First I came across the whirling dervishes while watching a French movie with my sister. The figures of men dancing in a meditative state while wearing tall weird hats and skirts came up again with the beautiful “Ney Sukun” music that we’ve been listening to over and over again while doing yoga in the USA with friends (we figured, Sufis and yogis wouldn’t mind the clash).
What do they say about third time is a charm?
While being in Turkey, my friend gave me this book by Elif Shafak “40 rules of love” implying that if I have anything else to read right now, it can wait until I get this one devoured. I complied, especially since I heard about this book before and was planning to read it anyway.
It was about dervishes. Funnily, at the time of reading the book I was in Kayseri, about 4 hours drive from Konya, dervishes’ homeland. The book is beautiful, by the way. I would encourage everybody to read it, even if you are not interested in dervishes. There is great piece of ancient wisdom in there.
Anyway, that’s how the idea began to form – to see it all with my own eyes, to walk the streets with the memories of Mevlana (Rumi) and Shams of Tabriz. We called it “Shamsomania,” since me and my friends got hooked up on the person who basically made Mevlana into Rumi the Mystic and Poet.
I don’t like museums. And here I am just expressing my humble opinion. I always think it’s a waste of time, money and energy to walk around and look at the artifacts behind the glass. I don’t know what I am supposed to feel at those moments. Awe? Immersion? Revelation? All I feel is boredom, and I know it doesn’t make me look too intelligent, but I don’t care. I don’t like museums, period.
What I like is to walk the streets where the person whose possessions are in the museum walked. To sit at the café where he liked to have breakfast. Touch the objects that belonged to him. And since touching is not a part of the deal in the museums, they are useless for me. I remember how I almost got kicked out of Metropolitan museum in New York because I was touching Pablo Picasso’s painting.
Nevertheless, there we are, in Mevlana Museum, with these thoughts while my Konya host and I enter the premises. There is some good news: it is the mausoleum of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, it was also the dervish lodge (tekke) of the Mevlevi order, better known as the whirling dervishes. So we walk, and breathe, and secretly touch everything there is to be touched. The unpleasant part comes when we face some fanatic old ladies who push everyone around in attempt to touch all the brocades, kiss them and pretty much lie on them. One of the most pleasant moments is exchanging glances with a little guy sitting on his mom’s shoulders holding his hands up in a silent prayer.
Sema (“listening”) is a Sufi ceremony performed by dervishes. The ritual usually includes singing, playing instruments, dancing, recitation of poetry and prayers, wearing symbolic attire. The ceremonies in Konya are held twice a week – on Thursdays and Sundays. They are free for the public.
That is one of the main reasons I am in Konya in the first place. I am nervous. There are many people who came to see Sema that night, some of them with infants who cry and can’t understand why it is 9 p.m and they are not put to bed with a lullaby as usual.
While we are waiting, I’m thinking about the Rules of Love.
“Whatever happens in your life, no matter how troubling things might seem, do not enter the neighborhood of despair. Even when all doors remain closed, God will open up a new path only for you. Be thankful! It is easy to be thankful when all is well. A Sufi is thankful not only for what he has been given but also for all that he has been denied.”
And I am thankful, really.
I am determined to sit in the first row of a round stage. It doesn’t occur to me that the view from the top would be much better. I don’t care about the pattern the dervishes will make with the dance, all I want is to be close to them, as close as possible, to feel their presence, the vibes, anything else there is to feel.
Whatever I will try to describe right now, won’t come close to the feelings you get when you see it with your own eyes. At first I think that it will be a performance for people, since there are so many of us there. I say to myself, OK, it doesn’t matter, they will still whirl, that’s why I am here. But in the end, the ceremony is not for the people. It doesn’t feel like it is. I feel like I am watching something sacred that I am not supposed to watch. I feel an outsider who barged in, along with everyone around me. I feel we don’t appreciate it the way we should (especially those who are speaking during Sema, walk around, leave their seats, eat popcorn and take pictures with a flash!).
And there comes another Rule.
“The universe is one being. Everything and everyone is interconnected through an invisible web of stories. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all in a silent conversation. Do no harm. Practice compassion. And do not gossip behind anyone’s back – not even a seemingly innocent remark! The words that come out of our mouths do not vanish but are perpetually stored in infinite space, and they will come back to us in due time. One man’s pain will hurt us all. One man’s joy will make everyone smile.”
So I smile and practice compassion, although sometimes it’s darn hard.
It is beautiful. The way the dervishes carry themselves, surrender to the will of the leader, follow the music, bow to the divine and each other becoming one in this mystic trance. I can’t move, sometimes forget to breathe. Even the tiniest distraction feels wrong and rude. If someone would take a picture of my face at that moment, it would probably say more than these words.
There is this one dervish out of the 28 whose movements mesmerize me. When it is his turn to come into the prayer-dance pattern, he approaches the dervish leader, his hands crossed on the chest, his head in the deep surrendered bow. Walking towards the center, he starts to turn, slowly at first, his hands still on the chest. The movements become faster and his hands first go down and then slowly rise up in the air so that one hand stays turned up to the sky – the receiving part, and the other one stays turned down to the earth – the giving part. His head is slightly tilted to the right side in the same deep bow. And he whirls. I can’t take my eyes off him. As if everyone else disappeared, and he is the only one whirling, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his levitation at this moment – that’s how it seems, at least.
Another thing that strikes me is the diversity. The dervishes are of all ages, from a thin schoolboy to an old man who moves with a grace of tango dancer. Some are with beards, others are clean-shaven, some have long hair, others don’t, some are thin, others are not so much, some are tall, others are short. But they all are in the surrendered meditative state, they are all one.
Here and Now
I think about the dervishes often – the white long skirts whirling in a prayer, dedication and submission, and Shams of Tabriz that remains the mystery impossible to solve. Another Rule comes to mind:
“The past is an interpretation. The future is an illusion. The world does not move through time as if it were a straight line, proceeding from the past to the future. Instead time moves through and within us, in endless spirals. Eternity does not mean infinite time, but simply timelessness. If you want to experience eternal illumination, put the past and the future out of your mind and remain within the present moment.”
And in the present moment there is me in India, practicing and facilitating some of the Sufi dancing techniques thanks to my amazing spiritual master Osho. The outside destination is determined, the one within is yet to be known.