Margaret Appa

Margaret Appa

Childhood

My parents were John and Rose Wade. Both my parents came from very traumatic family backgrounds, where there was separation and unhappiness, but they never spoke about it and created for their little family a stable and loving home.  I was the third of three children.  My sister Christine was the eldest with my brother five years younger, and myself five years younger than him.

My father was from a long line of people who were interested in ‘spiritual things’.  There was a Reverend in the family and others who had explored new religious thinking, and therefore were not ‘conformist’ in the religious sense. My grandfather was a strict Victorian who, however, encouraged conversations on all matters including religion, so my father came from a background where questioning and discussion were quite normal.

My mother was, according to my father, an evangelical Christian in her younger days, who stood on street corners and warned all and sundry of their uncomfortable end if they did not accept Jesus.  My mother never spoke about this time in her life to me or, as far as I am aware, my brother or sister!

We lived in Barnet, north London, where my father had in fact been born.  I was born in 1946, the third of three children and we lived in a bungalow but when I was around six years old we moved to a larger property; it was a whole new world for me with not only three floors, but the old bell panels still in place up in the attic rooms and downstairs to call the servants.  However, the servants were long gone!

In around 1953 my parents heard of the Bahá’í faith. According to my sister’s memories of that time, the process began when she was around 16 years old.  A brother (Catholic) and sister (Baptist) of our father visited our home and remonstrated with my father because he was reading books that were on the Catholic forbidden list.  I think Carl Sagan was one of them. My father was fascinated not only by religious ideas but also scientific discoveries and discourse. As part of this conversation, the Catholic brother informed my father that as he was now aware of the Catholic teaching, if he did not convert he would be condemned to hell. The sister retorted that actually she was in the right and he, the Catholic would go to hell!  My sister, Christine, listened to this conversation and was appalled that these things could be said.  Consequently at school she raised awkward questions within RE lessons and decided to find out for herself what was being taught in the churches.

Christine attended the local Presbyterian church, according to my father, and together with my mother one day after the sermon and while drinking tea with everyone, asked the question … ‘Was there not a religion that accepted all faiths as true?’  An elder of the church, Robert Semple, the father of Ian Semple who was later to be elected onto the Universal House of Justice, responded that his son belonged to a faith that believed just that.

Ian Semple then visited my parents with a book to read… very possibly John Ferraby’s  All things made New. My father was in agreement with all he read and this led both my parents to investigate the faith, spending approximately two years attending meetings at the Bahá’í Centre, 27 Rutland Gate, Knightsbridge.  I understand that it was John Ferraby who eventually challenged my father to make up his mind and stop sitting on the fence!!  My mother was with my father during this journey and they declared together in December 1955, although my father remembers that at the point he decided to be a Bahá’í, my mother stated that she had been waiting for him to make up his mind.  My sister also became a Bahá’í at this time.

I can remember visiting Ian Semple and his parents, who lived quite near; his mum was a Scot, and prepared the most delicious teas with fresh cooked drop scones and butter!!

We became part of the London community, then just one Local Spiritual Assembly.  We attended feasts and other gatherings at 27 Rutland Gate, with feasts often being attended by well over 70 people.  However, the community was around 40-50 but with the addition of lots of visitors.  I can remember, as I got older, serving tea and refreshments … up and down the back stairs from the kitchen area, which then was on a floor between the first and second floors. I can remember gatherings for Hands of the Cause Mr Samandari, William Sears and Rúhíyyih Khánum amongst others. The one I have the clearest memories of is Mr Samandari, who was already an elderly gentleman, and I can remember sitting on the floor in a crowded room listening to his stories … I cannot remember who translated for him.

The London community itself was full of personalities who played a major role in developing the community; to me at that time they were simply Bahá’í’s that I knew.  I can remember Hasan Balyuzi, John and Dorothy Ferraby, Meherangiz and Eruch Munsiff, Donald and Edie Miller, Kathleen Hyett and a gentleman called Zein Zein. One person whom I particularly recall was Marjorie Parker who at a feast took me to one side and made suggestions as to how I could improve my reading of a prayer – by reading more slowly and holding my head high … the advice was never forgotten.

In November 1957 Shoghi Effendi passed away unexpectedly in London and was laid to rest in New Southgate cemetery.  It was, of course, a huge event, with many hundreds of Bahá’ís in attendance, but for some reason I was not allowed to attend – I was 11 years old.

We were the closest family to the cemetery and after the funeral my parents took on the responsibility themselves of making sure the burial site was kept tidy and clean.  I remember going there after the funeral; it was very muddy with mountains of flowers either in bunches or in vases around the grave itself which was, at the beginning, covered with heavy planks of wood. My father in his memories recalls that he and my mother made a decision to create pathways around the grave, before any memorial was erected, so that visitors could approach the graveside to say prayers. Eventually Rúhíyyih Khánum asked my parents officially to be the custodians of the site.  I did not at this time really understand the station of Shoghi Effendi but was happy to be a part of the family ‘team’.

In 1957 my sister Christine was married to an Iranian Bahá’í and she moved to Iran.  I lost a sister, and it was not until many years later when she came back to live in England that we got to know each other and became close.

In 1958/9 my father was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís  of the British Isles. He was totally dedicated as a Bahá’í, his life revolved around the faith and it gave him a purpose that probably had been absent until then. However it did mean that he was not so present at home, and this was not easy for my mother who had to develop her own interests. She focused on her painting and later became a registrar of births, marriages and deaths, which then meant she learnt to drive and acquired a little car of her own.

As a family we attended Summer Schools.  I have memories of going with my mother to Mourne Grange school in Northern Ireland (1961) but the only thing that I recall is the room I stayed in … it was a master’s room, full with the paraphernalia of a boarding school … black gowns, footballs, books of course … I didn’t like it one bit!  I think it was then that we visited the home of the Villiers-Stuarts, a huge rambling mansion … or that is how I remember it, where the phone rang and no-one could find it to answer it!!

I remember in 1958, going with my mother to the Intercontinental Conference in Frankfurt. It was the first really large Bahá’í event I had attended and it was exciting not only because of all those people who were Bahá’ís, but also because it was the first time I had coca cola to drink and the first time I had experienced a feather duvet!!

Harlech summer school in North Wales was perhaps our favourite summer school; we went there often. The structure of the school was lectures in the morning … of which I have no memories now.  However, I could not forget the miles of beach that were reached across the dunes.  I recall also that we had drama activities run by Val and John Morley …. I remember being  asked to be a ‘melting ice-cream’ … mmm!  There were fancy dress events too …. being a heavenly twin together with Iain Macdonald (son of Charles and Yvonne Macdonald) is the one I can remember … don’t know if we won a prize or not! As a child growing up, I loved summer school because it was like an extended family with familiar faces and it was the time to catch up on what had happened during the year.

Although London was a large community, I remember only a few youth as I was growing up … I recall particularly Jyoti Munsiff, Brigitte Ferraby, Val and Irene Jones and Wendy Miller.  There must have been some boys around but no names come to mind!  I do remember meeting many more youth at Ted and Alicia Cardell’s  farm in St. Neots (Huntingdonshire) for ‘family days’.  At the age of fifteen in 1961 I declared as a Bahá’í.  I do not remember the event probably because it was not a big affair although I still have the prayer book signed by the Local Spiritual Assembly of London for that occasion….. I note that my father is on the LSA.  I don’t remember any conversations around the faith, and my father notes in his memories that he and my mother did not push us in any way.  We experienced it, we knew about it, and ‘there were books to read’!

At home we had a constant stream of visitors from all over the world – from Malaysia, Mauritius and many other places.  Adib Taherzadeh was a regular visitor.  My father notes in his story that when the Hands of the Cause came to visit the Guardian’s resting place, he and my mother felt it was their responsibility to meet with them and bring them home for refreshments.

My father was appointed to the National Teaching Committee and he was made secretary. The meetings took up a lot of time, and he was given permission to hold them at home.  At this time Jackie Mehrabi lived with us and at weekends when the meetings were held she assisted my father.  I remember one day going to see her and she showed me how to make a set of cards to play snap.  I was a great maker of things so this must have kept me busy for hours!  This was the period of the Ten Year Crusade, and in my father’s recorded memories he mentions that it was an ‘exciting time’.

My father was a natural organiser, and around 1960/61 he was asked to serve on the committee organising  the World Congress to be held in London in 1963.  I was drawn into this planning by my father; I had just taught myself to write in italics and so he gave me the job of hand writing names on hundreds of ticket books that would allow for entry into each session of the Congress. I still have my own book of tickets.

Bahá’í World Congress, London

In 1963 the World Congress took place in the Royal Albert Hall, London.  Nearly 7,000 Bahá’ís were present from all over the world.  It was an extraordinary event, and I can remember being totally overwhelmed by the fact that the Royal Albert Hall was filled with Bahá’ís  – could there really be so many Bahá’ís in the world?!!  Many wore their traditional costumes and of course the atmosphere was electric!  Such a contrast with the world outside. London had never witnessed such a collection of the world on its doorstep.

I can recall only highlights of the Congress sessions, but the presence of the first Universal House of Justice was of course very significant.  On a personal level Uncle Fred, an aboriginal Bahá’í from Australia who addressed the Congress was an image never to be forgotten.  My father was of course on duty throughout and I have a photograph of him with others holding back the crowds while Ruhiyyih Khanum moves either in or out of the hall.

Visitors to the Congress were taken by bus to the resting place of Shoghi Effendi. They passed through a stone gateway – not now in existence – and just inside the gateway was a small hut.  I recall sitting in this hut filling small brown envelopes with dried flower petals that my mother had collected over time from the resting place of Shoghi Effendi and had dried in our aga cooker in the kitchen … we must have prepared many hundreds beforehand but there was obviously not enough and we needed more, in order that every visitor took one away with them.

Growing Up

In December 1963, at the age of 17, and in my first year of art college, I was married to Ranjit Appa.  He had arrived in the UK from Mauritius nine months earlier and had been introduced to my family on his arrival.  He was 21years old.  We lived in the family home in the attic rooms.  I continued with my studies while Ranjit worked, and when I graduated he went to university to complete his studies, while I went out to work.

In 1966 London was split into borough communities.  Ranjit was elected to the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Barnet, along with my parents, Wendy Ayoub, Roxy and Marie Edwards and, I think, Bob and Margaret Watkins.

My father was invited to serve at the Bahá’í World Centre in 1966 as the Secretary-General of the Department of Israeli Affairs. He was destined to deal with many issues involving consultation and negotiation with Israeli government departments on behalf of the Universal House of Justice regarding all sorts of matters.

I was able to visit them from time to time and experience in a small way their life in the World Centre. When they arrived there were only seven members of staff.  I remember my mother writing to us one December when the weather had been very wet and there was flooding in the basement area of number 10 Harpasim  where items had been stored.  My parents and members of the Universal House of Justice had spent the day baling water out the basement and removing the contents to safety. They served in the World Centre until 1980, and only returned because my mother became ill and could not be cared for in Haifa.

After my parents left for Haifa, Ranjit and I took on responsibility for the resting place of Shoghi Effendi, which was by this time complete with a white marble monument and the golden eagle.  The greatest challenge was minimising the damage done by those friends who sprinkled attar of roses over the marble … it was almost impossible to remove.

Ranjit and I served together on the national pioneer committee, going for meetings to 27 Rutland Gate, and meeting up afterwards with Charles and Yvonne Macdonald, in their home upstairs, to play chess and chat till late!  I remember many hours composing letters to prospective or ‘in place’ pioneers; not sure how I did that being so young and inexperienced!

I graduated in 1968, with a degree in graphic design and a teaching certificate and so began a lifelong passion for the arts and education!

I taught in a secondary school until our first child, Jamil, was born in 1972.

Mauritius

We moved out to Mauritius in 1973 where Ranjit had got employment initially in the university but later moved to work with the Mauritian Airline, where he remained for 30 years!  We needed to give some time to his parents.  I worked in the Mauritius Institute of education, set up by the World Bank and dedicated to training teachers.  I worked in the Art and Design department, responsible for all aspects of art education on the island!

The Bahá’í community was very active and we were both involved in local community life and all national events.  I taught children’s classes and was able to offer creative approaches which they had never before experienced, so a good time for me and, by then our two children… our daughter Janita was born in 1977.

Return to UK

By this time Ranjit was working for the national airline and led a very busy life, with a lot of travelling.  We made the decision to return to the UK in 1986, after 13 years away, settling down in the south of England.  However Ranjit although ‘commuting’ between Mauritius and the UK, did not return to live until 12 years later.  Thus I was on my own and made the decision to start a research degree in art and education.  At this time I also became involved with the children in activities for the junior youth/youth that were initiated in Sussex at the home of Cecilia Smith and her two daughters.  All the activities were focused on using the arts, and from these early events ‘Youthquake’ was born, with groups of young people, all over the UK, coming together in small groups to perform dances in public places that expressed their Bahá’í beliefs.

From these early beginnings ‘Youthquake’ was invited to perform at the second Bahá’í World Congress in New York in 1992.  Ranjit and I and the children went to New York for the Congress where Janita was part of the group who performed for the youth congress.  It was a totally overwhelming event with 30,000 Bahá’ís present, so many that the sessions were repeated morning and afternoon to enable everyone to attend. This Congress was the turning point for the arts; all forms of art were employed to communicate with the audience as the serious means of communication; music, drama, pageantry, and the visual arts.  This in contrast to the use of the arts previously where it was considered more of ‘light entertainment’.  It was so exciting for me personally to experience this, and I realise with hindsight very influential.

Arts Academy Beginnings

Inspired by our mutual experiences, on our return home Cecilia and myself talked about developing an event that focused on the arts and offered opportunities for particularly young people, at that time, to come together to develop their confidence and skills through study of the arts in a spiritual environment.  We had by then organised and managed at least two summer schools in the south of England, so we had the confidence that we could plan and manage an event of this sort.

Alongside this project I also professionally began developing an aspect of my life that was to influence the plans Cecilia and myself were hatching!  I came across a method of teaching drawing, that when linked to spiritual / educational concepts I was discovering in the Bahá’í writings, was to become immensely successful in helping people find their confidence and believe in their ability to draw what they could see!

With hindsight I now realise that the confluence of these two areas of my life had a great influence on my contribution to the development of the Bahá’í Academy for the Arts from 1993 onwards.  It began with just 25 people present at the first event, and grew over the years to welcome nearly 300 people of all ages and all abilities from all over the world.

For me this event brought together my three passions – the Bahá’í Faith, the arts and education – so I was in my element. Ranjit also played a major role as its financial manager.  I also loved the planning, organising and delivering of the event.  I loved the opportunity to explore and experiment with concepts and ideas drawn from the writings of the faith and the varied experience of the team and learn each year from our reflections and move on to evolve the event from humble beginnings to quite scary success.  It was a real joy to see people arrive at the beginning of the week often anxious and unsure of themselves, and then complete the week by presenting what they had achieved to the whole Academy audience.  It was simply putting into practice spiritual concepts, in this case in an educational context, using the arts as the medium of learning.

This was an amazing journey involving many many talented, dedicated and enthusiastic people along the way, and the loving support from successive National Spiritual Assemblies of the United Kingdom who consistently supported what really began, and continued to be an individual initiative.

In 2011 the Bahá’í academy for the Arts closed after 17 years of development, but who knows what will grow from the seeds sown over all these years.  I am now involved in developing the first cluster schools and am still developing the drawing course – now taught from my own studio at home – still in awe of the role played by applying spiritual concepts in practice, and will continue, if given the opportunity to apply the learning acquired from life so far to whatever comes my way in the future.

During this period of the development of the Arts Academy I also had the honour of being selected as one of the 19 British Bahá’ís to attend the Opening of the Terraces in Haifa in 2001.  It was of course a stunning event with all the visitors from around the world sitting on a stage which had been erected over the roundabout at the base of the terraces, so that the backdrop to the inspirational performances was the view upwards towards the Shrine of the Báb and beyond.

Ranjit and I celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2013.  We now have four grandchildren, and life moves by far too quickly …. the Bahá’í community has evolved and grown and changed, and who knows what will result from an ever closer engagement with the plans of the Universal House of Justice as this faith of ours moves into its future.

____________________________

Margaret Appa

West Sussex, November  2012

Youth gathering at Cardells' farm, 1964.  Margaret is on the far left in the thrid row back (with ponytail)

Youth gathering at Cardells’ farm, 1964. Margaret is on the far left in the third row back (with ponytail)

Advertisements