Abdu’l-Baha in Paris
In 1908, the Young Turks of the Committee of Union and Progress revolted against the despotic Sultan Abdu’l-Hamid. This brought to an end the centuries-old Ottoman Empire and paved the way for a semi-secular government based in the ancient city of Constantinople. With that singular, revolutionary act, all political and religious prisoners throughout the Empire were freed. Abdu’l-Baha Abbas, the man in a white turban pictured in the middle of this photograph, tasted freedom for the first time since childhood. He was 65 years old.
This photograph was made in Paris in the autumn of 1911. Abdu’l-Baha stayed in the city for nearly two months, near the Trocadero Gardens adjacent to the Avenue de Camoëns. After over 50 years of exile from his native Persia, and imprisonment for espousing the universal ideals of the teachings of his father, Baha’u’llah, he had left, by steamer ship, the prison-city of Akka where he had been under house arrest since the age of 24, and embarked on a journey to the West. First London, then Paris and eventually New York City hosted his visit as he sought to create new bridges between the peoples, cultures, religions and ideals of the East and West.
In this photograph, we see Abdu’l-Baha standing at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, with the Champ de Mars visible in the hazy background. He wears the traditional aba, and is surrounded by Frenchmen and various Persian and Eastern travel companions, most wearing contemporary Western fashion, outfitted for what must have been a crisp fall day. Their pose is no different than group snapshots that we make today—everyone has lined up and holds their position while the camera exposes the film. The photographic image stands in as a record of the event, as an aid to memory, a signpost to ‘those days we passed together,’ and as an indicator of what happened long ago.
But photographs are hard-pressed to offer us more than the barest outlines of a historical moment. “No matter how artful the photographer,” Walter Benjamin reminds us in A Small History of Photography, “no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of accident, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so-to-speak seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.”
Seen through the artifice of black-and-white tones, the setting and weather of the day are more or less visible. The clothing and body gestures reveal a bit more of the individuals. But the sounds, smells and spirit animating such gatherings—the life and fluidity of emotion and interactions—are noticeably absent. And yet, history begins to feel alive to us because of images like this. Buried in the folds of Abdu’l-Baha’s aba is the dust of his travels on foot and by sea, and in his face are etched the lines of 50+ years of incarceration and ill-treatment. We know that the culmination of events in his life—both tragic and heroic, full of love and fortitude—have brought him to the heart of Europe, with the explicit goal of planting the seed of unity.
Paris then, as now, was a diverse, cosmopolitan city, with people from across Europe and Asia, many exiles or refugees, residing within her confines. It was rich in intellectual foment and like many other European cities of the age, harbored extremes of nationalism and materialism. In his Paris talks, Abdu’l-Baha chose to enlarge on the theme of the basic oneness of humanity:
“Let not conventionality cause you to seem cold and unsympathetic when you meet strange people from other countries. Do not look at them as though you suspected them of being evil-doers, thieves and boors. … I ask you not to think only of yourselves. Be kind to the strangers … Help to make them feel at home; find out where they are staying, ask if you may render them any service; try to make their lives a little happier. … Do not be content with showing friendship in words alone, let your heart burn with loving kindness for all who may cross your path. … What profit is there in agreeing that universal friendship is good, and talking of the solidarity of the human race as a grand ideal? Unless these thoughts are translated in to the world of action, they are useless. The wrong in the world continues to exist just because people talk only of their ideals, and do not strive to put them into practice. If actions took the place of words, the world’s misery would very soon be changed into comfort. “
A century has passed since this photograph was taken and these words were spoken. The Paris of 100 years ago—indeed, the world of 100 years ago—is gone. It has been replaced with a world that has both shrunk and expanded, revealing and creating innumerable connections between the diverse people on this planet in ways that we have never experienced before as a collective.
One hundred years ago, when `Abdu’l-Baha made his historic journey to the West, interest in Persian culture was at a high point. And again today, the people of Iran have captured the attention of the world. Indeed, Parisians held a demonstration precisely on the spot in the above photograph on July 25th 2009 as part of the Day of Global Action for Human Rights insisting on human rights for Iranians. It seems fitting to once again ponder on the efforts and spirit of this man, born on May 23, 1844 in Iran to a noble family, exiled for his love of humanity, standing humbly before the camera, clothed in his simple cloak, and whose mission in the City of Lights was nothing other than to shed a ray of the light of love and welcome from the East to the West.
This photograph is as much a signpost for the present and future as it is of some distant past.