Sedona CALLAHAN, Writer


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Monterey County Herald
March 14, 1998
Cover Story

Baha’i Holy Days

Baha’is around the world have begun their annual 19-day fast, a period where no food or drink is taken between the hours of sunrise to sunset. The fast began on March 2 and ends with the arrival of Naw-Ruz, the Baha’i New Year, which, like the ancient Persian New year, occurs on the spring equinox [March 21].

Baha’is between the ages of 15 and 70, who are physically able to do so, arise before sunup, eat breakfast and say prayers before going about the business of their days, not drinking or eating again until after the sun goes down. A seemingly difficult task, many Baha’is say the support of their families and Baha’i community turn what could seem like a dreaded obligation into an occasion anticipated with joy.

Jalal Misaghi’s eyes softened behind his glasses as he recalled fasting as a young man. “In Nayriz, my home city in Iran, there were 19 youths, who would get together to share the fast,” said the 87-year-old grandfather. “Because there was no electricity, one of us would light an oil lamp and carry it to another’s home and wake him. Then the two would proceed to the third one’s home, then the three to the fourth home, and so forth until we had all 19. As we went, we would chant our prayers along the way, ending up at one home for breakfast, and afterward, before starting the routine of our day, we would take long walks. It was so pleasant; we couldn’t wait until the next year to do it again.”

Misaghi and his wife, Rooha, are visiting their daughter, Ziaieh [Zizi] Gibbs, who lives in Prunedale with her three daughters, Melody, 16, Mona, 14, and Amy, 11. Misaghi is no longer required to fast because of his advanced age, and Mona and Amy are still too young, but Melody began fasting for the first time last year, and is looking forward to her second experience. “Last year it was really scary, because it was my first year,” Melody says. “But my grandparents and cousins were visiting, and they and my mom made it easier.” Melody, who loves to cook, usually prepares the family’s breakfast, while her grandmother makes the dinner. “It was hard at first,” says Melody. “Sometimes my grandparents would forget and eat something in front of me. But I’d say a little prayer and that would help. As it went on, it got easier and after a few days I got used to it.”

Misaghi says sharing prayers and fasting were more of a group event in Iran, where most their friends were also participating. Work schedules were more flexible and neighbors would meet in each other’s homes or in a community center to pray and have dinner together.

Gibbs, a research and development manager at Mann Packing in Salinas has fond memories of the fast when she lived in her parents’ home as a child in Iran, along with her five brothers and sisters. “I remember waking up to the strong smells of my mother’s cooking,” says Gibbs. “The night before, she would make the most delicious foods, then get up about 4:30 in the morning and heat them up. Meanwhile, my father would prepare the tea in a samovar in the family room. He would pour the tea into beautiful, small glasses for us, and we would drink, then sit and say our prayers. Afterwards, we’d eat our main meal of the day, which was usually savory stews of rice with raisins, almonds and chicken.”

Gibbs says the Baha’i fast is a time of going through purification of the self. “I ask myself, ‘Who am I, what are my priorities?’” she says. “It’s a time of not taking things – like the accessibility of food – for granted.”

Shoghi Effendi [1897 – 1957], known as the Guardian of the Baha’i faith, and great-grandson of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the faith says, “It [the fast] is essentially a period of meditation and prayer, of spiritual recuperation, during which the believer must strive to make the necessary readjustments in his inner life, and to refresh and reinvigorate the spiritual forces latent in his soul. Its significance and purpose are, therefore, fundamentally spiritual in character.”

Gibbs recalls observing the fast as one of her most spiritual memories of her childhood. “I started trying to fast when I was in the first grade. My brother got mad at me and told me there was a reason why I should wait until I was 15 – that I was still growing. I ran to my father and made him write a letter explaining to my brother to leave me alone. My father said I could fast if I wished. Of course, as a child, I’d forget and drink some water or something.”

For the four days prior to the onset of the Baha’i fast, believers around the world celebrate Ayyam-i-Ha, a period of spiritual preparation for the fast, but also a time of gift-giving, hospitality and charity. Of course, it is the gift exchange and the possibility of parties that Baha’i children around the world look forward to. Melody, Mona, and Amy have already made out their gift wish lists for other family members, with CDs, clothes, shoes and accessories at the top of the three sisters’ requests.

While there is no dictated ritual for the observance of Ayyam-i-Ha, the Gibbs family exchanges gifts on each of the four days and usually cuts a branch from a willow tree and plants it in a pot that is brought indoors. “We decorate the little tree with red apples, white doves, birds’ nests and fake eggs,” says Mona.

Gifts are also exchanged among members of the local Baha’i community, as the family makes the rounds, visiting friends and enjoying the decorations and hospitality in other homes. Gibbs adds that for her, Ayyam-i-Ha is a time of year to acknowledge people who have helped her and her family. “This is when I show appreciation for what others have done for us,” she says.

Bracketing the end of the fasting period is the joyous occasion of Naw-Ruz, a day when work is to be suspended and Baha’is from around Monterey and San Benito counties, together with more than five million Baha’is around the world, celebrate the end of the fast and beginning of the Baha’i New Year.

©1998 Sedona Callahan