“Turn Around”

The big ear on the outside of our head should be closed.
It is so good at hearing that the inner ear goes deaf.
What if you had no hearing at all, no nose, no mind-stuff!
Then one could hear well the three syllables: “Turn Around.”
Our sounds, our work, our renown, these are our outer.
When we move inwardly, we move through inner space.
Our feet walk firmly, they experience sidewalks well.
There is one inside who walks like Jesus on the Sea
                                                                         - Rumi
Sketches from my journal

 “Allah, Allah, Allah” they chanted together, swaying back and forth from their knees, eyes closed.  I had never seen anything like it before.  Muslims engaged in a kind of call and response liturgy where physical performance played such a large role in accessing the divine.  Sure there are the five daily prayers with rituals of washing and kneeling, but this chanting followed by endless twirling was something completely new to me.  

Sufism has been described as “a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God” (1) – largely through mystical interpretations of scripture and seeking transcendent personal experiences.   It is often traced back to early Islamic practices but some claim it precedes Islam as a way of thinking about the world, the self and God.   There are brands of Sufism in North Africa where musically induced trances play a significant role in the process of turning away from all else but God, and in Turkey, Whirling Dervish Ceremonies or “Sema” allow practitioner to transcend death of self, the material world, and be reborn. 

The Sema ceremony was created by Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, mystic and theologian who immigrated to Turkey where his influence can still be seen among practicing Sufi orders.   During the ceremony men wear black cloaks, symbols of worldly attachments that are removed toward the beginning to reveal flowing white robes.  They wear tall, tombstone shaped hats that symbolize death of the ego.  The ceremony includes a ritualized procession around a circle and culminates in whirling around and around on one foot.  The act of revolution allows practitioners to “turn towards the truth, grow through love, desert the ego and arrive to the ‘perfect.’”  (So says information our Turkish friends gave us.)

“But why is one hand lifted to the sky and the other facing the ground?”  I whisper to Max, who, for some reason, generally has answer to these kinds of questions.

“It is to receive blessings and enlightenment from God with the one hand and give to those in need with the other,” he says.      

The only picture I took - it seemed a bit indecent and I tucked my camera away
We watched, completely enraptured, as the dervishes spun around, their left foot planted like an axel, skirts spread out wide around them.  We visited a fairly progressive lodge where women were allowed to participate and watched as sweat trickled down the face of an elderly woman in front of us.   The ceremony, while spiritual in purpose, is intensely physical.  The young man in front of us, who couldn’t have been more than 18, tilted his head to heaven, eyes closed and never faltered in his perfect revolutions.  The look on his face was of completely serenity – and surrender for that matter. 

This experience proved the perfect counterpoint to what had for us, admittedly, been a form of worldly worship based on food and architecture and history and gave us a lot more to think about.  Which is what any good trip is about anyway.   

(1) Ahmed Zarruq, Zaineb Istrabadi, Hamza Yusuf Hanson. The Principles of Sufism. Amal Press. 2008.


  1. Awesome images, Brooke. You are a masterful journal-er.

  2. Love your sketches. The dervishes are amazing, aren't they?

  3. My favorite Egyptian novel is built entirely on Sufi themes--worth chasing down to read.

    "The Seven Days of Man" by 'abd al-Hakim Qasim

  4. Love your sketches! And this post. I love what sema represents.

  5. Beautiful sketches!! I keep coming back to this post to look at them. Love!!