by Dariush Nothaft
Oh, but it IS true. Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.
Today is the Twelfth Day of Ridvan, a Holy Day which symbolizes the beginning of a new age for Baha’is. Ridvan is special, waaaaaay special, to us Baha’is. ”King of Festivals” special (Ridvan means paradise in Arabic).
In this time of renewal I can’t help but imagine Abdu’l-Baha saw strains of this idea in the nation he visited in 1912. The clear thinker can find renewal and rebirth fused into the genetic code of America, the idea. But to get there we need to go back in time a little bit.
We humans. We build things. In the dawn of our time, when spoken language still held novelty, we build societies, traditions, and eventually settlements and cities. As we shape the physical world with buildings, dams, canals and agriculture, we shape our understanding of it with ideas. Romans constructed elaborate mythologies wherein they were invincible in war so long as certain criteria were met — among them constant expansion. Renaissance academics and artists constructed the idea that the artistic and philosophical values they held dear were simply a rebirth of Roman values — conveniently ignoring the fact that many of the texts they rediscovered came from libraries run by Islamic scholars.
We Americans. We build things too. And Abdu’l-Baha arrived in our land in the midst of one of the most whirlwind epochs of construction we ever undertook. Our major cities had exploded in population; New York and Chicago especially engaged in massive construction projects throughout the turn of the century, ever reaching for the sky, and about to embark on ever more ambitious projects (more on that later). We had accepted waves of immigrants from Europe and Asia. In the midst of this bustle, Americans constantly defined themselves, their brethren, and their cities. Chicago became the “Windy City” because of its promoters outsized boasts about it. The dedication of the Statue of Liberty occurred only 26 years before Abdu’l-Baha came to New York — it’s words promising shelter for the “huddled masses” were still new. But for all it’s promise, we were still racked by disagreements, and many of the core ideas about America-the-idea were caught in contention.
Having conquered the American frontier, our expansionist tendencies began to take an imperial tone — the Spanish-American War and Hawaiian Annexation in 1898, the Philippine-American War shortly thereafter, and the voyage of the Great White Fleet (named un-ironically) in 1907-09. In 1907 America engaged in the “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Japan, in which we promised equal treatment for Japanese-Americans and freedom of immigration for Japanese citizens, provided the Japanese government stopped issuing passports to those who wanted to travel to America.
It was into this swirling vortex of hope, desperation and insanity that Abdu’l-Baha stepped, with a message and a vision surpassing that which most could comprehend. He came to an America in the midst of a frenetic transformation and transmutation; and he, too, came to build in both word and deed.
On May 1, 1912, he laid the cornerstone of what would become the “Mother Temple of the West.” Cornerstone dedications had become popular events in the Chicago area. City officials, visiting dignitaries and press would attend. By those standards, much of the proceedings surrounding the temple were strange. The cornerstone was a limestone block, cast-off in a construction site four years prior; the assembled were diverse and not all of the economic or social elite; the land was purchased but the final construction still would require decades of fundraising and effort. And yet, as Abdu’l-Baha dedicated the construction site he said “The Temple is already built.”
As I sit with my computer in Los Angeles, contemplating the end of this period of celebration, I wonder about the promises America made to the world, and the construction which Abdu’l-Baha set out to accomplish. The Mother Temple of the West is built, and America is much changed. And yet still we wrestle with our mythologies, like demons in the night.
Are we the land of freedom or the land where middle-class families struggle to deal with economic contraction? Are we the land of opportunity or the land where a shadow population of immigrants — accepted for their economic utility — flounder without infrastructural support due to their status as “illegal” immigrants? Are we the land where effort and education allow you to make your way in life, or the land where for the last 30 years class boundaries have decreased in permeability, and where a plurality of college grads are unemployed or underemployed? You get the picture.
When I begin to despair, I think of the idea of Ridvan. Paradise is a process. Change occurs in waves of renwal and reinvention. While the idea of one climatic battle appeals on an aesthetic level, it belies the truth. America-the-place has a ways to go before it truly embodies America-the-idea. But, as Abdu’l-Baha said, “The Temple is already built.”