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Conversations and presences 

On a Friday night in June 1992, Barbara Stenross and her husband wandered into the old Silk Road, the Turkish teahouse on Franklin Street that was then an imports store. The door was open, but the shop was empty. Demir Williford (currently owner of the Nomadic Trading Company) came from around back and asked if the couple wanted to meet a Sufi master. Stenross might have thought she was being invited to a cooking demonstration, or to meet a martial arts expert, if she hadn't recently listened to and been extremely taken with a tape of Coleman Barks reading his translations of the poetry of 13th-century Persian mystic, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi. As it turned out, Sherif Baba, a Sufi teacher of the Turkish Rifa'i Marufi lineage, had just arrived from New York and was leading a sohbet, or spiritual discourse, in the back room. The conversation that followed was Stenross's first step on the Sufi path, a path to which she's held fast for eight years.

For Stenross and millions of others, Rumi's ecstatic verse was a rip at the seams of their daily, worldly lives. He wrote more than 40,000 verses in Persian (Farsi), much of them improvised and recorded faithfully by his scribe Husam Chelebi, who wrote of Rumi, "Sometimes he would recite night and day for several days ... then for a period of two years he spoke no poetry." Rumi was born in 1207 in Balkh (now Afghanistan) in the last days of the Persian empire. His father was a highly respected Muslim scholar and just before the invasion of Genghis Khan, he took his family out of Persia--first to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and finally to settle in Konya, Anatolia (now Turkey). Under his father's tutelage and years of formal education, Rumi was already admired as a theologian at age 23, when his father died.

When asked about Rumi's influence on culture and religion in his own lifetime, Amir Rezvani, Iranian native and president of the Persian Art Center (a local private nonprofit), asks, "Which Rumi?" There's Rumi before age 37, a scholar of law and theology, with thousands of Muslim followers; and there's Rumi transformed after an encounter (some say for 40 days and 40 nights) with the wandering Sufi dervish Shams ad-din Tabriz. In the United States "dervish" is immediately associated with whirling, but it's actually a derivation of the Persian word for "poor one." And the word "Sufi" comes from the Arabic for "mystic," which in turn comes from "suf" or wool, referring to the woolen garment worn by early Islamic ascetics.

In a sense, Shams taught Rumi what he already knew--he just made it go deeper and wider: All matter is a manifestation of God, and the perfect union of lover (humanity) to beloved (God) is an ecstatic one ignited by song and the whirling dance. Out of Sham's teachings, Rumi created the Mevlevi Order of whirling dervishes. Rumi's message reformed by humanism and inclusiveness, Rezvani says, was a "rolling ocean." The 13th century was the golden age of Sufism, and Rumi had millions of followers throughout the world. Though the Muslim orthodoxy frowned on the mystic for promoting dance and music, they were powerless to his reputation; even the King of Persia became his disciple. When Rumi died in 1273, believers from five faiths followed his bier.

The Mathnawi, Rumi's masterpiece written over 12 years, is an all-embracing work--giving voice to Moses, Jesus, Noah, Mohammed, recounting stories of saints and teachers, whispering personal asides and jokes. It broke many of the rules of classical Persian poetry with its line lengths and peculiar, sometimes private, imagery: "Like a deep truth/inside a lie, like the taste of butter / in buttermilk, that's how spirit / is held in form." The abiding themes in Rumi's work are tolerance, remembrance of the divine in every living thing, and a call to oneness with that divine existence in each other and in nature. In the Mathnawi, God says to Moses:

Ways of worshipping are not to be ranked as better

or worse than one another.

Hindus do Hindu things.

The Dravidian Muslims in India do what they do.

It's all praise, and it's all right.

It's not Me that's glorified in acts of worship.

It's the worshippers! ...

Forget phraseology.

I want burning, burning.

This month brings two local events celebrating the message and life of Rumi, born on September 30. Organizers of "In Celebration of Rumi," sponsored by the Persian Art Center and the Duke University Institute of the Arts, and RumiFest 2000 are working in greater cooperation this year to provide a week-long engagement with the poetry, music, dance and spiritual teachings of Rumi in particular and Sufi mysticism in general.

On Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m. in Duke University's Reynolds Theater, Robert Bly will recite translations of Rumi to the music of Maestro Lotfi, a master of Persian classical music. Rezvani hopes that listeners will be transported to the 13th century by Rumi's verse accompanied as it would have been in his day by the sounds of the sitar and tar (traditional Persian stringed instruments).

Bly is a National Book Award-winning poet and a best-selling author of nonfiction, and he is responsible in part for the tidal swell of Rumi's popularity in the last decade. In 1975 he brought an arid translation of Rumi ("He'd been turned into an academic Episcopalian," says Bly) to his friend Coleman Barks and said, "Release them from their scholarly cages." Neither poet could have predicted how strong and lasting their flight would be. Barks's subsequent translation, The Essential Rumi, has sold over a quarter million copies, and by the time he spoke at the first RumiFest in 1998, a Valentine's Day CD of Rumi's love poems, translated by New Age guru Deepak Chopra and read by Demi Moore, Goldie Hawn and Madonna, had just been released.

Rumi's message that identity is connected and thus shared doesn't come naturally to us, the descendants of colonists, pioneers, revolutionaries and industrialists. But the onslaught of the corporate world--where everything has a price, even time and family, and the delivery speed of information is constant and bewildering--has created a need for something outside of time, politics and the stock market. Rumi fills a vacancy in American contemporary life. Rezvani believes the Sufi mystic appeals to intellectuals because his poetry insists that "you don't need a middle man to get to God." Rumi celebrates spirituality "without the baggage of Calvin and Luther," says Bly.

When asked about the commodification of Rumi as a spiritual quick-fix, Rezvani says, "He could be a permanent fix if you live with it." And Stenross believes spiritual work is never easy and with Rumi, "There's no wrong place to start." Bly has a sterner response. He is dismayed at the Americanization of "an extremely elegant poet" by Hollywood. When brilliance from another culture is offered to us, "instead of repeating its discipline, hard work, and scholarship, we bring it down to our level." There are two sides to Rumi, says Bly, and most of his readers in America today attend only to the joy. Bly prefers translating the verses that grieve and sometimes scold.

The second local Rumi event is grander in scale and scope. RumiFest 2000 is a five-day festival (Wednesday, Sept. 27 to Sunday, Oct. 1) sponsored by the Rifa'i Marufi Order of America, the Nomadic Trading company and the Carrboro ArtsCenter. Williford says the festival has really grown this year because of e-mail and a new Web site (www.rumifest.org). Forty people are flying in from Turkey for the festival with one of the speakers, Cemalnur, who is a murshida (female scholar of Sufi mysticism) and a representative of a Turkish earthquake relief organization. Proceeds from last year's Rumi events went to aid the victims of the tragic August earthquake.

This year the festival recognizes the work of murshidas, from the mother of Moses and the mother of Jesus to modern-day spiritual leaders. The teachings of murshida Rabi'ah al-'Adawiyah at the end of the 8th century altered Sufism permanently from a purely ascetic practice of Islam to a mystical one. She first formulated the Sufi ideal of God's disinterested love for humanity--disinterested in paradise or hell.

When asked to describe the Sufi way, Rumi wrote, "Written words cannot contain what I would tell you. Only conversations and presences." RumiFest epitomizes the communal dialogue essential to the mystical Islamic practice of Sufism. Stenross comments that ecumenical gatherings like RumiFest are happening more and more as Sufis in America move toward each other in greater unity. Stenross believes Sufism is about "polishing our souls" to such a degree that we become mirrors for others to reflect on their own divinity. Of last year's RumiFest, she adds, "There were so many beautiful mirrors."

On Wednesday night Carl Ernst (chair of the department of religious studies at UNC-Chapel Hill) will open the festival with a talk on Rumi and Sufism, to be followed by the music of Latif Bolat. Throughout the week, evening music and poetry events will be held at the Chapel Hill High School gym and the Carrboro ArtsCenter. Workshops on Sufi mysticism, sohbets and zikrs will be held during the day at Camp New Hope.

Stenross says the zikr is a "deliberate remembrance" of unity with all creation that varies from order to order--from a meditative ceremony to a more exuberant one filled with singing, dancing and even whirling; but the ritual's hoped-for outcome, no matter its form, is the same, for followers to be in a "constant state of remembrance." Though the Rifa'i Marufi Order does not practice whirling, Rumi's followers did. The "turn" is a very precise sacred dance with an inner and outer form: It requires deep training and years of practice. Whirling enacts the spiritual journey of the seeker's turning toward God and truth and the revolution going on within the self. Or, as Rumi writes:

Dance, when you're broken open.

Dance, if you've torn the bandage off.

Dance in the middle of fighting.

Dance in your blood.

Dance when you're perfectly free. EndBlock

  • Not one, but two local festivals this month celebrate the teachings of the Persian poet and mystic Rumi.

More by Leigh Anne Couch

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