On Saturday, in the lunchtime between sessions of a meeting at the Bahá’í National Centre in London, I was walking by the Serpentine in the pouring rain with a very good friend, who is a fellow member of Bookaholics Anonymous. I am withholding his name in order not to embarrass him by that revelation: that’s what anonymous means, in any case, doesn’t it?
As usual the conversation turned to books. We don’t begin in any formal way, for example by saying, ‘My name is Pete Hulme and I am a Bookaholic. I have not read a book for six years, five months and seven days.’ Nobody would believe me if I said that anyway.
In fact, the whole purpose of our conversations, when they turn to books, is to talk in detail and with great enthusiasm, about our latest read. By analogy, it would be rather as if I turned up at an AA meeting and said, ‘I went to the off-licence the other day and found this absolutely fantastic Beaujolais, tangy and aromatic,’ or whatever wine buffs say, ‘and I know you’d really enjoy it.’
As the rain pelted on our umbrellas and we pounded the path by the sodden sand of the horse riding track, my friend mentioned a book, this book - Gate of the Heart. He said it spoke of a fountain in Paradise which divided into four springs, the source of four rivers: a river of purest water, a river of milk, a river of honey and a river of wine (in the mystic sense of course – we’re not back at the AA meeting again.) And I found my spine tingling and my heart begin to stir.
A plan began to form. In the Bahá’í Centre, at the heart of the ground floor, lies what for me is a cavern of delights, otherwise known as a book shop. And I knew without fully admitting it to myself, that before the weekend was over I was going to sneak off quietly and add another book to my growing hoard.
And that is what I did. And there I was on Sunday at 5.15 p.m. on Paddington Station in the Costa Coffee shop with an hour and a half to go before my train arrived and this book on the table before me.
Now, you don’t just open a book and plunge in. Well, I don’t anyway. I looked at the front cover, at the picture of the house of the Báb in Shiraz, now destroyed by the regime in Iran, with the sun gilding the sky above the hills in the distance behind it and the street lights reflecting off the stained glass windows. I felt the weight of the book as I read the back cover: it’s a solid compact paperback with the obligatory anthology of quotes from reviewers with equally solid credentials. This was not going to be a quick read, not even with the benefit of Woody Allen’s speed reading course which enabled him to read ‘War and Peace‘ in two hours and summarise it accurately by saying, ‘It’s about Russia.’
I looked at the chapter headings. Some of them leapt out at me: ’6. The Sanctuary of the Heart and the Path to Truth,’ ’12. Community and Primal Unity,’ ’2. The Divine Chemistry of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth.’ Yes, I know that’s out of sequence but I’m skimming back and forth in great excitement here. Then I started the Preface, not being able to wait any longer.
As I read my eyes fell on this tiny episode in the writer’s life (his name is Nader Saiedi, by the way). While he was at university in Shiraz he became good friends with a fellow student, Bahrám Yaldá’í. Bahrám was later killed by the regime in Iran for refusing to deny his Faith. Saiedi goes on to say:
My actual research on the writings of the Báb began a decade ago when a dear friend of mine gave me a precious gift. It was a copy of the Persian Bayán, the most important of the Báb’s works. When I opened it, I recognised instantly the name of the book’s previous owner, written in his own handwriting on the first page. It was my martyred friend, Bahrám. The one who had given me this gift was unaware that Bahrám and I had been friends in our undergraduate years in Iran.
By this time awareness of the cafe and the babble of conversations in the background and the blare of announcements through the loudspeakers had faded far into the distance and were part of another world. It was only when I became aware of tears stinging my eyes that I was brought back to my body in the chair in the cafe with a cup of Mocha on the table in front of me. Then, after a half embarrassed look around me in case anyone had noticed I was moved, I plunged right back in.
By the time I got two-thirds of the way to Hereford, after nearly four more hours of intermittent oblivion to my surroundings, I was 100 hundred pages further on, my head buzzing and my heart ablaze but needing to let it all sink in. Those who have read my posts on Images of Eternity and A World in a Grain of Sand will have some sense of why that was, at least in part. Saiedi writes (page 53):
According to the Báb . . . . [e]everything is a divine text, and the entirety of being is a mirror of the divine reality. Whatever exists in the world is a sign, a verse and a miracle that proclaims the unity and sovereignty of God.
And later (page 58):
Every individual thing refers to all things, and any particular thing can potentially be deciphered through any other thing. . . Nothing exists independent from any other thing, and nothing can be adequately understood without reference to the totality of being.
And then he moves on to the rivers welling from the springs of Paradise mentioned in the Qur’án. But perhaps we’ll come back to that sometime if I feel competent to write a review of this book, some passages of which currently lie beyond my conscious understanding.
I think though that the deepest levels of my mind are being fed by my reading of it, even if the shallows of my surface mind are a bit baffled at times.