By Steve Horowitz (Iran 1968-71)
It was a long walk from the Workman’s house to this other part of town, where the monthly meetings and rituals took place. Early evening but already dark , through the maze of winding high-walled alleys; few people were outside and all the mud walls seemed to look the same. Three of us -John, myself and Mustapha, John’s friend who had set everything up for us- made our way slowly with Mustapha following the directions someone had provided him. What they did at these ritual gatherings was private, secretive and pretty bizarre to outsiders, so there was no interest in encouraging visitors- especially foreigners- to attend, but if there was an intermediary to make contact and the patience to wait for permission to be granted, it could be arranged
John and his wife were English teachers in this Kurdish city not far from the provincial border between Azarbaidjan and Kurdistan. Before John told me about his experiences at the dervish meeting, I had already been to this town several times: proud, friendly people, and a welcoming atmosphere.
The possibility of a visit to the dervish meeting was particularly exciting because seemingly by accident, I had recently been introduced to a number of writings about Sufis and dervishes. But there was an inherent contradiction : the underlying message of most of these writings (from Eastern and Western points of view) was that the “meaning” of Sufi ideas and the nature of their practices were incomprehensible to the outsider, that is to anyone without direct experience. It would be virtually useless to try to really understand anything from just reading about it. I knew that whatever I would experience at this meeting would probably only be on the surface, but that did not diminish the excitement I felt at the prospect of just being there.
We must have walked for over an hour with Mustapha periodically stopping, looking around and occasionally checking his directions with any passerby that he was lucky enough to find. Finally, we reached the gate of a small, typically nondescript building in a cul-de-sac; it looked like a very small mosque. I felt like I had arrived at the center of a maze. Mustapha was greeted by someone who seemed to know him. After removing our shoes, we entered the main room, where a dozen or so men sat around the perimeter, backs to the walls. The only decorations were three framed portraits of religious- looking men in turbans. Otherwise, the walls and the rest of the room were bare.
Mustapha spoke Kurdish, Farsi and broken English. When we sat down, discussion was going on in several languages I didn’t understand- Kurdish and Arabic, I thought.- after all, we weren’t very far from Iraq. Mustapha whispered in my ear in Farsi, something about visiting dervishes from Iraq. Suddenly, someone got up to pull the curtains even tighter- a rumor that a woman might be outside looking in; women were not permitted to witness any of the activities that took place during the meeting. If they did, there could be serious negative consequences, they said.
The shiekh, or leader, gave some kind of signal and the talking stopped. Three men in traditional Kurdish headdresses moved to the center of the room. They uncovered their heads to reveal hair that flowed down to their chests- something I had never seen in this country except when foreign travelers on the “hippie trail” passed through Tehran on the way to Katmandu. So, the long haired dervishes came as quite a shock.
Then the chanting began, a low murmur at first, then more intense breathing with periodic changes in rhythm, tune and words. “Allah, Allah” “Allah Hu Akbar” “Besmellah a rahman a raheem.” Traditional Islamic prayers used in a way I had never heard before. Several new people joined the chanters, now not only chanting and breathing heavily but also rotating their heads in one direction, then the other. Faster and faster. “Allah,Allah, AllahAllah…..” until the small room filled with a vibrational intensity that was palpable. I could feel a kind of energy moving through me. Time seemed to dissolve. The only way to describe it is to say that I felt my whole being pulsing. My eyes were fixed on the dervishes in the center of this small room, physically only a few feet away at times. I felt totally absorbed. I couldn’t move.
Without warning, the dervishes jumped up grabbing knives, tools, light bulbs and even a live electrical wire that had no socket at the end. They thrust the knives through their sides, a pick into an eye socket, ate numerous light bulbs, and grabbed onto the live wire with their hands and mouth. I felt riveted to my place on the floor. There was no bleeding, no cries of pain. Only the continuous chanting and breathing that encased the dervishes in these acts of potential self-destruction and mutilation. Then, it all wound down. Everyone sat and the chanting returned to a low murmur. Turbans were rewound, tea was served. A thousand questions filled my head as the logical mind returned. But it was impossible to formulate any of them.
The long walk back to John’s house was in silence. Wondering beyond explanation. Still feeling the effects of that total experience.
The next day I was still vibrating with indescribable, inexplicable sensations. I bid my farewells and found a seat for the two-hour ride to the mid-way point, where I would have to change buses. On the second bus, I had a window seat.
Just as it was about to leave, I sensed someone looking up at me from outside. I turned to the window to see the smiling face of one of those dervishes. He gestured with a small bow, his hand on his heart. Simultaneously, the bus pulled out of the station.
Steven Horowitz (Iran 1968-71) was for twenty-three years Director of the UESL Program at Central Washington University. He also created and hosted the Blue Planet World Music Show for twelve years, and Small Town Big World, which focused on international interviews for two years, and Your World international TV program at CWU for four years. For the last ten years he has been giving readings of his Peace Corps stories, collectively known as “Donkeys, Dervishes and the Borderline: An American’s Experience in Pre-revolutionary Iran.”