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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

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Whirling, Whirling As Fast As You Can!
March 8, 2000

Come, come again, whoever, whatever you may be, come
Heathen, fire worshipper, sinful of idolatry come;
Come even if you broke your penitence a hundred times;
Ours is not the portal of despair and misery, come...

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larger view
A dark painting of an enlightened dervish
Before I came here, there were only a few things I knew about Turkey - Turkish delights, Turkish baths, and the Whirling Dervishes. I was excited to indulge in the gooey sweets and the steamy baths, but the thing I was most looking forward to was learning more about the Whirling Dervishes. The mysterious men in white robes and tall conical hats that whirl their way to ecstasy to feel closer to God. Hmmmm...whirl their way to ecstasy to get closer to God? I've been exposed to many different religions in my life, but this is unlike anything I've ever heard of!

The Whirling Dervishes were founded in the 13th century by the great Sufi mystic and poet, Celaleddin Rumi. Rumi was born in Afghanistan in 1207, but he and his family fled to escape the Mongol invasion and ended up, here, in Turkey, in the city known today as Konya .

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.

Following in his father's footsteps, Rumi became a scholar in spiritual readings, and a practitioner of Sufism. Sufism is a mystical sect of Islam that believes that God is in everything, and that humans could come in direct contact with the divine spirit through love of life and all that is around them. Rumi firmly believed that Muslims are by no means the only people to whom God has revealed of God transcends particular religions and nationalities. "Islam in other countries is often based on fear of God. This breeds despotism, since fear of God implies fear of authority. But Turks, due to the influence of Rumi and other mystics, are moved by love of God, which breeds tolerance," related Bulent Ecevit, a former Prime Minister of Turkey.

Rumi turned to poetry and losing himself in dance and song to reach ecstatic states and thus commune with God. His disciples called him Mevlana (our leader), and that's where the Mevlevi Whirling Dervishes took their name. Rumi's poetry has touched people from all walks of life for centuries, making him one of the world's most beloved mystic poets of all time.

If ten lamps are in one place,
each differs in form from another;
yet you can't distinguish whose radiance is whose
when you focus on the light.
In the field of spirit there is no division;
no individuals exist.
Sweet is the oneness of the Friend with His friends.
Catch hold of spirit.
Help this headstrong self disintegrate;
that beneath it you may discover unity,
like a buried treasure.

It is the openness of Sufism and the sheer beauty of Rumi's poetry that attract people from all over the world to Sufism. I first learned of Rumi and his poetry when I was in Nepal 5 years ago from an English traveler. When I returned to my university in the U.S., I realized Rumi had quite a following even on my campus! Rumi's poetry is revered throughout the Islamic world, but I was surprised to find myself attending regular Sufi poetry readings even in Israel!


heathen - an outdated term referring to people who have strange religions or are "uncivilized"
idolatry - the worship of physical objects as a god
ethereal - of the Heavens
sect - a religious denomination
despotism - a government whose ruler has unlimited power

Through beautiful imagery, Rumi's poetry challenges the reader to reach their own spiritual understanding. Unfortunately, as beautiful and meaningful as his poetry is to us, it has lost a great deal in the translation alone. Rumi wrote in Persian, which was the literary language of the time, and much of his mastery of musical rhythm and rhyme is lost in the translation. Most translations focus on trying to convey the wisdom available in his poems losing sight of the feeling and beauty conveyed in the flow of the poem. Although we can only get a glimpse of his mastery in the English translations, his poems are still enough to delight!

Unfortunately, as with other major religions, Islam frowns upon dancing and words such as "gamble", "drunk", and "wine" which appear quite a bit in Rumi's sensual poems. Even though Rumi is generally speaking of being "drunk" on God's grace, religious fundamentalists throughout the ages have scorned Sufism and banned Rumi's poetry and dervish meetings.

In Turkey, the Mevlevi dervishes survived the fall of the Seljuk empire and flourished throughout the Ottoman Empire, both in Konya and also in other major cities around the country. Here in Istanbul, the Mevlevis used to meet in the Galata Mevlevihanesi, or the Whirling Dervish Hall. During Ottoman times, this hall was open to all who wished to witness the Dervish ceremony, or sema. For centuries Sufi mystics would join in this hall and whirl together in a ceremony of song and dance that not only connected them to each other but also to the divine spirit.

Recommended Links

Sufi Ceremonies
Ceremony Photos
A Guide to Konya, Turkey
Ataturk, who was a firm believer of a separation of religion and state, saw the Sufi orders as a threat to the advancement of a great secular Turkey; he banned dervish meetings and turned the Galata Mevlevihanesi into a museum. Sufi sects continued to meet secretly and today the dervishes are allowed once again to use the Whirling Dervish Hall for their semas-but there's a catch. Here's the catch: the semas are supposed to be performances for the public to watch, NOT religious ceremonies. I remember a similar stipulation was placed on the whirling dervishes I had seen in Egypt. But performance or not, when the music and dancing begin, I can almost bet from the entranced expressions on the faces of the dervishes, that the audience is the last thing on their mind - their thoughts are lost in something higher.

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The hall in the Galata Mevlevihanesi-the room that spins
The Mevlevi Dervishes meet about once or twice a month here in Istanbul for a sema ceremony, that tourists are welcome to watch. The hall is beautiful and open, topped by an old chandelier. The dancers enter wearing tall conical felt hats and long white robes with full skirts covered with heavy black cloaks...very different from the colorful costumes of the Egyptian dervishes. The white robes symbolize their shrouds, while the black cloaks symbolize their worldly tombs and the hats, their tombstones.

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larger view
When I say large kettledrum, I mean LARGE kettledrum!
The ceremony begins with a prayer for the Mevlana (Rumi) and a verse from the Koran. The boom of the large kettledrum and the soft sounds of the reed flute follow the prayer. The dervishes then circle into the hall following the sheikh, or master. By the third circuit around the hall, they drop their black cloaks, which is symbolic of their deliverance from the cares and attachments of the world. One by one with arms folded over their hearts, they approach the sheikh, and bow to him. Upon receiving blessings or instructions whispered in their ears, they spin out on to the floor. The whirling induces a trance-like state that allows them to forget about their earthly lives and join in mystical union with God.

The practice of the whirling dervishes may have declined in Turkey since Ataturk's ban, but international attention and admiration of the Sufi tradition has increased significantly. Today dervish groups from Turkey travel all over the world in cultural exchanges, whirling and sharing their love of God and joy in life.

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.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.

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.

Click image for larger view
Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do.

- Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Reader Comments: Check them out and share your own!

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