Mostly about a performance by the whirling dervishes, but also about a few mundane things.

I know you don’t care to hear a detailed description of my four-hour laundry at a small bathroom sink – that’s what it takes to do a suitcase full of clothing under the circumstances.  When your second rinse still is brownish, you know that the task at hand was serious and that it was an uphill battle.  To do laundry at hotels is an impossible task in fact unless you carry along a universal sink plug.  That does not mean laundry is easy, but it means it is possible.  A travel clothes line is another must and blow up hangers are a very nice addition to get your work done.  After you are finished you can hardly stand up straight anymore so you know that you have accomplished something.

I know you also don’t care about what it takes to mail a box full of souvenirs and guidebooks back home.  It sounds so simple.  Yet there was a rather lengthy fiddle this time and the post office is a mile and a half away and unless you take an expensive taxi you have to carry all of your stuff and then the trouble starts:  The post office is closed for siesta just when you arrive and it does not sell any boxes of the size you need and so forth.  Don’t forget- the clerks at the post office also need to inspect your stuff, so don’t close any box you might have until you have their OK!  They will simply cut it open again.  I guess, this is an anti-bomb measurement?  I am not sure.  My bag full of brochures was inspected so thoroughly that the entire content spilled onto the floor whereas the case of the fiddle was not even opened!  Go figure.

But I know you don’t want to hear about any of this, so, I will spare you the details.

Obviously, I made it back to Istanbul with the usual fantastic buses.  Did I ever mention that all of those overland buses are Mercedes buses?  That should tell you something.

This is the time when I panic.  I have only 36 hours left in this town.  There would be so much more to do and to see in Istanbul, yet I waste away the day with laundry and post office.  I just have to accept it.  I can’t do it all.  The treat I had left for myself for this day was to attend a Whirling Dervishes Performance at the Cultural Center of Istanbul.  The location gives it away:  It is not the real thing.  It is a performance by artists who reenact the authentic performance for tourists.  By my estimate, they took in about $7500 tonight.  With five performances every week, you can do the math; not bad.  But I have to say, Turkey is doing a fantastic job with all of its cultural monuments.  They are in tip-top shape, spick and span clean, accessible, affordable, and looked over properly, and after all, the money has to come from somewhere.  I was happy to contribute.

There was absolutely no photography.  For once, I respected that.  All the photos of this event posted today are courtesy of the web and due to other people breaking the rule.  But they are of the very same performance I attended and should give you a good idea of what was going on.

What we call Whirling Dervishes are really practitioners of one of the three major sects of Islam:  Sufism.  Their order was founded by Mevlana Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet.  It is a much younger branch than the two main ones:  Sunnis and Shias.  Those separated over succession and political issues right after Mohammed’s death in the 7th century.  What the Kabbalists are to Judaism and the snake-handling people who speak in tongues are to Christianity, the Sufis are to Islam.   They are the mystics, in other words and would refer to themselves rather as Mevlevis, based on their founder’s name.  Among Muslims, I would call them the most enlightened and tolerant branch.  For Sunnis and Shias they are usually regarded with suspicion, if not seen as outright heretics.

On the night Benazir Bhutto got assassinated, Nicola and I held tickets to a Sufi performance, or sema, just like this.  You guessed it – it did not happen.  Within an hour of Bhutto’s assassination the country was in turmoil.  Nobody left home leave along attended a performance of any kind.  That performance would have been a lot more authentic, but essentially the same, namely a ritual dance which is supposed to induce a trance that will connect you with god.  Dervish literally means “doorway” and is thought to be an entrance from this material world to the spiritual, heavenly world.

Three singers and four musicians accompanied the dance with a drum, a zither, a mandolin and a flute.  The music and the singing, even though performed by multiple voices and instruments is actually a monophonic piece.  The various instruments only provide different timbres and slight variations which contribute to an overall fuzzy sound.  The music was consistently in a minor key.  But then I am not even sure if the keys that are performed conform to our western scales and modes.

There was a lot of ritual bowing between the dancers and by all the participants to the audience, to the different directions, and to a red cloth on the floor.  Did that symbolize the divine presence?  The dervishes wear a specially long and wide skirt which helps them balance.  It also contributes to the hypnotic effect their calm and monotonous dance has on the viewers (and presumably the performers themselves).  There are no particular dance steps, there are no body moves, no jumps, no hand gestures; there is nothing to expect once the dancers start their swirl other than swirling.  Each dancer opens up his right hand palms towards the sky and turns down his left hand towards the earth.  I am sure that is a symbolic receiving and passing on gesture.  Each dancer also tilts his head towards his right shoulder.  I don’t know if that is for balance or has a symbolic significance.  It makes them look as if they are dreaming.  Their eyes seemed to be closed, but that was hard to make out in the dim light.

This particular stage is circular and lit from below and from above in a disco blue which makes the white dress of the dancers shine in practically neon white.  The audience is octagonal with several small niches, one of which acts as a stage. Each performer wears a long conical felt hat.  One of the musicians should demand a refitting of his hat; it slid down almost to his eyebrows.

In Ann Arbor we are fortunate, since about every ten years there is a whirling dervish performance coming our way.  I have seen only one of them.  If you have never witnessed a sema, it’s definitely worth going once.  It is a unique expression of a religious group which seeks to unite with god in very mystical ways.

Good night – for the last time from Turkey.


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  1. What an interesting journey you have had in Turkey and now, may good fortune travel with you to Iraq.