Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Istanbul: Whirling

Istanbul. Coffee and carpet.

I met "Alican" on a street corner. He sells new and old carpets (both retail and wholesale) in a family enterprise that also sells jewelry. The family business has been in Istanbul for 30 years. A Kurdish family, it has many members just in the Hippodrome neighborhood alone - when the entire family gets together, its 600+ strong.

Alican invited me to his place to show me his .... etchings ... er, carpet. We descended a staircase to a cool, light room filled with carpets. Alican had tea; I had coffee. His cousin joined us presently, and after the requisite foreplay, asked me what I was interested in buying while in Istanbul.

I've stumbled on a very good reply to queries about my purchase of carpet. And it's even truthful: "I don't have a home, thus I have no place to put carpet. No, not even a very small carpet. No space in the luggage."

Alican told me that every Monday night, one of the mosques opens up a so-called whirling dervish service to the public. He showed me on a map where it is. ... but later offered to accompany me, to which I happily agreed.

I met him at 9:00 p.m. in front of his family business and instead of walking, we drove there. Good thing, too, as it was quite a ways, at least by car.  It was very hot. When we arrived, there were a couple of tourists there, from Sweden, I think. Later, a few more arrived from various parts of the world. All told, perhaps 20-25 of us.

We waited while the Sufi completed their dinner - musicians and dancers - and we were then ushered into a vestibule to hand over our shoes and then into a very hot, small room. When one of the Sufi was unable to turn on the a/c (!) to his satisfaction, we were moved into the main mosque area. As visitors, we were in an area cordoned off by a wooden rail. Women visitors were on one side; men on the other.

The women mosque members were upstairs in the balcony behind a wooden lattice.

Singers and drummers were in an adjacent room with a glass wall. Men filled this room, seated on the carpet. More men sat outside this room, facing into it. All wore white prayer caps.

It was luxuriously cool in the air-conditioned mosque. Also, there were several large screens where one could see what was going on in the room with the singers and musicians. In that room was a large smart board upon which the music scrolled for the musicians.

First came drumming and chant-singing, for many minutes. It seemed there'd be about 10 minutes of one refrain, then movement into another, then another. Some of it was a rolling, fluid chant; other times staccatto; other times rather melodic. It was easy to get into a rocking body movement or to tap one's fingers to the beat.

The anticipation of waiting for the dancers to come out onto the mosque floor intensified. I could barely see a bit of a connecting room, in which I saw a segment of the occasional swirl of a dancer-in-waiting, or maybe a student dancer. 


About 30 minutes after the singing had begun, a line of seven men, all in black robes and tall, camel-hair hats walked into the room. They lined up in front of us women visitors, their backs to us, except for one man, who was clearly the leader. He stood apart from the remaining six men.

After a time, the six men began a walk past the leader, lowering their heads in front of him, whereupon he kissed their hats and they passed on. In a subsequent pass, all seven men participated in a walk-around, but this time one man would turn around to face an oncoming man, they would make eye contact, complete a slight head bow, then the turning man would turn around again to follow the walkers in front of him. Each man did this once, and then the seven men repeated the cycle two more times.

At a certain point, a ninth man joined the group.

The leader and one other man kept their black cloaks on, but the others removed theirs to reveal the white and black sema clothing, and began, one by one, to whirl.

At times, the leader and the other cloaked man walked through the dancers. Other times, they simply stood. The leader generally had his eyes closed.

All along, the singers and musicians are continuing their chant-songs.

The chant-songs raised at times to an intensity that had the singers bobbing their heads and upper torsos in chorus.

And then it was over.

I learned later from Alican that the leader was the mosque's imam and the second man in black was his apprentice. One of the dancers, a boy, was in pale yellow garb; he was a student of the dance.

Alican and I retrieved our shoes and then went to a restaurant close to his family business for a late dinner and drink. Alican ordered a sampling of a number of dishes. The shrimp in a spicy sauce was excellent.

It was a really pleasant evening thanks to Alican's generous hospitality.

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