art ~ spirit ~ transformation
e*lix*ir

e*lix*ir   #12
Spring 2021
 

Editorial: The Intimacy of Art

Hands, God’s hands — they hold the “cup of everlasting life,” the “reins of unconstrained power,” and, among other things, the keys to “the door of justice.” They ring the “Most Great Bell.” They mold the clay of human life. Hands are everywhere in the Bahá’í Writings, as is the mention of touch. Why? “Consider the sense of touch,” Bahá’u’lláh muses: “Witness how its power hath spread itself over the entire human body. Whereas the faculties of sight and hearing are each localized in a particular center, the sense of touch embraceth the whole human frame.” (Gleanings)

Surely this is true of ‘touch’ in both its literal and metaphorical meanings. Our hearts are ‘touched’ by art — by the pen that touches paper, by the paintbrush that touches the canvas, by the needle that touches fabric. And in the same way that physical touch affects the whole body, so does the metaphorical touching that is art have the capacity to permeate our whole being. What is the value of art if it does not offer such intimacy? Emily Dickinson spoke of recognizing genuine poetry by the feeling that the top of her head had been blown off; while I don’t experience poetry in quite that way, I can be so touched by it that it takes my breath away.

So it was when I encountered the work of visual artists Beth Yazhari and Nadema Agard: I had to catch my breath — here was pure poetry! “Arts, crafts, and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation,” Bahá’u’lláh writes. As I viewed Beth’s “Guardians of a Sacred Spot” and Nadema’s “Wampum Moon of Change,” I felt I was soaring in some empyrean of spirit. Beth’s work is work-ship, as are Nadema’s creations. Both artists invite us to soar with them in exalted spaces.

The work of reconfiguring, repurposing, reimagining has always been women’s work, and in the very tactile creations of these two women artists, such work reaches the level of worship. “Engage in crafts and professions,” Bahá’u’lláh enjoins us in the Hidden Words, “for therein lies the secret of wealth” — and what is being referred to here, I feel certain, is not just material wealth but also those spiritual treasures that are passed from one soul to another through the intimate medium of art.

Poet Ruth Forman ‘goes to paper’ when her soul is stirred. In ‘I Go to Paper,’ Andréana Elise does not merely tell us about this accomplished poet, she calls forth her spirit. From Andréana’s rendering of a conversation with Ruth in a poem for two voices, we can glean much about where Ruth’s poems come from, what makes them work, and why they have the power to touch us.

We are delighted to present the work of Anthony A. Lee in our poetry section. In his poems, Lee ‘goes to paper’ to voice his hope for a better world, to set down what must not be forgotten, and to express his yearning for intimacy not only with the other but with the Beloved.

In my memoir-essay, “In the Noble, Sacred Place: One Rainy Day in a Holy City,” I tell the story of a life-changing encounter in the holy city of Jerusalem. I went to Jerusalem expecting to be moved by one spirit and found myself swept away by another.

We are pleased to feature an interview with Anne Gordon Perry, who spoke with me about writing for film. Rooted in the wisdom drawn from much experience, Anne’s answers to my questions give those who wish to write for film much to ponder.

This past month I was surprised to discover that in the far north of my state, the pine tree state of Maine, there lived a very literary soul who had translated the poems of Tahirih into Mandarin! In this issue, we share Zijing Pan DiCenzo’s translation of one of Tahirih’s best loved poems, “If I Should Gaze Upon Your Face,” next to the English translation by Shahin Mowzoon and myself, which appeared in issue # 7 of e*lix*ir.

The Personal Reflection Piece that appears in this issue explores a familiar Ridvan tablet. In “O Nightingales,” James Braun offers probing reflections on this tablet, rising to the heights of ecstasy as he meditates on that ecstatic moment when Bahá’u’lláh announced His Mission as the Promised One of all the ages.

In this issue, we launch what will be a regular feature in e*lix*ir: the Artist Profile. Joyce Litoff joins our staff at e*lix*ir as a regular contributor whose mission it will be to introduce artists who, inspired by the Bahá’í vision and teachings, have a body of work behind them. In this issue, Joyce invites readers to enter the world of dancer Benjamin Hatcher. In Hatcher’s work, we see a lifetime of engagement with the body as “the throne of the inner temple,” as the Báb describes it.

In this latest installment of Ruhi & Riaz, Eira draws on oral history to give us the story of the ongoing persecution of the Bahá’ís of Ivel, a village in northern Iran that has been very much in the news this past while.

Hands are featured in both essays that appear in the “Voices of Iran” section of this issue. In “The Cherry Orchard” by Paria Bakshi, the hands that yearn to pick cherries are what save the author’s grandfather from certain death when he decides, one fateful afternoon, to take a different route home. In Melika Rezvani’s “A Wedding in Prison,” it is hands that beat pots and pans, and hands that arrange commissary cakes on a plate in a valiant effort to celebrate a wedding in prison. I doubt I have ever read a more moving — yes, touching — account of a wedding celebration, and I think you will feel the same.

In “Looking Back on Books,” I offer some thoughts on the work of Alicia Ostriker, whom I met at an all-night Sufi poetry reading in the Galilee, and reflect on her quest as a Jewish woman poet to find a voice for her story.

It gives me special pleasure to feature, in the same section, the musings of our Assistant Editor, J. Michael Kafes, who, prompted by thoughts of the current commemorative year marking the centenary of the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, was drawn to reflect on his experience of creating a book about another landmark year, 1992, the holy year dedicated to the commemoration of the centenary of Bahá’u’lláh’s passing. In the Eyes of His Beloved Servants is a remarkable document that draws together the experiences of people from all around the globe who were touched by the radiant energies released by that remarkable year.

I will end by saying that before I sprained my baby finger last year, I could never have imagined how disabling it could be to lose the use of a single finger — and a baby finger at that! I had to see a hand therapist to get my finger working again. The way Jeannie cared for my hand instilled in me a new kind of respect for this remarkable appendage; and the work she did to rehabilitate my little finger changed the way I think about hands.

Now I understand that hands are not to be ignored, not to be taken for granted. They are what we must use to cling to the hem of the robe of the Beloved and to take the cup proffered by the Celestial Youth. Hands are made to be lifted up in praise and to “tear asunder the veil of vain imaginings.” And for those among us who are artists — writers, visual artists, musicians — the work of hands can give us passage into worlds of our own creation. Let me end by expressing a wish that is also a prayer: as you read this issue of e*lix*ir, may you be touched to the very depths of your soul by the intimate experience that is art.

— SLH

If I Should Gaze Upon Your Face


A Chinese Translation of Tahirih’s poem by Zijing Pan DiCenzo

但得与君两相见,脸对脸,眼对眼,
胆敢倾吐心中怨,一行行,一点点。

我似东风漂又荡,东南西北皆寻遍,
屋栋栋,门扇扇,巷深深,路漫漫。

年深日久不见君,绵延血泪污双眼。
河汤汤,溪潺潺,泉涓涓,水涟涟。

唇若红英发如蕊,遮住不得见君面。
一脉幽香花千万,一盏盏,一瓣瓣。

... (continued)



Just for Today


by Anthony A. Lee

I love you
just for today
the mountains stand
sun warms the cliffs
water falls white
against the walls of the valley
just for today
the Monk and the Virgin are lovers
dancing at my wedding
meeting secretly tonight
to share this newness
so Eiger will not know
just for today

... (continued)



O Nightingales of God


by James Braun

In persuasive and often ethereal prose, the beauty of which has often brought tears to my eyes, Bahá’u’lláh summons all of humanity to the “rose-garden of unfading splendor.” He assures us that we can attract others to this spiritual abode of and gives a hint of the joy we will experience when we approach it. Bahá’u’lláh counsels us to abandon our attachment to the physical world and its entangling concerns and take our place in the sacred realms of the spirit. He encourages us to remind ourselves of the “glory of God’s Revelation” and to invite others to this “everlasting reunion.” “Release yourselves, O nightingales of God!”

... (continued)



In the Eyes of His Beloved Servants: The Story Behind the Stories


by J. Michael Kafes

During this centenary year of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing, I found myself reminiscing about another landmark year in the life of the Bahá’í community: 1992, the holy year, during which Bahá’ís from every corner of the earth gathered in New York City ... to commemorate the Second Bahá’í World Congress...

[D]uring the congress, the Bahá’í National Center of the United States set up on its electronic bulletin board system (this was the early days of the Internet) a board where attendees could post their stories about the congress. A fresh inspiration came to me: I would bring these accounts together and make a book!...

In the classified section of the American Bahá’í and several other Bahá’í publications, I asked for stories about people’s experiences at the World Congress. I wrote to various National Spiritual Assemblies as well. Before long, I saw that I had struck a chord. My mailbox was flooded with responses! I received countless letters, some from the most surprising places. Turkmenistan? How did she find out I was doing this? Everybody who wrote to me expressed their gratitude that I had taken on this project. My call for people’s stories about the Second Bahá’í World Congress went viral before ‘going viral’ was a meme...

... (continued)

 

Art


by Beth Yazhari

... (continued)



Anne Gordon Perry on Writing for Film


... A film script calls for a different kind of thinking and construction — one that relies on visual realization versus word descriptions, internal reflection or characterization. An interesting exercise, which I’ve done myself, is to turn a short story into a film script. In the process of ‘showing’ the action (through dialogue and gesture, camera angle, or mise-en-scène), you often eliminate description or other unnecessary words. In a documentary film script, the narrator’s voice is a convention; it is this voice that tells the story...

... (continued)



Ruhi & Riaz

by Eira



... (continued)



A Wedding in Prison


by Melika Rezvani

My aunt, Sahba Rezvani, spent three years of her life in Evin Prison solely because of her belief in the Bahá’í Faith. My aunt spent a long time in the political prisoners’ section, where, she told me, the prisoners became very close because they spent every hour of many years together.

In 2011, my aunt’s son, Farhad, was soon to be married, so my aunt asked the warden for a one-day furlough to attend the wedding. But permission was denied: she would not be allowed to leave the prison, even for an hour, to be present at this important event in her son’s life. Instead, my aunt would have to spend the night of the wedding in prison, saying prayers for her son’s happiness. But her fellow prisoners were about to surprise her, and, as it turned out, she would not spend her son’s wedding night alone....

... (continued)



The Cherry Orchard


by Paria Bakhshi

My great-grandfather was a mullah for five years. After his marriage to my great-grandmother, who was a Bahá’í, he had a dream about the Báb. He became a Bahá’í afterward. However, such a change in a mullah was not acceptable to his Muslim friends and neighbors. As a result, most of the people who lived in their aderun turned into enemies.

My great-grandfather was a shoemaker at the time, so the neighbors hatched a plot to throw the leather he worked with into the water. Eventually, he had to abandon his trade. The persecution continued until my great-grandfather and great-grandmother decided it was time to move...

... (continued)

 

In the Noble, Sacred Place:
One Rainy Day in a Holy City


by Sandra Lynn Hutchison

Years ago, when I was very young and my soul ablaze with my new-found faith, I passed five rainy days in the holy city of Jerusalem. I stayed at the Ecce Homo Convent, in what the sisters called “the green boxes” — roofless metal compartments, each one no larger than a nun’s cell. The walls boomed when I bumped into them and the cot was so narrow only a child or a very slender adult could fit in it...

... (continued)



Benjamin Hatcher, Dancer


by Joyce Litoff

“I always knew I would be an artist,” says Benjamin Hatcher. “I just didn’t know what kind of expression that artistry would have.” Hatcher, now 53, has followed many avenues of expression: as a dancer in a large company, as a teacher of dance, as a choreographer and as an actor. Here are some of his musings on these pursuits.

... (continued)



Art


by Nadema Agard

... (continued)



‘I Go to Paper’: A Conversation with Ruth Forman


by Andréana Elise

It’s never straightforward—
this meeting of souls.
Whether for one time,
or till the end of time,
we struggle to be present,
to be pure...

... (continued)



How One Jewish Woman Poet Remade the Wor(l)d:
Alicia Ostriker’s The Little Space: Poems Selected and New (1989-1996)


by Sandra Lynn Hutchison

In 1992, when I was living in Israel, I had a chance encounter with American poet Alicia Ostriker. I couldn’t make it to her reading in Jerusalem, but she turned up at another literary event I did attend: an all-night Sufi poetry reading beneath the stars in the courtyard of an Arab home on the outskirts of Nazareth. I sat cross-legged beside Ostriker on the patio as our host, dressed in flowing white robes and kafiyyeh, recited the words of the masters and, as dawn approached, some verses of his own creation. During one of the pauses in the recitation, as we guests partook of the lavish spread laid out by the host’s family, I had a chance to chat with Ostriker, but no time for the questions I would have liked to ask. How had she, a Jewish woman poet, managed to find a voice within a religious tradition that was so clearly patriarchal? How had she succeeded in making that voice heard in a world that was so overwhelmingly secular.

My questions would have to wait until years later when...

... (continued)