The Dervish in the Red Skirt

You are in Konya in the central Anatolia region of Turkey. The city is famous for the shrine of Jalal-al-Din Rumi, the 13th Century Persian poet, Sufi mystic, and founder of the Mevlevi Order, commonly referred to as the whirling dervishes. You have been invited to the ‘all female’ Tekke of that Order for a unique experience, a sema ceremony to be performed by only women. It is not the norm for women to whirl in public, but this is a special occasion, it is in honor of Rumi’s birthday.

The Tekke, with its purple and yellow stained windows and elevated stone walls is situated in a serpentine alleyway that holds space for only slinking cats. Well hidden from the outside world, it is the perfect place for spiritual rejuvenation. You have arrived early. Content to sit in its aqua-tiled courtyard with the setting sun warming your back, you watch two devotees climb wooden ladders to pick ripened fruit off the many clementine trees that inhabit the courtyard. The air smells of citrus as the breeze catches the falling leaves.

You think back on your connection to Sufism. It began in your grandfather’s study, a big room made small by volumes of books on politics, philosophy and religion. You had been tracing your fingers along the dusty shelves when you touched the velvet of a hidden book— on its cover a motif of maidens moving in concentric circles between petite petaled flowers. The book, a treasure trove of Sufism told tales of the Qadiri Order founded by Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani, known for his piety and performing of miracles. And of the Rifai Order who pierce needles through their tongues and swords through their bodies without spilling blood. And the Naqshbandi Order who become high on the name Allah by praising Him for hours through dance and music. And stories of the great female Sufi, Rabia of Basra who gave of her last provisions to anyone who knocked on her door saying God would satiate. And of the white clothed men with the tall oblong hats atop their heads, spinning, skirts floating through the air. They were the whirling dervishes of the Mevlevi Order.

The Islamic mystics enthralled you, and your grandfather indulged you. He filled your head with stories of dhikr ceremonies and of his encounters with Sufi miracle men. He laughed at your wanting to be a Sufi, to live amongst the mystics in the desert. And cried when you asked him to teach you to whirl. He would say, “So, you want to whirl, you want to put your neck in the shackles of love?” You would nod, knowing that he loved quoting Rumi. He would pull you into his chest and say, “Don’t complain about hardships because through them your rusty chains become a necklace of gold.”

He bought your first sacred garment and informed you about its symbolism. The white jacket is the destugal or bouquet of roses because whirling unveils the heart’s purity, the fragrance of which is like fresh roses. The long full white skirt and bodice represents the shroud, the cloth placed over a body in preparation for burial. The belt separates one’s lower self from one’s higher self. The cloak is symbolic of one’s tomb, and the white conical hat, the tombstone.

One could imagine that the many books in the study would be a deterrent for whirling, but your grandfather pounded a nail into the wooden floor saying, “The nail represents the position of humility, between the big and second toe of your left foot so you know to return to the same place with every turn.” He sprinkled salt over the nail saying, “Salt is the element of divine essence that aides the spiritual transformation of the murid.” And he placed a cube of crystalized sugar under your tongue, saying, “The sugar will melt leaving only sweetness, which will ground you to the earth while your soul soars.” In that manner, you and your grandfather whirled in his study, turning left, toward your hearts. And with every brush of his fingertips against yours, his love for whirling was transferred to you.

You are brought out of your reverie by the flute-like whistle of the Ney being released into the courtyard to mingle with the breeze. It signals that the ceremony is about to begin. You enter the sema room with its high-beamed triangular-peaked ceiling and sterile wooden floor. The air inside is perfumed with the pungent scent of myrrh and frankincense, ancient gifts given by the three wise men to Jesus at birth, now burning to rid the Tekke of bad spirits and negative energy. You take your seat amongst the other invited guests. The lights dim. A hush falls over the audience. And onto the floor walk a procession of women in white flowing skirts, heads bowed, hair tucked up under conical hats, and arms locked across shoulders as if hugging themselves. They are followed by a group of musicians who move off to the side. Sufis use music as a gateway to God. This you heard from your grandfather who said, “In the Orient, there is a legend that God created a statue of clay and asked the soul to enter it. The soul refused. It wanted to be free. The angels began playing musical instruments, and the soul, enchanted by the sound, danced in ecstasy and entered the statue of clay. And that is how life came to be.”

You think on this story as the soft pitter-patter of the drum begins. The sound is accompanied by the sweet whistle of the Ney and the jingle of a tambourine. A melodious voice chants Ahad, one of the ninety-nine names of Allah, meaning The One. The chanting reverberates into the rafters, feet scuffle, sawdust rise off the floor and circles of white begin to form. Around and around the murids go, one foot leading the other, turning left, toward their hearts. Their feet swish, their arms extend from their bodies, right palms to the sky, left palms to the earth, a gesture of giving and receiving—receiving blessings from the heavens and giving those blessings to the earth and their fellow humans. The chanting hastens toward a trance and the feet of the murids disappear under their flapping skirts, their whirling effortless, defying gravity. The circles grow bigger and bigger, then smaller and smaller until the white skirts all come to softly rest on the wooden floor.

Out of this serenity emerges a red skirt, mushrooming, burgeoning, whooshing, creating a cocoon around the wearer whose feet are bare, her hair open, black, curly, down to her waist. She circles the room, eyes closed, one foot over the other, around and around. Her movements are soothing and all at once mesmerizing. She is smiling. The joy on her face swells, bursts and when it explodes, she revolves out into the open of the courtyard. You hold your breath then move with the audience, following her out of the sema room. And there in the courtyard, amongst the clementine trees she orbits, left foot over right, right palm toward heaven, left palm toward the earth. Her hair leaping off her shoulders. She is spinning freely, led by invisible hands. Her demeanor is tranquil though her heart is spiraling away from the courtyard, over the vastness of Konya, heavenward. She is not contained by four walls, leather shoes, conical hats, sacred garments or even music and chanting. She is the embodiment of Rumi’s words: Only from the heart can you touch the sky. And with every revolution, her heart is tapping the sky. She is the dervish knocking on God’s door. Around and around the clementine trees she goes, her circles expanding, widening, magnifying, multiplying. Her feet vanish under her red skirt and then reappear forming smaller circular movements, smaller and smaller until her head sinks and her red skirt folds into itself as she gently comes to rest on the ground. She is the dervish walking through the door of God.

All is still, even the rustling clementine leaves have submitted. There is no applause. Sufis are not accustomed to acclamations. Their whirling is inward. So you place your right palm over your heart in acknowledgement of the spiritual jubilation her whirling has given you. She catches your eye and places her right palm over her heart.

You step out of the Tekke. Night has fallen. You look up, and there away from the trees and above the stonewalls, kissing the deep blue sky is a rising minaret, its cylinders covered in a blue-green tile, tilting toward a triangular peak— the structure resembling a rocket awaiting its flight to the heavens. It is Rumi’s shrine.

It seems that in Konya all roads lead to Rumi’s shrine. So you follow the golden lights of the minaret, boulevard after boulevard until you come to stand at the shrine. It is made up of three sections: the mausoleum that houses the tomb of Rumi, the museum, and the old sema room wherein Rumi himself whirled.

You enter through the tomb gate that leads directly to the mausoleum and Rumi’s sarcophagus. The sarcophagus is covered in a golden-brown brocade and on it rests Rumi’s large headdress, a green silk turban draped around a yellowing white hat. Around the tomb lay an array of objects. There are closed envelopes and opened letters, lists of wishes and prayers, and names of family members who need blessings. There are glass vials with handfuls of sand from the homelands of devotees, and vials with sweet smelling oils and intoxicating perfumes. There are garlands of flowers, mainly yellow roses, and packets of crystallized sugars. There are even pieces of jewelry, pearls, and lockets strewn about. It seems that every devotee who has owned something valuable or beautiful has laid it at Rumi’s feet. His is a catacomb of treasures.

You note some devotees offering prayers and salutations to Rumi. Your recall your grandfather saying, “To stand at Rumi’s grave is a gift. You should open your heart and pour forth your desires because you may never return.” But you have nothing to say. Your heart is full from soaring with the dervish in the red skirt. So you say, “Thank you.”

Grateful for all in your life that has brought you to this moment, you pass through to the museum. There you linger at the glass case that contains a hair from the beard of Prophet Muhammad, the prophet of Islam who many regard as the original Sufi. You extend your hand to touch the glass, but your eyes fall onto the “Do Not Touch” sign written in many languages. You move on and linger at the glass case that contains the hat of Shams-Al-Tabriz, the wandering dervish, who was Rumi’s mentor and who initiated him into whirling. Your impulse to touch the case is again thwarted by warning signs.

Making your way out, you pass a large empty square room with a balcony. It is the old sema room where the dervishes first formalized their whirling ceremonies. Your grandfather had spoken of this room, saying, “The floorboards are marked with footprints of dervishes who had whirled there for hundreds of years.” In your grandfather’s honor you ignore the “Do Not Enter” sign and sneak your toes under the edges of the thick woolen carpet that covers the floorboards, and you keep them there until you feel a connection with the dervishes who had once whirled there. Through you, you are certain that your grandfather, in whichever realm he is, feels the elation that you do as the vibration moves off the wooden floor and up your legs.

You leave Rumi’s shrine. Reflective. Wistful. You close your eyes. Like film tape images of the dervish in the red skirt play in your head. Around and around and around she goes. Her red skirt, like an eiderdown covering you, covering the shrine, covering Konya.

Fiyola Hoosen-Steele

Fiyola Hoosen-Steele is a former South African diplomat to the United Nations (UN) and former UN Representative for Plan International, Independent Diplomat, and Save the Children. She holds a Bachelor of Laws Degree, a Bachelor of Arts Honors Degree and a Master of Arts Degree in International Relations. She honed her writing craft at Gotham Writers Workshop and taught The Writer’s Manifestation Project at Art of Alignment Academy. Her works of fiction and non-fiction have been published in the Bosphorus Review, Flash Magazine and AFREADA Magazine. She was also a finalist for the 2022 Ruminate Flash Prose Prize. She lives in New York with her husband and daughter.

A Library of American Dreams
Firewalking in Alaska