The Camp History
written by Zamir Roehrs
The Camp, The Sufi Camp, The Alps Camp, The Zenith Camp...
You may already know about what we simply call the Camp, also known under all the names listed above. In this article I will simply refer to it as the Camp. Many of you reading this article may already have been part of the Camp or at least heard about it.
The Camp started out as the brainchild of Pir Vilayat; he once told me that the idea came to him while participating in the mid-50s in a European sponsored cultural youth festival on the island of Lorelei in the river Rhine. He thought to himself “why not have meditation camps for young people?”, and so it started – the Camp.
The earliest documents I could find relating to the organized camps are from 1961. In the early years the Camp took place in various locations in the Austrian, Swiss and French Alps, at that time it really consisted of young people and the numbers were much smaller than in later years, in the beginning 10 to 15 participants, all sharing a barn or something like that, for meditating, sleeping and eating. This really changed in the early 70s, when the Camp found a home in Chamonix high up in the mountains, 2000 m above sea level and way above the tree line. When I first found my way there, we were about 100-150 people of various ages. I had come to have a look for two or three days and to see what this was all about; I ended up staying four weeks and after that for the next 40 years I hardly missed a year. What an amazing sight it was, people of all ages, of many nationalities, all coming together to spend time in this hard, but fantastic nature, meditating under the direction of Pir Vilayat, dancing and singing in circles, facing Mont Blanc. The vibrancy of Pir Vilayat and other teachers, although not as many different workshops as today; the breathtaking setting of the Camp and last but not least just as today, the community of participants and staff, is something, that not just myself will never forget.
Friendships lasting for life were founded here, and still today, when some of us meet at the Camp or in other places, the spirit of Chamonix is with us. Now of course, we are not the young crowd anymore, our children and in some cases grandchildren took their first steps, were baptized in the big tent and are in large part still an active part of the Camp today.
In later years the Camp moved to different locations all in the French Alps and it grew and grew. 25 camps ago we found this wonderful place Campra near Olivone. Here the Camp found an almost permanent home and it kept growing for many years, but also we all became older and needed a different kind of infrastructure, which we were able to slowly develop in this location.
Every year in mid-June, we start building. You might or might not be aware that the whole Camp is constructed and dismantled in the course of the summer. Every platform, water pipe and whatever else is stored away at Campra, until the next year. The building process takes 5 weeks, and for many of us this is the real community time, it is when as a group we stretch ourselves to our limits, physically, sometimes mentally and spiritually. It is a time when young and old, speaking different languages, but all there for the purpose of service, come together. As the Camp has grown over the years, as our needs for more comfortable settings have increased, the workload and the necessity for good planning and implantation has too. Fortunately, over the years we have grown into a solid core group which has been working together for many years; a small group that is committed to making it all happen, year after year, where we can rely and trust each other. Besides the process of building and running
the Camp in the summer, there is plenty of work to be done during the year.
But now let’s get to what actually happens at the Camp. In contrast to the early years, which were centered on the teachings of Pir Vilayat, we now have many different workshops, seminars and retreats, as well as the possibilities for individual retreats. In order to accommodate these various activities we needed several workshop tents of different sizes. There is also a great meeting place for the participants in what we call the tea tent. For the individual retreats and the smaller group retreats the Retreat Area offers a unique opportunity to delve into deep inner travels under the guidance of the
retreat guides present. The Retreat Area has its separate facilities, like dinning tent etc., the language in this part of the Camp is the language of Silence.
The weekly programs in the main camp: Meditation and Retreat are still the main focus of most weeks; Pir Zia leads programs during 2 of these weeks. Dance, Movement and Music form an integral part of the Camp, they are just as much a part of our spiritual journey and experience. Some of the high points in the Camp are sessions shared by the participants of the different activities during any particular week, and this includes not only the participants, but also the Young Adults, the Teens, the Children and the Staff. This shared time is often filled with joy and laughter, with astonishment discovering the talents of others and watching the attentiveness and wonderment of the children.
The children have become a very important part of the camp. In the early years they were barely tolerated and many of them felt this, but over the last few years this has changed. The children have their own activities in the children’s area during the workshop times and most of them love the freedom of being in nature, no cars to watch out for, the nearby river, the mountains, the trees, the other kids and the very engaged staff. In addition we started a Teen Camp and the Week for Young Adults, both of these are very dear to us, because they build the bridge between Children’s Camp and the Adults’ Camp. As mentioned before, for quite some time the average age of the participants increased by about a year every year,if you look around today, you will recognize that this has drastically changed, there are now so many young staff members and participants. It’s a joy to see that the Caravan keeps moving, that we do have something to offer to the next generations, something to share with them, things to teach them and things to learn from them that might keep us young for a little while longer.
The Camp is deeply rooted in the Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan, it offers the possibility to present this Message in many different forms and expressions, with various accents, in a multitude of languages. Yet it strives to present this Message in an open, not limited to insiders, non-sectarian way. We welcome all seekers of the one Truth in an atmosphere of tolerance, joy, awareness for each other and nature, and a deep attunement to the individual and the All.
I want to end with a bit of my personal story.
After having come to the Chamonix Camp out of curiosity for the first time 40 years ago at the age of 20, I was never again just a participant, but always on staff. This was not always smooth, after the 3rd and last year in Chamonix, I decided that I never, ever again wanted to have anything to do with Sufis, they were in my opinion just too chaotic and crazy. So the next winter Waliha Cometti and I went to India in search of different experiences. After a very short time there she decided to go into an Ashram and study Yoga and went on from there. I ended up staying with Sufi friends and was soon staying in the same apartment as Pir Vilayat in Delhi near the Dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan. The following summer I was co-director of the Camp, so much for getting away from those Sufis!
After several years co-directing the Camp, and just before the birth of my daughter we moved to the Abode and other places in the USA. In 1987 I was living at the Abode and while visiting my parents in Germany, I also went to see Pir Vilayat’s Christmas seminar in Germany to meet up with old friends. As soon as Pir Vilayat saw me there, he asked me to take over the Camp and move it to Switzerland, where Waliha (the same one) had found a new home for the Camp near Olivone.
My head said no way, I live at the Abode in the USA, I have nothing to do with the European Camp, but what can you say….., after some reflection I agreed to do it for one year, well that was 1987! Waliha and I incorporated Zenith Institute as a legal association to run the Camp, and now 25 years later, I never (or mostly never) regret not getting away from these chaotic and crazy Sufis.
Last year I had some serious health problems and was not sure I would make it to Campra, but when I finally did, after 2 days, I felt new born, and with the help of my co-camp leaders managed just fine. There is a magic about this Camp, its ideals, its setting, its Kinship and the nature that welcomes and accommodates it year after year.
I can only encourage you to come and join us, whether you are a newcomer or have been there many times before. Come, come whoever you are ………., come join our Caravan, as participants or as a member of the staff community, maybe even sharing the whole summer from the unpacking and building, to running it and accommodating the participants, to putting everything back into storage.
To create a beautiful world for beautiful people.
That was Pir Vilayat’s theme and it’s the Kinship contribution of The CAMP!