Turkish delight: Whirling Dervishes of Rumi at the U

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“How do you review a Dervish?” I tweeted semi-rhetorically last night as I headed off to Ted Mann Concert Hall to see the Whirling Dervishes of Rumi spin the light fantastic. I’m still not entirely sure, but the first order of business is to explain what they are.

A “Dervish” is an ascetic seeker of God in the Sufi Muslim tradition. The whirling Dervishes are members of the Mevlevi Order, which honors the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. The whirling takes place in the Sema Ritual of devotion, in which, according to the program notes, “by revolving in harmony with all things in nature—with the smallest cells and with all the stars in the firmament—the [Dervish] testifies to the existence and majesty of the Creator.” Home base for the Mevlevi Order is Konya, Turkey, where Rumi is buried.

The Sema Ritual is a spiritual ceremony not intended as entertainment, but given that it is entertaining, the Turks have not been averse to displaying the ceremony in the interests of promoting understanding and attracting tourists. The Dervishes who performed at the U come from Konya and have been touring the U.S.—their Web site (you got it, whirlingdervishes.org) features photos of them whirling in Tulsa, Houston, and Baton Rouge. They were here at the invitation of the Northern Lights Society, a group founded by Turkish-Minnesotans in 2001 to promote interfaith dialogue.

The evening began with a half-hour of traditional Turkish music performed by a group who travel with the Dervishes. I don’t know much about Turkish music, but I’m a longtime fan of the minimalist composers (Philip Glass, John Adams, Steve Reich) who were inspired by the repetitive patterns of some Middle Eastern music, and it was fascinating to watch the ensemble coordinate transitions from one section to the next. The ecstatic singing was electrifying; Westerners who are otherwise unfamiliar with Islamic devotional singing are nonetheless familiar with the sound, which has served as the soundtrack to death scenes in just about every Hollywood film set in the Middle East (and many that aren’t) for the last two decades.

After an intermission, the Dervishes appeared in their distinctive camel-hair hats (copies were offered for sale in the lobby). From an outsider’s perspective, the ceremony was beautiful, solemn, and pretty much exactly what I expected. Subtle modulations of light added a tasteful hint of glam to the Dervishes’ performance—which I would hesitate to characterize as such had that term not been applied by the master of ceremonies. We had been warned that the whirling would be “quite measured”; I’m not sure what they thought people were expecting, but it looked pretty rapid to me. The Dervishes held their upper bodies stock-still, arms raised in an attitude of devotion as their feet whisked about and their robes rose and fell. The entire ceremony lasted about a half-hour; a hijab-clad woman sitting in front of me captured the whole thing on video with her BlackBerry.

All in all, it was a fascinating evening that demonstrated some of the real power of the mystical Islamic tradition. And if a whirling Dervish is what it takes to attract a (lapsed) Catholic St. Paul boy like me to an event celebrating the mystical Islamic tradition…bring ’em on!