art ~ spirit ~ transformation
e*lix*ir

e*lix*ir   #12
Ridvan 2021
Essay
 

TABLE OF CONTENTS


Editorial

The Intimacy of Art

The Writing Life

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

Poetry

Anthony A. Lee

Translations

“If I Should Gaze Upon Your Face” by Tahirih
Chinese translation by Zijing Pan DiCenzo

Essays

In the Noble, Sacred Place: One Rainy Day in a Holy City by Sandra Lynn Hutchison

Interviews

Anne Gordon Perry on Writing for Film

Personal Reflections on Bahá’í Texts

O Nightingales of God! by James Braun

Artist Profile

Benjamin Hatcher, Dancer by Joyce Litoff

Art

Nadema Agard
Beth Yazhari

Comic

Ruhi & Riaz by Eira

Voices of Iran

The Cherry Orchard by Paria Bakhshi
A Wedding in Prison by Melika Rezvani

Looking Back on Books

In the Eyes of His Beloved Servants: The Story Behind the Stories by J. Michael Kafes
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


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

by SANDRA LYNN HUTCHISON

He that looketh upon the sea at eventide, and saith: ‘God is Most Great!’ at sunset, God will forgive his sins, though they be heaped as piles of sand.... (Islamic tradition cited in Epistle to the Son of the Wolf)

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.

There was no dresser, so I kept my suitcase open on the floor. When the sun peeked over the metal wall, I could pick my way past the clutter, but once it set, I needed a flashlight to find my way to the kitchen or the bathroom. The Ecce Homo Convent was no four-star hotel, not even a two-star one, but, nestled in the heart of the Old City on the Via Dolorosa, it seemed the perfect place to stay while I explored the Christian and Jewish holy places in Jerusalem, before heading north to the qiblih of my own faith.

For me, the holy city was just a stopover — a prelude to a journey that would take me north, past the bustling cafes and crowded beaches of Tel Aviv, past the fragrant orange groves of Hadera and the Roman ruins that front the seaside town of Caesarea, and still north to the Bahá’í holy places on Mount Carmel and in the prison city of Akka, and, finally, to Bahji itself — the qiblih, the Point of Adoration, where the sacred remains of Bahá’u’lláh had been laid to rest.

When I first heard about the Bahá’í Faith from a high school friend, I was not looking to join a new religion, let alone one that had its beginnings in the distant land of Persia. But when she told me of Bahá’u’lláh’s claim to be the Promised One, I knew in my heart it was true. As she shared Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings with me, I could feel my soul quicken and my heart swell with joy. Here was a religion that bound all the peoples of the world together in one common faith! Acknowledging the divinity of the various prophets who had been sent by God to uplift humanity, Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation wove the religions of the world, those threads of light running through human history, into the radiant fabric of progressive revelation.

Once I had settled into my cell, I sat down on my cot to study a map of the city. I felt jet-lagged, but I didn’t want to waste time sleeping. Still, my cot, narrow as it was, looked so inviting. I decided to lie down — just for a minute. Before I knew it, I had slept through the afternoon and much of the night. It was almost dawn when I was wakened by a voice that pierced my heart with the ache of its yearning. I didn’t understand the words, but I could feel my limbs vibrate to their power — Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!

I reached for my flashlight and made my way up the stairs to the roof of the Ecce Homo. The sound came from the courtyard next door; at one end stood the Al-Aqsa Mosque and, at the other, the gold-domed building that so famously crowns the city of Jerusalem: the Dome of the Rock. As I listened to the unearthly chanting, the sun bathed the city in the rosy light of dawn. The voice, it seemed to me, divided the night from the day: it banished the darkness and ushered in the light. My body felt tired and my mind overwhelmed by the newness of the place, but my heart filled with wonder as I watched the faithful wash at a long row of sinks before making their way across the courtyard to the mosque for prayers.

I may have shivered a little as I descended the stairs of the Ecce Homo. The wool shawl I had packed to keep me warm on the cold damp days of February in Israel, lay downstairs on my cot, but I did not feel cold: I had been enveloped in the warm glow of a mystery. I wanted to know more: what prompted these worshippers to rise before dawn and make their way to the mosque for prayers? What compelled them to sacrifice sleep to make mention of God?

After a simple breakfast of hummus and pita, I returned to my cell to map out my route for the day. I would start at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and make my way along the Via Dolorosa to the Temple Mount. I was tracing my route with a black felt pen when I heard a knock on the door of my cell — the kind of knock only a sister with much practice at being unobtrusive could apply to a metal door. I opened the door. There stood Sister Therese, the same diminutive nun from France who had checked me in the day before.

“There’s a man upstairs,” she said, “He would like to meet you.”

“Oh?” I said.

“A Palestinian — he has come back lately from Jordan. He has nowhere to live, so the sisters give him a room up the stairs,” she pointed to the roof of the building, where I had stood that morning listening to the voice.

“I want to meet him too,” I said. “I’ll visit him later.”

Actualment,” she said, “he waits for you now,” she pointed to the stairs. “He takes you on a tour — for a small fee. He is quite pauvre, you know.”

The petite sister seemed so insubstantial — a mere silhouette against the bright opening of the door. I almost wondered if I were seeing the very kind of vision a pilgrim might expect to see in a place like this, of some saint who had been invoked so many times by so many people that she felt bound to appear.

I meant to tell Sister Therese that I didn’t need a guide — I had already mapped out my route. But instead, I said, “A tour of the city? Mais oui!”

I followed Sister Therese up the stairs and stood behind her as she knocked on the door of a room that looked like a shipping crate dropped from the sky onto the roof of the building. A young man came to the door, greeted the sister, then turned to me and said, “Let’s go.”

As I waved goodbye to Sister Therese, it occurred to me that I had no idea, not really, who Hadi was, let alone where he was taking me. In the glossy brochure that lay on the check-in counter of the Ecce Homo, the Sisters of Sion promised pilgrims a safe and comfortable experience of Jerusalem. I didn’t know about the comfortable part, but I decided to rely on the promise of safety, so I followed Hadi across the roof and down the stairs into the holy city.

Hadi led me through narrow cobblestone lanes until we reached a set of stairs that led to a gate. We climbed the stairs. The guard who stood at the gate pointed to my camera and spoke loudly to Hadi in Arabic.

“No pictures in the holy places,” Hadi told me. I tucked my camera into my purse.

When I passed through the gate, I found myself standing in the same spacious courtyard I had looked into that morning when I climbed the stairs to the roof of the Ecce Homo Convent. Before me stood the Dome of the Rock — I was struck by the simple elegance of the structure, the symmetry, the graceful lines, the warmth and richness of the exterior design. The blue tiles made me think of the sea and sky in all their immensity, and the gold tiles of the warmth of desert sands. It was the great Sulayman, Hadi explained, who had added the exquisitely-crafted Ottoman tiles.

When I followed Hadi into the gold-domed building, I found myself standing before an enormous rock. “The Dome of the Rock is Islam’s third holiest site,” Hadi said, “the most important holy place in all Jerusalem.” As important as it may have been, no throngs of pilgrims jostled for a view of the rock. Except for Hadi and me, the place was empty.

I looked at the gigantic slab of granite. If anyone had asked me, I would have been able to tell them what events had taken place at any one of the Jewish or Christian holy places in Jerusalem, but I had no clear idea of what had happened here. Hadi did his best to explain, then he handed me a pamphlet, written in English, which he appeared to have stored up for just such an occasion. I read:

The Isra and Miraj refer to two parts of a miraculous journey the Prophet Muhammad took in one night, from Mecca to Jerusalem and then into the heavens. Isra is an Arabic word for the Prophet Muhammad’s miraculous night journey from Mecca to the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem — as referred to in Surah Al-Isra in the Quran. It is believed to have been followed by the Miraj, His ascension to heaven.

It seems that Muhammad had traveled on a magic steed named Buraq all the way from Mecca to this very rock in Jerusalem. Here he had stopped to pray before climbing a ladder upwards through the seven heavens, where He had conversed with the other prophets and received a revelation from God. For Muhammad, the rock had been a place of prayer and also a launching pad, so to speak, for the second part of his journey. As I placed my hand on the rock, it occurred to me that the feet of the Prophet must have touched this very surface.

To me, Muhammad’s journey through the seven heavens seemed rich with symbolism. But I wanted to hear it from Hadi: what was the meaning, for Muslims, of this journey on which Muhammad had defied the laws of time and space, and travelled from Mecca to Jerusalem and on through the seven heavens, all in a single night?

“The Isra and the Miraj gave us a miracle,” Hadi said. “Even the Prophet, Praise Be Upon Him, could hardly believe it. And it gave us prayer. Allah told Muhammad: pray — 50 times a day. In His mercy, He changed it to five times.”

Was the story any less believable than the stories of the miracles of Jesus, His turning water into wine, or multiplying the loaves and fishes, or walking on water? And like the miracles of Jesus, did the real meaning of this miracle lie in metaphor? What was the real miracle anyway: Muhammad’s journey through the heavens or His revelation, which taught Muslims how and when to pray?

When I returned to the Ecce Homo Convent that night, I read a little more about the Isra and the Miraj and a story began to take shape in my mind. It is the year 619 CE, the “Year of Sorrow,” as it is called. The Prophet’s beloved wife, Khadijah, dies as does His uncle, Abu Talib, the Prophet’s greatest protector. The persecution of the Muslim community grows so intense that Muhammad decides to leave Mecca and travel to the nearby city of Taif to preach about the oneness of God and to seek the protection of a tribal benefactor. But Muhammad has as little success in preaching His Word in Taif as He had in Mecca. He is run out of Taif and returns to Mecca.

It is at this very moment, when Muhammad’s tribulations have so intensified that He almost succumbs to despair, that God gives Him a trip on a magic steed to the holy city of Jerusalem, where He prays at the rock and, then, accompanied by Gabriel, climbs a ladder into the seven heavens. There, He converses with the other messengers of God, messengers who, like Him, have been tested severely during their time on earth. Finally, Gabriel takes Him to the Sadratu’l-Muntaha, the divine Lote Tree Beyond Which There is No Passing. From there, Muhammad goes on alone and has an encounter with God in the form of a revelation establishing the practice of prayer five times each day.

To me, the symbolism of the story seemed obvious. In the midst of terrible persecution, Muhammad turns to God who enables Him to transcend the despair that threatens to consume Him and soar through the heaven of detachment. As I understood it, the story served to illustrate the power of true reliance on God. And it introduced a new theme into religious revelation: not only is God one, but the prophets are too; they share the same suffering on earth and inhabit the same heaven after death.

As I stood with Hadi inside the Dome of the Rock, I had not yet understood any of this; still, when I touched the rock, I felt reassured somehow by its sheer mass. Hadi signaled to me to follow him as he left the building and set out across the courtyard for the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Out of respect for this holy place, he told me, we must take off our shoes, stand behind the prayer rugs, and observe silence. And I must cover my head.

As we entered the mosque, I slipped off my shoes and wrapped my neck scarf around my head. I looked around me. Marble. Stone. Wood. Gold. Mosaic work. Calligraphy. Colorful painted ceilings. Columns. Aisles. Alcoves. Stained glass windows. And even on a dull day like this one, light — endless light. No images covered the walls or ceiling, no scenes from the life of Muhammad or other key figures in Islam. Not a human face or figure called attention to itself. The richness lay in the textures, the patterns, the intricacy of the design. The only structure that mediated the distance between the ceiling and the floor was a kind pulpit with a spiral staircase leading up to it.

“The minbar,” Hadi whispered as he pointed to the structure, “was built without a single nail!”

I felt dwarfed by the high ceilings and overwhelmed by the vastness of the place, its sheer emptiness. But as I looked more closely, I could see that the space was not as empty as it, at first, appeared: scattered throughout, at various intervals on the enormous carpet, sat a handful of souls lost in prayer. I wondered what the space would look like when the carpets were crammed with worshippers?

I had another question, and as I whispered it to Hadi, a head turned to look in my direction. A very small noise, it seemed, could grow large in this huge space.

“What does the word ‘Islam’ mean?” I asked.

“Islam,” Hadi said, “means ‘submission.’”

I looked around me. The architecture of the mosque seemed emblematic of God’s limitless power and the utter helplessness of His creatures. Islam, it seemed to me, was a religion that celebrated vertical space, the distance between God and humanity, a space in which a believer could cast away her own will, her own desires and soar high above her earthly concerns — though probably not on a magic steed. The idea that prayer could give the soul flight was a compelling one that spoke to me of the infinite possibilities of a life of faith, of the merging of prayer with miracle.

I stood, head covered, without shoes, at the entrance of that vast carpeted edifice, and drank deep of the sweet cup of servitude proffered by a religion that invited its adherents to make a practice of effacing themselves before God. What an intoxicating beverage it was: a cup filled to the brim with the sweet waters of self-forgetfulness! Submission — how liberating it would be to admit one’s powerlessness before the incontrovertible facts of life, of death. Such a posture of complete submission, of utter humility would surely enable any believer to ascend to the highest heavens of her own being, and to experience, in some small measure at least, the kind of spiritual ecstasy the Prophet must have felt on His Night Journey.

We left the mosque and Hadi led me towards the Damascus Gate, where he hailed a taxi and directed it towards Hebron on the West Bank of the Jordan River.

“Now,” he said, “we visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs.”

“What about the stations of the cross on the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?” I asked.

“I am taking you on another kind of tour,” Hadi said. His eyes shone with such eagerness that I decided it would be best if I just went along.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs — I knew that Abraham had purchased the land as a burial place for his wife Sarah. Abraham himself as well as the other patriarchs and matriarchs — Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah — had also been buried here. The Midrash tells us the Cave of Machpelah was chosen because it was thought to be the gateway to the Garden of Eden.

As I listened to Hadi explain the significance of the tomb, I realized that it had a double life: this tomb was sacred not only to Jews, but also to Muslims. The tomb was Islam’s fourth holiest place: first Mecca, then Medina, followed by the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Muhammad was thought to have stopped here on his Night Journey and He encouraged Muslims to make pilgrimage to this site. Hadi cited, in less-than-perfect English, an Islamic tradition: “He who cannot visit me, let him visit the Tomb of Abraham.”

When we had finished our pilgrimage to the Tomb, Hadi flagged down a taxi. We arrived back at the Damascus Gate, and he led me through the narrow streets of the Old City back to the Ecce Homo Convent.

Just as we were about to go our separate ways, Hadi looked hard at me and said, “There is only one thing to remember.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Jerusalem is sacred to Muslims. It is Al-Quds Al-Sharif.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“The Noble, Sacred Place,” he said, and he made me repeat the phrase in Arabic until I got it right.

I didn’t see Hadi again, not even when I climbed the stairs to the roof to listen to the call to prayer. When I asked Sister Therese where he had gone, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Je ne sais pas.” I thought Hadi must be busy with more tours of the city, arranged by her for other pilgrims staying at the Ecce Homo Convent — and I doubted he was taking those pilgrims to the Jewish or Christian holy places.

I spent the next four days walking the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem alone, visiting holy places jammed with pilgrims, even in rainy February. Moving at a snail’s pace, a large group of Filipino pilgrims carried an enormous wooden cross on their backs as they inched their way along the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. At the Wailing Wall, the Jewish faithful swayed as they intoned their prayers. I noticed that some worshippers were stuffing small pieces of paper into the crevices between the stones — prayers, I was told, inscribed with their intentions. Before I left the wall, I did too.

Making my way through the crowds that mobbed the Jewish and Christian holy places left me exhausted. Only when I went off the tourist track to visit a site on the Mount of Olives known to locals as the Grotto of the Teachings, was I able to travel back to the days when Jesus sat teaching his small band of disciples.

And wherever I went, I found myself listening for the call of that yearning voice as it summoned the faithful to prayer. During the day, the voice drew me into the stillness of meditation; and at the hour just before dawn, it wove itself into my dreams, until that heavenly summons became so much a part of the warp and weft of my days that I could scarcely imagine returning to a life in which it did not mark the hours, a life in which I did not walk the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem in the dim beauty of the persistent rain, listening for the voice.

Still, the time had come for me to leave the holy city and head north to Haifa. As I was about to step out the door of the Ecce Homo Convent, Sister Therese tapped me on the shoulder, “Excusez moi,” she said. “Please take this note — from Hadi a toi. I told him you go to Akka. He says this paper is your guide for visiting there. I help him find the English verse.”

“Thank you, sister,” I said, taking the small piece of folded paper. “And thank you for welcoming me to Jerusalem.”

De rien! It is my job,” she smiled as she pointed her finger upward to what I knew was not the ceiling. I tucked the note into my purse, for the time when I would be in Akka.

How can one person ever evoke for another person the experience of pilgrimage, that apex of every journey of faith? What words are there to explain how it feels to place your head on the threshold of the Point of Adoration toward which your prayers have been and always will be directed, the spot where lies the One whose Reality can never be evoked, even by names such as the “Ancient of Days,” the “Beloved of the World,” the “World Reformer”? To me, the very atoms of the earth in that holy spot seemed charged with radiant energies.

At times, those energies threatened to overwhelm my soul. As a guide at one of the holy places told me when I staggered out of Bahá’u’lláh’s room in the Mansion at Bahji, it was not uncommon for pilgrims to leave that room, and other holy places, looking and feeling quite intoxicated — in this case with spirit.

Those who have prostrated themselves before the divan on which the taj of the Beloved of the World so regally sits, or knelt before His small black leather slippers, pointed at the toe in the Persian style, have surely been touched to the very core of their beings by the mystery of His life — the unspeakable suffering, the radiance of being, the limitless promise of the age set into motion by the power of His revelation.

May Maxwell, a member of the first group of Western pilgrims to arrive in Haifa, only seven years after the death of Bahá’u’lláh in 1892, had the incalculable blessing of meeting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Bahá’u’lláh, face to face. Of that meeting, she writes:

We could not remove our eyes from His glorious face: we heard all He said; we drank tea with Him at His bidding; but existence seemed suspended, and when He suddenly left us we came back with a start to life: but never again, thank God, to the same life on this earth!” (An Early Pilgrimage)

May was forever changed by her pilgrimage. So it is for all those who open themselves to the spiritual potency of the holy places in which the Manifestations of God have passed their earthly lives. And so it was for me. Before deciding to set out on my pilgrimage, I had examined my motives carefully: why did I need to make this pilgrimage now? By way of an answer, my heart had delivered to my mind a line from a Yeats’ poem: “Because a fire burned in my breast.” Now that my pilgrimage was almost over, I looked inward once again. What effect had my time in this holy land had on me? Had I been changed? No poem came to mind, but by way of answer, these words from the “Tablet of Ahmad” welled up within my soul — “Be thou as a flame of fire to my enemies and a river of life eternal to my loved ones....”

On the last free afternoon of my pilgrimage, as I wandered through the streets of Akka, past the houses in which Bahá’u’lláh had once lived, an awareness of the very physical dimension of my pilgrimage struck me with a force: my feet were touching the very stones touched by His feet! A passage from a prayer came to mind, so I took my prayer book from my purse, opened it to the page, and silently read:

I beseech Thee ... not to withhold from us the things Thou hast irrevocably ordained in this Revelation — a Revelation the potency of which hath caused every tree to cry out what the Burning Bush had aforetime proclaimed unto Moses, Who conversed with Thee, a Revelation that hath enabled every least pebble to resound again with Thy praise, as the stones glorified Thee in the days of Muhammad, Thy Friend. (Bahá’í Prayers)

The metaphor of the singing stones spoke to my soul of the power of Bahá’í pilgrimage, of the opportunity it offered to step where Bahá’u’lláh had stepped, to see what He had seen, to touch what He had touched, and simply to be where He had been — where He had suffered, celebrated, and walked through the world with infinite love in His heart. The stones, in all their earthliness, spoke to me of the unearthly joy of coming into the Presence of my Beloved — the Beloved of the World.

The time had come. I searched my purse for the small piece of paper on which Hadi had asked Sister Therese to write the Islamic tradition about Akka. I could hear the waves crashing against the walls of the city, a city that had been a penal colony on the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire — a forsaken place for those who had been forsaken. The harsh wind burned my face and the salt spray stung my lips, but I didn’t turn away. I stood, facing to the sea, my eyes fixed on the waves, and I read the verse that Hadi had sent with me to Akka:

He that looketh upon the sea in Akka at eventide, and saith: ‘God is Most Great!’ at sunset, God will forgive his sins, though they be heaped as piles of sand. And he that counteth forty waves, while repeating: ‘God is Most Great!’ — exalted be He — God will forgive his sins, both past and future.

As the sun hovered just above the horizon, I called out to the darkening sky “God is Most Great!,” and I counted 40 waves.

When I returned home, I learned that “Hadi” means “righteous guide.” I could not have been in better hands. Before my pilgrimage, I had not thought much about Islam, but now I felt thirsty for knowledge of this remarkable religion that had welded the warring tribes of Arabia into a brotherhood of nations united by the teachings set down in the Quran.

Before declaring His own mission, Bahá’u’lláh had been a practicing Muslim; and even after He had recognized the divine mission of His father, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had attended Friday prayers at the mosque. Both had honored Muhammad as a Messenger of God, and so should I. Just as the Old Testament prophets had prepared the way from the coming of Jesus, so had Muhammad prepared the way for Bahá’u’lláh. During one rainy day in the holy city of Jerusalem, Hadi, my righteous guide, had launched me on a journey to learn as much as I could about this Holy Soul and the revelation He brought to the world.

In the years since that first pilgrimage, I have passed many hours studying the life of Muhammad and His holy book, the Quran, and pondering the traditions that record His sayings and doings. And whenever I am in a place where the voice of muezzin summons the faithful to prayer, my soul aches to hear its yearning tone. My study of the Quran has opened to me a treasure trove of spiritual truths, each gem more lustrous than the next and each encased in the highest poetry.

Sometimes I wonder how anyone can be content to pass through this earthly life without reading this exquisite verse from the Surah of Light:

Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth; a likeness of His light is as a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp is in a glass, (and) the glass is as it were a brightly shining star, lit from a blessed olive-tree, neither eastern nor western, the oil whereof almost gives light though fire touch it not — light upon light — Allah guides to His light whom He pleases, and Allah sets forth parables for men, and Allah is Cognizant of all things. (al-Nur, 24/35)

Over the years, as I have read my way through Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings, I have become increasingly attuned to that glorious counterpoint generated in the music of His revelation by His many allusions to the Quran. And when my journey as a reader brought me to the final pages of Bahá’u’lláh’s last work, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, I was astonished to discover that, in order to prove to another Hadi that the Islamic prophecies had been fulfilled by His coming, Bahá’u’lláh had cited every Islamic tradition that makes mention of the city of Akka.

He writes: “In this connection it hath been deemed necessary to mention such traditions as have been recorded regarding the blessed and honored city of Akka, that haply thou mayest, O Hadi, seek a path unto the Truth, and a road leading unto God.” It is to this city, Bahá’u’lláh reminds Hadi, that “God hath shown His special mercy” and its merit above other places is “as the merit of Muhammad above that of all other Prophets.” Akka is a city “whose whiteness is pleasing unto God,” and, He cites another tradition, “He who has been bitten by one of its fleas is better, in the estimation of God, than he who hath received a grievous blow in the path of God.” One who prays in this city, Bahá’u’lláh reminds Hadi, “his voice will be lifted up unto Paradise.”

Bahá’u’lláh cites a number of other traditions, and, then, just before writing the final words of the final paragraph of His penultimate work, He cites the very tradition Hadi and Sister Therese had sent with me to Akka.

Years later, on another stopover in Jerusalem before traveling north for another pilgrimage, I took my husband and my fifteen-year-old daughter on the first leg of the tour Hadi had given me so many years before. But when we climbed the stairs to the gate leading to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a young kafiyyeh-clad man forbade us from entering because, he said, we were not Muslims. How different this man was from Hadi, who had been so eager to share his faith with me.

As hard as I tried, I could not make the young man understand that he was not looking deeply enough into our hearts. If only he would, it would become as evident to him as the morning sun that broke through the clouds on that rainy February day in the holy city of Jerusalem, that we believed in the prophet Muhammad and in His book, the holy Quran.

But the young man would not budge. At first, I felt disappointed that my daughter would not be able to touch her hand to the rock from which Muhammad ascended to the seventh heaven or pray in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, then I remembered a verse of Rumi’s, written about this very mosque:

The place that Solomon made to worship in,
called the Far Mosque, is not built of earth
and water and stone, but of intention and wisdom
and mystical conversation and compassionate action.

When our time in Jerusalem came to an end, we headed north to begin our pilgrimage to the Bahá’í holy places. As we boarded the train, I thought about Hadi, a Palestinian without a home in the land of his birth. Had he gone back to Jordan? Had he, by some miracle, returned to the land of his fathers and his mothers to grow almonds and olives and dates? Or did he live with his family in one of the refugee camps that have grown into haphazard cities that stain the beauty of the blooming desert that is Israel and remind all with eyes to see of wounds that cannot heal until a new day dawns in this holy land? Wherever he was in body, I knew Hadi would be with us in spirit as we traveled north to Akka and stood by the sea wall to count the 40 waves.

If only I could find Hadi, I would tell him what I did not understand on that rainy day in Jerusalem so many years ago — that I am a Muslim too. I would say shukran, thank you, for being my guide — and such a righteous one too.I would tell him I had gone to Akka, looked out on the sea at sunset, counted the 40 waves, and received forgiveness for all my sins. If only I could find Hadi, I would explain to him that, once upon a time, so long ago, I had thought of Jerusalem as a city holy only to Christians and to Jews. And I would tell him that when I thought of Jerusalem now, it was as al-Quds al-Sharif — the Noble, Sacred Place, where I met Muhammad and touched my hand to the rock blessed by His feet.


Sandra Lynn Hutchison is the founder and editor of e*lix*ir.