Monday, July 20, 2009

Those Whirling Dervishes

One of the things that I was in spite of myself excited to see on our trip was a whirling dervish ceremony. Before I learned anything about it, it was in the same general category as belly dancing. But whirling is more than a dance the tourist board resurrected to attract suckers for folk dance to their country. It is a religious practice with mystic, philosophical roots – and though it is hard to tell out of context – a symbolic ritual.

Dervish is the name given to Sufi seekers following the spiritual practices maintained from the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Whirling dervishes belong to the Mevlevi Order, a Sufi order founded by the followers of Rumi, a 13th century poet and mystic who inspired the use of poetry and dancing to open people to the presence of God.

Like meditation, whirling is a metaphysical journey to the interior of self. The dancer pursues truth, abandons his ego, ecstatically whirls toward Perfection. "When the dervishes turn, they are focusing their attention on their inner centre and they turn around and around their own centre in this way, and there should be nothing else in their hearts except remembrance of God" (Sufism Journal).

Interestingly, this sect was banned by Turkish law in 1925 out of fear that it would cause problems with the new secular government. Thankfully, these restrictions have been relaxed in recent years, so we were able to enjoy some whirling dervish with our dinner one night in Istanbul.

Thinking too much as usual, I found it hard to enjoy the performance (if indeed that is what we were supposed to do). It's a bit perplexing, this performing of sacred rituals for tourists. It would seem like a convenient exchange – they get our patronage at their restaurant and we don't have to travel all the way to Rumi's shrine – but I somehow felt we had all cheapened something intimate and sacred. It was a bit like walking into a Russian Orthodox service with squeaky shoes. Also, though it is not very enlightened of me to say, it became a bit boring in such a mundane context (like watching someone pray on stage for an hour). It's hard to decide what to think about experiences like these. I really wish I were the kind of person who could just drink my tea and be amazed he didn't get dizzy.

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