Voices from Godland, Episode 1: The Báb

Godland brings you to the city of Haifa and the resting place of the Báb — the most revered figure of the most popular religion you’ve never heard of. Augusta Anthony visits the spiritual center of the Baha’i faith.


Voices from Godland introduces listeners to the Holy Land through the eyes of the people who worship there — pilgrims and religious gatekeepers. Episodes highlight the human voices of holy sites, explore the relationship between place and faith, and commemorate the religious experience. Listen on Soundcloud or in the iTunes podcast app.


The terrible dizziness of approaching the divine Al-Aqsa

JERUSALEM — When Ali Abu Al-Awar speaks of what Jews call the Temple Mount and what Muslims call al-Haram al-Sharif (“the Noble Sanctuary”), reams of history spool out. Here memories from the distant past and the nearly present co-habituate cautiously, both possessing equal merit. There are memories of Israeli military forces from 1967 spreading out over the plaza and crying in exultation, “Har HaBayit BeYadeinu!” — “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” Very close by is Al-Ghazali, the 12th century Muslim theologian, leading a study group on the reconciliation of legalistic and mystical Islam and underneath an olive tree writing his Revival of the Religious Sciences. From Al-Awar’s mouth, the Haram comes alive, teeming both with the conflicts that have defined Jerusalem’s strife alongside the spiritual truths that make this city transcendent.

As we followed Al-Awar to the Haram, we passed a Muslim cemetery where the old Arabic stones crowd one another, vying for recognition when the final judgment comes. Across the Mount of Olives, we could see the adjacent Jewish cemetery, a reminder that the faiths which live in Jerusalem all believe in the resurrection of the body, an apocalyptical tradition centered around the Temple Mount as a site of ascension.

Throughout the Muslim cemetery are green coffins with the words sadaqa jarya or “the only things that stay are good works.” When a Muslim dies, coffins are used as a transport from the mosque to the burial site, but not put in the ground. The presence of them around the cemetery points to the Haram as an active Muslim site, while the Jewish cemetery across the way remains quiet.

As we entered the Lion’s Gate, we were greeted by yet another guide, Ahmad Abu-Hadid, who has been ushering tourists and dignitaries through the site for 30 years. Abu-Hadid quickly condensed into a few minutes some 1,300 years of the site’s Muslim history, from the construction of the Dome of the Rock under the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691 C.E. to the Jordanian government gaining access and control of the Haram in 1951. The Haram is a vast plaza, with minarets on three sides, the Dome of the Rock in the center, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the furthermost south, the third holiest mosque in Islam after Mecca and Medina. While the women of our group put on long loose skirts offered by the waqf, the Islamic religious trust in cooperation with the Jordanians who control access to the Haram, school children nearby played volleyball and old men sat under trees drinking tea.

The serenity of this Saturday morning proved to be deceptive as Al-Awar explained attempts by right-wing Jews to bomb the Dome of the Rock and the continued attempt by fundamentalist Jews to assert their presence on the Mount, and their dream of destroying the Muslims sites and building a third temple.

“There is a fear of violence, a constant fear of Muslims losing control here,” Al-Awar said as we meandered around the Dome and towards the Al-Aqsa Mosque. To counteract these provocations Muslim citizen groups called Murabitin (for men) and Murabitat (for women) were formed in 2010 to safeguard the Haram. From Sunday to Thursday, they sit in circles studying Islamic thought, on guard for those seeking to undermine the status quo, the latest governmental iteration of which says only Muslims can pray on the Haram but tourists of other faiths can visit.

Even in the midst of these tensions, the Haram acts as a great source of unity for those of the Islamic faith in their connection to their religion and their God. Muslims from all over the world flock to the site, seen as the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven, to meet the prophets and speak with God. The Dome glittered magnificently on this cloudless day, as the sun beat down and the devout recited late morning prayers.

As my classmates were ushered into the Dome of the Rock for a brief visit, I was unable to join them because I was overcome by a terrible dizziness. One could say it was dehydration or the overwhelming feeling of approaching the divine. At a place like this, no one ever really knows.

Photos from day 7:


Life on the margins in the West Bank

BETHLEHEM — On Thursday, the fifth day of our journey, we heard from three separate communities in the occupied West Bank about their engagement with the land. In the morning, we visited Deheisha, a Palestinian refugee camp to the south of Bethlehem. Then, after lunch, we travelled to the nearby Jewish settlement of Alon Shvut, where we spoke with a professor of the Har Etzion Yeshiva. And finally, in the evening, we went to the unrecognized Bedouin village of Susya.

We woke up in the Palestinian homes where we spent the night and then regrouped and traveled to Deheisha. Omar Hmidat, the son of the local imam, came to greet us and be our tour guide. Hmidat, 26, is majoring in media studies at Al-Quds University as part of the Bard College honors program. His thesis is on “the visual narratives of Palestinian political expression” – something that was evident from his in-depth knowledge of the murals that dotted the encampment.

The camp itself was created in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War when, in 1949, refugees from Hebron and 45 villages west of Jerusalem sought temporary asylum. According to official statistics from 2015/16, there are as many as 15,000 people living on an area of one square kilometer. Over the years, however, the population has expanded rapidly and as many as 22,000 people now live immediately outside the camp, Hmidat said.

Though the camp is largely comprised of permanent structures, the UNRWA is still operative in the area.

While the community is less reliant on the UNWRA for aid than it once was, Hmidat explained to us that its presence is also symbolic. It is, he said, “proof of the right of return” for Palestinians.

The meaning of “right to return,” he continued, has evolved from the refugees’ right to resettlement in their former homes to a broader understanding of access and basic civil liberties. Deheisha is located between Zone A, governed by the Palestinian authority, and Zone B, which is under joint Israeli-Palestinian security control.

After touring the refugee camp with Hmidat, we went to his home where we met his father, Sheikh Ibrahim Hmidat. He took time to explain to us that life was hard and dispiriting for the residents of Daheisha, but that Islam has helped to sustain the community, giving it hope for the future.

After lunch, we met with Rabbi Yair Kahn at Har Ezion Yeshiva, in the settlement of Alon Shvut. A student of two luminaries of the Modern Orthodox movement, Joseph Soloveitchik and Aaron Lichtenstein, Kahn serves as the editor of the yeshiva’s virtual Bet Midrash Talmud series.

The rabbi opened the conversation by saying, “To be Jewish is to be part of a nation.”

Through references to the books of Esther and Ruth, it quickly became apparent that Kahn derived his authority from religious texts, and not international agreements and treaties. Where the people of Deheisha spoke in terms of checkpoints, economic self-determination, and water rights, Kahn repeated time and again about “providence” and “the hand of God” in guiding Jewish settlement of the West Bank.

Alon Shvut is a settlement in Zone C, administered by the Israeli military, but is considered part of what would be the future state of Palestine. As such, most of the international community considers its existence illegal under international law, a claim disputed by Israeli government officials who cite the existence of a Jewish community there before 1948.

Although the rabbi was reluctant to speak personally to issues of politics or theology, he stressed the importance of tolerance and, to some extent, pluralism, at the yeshiva.

“What we are taught here is complexity – that there are different opinions,” he said, “and that you must respect them even if you disagree with them.”

After leaving the yeshiva, we were joined by a rabbi of the more progressive Reform movement of Judaism, Rabbi Arik Ascherman.

Ascherman, the former president of an organization called Rabbis for Human Rights, now heads an organization called Torah of Justice. He led us to a Bedouin encampment at a West Bank community called Susya.

The Bedouins at Susya were uprooted from their community in 1986 when an ancient synagogue was discovered on their land and expropriated by Israel. Since then, a legal battle has ensued over rights of ownership and settlement. Before the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Ascherman explained, the Israeli authorities had made accommodations and allowed the Bedouins to build on their farms, but over the past year these talks have fallen apart. We had to chance to meet some of the families affected by the dispute, and they informed us, with Ascherman translating, that the Israeli army had dismantled their makeshift homes seven times in recent years. This encounter demonstrated the determination of displaced families to stay on their land, but also the precarious existence of Palestinians living in Zone C, where Israeli civil and security control is an everyday reality marked by checkpoints, outposts and growing settlements.

Speaking to the sectarian nature of the conflict and why he does this work, Ascherman reminded us of the need to exercise individual acts of kindness to chip away at harmful stereotypes between different peoples.

“I will do it again and again,” explained Ascherman, recounting an occasion when he was beat and arrested by the Israeli Defense Forces, “for a young boy to say, ‘A tall Jewish man in a kippah came to my rescue and told me not to be afraid,’ because if there’s any hope for any of us, it is that [Palestine’s] children are mine, too.”

Photos from day 5:


The Holy Land is like a chessboard – it needs two players

NAZARETH — At 11:45 this morning, the muezzin called out the Muslim call to prayer in this city holy to Christians but populated overwhelmingly by Muslims. Just a few minutes later, as Muslim men lined up for prayer at the White Mosque, the bells in the tower of the Church of the Annunciation pealed loudly. It was a reminder of the tension between the faiths of this land, each of them vying for space, time and even the airwaves.

But one religious leader we met with today said that the conflict is not about religion.

“The conflict between Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druzes in the Holy Land is not really based on religion,” said Bishop Hanna Kildani, the new Latin patriarch for Nazareth. “The problem is the ground – to whom [does] the land [belong to]? When you play chess with someone, you need at least two players.”

Kildani was born in 1955 in Jordan and earned a Ph.D. in history from Saint Joseph Jesuit University in Beirut. In his view, religions should stop fighting about the land. Jerusalem, he said, is the one capital in the world that is accountable solely to the Lord and should therefore belong to everyone.

We were greeted with warm hospitality in the bishop’s office, just a few steps away from the Church of the Annunciation. Catholics believe that it was on this spot that the Archangel Gabriel delivered the news to Mary that she would be pregnant with a son.

The courtyard of the Church of the Annunciation was adorned with beautifully rendered artistic depictions of Mary from around the world.

Despite the bishop’s words, religious conflict abounds here. Recently, the Muslim group petitioned unsuccessfully to build a mosque next to the tomb of Shihab’al-din, a Muslim holy man. However, an improvisational “protest mosque” still stands.

Back at the patriarchate, Kildani said that Christians, who represent only two percent of the Israeli population, should build bridges, rather than walls, to other communities and between other communities.

However, he says that many Christian and Palestinian Arabs feel frustrated and disillusioned. “We recognize the borders of 1948,” he said. “We recognize the state of Israel, but not the occupation.” Former Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, had been the embodiment for peace for him. Kildani said that he had tears in his eyes when this great statesman was assassinated. For him, Shimon Peres, the late president of Israel, had encapsulated the problem of the conflict of the land when he said that “we have a lot of history here in Israel, but very few geography.”

After we bade farewell to the bishop, we stopped for a quick lunch in the center of Nazareth before heading north to Mount Meron, the highest point in the land of Israel. Our bus made its way, first through gridlocked traffic and then a sprawling green countryside, to a trail that circled near the top of the mountain. We joined other hikers on a rocky and narrow path marked by white, blue and orange signs sprayed onto large rocks.

Professor Yarden took the lead. We made two stops along the way – one for a stunning scenic overlook with views of the Israeli city of Safed, and the other to talk about the religious significance of hiking in Israeli Jewish culture. Yarden explained that during the weeks around Passover, schools take students on nature hikes.

“Hiking the land and getting to know the land is part of the Israeli patriotic culture,” said Yarden. “To know the land is to take ownership of the land.” Early Zionists, who did not have strong connections to it, believed that hiking would help them reconnect to it. It helped them get to know the history of Israel, he said.

“Hiking the land was part of a civil religion, of a new Judaism – a secular one,” said Yarden. “But it brought the old devotion to a new object.” Indeed, we passed a group of about 50 students from Yeshiva Mevaseret who were hiking from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee, while we ourselves were bypassed by a gaggle of young boys and girls.

Following the hike, we made our way down meandering roads toward Bet Jann where we met with Druze Sheikh Jamil Khatib. We drank tea and coffee in his living room before moving to his terrace, which overlooked the town of some 12,000 Israeli Druze citizens.

Khatib laid out a short history of the Druze and the centuries-long persecution they’ve endured that has pushed them to create private communities. Their house of prayer in Bet Jann is self-effacing, built in a non-descriptive area so that outsiders cannot recognize it. Khatib added that during prayer, men and women are separated, with men praying out loud while women do so silently.

The values and beliefs of the Druze community are important and need to be passed on to the people who understand them, said the sheikh, referring to the concept that outsiders aren’t allowed to join or even study the books of the community. Only Druze can learn and practice the faith and such an exclusion of others also prohibits intermarriage.

However, Khatib emphasized the Druze’s respect of other religions, saying that God created differences among us for a reason.

“Human diversity is just a reflection of the greatness of God,” said Khatib. “We all came from Adam and Eve and it is obviously God’s will and part of the plan.”

Following our conversation, the sheikh’s family brought in platters of home-cooked foods, including rice and lentil dishes, roasted carrots, a tart tomato and cucumber salad and stuffed grape leaves shaped like thick cigars. Khatib offered a Druze prayer to start the meal.

The meal concluded our third day in Israel with the sheikh’s words ringing in our ears as yet another lesson: “We should live in this world with an awareness that we’re temporary residents,” said Khatib. “We should try to improve but we should leave the world as good or better when we leave.”

Khatib said that we, as journalists, had a special responsibility to tell the story of the Druze in Israel. He noted that we came not just from New York but from around the world and he sent us off with wishes of good luck and success in our lives and work.

Photos from day 3:


Heart and hand in Coptic Queens

NEW YORK — Outside, it was a quiet and nearly frigid Saturday morning in Queens – distinguished only, and only maybe, by being the day before the Super Bowl. But inside Ridgewood’s 606 Woodward Avenue, where the St. Mary & St. Antonios Coptic Orthodox Church sits stalwart but muted in monochrome brick, it was the holy 26th day of the month of Tubah.

A monitor hanging above the pews projected that date along with split-screen transcriptions of the assigned liturgical texts: English on the left, Arabic on the right. From a sidelined podium, adolescent boys read quickly, without looking up, through passages from Hebrews and Peter. “If you endure chastening,” read the first boy, “God deals with you as with sons.” His muffled delivery suggested a plea for that eventual payoff.

The readings shifted from forced to fluid as Abouna Eshak chanted the primary section, Matthew 4:23—5:16, in Arabic from the central podium. Altar boys flanked him with candles, and the words floated out from behind a literal, pungent fog. They graced the ears as burning incense tickled the nostrils, lending the words some kind of multidimensional body.

In these short verses, Jesus travels throughout Galilee teaching in synagogues and healing the sick, drawing and healing crowds of “those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed” from as far away as Jordan. In time, the crowds become overwhelming and Jesus resolves to address them from a mountainside, where he recites the eight Beatitudes from his famous Sermon on the Mount. The selection includes blessings for “those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” and for “the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Abouna Eshak delivered his sermon in alternating Arabic and English. These verses, he said, are key in separating Christ from the Jews who preceded him. Those earlier Jews, said the Abouna, only valued deeds – not what was in “the hearts of the people.” Jesus, in other words, demonstrated an innovative concern for thought, or faith, or words – his eyes saw beyond mere actions. The words that constitute the eight Beatitudes come, Abouna said, “from all the branches of life.”

They are themselves a life force, he continued, compelling their continued recitation all these 2,000 years later. To drive the point home, Abouna worked his way up to reciting the sixth Beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

However frequently or not Abouna Eshak hits this theme, it made sense in a sanctuary that surrounds its congregants with words from the Bible: plaques above the left pews, right pews, and entrance announce verses from Isaiah 56:7, Genesis 28:16 and Genesis 28:17.

But his celebration of words felt detached from his rather soporific, rote delivery. Throughout most of the service, the congregation was a mix of standers and sitters. During the sermon, however, everyone sat and some seemed disengaged: texting, entering and exiting, and looking down short of bowing their heads in prayer. The words floated passively throughout the room and seemed to be over almost as soon as they had started. The sermon induced a palpable loss of energy between the moments that both preceded and followed it: the theatrical ritual of chanting the verses through a haze of incense and – ironically enough –the performative, action-based symbolic exchange between neighbors in the pews.

I was hastily – and apparently quite visibly – completing my notes on Abouna’s sermon when the three men closest to me turned to swipe their hands with mine. One by one, we stuck our hands out horizontally towards one another’s, alternated them until they were clasped, and slid them slowly apart. Noting my ignorance, one of the men explained that the gesture means “we ask forgiveness from each other.”

Abouna was not the only teacher present, and words were not the only tools of faith in use.