson of both these brothers, through his mother and father, and was devoted to the Faith from an early age. He was actually given his name by ‘Abdu'l-Bahá whose advice the parents had sought at his birth; it derives from the Arabic word for ‘peace'. Saláh had a deep and abiding love for the Guardian, and had served him directly since 1942, and in 1948 – when the land of Palestine was in an upheaval with the formation of the State of Israel – he and his mother were appointed caretakers at Bahji.

Saláh's love for the Guardian was limitless. One evening the pilgrims were discussing the colour of the Guardian's eyes and Rúhíyyih Khánum recalled an earlier occasion when a similar discussion had arisen and one of the pilgrims turned to Saláh, saying: "You spend a lot of time with the Guardian, Saláh. You must know the colour of his eyes." Saláh looked at her in amazement and said: "Who would dare look in the eyes of the beloved Guardian?" For all the time he had been in close contact with the Guardian, he had never looked directly in his face; always when they were together, his eyes were lowered – a mark of deep respect in the Arab world.

Saláh told us another story which reflects both on his absolute devotion for the Guardian, and the way Shoghi Effendi worked. One day the Guardian had told him that he would need a large number of cypress trees, of a certain height, delivered to him in Haifa in a few days' time. Knowing full well that there were only a few cypress saplings in their nursery, Saláh spontaneously replied: "Yes, my Guardian" - he always called him "my Guardian" – even in later times when I met Saláh again. And if the Guardian needed something, the only possible answer was, "Yes". Then he started to think: "Wherever am I going to find that many trees?" He tried a number of places and eventually found them available at a nearby kibbutz – and they were free. To Saláh, if the Guardian wanted something – anything at all – he would find it.

Reflecting back on this story, I have since felt on many occasions that, as he had such absolute faith in Shoghi Effendi, knowing that whatever he asked for would be possible of achievement, we also should respond to whatever the House of Justice suggests may be done or even hints at as something we might be doing; we should respond with that "instant, exact and complete obedience" to whatever that wondrous and unique institution asks of us.

Saláh was a spiritual and truly beautiful soul, and I always remember him with a surge of love. He was the only person permitted to deal with the Covenant-breakers who still lived there; he really hated dealing with them but he would do anything for the Guardian. Such is the nature of justice in our Faith, and the Guardian's strict adherence to dispensing justice at all times, the Covenant-breakers were allowed to visit and enter the Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh – they were, after all, Bahá'ís and, as such, it was their right to enter His Shrine, despite their opposition to the Guardian and whatever hurt and suffering they were causing him. And it was Saláh who carried the responsibility of dealing with them. He despised the task, but he did it because his Guardian had asked him to do so.

I learned afterwards that, heart-broken at the untimely passing of the Guardian and feeling unable to stay there, after assisting the Hands in the Holy Land with some unfinished projects, Saláh pioneered to Djibouti in Somaliland, Africa. Ten years later he was involved in a motor accident and was taken to France for medical treatment. In 1975 he returned to Haifa to serve the Universal House of Justice and, after a visit to England when he noted the poor condition of the gardens around the burial place of the Guardian, he begged the House of Justice to allow him to live in London and take care of the Guardian's resting place. Purchasing a small cottage nearby, he devoted his life from then on to caring lovingly for the place where his Guardian now lay. Despite having his residence nearby, the friends noticed that many a night, particularly during the summer months, he would doze all night on a stool near the resting place – just in case some visitors came during the night and needed help. The National Assembly of the British Isles then had a small but cosy shelter built for him on land just opposite the resting place, where he virtually lived – as close as he could be to his Guardian.

I had the great joy and privilege to visit the Resting Place of the Guardian while Saláh was there, and spent some more very precious time with him, catching up on his story since the time we had met at Bahji. Indicating a number of rather large and ostentatious grave stones which were by then surrounding the low walled burial plot, Saláh told me that many Iranian Bahá'ís had come to London when they felt their lives at an end and were buried as close as they could get to the Guardian's grave. "But they don't realize," Saláh speculated, "that when the aeroplane can fly fast enough, the House of Justice will take my Guardian back to Haifa, and they will be left here." Perhaps he will be proved right, only the future can tell. But I knew from his comment that his heart was still bound to his Guardian, and he would spend the rest of his days beside him. As it happened, Saláh is now buried in Haifa; he was visiting there when his own life came to an abrupt end in another motor accident in January 1989.

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