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They’ve been outlawed for almost a century, but you can still find whirling Dervishes spinning themselves into a meditative trance in a serene little enclave of Istanbul. The unassuming Galata dervish lodge is located off a side street in the very centre of the city, its most bewitching feature a graveyard of tombstones capped with the regional serpus hats, under which are buried generations of Sufi masters.
Cross-legged among the graves, playing his ney, one of the oldest musical instruments in the world, is DJ Arkin Allen, more commonly known as contemporary Sufi musician, Mercan Dede. “This is a magical place, where I come for total peace,” he says. “Time and sound stop here.”
Despite this year’s secular demonstrations, 2007 is a spiritual year for Turkey. Unesco backed a special project of cultural events to mark the 800th anniversary of the birth of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, poet and founder of the Mevlana school of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.Advertisement
An adherent of Sufi practice and its music, Mercan Dede’s style of performance includes mixing traditional Sufi sounds with digital and electronic beats, as well as working with everyone from Istanbul’s Roma musicians to the city’s biggest rap stars, directing the stage shows from behind the turntables, from where he occasionally lifts his hands from the decks to play a stint on his ney. Not surprisingly, his favourite concert venue is the majestic 1,700-year-old Byzantine cathedral and little sister to the Hagia Sophia, Hagia Irene, although you are just as likely to find him at Babylon, one of the city’s most pumping nightclubs.
I arrived at Arkin’s Istanbul home in the neighbourhood of Cihangir, and he whisked me past Mira, a Dervish dancer, who was ironing her trademark neon-blue whirling skirt for their performance that evening, up to his balcony, overlooking a patchwork of terracotta rooftops and the glittering Bosphorus.
It’s hard to imagine that this picture-perfect scene is so frenetic at ground level. Arkin tells me he survives the chaos of the city of over 10 million people by keeping little refuges. One such is the canteen-style Haci Abdullah restaurant in the city centre, another the dessert emporium Inci, brimming with sweet treats concocted from honey and pistachios; both are old-school Turkish in their cuisine and character. Beyond the city, Arkin escapes to the Bosphorus villages, the latter-day fishing stations lining the strait all the way up to the Black Sea, which have managed to maintain much of their rural character, despite Istanbul’s exponential expansion in the last century.
One of the more popular villages is Bebek, a leafy suburb on the European shore. “I like to walk around there and sit down on a bench and get some tea or coffee from one of the portable three-tiered coffee carts,” says Arkin. It’s not a place that many visitors to the city get to, and the experience is a world away from the teeming tourist magnets in Sultanahmet: women walk their children, kids take turns throwing themselves into the water, and dogs bask in the sun, occasionally lifting their eyelids at the sound of a fishing boat parking up for the day.
The best way to negotiate the Bosphorus villages is by boat, and an unhurried service runs every hour or so between the quaint wooden docks on both sides of the strait. Arkin’s favourite neighbourhood in the city is Kandilli, just across the water from Bebek. An outdoor coffee house by the pier sits at the bottom of a hill of steep and narrow residential streets, some housing beautifully restored yalis, wooden homes from the late Ottoman period, often gaily painted, and smacking of the colonial style of much of 19th-century America. Climb up the weed-strewn stone steps to the top of the hill for a sweeping vista of the second Bosphorus suspension bridge and all of the European shore.
The “Dede” part of Arkin’s stage name is a title used by Sufis to denote an elder in the tradition, and is a mark of an allegiance that began two decades ago when he started to play the ney. He makes no secret of his affiliation with Sufism, even though the Mevlana school has in effect been outlawed since the time of the birth of the Republic in 1925, when all 250 or so dervish lodges in the city were closed down, thus demoting what was for centuries the profound spiritual practice of whirling to a tourist curiosity, on a par with bellydancing.
Although Arkin moved to Montreal in the 80s, he often returns to Istanbul: “Montreal is about peace and being myself and digesting the ideas and inspirations I get in Istanbul,” he said.
And how about Istanbul? “It’s where the angel and the devil walk hand in hand.”