Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rocking Out at Bahji

I'm going to talk about the highlights of today, instead of giving you a play-by-play account, like yesterday. I can hear the cheering already.

This morning we took the Carmelit subway up to the Pilgrim Reception Centre (PRC). We were a little late, but we had to meet our guides before we left on the bus to Akka, so it was all good. By we, I mean Astrid from Ireland, and Julie and her nephew Eric from the US. They're in a different group from me and Astrid, so we split up and took different buses, but we went to the same place, the Shrine of Baha'u'llah in Bahji.

After "refreshments" at the Bahji Visitors Centre, which consisted of cookies and coffee, juice, or tea, we filed into the shrine, taking off our shoes before going in, as is customary. The ground is covered in lush Persian carpets, as are the two shrines I visited yesterday (and again this evening). We managed to get the whole group inside, which is unusual. Usually there are three groups, so we circumambulate as a group and then go in as individuals, but for some reason, we were only two groups. So that was cool.

One of the guides (not ours) chanted the Tablet of Visitation, a special prayer read at the Shrine. He was really good! And this is coming from someone who's heard a lot of Persian chanting in her life. Trust me.

After that, people sat or stood in silent prayer, with some going into the side rooms behind curtains to do this privately. I sat on the carpet. People took turns approaching the actual door where you could see the inner sanctum, for lack of a better term, where Baha'u'llah is actually buried. It contains some decorative and commemorative items, like candles and flowers. The flowers and other plants in the whole shrine gave off a very attractive scent, though I still think the Shrine of Abdu'l-Baha smells the best. It's amazing. Too bad blogs and photos don't capture smell.

I learned that you shouldn't drink tea before going into a shrine, so I had to leave relatively soon to empty my bladder. But I went back afterward. I had to fight my way through a throng of teenagers doing a tour of the surrounding gardens. All the girls' hair was cut exactly the same way, and the guys matched pretty well too. Now I know what the fashion is here. I'll need to grow mine longer and cut the bottom in a sort of uneven curve.

It's interesting being able to go to places at times when others are not allowed, just by showing my nametag. I also really understand why religious groups keep visitors out of some areas permanently. There's a certain lack of respect apparent in most tourists. Nothing against them, but it's clear that they have come to see, not to respect. Even if you don't believe in something, you should give the people who do the space to immerse themselves in their experience. Or so I think.

We didn't see much of Akka this time around, but we're going back three more times to visit some of the other Baha'i sites. For those of you who don't know, Baha'u'llah (the Founder of the Baha'i Faith) was imprisoned in that city for years with his family and some of his followers. We're going to see the restored prison cell where he was, as well as a few other sites. I'll fill you in when I've actually been there.

Around one o'clock, we returned to Haifa and had lunch. I met a woman who is friends with an anthropologist and author, Joseph Sheppard. He wrote The Island of the Same Name, which is a pretty cool book if you're into sci-fi, culture, humanity, linguistics, anthropology, archeology, or Indiana Jones.

After lunch, I thought I'd take a power nap in the "resting room" in the PRC's annex building. At 3:15, I was supposed to be up at the International Teaching Centre, up the mountain a short distance from the PRC through the Monument Gardens (lots of gardens around here). I startled myself awake, surprised by the fact that I'd actually fallen asleep. My headache was gone, which was a blessing, but when I went upstairs, I saw that it wa 3:45. Half an hour late. To meet the members of the Universal House of Justice, the international administrative body for the Baha'is.

In a panic, I rushed up the mountain, through the Monument Garden. It was a bit weird to rush past the monuments themselves, since I haven't given them a proper look yet, but I was horrified at being so late. I wondered if they would even let me in, but tried to calm myself down by assuring myself that these were the Baha'is, not some sort of tour group. They are much more human than some humans about these things.

When I got to the steps of the Seat of the House of Justice, which looks a little like the Parthenon, a woman was sitting outside with a young child. I asked her if she thought I could still go in, and she smiled. "Oh yes. They should be starting in another ten minutes."

I was kind of glad I didn't get there on time. Forty minutes is a pretty long wait.

Six of the members came in and everyone stood up for them, which I found interesting. I understand it's a sign of respect, but in the Baha'i Faith, the elected individuals have no power; it's only when they act as the institution, i.e. together, that they exercise any authority. I suppose they were technically acting as the House, but it was sort of murky. They said a prayer and welcomed us, and then came down from the stage and individually greeted us all.

Meanwhile, staff members sped our chairs away so that the members of the House would have room to file between us. They were pretty expedient about it and the chairs disappeared in no time. I was quite impressed.

Supper consisted of shawarma and a pastry for desert. I met a lady who is here with a helper because last year she was unable to complete her pilgrimage. She's a bit older, and apparently on the second day (today), at the meeting of the UHJ, she tripped over one of the column bases and broke her knee and shoulder. She was in the hospital here in Israel for a week, before Blue Cross flew her home to Canada, where she spent another two months in the hospital there. Two months. So she asked if she could finish her pilgrimage with a helper, and once the letter was received from her doctor, they invited her back.

No wonder they make us all buy health insurance now.

I met a guy, Sebastien, who was one of the key organizers of the Youth Congress I went to in Quebec in 2001. He was actually the one who invited me and the others to supper at this shawarma and falafel place higher up Mount Carmel. Everyone except him, Astrid, and me took a taxi back down; we braved the bus and made it down very quickly. Sebastien and I went to the Shrine of the Bab again, while Astrid went for a nap at the PRC.

Then there was a presentation at the International Teaching Centre by a member of the same. Several people fell asleep during it, mostly from heat and a long day, but it was still amusing.

Afterwards, I wanted to check out this open mic down the road from the hostel. I chatted with Joe and Dino (Dean), two brothers from New Zealand who brought their 70-something dad here because it's been a dream of his to visit Israel. He suffered three bouts of cancer, one that led to the removal of his eye, so Joe was happy to see him excited about being here. I didn't meet him, but hopefully tomorrow.

They were brought up in a Christian sect/denomination (Joe called it a sect) called Christadelphia. All I know is that it's very strict and doesn't allow its members to play sports, but I'd love to learn more. It's intriguing. There's so many versions of Christianity out there!

We didn't make it to the open mic because a rock cover band was playing right on the street. We went down to check them out.

They were pretty cool. One band member, originally from the US in a previous life but now from Israel, told us they played there every Tuesday, and have been for seven years. They pass the hat during the show to get paid. Not a bad gig.

Joe and I talked politics, economics, and religion (obviously), while the Swiss girl who came with us and whose name I didn't get talked to Dino about drunk people. And banks. Or something.

I also learned the correct way to nail together corrugated metal sheets to make a roof, and what layers of stuff go underneath it. I now have one useful piece of knowledge.

On that note, I have to get up at 6:30 tomorrow (gack-aahh-thud) to go back to Bahji. At least they're picking us up close to the hotel this time. And Bahji is really nice. Like, really nice. Like, totally.

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