The halfway point

The first Holy Day I attended here was the Martyrdom of the Báb, which in 2013 happened in early July.  Currently, it shifts each year according to the lunar calendar, so this year, it happened yesterday.  It seemed to mark my first year here coming full circle as I reach the halfway point in my service.

I recall my earlier wonderment at the crowd of commemorators filling the garden in front of the Haifa Pilgrim House, my surprise at the parasols–coming from the States, I thought people used them only decoratively and to preserve particularly porcelain complexions.  And the heat.  My seat last year, while initially in the shade, was soon overtaken by the noonday sun, making me itch for the circumambulation when I could finally move out of its harsh gaze.

The heat was just as oppressive this year, hitting a high of 95 degrees.  By now, though, I was used to the seating arrangement of rows on rows of pilgrims, visitors, and staff, and knew the wisdom of the parasols and the folding fans.  And we were careful to pick a spot completely in the shade of the pillar-like palm in front of us.  In this place, bits of pollen confetti sprinkled down on us from the trees overhead, burrowing into our hair.

My first year is drawing to its conclusion, and this is the season of farewells, as many of my friends are leaving.  My friend Tahirih de la Republica Dominicana flew home a few days ago.  Shania, who was a senior at Mount Holyoke when I was a meek firstie, is going home.  And half of my orientation group–eighteen staff–depart in the coming days and weeks, including my friends Diana and Todd.  They are all off to new journeys.

Due to all the departures, this has been a week of farewells.  One was quiet and devotional, another was energetic and noisy, but my favorite was last night’s.  It was initially supposed to be a reunion of those in my orientation group who had lived in the faraway land of Leon Blum when we first arrived, but it ended up as a game night between Sergey, Diana, Todd, and me.

First came Scrabble, where I proved the usefulness of that English major.  My winning at Scrabble is how the universe achieves balance with my athletic ineptitude.

Then came Risk–and not just any Risk, but Star Wars Risk. Now, I confess I had never actually played the game before.  I thought I had, but that turned out to be my vague memory of playing Axis and Allies in tenth grade history class.

We cued the dramatic Star Wars soundtrack and then proceeded into a 3.5-hour long battle to conquer the galaxy.  The game works by trying to take over as many planets as possible, and Todd acted like an extraterrestrial real estate agent, describing the notable features of each planet (“Tatooine is kind of like Akka…sandy.”)  I assumed I’d lose since I didn’t have any concept of strategy, but the dice was kind to Sergey and me, and our Rebel Alliance ended up ruling the universe.  Ok, just the galaxy, but still.

I guess I assume I’m going to see all these friends again.  If life here has taught me one thing, it’s that the Bahá’í World is very small–for instance, two youth I knew from Louhelen, where my family lived fourteen years ago by my count, are coming to serve here.  The last time I saw them they were yea tall, and now they’re full-fledged young adults.

In such an oddly tight-knit community, I think it’s inevitable that our paths will cross again.

Steppin’ out

I’m walking home on Hana Senech, one of the few streets here that’s fairly level. Sometimes I like to walk home in the evening, when the sun’s rays are getting lower and the air could be described as “balmy.” (Nevertheless, about five minutes into the uphill hike, I’ve usually sweated through my dress clothes, losing whatever veneer of dignity business formal endows. Some of my more hardy coworkers walk to work in the steamy morning; I couldn’t help but feel a secret camaraderie with one such colleague who came in with epaulets of sweat on his shirt from his backpack.) Usually my eyes are trained on the sidewalk, which offers the pedestrian an array of potholes, bumps, and urban detritus. But today, I’m examining the neighborhood. In my area, tall, pale apartment buildings tower like desert palms. There doesn’t seem to be much else besides flat upon flat upon flat (I’m still getting used to the British lingo used over here). The city is maxed out, every inch of level earth developed, paved and built up. For my Wisconsin readers, Haifa and Madison have about the same population, but Haifa occupies less than a third of the space that Madison does. The tightness of everything makes me miss the suburbs, the big yards and wide streets of Midwestern sprawl. Hey, I’ve never been a city girl.

While most of my life here occurs either in my office or my flat, I do occasionally step out.

A few days ago, I visited the House of ‘Abdu’lláh Páshá in Akko. I was there on pilgrimage seven years ago, but my memory of it had eroded to the striking geometry of the staircase. Long before Led Zeppelin, early pilgrims talked of these steps as the stairway to heaven, for at the top would be ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.


Today’s pilgrims walk up that same staircase to the rooms occupied by the Holy Family over a century ago. It is said that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá could watch the progress on the mausoleum of the Báb from this house, and indeed, looking out a window I could faintly see the golden dome across the bay, suspended like a medallion on a ribbon of green, the terraces.

After the visit, I followed some acquaintances into Old Akko. I know in olden times this was a dreaded prison city, but for my touristic sensibilities, this district’s dusty stone archways and minarets seemed romantic, like the backdrop for an orientalist painting by Gerome.  We passed one bazaar and entered another where belly dancing skirts hung above fresh fish.




At the end of the day, I’m still an incurable homebody. There’s no excursion better than arriving on floor 13 and entering that bit of territory I can call my own.

Coming in for landing

The view from my room on the thirteenth floor. Good thing I don't have triskaidekaphobia.

The view from my room on the thirteenth floor. Good thing I don’t have triskaidekaphobia.

It’s been five days since my plane touched down in Israel and I arrived in the hilly peninsula that is Haifa. Since then, it’s been a flurry of visits to the shrines of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb, special devotions and a Holy Day commemoration, and so many new names to learn. While I’m not immersed enough in Israeli culture to experience culture shock–indeed, the majority of people I’ve met are from North America–there are a few things that will take some getting used to.

1. The heat Haifa is sultry, and not in the attractive way. The highs don’t look terrible–mid-eighties so far–but combined with intense sun and humidity, the climate has me gulping water like a very sweaty fish. Thankfully there’s usually a breeze, and while my apartment doesn’t have central air, fans keep me less than feverish. Apparently August is worse. If I stop posting next month, you’ll know that I’ve found a nice corner with air conditioning where I’m estivating (summer hibernation!) until the city cools down. Lest I sound too whiny, I should say that the warmth stimulates vibrant flowers and fruit, like the oblong berry with milky, super sticky juice that an acquaintance picked off a bush and handed to me. “What is this?” I asked. “No idea,” she said, “but it tastes good.”

2. The language An English speaker can get by in Israel without learning Hebrew–street signs are translated, numbers are in Arabic numerals, and most people know some English. But when it comes to decoding a bread package, an advertisement, or a map that doesn’t cater to tourists, I’m confronted with an entirely unknown alphabet. I’m hoping to learn some conversational Hebrew beyond “Shalom” (hello) and “Toda rabah” (thank you).

3. So many Bahá’ís! They’re everywhere! Perhaps this should be obvious, but hey, I’m coming from a college community of five. (In reality, we comprise less than 0.003% of Haifa’s population.)

4. The wildlife Lizards and stray cats are the squirrels and chipmunks of Israel. I keep seeing lizards sunning themselves on the grounds of the Arc (the Bahá’í buildings on Mount Carmel) and at Bahji in Akka, and I’ve so far done a good job of restraining my instinct of giving chase to examine them, wannabe herpetologist that I am. We’ll see how long I can hold out before coming home with a new pet.

Affectionate guy

As for the cats, on my first day I went to the bus stop, where a cat with bright green eyes was waiting, I think for line 36. He was sitting on the bench and I joined him. He immediately avowed his affections for me by climbing into my lap. Envisioning tiny fleas hopping onto me, I stood up, and he jumped down only to wend between my ankles. But surely the most remarkable stray story thus far happened at Haifa Zoo. I was familiar with this zoo from a lecture by Israeli zoologist Avinoam Lourie, but while I knew the story of its fallow deer population, I did not know about its otter-kitten relations. Picture this: four sleek otters, chirping at the zookeeper as he dumps in their lunch of fish; two scrawny kittens in the exhibit, peeking out from behind some rocks. Tentatively, the kittens approached the fish. The otters and kittens seemed equally afraid of each other, and when the otters backed off a bit, the kittens began to snatch fish, scurry back to their hideout, then return for more. Who knows, maybe the otters will embrace the kittens as their own and become a feature on an “unlikely animal friends” documentary.


5. Late-onset adulthood For the first time, I have to think seriously about budgeting, and cook not just for fun but so that I can eat. Life in Haifa is pricey. For example, a falafel sandwich–the “cheap” food of choice–costs around US$10. As far as cooking goes, using a gas stove is proving tricky. Given my absent-mindedness, I have serious concerns about accidentally leaving the gas on and suffocating my flatmates. While the electric stoves I’m used to have clear numbers marking the heat of each burner, here there are only cryptic drop symbols. Before I try to bake anything, I’ll have to convert temperatures from fahrenheit to celsius to the numbers on the setting dial. Needless to say, it might be a while before I make an unscorched batch of cookies. At least I’m used to cleaning my own space…although my attempt to use the vacuum cleaner, a “Vampyr” model that lacks both fangs and decent suction, required a lengthy struggle just to find the power cord. (It retracts  into the body of the beast.)