43. A Series of unforgettable Episodes
Updated: 3 days ago
Did you ever have a teacher with whom you began the year in trepidation but who, by year’s end, had become the most unforgettable? Ruhiyih Khanum was like that person in my life.
I had travelled to Samoa for the Dedication Ceremony of our newest Bahai temple. I’d never been to the Pacific Islands before, so chose my clothing carefully knowing that the climate was much hotter than I was used to. My friend Carol and I couldn’t resist paying a preliminary visit a day in advance to admire the stunningly beautiful Temple set like a jewel in a sea of brilliant red and green planting. In awed silence we entered the building.
Not a silence due to sacredness but to utter shock. Before us lay a scene of dirt, dead bugs and disorder. As I gazed in horror, other more responsive visitors had begun carrying heavy benches - also covered in layers of dust and dirt - into the building. Somehow, as I stood transfixed, someone had sawed the legs off their jeans to be used as a cloth, and someone else had found a bucket and a distant water source.
In silent panic, I imagined all the dignatories from around the world who were due to be seated on those very benches in less than one day’s time! I quickly stripped off the jacket of my very best ex-wedding-ensemble/cum/temple-visiting outfit and we all set about feverish scrubbing. As I washed, I became dimly aware of a woman’s voice. I noted a pair of old blue shoes coated in the orange dust of our surroundings and, recognising a note of urgency in that voice, looked up into the face of a tired worried elderly woman striving to gain my attention.
Eyes straining to adjust in the harsh light, slowly, ever so slowly, I began to discern the features of Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyih Khanum, Hand of the Cause of God and wife of the Guardian of the Bahai Faith; to slowly reconcile this tired elderly woman with the one I knew only as a strong powerhouse; who had driven our diverse membership through the twists and turns of spiritual infancy to the point where the name ‘Bahai’ was becoming familiar to the nations of the world.
It was she who, despite privileged Canadian origins, had lived much of her life in an eastern culture where women were little seen and seldom heard, yet who enthusiastically trekked through jungles and paddled up the Amazon in company with scantily-clothed natives while playing a key role in driving the Cause of God, at a point in her life when most were looking forward to comfortable retirement.
In my eyes, Ruhiyih Khanum was a towering figure. Therefore I struggled to reconcile that picture with this tired elderly woman who was urgently trying to get my attention, as a consequence of her impression that, rather than our washing the benches in water, their glistening surface was the result of being liberally coated in fresh oil; these very seats that were to be used on the following day by the King of Samoa himself!
As I tried to stammer out an explanation, a friend who had previously met Khanum stepped up and gently reassured her of the reality. And so my unforgettable visit to Samoa began...
My dignity would not be restored for long. We had been informed that Samoa had a stricter standard of peronal modesty that our western values; bare shoulders and arms were not acceptable in a holy place. Also, due to limited seating, we were told we could not expect a place within the temple itself. In light of this, I exchanged my formal attire for a sun-dress with bare arms lightly covered by a simple shirt; cooler outside in the heat of the sun, yet modest enough not to offend Samoan standards. Having satisfied myself that my appearance would be acceptable, against all expectations we found ourselves being directed inside the now immaculately transformed temple and shown to seats in the very front row of the balcony.
As the ceremony wore on, the heat in the building rose until I found myself struggling against loss of consciousness, struggling until ultimate desperation compelled me to rip off my shirt, to stand there in the very front row of the balcony, arms naked yet covered in shame. (This was years before I would be finally diagnosed with the disease Multiple Sclerosis whose primary symptom is extreme sensitivity to heat).
After the Ceremony I was kindly befriended by a Samoan gentleman - yes, that is the best word I can find for such a polite and courteous man - who invited me to join his family for lunch in their fale (traditional unwalled Samoan home of thatched roof supported on poles).
I felt so privileged to be offered this kindness by someone with whom I could barely converse, despite my having taught many Samoan children back in N.Z. On arrival some of the girls in the family gave me a lava-lava to wrap around and showed me how to sit with the soles of my feet tucked politely out of sight. Being used to sitting with the support of a chair, I looked for a handy pole to lean against, only to find to my embarassment that I was leaning against the very pole especially reserved for their father, the village matai (chief).
In making a truly fond farewell I gave the girls some personal accessories I had been wearing and, on return to N.Z., chose what I hoped would be an attractive dress to send in thanks. Subsequently I received kind letters in laboured English, expressing happiness for our brief yet mutually appreciated time together.
Years passed, and then unepectedly Carol and I found ourselves sharing a flight to Israel where we had been invited on a Bahai Pilgrimage. This would entail a vastly more demanding 30-hour trip (to London via Singapore and then doubling back to Israel) than the previous 4 hours to Samoa. To keep costs down we had decided to do it without stop-overs.
During our first stop in Singapore, the plane sat on the tarmac in baking heat for 2 hours and the interior became like an oven. We had only been back in the air for an hour when I began to lose the ability to walk or even talk.
My entire body was being overtaken by a progressive weakness, followed by sheer desperation as, in panic, I began to rip off layers of clothing until I was sitting there, in full public view - on my way to a deeply spiritual pilgrimage - in my underwear.
In an effort to keep me conscious, Carol offered her homeopathic Rescue Remedy. The only doctor the plane crew could find to assist me turned out to be a psychiatrist who demanded to know what drugs I had taken and mistook Rescue Remedy for an hallucinagenic drug. In that confined space, word went quickly around that this Bahai (yes, I had managed to tell several fellow passengers about the nature of my trip) was experiencing a drug overdose.
In this moment of crisis Carol learned we were unexpectedly having a brief stopover in a Muslim country where they planned to put me off the plane altogether. Carol was both Jewish and Bahai yet in that country it was dangerous to be either one of those religions. Somehow, for from this point on I was an obedient automaton, she managed to hide me amongst fellow passengers crowding to leave the plane through a line of soldiers with guns at their sides. On our return, she convinced a crew member to make room for me in a small side area filled with the crew’s baggage, where I lay in semi-conciousness until safe arrival in London.
Finally arrived in Haifa for our pilgrimage, Carol herself became too unwell to proceed. But our various calamities - we had already missed out on some special parts of the programme - were followed by the providence of a personal invitation for us to join a group of Persian pilgrims meeting with Ruhiyih Khanum, where her devoted companion Violette Nahjavani sat with us as translator.
Truth can be stranger than fiction. Some years earlier my family had left our former home to be what we thought were the first Bahais to live in Cambridge, only to find that privilege had been accorded mere days previously to Carol and her friend Mandy. Within a few years I was diagnosed by a Cambridge G.P. as suffering from M.S. and in the following decade Carol herself received the same diagnosis. Unfortunately, hers was a more virulent type and within years she had passed to the next world.
Time passed and I found M.S. beginning yet another relapse. Each time this happened I would turn to prayer and meditation for solace and guidance. It was in this state that I woke one morning with the desire to take up my art box again after years of neglect and begin a new portrait. I wanted to capture the Ruhiyih Khanum who had taught me so much. Who in my eyes was the embodiment of 'grace under fire', for that is the best description I can find for the way I saw her carry herself back in Samoa on finding that she was about to host the representatives of many nations and religions of the world in what initially appeared a scene of filth and disaster. A woman who embodied personal courage in carrying on year after long lonely year after losing the love of her life. In providing leadership and fortitude in the many roles she was to carry out for a growing world community over a lifetime of selfless dedication. In showing generations of women to come, a model of courage, capacity, and - in plain kiwi parlance - her sheer ‘stanchness’ in the face of so much quiet hardship.
I am her child. My Bahai spiritual daughters and our greater Bahai family are the children she was never to bear herself. What a precious legacy.
These were the qualities I wanted to express as I worked with my pastels, picturing the image of her beloved husband waiting beyond in the next world for their joyful reunion. Within a day or two of my completing this portrait, the Baha’i world was shocked and bereaved to learn of her sudden death. But I felt only a quiet sense of relief that they were finally enjoying true reunion. It gave me such joy when the Manukau Bahai Centre accepted my portrait to be displayed in their beautiful new Centre.
Enjoy this video talk given by Hand of the Cause of God Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyih Khanum at the First Baha'i World Congress