It is said that upon walking through the dusty streets of Konya, Turkey, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi -- the 13th-century Islamic mystic and poet -- experienced religious ecstasy. The sounds of everyday life began to form the word "Allah." Rumi repeated the name as he walked along, and the whole city seemed to join in his holy mantra: Goldsmiths' hammers rang out with the name of Allah; marketplace laughter turned into Allah and was carried by the wind; water echoed the sacred name; even dogs barked the name of their creator. Overcome with joy, Rumi began to spin through the streets. The spinning became prayer, a union with the stars above and the atoms within, and the Mevlevi Order of Dervishes was born. For over 700 years, the Sema of Awakening, a ritual of whirling prayer, has been held on Dec. 17 to commemorate the death of the Sufi philosopher.
By name alone Oakland's Scottish Rite Center seems an incongruous place to hold an ancient Turkish ceremony -- but the majesty of the interior overcomes prejudice. Marble floors and plushly carpeted staircases lead into a lavishly appointed mezzanine that looks over a large open floor. Semazenbashi Mariam Baker invites attendees to close off their minds and open their hearts -- the core principle behind Sufi mysticism and a fundamental rule in whirling. (Dervishes know that if you turn from the head you will become dizzy; if you turn from the belly you will become sick. Only by turning from the heart will you achieve ecstasy.)
Fourteen musicians, led by master vocalist Latif Bolat, file onstage in front of a tremendous curtain embroidered with red and gold religious emblems. The sound of the ney flute, representing the Divine Breath, fills the hall. The rest of the musicians take up the hypnotic thread of the Sufi musical tradition, which is intended to reflect the music of the planet as a whole. Bolat benefits from the pristine acoustics of the building; his walnut-hued voice rolls without effort from his body and wafts into the highest reaches of the balcony, causing many in the crowd to lower their heads in supplication. Seven semazen, or whirling dervishes, file into the hall with their arms crossed over their bodies, symbolizing the oneness of Allah. They bow and begin to spin. According to guest speaker Dr. Ali Kianfar, the spinning polishes the heart just like the circular motions the devout use to polish the religious artwork at Konya as they pray. It can be also be shared with onlookers.
"This is my culture," says the sharply suited, Turkish-born Michael Topsakal.
"Just watching them makes me dizzy," says his companion. Topsakal smiles.
The semazen twirl from right to left, in the direction of the heart, the left foot remaining on the ground while the right propels the whirlers around. Then the semazen open their arms, the right reaching toward the sky to receive benevolent bounty and the left pointing to the earth. The sema takes the form of four selams, or musical movements -- the acceptance of creation, the rapture of witnessing creation, the sacrifice of the mind to love, and submission to God, the last accompanied by the annihilation of the self.
"It's strange: Islam seems an unlikely basis for any form of mysticism," says 36-year-old Brian Carroll, a brilliantly pink-haired admirer of Rumi. "The Koran is such an intolerant doctrine, and yet Sufism is one of the world's most successful mystical practices. It's very impressive."
"Sufism is about surrender," says Abdul Hakmoun, a 26-year-old black dread with baggy pants and a Fila jacket. "Rumi wrote 5,000 verses that outlined the principal concern of the Sufi, and it's almost all about love. That can't be bad." Hakmoun admits that he still gets dizzy when he spins, but says that he's practicing.
After a brief intermission, over 70 semazen file into the hall. Led by the postneshin, Sheik Jelaluddin Loras, who founded the Mevlevi Order of America in Berkeley, they strip themselves of their black cloaks (which depict falseness) and reveal full white skirts (which represent the spirit's shroud); large camel-hair hats called sikkes represent the spirit's tombstone. After making three pilgrimages pass the semazenbashi, during which the dervishes bow at the mention of the Prophet Mohammed, Rumi, and Allah, the whirling begins. Over three hours of whirling; constant, mesmerizing whirling during which the Koran is read by Imam Bilal Hyde and the musicians play on. Some of the dervishes -- those who apparently have not surrendered to their hearts completely -- focus on the palms of their hands in an attempt to keep from falling over. Their skirts deflate like wilting tulips and cling to their legs as they spin ever so slowly. Others spin wildly, with their eyes closed and heads cocked to the left, as if their spines were attached to an invisible thread in the ceiling. Their skirts are full with wind, and the sight is spectacular.
"It's like watching poetry," says Mark Grieve, who is not a Sufi, but whose wife has been practicing for 20 years. "The sight of it can make you feel completely still. It's like nothing else."
For Audrey and Gilbert Lightner, two hours is quite enough. "We were in Konya seven months ago," says Audrey, "but we didn't see the dervishes." Sight seen, they depart.
"Madonna uses some whirling dervishes in one of her videos," says 25-year-old Mark Welsh. "I thought I would check it out." He and his friend Kevin Pattison also slip out, somewhere between sacrifice and submission. Religious ceremonies will always run a little too long for some people's liking.
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By Silke Tudor