Thursday, September 18, 2008

Return to Salt Spring: Fall Impressions of an Island Refuge

*Salt Spring Island, with a population of about 10,000 inhabitants, whose centre is Ganges, named after the last British ship to cast anchor there in the 19th century, is one of the southern Gulf Islands that lies in the Strait of Georgia between Victoria and Vancouver.I lived on Salt Spring from 1997-1999 and wrote a column, “Pilgrim’s Notes” for the Gulf Islands weekly newspaper, The Driftwood. This piece was published in The Driftwood on September 17, 2008.

The seaplane arcs a turn and descends slowly onto the island. We buzz the tree tops and approach due South from Vesuvius. I recognize the pub from the air. A neophyte Salt Spring Islander, an ex-Ontarian from Britain, who finally fled the harsh winters, tells me it has been closed for a few years now. It has been seven years since my mother Joyce’s funeral in 2001. Joyce and husband Allan James are buried in a twin plot in the cemetery behind the Central Hall. A return to the grave site with sister Mary Lou to tend the ground and offer prayers is planned.

It is good to return to this island―to the salt sea air, the peace that settles in with gazing at the tops of sheltering, giant firs, to the variegated characters who like a mixed assortment of odd clothes, populate this island, to the slower, mellow pace of the E-shaped country that, culturally, is a better fit with northern California.

By virtue of its natural energy, Salt Spring carries healing in its wings. It lies on one of the world's great lay-lines, or energy circuits, that runs through Stonehenge, another magical island spot, the desert warmth and gem-like colours of New Mexico, and the silent, Egyptian pyramids, mysteriously personified by the riddling Sphinx. Descending from the float-plane, I pause to bask in the brilliant Fall sunshine, fill my lungs with the pure air, look up to contemplate the bright wash of azure sky. The tonic is already working its magic, restoring well-being to body and mind.

Salt Spring placates the harried mainlander, cradles you in her arms and sings an island lullaby. The pacifying effect is built into the island’s alchemy and history. The first nations referred to Salt Spring as Fire Island, a symbol of the flame that radiated healing but did not burn. Salt Spring was and remains a sacred burial ground. Here the ancestors lie sleeping, dreaming their ancient dream, called Dream Time by the Aboriginal Australians. Adjacent to the homes on Menhinick Drive lies a native preserve where sacred rites are still performed which are shared with respectful islanders. The first nations never fought wars here. Somewhere on Nose Point there is reputedly a well of sacred waters which was shared by rival tribes, friend and foe alike.

But spiritual romance fades in the face of harsher contemporary realities. I see creeping development encroaching on the woodlands. Houses and other residences have sprung up spottily where once the visual field was only solid timber. Bare-breasted, raging grannies and more youthful activists have made their nude and semi-nude protests to halt it all. Still the “development” continues.

It is an ambiguous word, this word development. Who of us wants to endorse ongoing “progress” that swallows up everything it its path? Development, and the parasitic, materialistic values that feed it, has already sanctioned the rape of earth, the fouling of our waters and the spoiling of the air. I stand by the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins’s incantation in Inversnaid: “O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

The nature-dream is momentarily broken by intermittent nightmares. Snippets of conversation overheard at the Salt Spring Coffee Company tell of life-threatening illness, divorce, broken relationships, stressed out lives and struggles to make ends meet. Mainlanders who once anticipated a slower pace of life here see themselves obliged to return once it becomes apparent that they cannot afford to live here any longer. The “Help Wanted” signs in the shop windows beg for the employees who cannot keep pace with the rising cost-of-living. A blond, young woman in animated conversation hides her disappointment in levity as she tells her friend of her parents’ retirement divorce while “their RV lies rotting in Mexico.”

My thoughts wander beyond this island refuge, out to embrace the larger community of humanity that is suffering today from a host of troubling pathologies: War, hunger, illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, famine, disease, repression, injustice. The more affluent western nations are also suffering from their own version of bad dreams: Random violence, inner-city blight, economic woes, unemployment, catastrophic illness, psychological dysfunction, homelessness, and the fractured social relationships that are increasingly defining marriages, families, friendships and the workplace.

Now the dream, sceptics have often said, is nothing but an illusion. But more perceptive minds view the All that surrounds us as the manifestation of a waking dream, a dream that is of our own making. Is it not high time to dream a new dream and awaken from the nightmare that is disturbing our conscious life? What shall this new dream be? For this pilgrim, at least, it is imperative that the vision that will enable the people to flourish should be world-embracing. It should transcend the little singularities that define the daily round of our individual lives to include the entire human family. It is a vision that shall once for all put an end to war and violence, to chronic hunger and famine, to illiteracy, to the subjugation of women. It is a vision that cherishes the organic unity and solidarity of the human race, that strives for social justice, and the elimination of all forms of prejudice, a vision in which religious fanaticism, fundamentalism and exclusivism shall be replaced by interfaith amity and understanding.

I pause to look up from my desk. On a patch of grass nearby, a crowd of yellow buttercups is waving almost imperceptibly in the autumn breeze, an idyllic picture I shall remember once I have returned home.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Teaching at the Café: Meeting H., an Iranian Gentleman

Most mornings I head for a local café. In that semi-musical spot—jazz is the preferred medium—that combines the worldly and the divine, I do some reading, writing and thinking. These elementary activities form part of my daily routine and give structure to my day; in fact, I can’t imagine my life anymore without these three old companions. Nor can I imagine my life without teaching. By teaching, I mean the Bahá’í Faith; it was and remains “the dominating passion” of my life, a hope that Shoghi Effendi cherised for all Bahá'ís. However, it has not been lost on me over the years that learning and teaching are part and parcel of the same experience: Docendo discimus, said the Romans. So teaching is not a one-way street: In teaching one is at the same time a student.

I use the services of the café, not only as my morning office, but also to make new friends forthe Bahá’í Faith and myself as the opportunities arise. While teaching at the café, I take delight in remembering that Baha’u’llah taught the Faith in a café in Baghdad, a locale that was actually a tea house. The owner became so depressed when Bahá’u’lláh was exiled to Istanbul, and no longer graced that lowly place with Divine Illumination, that he sold the business outright. The sun of his life had set.

Over the years, I have met intellectuals of all sorts: thinkers of all stripes, including a good number of professed atheists and agnostics, poets, artists, psychiatrists, psychics, missionaries, professors of religion, medical doctors, and many of the ordinary men and women-in-the-street whose company I value as much as the person of capacity.

Despite my love for the cultural life of the mind, its attainments and discoveries, I do not fit the definition of an intellectual snob. In some respects, I love the genuine affection and sincerity of the common man or woman more than the company of those holding social rank and intellectual distinction. In one sense, of course, there are no commoners. Each individual is unique and has his or her own story to tell.

Today I had another of those teaching opportunities. Call it, rather, a Begegnung, as the German existentialist might say. For it turned out to be more consequential than a passing meeting over a cup of coffee. This brief story begins outside the café, as I approached the Second Cup on my Northland mountain-bike, travelling east to west on Lisgar Street in Ottawa, toward the corner of Elgin and Lisgar, where my current preferred café now stands.

About a block away from the corner of Elgin and Lisgar, I passed by a man dressed in a white shirt and dark trousers, trundling one of these low-slung cases with an extended handle that is rolled along by lawyers and clerks headed to the Ottawa Court House. These days, one sees the compact case trailing behind business people, pilots and airline personnel and air travelers of all descriptions. As I passed by, I thought that the gentleman looked perhaps as if he were from the Middle-East.

I locked my bike at the stand, went in and stood in the small line. Then I noticed that he was standing in front of me. Despite the fact that he was on foot, he had reached his destination before me. He ordered a “regular coffee,” but it seemed to me that he was deliberating his moves, taking the time to count his change carefully. He moved slowly and seemed unsure of himself. I thought perhaps he was a tourist.

I ordered my usual--a small dark roast--and sat down in one of those spacious armchairs of Moroccan style, green embossed leather that one finds in cafés and book stores. I sat on the opposite side of the glass pastry case where faux walnut, built-in curving shelf-space is provided, a very convenient spot to lay down books and what-not. The armchair next to me sat vacant. The gentleman stood at the other counter, adding milk and sugar to his coffee.

With his drink prepared, he glanced around the room, and then approached the adjacent chair. “Is anyone sitting here?” inquired a polite, accented voice. “No sir, please go ahead.” I motioned a welcome as I replied. He sat down and once settled produced a packet of papers. My reading material was Nader Saiedi’s excellent Gate of the Heart: Understanding the Writings of the Báb (2008), a seminal study that I will be reviewing for World Order. I have reached the penultimate chapter called “Ethics and Laws in the Bayán” in which the author discusses the Fi’s Sulúk (the spiritual path/conduct), the Bab’s treatise on law and ethics, in which Bahá’u’lláh’s Herald defines all our actions as the means of attaining union with God. There are actually two tablets called Fi’s Sulúk. One is a shorter, complex text written before the declaration of His mission. Fi’s Sulúk I has been explicated by Todd Lawson. Nader Saeidi explicates Fi’s Sulúk II.

Something began to stir in me, as I searched for a pretext to engage him, for my curiosity had by not got the better of me. I sensed a certain courtesy and receptivity. The Báb’s word Sulúk provided the opportunity. After all, I was on the path; we were both on the path, but I ignored at that time precisely what this path was. Our conversation was soon to reveal it.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you speak Arabic?” Two kind, brown eyes framed by a benign face of whitish skin looked up at me. I sensed he was slightly embarrassed. “No,” he replied. “But which word is it?” he asked. “Sulúk” I said, emphasizing the “u” as it is sounded in “you.” “Oh, Solúk,” he repeated, changing the first vowel from an “u” to an “o”. I recognized the Persian accent. “By your accent, you are Iranian”? I asked. “Yes,” he said.

We introduced ourselves. Our conversation flowed naturally from that point on, greatly facilitating this new friendship in the making. I shared with him the book I was reading, showing the cover with its beautiful photograph, taken at twilight, of the house of the Báb in Shiraz. I told him that the sacred house where the Bahá’í Faith began on May 23, 1844 had since succumbed to the furies of religious fanaticism. It was damaged by fire in a Shiah attack in 1942-43, and was destroyed by the same implacable hatred in 1955. This place of pilgrimage was later restored, I continued, but finally razed to the ground by government order in 1979.

After the house of the Báb was demolished, the authorities decided to construct an Islamic religious center on that site. But “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.” (Ps. 2:4). Ironically, the new structure is named Bayt-al-Mahdi or House of the Mahdi (Guide) or Promised One. “They scheme and Allah schemes, but verily, Allah is the best of schemers.”

H. commented on the beauty and graceful symmetry of the house of the Báb. Several times during our conversation, in a subdued and mild voice, as if apologetically, he deplored the fanaticism of the Islamic regime in Iran, whose current president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, came to power by voting fraud.

I told him I spoke a smattering of Persian, that Farsi was one of the sacred languages of the Bahá’í Faith, that I had taken Introductory Persian at the University of Toronto years ago, and learned a few prayers in Persian by heart. We spoke about Persian poetry, about the great Rumi, called Mollavi by the Iranians, and the differences between the styles of Hafiz and Rumi. He commented on the anti-clericalism of Rumi and of the need for irony and dissimulation with this outspoken mystic-poet-theologian.

When we spoke about the Bahá’í Faith in more detail, he volunteered that he acknowledged the common ethical core of the great world’s religions. H.’s uncle, recently deceased, had been a Bahá’í. I was soon to learn that he respected and loved him. He said that he “loved” the Bahá’í Faith, and told me quite naturally that he was a Bahá’í. He didn’t mean this declaration in the factual sense, of course; that he was an active member of the Bahá’í community. He was only trying, I think, to express his affection for his departed uncle, and solidarity with his Bahá’í friends in Iran who been suffering from a renewed cycle of repressive measures imposed by the government since January, 2007. I very much appreciated the sincerity of his motive. With H’s “declaration of faith”, the distinction between who is officially a Bahá’í and who is not, was distinctly erased.

Later at home, I reread the prayer Bahá’u’lláh revealed for the suffering friends in Iran: “I beg of Thee, by Thy mercy which hath preceded the contingent world, to raise up from the earth those who will be moved to aid and protect them, and to preserve their rights and the restitution due to them by those who broke Thy Covenant and Testament…” It seemed to me that H.would have qualified as one of those individuals.

He said that his father had been a wealthy judge in Iran, and at the onset of the Islamic revolution in February, 1979 all his property and holdings had been confiscated. He said that his father had known Amir Ali Abbas Hoveydah, the last Prime Minister to serve under Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, from 1965-79. To placate the Mullahs, however, Hoveydah became the scapegoat of the last Iranian monarch. The charge was corruption. He was executed by the Revolutionary Guards after surrendering himself into their hands, believing himself to be innocent, and after languishing in prison for several months. H. said he respected the former Prime Minister. He thought Hoveydah was a Bahá’í but kept it hidden. I told him that Bahá’ís were forbidden from entering politics, but that it was possible that his family or relatives had been Bahá’ís.**

He had met Hoveydah when he was a child of ten years old when the Prime Minister was visiting his father. His father the judge, he told me, greatly respected the cultured intellectual, Amir Abbas, who spoke fluent French and conversed with existential philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. But I wondered how Hoveydah could not have known about the many Iranian citizens who were imprisoned and tortured by Savak, the Iranian secret police. In any case, when Hoveydah was executed, it was discovered, H. said, that he had not profited financially from his position of influence. Instead of amassing a fortune, at his death his personal assets consisted only of his apartment which was partially mortgaged by the bank.

During the course of our conversation, H. commented on the unusual coincidence of our meeting and the immediate, friendly nature of our exchange: “I find it amazing that we are sitting here in this café, and after only a few moments, we are discussing things in common.” “Yes, it is true.” I rejoined.

When our conversation ended, he excused himself and said good-bye. He would soon be traveling back to Iran, but indicated that he would get in touch again when he returned to Ottawa. As I reflected later on our remarkable meeting, I realized that in actual fact, I had taught H. very little. Divine Providence, the power that rules over both the great and the small, had guided us on our respective paths to a crossroads in a café—a meeting-place where strangers had become friends in only a brief moment.
**I have since been informed by Dr. Moojan Momen that Hoveyda's grandfather was a Bahá'í and a companion of Bahá'u'lláh. Hoveyda's father began life as a Bahá'í and even helped the first French Bahá'í, Hippolyte Dreyfus, with some translations of Bahá'í scripture into French when he was a young man, but he then pursued a political career and either left the Faith or was expelled before Hoveyda was even born. Since the Muslim clerics had repeatedly accused him of being a Bahá’í, Mr. Hovaydah enacted discriminatory measures against Bahá’ís to satisfy them, blocking their advancement into government positions. I thank Moojan for this clarification.