Everyone talks now about words and phrases that “trigger” them. Here are some words and phrases that trigger us: folkloric show, native costumes, traditional songs and dances. Nothing makes us head for the nearest exit more than watching a bunch of teenagers don hokey costumes, rolling down the sleeves to cover their tats, pulling on flying-nun-looking hats to cover their purple hair, and removing all piercings to sing songs in a long-forgotten language while clicking their heels and performing some awful do-si-do dance with a wide fake grin pasted on their faces. And there is always a yelp to make sure we don’t nod off. We generally eschew any and all of these performances unless we are struck in a remote village with no place to run and no place to hide. I am OK with watching little children sing, though, if they are under about age ten. That’s cute and funny in any language. They take it so seriously. Well, at least the little girls do. The little boys always stare out into the audience like the room is full of aliens from space.
Back in 2006, we saw a whirling dervish presentation in Cairo, but it seemed more spectacle than spiritual: I’d describe it as a sort of Laurence Welk version of the ceremony performed as an after-dinner show. Indeed, it seems that it has become a performance that people have adopted just for the sake of entertaining tourists. When we were faced with a performance by a group of whirling dervishes in Cappadocia, escape was not an option. Our tour group is small; there are only five of us plus our two guides so our absence would be obvious. Plus, we hate being rude, most of the time anyway, so we stuck it out and we are so glad that we did. It was anything but a show. This was a ritual, not a performance.
We were not allowed to take photos during the experience, but they did a few minutes of whirling afterwards so that we could take photos and then answered our questions. These dervishes were such nice men and very open to our questions. Neither of them spoke English, so Batu, our Turkish guide, translated our questions for them. One of the men is an electrician and the other is a security guard; they are just average men in their community who joined the brotherhood for the camaraderie with men who have the same spiritual goals. Anyone can join the brotherhood of dervishes. They are open to accepting Christians, Jews, Muslims, anyone. The only requirement is that the prospective member ask forgiveness before trying to reach that deeper relationship with God. Not all dervishes can and do whirl. Only a small percentage can actually whirl, but anyone can join the brotherhood. In big cities like Istanbul, women may join and participate. In smaller communities and more conservative parts of the country, only men are allowed to participate because that is the tradition.
Backing up, let’s trace the origins of the whirling dervishes and the Sema, as the actual dance is called. The Mevlevi Order was founded in 1273 by the descendants and followers of an Islamic spiritual leader named Rumi. A friend of Rumi’s introduced him to the concept of connecting to the divine using music, dance, and poetry and Rumi is credited with creating the Sema ceremony. The Mevlevi Order of the Sufis and their whirling dervish dance was banned in 1925. Keep in mind that Ataturk was inaugurated as the Republic of Turkey’s first president in 1923; modernization and secularization of the country commenced at that time. The ban was eased in the 1950s because it was decided that the performances could help attract tourists to Turkey. Now the Sema is listed on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
I am not going to give you a blow-by-blow description of the ceremony, but suffice it to say that every little movement and article of clothing is steeped in religious meaning. I will just give you a few examples. The camel hair hat worn by the semazen (performer of the Sema) represents the tombstone of the ego. The color of the hat reflects the performer’s sect. The dance begins with the singing of a eulogy to the Prophet Muhammad and all the prophets before him. Each of the musical instruments has a distinct meaning and every hand movement of the semazen also represents a religious theme. The musicians played a string instrument called a kanun and the woodwind instrument was called a ney. But the most fascinating aspect, to me anyway, is the whirling part. How these men whirl so fast and so long without dizziness is a mystery to me. The spinning is symbolic of the planets orbiting the sun. The dancer uses his left foot to propel his body around the right foot.
I admit to being skeptical when the ritual started, but by the end, our entire group was in awe of the solemnity of the dance and the obvious dedication of the musicians and the semazens. I am sorry that it has become a touristy thing because that diminishes the ritual, but we are both glad we were able to see it performed by semazens instead of actors.