Sema

It is impossible to convey the sounds and images of Sufi ritual through words. The most I can attempt is to describe my experience. I am a sucker for mysticism. 🙂 [Sucker: (2b) “One that is indiscriminately attracted to something specified.”]

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[Painting by Ayten Mungen Polat.]
The visit to Mevlevihanesi began with a gift. (Later, as I checked into my hotel for the evening, I received a compliment: “That is a beautiful scarf. Very Turkish.”) Beautiful tiling and religious inscription adorn the entry, a long hallway with four windows opening onto several richly-embellished coffins: the lineage of teachers at this particular temple (architecturally it is not a mosque). Adherents pause at each window to offer greetings and respect.
The hall opens onto a small courtyard with trees and the obligatory public water spigots. Among the various decorative tiling is a symbol I have not seen before.
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We remove our shoes and pass through two rooms before entering the place of worship. The singers have already begun. I am gestured to sit with a few women at the far end of the space. I settle down and observe the surroundings. The walls are dense with script.
Immediately in front of where I sit is a large open space. The man who welcomed me with his eyes, indicating where I should sit, is spreading small fuzzy carpets around the edges of the wooden floor. The singers are clustered at the other end, squeezed into another room separated from the dance space by pillars and a low wall. They face the same direction as I do, so their backs are toward the dance space. They sing in unison, striking the same notes but at various pitches: a melodic blend of tenor, bass, and baritone.
The sound is low and quiet yet it fills the space. It is pleasing, rhythmic, soothing. I continue to look around and realize there are onlookers in the balcony, women and children. They have the best seats in the house. 🙂
More people enter. I am distracted by two women who sit in front of me (their male companion sits with them at first, then is directed to the men’s section). They talk. Is it instructional? Perhaps, but it interferes with the singing. The woman doing most of the talking checks her cell phone. I am annoyed by the disrespect to the service and the auditory interference. But people move continually in to and out of the worship space. Late arrivals filter in throughout the service: some join the singers, others the audience. Some people depart at irregular intervals. The annoyance is only mine. I let it go.
Suddenly the dancers enter. After the first three I am surprised when the fourth steps into the room, then realize I’ve seen many depictions of five…yet they keep coming. I count nine. The dance space seems small to me now: how will they manage? They line up in front of the audience space; I can’t see much. The singers are in their third or fourth song now. A very few times a single voice has deviated from the chorus, usually in a sharp or punctuated manner: obviously deliberate. Upon occasion a soloist would sing a prayer. These seem to have been short and subtle because I had not noticed when they began: my consciousness would gradually register their presence as “having been there for awhile.” I was oddly alert while simultaneously being lulled.
The dancers, individually, bow. There is no rhyme to it, no pattern. If there is a cue as to who should bow when, I cannot discern it. Are they being visually directed? My view is obscured. Some time passes. When will they begin? How will they start? The singing provides me no clue: the chants seem to vary yet the overall sound remains more or less the same. A dancer moves into view to my right. Ah, there has been a leader, someone whom (I assume) the dancers have been facing.
Now the line of dancers bow in unison and remove their black robes. Except the first one in line does not remove his. I count again, ten plus the leader, eleven in all. Two in black, nine in white. They kneel, prostrating themselves in the typical Muslim prayer position. Suddenly they strike the floor forcefully with their hands, startling a young woman near me. The volume of the singing also rises simultaneously, an accentuated coordination of the singers and dancers.


The friend who brought me had encouraged me to take pictures but I was uneasy about it. This was real worship, not a show. Still, I took some surreptitiously. Then, the first man in line – who had not removed his black robe – greeted the leader and moved to a more central place some two-three meters away from the leader, yet facing him (and me). I took a picture of them but our eye contact dissuaded me from taking many more.
The white-skirted and jacketed dancers now proceed in a line to greet the leader and begin. The gesture of greeting involves a bow, a nod and kiss to the chest of the leader (his heart?) who responds by a nod/kiss to each dancer’s head, another bow, and then a slow step away into the first twirls. Each dancer follows in turn and they unravel their straight line into a graceful constellation across the floor.
The singing continues. I am surprised that the singers do not turn to watch the dancing. The coordination is managed on some other plane of sensation. The second leader walks the dance floor, presumably checking on each dancer. Satisfied, he stops near the leader and they watch. The dancers twirl for a long time. There is still only slight variation from the singers. Perhaps the content of the chant has changed, but the effect of the sound, its quality, remains steady, constant.
After what seems like both a long and a short time, a loud beat occurs and all singers and dancers stop. They are all prepared for it: there is no perceptible delay. Time has ceased to matter much, except I am hoping there will be more. 🙂
Two more songs/dances ensue. For the second round there is a change of two dancers but the movement of the dance varies little. I notice more details: the slow raising of the arms with hands brushing one’s own face before extension into uplifted, open arches. There is a rotation…I think it increases from dance to dance. One can’t really see it happen, at least not from my angle. One just realizes the faces are different, in different positions than they were originally. The singing is more robust; the singers have begun to sway. Volume increases; the soloist is more marked. When it’s over I am let down, but it is gentle. I have been privy to something quite special.

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I linger, but am gestured to leave. They are preparing for the next service! I want to stay, but am told there is someone who speaks English who can explain and respond to questions. In a small room with half-a-dozen other English speakers, I realize I’m in a devotional group. I remember the feel of this – bible study! – from my Nazarene days. 🙂 They really are trying to convert me! (More on this later, smile.)
I meet Edip, Alistair and Cyndee, Nureddin, Gulliame (sp?), and others. We are quite a collection of nationalities and language competencies! We introduce ourselves casually, only in response to questions about background and/or what has brought us to Istanbul. The air is strong with comraderie (and cigarette smoke!); I am comfortable. Relaxed. A question: “How does one find god if one does not believe in god?” I want to say, “Look elsewhere! ‘god’ is not to be found as ‘god.’ ‘god’ is in whatever moves you, feeds your passion, nurtures your desires. Pay attention to what turns you on! Therein you will find ‘god’.” But I hold my tongue, wondering at myself. 🙂 Edip answers. There is some back-and-forth. I’m unsure of the sequence of conversaton now, at some point Alistair provides a beautifully-gestured description of how he and Edip had met earlier that day and Alistair realized, “Here is a man I can talk to.”
At some point I say, “It is a matter of belief. You’re here because of a random set of events. You can consider them simply random. If you weren’t here, you’d be somewhere else, but that would also be because of how you interacted with those random events.”
Edip, turning to me, gestures to a stained print on the wall, “What does it say?” he asks me. I read it out loud. “There is your random. That is your field.”
Cyndee, Alistair and I maintain a conversation that ambles around, sometimes merging with others in the group, sometimes diverging to a pair or engaging us as a trio. What brought you here, she asks. “An academic conference,” I respond, “A good opportunity to share my interest in language and the European Union. The conference is over now and I’m still here.” It is an answer open to many possible hearings, as I discover when she responds with a comment about me becoming Sufi. I let that go, but there is another implication that I’ve decided to stay long-term in Istanbul. Have I? 😉 Or has it decided me? (I ponder.)

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