November 5, 2010

Ali-Kuli Khan becomes one of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s secretaries and begins translating His correspondence with the American Baha'is

Ali-Kuli Khan (c. 1879-1966) was also known as Nabilu'd-dawlih. He was an eminent Iranian Baha'i who served briefly as 'Abdu'l-Baha’s English-language secretary between 1899-1901. He was subsequently sent to America where he was the first to translate into English some of the most important works of Baha’u’llah, such as the Kitab-i-Iqan, the Seven Valleys and the Glad-Tidings. He also continued to translate 'Abdu'l-Baha’s correspondence with the American Baha'is. Ali-Kuli Khan was appointed Iranian charge d'affaires in Washington in 1910 and later served in various high-ranking diplomatic positions. His marriage to Boston society girl Florence Breed (1875-1950) in 1904 not only caused comments on two continents, but was praised by 'Abdu'l-Baha as the first marriage between East and West, a symbol of the unity taught by the Baha’i Faith. Their daughter, Marzieh Gail (1908-93), also became an eminent Baha'i writer and translator. Her translations from Persian and Arabic include The Seven Valleys by Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s The Secret of Divine Civilization. (Adapted from Summon up Remembrance, by Marzieh Gail, and A Concise Encyclopedia of the Baha’I Faith, by Peter Smith) Here is how his daughter Marzieh Gail composed from his memoir his first pilgrimage to Haifa, the resulting meeting with ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and the amazing way through which he became able to translate Arabic Tablets – a language he didn’t know prior to his pilgrimage.

It was still dark the next morning, some time before dawn, when the ship anchored about a mile off Haifa. In those days Haifa was a town of negligible importance, and the harbor was not deep enough to permit a steamer to come in any nearer. A number of believers, with Haji Muhammad-Taqi Manshadi, came out by rowboat to meet the pilgrims and get them ashore. Everything was still dark, and the outline of Mount Carmel barely visible.

Once on land, Khan knelt and kissed the earth, and offered thanks to God for granting him his dearest wish.

Since it was still so early, Khan was taken to the coffee house of Husayn Effendi, a Baha'i who regularly greeted and served refreshments to newly arrived pilgrims.

‘The Master is right here in Haifa,' someone said.

At this, Khan, terrified, broke down and wept. 'How can one such as I,' he cried, 'one with so many shortcomings -- how can I stand in the presence of One from whose all-seeing eyes nothing whatever is hidden?'

The believers offered words to quiet him down.

'You'll see,' they told him, 'He is not like that. He is all bounty and mercy. He will make it easy for you to endure the awe of His presence. He has invited you to come and once you see Him you will have no more worries.'

Then, as the sky brightened, they led him about a quarter of a mile away to a house near the sea, and while they walked, Khan kept weeping and voicing his fears….

The arriving party climbed the brick steps leading to the courtyard. Khan was shaking and his heart pumped too fast. What sort of Being was he going to see? He had known but one photograph of the Master, the youthful one taken at Adrianople, in the days when veiled women, gazing down from their latticed windows, would throw roses at His feet. When he dared to look, there, standing tall before him, was One in turban and robe, One with a full beard, dark but with much gray intermingled, and a face just as Khan had always visualized the countenance of Baha’u’llah.

‘I saw this was Baha’u’llah,' he said in after years. ([in Persian] Didam Baha'u'llahst.) Khan collapsed, fell to the floor.

'He lifted me up,' Khan would say, 'put His arms around me, and kissed me on both cheeks. Noting the state I was in He told His attendant to take me to another room and give me some tea.'

Ustad Muhammad-'Ali helped Khan to the corner room where the pilgrims would rest.

Within a few minutes 'Abdu'l-Baha' sent for him. By now, to his surprise, Khan felt strong enough to stand in His presence. The Master said:

'Marhaba! Marhaba! (Welcome, welcome), Jinab-i-Khan. You have suffered much on your wanderings, but welcome! Praise be to God, you have reached here in safety.

'The Blessed Perfection, Baha'u'llah, has promised to raise up souls who would hasten to the service of the Covenant, and would assist me in spreading His Faith. His Cause has now reached America and many in the Western world are being attracted to His Teachings. You, with your knowledge of English, are one of those souls promised me by Baha'u'llah. You have come to assist me by translating His Sacred Writings as well as my letters to the friends in America and elsewhere in the West.'

The room seemed charged with His words. They resounded ever after in Khan's mind and heart.

Then He said, 'You must reside with me and assist me in my work.'

He stretched out His hand to the table and took up a pack of folded papers, the sort He used for Tablets, and passed them over to Khan.

'These are the answers', He said, 'that I have written to some of the American Baha’is. Go and translate them into English.'

Khan unfolded the top ones. They were Tablets 'Abdu'l-Baha had written in His own hand. They were in Arabic.

'But my Master,' he cried, 'these are not in Persian! These are Arabic! In my college I studied European languages, but not Arabic!'

No one had ever in his life looked at Khan with such loving eyes and such a smile. Still smiling, 'Abdu'l-Baha reached for His rock candy on the table. Filling both His hands He told Khan to cup his palms for the candy. Then, His eyes mysteriously solemn, and His voice taking on a new, strange tone, 'Abdu'l-Baha said: 'Go, and eat this candy. Rest assured, the Blessed Perfection will enable you to translate the Arabic into English. Rest assured that as time goes on you will be assisted to translate from the Arabic much more easily than from the Persian.'

They both remained standing throughout the whole interview, Khan before the Master, within a few feet. Dismissing him, the Master pointed to the bedstead in the room and said He had taken a house in the German Colony and was no longer using this bed.

'This is your bed,' He told Khan. 'Sleep in it.'

When night came, Khan did-not have the courage to sleep in the Master's bed. And so [he] lay down on the floor. This went on for three nights. On the morning of the fourth day Usta'd Muhammad-'Ali, the Master's attendant, entered the room and said, 'Jinab-i-Khan, you have wandered many weary weeks and months, and all that time you have lived and longed for the day when you might enter the Master's holy presence. Now that your wish has been granted and your goal reached, are you aware that you are disobeying the Master?

Khan was shocked to hear him. 'What on earth do you mean?' he asked.

'I mean that you have not slept in the Master's bed, as He told you to do.'

'I did not intend to disobey Him,' stammered Khan. 'I simply was not brave enough to sleep in a bed in which the Center of Baha'u'llah's Covenant had slept.'

But he promised Ustad that from now on he would obey, although it was only with fear and trembling that he finally crept into the bed which had been 'Abdu'l-Baha's….

As for his difficult new task, Khan said that from that first meeting some new power was created in him, and he set to work with dictionaries and other helps and began to translate. During the several months spent in His presence, Khan translated the Master's Arabic as well as His Persian (and other language) Tablets, and afterward, through the years in America, he continued this work, and it did indeed become easier for him to put Arabic into English than to translate from his native tongue.

Unlike Persian, which is Indo-European, Arabic is a Semitic language, so difficult that the Master, an expert in Persian, Turkish and Arabic -- His writings taught as a model by scholars in the East -- reportedly called Arabic a 'bottomless abyss'. English-speaking readers of Baha'i Writings are fortunate, receiving them all in English, and not conscious that to Persian readers the same page may suddenly slip into Arabic, a foreign tongue, much as if an English text should suddenly pass into Latin. On occasion, Baha'u'llah Himself has translated the Arabic into Persian, so that the English reader reads the same text twice. Khan did, of course, work with helps and in the beginning for some months he studied the Occidental translators of Babi and Baha'i Writings, among them E. G. Browne, the distinguished orientalist who was the guest of Baha'u'llah at Bahji (April 15-20, 1890). While these offered some assistance, he eventually found them wanting in many ways and he tried to produce new expressions and combinations of words to convey implications and shades of meaning. He reached the conclusion that a profound study of the languages involved was not enough to present an adequate rendition of the creative words of Baha'u'llah and the Master -- for these are in themselves a new language with new connotations. No matter how great the scholar, Khan decided, unless he or she is a true believer, devoted to the Faith, the translation will fall short. This was also along the lines of Mirza Abu'l-Fadl's comment, that when he first read the Iqan [the Book of Certitude], as a non-believer, its deep meanings remained obscure to him, but when he read it afterward as a believer, it was the key that unlocked all the holy Scriptures of the past.

Khan tried to follow the literal sense of the original as closely as he was able. On many occasions, verbally and in Tablets, 'Abdu'l-Baha called Khan His best translator. This was long before the superlative achievements in the field by Shoghi Effendi, with his perfect English, Arabic and Persian, and his French so accomplished that he had to make a decision, Laura Barney said, as to whether he should put Baha'i basic literature into English or French. The Master told Khan not to worry, expert translators would come in the future, and assured him his work showed a deep and intimate knowledge of the inner meaning of the creative words. 
(Marzieh Gail, Summon up Remembrance, pp. 107-113)