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What Goes Around Comes Around:
Those Whirling, Praying Dervishes!
November 17, 1999

The rhythm of the drums quickened as the string and wind instruments reached higher extremes…the dancers before me, with their skirts swirling around in a blur, were spinning so quickly they seemed to have transcended onto another plane...

The music washed over me like a calming wave of water, and I started swaying with the inhibitions were giving way and I had no control over my own actions...

Vocabulary Box:

inhibitions - usual restraints somebody puts on him or herself
blasphemous - disrespectful of or insulting to God
taboo - forbidden
ecstatic - delightful, blissful
awestruck - amazed

Thank goodness the music climaxed and ended, or I might have wandered through the packed audience to join the amazing dancers in front of me! After spending all day walking through the market and mosques of Islamic Cairo, Jasmine and I came to the old Madrassa of Al-Ghouri to see the famous Al Tannoura dance troupe perform. As we joined the crowd of tourists pushing and packing the entranceway, we worried that we wouldn't get in. We'd heard stories of people being shut out of the performances.

No, the Al Tannoura are not the biggest pop craze since the Beatles. In fact they're a bunch of old men who gather twice a week to pray.

What?!? To pray?!? Why on earth would thousands of tourists-year after year-flock to see old men pray?

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From prayer comes music
Do you pray? If so, do you do it willingly or because your parents, priest or rabbi told you to? Well, if you were Sufi, your prayers would entail singing and dancing and beautiful music and poetry. Not bad, huh? Regardless of what religion you are, witnessing Sufi dancers like the Al Tannoura is sure to move you in an unforgettable way.

"If Sufism recognizes one central truth, it is the unity of being: that we are not separate from the Divine. This is a truth that our age is in an excellent position to appreciate emotionally, because of the shrinking of our world through communications and transportation, and intellectually, because of developments in modern physics. We are One: one people, one ecology, one universe, one being. If there is a single truth, worthy of the name, it is that we are all integral to the Truth, not separate. The realization of this truth has its effects on our sense of who we are, on our relationships to others and to all aspects of life. Sufism is about realizing the current of love that runs throughout all life, the unity behind forms. The idea of presence with love may be the most basic remedy for the prevailing materialism, selfishness and unconsciousness of our age. In our obsession with our false selves, in turning our backs on God, we have also lost our essential Self, our own Divine spark. In forgetting God, we have forgotten ourselves. Remembering God is the beginning of remembering ourselves."

-A Sufi explanation of their beliefs

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The whirling dervishes

Sufism is a religious sect that emerged from Islam. Sufis believe that God is in everything. The 13th century Sufi scholar Rumi believed that humans could come into direct contact with the Divine spirit without the help of religious doctrines or institutions. In other words, since God is manifest in everything, spirituality can be found everywhere-in life, love-everything! It's a difficult concept to grasp, so Rumi encouraged music and dancing as a means of shedding physical attachments and abandoning oneself to God's love.

"I search for you (God) in many places...
....but in the end I find you inside me."

Sufism, in the form of poetry and dance, spread during the 13th century. Sufi dancers, often called whirling dervishes, gathered to twirl themselves into high spiritual states. Most of Islam found the idea of connecting so intimately with God blasphemous, so Sufis in Egypt were persecuted until the Mamluks and the Ottomans (from Turkey) took over control of that country. Even then the Sufi practices were considered taboo, often forcing the Sufis to gather in secret meeting places.

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What goes around comes around
The Sema ritual
One such meeting place was the beautiful Madrassa of Al-Ghouri. Although Al-Ghouri was a murderous and thieving Mamluk sultan, he sympathized with the Sufis and let them meet in his Madrassa. Today, over 400 years later, local Sufis still gather in the same building, though now the secret's out: the dancers don't gather in the quiet, focused environment you'd expect for a religious event. Instead, they're surrounded by hundreds of foreigners as they play their music and spin in their gowns.

So how do these mesmerizing dancers dance? You guessed it: the whirling dervishes…whirl! Ever hear the old saying, "what goes around, comes around?" Sufi dancing proves this in a most beautiful way.

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Jammin' on the cymbals
Here's a couple of poems by Rumi. Unfortunately they lose a lot of their beauty in translation, but they are still words to behold...

Spring Giddiness
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.

I would love to kiss you.
The price of kissing is your life.
Now my loving is running toward my life shouting,
What a bargain, let's buy it.

Daylight, full of small dancing particles
and the one great turning, our souls
are dancing with you, without feet, they dance.
Can you see them when I whisper in your ear?

All day and night, music,
a quiet, bright
reedsong. If it
fades, we fade.

Only Breath
by Jelaluddin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground,
not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam or Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.

In a ritual called Sema, the participants embark on a spiritual journey by twirling. The revolutions represent the seekers turning toward God and truth, a maturing through love, the transformation of self as a way of union with God and the return to life as the servant of all creation. How can you stay focused on your prayers with cameras flashing all around you?

I didn't think it was possible, but after experiencing the energy in that room for myself, I can now understand it. The music started slowly and the lights were dim. Within minutes though, the musicians worked off each other's energy to build up to a beautiful rhythm. Soon the dancers whirled in, and their multicolored skirts blurring through the air along with the beat of climaxing drums created an ecstatic atmosphere that left everyone in the ancient building awestruck.

In the center of it all stood one twirling dancer representing the sun, surrounded by others representing planets or the changing seasons crossing the earth. The sun shed layer after layer of long flowing skirt, twirling them in his hands-symbolic of discarding material things. He twirled there for over 15 minutes, staring up to the skies with an intense expression of concentration and love that radiated out to the entire audience. Watching him made me dizzy!!!

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Ring around the rosies...NOT!
When one dancer was asked how he feels when he twirls, he was at loss for words. Finally he replied, "I feel the ground below and my God above...that's all."

When the music ended and the lights went down, Jasmine and I joined the crowd stumbling out of the beautiful Madrassa. Even though most of us never spoke to the other people smooshed up next to us during the performance, now we all shared mutual smiles…almost as though watching the Sufi dance had united us in some way. Regardless of what religion we were or what country we came from, one thing was sure: we all left stunned by the beauty and power of the ritual we had just witnessed.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Abeja - Insha'allah: An Egyptian Love Story?
Abeja - Who's behind that Veil?
Jasmine - 50 Centuries of Turbulent History Revealed
Monica - Dr. Zeinab Safar and Egypt's Working Women

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