~ by Juliet rabia Gentile
(This is a continuation of the last week's article. To read Part 1 click HERE.)
Konya is a small industrial town set like a dusty jewel in the crown of Central Anatolia. It is famous and widely visited only due to the fact that it holds the tomb of Mevlana Jelaladdin Rumi. Over the years since Mevlana Rumi’s death on December 17th 1273, a mystical order based upon his teachings called the Mevlevi order grew. The ritual practice called Sema that one associates with Mevlevis or whirling dervishes – think spinning figures in generous white gowns with funny tomb stone shaped hats whirling for hours - developed out of an incident in a marketplace right there in the town square in Konya. Everything that we know about Rumi has been preserved by his students and family members and can be found in the landscape or in the hearts of the people of Konya.
My flight from Istanbul touched down several hours late due to a burgeoning fog that wrapped itself around Konya’s empty streets like an old friend. Soon after my arrival the phone began to ring and plans mounted up. The celebrations in Konya were well under way despite the cold and fog: there was no time to rest!
It is tradition that Sufis gather together from across the globe every year for seventeen days leading up to the Shebi-Arus celebration which culminates on December 17th. This event known as the “wedding night” commemorates the time when Mevlana Rumi went to join his Beloved. The anniversary of his death is celebratory rather than somber. In fact Rumi wrote in one of his poems, “if you harvest the wheat growing over my grave and bake bread with it, it is sure to intoxicate!” So strong was Mevalana Rumi’s love for God that his fragrance still attracts lovers of all walks of life, religions and nationalities, some 800 years after his death, like bees to honey.
My first stop in Konya was the informal headquarters of the trip: Dervish Brothers Center. DBC was the place of beginning and ending of all journeys and adventures and was visited by many dervish sisters despite its name. It was a place to make and break plans, listen to music and poetry, sip endless cups of tea and have intimate discussions extending into the morning. Before long I had lost track of the number of dhikrs, impromptu musical gatherings, meals and endless prayer vigils I had attended. One highlight of historical importance was a Sufi dhikr held at the tomb of Shems i Tabriz (the mystic thought to be responsible for the full flowering of spiritual wisdom in Rumi’s adult life). This beautiful prayer ceremony which somewhat spontaneously coalesced after the afternoon prayer in the Mosque of Shems was well attended and miraculously accepted by the Mosque authorities, a quiet, though great victory for Sufi activity in Turkey.
One of curiosities of traveling to Turkey is that everywhere you go you encounter people and businesses selling Sufism and Sufi paraphernalia (not always authentic) to tourists, even while its practice is illegal under Turkish law. You may ask yourself why, at a time when Islam is weighed down with fundamentalisms of various stripes and colors, would anyone want to suppress an interpretation of Islam based upon the principle of universal love? Well, despite changing public and political opinion in favor of Sufism, its practitioners are still vulnerable to law enforcement, therefore making the beautiful that day a great triumph towards further opening the gates of understanding and tolerance.
Perhaps more than any other lesson this journey to Konya taught me the importance of tolerance and understanding, even when I fell short. When you are in a strange country, speaking a new language the importance of open heartedness and true understanding become crystal clear. You become acutely aware of your utter dependence on the kindness of others and their willingness to cover your faults. It takes truth, sincerity and perseverance to navigate cultural divides and find common ground with the other in often difficult or awkward circumstances.
At home, surrounded by the comfort of “my family, my city, my country” it is easy to become complacent and intolerant. It is harder to extend a hand of guidance, friendship, or love. We think our lives don’t depend on it.
In a rapidly shrinking global world colored by increasing violence and polarization, perhaps now more than ever we are challenged to open, rather than shut down, to question and learn, rather than judge. This realization, which I experienced directly rather than ‘thought about’ was one of the most precious gifts I received from Mevlana Rumi and my journey to Konya. In the shadow of His light I witnessed the power of personal connection. The soul stirring invitation afforded by a warm glance, a smile, a prayer – signals that reach across language, race and religion.
In the airport on the way home we encountered that divine fog once again, hemming us in as we waited for hours in the small Konya airport. In the huddled masses there were various fellow pilgrims from England, Pakistan, South Africa and Iran. As the hours wore on and we shared stories, fruit, tea and tears it became crystal clear that we were all drawn to Konya from our various far-flung destinations for one reason: love.
Despite what shade our skin was, what language we spoke or what lives we were returning to, we were all, in our essential natures, one. In those hours of listening to the stories of my fellow pilgrims, the inner meaning contained in Rumi’s famous verses - the importance of extending the invitation of love to others, despite what we think of them - was revealed. This is true Godliness, this is the invitation Home.
Whoever you are.
Pious one, infidel, heretic, fire worshipper.
Even if you promised a hundred times
And a hundred times you broke your promise,
This door is not the door
Of hopelessness and frustration.
This door is open to everyone.
Come, come as you truly are."