Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Farewell to Istanbul: Part 12

The Real Dervishes

One of the symbols of Turkey on tourist posters and brochures, is the 'whirling dervishes'. There are several “shows” around Istanbul which cater to tourists. It seems to the outsider as a folk dance, but it is actually tied to Sufism- a mystic form of Islam. The 'whirling dervishes” is a practice of dance within this branch of Islam. It is not officially recognized as a religion by the Republic of Turkey. This goes back to the founding of the Republic where it was perceived that the Sufis had too much influence in the Ottoman Empire. The places where Sufism is practiced is termed a lodge, not a mosque.

The real dervishes can be found in a small lodge in Fatih municipality. I went there several times. It is known by some touristx, but there is no charge This is because it is part of a worship service. Being Muslim, it is segregated according to gender. The women watch from the balcony through a lattice. The foreigners men and women are allowed to watch from a stage at one end of the hall. It is not a tourist “event”, but an experience. In my situation, I had a friend who was Muslim and had been there before. He knew many of the people there. When you arrive, you enter a room which is filled with smoke. Several groups of men are sitting on the floor drinking tea and smoking. It helped that I was not a ordinary tourist, but someone who lived in Istanbul and was adapted to Turkey. Mostly in my case, the conversation was concerning where I was from and introductions. After a while, it is announced that the service will begin. There are two rooms in the lodge used for the service. One is used for the dervishes and one for the worshipers. The service starts with the ritual prayer facing the mihrab, the ornamented section of the lodges/mosques indicating the direction of Mecca. Then, the worshipers proceed to the other room. The worshipers are all dressed in white. There is first some sufi music for about 10 minutes. Then the dervishes enter in a straight line into the other room The proceed to form a circle whereas the first starts to spin and and then he progressing around the room for allowing for another dervish to enter the circle until all of the dervishes, except for the leader are spinning. One hand is pointed upward and another to the floor. The white skirts are forming a circle around them. There is no sounds of feet moving from the dervishes, only the rustle of their vestments. It is repeated three times. Meanwhile, chanting is ongoing in the other room. The chant that is repeated is Allah akbar (God is the Greatest.) It gets more intense as the service progresses. Everyone, including the observers, are transported to a meditative state because of the combination of the music, chantting and the visual aspect of the whirling dervishes. It is not a hypnotic state because you are always aware of your surroundings. This is no mere tourist show. As a tourist, you are the observer but in this place you are also a participant. I am not telling the location, because I do not want to cheapen this place to become another tourist attraction. However, I can assist you in attending the service if you are interested.

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