The drumbeat began to slow. Men in white ringed the stage and turned back and forth to the beat, banging on large tambourines in time with the music. In the center, green shirt drenched in sweat, quilt-like skirt flying, one arm reached toward the sky and the other toward earth, the dervish was whirling.
As a kid, I used to stand in one spot in the kitchen and turn around endlessly. I would practice my spotting – a technique used in dance to avoid dizziness. Faster and faster I would spin, whipping my head around and around, transfixed by the same spot on the wall. I could last maybe five or ten minutes.
Last night I watched a man spin around for nearly forty-five minutes. He wasn’t spotting. Somehow, he managed to walk off the stage upright. To me it was remarkable. To him it was meditation.
The Mevlevi order of Sufis believes that whirling can bring one to a state of nirvana, the kemal. By spinning for long periods of time and focusing on the music and God, the semazen can abandon his ego and desires. It’s a way to grow closer to God and embrace God’s presence. The religious experience can last hours, so apparently forty-five minutes is the shortened, tourist-friendly version.
Sufis are generally characterized as the mystical sect of Islam. As my Muslim roommate Yasmin says, “Sufis are so chill.” They certainly seemed to be. The show started with dancing, music, and many smiles; as it progressed most of the dancers seemed to be elsewhere; their body was moving through the steps but their faces were deep in meditation, focused on some thing no one in the audience could see. The peace that came over them was far away from the cacophony of noises outside.
Cairo is a place of never-ending noise. There is always a car honking its horn. There are always shopkeepers in the market shouting things like “Welcome to Alaska!” and “Do you want to spend more money? I can help!” As I sit here, in our hotel lobby, I can hear silverware clanging, a phone ringing, and the low hum of what might be an air conditioner.
Last night we left the noise behind. That is, after five of us bargained for a cab, piled into the hunk of junk that emitted less than comforting noises, exited on a noisy street and got a little lost, and entered the standing-room-only courtyard thirty minutes before the free 8:30 p.m. performance. The crowd noise finally died down once the noise of singing, drums, and flutes began. Even the colors of the skirts seemed to contribute to the noise of the night. But looking up at the semazen, eyes closed, arms outstretched, I saw silence.
Somehow I doubt spinning in my hotel room will have the same effect.