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Transcendent Thrash


02 Sep 2010 06:334 Comments

[ passport ] I was told to make myself look as much like a man as possible to attend a male-only Sufi dervish ceremony on the outskirts of Sanandaj. Borrowing a brown cloaklike contraption from my friend's father, I imagined myself huddled in the corner, the cloak pulled over my eyes, a strand of prayer beads in my hands, appearing like a weary old man. Surely no one would notice.

Both men and women participate in Sufi ceremonies, but since the object is to enter a trance union with God in love and ecstasy, they are separated by gender. Who wants or needs the opposite sex around as a distraction? Certainly not me.

I was drawn to learning more about Sufism, the mystical side of Islam, for reasons many in the West do: I had read the works of Rumi, Saadi, and Hafez and found their words and beliefs, such as finding God within, the oneness of all of humanity, and an emphasis on love to resonate with me more than the religion I was brought up with.

A Kurdish English teacher named Leyla accompanied me to the dervish ceremony hall, called a khaneqa. In the courtyard, we were greeted by a very handsome man in his mid-30s. His name was Adar and he had a generous five o'clock shadow, messy dark hair, full lips, and sparkling eyes. He spoke little English but Leyla translated.

Men lined up to wash their feet just inside the khaneqa, staring at us suspiciously as we removed our shoes and added them to the pile of slippers, loafers, and boots. Adar said something to them, and they quickly moved on into the large prayer hall covered in carpets, flanked by gold frames containing Farsi and Arabic script.

Adar led us to the kitchen where a tall man in white was preparing what looked like a hundred cups of tea from one giant pot of water, bubbling on the stove. The floor was covered by a white sheet and there was a door that opened into the prayer hall. "Adar is telling us that we sit here, in the kitchen," Leyla translated. "We cannot go in, but we can sit in here and he will leave the door open." So much for our clever disguises.

Adar was what I came to think of as the "master of the ceremony." He is a professional player of the daft, a giant tambourinelike drum with little metal loops tied to its edges. From the kitchen we spied the ceremony starting -- men kneeled, facing forward like during a regular mosque prayer, reciting "Allah Allah Allah" over and over in various speeds and intonations. Then the men rocked back and forth, saying "God is one" in Farsi. Their eyes were shut. A few shouted out in ecstasy, though to my American ears, at times they sounded like screams of pain.

Adar checked in to ask Leyla if I was scared by all the noises. I assured him I had seen things in India and in evangelical churches in America that were just as intense. He smiled at me sweetly, as Leyla told him not to worry about us. I slyly swept the sweat from my brow, not wanting Adar to notice that we were sweltering to death because of the giant cauldron of boiling water.

After the chanting the men got down to business. Twenty dafts were brought out and men lined the periphery of the hall. Naturally, Adar was the star drummer. His co-leader looked more computer-geek Boy Scout than dervish. He had light hair and eyes, eyeglasses, pimples, a tucked-in white button-down, and a scarf around his neck. He eyed us sitting in the kitchen and scowled. His eyes on fire, he ran over to slam the kitchen door shut.

We were alone with the cauldron now. Within 30 seconds, the kitchen became an oven. Even worse, we were teased with the sound of furious drumming and chanting -- something great was going on in there and we could no longer see it.

Just in time, Adar swung the door open like a superhero. He gave us a toothy smile before he ran back to his position as leader of the drumming group. We had a direct view of his co-leader whirling around, beads of sweat on his forehead, arms thrust up to the heavens, eyes shut as if he had truly reached ecstasy and union with God. His eyes cracked open a hair as if he sensed he was being watched. He stormed to the door, slamming it shut.

Adar again returned, this time closing the door behind him. He asked for my video camera, and told me he would have a young boy film the ceremony. It wasn't normally permitted but he would make an exception. For an hour, Leyla and I sat on the kitchen floor, fanning ourselves, fantasizing about taking off our head scarves and heavy, manly cloaks.

Toward the end, Adar opened the door, his head held high, letting us catch a glimpse of one of the most incredible sights I've ever seen in my life. Across from the group of daft players was a line of about ten men with some of the longest hair I had seen. While chanting, they rhythmically bent forward from the waist, flinging their heads up and down, rocking back and forth. Hair was everywhere. Another man hopped around the circle, flopping his head every which way. It was beyond my imagination.

When the ceremony was over Adar quickly ushered us out -- I got the feeling he was hiding us from his co-leader. I went to shake his hand, and he said, "Sorry," putting his hands behind his back. Perhaps he was too close to God at that point and didn't want to taint it, or maybe he just wanted to do damage control. He took my phone number and told me that he would do his best to see if I could take part in the female dervish ceremony the next night. Before I got home I received a text: "yes welcome."

Leyla was teaching the next evening so I went to the female dervish ceremony by myself. When I arrived a pregnant woman answered the door, not letting me in until she tracked down the ceremony leader -- a warm, middle-aged woman dressed all in white. She guided me through the process of washing my feet, hands, and face, speaking to me in Kurdish about Allah. I nodded.

The prayer hall was pretty full, so she sat me in the middle of the hall, rather than on the side where I could inconspicuously watch everyone. With this arrangement, I was the one to be watched. As I sat there feeling self-conscious and out of place, a young woman brought me a cup of tea and a bowl of sugar cubes. I noticed I was the only one who had tea.

The co-leader of the women's group introduced herself next. She gave me enthusiastic kisses on my cheeks and held my hand as she kneeled in front of me. At her lead, a dozen other older women offered me the same gracious greeting. Three teenage girls sat in front of me, facing toward me rather than the front like the rest of the group. Even though I was told that photography is strictly forbidden during the female ceremony, the teens started sneaking photos and video of me on their phones as older women looked on, smiling wholesomely as if they were admiring a newborn baby.

Someone finally took mercy on me and brought me to the side of the room. My teenage entourage dressed in their relatively short manteaus and fashionable headscarves followed, scooting little old ladies over so they could sit next to me. A few more older ladies came over, each covering one of her eyes, a sign of respect and a heartfelt welcome. I could not help but think about how Muslims are depicted in the American press -- if they could only be here now.

The ceremony started. I remembered the "Allah Allah Allah" rocking back and forth part from the men's ceremony and was able to keep up. I got a little lost on the "God is one" part, and ended up lip-synching and doing what I do when I can't follow the Latin part of a Catholic mass -- look around and check people out.

There were women of all ages, styles, and sizes. Traditional Kurdish ladies in sparkly dresses, university students in black chadors, young folks in colorful manteaus, moms with their squealing babies. Once in a while, a woman decked head to toe in white shouted out, reaching her hands up to the sky. The co-leader brought me cold water and some sweets. No one else was eating.

I wondered if the part after the prayer would be as free and primal as it was at the men's ceremony. The friendly leader took me by the wrists, smiling as she led me over to where the long-haired men banging their heads back and forth had stood. A younger woman in a black manteau handed out about 20 large dafts to women on the other side. I was relieved -- growing up in the '80s, I had experience head banging, but playing the daft, not so much.

The daft players began drumming as a woman in her mid-30s dressed all in white started pounding on a smaller but louder drum and powerfully belting out chants. She was our guide through the rest of the ceremony.

We started chanting -- well, in my case, mumbling -- and then those of us in the head-banging section began thrusting our torsos forward, slowly and rhythmically, bending at the waist, our heads jerking forward and back, straining our necks. The leader stood to my side, rocking back and forth in unison with me. After a few minutes, on an upswing I found her standing in front of me smiling approvingly. Her training was successful.

Impossibly, the woman in white bellowed the chants out louder and louder. I focused on the sounds of the drums, the air as my head whipped up and down, and the melody of my mumbles. My headscarf fell off with the help of anonymous hands. Self-conscious thoughts subsided and I became one of the group -- my head, for once, void of thought. There was an empty but content feeling of connection and of being a part of something greater than my own personal experience.

When someone shouted, screamed, or twirled by, my awareness rose and fell like a wave. I lost track of time, but after a while I felt a bit faint and cracked open my eyes. Women who earlier looked round-faced and plain in their hejabs now revealed shapely faces, figures, and long hair. Women danced every which way all around the room as a designated hair-monitor freed a university student from her black onesie's head covering. It dangled over her head like a hood, hanging on only by her ponytail.

An older woman with long hennaed hair that ran all the way down her back danced in a circle, the tiny sparkles on her burgundy robe catching the sun that was streaming into the green room. She looked more authentically bohemian than anyone I'd ever seen in images of Woodstock. A young girl, maybe just 12, hung her head and thrashed it about madly, as if she was in a mosh pit. Eventually she collapsed into the leader's arms. The leaders made the rounds, rubbing women's faces, caressing their hair and holding them after they collapsed, guiding women from trance back into the world.

As a North American, I found myself wanting -- wanting more experience. I closed my eyes and again tried to rock back into quiet, but this time it didn't work. The drumming stopped and when I opened my eyes I was one of the very few still standing. The leader in white moved toward me, taking me in her arms like she did the others, rubbing my cheeks, patting my hair as she said Allah's name over and over again. The teenagers returned, snapping more photos.

Michelle May is a San Francisco-based travel writer and blogs here. Homepage photo by Iason Athanasiadis

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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wow...absolutely amazing Michelle...thank you

Ahvaz / September 3, 2010 8:19 AM

Wow. Not many people get to see what you saw.

Persiantraveler / September 3, 2010 8:39 AM

Michelle, ever been to the Endup nightclub in San Francisco at 6 am on any given Sunday morning? You'll see much the same thing!

Anonymous / September 5, 2010 12:30 AM

I have had the opportunity to witness Sufi ceremonies here in the US, and they of course pale in comparison because mystical religious thought and ceremony is dominated here by the New Age and we all know whats going on there. It is unfortunate that there is so little genuine religious practice like that of the Sufis here, I think our society would be much better off if people would come together to commune with God in this way. One thing that really struck me about this article was the author's ability to actually participate in and get lost in the experience - quite unlike the German woman in Foucault's Pendulum who goes to the vodun ceremonies in Brazil who participates in the ritual but is never able to enter the transcendental state intended. Kudos for this article, it was an interesting window into the positive side of cross-cultural experience.

Anonymous / September 6, 2010 7:47 PM