1912 New York Press and The Modern Man from Persia
The Huffington Post carried the story with a peculiar Title, “The Titanic’s Forgotten “Survivor” then featured by AOL on its front page as one of its top ten stories. It opened with:
“As we’ve been reminded innumerable times over the past few weeks, one hundred years ago the “unsinkable” Titanic sank into the North Atlantic, taking with her more than 1,500 lives. The tragedy has made for some epic storytelling.
Of all the stories, one of the most extraordinary is that of a 68-year-old Persian who wasn’t, it turns out, actually on the ill-fated vessel, but was supposed to be.
Abbas Effendi — known as Abdu’l-Baha or “the Servant of God” — was feted by the press in both Europe and the U.S. as a philosopher, a peace apostle, even the return of Christ. His American admirers had sent him thousands of dollars for a ticket on the Titanic, and begged him to ride in the greatest of opulence. He declined and gave the money to charity.
“I was asked to sail upon the Titanic,” he later said, “but my heart did not prompt me to do so.”
Instead, Abdu’l-Baha sailed to New York on the more modest SS Cedric. Every major newspaper in New York covered his arrival on April 11 and his eight-month coast-to-coast tour that followed. This turbaned foreigner in “oriental robes” was front-page news.
The New York Times reported that his mission was “to do away with prejudices… prejudice of nationality, of race, of religion.” The article also quotes him directly: “The time has come for humanity to hoist the standard of the oneness of the human world, so that dogmatic formulas and superstitions may end.”
The press often called him a prophet, especially a “Persian Prophet” (ah, alliteration!). One headline, following his talk at Stanford University, read: “Prophet Says He Is Not A Prophet.” Abdu’l-Baha was in fact the leader of the then nascent Baha’i Faith, though he consistently denied the whole prophet thing.”
The Huffington Post piece had over 500 comments till today , including another interesting daily diary of stories relating to this “Modern Man” in 1912 New York City.
“IF YOU FIRST SAW ‘ABDU’L-BAHÁ AT THE HOTEL ANSONIA, on Broadway at 73rd Street, you could be forgiven if you left with a superficial first impression.
The Ansonia was the most opulent hotel in New York. Its owner, W. E. D. Stokes, declined to let anything like good taste restrain the glitz he built into it. They changed the towels, napkins, table linen, soap, and stationery three times a day. Live seals inhabited a massive fountain in the main lobby. Pneumatic tubes whisked messages between suites. During the summer, freezing brine flowed in steel pipes through the Ansonia’s three-foot thick masonry walls, making her the first air-conditioned building in the city. The world’s largest indoor swimming pool occupied the basement.
The early accounts of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in New York’s newspapers show reporters struggling – and failing – to fit this visitor into the efficient and colorful stereotypes they had crafted during almost twenty years of portraying Easterners to American audiences. At first glance it was tempting to cast ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as yet another venerable “Wise Man Out of the East,” as Wendell Dodge had. “Of course nobody could be named Baha without having a beard,” joked Nixola Greeley-Smith, a columnist for the New York World, “ and the eternal fitness of things has seen to it that this seventy-year-old head of a new religion had the regulation prophet’s whiskers.”
But by Saturday, April 13, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s third day in America, the city’s newsrooms had already started to detect the surprising awareness that this particular Eastern “prophet” displayed concerning the ways and means of modern Western society.
“His first words,” Dodge wrote, “were about the press.” Greeley-Smith’s editors pasted an incongruent headline above her full-page article: “ABDUL BAHA ABBAS, HEAD OF NEWEST RELIGION, BELIEVES IN WOMAN SUFFRAGE AND DIVORCE.” “He says he isn’t a prophet, by the way,” she wrote.
“It would be a pity,” the Chicago Postchimed in, “if this habitual discounting of Eastern faiths should mean that . . . the real worth of the venerable leader of that faith should be unappreciated. Nothing could be more inept, more discreditable to our own intelligence.” His movement, they wrote, “affords a splendid scale upon which to measure Western achievements.”
“A side idea of Abdul’s is that things modern are just as good as things ancient,” piped The Evening Mail’s editorial page. “This makes the white-bearded and snowy-turbaned leader exactly as much at home on Broadway, in New York, as he was in the lonely cell at Acre . . . .” He is, they wrote, “the strange anomaly of an oriental mystic who believes in woman suffrage and modern development.”
“He is worth his picture in the papers.”*
It makes one ponder of the suffering , the rampant ignorance and social conditions of Abdul Baha’s native land in 1912, or even today’s Islamic Republic; of what and where Iranian society could and would have been, if our progress as Iranians had not been affected by paralysing influence of the Mulla or the cleric; but instead , had shown the same reception by some of the leading thinkers and personalities of early 20th Century American Society, who flocked to hear for themselves, the thoughts, ideas and progressive teachings of a Persian man , of no formal education, one had left Iran been sent into exile to the penal colonies of the Ottoman empire from Iran in 1852 as an eight year old boy and spending the next sixty years in confinement.
see also trailer about this upcoming documentary, the luminous journey.