The timing wasn’t deliberate, considering that the Whirling Dervishes’ Louisiana performances were scheduled long before the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.
But it couldn’t be more perfect.
“Their message is loud, especially in today’s conditions,” says Emrah Aktepe. “It says, ‘Come wherever you are, we accept everyone as who they are.”
Aktepe is executive director of the Atlas Foundation, which is hosting the Whirling Dervishes’ Tuesday performance at Independence Park Theatre, as well as the group’s New Orleans appearance Wednesday in Loyola University’s Roussel Hall.
The Whirling Dervishes of Rumi are a sect of the Sufi branch of Islam. The group last performed in Baton Rouge in 2007. “Performance” may not be the most accurate word to describe this stage appearance.
“It’s a prayer,” Aktepe says. “It’s their own unique way of praying to God, so the entire dance is a spiritual experience.”
The group is made up of four musicians and four dancers, who perform twirling dances inspired by literature and music.
“The origin and roots of Sufism lie in the life and practices of the Prophet of Islam and the Qur’an,” states the group’s biography on its website, whirlingdervishes.org. “Sufism espouses a well-founded and thoroughgoing interpretation of Islam, which focuses on love, tolerance, worship of God, community development, and personal development through self-discipline and responsibility. A Sufi’s way of life is to love and be of service to people, deserting the ego or false self and all illusion so that one can reach maturity and perfection, and finally reach Allah, the True, the Real.”
The Sufi branch, or order, was founded in the 13th century by Muslim poet and mystic Mawlana Jaladdeen Rumi in the Turkish city of Konya.
“There are Whirling Dervish groups who just perform dances, and there are ones whose performances are part of this spiritual ritual,” Aktepe says. “An audience can tell the difference between the two. The ones the audiences will see on the stage in Baton Rouge and New Orleans are real, and the audience will be able to feel the difference.”
The ceremony will begin with an elder group member, who will explain what will happen during the ritual and the meaning behind it. Then the music will bring the Whirling Dervishes to the stage.
“They won’t be doing different dances; just his one,” Aktepe says. “They’ll be wearing robes, and they’ll twirl.”
Aktepe first watched a Whirling Dervish performance in Turkey, where those wanting to become members of the order must follow a regimen of steps.
“It’s a process like going to college or university but in a different way,” Aktepe says. “They used to have to start out being quiet for so many days, then they had to serve others while being quiet. There were other steps to follow. Today, they still have to go through spiritual levels.”
And they become a part of this worship experience in the end.
The Whirling Dervishes make only one request of its audiences through its website: “Sema is a spiritual act, so please do not applaud while watching. You may kindly do so, if you wish, after the dervishes have left the stage.”
“It’s a different kind of worship,” Aktepe says. “It’s unique, and it welcomes a coming together of different cultures in this time after the terror attacks in France. The timing for this is right.”