As someone who’s been pegged a whirling dervish on numerous occasions by friends and foes alike, it was no surprise my announcement of an assignment to go cover the real-life spinning mystics was met with chuckles, chortles and knowing winks all around. Not that anybody ever meant to imply I was a Turkish dancing mystic and follower of a charismatic philosopher-poet born in 1207…
Many of us who came of age in the sixties have at least a passing acquaintance with Rumi, aka Mevlana, via his aphorisms that adorned so many inspirational posters of the Hippie era: “Reason is powerless in the expression of love” and so forth. I was lucky enough to have witnessed the dervishes in action at the LaMama Theater, an experimental company in Manhattan’s East Village where I worked in the eighties. Their music was hypnotic and evocative, the precise symmetry of their movements captivating as they spun in tight circles under tall felt hats, their white weighted skirts forming undulating cones and the entire spectacle instantly converting our dusty little auditorium into some exotic middle eastern bazaar.
Later, I learned Rumi was a respected Islamic scholar and theologian who proclaimed the way to enlightenment was through a meditative trance-like induced by spinning. His teachings evolved into what Turks call the Mevlana Sect. Beyond that, I knew nothing. So when a choreographer friend mentioned he had received a grant to travel with his company to the interior of Turkey to dance with the dervishes, I jumped in with both feet and soon found myself boarding a plane bound for Istanbul en route to Konya to continue my education about this sect of whirling seekers.
Konya, the site of the 13th century mosque and mausoleum of the Mevlana Rumi himself, is described in my guidebook as one of the most religiously conservative cities in Turkey. We arrived there mid-morning, and the site’s turquoise minaret, gleaming against the gray of an early spring sky, beckoned from blocks away. The call to prayer was just subsiding and the courtyard of the shrine was filled with pilgrims of all ages, each patiently donning plastic over-shoes in order to enter the mosque where Rumi and his disciples are entombed. (It became a museum in 1927, four years after the establishment of the Turkish Republic.)
Rumi’s faith held Muslim, Jew and Christian in equal regard. He advocated tolerance, positive reasoning and charity, and did not ascribe to an orthodox Muslim doctrine, which has garnered him followers among many sects and creeds.
Inside, the tombs were topped not with gravestones, but rather enormous stone turbans. Candles hung from the ceiling, inside large hand-blown glass lamps. Elaborate carpets covered the floors, and the murmur of praying filled me with a numinous sensation. Pausing for several minutes at Rumi’s place of honor, I began to sense an aura of contentment settling down on me.
The walk from the mosque to the conference center on the outskirts of Konya, where our whirling workshop would take place, revealed the city to be a jumble of modern industrial buildings; ancient architecture, including numerous religious monuments; and small shops. Carpet stores abutted barbershops where men wrapped in hot towels peered out, their faces slathered with cream. Turkish children whooped in schoolyards surrounded by fences with rusting bicycles tethered to them. Tiny businesses sold figs, walnuts and olives; kiosks plied delicious warm pide bread. Doner kebab stands offered sliced lamb or chicken stuffed into the bread’s pockets along with onions and tomatoes.
At the conference center, Ahmet Calisir, the leader of Konya’s semazen—their dance is called the sema, hence they are the semazen—began to enlighten us. Through a translator, he spoke of the pressing need, especially in these times, to connect to the earth and to our own immortality, and to recognize that we are not the center of the universe. He began to unfold the deep symbolism of the sema, how it hearkens to a mystical journey, our spiritual ascent toward perfection, and how the spinning represents a turning toward truth and away from the dangers of egotism. It also honors the commonality of all beings, reaffirming a fundamental condition and scientific truth of our existence: Whether we are planets in a solar system or electrons in a single atom or flighty journalists in between jobs (as I was), we all rotate.
irst, we would watch the dervishes perform then they would assist our efforts to replicate their swirling dance. I was champing at the bit for the active part, even in the face of such a patient teacher as Calisir. We sat cross-legged as the ancient music of the ney, a reed flute, and the kudu drum invaded our thrumming modern psyches. The dancers began at a markedly slow pace, arms crossed. As the crescendo built, they released their arms to heaven and earth, their eyes rolled up into their brows and they spun faster and faster, slipping magically past each other, never colliding. I was in rapture, with whirling skirts flying just inches past my nose and nimble feet, tightly laced in thin black leather boots, crisply pivoting at barely arm’s length. The dervishes’ sikke, those tall felt hats, somehow remained fixed. By now, I knew they represented the tombstone of the ego, a renunciation of worldly attachments.
The dance lasted perhaps thirty minutes. When the music subsided, the semazen calmly took their places against the back wall, hands crossed to opposite shoulders, sweat rolling down their cheeks yet breathing sedately.
Rising with my friend’s troupe, I was self-conscious about my age and lack of a dancer’s physique. My unquiet brain taunted me with self-doubt. We assumed the stance and the music began. Omar, a baker by day, and Hassan, a plumber, adjusted our arms and feet as we attempted to find the orbit and singular thread evinced by these practicing mystics. Many of us faltered or tipped; some clung to a wall for spatial solace. I wobbled, plopped onto my backside, and took a moment to revel in the spin of the room.
We were privileged to witness another miraculously calming performance by the semazen and were then asked for our reactions to the entire experience. Sensing no need for a clever response, no impulse to swoop in and deconstruct the scenario or come up with a definitive string of witticisms, I remained uncharacteristically silent. I realized that with real whirling comes focus, balance and the connection to a greater sensibility than anything my left brain could parse.
The next day, I was awakened at dawn by a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. As I lay in bed in my little room at the Hotel Rumi, across from the mosque, I felt myself still spinning. It was not the residual rocking of a seasick ship passenger but a constant, steadying, internal movement, like the ticking of a well-oiled clock. I could pause again to acknowledge my newfound connection to all things that revolve and spin and find their centers.