FEATURE by Willard Manus

Soul in ecstasy, listen,
and I will tell you its
secret in dance.

There we were, in Konya, at the Hotel Yayla, living with what must have been the most interesting and unlikely collection of people in all Turkey. We had gathered for the 725th commemorative ceremony for Mevlana, a 13th-century mystical poet, a Persian, disciple of the ancient principles of Sufism. Jelal Al-Din Mevlana Rumi believed that only in dance can the soul be truly liberated from its earthly prison, its tomb of flesh. He taught the Sufi dervishes (Persian for beggars, wanderers) to use dance, music and poetry to achieve transcendence and receive divine grace. For centuries his movement flourished, became to Islam roughly what Hasidism is to Judaism. But then a corruption set in; the Mevlana sect became enmeshed in politics and property, turned fat and reactionary, even homosexual. Ataturk swept Turkey clean of all monastic orders when he took office in 1925, banning the Mevlana sect outright, confiscating their holdings.
Thus we did not know what to expect when we arrived in Konya, where Mevlana lived and died. One of our party, John O'Kane, was a UNESCO translator of early dervish poetry and discourse, so we had a grounding in the history of the Mevlana movement, the principles of Sufi mysticism. But we had no idea whether we were going to encounter a religious ceremony, a tourist spectacle, or a dance recital. And what of the dancing itself; would we be subjected to a bunch of fanatics chanting and whirling themselves into a frenzy of Dionysian exaltation and self-flagellation, eating glass, dancing on hot coals, fondling poisonous snakes?

We had not been helped much by the Turks we met during our three-day drive up through the provincial heart of Turkey, endless Kansas-like plains, with Konya as its Wichita. Whenever we told anyone we were on our way to see the dervishes, he would give a nod of recognition, smile vaguely, mutter something politely and turn away. The subject seemed to cause most Turks embarassment--we have all got a dotty aunt in the attic, but why bring it up in public?

It wasn't until we checked into the Yayla that we met some Turks who were serious about the dervishes, unafraid to talk about mysticism and spiritual communion. The Yayla was hardly a House of God, just a C-class hotel with lavatories in the hall and sagging bedsprings. But it was filled with people, there to participate in the 17-day-long festival. Among them were performers, musicians, journalists, singers, hangers-on, celebrities, spectators, free- loaders, public relations men. We even had a sheikh staying with us, a descendant of the noble family linked to the Mevlana order, a manifestation of the Beloved, God himself. The sheikh was in the show, a holyman trouper, the Dalai Lama of Islam.

It was all happening at the Yayla. The dervish devotees would gather in the lounge before and after every performance (nightly at 8.30, matinees Saturday and Sunday), arguing, gossiping, joking, consuming endless cups of tea. Living there was like residing in a showbiz hotel off Times Square.

We were ready for anything when we arrived at the Konya Sports Palas to watch the dervishes dance. The event took place on the basketball court, with its lines temporarily bleached out. Stage lights and hanging silk streamers helped to soften the barn-like atmosphere. On the far wall, above the bandstand, hung a huge, garish reproduction of Mevlana, in a goofy-saintly pose, illuminated with blazing light-bulbs. O'Kane took one look and muttered, "The sure sign of the corruption of a religion."

In the audience, a mixed bag of people: Turkish peasant women in white headscarves, some middle-class folk, farmers, children, a lot of soldiers and, scattered here and there, a few bearded foreigners and their wives. One fellow was clad in a red nylon jacket emblazoned with white letters: YORK UNIV.

The first part of the program opened with offical speeches, an explanation of Mevlana, all in Turkish, but then translated by a tall, black-moustached fellow who spoke English with ease and precision: "The 725th anniversary of the Sufi poet...manifestation of love for all on earth is subject to time, but Mevlana's teachings are immortal...he taught the secret of eternal light...peace and love to mankind..."

Selections from classical Turkish music followed, played by the musicians we had met at the Yayla, now clad in brown, cone- shaped fezes and long robes. The music was beautiful: passionate and moving liturgical song (sung by a blind man with a phenomenal range and pitch), culminating in a rebab (a kind of Eastern viol) solo, hauntingly sad and warm and peaceful, like the last cry of a dying saint.

Intermission. It seemed a mistake; how could the mood be recaptured? The lobby was crammed with hucksters selling soda pop, painted spoons, handmade linens, cigarette lighters, books on, and by, Mevlana, "Our Master." But, incredibly, one went back and was again caught up in the Mevlana ceremony, particularly by the music, full of mellifluous melodies, chanting and singing, the quavering wail of flutes. For Jelal Al-Din Mevlana Rumi, the reed was a metaphor for man:

 Listen to the reed breathing
 fervent love and intense pain
 since it was wrenched from its marshy bed...
 kindled by the spark of love
 I am drunk with love's own wine.
 If you wish to know what lovers suffer
 listen to the reed.

Beckoned by the lyrical flutes, the leaping cries of a blind chanter, the sinuous sound of finger drums, zithers, castanets, tambourines, cymbals melting into one dark, throbbing whole, the dancers come, some two dozen of them, and enter into the ritual of the Sema, the famous whirling dance.

It is an elaborate ritual, all of it aimed at symbolizing the shedding of earthly ties, the desire for unity with God, for freedom from doubt. When the dervishes finally remove their black cloaks and receive permission from the sheikh to dance, they slowly begin to revolve, hands outstretched, one palm heavenward, to receive divine grace, the other toward earth, dispensing grace to man. ("What we receive from God, we give to man, while we have nothing ourselves.") The dervishes whirl round each other and round the hall, like planets turning on their own axes.

The ritual dance proceeds slowly and serenely. The liturgical music soars and throbs, the chanting and singing build in intensity, but the dancers never lose control; they turn in tranquility and grace, under the watchful eye of a dance-master, a tall, noble, white-bearded patriarch who, with the raising of an eyebrow, the tilt of his head, adjusts the dancer's position, corrects his stance.

At no time is the dance allowed to become over-ecstatic. Everything is subdued, refined, austere. Weighted white skirts billowing out, eyes half-closed, faces in repose, the dervishes seem to turn effortlessly, balanced in perfect equilibrium against the opposing orbit of outer space. Finally the dance begins to wind down. The dervishes abruptly sink to the floor, skirts spread around them. As they cross their arms over their chests, they are covered once more by their black cloaks. Their meditation is complete. It is time to return to their earthly prison.

Silence. The dance is over. Without a word, showing no expression, the dancers rise and leave the floor. The hafiz, the chanter, recites again from the Koran, with a closing, eerie cry, "HUUUUUUUU..." the mystical word for The One.

* * *

"It is a spiritual feeling, but we are in reality," explained one of the dancers as we sat together in the salon of the Hotel Yayla. His name was Ismail and, at 21, he had been a "turner" for the past five years. "We don't give ourselves over to unreality when we dance," he continued.

There were so many questions I wanted to ask, but Ismail's English was not up to it, so he turned me over to the tall, moustached man who had done the narrating in English at the Mevlana ceremony.

"You speak excellent English," I said. "Where did you learn it?"

"Same place you did," he answered with a faint, wry smile. "In New York."


"I know, I look Turkish. But I'm not. My name's Ira, but most people around here know me as Shems--Shemseddin."

We sipped chai together and talked about the Mevlana dervishes and Sufism, the main interests in his life. This was his fifth trip to Konya; he came faithfully to the festival every year, not only because he was wriing a book about the dervishes, but because he was a passionate believer in Sufi mysticism.

"But is it a working religion? I thought Ataturk had abolished it."

"That's true, but back in 1953 the government allowed the dervishes to dance in public again, in order to promote Turkish culture. The Konya festival has been held every year since then, financed by the Ministry of Tourism. The dancers have even visited America and Europe."

"Then it's strictly a tourist gimmick."

"It is and it isn't. The dervishes are a tourist attraction all right, but at the same time many of the people in the group have become influenced by the teachings of Mevlana. For the first ten years, there were no local people in the group; all the dancers came down from Istanbul and Ankara, along with the musicians. But now we have many locals--shopkeepers, students--with us. Nobody is paid to perform. Some do it just for the novelty, to be part of the show, but for many others, like Ismail, the turning leads to a true religious experience. For example, some of the dancers feel the spirit on them tonight, and want to go on dancing. You are invited to join us."

So we went with Shems and his wife Barbara--another New Yorker, a cookbook-writer--to where Ismail and several other dancers and musicians were waiting in the small apartment of one of the local dervishes. Not only did this man--a baker by profession- -whirl nightly, but so did his 10-year-old son--"A tree grows best when it's young." The boy greeted us at the door, took our coats and hats, and went off to make tea.

We were taking part in a Zikr, or remembrance, yet another Sufi ritual aimed at producing a state of ecstasy by withdrawing the mind from earthly things and bringing it into spiritual oneness with God. Nezih Uzel, a freelance journalist from Istanbul, began playing the tanbur, a unique Persian instrument which is a cross between a tambourine and a finger drum. Someone else brought out a reed flute, began playing it softly and plaintively.

More people began to arrive, mostly foreigners. There was a Frenchman, whose name we did not get, a Scottish girl, Bonnie, and her husband--"Hello, I'm Tom McGraw. But everyone here knows me as Ali Mustapha."

"Listen," my wife whispered, "next person I meet I'm going to tell him my real name is Fatima...but you can call me Mavis."

The room was small and crowded, a coal stove had been ignited against the December cold, and nearly everyone was smoking cigarettes. But the stuffy, overheated atmosphere seemed not to bother the Sufis; six of them sat down on the floor together, tucked their stockinged feet under them, linked arms, and began chanting in Turkish, "Allah is the one God, the only God." And as they chanted they began to sway, to rock back and forth, always together, in unison: one body, one voice, one consciousness.

"Allah is the one God, the only God, Allah is the..."

It went on and on, building in intensity and power, driven by the spangly beat of the tambourines, the spiralling wail of the flute. In a while Ismail got up and began to dance. Eyes closed, his young, scraggly-bearded face coated with sweat, he turned round and round in one spot, arms crossed over his chest, fingers digging into his shoulders. Slowly, ever so slowly and deliberately, he turned, while the music beat on and the chanters, their faces flushed and eyes blazing, continued to shout, over and over, "Allah is the one God, the only God..."

And of the six men chanting, the ones who seemed the most fervent, who sang the loudest and lunged the hardest, were clearly the
foreigners--Shemseddin, Ali Mustapha, and the Frenchman without a name.

* * *

Over the next days, we saw more and more of Shemseddin, Ali and Ismail. We would meet, sometimes at the hotel, sometimes at the Mevlana ceremony, to talk mostly about Sufism, what they got out of it, what their life values were. To them it did not matter that the Mevlana festival was subsidized by the secular Turkish government, that the dervishes were still under interdict as a working religious order. They were not upset by the Disney-like reproductions of Mevlana on sale everywhere, along with Mevlana spoons and trinkets. They simply ignored the commercialization of their religion. For them, Sufism worked; it gave them what they needed, an antidote to the materialism of the West, spiritual fusion with the infiniteness of Divine Love. Melvana was alive and well in Konya.

"You don't have to be Moslem or a dancer to be a dervish, you know," said Ismail one morning. "You can be a dervish without joining us. It all depends what's in your heart."

The next time we were all together was not in Konya, but in another town, Urgup, which is the main tourist center of the nearby Cappadocia region, where the early Christians built their troglodytic cities and rock dwellings. We had driven up to Cappadocia in separate cars to take a break from the dervishes, the same performance, the same music, night after night.

We met Shemseddin, Ali and Ismail in a restaurant. Ismail left his table to join ours. He had been drinking raki and was obviously a little drunk, just a bit out of control. This was a new Ismail, groping for words, unsure of himself, unsteady on his feet.

"Are you happy?" he suddenly asked.

We stared down at our plates.

"We must always be happy," he said, a man making a speech, trying to convince himself. "I am always happy. Even when my mother died and I cried, I started to laugh at the same time. I do not like to be sad," he said, standing there, blinking back tears of pain and confusion. "I must not be sad."

I saw him later, in the bar of the Buyuk Otel, but was unable to speak with him, because by then he was in a corner surrounded by his group. Shemseddin, Ali and the others sat holding Ismail, embracing him while Shems talked to him quietly, intently.

Suddenly Ismail burst into tears, began sobbing and weeping violently. Moments later he jumped up, ran from the room. We sat there wondering what had happened, but nobody in the group said anything or would even look at us. Ten minutes later Ismail came back.

There was music playing on the CD player, a spirited Turkish tune. Ismail began dancing. Hands raised high, feet pounding hard, he did a kind of wild, crude warrior dance full of tumultuous passion, frantic un-dervish-like emotion.

When it was over, he lurched over to a dark corner, sat down, his face in his hands. His friends moved close and spoke to him again. But he would not look up or be consoled. Finally they departed, leaving Ismail behind. He sat in the shadows, alone, silent, weeping into his fingers.