What Turkey's Celebration of Rumi Teaches Us About Iran

The Muslim mystic known as Rumi is the most widely read poet in the United States and a kind of Persian-language forefather of the LGBTQ community. Every year in the Turkish city of Konya, thousands honor him in a colorful carnival of faith

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The sema ceremony in Konya, Turkey, this month. The founding of the Turkish Republic was a fatal blow to the dervishes.
The sema ceremony in Konya, Turkey, this month. The founding of the Turkish Republic was a fatal blow to the dervishes.Credit: Türkiye Tourism Promotion and Development Agency
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
Konya, Turkey
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
Konya, Turkey

KONYA, Turkey – The World Cup final that day felt like a distant memory. Reality seemed a bit less palpable during the celebration marking 749 years since the Muslim mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi, the founder of the whirling dervishes, rose to heaven.

Surprisingly, Rumi (1207-1273) is considered the most widely read poet in the United States today. He and his mystic doctrine have admirers all over the world.

He’s the most popular of the saints of Islam and also a kind of forefather of the LGBTQ community thanks to his mysterious couplehood with his beloved Shams Tabrizi, a poet who was cruelly murdered by Rumi’s disciples. They were jealous of the unusual relationship between the two mystics.

At the ceremony, dervishes commemorate the uniting of Rumi’s soul with God.Credit: Türkiye Tourism Promotion and Development Agency

The abolishing of the Ottoman sultanate and the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1925 was a fatal blow to the order of the whirling dervishes, who were now banned from practicing their rites in public. Toward the 1960s, some restrictions on the dervishes were relaxed, but their numbers dwindled greatly due to their strict supervision by the government, even though in 2008 UNESCO put the dervishes' musical-meditative ceremony, the sema, on its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Today there are a few hundred dervishes in Turkey and a similar number in Pakistan and Egypt – and since the 1980s, in Britain and the United States.

This month, the flights that landed one after another at Konya Airport brought thousands of pilgrims. A few devotees from Israel also came here to dance the sema on the day of the ceremony.

Whirling dervishes of the Mevlevi order get dressed prior a Sheb-i Arus ceremony in Konya, Turkey, this December.Credit: Emrah Gurel /AP

Among them was Ronie Parciak, a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies whose interests include the dervishes. We bumped into each other while leaving the airport and promised to meet up later.

That didn't happen, though, because the Turkish Tourism Ministry, which invited me here, prepared a packed itinerary for my three days in this industrial city that seems to have been dropped in middle of the Anatolian Plateau in the wait for the harsh winter. Despite the cold, it was certainly worth seeing the sleeping city awaken during the Sheb-i Arus ceremony commemorating the uniting of Rumi’s soul with God.

It was impossible not to notice the dominant presence of Iranian pilgrims, who consider Rumi one of their own. His poetry, as seen in his theological works “Masnavi” and “Divan-i Shams i-Tabrizi” – the latter dedicated to his murdered beloved – were written in Persian. The pilgrims' daringly colorful clothing and the strange musical instruments on their backs mislead you into believing that Iran isn't the Iran of the carnival atmosphere that envelops us in Israel.

Entering the tomb complex, just let your body join the other bodies and breathe whatever air is available.

In Konya, Iranian women wear their hair exposed or concealed, however they choose. And everyone proudly wears a locket symbolizing the ancient Persian monarchy.

At the gate of Rumi's tomb, I attached myself to one such colorful group of young people who seemed like actors looking for the set of a movie on the beatniks of the ‘50s. After I asked them what they thought about the hijab revolution in their country, I had the feeling they were saying to each other, “Was does this nudnik want from us?”

Later I met them again sitting and playing music in a park near the tomb. Once again I made a fool of myself when I tried to show my familiarity with their instruments. The flute, which I thought was a ney, a dervish flute, was merely a Native American flute imported from the United States. The box, which when opened and closed made the sound of a pump organ, was an Indian musical instrument, a sruti box.

It's said that it isn't a dance, it's a prayer.Credit: Türkiye Tourism Promotion and Development Agency

I'm whirling around, move out of my way

The fact that I was an Israeli also made no impression on them. Who cares where you come from when the whole idea of gathering under Rumi’s banner is to blur barriers between people?

Evening began to fall and my hosts from the Tourism Ministry urged me not to try to push into the tomb complex during evening prayer, when the first memorial ceremony to Rumi takes places. To thin out the crowd, the municipality put large screens in the tomb's courtyard and in the square in front of it.

But what am I, a coward? I joined the stream being sucked into the building. You don’t have to do anything, just let your body join the bodies in front, behind and alongside you and breathe whatever air is available.

Whirling dervishes of the Mevlevi order get dressed prior a Sheb-i Arus ceremony in Konya, Turkey, in December 2022.Credit: Emrah Gurel /AP

The children, carried on their parents’ shoulders and heads, sometimes knocked into the glass lanterns lit by candles and dangling from the ceiling. Members of the congregation shouted at the parents to be careful; if only one candle fell, we’d all go up in smoke.

A bearded man smiled at me – his name was Rafa, from Manchester, England. He said he comes here every year because Rumi represents everything thatis beautiful in Islam, the tolerance and the love.

In English, he quoted to me Rumi’s most famous saying: “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshipper.” As Rumi put it, “Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.”

The tomb in Konya. Rumi represents everything that is beautiful in Islam, the tolerance and the love.Credit: lighthunteralp/Shutterstock

Between us and the gilded, gleaming tomb was a sea of heads bathed in pleasant light. Rafa, who isn't very tall, was hidden on all sides by the people around him – and by his wife, an alabaster-skinned Englishwoman in a black scarf. She constantly told us to be quiet.

The hidden gem

How do you become a whirling dervish? The dervish school is called a matbah, where students learn to obey and serve their superiors. Slowly but surely the best are selected, and they’re taught the dervish dance that takes six months of exhausting training.

So I was told by a young dervish at the end of the night sema. This year he didn't take part in the dancing ceremony, he only carried the red goat-leather carpet on which an old man kneeled during the rite.

His entire role was to lay the carpet at the beginning of the ceremony and pick it up at the end – which he did with great reverence, not leaving the carpet for a moment. Talking to me a bit later, his eyes darted; he seemed to fear he would say the wrong thing.

Dervishes, like tall flowers or strange spinning tops.Credit: Türkiye Tourism Promotion and Development Agency

Aside from his first name, Ali, I could hardly understand him. “No, no dancer,” he mumbled – that is, he's not to be called a dancer because what the dervishes do isn't a dance, it's a prayer.

I was curious to know how, when they're whirling with arms outstretched, they don't lose their balance. And when they're spinning, do they close their eyes so they don't feel sick? Somebody volunteered to translate.

Yes, at first they do feel sick, lose their balance and fall. The method is to think of nothing and say “Allah” rhythmically to yourself. This restores your balance.

The whole idea of gathering under Rumi’s banner is to blur barriers between people.

The main sema took place in the city's cultural center, built like a stadium. In the center, the dervishes whirled to the music of flutists and drummers, who played in a slow rhythm that increased as the whirling seemed to lose control and never stop.

From my perch in the top row of the roofed stadium I observed the dancers in their white dresses and hats like tall flowers or strange spinning tops. When the signal was given, they suddenly returned to their places and uttered in unison a long “Huaaaaaaaaaa,” sounding like a wounded animal or participants in a collective breathing exercise.

I crowded together with other curious onlookers to speak with Asin Chelebi Beyru, a 23rd-generation descendant of Rumi. This impressive aristocratic lady has been traveling the world for years as part of the “My Mawlana” project to spread her ancestor's doctrine of love and tolerance.

A Syrian journalist I made friends with here, who writes for the Syrian magazine Al-Bayan, tried to generate a headline and interrupted to ask why Beyru didn’t do more to uproot Islamophobia in the West. She smiled and answered in a poetic sentence she received over the generations: “There is a gem in the mountain of your body. Seek that.”

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