New Lebanon, New York is the only town that reminded me directly of my own Lebanon during my road trip. But it’s a comparison where we don’t fare well as a country. It all starts with Ann Lee, a woman from Manchester, England who sailed to the United States in 1774. She was the leader of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. They were otherwise known as the “Shakers” because of the way they became ecstatic and ‘shook’ during their worship services.
Mother Ann Lee and her congregation moved to Mount Lebanon, a hilly, wooded area in New Lebanon, and created their settlement community there. They were a pacifist group who believed in gender equality, a feat that was unheard of in the 18th century. The community grew at first, with other settlements established around the Northeastern United States. But because they adhered to celibacy and didn’t believe in procreation, their numbers started dwindling the mid-20th century.
In 1975, as they didn’t need all the lands and buildings they owned anymore as a community, the Mount Lebanon Shakers Society sold some of their assets to a Sufi Muslim community, led by Vilayat Inayat Khan. The compound was called “the Abode of the Message.” The Sufis, who conjure images of whirling dervishes, similarly to the Shakers and how they danced in circles during their services, believed the grounds were blessed as they felt the Shakers’ kind spirit imbibed in them. Ironically, in that same year, in the other Mount Lebanon in the Middle East, the 15-year Civil War between the Christians and Muslims started.
It was early December when I arrived to New Lebanon. There wasn’t much snow yet, but the temperatures were well below freezing point. I parked my RV behind the fire station to rest and, as if by synchronicity, I received a message from Wyatt Erchak, the Programs and Operations Manager at the Mount Lebanon Shaker Museum. He had heard my radio interview in Boston the week before and wanted to know if I was planning to visit his town. I called him right away to tell him that I was already there, and we met soon after at the former Shaker colony, now a museum. Wyatt, a young, bespectacled, soft-spoken man, was the one who gave me the lesson about the history of the Shakers and their achievements. They were known for the high-quality agricultural seeds that they exported around the world, which explained the old advertisement poster hanging on one of the museum walls; It simply said: “From Mount Lebanon to the world.” The Shakers were also known for their distinctive style in furniture making that focused on efficiency and minimalism. It’s a style that survives to this day, one I was familiar with as an amateur woodworker years ago, albeit without knowing their history or that, one day, I would be reintroduced to them with a connection to my trip.
After visiting the Shaker museum, Wyatt asked if I would be interested in visiting the Abode of the Message, the Sufi compound. I was thrilled at the opportunity. He called his friend, Ibrahím Pedriñán, the director of programs at the Abode, to see if we could pass by, and Ibrahím was more than welcoming. Perhaps my views of the Sufis were influenced by having seen the Mevlevis of Istanbul, but Ibrahím looked very different from what I was expecting. No tunic and no fez hat. He looked to be in his late thirties, glasses, shaved head, and he wore slacks and a sweatshirt. A different brand of Sufism, that’s for sure.
We went on a tour of the Abode, comprising many small wooden buildings dispersed between the trees and green pathways, left as they were when the Shakers built them in the early 19th century. The exterior differed in one aspect, though. Each of the dozen buildings had a small wooden plaque nailed outside the entrance, bearing one of God’s 99 names as per the Islamic tradition. Alim, Mughni, Fatah, and Rezak were some of the names I saw. The Mughni building, ‘enricher’ in Arabic, was fittingly the one that housed the library. “Enter unhesitatingly, beloved”, welcomed a sign on the entrance door. Inside, hundreds of books lined the shelves, with subjects ranging from art to religion to poetry. To my surprise, some were in Arabic. Or maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. I found Ibn Araby’s Meccan Illuminations collection, as well as the poetry collections of Abu Nawas and Jamil Buthayna, printed in Beirut of all places.
If I wasn’t already amazed by what I was seeing, what Ibrahím told me next left me dumbfounded. I had seen a framed black and white photo of woman hung on the wall inside the prayer room, and a gilded icon of the same woman sitting on a mantel inside a parlor room. I asked him who she was, and he recounted the story of Noor Inayat Khan.
The Abode of the Message was founded by Vilayat Inayat Khan and Noor was his sister. Their father was Hazrat Khan, a Muslim Indian who founded the Sufi Order of the West, and their mother was Ora Ray Baker, an American from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Noor was born in 1914 in Moscow, schooled in England, and later studied Child Psychology at the Sorbonne in France. When World War II broke, she felt the obligation to participate in the anti-Nazi resistance, so she joined the British Royal Air Force. She was dispatched to occupied France as a spy, codename Madeleine, assuming the role of a nurse, under the pseudonym Jeanne-Marie Renier. In 1943, she was betrayed by a double agent, captured by the Nazis, and after months of interrogation, she was sent to the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany. She was executed in 1944 with a single bullet to the back of the head. Her last word: Liberté.
The gilded icon I had seen earlier now made sense; Noor Inayat Khan was a martyred saint. I felt this incredible need to learn more about and from this community, and when Ibrahím invited me to join their meditation study night, there wasn’t any way I would’ve missed it. I returned later that evening for a session led by Netanel Mu’in ad-Din Miles Yépez, spiritual director at the Abode. If the long multi-ethnic name might be confusing, it’s for good reason. Netanel is a teacher of the Inayati-Maimuni tradition, fusing Muslim Sufism and Jewish Hasidic principles of spirituality.
One of the attendees opened the session with a rendition of “La Ilaha illa-llah”, the Muslim declaration that “there is no god but God.” But it wasn’t recited the way I had heard it before; it was sung repeatedly for several minutes, as if it were a mantra. The other people in the room had their eyes closed, meditating. Netanel then moved to explaining different aspects of Sufi spirituality, most of which I didn’t understand. But what I did follow was him quoting Jesus from the Bible, and then explaining the importance in Sufism of the Hebrew phrase “Gam zeh ya’avor”, meaning “This too shall pass”, a phrase that denotes how our presence in this world is ephemeral. Worries shall pass, happiness shall pass, this too shall pass.
There I was, in a Lebanon that calls itself New, sitting among people celebrating religion as a matter that united them instead of dividing. When our Civil War started, the Sufis accepted the holiness of the place the Shakers lived in even though they belonged to different religions. This was as close to an alternate universe as can be, where New Lebanon represented what Old Lebanon should’ve been like. Maybe one day it will happen, and maybe it won’t. Gam zeh ya’avor.