Thursday, August 9, 2012

Of dervishes and theses

Perhaps musings about theses written and dervishes whirling are, well, uncommon, and make for unlikely bed-mates, but that's exactly what you're going to get to-day. I've been in England, referencing my monstrous first-draft, and culling tons of new material besides, since June. The British Library, St. Pancras, is now officially my favourite playground in the known universe. As I keep saying to anyone who'll listen, if they'll let me pitch a tent in their courtyard, I'll consider myself the happiest bunny in the world (and that's an understatement, if ever I've erred on the side of less over more). Thesis dealt with, and London walked till my feet knew it better than my eyes and ears and fingers and tongue did, I left for Istanbul. Bear in mind that I didn't go there completely untutored: I've *known* the place before I ever set foot in it - or thought I did anyway - through vicarious traversings, readings and other suchlike. Bref, I've wanted to visit Istanbul forever and a day.

What I was confronted with upon encountering (and I use the word advisedly; for its connotation of aggressive head-on-ness) its lived reality, however, took my breath away. Evoking tropes such as, "we have a soul connection, do that city and I," or "it feels like I was born to tread those lanes which skirt the Blue," or "the Bosporus flows in time with the blood in my veins," while accurate, just won't do. Yes, I feel like the smorgasbord that is Istanbul from the third through to the twenty-first centuries has been one I've partaken of over several - each, even? - lifetimes; that I've never felt as content as when wandering across Sultanahmet and thinking, processing, coping with the onslaught that is the city's magnificence and digesting it into little bite-size pieces I feel I've already known, will always know, and all that jazz. But what really shocked me was the visceral-ness of my reaction to this place. I've loved cities before, but I don't think I understood what love was until I saw the dervishes whirl. Until I sat in the Blue Mosque past midnight, revelling in the beauty of the voices, the sounds at once alien and familiar, of the muezzin's cry. Having my breath taken away by the splendour that is the Ayasofya across the square - the Blue's template, muse, and most formidable rival and other. Thanks to a nifty little app on my phone, I managed to click and write up first-quick-edit-and-therefore-honest-to-goodness reactions to several places. Here, for your delectation, dear reader, are three.

The Blue Mosque: It's amazing how these stories set in stone speak in colour, texture, and elastic time The process of semeiosis which makes them mean continues to resound, as though from beyond the pale. The playful artists of yore even slipped in owl eyes for me to see. The Blue Mosque tastes like orange in my mouth. Is it plenitude?Giving, dropping because it is so laden, that the motifs bespeak? And the crowds? Is it glorious for or despite them? Do they matter? Did they ever? Was this popular enough, even then, for them? Perhaps even this carpet dust outdates some countries; and still people come here and talk of Angkor Wat and Vietnam...the red brings out the blue; the blue the red. Gold for everyone, and then the rest.


Topkapi Palace: Lots of little fragments which, rather surprisingly, appear to add up to some kind of whole: sumptuous, lascivious, exploitative and cruel in its education and preparation of concubines and slaves for the delectation of Sultans. Is it as fine or quietly grand as many of the palaces back home? As opulent, dwarfing and intimidating as some others? Not always, not everywhere and in every aspect, but it is simple to see from this point in time and space the commonalities shared/inbred/borrowed/forced upon both cultures. This last, brought home by sitting afore the Diwan-I- Humayun; the Diwan-I-Khas equivalent; wondering whether they would trade their kaftans for my angarkhas.

And then, there was the Ayasofya: This place reeks of continued transferences, which derive from the same fount: the work initiated at the start of its creation. I was overwhelmed when I entered it - in good Christian tradition, clearly it was meant to dwarf me,humble me, show me my place as a speck of sand and remind me I had no business aspiring to beach-hood. But as I sit on its marble floor - cracked, uneven, smoothened by centuries of usage underfoot - I see it better; learn it in my mind and eye. The stained glass calligraphy, Jesus and Gabriel mosaics transposed in the Kuranic ethos and tradition, Christ as pentekrator-emperor of this world, and the eight holy names and shields of Islam, make utter and complete sense. Mainly, because they are here together. Because they exist in, dare I say it, harmony. Because the mosaics may have lost their faces, but they kept their soaring wings. This place is a wonder, a paragon of unity in disparity. No mystery about it - if it was once a church and then a mosque, now, in its avatar as a museum, it is both, and more than both, simultaneously. It reinforces, in it's beguiling and utterly unpresumptuous humanity, this sceptic's faith in mankind. 

True to my word (whenever I feel like it) since I promised you dervishes as well, you'll get them here. I'm neither religious nor particularly gobsmacked by the esoteric - not often, in any case. However, witnessing the Sema ceremony of the order of the Mevlevis, those followers of Rumi (and through him, Shams-i-Tabrizi [aside, read Elif Shafak on them: she is my favourite female writer alive today, and that's no small praise], of course) was unlike anything I've ever done before. I thought I knew what music~message congruency meant. I clearly didn't, prior to that night. The beauty of the Sheikh's voice made me want to cry - hold it close to me, so I could live enveloped in its warmth and obvious passion. He invites one to surrender, and for once, ungrudgingly, you do. Then come the dervishes. The 'ne' introduces the spirit of animation - literally breathes life into proceedings - and then it begins. They salute each other, and they whirl. On the spot, for the worlds they are in and of themselves, and then around each other, for what rotates must also revolve, if the universe is to perpetuate itself. The aspect of the hands is just so: one raised heavenward, to receive from the cosmos. The other, palm down, to give it away. Nothing kept for the vessel, the conduit: the death of ego. I think it more telling that I wasn't moved to tears. Merely deafening silence. Then, when they stopped, being able to finally breathe again, in the wake of a dam-break, my mind was filled with phrases, attempting to comprehend what I had been privileged to be part of. The one I remember, the only one worth keeping I suspect, was a paradox born out of their movement meeting the discipline of their philosophy - the dervish's is a controlled abandon. Not an abandonned control, which is something quite else. But how can abandon be controlled, you ask? Go watch the dervishes, I reply.

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