A Dervish on the Beat in Konya

Posted on September 24th, 2015 in News, Recent posts by .


Simon Broughton reports from Konya, Rumi’s home town in Turkey

It adds a whole extra dimension going to Rumi’s shrine with a group of Moroccan Sufi musicians. I’m talking about the Ensemble Thami al-Harraq, who performed on Wednesday evening (September 23) at the Mystic Music Festival in Konya, Turkey.

There are many different Sufi saints revered in different parts of the Islamic world, but if there’s one who’s universally adored, it is Jalaluddin Rumi, also known as Mevlana. He was born in Balkh (now Afghanistan) in 1207 and died here in Konya, then the capital of the Seljuk Empire, in 1273. But his poetry and ideas have spread far and wide and his tomb attracts visitors from all over the world.

“The musicians are asking if they could perform a zikr, in front of the tomb?’’ the spokesman of the group, Abdellah Cherif Ouazzan, asks the Turkish guide. A zikr is a sung or chanted ritual in praise of God, and Rumi, of course, was one of the most influential Sufis in using music as a way of becoming closer to God. The Moroccans want to celebrate their 800-year-old hero for whom they really feel love. But sadly a zikr is not permitted in the shrine.

“Either seem as you are, or be as you seem”

The curious thing is, that while Turkey frequently promotes itself with Rumi and Whirling Dervishes and is one of the most democratic and open countries in the Islamic world, actually practising Sufism is illegal here. The Sufi lodges were closed by Kemal Atatürk in 1925 after the foundation of the Turkish Republic and that ban remains in place. So the Rumi mausoleum can’t be a place for a Sufi ritual, although thousands of people are going there to worship at his tomb.

When you go in, you don’t take your shoes off, as you would in a mosque, but put plastic covers over the soles to protect the floor as in a museum. Over the doorway, a sign in Persian reads ‘Whoever enters incomplete, will emerge complete’. That’s quite a claim.

There are many tombs inside the mausoleum, but Rumi’s is in the corner topped on the outside by a distinctive turquoise cone. Rumi is buried alongside his son, Sultan Veled, who actually established the Mevlevi order – popularly known as Whirling Dervishes – after his death. There’s a throng of people clustered by the tomb – many of them praying, but others simply standing in wide-eyed amazement. He isn’t just revered by Muslims, but the translations of Coleman Barks, which have sold over 2 million copies, have made Rumi one of the most widely read poets in the US – admired, of course, for his spirituality that connects faiths, but also his imagination and humour.

Thami al-Harraq

At the time of the Seljuk Empire, the educated language was Persian, but the language of trade (and Islam) was Arabic and the everyday language was Turkish. Many people spoke all three. Although Rumi wrote predominantly in Persian, the Ensemble Thami al-Harraq have in their repertoire the poems he wrote in Arabic. But that’s not what they were doing in Konya.

Either seem as you are, or be as you seem,’ that’s the Rumi quote in dozens of languages on the grandiose plaza in front of the Mevlana Culture Centre where the festival performances take place. There were 22 of them on stage, all men, all dressed in white. Sitting cross-legged on carpets, 14 singers in front and eight instrumentalists on a platform behind playing violins, violas, cello, ouds and percussion. The performers – an all-star band – come from Sufi lodges of the Ouazzaniya brotherhood from Fes and other cities in Morocco. It begins with a solemn solo prayer, but then become more convivial. The music is Arab-Andalus in style with almost swinging syncopated rhythms. Basically the music alternates chorus with solo songs. Virtually everybody gets a turn and there isn’t a poor voice amongst them. One striking singer is Marouane Hajji, whose voice projects like a comet and is a soloist in his own right. This is clearly spiritual music, but made into a powerful concert performance.

But the final part, performed without instruments and just voices only, is what they do in their zawiya (shrine). Ouazzan tells me it’s the first time they’ve performed it outside the zawiya. They basically sing ‘Illa-lah’ again and again, but with a fiery, rough-edged intensity, occasionally punctuated by guttural intakes of breath. Then one of the band comes to the front and beats a drum. The singers stand and join hands swaying first from side to side and then bending forward and back. This is not a concert performance, but there isn’t that awkwardness of planting a sacred ritual on stage. “We don’t need people to listen to the music,” says Ouazzane, “but to feel it.” 

As the beat gets faster, they form a ring, bouncing with a sort of spiritual joy into the air. The music reaches its climax. There’s tumultuous applause and then they bring things down with a solo prayer. You might argue that musically it’s a little rough and repetitive, but the effect is extraordinary. We’ve been witnessing a style of spiritual music it would be virtually impossible to experience anywhere else.

The Konya International Mystic Music Festival continues till September 30: Find out more at mysticmusicfest.com

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