Summer comes swiftly

It seems a pair of swifts have moved in with us. They apparently found a hole in the area where our window blinds roll up, and so their shrieks emanate from a corner of our kitchen. Swifts are from the same bird order as hummingbirds, called “apodiformes,” “apod” meaning “footless.” True to the name, I have never seen a swift’s feet, since they never perch–they seem to spend their days in constant flight, and even zoom directly into their nest at full speed. While at first their screeches, which are comparable to a coach’s whistle, annoyed me, I’ve grown accustomed to the daylight-dictated rhythm of their days, with most noise coming at sunset when they bunk down, and occasional squawks afterwards–perhaps sleep-talking?

Speaking of noise, Sergey and I had a cacophonous weekend recently. We went to Saturday dawn prayers at Bahjí, something we rarely do since I depend on the weekends to catch up on sleep, and as we sat in the Shrine, a noisy motor sound filled the air, as if an aircraft was heading directly for us. This was, as it turned out, quite nearly the case, except the aircraft was not the plane I had pictured–it was a flock of what was described as “Go-Karts with parachutes and fans.” But I think a photo would best demonstrate these contraptions:

Flying Go-Kart

Flying Go-Kart

There must have been about 15 of these noisy machines taking an aerial tour of the gardens. While it must have been a beautiful ride as they gazed down at the perfection of the paths radiating around bright flowers and trees–and the curious earthbound Bahá’ís snapping photos of them–their coincidence with the usually quiet and reverent dawn prayers was rather ironic.

Later, in Akka, we were visiting one of the Bahá’í Holy Places where Bahá’u’lláh lived, which is near the heart of the crowded old city. It seemed we were bound to have our meditations disturbed that day. What had seemed to be merely a boisterous fair outside one end of the house soon turned into a procession of marching bands that filed directly under the windows, the drums and horns banishing all hope of focusing. If this was a test of my concentration, I think I failed–after the visit, we ended up joining the throngs below to watch the uniformed youth play their stirring songs.

Celebrating something or other!

Akka schoolchildren 

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 Birds of Bahjí

Speaking of birds, here’s a poem I wrote last month.

Gardens at Bahjí

I want to know all your names
for if I can pin your species
maybe I’ll evolve wings like you
to ascend on this sacred air.
Some I know:
the crows who skulk and swoop heavily
the gilt peacocks and stone eagles
            perched steadfastly
the parrots, the hummingbirds,
and a Nightingale—
                        this is Paradise—
But you long-legged careless ones
that squawk and hop across the lawn
and you, bird of prey, dagger eyes.
            You have to be a peregrine falcon,
            A pilgrim like me.
Give me all your names,
            you birds of Bahjí,
            and let me collect your brilliant feathers
            here, in the kingdom of my heart.


There is a single ant running in circles between my arms right now. No wait, he’s crazily scrambling across my keyboard…now exploring my power cord… A small contingent of ants recently left the kitchen to reconnoiter my room. Maybe this one is monitoring my computer habits.

Orientation is nearly over. I’m not sure that I can call myself oriented, at least in the geographical sense, considering that today as the bus sped down an unfamiliar street I assured my friends that this was merely a shortcut (it was not). For that matter, I got lost yesterday too when I went on a mission to see the Shrine of the Báb at sunset. Thank goodness for my map.


(It was totally worth getting lost! And we spotted a jackal going down a staircase in the gardens, so cool! I have yet to see the wild boars that apparently roam around…)

There are now two ants scurrying across my laptop. Time to invest in some traps.

I had lunch with my supervisor today, and afterwards got a glimpse at the office where I’ll work. There it was–my desk, resplendent, in a room with windows! I can’t wait to decorate it with paperclip necklaces and pictures of my kids…or whatever adults usually do.