Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Whirling Dervishes, Captured Tourists: The Sacred and the Secular

A friendly, smiling, English-speaking PR man (that's what I took to calling them) stops us in our tracks in front of a restaurant as we walk along the Divanyolu Caddesi, the Tram street and I believe the old Roman highway. It's a ubiquitous drama: the main means of pulling in business in Istanbul. It works, too.
He asks where we are from, chats amiably, then gets down to business: he wants to tell us about the evening's whirling dervishes ceremony and sufi music concert. His job is to sell tickets, and he is good at it. Great food, great entertainment, he assures us. We look at each other, check the menu, and buy our tickets.

These pitches are hard to resist, like those of the rug salesmen who are stationed at every tourist site and about a few blocks apart throughout Sultanamet.

There's no avoiding them. The rugs are beautiful; the pitch is a lesson in art and cultural history; and the apple tea is delicious. They treat you like sultans while trying to convince you to spend your money. The shop owner talks about the rugs in vivid detail, while his helper dramatically unfurls rug after rug. I wish I had bought a dozen rugs; I felt bad after every pitch, as if letting someone down.

We had talked about seeing the whirling dervises so we succumbed to this friendly pitch with pleasure. It was a good deal. Both the food (fresh seabass) and the ceremony were memorable. The PR man had filled the restaurant. We were captured tourists.

The whirling dervishes ceremony, a swirl of white billowing skirts, has its roots in Sufism, a mystical form of Islam dating back to Persia. The dervishes were followers of poet and philosopher Mevlana Rumi. In this modern age, as I understand it, the dervishes ceremony is more spiritual than religious.

The purpose is still the same: to get closer to God. The dervishes twirl into a meditative state, their turning accompanied by Sufi music--a violin, flute, bass board, and hand drum--evoking the sights and sounds of ancient Turkey.
A pamphlet on the ceremony describes it this way: "Departing from his ego,a dervish turns toward truth and spiritual perfection, returning a fulfilled, mature, loving person devoted to service to all creatures without prejudice or discrimination of belief, race, class or nationality."

We were witnesses to this transformation. The dervishes in reverie beam with serenity, an aura of bliss surrounding them.

As Rumi said, "This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet."

Is it any wonder why Turkey fascinates? We were tourists captured in the lyrical love poem that is Istanbul.

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