December 8, 2009

Recollections about Ruhiyyih Khanum – by Violette Nakhjavani

(Transcript of a talk given in East London, South Africa in 2001)

We have been travelling for five weeks so far, and have visited Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We have been immersed in a sea of singing and of music, and we are so happy and grateful to Baha'u'llah that this trip was possible. I was in South Africa 29 years ago, with Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum. She left her home in Haifa in July 1969, and didn't get back until April 1973. She was travelling for three years and nine months, and during this time, she visited 60 countries, 34 of which were on the continent of Africa. South Africa was towards the end of the trip, and was very special. South Africa, and all of Africa, was a different place 29 years ago.

South Africa was very, very different. Meetings like this, with mixed races and colors present, were almost impossible. Ruhhiyih Khanum said that this country was the greatest test to her, because she was told since childhood about racial unity, amity between the different races and people, so coming here was a real shock to her. During the four weeks that she was in South West Africa, as it was called then, she would have daily prayers, to be free of any form of prejudice. She would say, Baha'u'llah didn't tell us to chose our prejudice, so we must feel a total lack of prejudice in life. So it was quite hard for her when she was refused permits to see the Baha'is in different areas, so today, she is rejoicing with us. I firmly believe that her spirit is in Africa. She loved this continent, the people, and she had the best years of her life after the passing of the Guardian here.

She believed strongly in the power of intercession, she was frank and practical, so she called on these souls on matter of fact things. For example, if the car would break down, she would say to me, do you know anyone up there who was a good mechanic? For meetings with Heads of State, she would invariably call on Martha Root, she would ask for help not to say the wrong thing. She seldom was concerned about saying the right thing, but she didn't want to say the wrong thing.

I got into the habit, from when I started travelling with Ruhiyyih Khanum, to write down the events of the day in my diary, every evening. As a result, I have 40 volumes of diaries at home. Ruhiyyih Khanum's idea was that the stories of the travels in Africa be put together into a book. This was not possible until two and a half years before her passing, because I was travelling till then, and didn't have time to write. I started writing the book two and a half years ago, and finished it two months before her passing. Every day, I would bring a portion of what I'd written and read it to her. It brought back all those happy memories, and sometimes, she would even feel like she was back in Africa. After reading, every day, she would reiterate her intention, that this book must be published, not for her, but for all the African friends. The flyer came out last week before we left Haifa, and it will be on sale in November. There is a whole chapter on South Africa, the places she went, the people she saw, it forms part of the archives of South Africa, the history of the Faith here. All the details are in the book, and you'll hopefully read it, so I won't go into that. But I wrote down a few important points about her trips, so I will tell you those.

Ruhiyyih Khanum was a wonderful and unique Baha'i in many ways. She would say this about her mother, and it also applied to her. She would say that she didn't think anyone ever came across Mary Maxwell that didn't receive a potion of love, encouragement and assistance from her, sometimes in the form of loving works, sometimes in retribution. But the intention always was to help. Ruhiyyih Khanum poured out love and encouragement wherever she went.

She travelled through Ethiopia and Eritrea. In Asmara, there was a very small Baha'i community, two or three pioneers, and a few white people there who became Baha'is. There was such a spirit of love and harmony, in the five days she was there, it was almost as if confirmation and the help of the concourse was physically coming to her, she gave her most brilliant talks there. In every meeting, one could see the love of the Baha'is for each other. After the meetings, she would ask, what happened? How did I say what I did? She came to the result that it was because of the love and unity of the friends. It affected her, and because of that, she could give her best out.

Later, in another community, the reverse happened. It was another small community, with two pioneer families, and a few local Baha'is. For some reason, which we never found out, the two families didn't like each other. There was no love or effort between them. There was always backbiting, and tension. We were there for three days, when Ruhiyyih Khanum came down with a high fever and went to bed. There was nothing wrong with her, no flu or anything like that, just sick with a fever. She was convinced it was as a result of the inharmony around her. She would often mention this as an example, that inharmony is a disease, not only of the mind, but of the body as well, it also affects health, and this is so true.

The banquet last night reminded me of an example of Khanum, and how she would introduce the Faith to others. When she would want to give the message to people, she would say that the Faith is like a banquet table, with all sorts of food, drinks, and desserts. We should tell the guests, help yourselves, take what you want from the table. We Baha'is have bought the whole menu, now you choose what you like. It occurred to me how possessive the Baha'is can be. For example, we hear about an international conference on the equality of the sexes, and we say, they have stolen our teachings, instead of saying, wonderful, the message of Baha'u'llah is permeating the world!

Khanum was very self possessed, she would stand in front of 30,000 Baha'is and talk to them, no one believed how she would suffer before public talks. She would turn her heart to Baha'u'llah and ask for help, especially before press conferences for the radio and television. She would say about press conferences, don't give them too many facts, what the press wants is an impression. After they meet with you, they should think that the Baha'i Faith is a good thing. If they think like that, they will come back. If you give them all the twelve principles, and the history, starting with 1844, etc, they will become confused, and after they leave, they will forget everything.

Another wonderful thing about Khanum was her behaviour when she came across authority. Whether she was meeting an emperor of a country, like Haile Selasie from Ethiopia, or a chief of a village, her attitude was one of extreme courtesy and humility - she respected ranks. An example of this - she was once in a big conference in Canada, and it was time for questions. A young man, who was a new Baha'i, asked, why must we stand up whenever you come into the room? She said - you don't have to stand up, it's not required. But if the Mayor of this city enters this hall now, I will be the first one to stand up for him. It is respect for his rank, not humiliating yourself.

Every action she took always had a purpose and a meaning. When she was in banquets where lots of non-Baha'is were present, her approach was to never prejudice people against the Faith, and that people must not say something that will be a test for someone there fore the first time. An example was Allah'u'Abha. If there are lots of non-Baha'is there, and if they keep on hearing us say this, they will think it's a password, a secret word among the Baha'is. Why test people before they have a chance to learn about Baha'u'llah?

The last thing, for the ladies here, Khanum almost always addressed the women wherever she went, and se reminded them that yes, in this age, we are equal, and the world will soon adopt this. She was very sweet, she would say, if you read the words of Baha'u'llah and Abdu'l-Baha, you will see that there is a bit more in favour of women than men. For example, a great responsibility given to women is the raising and education of the next generation, and we mustn't take this lightly. If a woman is upright, she will bring her child up as upright. Similarly, if she is truthful, clean, God-fearing and prayerful, she will instill all these in her child as she raises it. Also, we use Allah'u'Abha as a greeting, but it is also a prayer, and it can be the first prayer one teaches their child.

Once in Cameroon, she spoke about this in a village. There were lots of children in the front of the group, and she said to them that they could use Allah'u'Abha as a prayer. For instance, one can say it five times, and she counted on her fingers, saying Allah'u'Abha for each finger. After the meeting finished, I saw a little boy, about four years old, standing alone, apart from everyone else, practicing on his fingers, looking very serious. I got so excited, I had a sweet in my pocket, so I gave it to him. We slept in that village that night, and at five in the morning, there was a chorus of Allah'u'Abha's from under the window, and there was the little boy, with lots of other little children, all repeating this. I don't know if it was for sweets or not, but they all got their sweets.

It was wonderful to be with you. Allah'u'Abha.