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Bridging Cultures With a Tradition of Universal Love

The latest U.S. visit by the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey includes three American women. But don't expect them to appear out of place.

October 11, 1998|Kristin Hohenadel | Kristin Hohenadel is a Paris-based writer

'Back by popular demand!" reads the press material. During the last tour in 1997, a Washington Post reporter sent to cover the event said that people were "waving signs and money, begging for tickets" outside the auditorium. The cause of this sensation wasn't a rock star or a Broadway show, but the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey, a group of musicians and "whirlers," or semazens, from Istanbul, Ankara and Konya.

A familiar silhouette, the whirling dervish is the icon of the Mevlevi order of Sufism, a branch of Islam that is based on the teachings of the mystic poet Rumi. In addition to the fasting, praying and study of the Koran that marks the typical practice of Islam, a Sufi partakes in zhikr, or "remembrance," extra practices of which the whirling ceremony is the most important. In the secular republic of Turkey, the practice of Sufism has been technically illegal since the 1920s. However, the sema ceremony--a 700-year-old ritual combining Rumi poetry, Turkish classical music, chanting from the Koran and the whirling "dance" of the dervishes--is sustained under the auspices of cultural foundations, as an important tradition.

Produced by the North American branch of the Mevlevi Order, the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Threshold Society, this year's 17-city tour, including an appearance at UCLA's Royce Hall on Saturday-next Sunday, will feature eight dervishes from Turkey and four U.S.-based Sufi devotees. And for the first time on tour, three of them--Americans all--are women.

The U.S. presence on the dervish tour shouldn't be surprising. The poems of Rumi, who lived in the 13th century, full of passionate, sometimes erotic language, are used these days to underline a belief in universal love and the acknowledgment of God's presence in everyday life. It's a theology that has spread far beyond Turkey.

"The writings of Rumi are quoted everywhere," says Kabir Helminski, 50, co-founder of the Threshold Society, by telephone from his home in Vermont. "Recently I was told that Madonna was on the 'Oprah Winfrey' show talking about Rumi. If it's gotten that far, it's pretty much in the mass consciousness."

The Threshold Society was founded in the late '70s by Helminski and his wife, Camille. Both are Americans--he's a former Catholic; she is a former Baptist/Episcopalian. The couple received spiritual training during their many visits to Turkey, and together founded a company to publish Sufi literature. Kabir, who is a Sufi shaikh, or spiritual leader, then began to offer summer retreats in Vermont, where such things as the inclusion of women and men in the sema ritual came naturally.

In Turkey, says Kabir, women generally hold private ceremonies, leaving men to public displays. "In the context of a spiritual ceremony in Turkish culture, to have men and women huddling together would be a little bit startling," he says. However, according to the Helminskis, it was a Sufi shaikh in Istanbul who changed the protocol of forbidding women to turn in public, after members of the Threshold Society visited in 1991 and requested that he do so.

For Lora Zorian, 38, a Threshold Society semazen, whirling transcends gender. "As semazens, we shed everything that makes us distinguishable," she says. "We neutralize our identities." With the loose-fitting same-sex outfits and hair tucked away, semazens may not "even be perceivable" as male or female.

"Traditionally, women have always had a place within the Sufi path," says Camille Helminski, 46, who is working on a book about women in Sufism and will partake in the ritual on the tour. "God is recognized as being far beyond gender and a presence that is shared no matter who we are."

When the sema ceremony begins, semazens shed black cloaks that symbolize worldly attachments. Dressed in tall white felt hats (the ego's tombstone) and long flowing robes (the ego's shroud), they bow to one another and move in three rotations to symbolize resurrection and spiritual rebirth. While they turn in fast circles, an act that is meant to summon the divine, the right palm is lifted toward the heavens, channeling energy from above through the body of the dervish, and out through his left palm to the earth. Their left feet never leave the ground, and their eyes remain partially open.

Amer Latif, 27, a Pakistani who is studying as part of a doctoral program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, will turn on stage with the group in New York. Latif took a correspondence course offered by the Threshold Society, and after graduation from Bard College in 1994 went to live in Vermont for nine months, where he learned the sema ceremony from Camille Helminski.

"The idea of Sufism is to live one's life as if God is present," Latif says. "In the ceremony of sema, you create a sacred space [to] open up and become completely immersed in the presence of the divine."

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