Turning Circles

The image of the whirling dervish, a spinning man donning a long skirt and tall hat, is iconic in Turkey. At a cultural center on the outskirts of Istanbul, that image is getting a makeover

By / May 2011

They sit on the right side of the sanctuary floor every Thursday evening, many with scarves draped over their hair, leaning forward as though the words of Hasan Çıkar might slip up and into the cathedral ceiling before they hear them, before they are able to take them to heart. Wide eyes, hands hugging knees or reaching toward Çıkar, it’s as though the women are barely breathing.

In his sermons, Çıkar, who spearheads this Sufi religious service at the Contemporary Lovers of Mevlana Cultural Center in Istanbul, talks about paths to the divine, about how loving others can help his people better understand themselves. The message is, in many ways, standard-issue Sufism, as is the ritual dance performed by the whirling dervishes that follows, but what distinguishes Cikar’s gathering from most any other Sufi gathering in this part of the world is the presence and participation of women.

As the evening wears on, and rounds of chanting begin, they, like the men sitting across from them, rock back and forth, pulsing to the sound of “Allah, Allah, Allah …” Later, they slide leather-slippered feet onto a large circular dance floor and begin whirling, casting aside heavy black cloaks to reveal white skirts that swing skyward as they begin to spin. Their hands are orchid stamens, reaching up and out from the deep folds of their gowns.

Çıkar’s center is the only known place in Istanbul – and in all of Turkey, for that matter – where women “turn” in public. The ceremony, which Sufis call the sema, is typically restricted to men, when it is permitted at all. The sema was banned entirely in Turkey in the early 20th century as part of Kemal Ataturk’s efforts to secularize the country.

Whirling dervishes consider the dance a way to spiritually connect with Allah.

That was a blow not only to Sufis, but to Turks concerned with preserving their cultural heritage. Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet and teacher, lived much of his life, died and was buried in Konya, a city in Turkey’s Anatolia region. His followers became known as Mevlevis, the Sufi mystics best known for the trance-like dance in which they spin, sometimes for an hour or more, in unison.

The sema is still prohibited in Turkey when done for purely religious reasons, but it’s allowed if performed for tourists or to promote Turkish culture. Today, the image of the dervish is iconic in Istanbul, plastered on postcards, and engraved onto souvenir coffee mugs. Dervish performances are considered a must-see for foreign visitors. Shows are held regularly in the Istanbul train station and in a historic Sufi monastery near Taksim Square, which caps Istanbul’s premier shopping esplanade.

But in many Sufi circles, particularly those in Central Asia and the Middle East, only men can be whirling dervishes. It is only at the Contemporary Lovers of Mevlana Cultural Center that women perform the dance that they say sends them into ecstasy, straight into the presence of Allah.

Çıkar, 76, said he is the one who made it all possible. “I got special permission from God for them to be in the sema,” he said, nodding toward the women. The revelation came in 1965, he said, but he didn’t share it publicly until 1993, out of respect for older spiritual leaders. Now, he’s not so concerned.

“They were fundamentalists,” he said. “They didn’t find God inside themselves, like I did. God was outside of them.”

In modern-day Turkey, appearing in the tall, camel-hair hat and long robes of a dervish can be more scandalous for women than wearing tight jeans and stiletto heels. The Sufi female whirling dervishes find themselves wedged between religious conservatives and political secularists who buck at the sight of frankly Muslim clothing.

“In an odd way, a woman veiling in a secular society and dressing modestly is more upsetting than a woman unveiling,” said Marcia Hermansen, a Sufism expert at Loyola University.

In the sema, men and women wear identical clothing. They perform the ritual in the same way, spinning counter-clockwise, one foot fixed as an anchor, at such a speed that personal features are blurred. In those moments, gender disappears. The dervishes are all alike: blurred forms, sent spinning like tops as though God placed his finger at the tip of their hats.

“There is no discrimination here,” said Sevtap Demirtas, a female dervish who has been spinning for 17 years. Yet Çıkar doesn’t believe that every Sufi woman has the right to participate in the sema. Only those who receive a personal invitation from him, he said, will have the true experience.

The Contemporary Lovers of Mevlana Cultural Center is hidden deep in a working-class neighborhood that curves around Istanbul’s old city wall. It’s so far from the mosques and ferry boats of the tourist districts that taxi drivers are stumped when asked to find it. Most of the traffic in the neighborhood’s narrow, sunlit streets is bicycles and motorcycles. A few battered cars park in the wider streets, between crumbling, pastel-painted apartments.

The center itself is surrounded by a tall fence that hides a peaceful courtyard. Members of the group drink hot tea under an awning while the sun sets and they wait for the evening’s events to begin. Inside, visitors are asked to sit in rows of chairs set back from the Sufis who are there to worship. All women are required to cover their knees.

It’s a good spot to hide from critics, of which Çıkar has many. His hard-line assertion that women never turned with men before his revelation, and that women need his personal blessing in order to participate, rankles both traditionalists in conservative areas of Turkey and dervishes elsewhere in the world who refuse to believe that Çıkar holds their destinies.

Although it unclear whether men and women turned together during the Middle Ages, historical accounts suggest that female Sufis were dervishes when the practice began shortly after Rumi’s death. Suleiman Hayati Dede, a respected 20th century Turkish sheik and a direct descendent of Rumi, allowed women to participate in certain parts of the ceremony.

He sent his son, Jelaleddin Loras, to the U.S. in 1978 to teach Sufi traditions, including the dervish, to both men and women. Women have been included in the sema in the U.S. since then, said Maile Rietow, an American who married Loras after he came to the U.S. Rietow said she has been a dervish for nearly two decades.

In Turkey, even Sufi leaders who don’t have any doctrinal qualms about female dervishes regularly decline women’s requests to participate so as to not upset a fragile cultural landscape. That means that female dervishes who don’t follow Çıkar usually whirl without a leader, and quietly, so as not to attract too much attention. Women who turn without the blessing of a sheikh miss out on key elements of the ceremony, said Valerie Noor Karima, a Sufi teacher based in Honolulu.

“Anyone can turn,” she said. “It’s a very natural thing to do, and little children do it all the time. But to turn in the formal sense implies that you are within our tradition.” In the sema, the sheikh is like the sun, and the dervishes form the planetary system, twirling in concert, Karima said. Without a sheikh, whirling dervishes can easily veer off course.

For women in Istanbul, unless they choose to go it alone, Çıkar is the only option. And to his followers, he’s even more than that. “He’s a revolutionary man,” Demirtas said.

Each week it is Çıkar who determines which women will join the men on the dance floor – who can wear the heavy robes and foot-tall hat, who can fasten their gowns at the wrists and neck, who can meet God in worship. Those who aren’t chosen sit to the side. They wear street clothes, for which they need no special permission. Their prayers are quiet, inconspicuous. Their only choice is to wait their turn.


Krista Kapralos’s writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Global Post, and High Country News. She lives in Washington, DC.


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