This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Jaleh Dragich discusses growing up Baha'i in the American Midwest.
Growing Up Baha'i in the American Midwest
by Jaleh Dragich
It’s hard to think of my religion as a cultural identity. Baha’is come from various cultures all over the world. However, because of growing up as a Baha’i, I have been exposed to these cultures more than I would have otherwise. The parts of Indiana and Ohio where we’ve lived and up in Michigan where our extended family live have been almost uniformly Caucasian. Our family is much the same in heritage: English, Manx, Welsh, Irish, German, and from one grandfather: Polish and Lithuanian. We blend right in.
You’d expect that with that background, I’d have a name reflecting it, a typical sort of name that wouldn’t stand out any more than our appearance. But then I’ve never been typical. My parents met another Baha’i who knew a Persian Baha’i in El Salvador named Jaleh, which means “dewdrop.” They loved the name, so when I was born, I got it. However, it often confuses people, and most Americans can’t say it correctly on the first try. (Žâle)
I’ve heard nearly every variation, some funnier than others. (I rather liked Jolly; there’s something cheerful about it. *wink*) Occasionally they’ll say it correctly before I pronounce it for them, but that’s been rare. And if they see my name before meeting me in person, they are often surprised to see my fair skin, especially if they actually know the name. I had one visitor to the park I worked at last summer do a double-take when she read my name-badge. Being Persian herself, she recognized the name and was surprised that a non-Persian would have it. As it turned out, she was also a Baha’i, something that would never have come up without my name to trigger the conversation.
Since my parents had been told it means “dewdrop,” my mom used to tell me when I was little that I should “glisten in the dawn of a new day.” This is a particularly apt metaphor considering that Baha’is believe that Baha’u’llah’s coming was a new day for mankind. I think this is one reason I’ve taken a shine, if you’ll pardon the pun, to my name despite the difficulties it’s posed. It’s a meaning worth striving for. Be radiantly beautiful and reflect the light to others. I’m frequently not as brilliant as I’d like to be, but I try.
My family was nearly always the only Baha’i family in town. We had to hold our own devotionals and celebrations. Since the Baha’i Faith has no clergy, this is perfectly acceptable, but sometimes it can be lonely. In an effort to create a community, each time we moved to a new town because of my dad’s job, we looked around and connected with other Baha’is for joint gatherings. That generally meant driving about an hour or more for Feast each month. Though refreshments are often included, Feast isn’t focused on the food, but rather on devotions, community discussions, and socializing. Feast is supposed to be held on the first day of the Baha’i month (19 months of 19 days, the leftover days being Ayyam’i-Ha), but in our case, because of school and the drive, we held it on the closest Friday or Saturday evening.
Beginning from an early age, my younger siblings and I learned key concepts of our Faith such as unity in diversity and the oneness of mankind. Since racial conflicts were a non-issue in our hometowns, I simply accepted it without question or much understanding. It was an abstract. But as we got older, our parents started taking us to Baha’i conventions, conferences, and camps where we actually saw people of different colors and cultures. That’s when understanding began. However, because the foundation was laid so early, it was perfectly natural for kids to play together with no concern over our outsides, only whether we had interests and hobbies in common. Some of my best friends growing up were darker skinned, and we didn’t care. I’m not sure I even thought that much about it when I was younger. Color was simply a way of describing what someone looked like, not who they were. We were more concerned with how annoying our siblings could be.
After we moved back to Athens, Ohio when I was 10, our parents reconnected with a Persian Baha’i family they’d known and discovered a few other isolated believers across Southeast Ohio and the near side of West Virginia. We met for Feast each month and to celebrate Holy Days and holidays together. I was introduced to Persian culture and foods such as saffron rice, tadig, and stuffed meatballs. (Mmm, tadig. Can’t make it, but I’ll take some when it’s offered.) For children’s and youth classes, we drove to Columbus to join the community there which included several other Persian Baha’i families. They loved it that I had a name from their culture. I loved hearing them say it.
In addition to those regular gatherings, we had the annual District Convention where everyone in the region got together for discussing issues and socializing with people from other communities. There were also gatherings specifically for Baha’i youth and junior youth. A couple in Cincinnati used to host weekend youth retreats in their home a few times a year where we’d study the Writings together and talk about how to incorporate them into our lives. We shared what issues mattered to us in particular and how we could deal with them to be good examples for others.
One year instead of the usual retreat, our youth group went down to Atlanta, Georgia for the Martin Luther King Jr celebration. One or two local families hosted us for the weekend. I’d never seen so many dark-skinned folks in one place before other than in pictures or movies. I was actually in the minority for a change. And I mean extreme minority. But despite the racial strife I’d heard was so common in the South, especially in the big cities, we never saw any of it. Every event we attended was filled with an atmosphere of welcome. I had a blast.
But the experience that still boggles my mind that I’d been fortunate enough to attend with my dad happened November 1992 during Thanksgiving week: The Second Baha’i World Congress. My mom couldn’t go because she was in the midst of college classes, and my brother and sister were too young. That left my dad and me. Though he could have gone alone considering the expense, my folks decided I should go, too. This was decided over a year ahead of time with the logistics needed to plan for so many people. Some 27,000 Baha’is from over 180 countries gathered in New York City for a week of fellowship to commemorate the centenary of Baha’u’llah’s death. For a small town girl who’d never been a city bigger than Chicago, NYC was impressive enough. But to see so many people come together in one place with such joy, despite color, nationality, language, or economic background, was mind-blowingly epic. No other experience has filled me with such awe of the power of what globally unified community could look like than that single glorious week. Everything was so vivid that the three days of school I was missing to be there seemed unreal.
All in all, if it wasn’t for my Faith, I would have seen very little diversity until college. I wouldn’t even have seen the tiny communities with a lingering Native American heritage within a half hour of us. For a service project, some Baha’is from Columbus joined us to till gardens one spring and got to know them well enough to be welcome at their community events despite our difference in economic status. We must have tilled gardens for about four years in a row before we had too few volunteers to keep it up.
In trying to write this, I keep remembering more experiences where my Faith has brought me closer to other cultures and ways of living. The books I devoured while growing up helped with part of my perspective, but the Baha’i Faith gave me a practical understanding of the value in welcoming diversity and equality for all. It’s a culture of acceptance. It’s given me a greater appreciation for myself and the people around me, no matter how different or similar we are.
Jaleh Dragich is an avid reader and aspiring author of fantasy and science fiction. She shares her passion for the subject on her blog, Ex Libris Draconis. Though she still considers herself an Ohioan, she currently resides in Western New York.
For those interested in learning about Baha'i, Jaleh has provided the following as a reliable link: http://www.bahai.org/faq/facts/bahai_faith