The Whirling Dervish
To the people who taught me how to love, and to the person who taught me about beauty.
I was born to Sufi-Islamic parents and as a child I too was raised Sufi. When I was eleven years old I travelled to Damascus, Syria with my family. I had thought nothing of it, for travelling to Damascus, in a time that now seems a world away was to me like travelling to another exotic city with a pervading culture and an illustrious history. If I’m honest, I haven’t thought about Damascus for sometime now, though its beauty resonates in my mind. The images of Mediterranean houses stacked up like scattered books on Mount Qasioun and narrow winding streets that were too steep for anything other than industrial jeeps find themselves deep within my subconscious. I remember standing on the roof of the house we were staying at, looking down over this mystical mountain and seeing the square-roofs of houses appear like a Moroccan mosaic that descends into the distance, while green-lit mosques sparkled like trees in Manhattan or an emerald among stones.
I have one particular memory from Damascus that came back to me rather recently. I remember being in a Zawiyah, which is essentially a Sufi-Centre where a Maqam of a Sufi Saint stood. I remember a tiny dimly lit green-room, with floor cushions framing the walls. The humblest and most harmonious music was being sung and played by flutes and drums. It’s the kind of music that is created by something other than the mere combination of compatible notes. In fact, I don't even think it is fair to use the word created, for she seemed to have stemmed from a distilled form of love only to reveal herself as the naked soul. It was the kind of music that was free from vanity and free from lust. As I stood there sipping on warm mint tea, I remember looking up as a confused innocent child and seeing two men spinning circles perfectly in sync to the music playing. They were graceful ballerinas, seemingly in serene meditation. They were Whirling Dervishes.
At fifteen, I moved from Malaysia to a boarding school in Edinburgh, Scotland. To a school where I attended chapel every morning. Before I left Malaysia, I made a conscious decision to leave behind this identity of mine, for the ongoing wars in the Middle East, and the rise in Islamic extremists left me ashamed, despite my parents’ having shown me a side of Islam where there stands an importance of love; of peace; of humble intent through music, poetry, and wondrous literature. It is a side of spirituality; a unity between oneself and the divine.
About two weeks ago, I flew to Istanbul with my girlfriend when a suicide bombing occurred on a parallel street to where we were. At that point, I saw how easy it might be to pick out patterns and trends; to formulate broad generalizations based on a single incident; to think that this fear is natural and not manufactured. I saw how easy it is to accept stereotypes and to reject differences, both cultural and societal. The next morning, we spent almost an hour driving from Sultanahmet to Istanbul’s countryside for breakfast. We found a little wooden cabin flanked by trees and farmland, made warm with tea and a fireplace. As we sat there, a certain familiarity loomed over me. I began to hear the same music as I did nine years earlier in Syria. I looked up only to see a Whirling Dervish in humble solitude. At that very moment, I realized that despite all the destruction and terror caused by a corrupted minority, the core of divine beauty has not yet slipped away.
So whatever faith we might believe in or whatever faith we might not, let us not crawl back into our cave of projected generalizations, but rather make a conscious effort to see the differences in religions and races as nothing more than mere variations. For beneath the surface lies a cultural beauty of equal importance, all rooted from the same tree. But to say that my experiences in Turkey or Syria are subjective to an Islamic experience is a generalization in itself. Culture and religion are not synonymous with one another, nor is the fact that I am Sufi exclusive to this realization. Instead, I am suggesting that for a lot of us, religion is a form of identity; a sense of home; a sense of family; perhaps even an oceanic sense of eternity. And so, to critique a culture, religion, or race from an outsider’s perspective does humanity no good, for we must stop attempting to connect sparsely populated dots and instead dig away until we find beauty.
Don't stop searching, it's there somewhere, it always is.