“In the house of lovers, the music never stops, the walls are made of songs & the floor dances”

A Sufi-related string of coincidences leads to me climbing Istanbul’s ancient city walls late one Thursday night. I count them off like tespih beads, run the thin thread of memory through my mind…

…at the first vegan potluck, someone mentioned Whirling Dervishes – Sara had been to see some in a non-touristic place, but couldn’t remember where… Pete has a thing about Sufis, so I thought it might be nice to go… then a friend mentioned she’s writing a paper on Sufism... a seemingly random email arrived from a female dervish, inviting me to visit her Islamic school… I discovered a Sufism documentary on my laptop….

…Back to the city walls. We’ve given up looking for the Sufi place and have decided to explore the ancient walls instead. It’s been a long night of hopeless searching, taxis, walking and unanswered questions. I’m in need of a çay. Turning the corner, we see a small orange sign:Mevlana Cultural Centre you’re kidding!” We’re over an hour late, but it’s only just getting started. We’ve missed lengthy readings in Turkish and not a lot else. A small bus with tourists is just arriving outside. We and the tourists join the two rows of chairs surrounding the room. Now some chanting – “ALLAH-HALLAH-HALLAH-HALLAH…” – deep, resonating voices; bodies rocking in earnest. Finally, the whirlers come onto the floor. They encircle it in black robes and tall hats, then remove their cloaks revealing white dresseslike these. The faces of the people whirling captivate me, clearly in a state of bliss.

Fast forward to now, July. I am whirling for around three hous per day. No, hang on, rewind just a little… at the Rainbow everyone was talking about a “Sufi Music Festival”. Almost everyone seemed to be going. I decided not to, until I came down from the Rainbow. I mentioned it to a man at Kemer crossroads while trying to decide what to do – “it’s not a festival, it’s a religious gathering! You can’t just go make a Rainbow there!”

Oh good!” said Claire when I repeated this to her. We’d both been interested in Sufism for some time. So we hitchhiked to Yalova, only thinking on arriving in the city to search the internet for what and where we’d spent three days hitching to…

It’s a 66 days and nights continuous Sema. What’s a Sema? It’s a prayer, a dance, a meditation, a form of worship. Simply: whirling. One spins.

Actually, two people spin, minimum, any given moment. And thus the Sema continues on and on for 66 days. They’ve done this before – 7 days a few times, 44 days and nights twice before. This is the first time this group (or anyone else I know of) has done 66 days. It’s no easy feat. Always musicians are playing in the room upstairs, and always people spin. It’s open to anyone, there’s beds in two rooms – one for women, a smaller one for men (there are a lot more women than men), or space outside for tents. There’s always tea and food available and full meals are provided three times a day. There’s a washing-machine, shower, electricity… life is comfortable in this white octagonal building.

“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.”

It’s 6am. Tatjana is playing her harp, singing sweetly as the first rays of light hit the Sema floor. The music, the light, the room spinning around me; open a door inside. After some nights in my tent, I found a sleeping space at the side of the Sema floor upstairs – extra responsibility, willing to wake up during the night and whirl. After a couple of days of sleep-deprived insanity, I have found a pattern within the chaos. I sleep until 5:30am, whirl for an hour, shower and practice yoga on the grass outside while it’s quiet and not too hot. I eat breakfast, then sleep upstairs until the deep, gentle, resonant voice of Hayrie wakes me at midday, then spin for an hour until lunch.

They don’t eat nightshades here. I’ve heard of this before – that the nightshade family of plants, which includes tomatoes, potatoes and aubergine, contains toxins. This is the first place I’ve stayed where they really take on this diet, but the strangest thing to me is that it seems ok to eat factory farmed chicken every day – but not tomatoes. Nobody has an answer for this.

The village where this is all taking place is Thermal – a strange holiday destination with mostly Arab tourists. At the Dergah (the Sema building), I can comfortably wear a vest and knee-length skirt, but out in the village this would feel obscene. Women wearing burqas are the norm, often with noses covered. Turkish women in colourful head-scarves, long skirts and blouses look almost risquee. Claire and I take two trips to the hammam. Despite being for women only, almost everyone has their breasts covered – mostly with stylish sexy bikinis. But three women arrive wearing the (to me) unbelievable: full “burqinis” – like shells suits made of plastic, zipping all the way up. The three women hold hands in the pool and bounce one another up and down like teabags.

View of the village

HALLAH-ALLAH-ALLAH-HALLAH…” Not every evening, but many, there is a zikr. This involves chanting and rhythmically pounding the feet, swaying the body, inducing a trance-like state. Oruç, the Sheikh or Master, conducts the whole thing.

The Master is quite a character – short, thin, hunchbacked and bespectacled, one leg longer than the other. It seems his body was created contorted into the perfect position to become a master musician. And it’s his music that seems to bring people in.

I begin to ask how others found their way here. Most of the organisers are Turkish, or married to Turkish people, but most others are international – a proliferation of middle-aged German and Swiss people, with the odd Spaniard, American, Israeli, Iranian and Latin American. Always people are leaving and others arriving and everyone, without fail, is hugely eccentric in their own little way: a strange spinning bunch of misfits. They came through music, or dancing, or theatre – stumbling upon Sufism by accident in many cases.

A woman who has never spoken to me before comes over one day as I’m eating breakfast – “When I saw you come onto the floor this morning, I just wanted to tell you – perhaps we got off on the wrong foot, but you have really made a good contribution here – thank you.” Did we get off on the wrong foot? I hadn’t noticed. Perhaps she was grouping me in with the others who have been arriving from the Rainbow – it’s been a bit of an “us and them” at times – though I’m definitely not one of “us” or “them”. Unfortunately, a big group arrived during the week the Sheikh was away and being a big group, remained seperate from the majority of people – many contributing in their own ways, but generally not whirling and not really mingling. The Arrogant American was among them, causing his own little ruptures. On leaving he accidentally broke a glass and declared it his “final act of karmic retribution” on the place.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

The Master is back and the evening talks have resumed. After a welcome, “iyi akshamlar” (good evening) and chit-chat about mundanities, Oruç reads in Turkish from the Masnavi. Now the translations – one group for German, another for English. It’s a literal translation from the Persian, written in Shakespearean English, read by a non-native speaker who isn’t fluent… I can understand the words, only the sentences appear unrelated. I look at the man who was reading it – we both shrug and turn back to Oruç, who begins his talk. I have a similar problem here, unfortunately. I’m not sure if again it’s the translation, but I just can’t make sense out of what he’s saying. One evening I decide to write notes…

“…Allah created the world with principles: a door can be open or shut, but there is also a third option: a door can be a little way open. A computer doesn’t know this, but scientists are trying to change that…”

“…The bread joined existence because of love…” 

“…When we go to bed, we always assume we will wake up. We are not afraid of sleep, because we remember the habit of waking up….”

My brain gets distracted, wanders off and returns to find Oruç discussing Bidget Bardot’s involvement in animal rights. He says something about respecting all animals and we begin a table-zikr – rotating the table this way and that – “HALLAH-HALLAH-HALLAH-HALLAH…” I can’t help think of the factory-reared chicken that was eaten on this table an hour ago.

“Study me as much as you like, you will not know me, for I differ in a hundred ways from what you see me to be. Put yourself behind my eyes and see me as I see myself, for I have chosen to dwell in a place you cannot see.”

LA-ILAHA-ILALLAH-LA-ILAHA-ILALLAH…” Rooz and I are dozing on our adjacent sleeping mats as a troupe of forty people come up the stairs in formation, chanting loudly and startling us to our feet. “Hell of an alarm call,” he whispers as the people encircle the Sema floor – “…LA-ILAHA-ILALLAH-LA-ILAHA-ILALLAH…”– Soon forty people are whirling – the most I’ve ever seen, most I’ve never set eyes on before. An ancient man with deeply engraved wrinkles looks as though he will fall over any second, jittering awkwardly in a vaguely circular motion; a woman in a white flowery skirt struggles to find a rhythm and when she does – grins from ear to ear. Who are these people? Nights like this I’m pleased to stay awake, despite my early mornings. Genuine ecstacy is palpable as the music reaches a cresendo and Oruç himself stands and with violin in hand, makes his way purposefully to the centre of the floor. All the other musicians get up and follow. I have never seen him whirl before, but now he does so – as well as his frame will allow. The drummers are whirling, the singers are whirling, the saxaphone player is whirling… there will never be words for this.

“Let silence take you to the core of life.”

One day I decide to be silent. It’s the perfect place for introspection, and how nourishing it is – reading, listening, sitting, whirling…

I am the ballerina in the music box,
gift on altar, eye of storm.
surrendering into moment,
reborn each second into blur…

and Rumi whispers in my ear, “You can arrive at Mecca a thousand times,
but what’s really worth arriving at is your own heart.”

One thought on “Whirling

  1. Pingback: Türkiye’ye Döneceğim (To Turkey I’ll Return) « A Girl and Her Thumb

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