When the West Comes to the East: Laura Barney’s Lessons from Persia

Painting of Laura Clifford Barney
“Laura at Sixteen” by Alice Pike Barney (Image source)

May 16, 1909: a gathering of New Yorkers listens to Laura Clifford Barney; one audience member jots down her words. This scribe records two talks Barney gives: the first, on her journey to Persia, and the second, on her observations of Abdu’l-Baha. To learn more about the context, please refer to my previous post, which describes the second talk.

Barney had a long, productive life, which you can learn about in this Baha’i Blog article on her relationship with Hippolyte Dreyfus, whom she married in 1911. I’ll focus on her efforts as a young woman to build a bridge between continents. 

Recently, the Journal of Baha’i Studies published an article I wrote about Barney based on my research on her early writings:

  • Two transcribed talks (1909) (held in the US National Baha’i Archives)
  • God’s Heroes: A Drama in Five Acts (1910), a play about Tahirih (available online)
  • The Opium Pipe in the Land of Persia (1912), a play staged in 1915 (held in the Smithsonian Institution Archives)
  • From the Peace of the East to the War of the West (1916), a memoir of her travels and service during World War I (held in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution and of the Baha’is of France)

In these texts, I’ve witnessed how Barney sought to share the inspiration she gained from her experiences in the Middle and Far East. As she put it in From the Peace,

Can one really know any man? Can one really know any country? I am drawn to nations as others are attracted to individual beings. I find them complex, both lovable and imperfect, and I am made to realize that alone an intermingling of certain racial customs, of certain social aspirations can form a civilization worthy of life and of the genius of man.

The 1909 talks are especially intriguing to me, for in them, I see Barney building a bridge for her US listeners to enter the Middle East and learn from the people there. Indeed, in the early 1900s, the Baha’i communities in Persia and the United States forged a relationship through travelers like Barney. I’d like to share some passages from the first talk, which focuses on Barney’s 1906 travels through Persia, a trip she made with two French Baha’is, Hippolyte Dreyfus and Madame Lachenay. These excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity.

Barney explains that she journeyed to Persia at the request of Abdu’l-Baha, who wanted her to learn from the Baha’is there:

Five years ago, I arrived at Acca. I remained there but a few days, when Abdu’l-Baha realized I had much to learn, so little by little, I received a fuller realization of his teachings. They are not of the Master but of the Spirit that speaks through him…. Gradually I became familiar with the past and existing conditions of Persia. This was in accordance with the wish of Abdu’l-Baha, that I should see how the love of Baha’u’llah had enkindled the hearts of men.

En route to Persia, Barney visited vibrant communities in Ashgabat, home of the first Baha’i House of Worship, and Samarkand. She then entered Persia, visiting Rasht, Qazvin, Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz, and Maku. She recounts meeting Baha’is in Tehran:

In Teheran I met a great teacher. He was like Mirza Abul-Fadl, only he had the enthusiasm of youth…. I said to him, “You have never made the journey to Acca?” He replied, “I have never taken the material road, but I have often journeyed there in the spirit.”

Barney recounts how, in spite of persecution, the Baha’i Faith had attracted many Persians: “Radiating around these cities which we visited were smaller towns and villages, the entire population of which were Baha’is.” She reflects,

It was also wonderful to find these people so advanced in the great economic and ethical questions of the present day, such as universal peace and other social problems, which proves that they are more advanced than we are in social conditions…[and] proves how great the teachings of Baha’u’llah were to them to turn these people into true philosophers and religious men. They were men of the fields and of menial labor and degree yet they were intellectual as well as spiritual.

After more visits with Baha’i communities, the travel party returned to Akka, spirits aflame from their interactions with Persian Baha’is:

We couldn’t express to Abdu’l-Baha our deep gratitude at what we had seen and heard. Little by little we spoke of it. Then I said to him, “Do you think it will be long before our country (America) will be like that? When will the great peace come to the world?” And he replied, “When the people of the West come to meet the people of the East for peace and unity, this problem will be easily solved.” “When do you think that unity will come?” And he replied, “In the twinkling of an eye, when love and unity are established in the hearts of the people.”

I find Barney’s account of Abdu’l-Baha’s response intriguing: peace will arrive only when the people of the West come to meet the people of the East. This prediction conveys the necessity of humility on the part of Westerners, who, despite apparently holding the world’s economic reins, are actually mere pupils of spiritual teachers from the East. Barney—a wealthy, educated heiress, no less—exemplified this humility in her eager pupilage to the Persian Baha’is and Abdu’l-Baha.

You can learn more about Barney’s observations of Abdu’l-Baha from my article about her second talk of May 16, 1909, which you can read here on Baha’i Blog.

This article was originally published on Baha’i Blog.