Some Enchanted Evening

Somewhere between the memorial to Land Day and the espresso bar in Sakhnin, of all places, a first-of-its-kind performance by a Turkish singer and a local group of whirling dervishes swept in an audience of Jews and Sufis searching for spirituality.

There are some people in this country who have been bitten by the bug of Turkey, and I am personally acquainted with a few chronic sufferers from the disease. Ronen Chen, the owner of a chain of eponymous fashion shops, is one of them. He called to ask me about a report he had seen in Haaretz that the Turkish singer Omar Faruk Tekbilek (who lives in the United States) would be appearing in Sakhnin on May 18. Ronen has all of Tekbilek's albums; some are good, he says, some less so.

I asked around, and eventually got to Eli Grunfeld, an idealistic producer, who for years has been trying to bring Arabs and Jews closer through music and cultural means, in general. He was bitten by the bug during the first Lebanon War, when he witnessed the contemptuous attitude of Israeli soldiers with whom he fought in the war, toward the private lives and the humanity of the Lebanese population. He determined then that if he got out of the war alive, he would devote the rest of his life to teaching the sons of Judah to have greater respect for their enemy. One of his projects, toward this end, is the "Culture of Peace" festival.

The impression from all of this is that Grunfeld is some kind yuppie who is fond of exotic orientalism. One has to overcome certain reservations to understand that this is actually far from the truth.

So, who is this Tekbilek? And what do I have in common with Sakhnin (a Galilee city that is identified with soccer, which is not something that particularly interests me, and with Land Day demonstrations)? The Culture of Peace festival program did not say where tickets were on sale for the performance in the city. The clerk I asked about the price of the tickets had no answer for me. It turned out that there was no ticket sale - that the performance would be open to everyone and would take place in a mosque. Tekbilek would appear there as a dervish, a Sufi mystic, in a religious ceremony of spiritual purification, together with the members of the Sufi Order of Sakhnin, which is headed by Sheikh Abu Filastin. Abu Filastin is a kind of energetic local guru, who won fame as the religious mentor of the Bnei Sakhnin soccer team when they won the State Cup. His mosque, in fact, is just a few minutes' walk from the Sakhnin soccer stadium.

Shrouds and tombstones

When it comes to the Muslim orders of mystics known as Sufis (named for the woolen clothes they wear; suf in Arabic is wool) and their Turkish branch - which preaches worship of God through dancing - I know a little. I was in Konya, in Anatolia, Turkey, the capital of the whirling Sufis founded in the 13th century by Mawlana, a.k.a. Jalaluddin Rumi. There I witnessed, at the memorial ceremony commemorating the 800th-and-something anniversary of Mawlana's death, the whirling dervishes in their woolen skirts, which symbolize the shrouds of the dead, and their high turbans, representing tombstones. The point of Sufi dancing is to merge heaven and earth through the act of spinning; the whirling goes on to the point of total ecstasy, until the body seems to hover of its own accord, the hands extended like wings in the air, the eyes popping out of their sockets. Of course, the riveting element in Mawlana's mysticism is his writings, whose religious liberalism continues to stun readers to this day. Mawlana calls on everyone who wishes, be they Christian, Jew or idol worshiper, to come.

In Egypt there is a variant of the whirling dervishes. There they are known as tanura and wear colorful clothes which, when they spread out during the dance, resemble large tropical flowers. These dervishes, who are abjectly poor, are sometimes called to homes that are suffering from a curse in order to expel demons and heal the sick in dancing-and-drumming ceremonies. They also take part in memorial ceremonies, and it was for this very reason that Tekbilek came to Sakhnin - and in his wake, a large crowd of native Sakhnin residents and curious Jews thirsting for spirituality from Galilee, from the plains and the hills.

It was there that I met the Sakhnin actor Khaled Abu Ali, who is himself a Sufi dervish and is famous for his roles in the Acre theater; indeed he has received many acting prizes in Israel and abroad. Poor Khaled was given the task of hosting Tekbilek's entire entourage, including his wife, who is a belly dancer, his ensemble of drummers and flutists, and the driver of the van that brought them, along with producers of both genders and girls who were to help out.

When I called him, to ascertain that we could set out and that the performance would in fact take place, it was clear that his nerves were strained to the snapping point. I reassured him, saying that I was not coming to move into his home. He sighed with relief. Then he apologized for his short temper, saying that the whole day he had been bombarded with phone calls from "our brothers, the children of Israel," who were inviting themselves to the hafla (bash) at his place. They were people who continued to believe that the Arabs live in exotic tents, that when they clap their hands women appear bearing trays laden with mutton, and that their genetic code has seared mandatory hospitality into their consciousness, come what may.

The dead of others

In fact, Sakhnin has all the reasons in the world not to be hospitable to Jews, and certainly not to espouse the trans-religious fraternity of the Sufi mystics. It all started with the massive expropriation of land by the state, which sparked the bloody events of the first Land Day, in the spring of 1976. The suppression of the Land Day demonstrations has claimed no few fatalities in Sakhnin. I wondered how many of the spiritual Israelis who crowded into the Sufi mosque in Sakhnin on the night Tekbilek appeared have the vaguest idea of the reason for the eruption of the violent protest of Land Day. And how many of them bothered to stop for a moment - before their fake communing with their spirituality to the sounds of Turkish music - at the exposed-concrete monument erected by the artists Gershon Knispel and A. Abadi in the old cemetery of Sakhnin, to commemorate those killed on Land Day. The cube-like monument depicts a mourning mother and a father, whose head is turned to the wall; alongside the monument is a concrete sculpture of a local wooden plow. It's a cogent provocation of the Zionist myth.

At the foot of this modest memorial are two relatively fresh graves on which someone has placed a frame made of aluminum and fiberglass that holds two photographs of youngsters. These are the graves of Emad Faraj Ghanem and Walid Abd al-Munaim Abu Salah, who were killed by Israel Police bullets on October 2, 2000, days after the outbreak of the second intifada. We tend to forget the dead of others and to expect infinite patience from them; from ourselves we demand a little less.

Sakhnin is trying to be a cultural leader of some kind, but how much creativity can there be in conditions of chronic dearth? There is a Palestinian heritage museum there, which stands on the city's ancient hill, and we tried to visit it (it's closed on Fridays). Neighbors who were sitting in the yard of the house next to the museum tried to help; they called the museum director, whose name is Ali, and asked him to come and open the place for us. The neighbor, a bus driver with the Egged company, plies the Haifa-Sakhnin route. Someone walked over and simply pushed the museum's door open; there, in the semi-darkness, we glanced at some of the treasures on display: copper pots and kitchen utensils, works of embroidery and pottery.

An old lizard sidled down from the second floor of the house adjacent to the museum. The lizard was more interesting and more beautiful than all museums, because it was the embodiment of wrinkle-furrowed Palestine, which is ensconced in the land and is cordial and hospitable alike.

There is also a theater in Sakhnin, the Al-Jawal Theater, which operates on a ludicrous budget of NIS 300,000 a year. The theater is located in an old building not far from the tomb of the mishnaic sage Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin. We went there and met the director, Aadal Abu Raiy, and four actors who were about to rehearse a comedy. To round off the picture, we stopped at Tasty, a sandwich and espresso bar near the main square, which serves Italian coffee. Beneath the glass slate of our table was a poem by Avraham Halfi and press clippings about the exploits of the soccer team.

Clown of sadness

Evening descended on Sakhnin. I avoided its main street, with its succession of furniture, clothing and grocery stores. A massive traffic jam, caused by Jews in search of spirituality, stretched along the road leading to Abu Filastin's mosque, where the Sufis of Sakhnin and the Turkish singer Omar Faruk Tekbilek and his ensemble had converged. In a side courtyard, invisible to the audience that packed the mosque's large hall, Tekbilek was asked to demonstrate his prowess in prayer, with all its minutiae and trilling, and he passed the test. Then the charismatic sheikh himself, Sheikh Abu Filastin, dressed in a long white skirt, began to heap blessings on him, and spoke about music and the love of God. He threw out a few sentences in Hebrew and then reverted to Arabic.

In the midst of his remarks, all of a sudden, one of the group of mystics that was sitting all around on mats and cushions closed his eyes, covered his ears with the palms of his hands, and launched into a warbling prayer from the depths of his throat and chest. That happened several times. It thus seemed that attentiveness to the sheikh's external voice was overcome by attentiveness to a profound, inner, meta-human voice, which commanded: sing.

The songs sung by the solitary voices of those sitting on the mats were sad and monotonous. In their daily lives these people might be sanitation workers or postal clerks, maybe owners of a grocery store on the main street. If you saw them on the street, you would not notice their inner voice. Herein lies the sweet and alluring power of religion in general and of Islam in particular - the power of the poor person, who does not stand out in the crowd, who does not demand anything for himself.

After the evening prayer was transmitted through a loudspeaker, the memorial service itself began. It developed by stages from the melancholy playing of a flute and hymns in the voice of Omar Faruk Tekbilek, accompanied by a deep, slow drumbeat.

More than the singer who stood in the center in front of a microphone, the paradox of mysticism played itself out here in a most natural way: The audience around became the central focus - as though to teach that the ego of the artist is only a step on the way to the loss of everyone else's ego. The circle of Sufis around the singer was in constant motion, like wind-whipped stalks of wheat. Yet they were not there: Heads moved at a slow pace that gradually quickened, and with the head the hands moved and groans of "Allah" were emitted as though coming from a deep sleep. Then they got to their feet, all the members of this huge circle, and began to undulate where they stood, as in a debka of earth-stamping and bending over and straightening up; their hands were interwoven and the rhythm of the drums grew ever wilder and more frenzied.

Within the circle, Sheikh Abu Filastin set the pace and urged them on, and two dancers of the Turkish style, of Mawlana, began to spin around. One of them was the actor Khaled Abu Ali, whose flying white garb and high turban made him look like a clown - a clown of all the sadness that exists in this universe, who with all his might is trying to preserve spiritual culture in this place, in the hope that the Palestinians will not sink into the ordinary temptations of bourgeois wheeling-and-dealing, which is so easy to fall into.

Less surprisingly than might be thought, a few of our Jewish brethren joined the circle of whirling Muslims. There was one bespectacled fellow in a white satin gown, beneath which was a purple skirt, who stretched out his hands and spun. It might have seemed ridiculous, but on second thought it was bolder than just sitting on the side and making cynical remarks about "the situation." He was joined by a bearded young man in a black cap. And from the sides more and more Jews couldn't resist the temptation of the swirling and joined the circle. They may not have understood the words of the Islamic hymns that were sung, or maybe they did, for "Allah is one" for us, too, and also for them, and Islam is far closer to Judaism than comes across from the general ignorance America has infused into the world media.

Who were the Jews in the audience that joined the ceremony? I recognized some of them. Close to the wall was Dr. Avraham Elqayam, head of the Moussaieff Center for Research in Kabbala at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. He listened to the singing with eyes closed and moved his head to the rhythm of the drums. There were men and women in long scarves and strings of beads, the kind you meet on trips to India, and many had come from the neighboring mitzpim - the "lookout" settlements in Galilee. The mitzpim would on no account accept an Arab into their community, even though lands of Sakhnin residents were expropriated for them. The dancing and music and singing seemed to be aimed at overcoming thoughts of the injustice, seeking to erase them in the course of the swaying of the head and the monotonic movement of the body, forward and backward - to declare that all contradictions were one, like God: wrongdoing and justice, Jews and Arabs, yuppies from the city and beggars from the village square.

As long as the tidal wave of music continued and the rhythm pounded in everyone's head, the magic did its work. Peace reigned for a moment. In the hairsplitting in which mystics are engaged, one may believe that this moment is also eternity. And there was evening and there was morning, and one awoke in a villa in Ra'anana and another found himself again in the uniform of a sanitation worker in Sakhnin. W