Whirling dervishes

Cultural Insights — By on December 8, 2008 at 12:12 pm

Have you ever heard of the whirling dervishes? Have you ever seen a performance? The only one I ever saw was, oddly enough, in Egypt and not Turkey, which is the country more commonly associated with these spiritual dancers. Nevertheless, the performance by the lone dancer I saw was incredible. I couldn’t take my eyes off of this man as he spun around and around and around in circles. And so I could understand completely this short essay by James Fallows in The Atlantic, in which he described his inability to stop watching a whirling dervish whom he saw dance in a public square in Istanbul.

Across the square we glimpsed a tall, lean, broad-shouldered man standing motionless on an open-air stage. At tables around him people ate and drank, oblivious. The man wore a pure white jacket and skirt over white trousers, and a very tall dun-colored cylindrical hat. He looked straight ahead—and then, as music rose from the reed-flute player and the drummer seated next to him, he began to rotate exactly in place, faster and faster.

His white skirt stood out full around him; he extended his arms, airplane style, one pointed toward heaven and one toward Earth. He cocked his head so the long hat was parallel with his outstretched arms. And for improbable minutes and minutes, he turned.

During those minutes, we did not move, nor did our eyes ever leave him. He had put himself into a trance, and had done something similar to many of the onlookers, who one by one stopped whatever else they were doing to simply gaze.

Eventually the dancer slowed, then left the stage, with no acknowledgement of any sort to the crowd. He sat by himself at a table to recover, drinking water. During the rest of our time in the city we learned more about the symbols expressed in this dance—the eerie hat evoking the tombstone that awaits us all—and sought out other Mevlevi, in less obvious settings. And now, when I think of that dancer, I still hear the first notes from the reed flute, and see the look, into nothing, in his eyes.

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