The Pilgrims

Courtyard of building at Junayn Garden in Nahariyya, Israel

Courtyard of building at Junayn Garden in Nahariyya, Israel

As I sit here writing, wind buffets the windowpanes, driving rain against our building. It howls like a banshee. It gusts, it moans, it wails, it whines. This is the second night of this storm. This morning, after a night of half-sleeping to the thudding sounds of the wind banging against our windows, we awoke to find Haifa coated in dirt, apparently the result of a marriage between a rainstorm and dust storm. Now it continues to rain, but just water without the dirt. This long-lived storm reminds me of the one that made our Pilgrimage so memorable.

A few days into our nine-day Pilgrimage, a strong thunderstorm drove sheets of rain down so hard that our windows leaked, inspiring us to batten down the hatches—or in this case, to lower our plastic shutters over the glass, partially to block out the water, partially because we feared the wind would smash our windows. This was the first time my mom and sister got to experience the full volume of a storm as heard from our flat. It sounded like the world was ending, as thunder coupled with the thudding of wind on windowpane. With the storm came the insidious damp cold that seeps into every pore. The storm started in the evening and was still going strong in the morning, when we went to visit some of the sites in Akká associated with Bahá’u’lláh.

Akká boasts a vast and varied history, oscillating between glory and ruin depending on the ruler, which we had learned about the previous weekend on our visit to the underground crusader city. Yet, by the time of Bahá’u’lláh in the 19th century, it had become a penal colony of the ailing Ottoman Empire. Along with His family and some followers, He was banished there from the previous place of exile in Adrianople (today’s Edirne, Turkey).

The nasty weather was an appropriate reminder that the Akká of that time was a far cry from the bustling touristy city we see today. Wrapped in many layers and carrying umbrellas like lances to battle the storm, we stepped off our bus into the gray day and walked through the old city gate to the prison cells where Bahá’u’lláh’s family lived after their arrival. Chilled to the bone even within the stone walls of the prison citadel, it was hard to imagine surviving for two years in these barren quarters. Outside the windows, the sea crashed against the city ramparts, foaming angrily.

I had the same feeling in the next house the family occupied. Although surely an improvement over the desolate prison, the house still bore an aura of oppression about it. Looking out the window of a room upstairs upon the block of cold stone houses and the leaden sky above, with nary a tree or creature in sight to relieve the harsh view, I could begin to imagine the pain of living as a prisoner.

That was the dark part of Pilgrimage, which helped us appreciate its lighter times: our time spent together, and the eventual return of the sun for our visits to Bahjí, Junayn Garden, and Holy Places in Haifa.

Light moments had to include a trip to the big baklava mountain, where the nutty pastry naturally accumulates in waist-high drifts.

Light moments had to include a trip to the big baklava mountain, where the nutty pastry naturally accumulates in waist-high drifts.

NB: Bahá’í pilgrimage consists of nine days during which pilgrims visit the Holy Places in Akká, Haifa, and Nahariyya associated with the history of the Faith in the Holy Land—and most importantly pray at the Shrines built at the resting-places of our Central Figures: Bahá’u’lláh, the Báb, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. If a Bahá’í has the financial resources, he is supposed to make pilgrimage at least once in his life as a means of spiritual deepening.

Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh at Bahjí, the most holy place on earth for Bahá'ís

Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahjí, the most holy place on earth for Bahá’ís

The sea wall


It started as a Wisconsinite reunion, because there are five of us here.  We met up at Bahjí, the most holy place for Bahá’ís, and afterwards three of us traveled into Akko.  That brief journey was complicated by missing our stop on the sherut, which resulted in us hiking toward the old city through an apparent construction zone covered with sand and the occasional concrete amalgamation.  But the important thing is that we got there and counted forty waves.

At the end of Bahá’u’lláh’s Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, there’s a passage in which Bahá’u’lláh quotes proverbs about Akko attributed to Muhammad, including:

The Apostle of God—may the blessings of God and His salutations be upon Him—hath also said: “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. And he that counteth forty waves, while repeating: ‘God is Most Great!’—exalted be He—God will forgive his sins, both past and future.”

So we clambered up a steep path to the top of the sea wall, hoping to have our sins forgiven, and counted the forty waves.  Waves are more difficult to count than I anticipated–judging when they’ve broken is pretty subjective.  Maybe if I had paid more attention in Oceanography class sophomore year…

Walking back along the sea wall, I appreciated the occasional sea breeze that would rush in through an opening.  Under the oppressive sun, it wasn’t so hard to imagine how suffocating the city must have been when the Holy Family arrived.


Today, I was talking to someone about journaling.  “It’s easy to keep up a daily journal when you’re in a new place, a new situation,” I said, “but once you get into a routine, it’s harder to find something to write. ‘Today I did the same as yesterday.'”  She contemplated, and said, “That’s an interesting question–how to make every day special?”

I don’t know that every day can be special–special cannot be the norm, can it?–but I try to appreciate the small experiences of each day, whether that means a lizard rescue (this one escaped but left behind his tail), a scoop of cardamom ice cream, fuchsia bougainvillea arching overhead, or the haunting song of my Peruvian friend, intoning in Arabic as she wipes down the banisters of a staircase I happen to enter.

Not every day will find me praying at the seaside, but there will always be windows in the wall offering fresh breezes.

Baklava & Coffee


If I were to make a soundtrack for Haifa, it would include the Muslim call to prayer and the Jewish songs that spill through the windows of the apartment. There is a synagogue that I can see from the living room. Adherents in long black robes and big furry black caps come in and out. Yesterday it broadcast a soulful choral song, presumably during the Shabbat service. While I cannot understand the words to either the call to prayer or the Jewish music, it’s pretty special that people here observe their religion so audibly. Although the Bahá’ís don’t sing prayers over loudspeakers, I think the Shrine and gardens play a comparable role as a visible, artistic manifestation of our faith.

My orientation group took a walking tour of Haifa yesterday. We walked from the Bahá’í property down to the German colony, the old pilgrim houses, the resting place of Ruhiyyih Khanum, the House of the Master, and then to Wadi Nisnas, the Hadar, and Carmel Center. These districts offer distinct shopping experiences, with the Hadar and Carmel Center offering a more typically Western experience with stores resembling Forever 21 and restaurants like McDonalds, whereas Wadi Nisnas boasts the limestone architecture and colorful marketplace of Old Haifa. This is where the Arab Christian community lives.


I enjoyed walking down the narrow streets of Wadi Nisnas, looking at the rainbow of fresh produce. There is a bakery that sells mountains of baklava in every imaginable shape. I couldn’t resist buying a box—anyone want to help me eat it? I also invested in some Arabic coffee, which is brewed on the stovetop. It smells delicious, with bits of cardamom sprinkled around the fine powder.


True to form, I must write a little about the wildlife of the city. Yesterday I made a new friend: a teeny yet burly yellow jumping spider who sat politely on my laptop for half an hour. I swear he was watching my screen, reading an online article along with me. Or maybe he mistook my cursor for a yummy ant.