Archive for September, 2008


Travel Writer

They must disperse themselves in every land, pass by every clime, and travel throughout all regions. Bestirred, without rest, and steadfast to the end, they must raise in every land the triumphal cry “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha!” (O Thou the Glory of Glories), must achieve renown in the world wherever they go, must burn brightly even as a candle in every meeting and must kindle the flame of Divine love in every assembly; that the light of truth may rise resplendent in the midmost heart of the world, that throughout the East and throughout the West a vast concourse may gather under the shadow of the Word of God, that the sweet savors of holiness may be diffused, that faces may shine radiantly, hearts be filled with the Divine spirit and souls be made heavenly. `Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i writings

Some people are just born to travel. Others are born to write. Some can do both.

When she was 14, she earned enough money from her writing to pay for a trip to Niagra Falls. Before she was 30 she was a seasoned newspaperwoman writing for a weekly magazine – editing the automobile section. Oh, this was in 1901.

In 1908 she heard of the Baha’i Faith and by 1909 she was a Baha’i. She met `Abdu’l-Bahá when He travelled to the United States in 1912. Inspired by Him and by the Bahá’í teachings, she determined to take the Bahá’í message to as many people as possible. So, on 30 January 1915 – in the middle of the winter and the middle of First World War and all alone – she set sail from New York on the first of her eight extended travels, four of them around the world.

She travelled to China and Japan four times, nearly froze to death crossing the Andes on a mule, spoke at about 400 universities and colleges, learned and taught Esperanto, inducted royalty into the Bahá’í Faith, facilitated the translation of Bahá’í literature into many languages, published hundreds of articles on the Bahá’í teachings in newspapers and magazines all over the world. She was an eccentric dresser but was not a light packer, travelling with `mountains of luggage’ and carrying with her everything she owned.

Thousands of people heard about the Bahá’í Faith through her efforts over a quarter of a century. You can hear her here, reciting a Bahá’í prayer.

She died on this day in 1939. She was Martha Root.

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Transportation Meltdown

I cherish the hope that erelong the facilities in the means of communication and transport will serve to draw us still nearer to one another, and fulfill, though partially, this long-desired wish. Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i writings

Today was a very bad day for British travellers. Overnight, the third largest package travel company in the country, XL, went into receivership, stranding up to 90,000 tourists in some 100 countries and leaving some 200,000 people who had already paid for their holidays without air transportation. Its going to be difficult to find flights home for so many people!

For those who thought they might get around by travelling back to the island of Britain by car or train, a big fire in the Channel tunnel means that it has been closed all day. While some reports say that the tunnel may be opened again very soon, the last time there was a fire of this magnitude the tunnel did not become fully operational for several months.

I suppose I should mention the cost of fuel, which is being blamed for the demise of XL and which means that car drivers (not to mention other ground transport) are facing huge bills – the cheapest I have found is £1.09 a litre in Derby (that was today – I went there for a meeting of the trustees of the Multi-Faith Centre) – around here the lowest price is £1.12 a litre.

A few years ago it was a series of train accidents that closed many of the main lines into London and created transport chaos. The London Underground has many lines closed most weekends, as essential repairs to the Victorian system are carried out.

Transportation, in all its forms, is increasingly expensive and unreliable in all its forms. But despite the cost and difficulties, we still continue to travel. Many of us have to, just to get to work. We know that we are using up dwindling fossil fuels, that we are creating pollution that is contributing to global warming, that we drive when we could walk or take public transport. We recognise the irony of travelling distances to conferences where we talk about how we can tackle climate change.

Changing the way we travel will mean changing the way we live. Somehow we will have to find ways to develop communities where people can work closer to where they live, without requiring people to live in unpleasant surroundings near factories or industrial estates, or urbanising the rest of the countryside. We need to think about reshaping work itself, not just to make it more sustainable in terms of the environment but also to take account of the different needs of women employees, older people, those with disabilities and those who have responsibilities for elder care.

We need to think about how we bring up our children, whether we will allow them to walk to school, play outside, go to the park, ride bicycles, climb trees or whether we think that these are such dangerous activities that they should be prohibited or curtailed.

We need to think about what we eat, how it is produced, where it is produced and how it is stored and transported.

The complexity of the decisions we need to make about how to live more lightly in the future should not be underestimated. We can’t simply relocate people, make cities disappear, grow food on unsuitable land. We cannot make the environment entirely risk free for our children. We can travel more efficiently and economically but we probably can’t stop travelling.

If the planes are still flying and the trains still running, I shall soon be travelling to the Netherlands to attend the European Bahá’í Business Forum annual conference at De Poort where many of these things will be discussed. I do recognise the irony! The conference theme is `Growth or Sustainability? Defining, Measuring and Achieving Prosperity’. It is over subscribed, so there are no more places left, but there will be an online experience – a blog with the videos of the talks and the possibility to interact with participants and other interested individuals. Check out from next Friday. You will get a lot of the benefits of the conference without increasing your carbon footprint or having to suffer the transportation meltdown!

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We contemplate the significance of . . . the continent-wide importance of the Romany peoples, who have begun to show such receptivity to the call of Bahá’u’lláh . . . The Universal House of Justice

Tonight I chaired a packed public meeting called by the Member of Parliament for Bedford and Kempston, the `big’ town about 8 miles from my home. The speakers were Patrick Hall MP, Frank Branston, the Mayor of Bedford Borough, Inspector Mark Everett of Bedfordshire Police and Cliff Codona, Chair of the National Travellers Action Group and Chair of the UK Delegation to the European Roma and Travellers Forum. The subject was the gypsies who have been travelling into Bedford and camping illegally on open land, and the meeting was called `to examine what should be done’.

At a pre-meeting discussion, we checked with Cliff what terms we should use for his people. He was happy with `gypsies’, `Roma’, Romany, travellers’, so I use these terms interchangeably.

The audience numbered some 160 people – standing room only – and was made up largely, it would appear, of local people whose lives have been disturbed by the large numbers of travellers coming into the town and camping for several weeks at a time. The audience also had a good number of councillors from the county and borough councils, some plainclothes police officers, a few people who work closely with the travelling community and some well-wishers of the gypsies. Oh, and two Bahá’ís.

The issues are complex and people feel strongly in many directions. It is difficult to select out one main complaint. It is the case that over the past couple of years greater numbers of travellers have come to the town. It is also the case that they have taken up positions on open land owned by the Borough Council and on other land. It is the case that they have stayed on these sites illegally, often for several weeks. It is also the case that some of the sites occupied by the travellers have been left in a mess. It is the case that the behaviour of some of the travellers has been anti-social and some has been criminal.

On the other hand, it is the legal responsibility of the Council to provide sites, both permanent and transit, for travellers. It is the case that the Council has not provided the requisite number of `pitches’ for the gypsies. It is the case that this has been the situation for many years. It is also the case that the Council takes legal action to move on travellers who are camping illegally. It is also the case that there is a complicated web of agencies and authorities responsible for different aspects of `the problem’. The law defines how these agencies can act and limits what they can do. The police can only work within the law. It is the perception of many people that each agency or authority says it is the other one that is responsible in any particular situation.

It is clear that just about everyone is unhappy. The people who live near the illegal camping sites feel overwhelmed and threatened and are angry that the travellers leave rubbish everywhere, let their dogs run around, do not control their children and that bikes and cars are driven across parks and open spaces leaving ugly scars. They say there is an increase in crime, that insults are hurled at them, that there is a lot of noise and dirt and that they have lost the quiet enjoyment of their own homes. They say that the gypsies do not pay taxes, that they do not work, that it costs a huge amount to clean up after them and that the systems to move them on are slow and ineffective. They want their rights respected. Many believe that the gypsies are beyond the reach of the law and that they are privileged above the legal residents in that gypsies are not penalized for infractions of the law for which others pay fines or are arrested.

The gypsies feel unwelcome in the area. They say it is difficult to find legal places to stay, places to which they are entitled. They are subject to abuse and discrimination. It is difficult to get their children educated. They are harassed by local people and the police move them on peremptorily. Most of the them are tidy and considerate people who earn a living, pay taxes, take care of their children and have pride in their homes. They are just as annoyed by people who break the law, leave rubbish around and make trouble for their neighbours. They are `tarred with the same brush’ as other gypsies who act in anti-social ways and feel they cannot escape the negative image of them portrayed in the media and held by residents.

Politicians cannot agree on a single way forward, a solution that is realistic and do-able. The time frame for finding a solution is either too far away or cannot be rushed. The answer is either very simple or very complex. Either the cost is too great or there is plenty of government money which is not being accessed.

Well-wishers of the gypsies are annoyed that the residents appear to be prejudiced against them and do not try to understand or get on with them. The well-wishers themselves took quite a bit of flack from the audience.

The police are frustrated because no one seems to understand the legal limits within which they have to work and the nature of their job: residents believe they do not act promptly and that they overlook criminal acts; gypsies believe they are harsh and interpret the law to the disadvantage of the travellers.

So it was a tense evening. Having said that, the meeting progressed pretty well. The speakers were excellent and, from their own perspectives, answered the questions thrown their way. The audience was generally cordial, although there were a few hecklers. I felt the meeting could have done with a bit of humour but it was clearly considered too serious a meeting for that.

But as I drove home, I thought how different this encounter was from what had happened seven years ago this very day. Today, people who clearly have a dispute with one another came to a meeting in a public place and talked about it. Yes, many were angry. Yes, the way forward is not simple or straightforward or even clear. But the people of Bedford listened and talked and listened. Mostly, they were courteous to one another and to the speakers. They did not resort to violence or use weapons or become unruly. It was a mature response and, mostly, a measured one.

And I also thought how great it is to live in a country like Britain where there actually ARE rights for all people. While it is true that some people think the `others’ have all the rights and that their own rights are not respected or upheld, by and large all people are entitled to the same rights and privileges, each person and group of people have the same responsibilities as others, there are laws that apply to all people, there is a justice system that generally deals with all people `without fear or favour’, and the democratic system is open to all — this in contrast to so many other parts of the world. I think of the Bahá’ís in Iran and how such a meeting about them could never take place there.

And I also think about the fact that there are probably very few groups of people who positively welcome gypsies as members as the Bahá’ís do, who are hugely excited when a Romany joins them, who think of them as having `continent-wide importance’ in Europe.

And I still pray that, one day, Bahá’u’lláh’s solution to all problems will be taken up everywhere:

O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. We cherish the hope that the light of justice may shine upon the world and sanctify it from tyranny. If the rulers and kings of the earth, the symbols of the power of God, exalted be His glory, arise and resolve to dedicate themselves to whatever will promote the highest interests of the whole of humanity, the reign of justice will assuredly be established.

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Here and There

The purpose in these movements here and there is a single purpose — it is to spread the light of truth in this dark world. `Abdu’l-Bahá

So much time has passed since last I wrote this blog that I almost feel like a stranger to it myself!

I have been here – working on two marvellous books (the second volume of Udo Schaefer’s massive and impressive Bahá’í Ethics; and Baharieh Ma`ani’s fascinating portraits of women in the families of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh: Leaves of the Twin Divine Trees: An In-depth Study of the Lives of Women Closely Related to the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh – both published by George Ronald, out later this year)

and there – attending an European Bahá’í Business Forum (EBBF) conference at the Bahá’í conference centre in Acuto, Italy

here – co-coordinating an exciting, intensive and hugely enlightening Bahá’í teaching project in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire

there – attending the Irfan Colloquium, also at the Bahá’í conference centre in Acuto, Italy

here – enjoying the company of family and friends at our two picnics in memory of Knight of Bahá’u’lláh Ted Cardell

there – facilitating a course on `Relationships, Marriage and Family’ at the Northern Ireland Bahá’í Summer School

here – meeting my `long lost cousins from across the sea’ – distant relatives Jane Aslett (a Morris, from the mother’s father’s side of the family) and her husband Geoff, from Brisbane, Australia

and there – the highlight of the summer, cruising from Miami to Mexico with many members of my family and some friends (32 of us!) to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday! and taking the grandchildren to Disney World as well

But while all these great things have been happening in my life, there are some lowlights:

* at least 22 Bahá’ís are imprisoned in Iran because they are Bahá’ís. You can read about it here. They are still there.

* three Bahá’ís in Yemen are arrested and face imminent deportation to Iran. Read about that here.

* frustratingly, young Bahá’ís in Iran are still unable to access higher education. Read what Ahmad Batebi, who is not a Bahá’í, says about this in his essay published on 2 September 2008 in Persian in RoozOnline, and here, translated and annotated by Ahang Rabbani.

Despite this, the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh are becoming ever more applicable to the world’s present situation, and more and more people – including in Wellingborough! – are beginning to appreciate their efficacy. And then there is this promise of `Abdu’l-Bahá:

These seeds which are scattered here and there are spreading strong roots in the bosom of the earth and these will develop and grow until many harvests are gathered. Rest thou assured.

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