31 May – 3 June 2014
“Why are you going to Konya?”
Everyone in Istanbul asked us this question when they learned of our travel plans.
Konya, a moderate-sized city in central Anatolia, is an austere and conservative place. Most women there wear headscarves, and the markets sell shapeless, dark-colored, long-sleeved dresses and long skirts instead of the short-shorts and fluorescent fishnet tops to which I had become accustomed in SE Asia. The idea of going out to eat hasn’t really caught on yet – most people still eat meals at home. Otherwise, there are mostly only fast-food restaurants. It’s not necessarily an easy place to be a tourist.
I was certainly nervous about being in an environment where non-veiled women were the minority.
We took a flight full of elderly Turks to Konya. The women all wore headscarves and wool sweaters and kept popping up out of their seats at prohibited times to converse with friends in the aisles. The flight attendants tried to keep order, but got shouted down and out-willed by these steely villagers who didn’t give a whit about airplane rules. I was impressed, and I also felt I could relate! After that flight, Konya didn’t seem so intimidating. Actually, no one even seemed to give us a second look there, although we certainly stuck out. Shopkeepers and hotel and restaurant workers were just as friendly as in Istanbul, and nobody bothered us on the street.
The city wasn’t much to look at, filled as it was with tall apartment buildings of unfortunate architecture and surrounded by a flat, arid landscape. But it had beautiful parks and had awesome urban planning – American cities could learn a thing or two from its bike-sharing and transit system, plentiful pedestrian under- and over-passes, and well-organized taxi network.
I gathered the courage to cover my head with my scarf and actually enter a couple old mosques (I had never actually gone into a mosque before), although I was surprised at how upset I felt about it. I didn’t like to linger inside: I kept thinking I was about to get run out for inadvertently wandering in a men-only area or being somehow disrespectful. I felt conflicted about entering a place that I felt disrespected me. It seemed so strange that my hair would cause offense while Jacob’s unruly mop could be free. I also felt sad as I realized that I had let my fear/anger/repulsion prevent me from taking the time to get a deeper understanding of these rules.
I had felt totally comfortable entering Buddhist and Hindu temples in country after country, but a mosque gave me pause. I had no problem reading Buddhist or Hindu holy books and participating in rituals, but when it came to Islam, I shied away. I had spoken with Buddhist monks and devotees of Hindu deities, but I had felt hesitant to approach followers of Islam. Turkey was highlighting the limits of my openness, and I understood how much I still had to learn.
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
There was only one reason we had come to Konya: Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi and great mystical poet, who had settled there after escaping invaders in Afghanistan. Rumi and his followers founded the Mevlevi order of the Sufis, also known as the “whirling dervishes”. Rumi developed this spiritual practice of spinning, called sema.
We got to see a performance of dervishes in Istanbul (probably they were performers and not actual practitioners, but nonetheless it was magnificent). Watching the whirling, I felt a shock of recognition: spinning as a spiritual practice? of course. After sitting on a cushion six hours a day in Myanmar, kirtan and vinyasa in India, kundalini in Bali, and tantra on Koh Phangan…why not whirling as path to God? It was mesmerizing. So smoothly the male dancers moved and whirled, always to the left, with feet wrapped in fabric that slid effortlessly across the floor. Their heavy white skirts flared out, and, eyes closed and heads cocked, they turned and turned. For 10 minutes at a time they would turn (without spotting!), and they also rotated around a central point while turning, as the planets spin while also revolving around the sun.
I let it turn me, too, but I couldn’t help thinking: where are the women? Where were the women in Rumi’s world? He had two (consecutive) wives who bore him four children. And yet in Rumi’s life, it’s his ecstatic devotion to a male friend, Sems, that is the relationship held up as an example of divine love. And in the dance, only men.
The program we were given for the show gave a detailed explanation of Rumi’s life and work along with plenty of inspiration, but had nothing to say about the conspicuous absence of women among the musicians and dancers. We know that though Rumi was open-minded and tolerant for his era, he still followed an ascetic faith that regarded women and sexuality as a distraction from the spiritual path. At the same time, Rumi’s works are considered to be among the greatest Persian literature and remain widely read in the Persian-speaking world.
The Mevlevi order was outlawed after the birth of modern Turkey in the 1920s, as part of a sweeping policy that aimed to separate the new nation from traditional Ottoman culture and embrace secular, Western values (including women’s equality, which Turkey had before many European countries). In 2005, the Mevlevi sema “whirling” ceremony was proclaimed as a part of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
In Konya, we went to see Rumi’s tomb. The entire complex of mosque, monastery, and rose garden surrounding his tomb is a major pilgrimage site for Turkish Muslims. By Rumi’s express instructions, it is open to people of all faiths.
Rumi was a first love among the mystical traditions for us. Like many Western seekers, we have known and loved his poetry for years. Yet here again we find another case of seemingly original spiritual teachings from the East that upon closer inspection turn out to have been taken from their historical context and repackaged for contemporary consumption. It is often said that Rumi is a best-selling poet in the US, but it is better said that Coleman Barks is a best-selling poet, because as English readers we really only know Rumi through Barks. Barks neither speaks nor reads Persian; he rewrote the poetry from existing translations. Not many argue that his work isn’t deeply inspiring poetry, but is it Rumi?
At his gorgeous turquoise tomb, even among the strong devotional energy of the many followers who pressed together to pray in front of it, I felt…nothing. Among my confusion, sadness, fear, and anger about my right, and the right of all women to exist as full humans, I had lost the thread that connected me to this mystical poet.
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam or Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath …breathing …human …being.
photos from sites in Istanbul: