I needed an aperture to smoke out from the stressful life I have as a critical care physician. I needed an escape. There are places on earth that you are certainly called upon, and you can only visit by invitation. Konya is one of them. The city of Molana Rumi, the mystic Persian poet of thirteenth-century, known for his love poems. The call, though, comes in the most unnatural way. For me, it arrived one August noon in the Neonatal ICU, when I was sweating under the overhead warmer of a baby’s bed, armored with a sterile gown, hat, mask, and gloves, almost in tears, blaming myself for the central line I’d failed to insert in the sick premature baby’s peripheral veins. Life as a critical care physician harrows you with agony and distress, when you prophesize the procedure you haven’t been able to perform can cost the baby’s life. You need time and space to distance yourself, to escape, to recuperate, and to regain the strength you need to face the hardships of a premature life again.
I cleared the droplets of sweat on my forehead with the gown’s sleeve before I tore it apart and hatched out from that hot, intolerable shell. I threw the bloody, polyvinyl gloves I am always allergic to into the trash can and started to count the needles I’d used. I had to collect them before I dispensed them in the sharps bin. One, two, three, four … I’d poked the poor baby’s veins so many times as if I’d tattooed the poor kid.
I went back to my call room to pop off the pressure that was building in my chest. Once again, I’d failed. Once again, I was not sure if the tiny, less than a pound baby I’d struggled with for two hours would live. I glanced at the cellphone I had abandoned for the past three hours: Numerous TigerTexts I’d received about the same baby from my boss, from the obstetrician, from the ethics committee, all trying to convey information or ask questions in the HIPPA-friendly, confidential chat App we use to communicate about the patients in the hospital. I read them in despair, my eyes blurry from the aura of the ocular migraine that was about to break out after two hours of heat shower and dehydration. There was also one other notification from The Persian Heritage App I’d set up for a poem a day. I am always intrigued to find out from which poet I’ve received a verse, a simple joy like opening a fortune cookie after eating an orange-glazed chicken from Chinese takeout. That day, it was a verse from Rumi. It read, No doubt the Shah is hidden in this Wedding Night, So sweet as it is, oh love, oh love, oh love.
The poem was talking about the Wedding Night, the special ceremony that takes place in Konya every December 17th on the night of Rumi’s death, the night of his reunion with God. I took it as an invitation to Konya, the place I needed to escape.
Konya, the Land of Fog and Ney
On the plains of Anatolia lays a city that its history dates back to three millenniums BC. Legends say that Perseus, the Greek hero, fought with the evil natives of that city with his eikon—the medusa’s head—and freed the land, hence giving the name of Iconium to it. For years, Iconium was ruled by Byzantines of Rome until it was conquered by the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century and was named Konya, the capital of the Sultanate of Rum. Baha-uddin Walad, Rumi’s father, who was a theologian and a mystic himself, brought his family to Konya, like many Persian elites who fled from the oppression and savagery of Mongols and sought prosperous life in the new established Seljuk kingdom. Molana lived in Konya and taught the Sufi way of life to his disciples, the Islamic mysticism that was named the Molavi order after his death.
Eight hundred years ago, on a foggy morning, a stranger named Shams of Tabriz enters Konya. He searches for a man he has seen in his dream. He doesn’t know where to find him, but on his way, in the Ney district, on a narrow pavement flanked by Chinar trees, he enters the first music store and asks the ney-maker the whereabouts of the man he has seen in his dream. A straw basket full of reeds nests beside the display booth outside the store. Different sizes of carved canes are for sale in the booth. The glimmer of Shams reflects on the display window. He stares at the hands of the ney-maker as he carves a hole in the body of the reed. The ney-maker senses the older man’s glare and turns back. He signals him to go in. Inside the store, the floor is covered with marigold locks of wood, carved from the canes. He greets the stranger and offers a chair for him to sit. He asks if the stranger would like to have tea. Where can I find the great sheikh of this town? Shams asks. The ney-maker nods. He places the cane on his lips and blows into the empty tube. He listens and gages the holes based on the sound. The melancholic song of ney fills the store. He parts his lips from the cultured cane and says, If you mean Molana, wait at the entrance of bazaar. He passes the gate on his mule every day.
Eight hundred years later, I traveled to Konya in search of the same man. I hadn’t seen him in my dream, but I knew him before he becomes the most popular mystic poet of North America, before Americans call him Rumi. I heard about Molana for the first time when I was in middle school, at the age of twelve, when my Persian literature teacher read the first few verses of Masnavi, Rumi’s collection of couplets for us. Listen to the ney when it tells its separation story, From the time they have cut me from the marsh, Every man and woman is bemoaning my story. In her soft voice, she asked, Do you know why the songs of ney are heavy and doleful? Ney can never lie. It tells the story of its separation from the marshland, and the everlasting desire to go back. I grew up listening to Molana’s poems when singers read his poems as lyrics for traditional Persian music. We heard his heroic poems at the time of war between Iran and Iraq in the ’80s, when the national radio station broadcasted his unforgettable verse: Where art thou, you the martyrs of Allah, You who are dying in the plains of Karbala, You who glide lighter than the birds, You who know how to open the gates to the sky.
But he became my beloved poet after I read Step by Step to Meet God by Persian scholar, Zarrinkoub. In that book, he uncovered the love affair between Rumi and his master, Shams of Tabriz. He regaled me with a queer love story, one that was absolutely forbidden and impermissible in the country I was growing. Based on historical evidence, the love affair between Rumi and Shams was a platonic one. Still, the sole idea of love between two human beings was a taboo at that time in Iran, when all men and women ought to love and die for one and only cause, for Allah, the omnipotent and ultimate founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. No wonder the national radio only broadcasted his heroic poems, and nothing of love. It was like committing a crime to read his poetry, to fall in love with a mortal when Rumi called his beloved the Sun, the air in his lungs, the blood in his veins, his only religion, and the only one he worshiped as God.
I held his poems like diamond crystals hidden in a chest, reciting them to myself as I welcomed love in my heart. I never knew I would have the same fate as ney, leaving my homeland and coming to America—about a decade after the horrifying days of war in Iran was over—as a young physician in training. I grew up reading Masnavi and his collection of love poems every down, even in the mornings, I had barely slept in the hospital, taking care of a sick child. His poems percolated into my skin, my veins, my bones, and they became part of my soul.
Now, after all these years, he is more than a love poet for me. He is the Molana, the Master, the Leader, and the only way to salvation and enlightenment in life. I couldn’t visit him in Konya without preparing my heart and my mind. I had to be in love if I wanted to set foot in his resting place. So I decided to take my imaginary lover with me, the one I dream of visiting Molana with one day. I set his visibility “only to me” so that we could tramp the city in disguise, no curious eye following us on the road. I wore my cherry red coat that has a checkered cloth sewn in its inner layer, and I imagined him in the fiery red sweater I’d bought him as a gift.
We set our journey from the Bayir Diamond Hotel or the Diamond Hill to the Mevlana Müzesi—the name Turkish people have chosen for Rumi’s resting place. We walked alongside a cemetery, on a narrow, cemented pavement that was flanked by Chinar trees. The fog was conspicuous, mystifying the end of the road and hachuring the graves. The droplets of mist tried to hide the dead from us. It was no time to meet the dead, I thought, not then at least. It was time for the living, time for the liveliest of the living, time for the lovers it was.
The Turquoise Tower and Fire
We meandered through narrow alleys and thruways, mobile covering my palm and guiding our way. I was looking at my Google map when a man with a brown beret approached me and said, The place you are looking for is ahead. Every street leads to Molana, the Konyians believe. I saw cylindrical propane gas tanks as we passed small houses with tiny front yards. A middle-aged woman was standing outside in her teeny tiny yard, pouring the beetroots in the pot on the gas burner connected to the tank. It seemed I was walking through a time tunnel as I passed that little house: my mother cooked beetroots on those stovetops at the time of war when everything—even propane tanks—was rationed in Iran. She sought the same medicine mother used to seek for getting over the tight chest on cold days. The unforgettable aroma of beets entered my lungs. This is how you’re welcomed in Konya, I whispered to myself, You ought to get over the pained chest that constantly broods over the past.
The cylindrical turquoise tower capped with a conical roof, the Mevlana Müzesi, was a hard to miss edifice at the heart of Konya. The tower caressed the kissing clouds as they passed. The museum was not open yet, but people had already created a line in front of the entrance. The tourists poured into Konya from other parts of Turkey as well as other Muslim countries at that time of the year. They all wanted to join the Molana Ceremony on the Wedding Night as we did.
The Sugar and Silence
My lover likes everything sweet. From his point of view, sugarless life is not worth living. Coming from America, I think sugar is the number one poisonous food of our life. He showed me gunny sacks full of cubed sugar in front of the stores facing the Mevlana Müzesi. It’s called the Molana Sugar; by the way, he said to me and donned his sweet smile. We passed the sugar stores and joined the line that snaked into the museum. Tailing the line, we entered a rose garden that was outlined by short stone walls. The weather was cold, and there were no flowers on the rose bushes. The garden was soggy, the smell of sodden soil in the air. For years, Molana’s disciples had recited poems and whirled in that garden. There were different gates to the rose garden; every gate named after the disciples based on their dominant spiritual state. Let’s take a photo with this gate, my lover said, as he stood beside The Khamushan gate, an old wooden door with brass handles. I took the first photo of him and imagined all The Silent disciples that entered the rose garden through that gate. Were they whirling without uttering a word? Not even saying Hoo, the mystical word Sufis use for the Beloved?
Visitors were required to cover their shoes before they enter the shrine. On the green wooden board that hung on top of the entrance, I read a familiar verse. It was written in Farsi, the official language of the Ottomans, before the new Turkish alphabet became the language of the state. This place is the cubicle for lovers, Whoever steps in, will be satisfied. I covered my boots, my lover his sneakers, and we passed under the green board and stepped in the Telavat room, the place where Molana’s disciples read and recited the Holy Koran. I marveled at the calligraphic writings of the Holy Koran that carpeted the walls; each has its own delicacy and mesmerizing beauty. People took pictures with those works of art, most of them not knowing what meanings were concealed in the frames.
Next to the Telavat room, we entered a high ceiling hall that housed many marble tombs lined in parallel to Molana’s grave. Small lattice windows near the ceiling invited the milky light of the cloudy day inside. Intricate silk brocade covered Molana’s raised tomb, and a pair of green turbans adorned the head of the tomb. In his presence, nobody spoke, nobody budged, only the candles flickered to illuminate, and the agarwood burned to incense. What was in silence that Rumi picked as his pen name? I kneeled in front of his grave and placed my hand on the marble fence that separated his raised platform from the visitors’ stage. My lover put his hand on my shoulder as I read the love poems I knew by heart. Oh lovers, oh lovers, it’s time for the union, they are calling you from the sky. Take the wine cup from the silent and dance to the sweet breath of the bard. In silence, if you taste, there is the sweetness of thousand sugar canes.
We proceeded to Semakhane, the dance floor for the whirling dervishes. From the time of Rumi, his disciples danced while they recited love poems, and this tradition has remained in Molavi order as Sema or the Whirling Dervishes Ceremony. They used to dance for hundreds of years at that place. But the time has changed, and dervishes no longer dance in that hall. They perform in the Konya’s giant amphitheater, the Glitter House, during the Molana’s Ceremony in mid-December every year.
The Semakhane’s dome was as high as the sky. Unlike the domes of the mosques that are usually covered with turquoise and ivory tiles, the dome of Semakhane was painted with red and green entangled flowers. At the black center of the dome, white calligraphic words connected to create one giant star. I tried to read the words. It was written in the Arabic alphabet, a language most Turks do not speak nowadays. I found a single sentence that was repeated six times: Oh you, who know my state. I wondered why that particular sentence was chosen to be scribed at the center of the dome. Isn’t it true that when dervishes whirl, they eye the sky? Isn’t it true they need to forget themselves and believe that the one and only who knows their state is the Beloved, the All-Knower? Is this the code that, with repetition, opens the door to the sky?
I lowered my sight from the heavens to earth once again. A young girl with long black hair was whirling at the center of Semakhane. Her red maxi skirt spread out and floated in the air. The clacking of her shoes echoed in the high dome. It sounded like an army of tap dancers playing on the stage. She sang to Molana as she danced. It was an unusual scene. Women were never allowed to dance in public as whirling dervishes before, certainly not with flying skirts and flowing cascades of locks. But Semakhane was now open to all pilgrims if they dared to spin. The floor was for them if they dared to break the fetters and fly.
The Lamb and Apricot Stew
We decided to test the best food in Konya. To know the people of a place, you ought to know the materials they use to build their bodies. So we walked, my lover and I, and peeked at every restaurant or kebab house its door-boy invited us. Some had names hard to pronounce; some had the picture of whirling dervishes hung in their dining rooms.
Kitchen is the place a dervish starts his journey to the Beloved based on Molavi order. If you want to become a dervish, you need to work one thousand and one days in Matbakh—the kitchen—as a novice. As you stir the soup in the cauldron and prepare food for other dervishes, you feel the blazing flames on your face, and your raw inner meat gets cooked. You become ready for the journey. The uncooked ones will never understand the state of the cooked, You need to keep silent and avoid words until you are cooked, Rumi says in the very beginning of Masnavi.
We tramped the alleys and chased the aromas that wafted from the corners of the old wooden doors, where mustached chefs cooked the ambrosia of Konya. It was dusk when we reached a difficult name. Lokmahane, the refuge for the travelers, said the sign on the door. We sought shelter from the cold and delved into a foyer filled with giant glass jars of pickles. I had never seen orange pickle in my life, but in that heavenly place, every possible fruit was historicized in white or red vinegar. We chose a corner facing the door to the kitchen. The servers only spoke Turkish, but who cared, I reminded myself. The language of compassion uses different words. Such that a Hindu and a Turk can have the same language, but two Turks can be aliens, Rumi murmured into my ears. We tasted the most delicate lamb stew of our lives. The fibers of apricot had enlaced with the fibers of lamb in the zinc plate; they’d braided a potion only lovers could savor its magical taste.
The Prayer without Hijab
Another day, my lover and I wandered the city until we came across a mysterious well. Konyians believe Shams of Tabriz was killed by some envious disciples of Molana, his body thrown into that well. Shams was Rumi’s beloved everyone coveted. He was gaudy, grumpy, and full of secret words no one could understand. Molana fell in love with him one day when he was riding his mule in the bazaar surrounded by his disciples. Shams got close, petted the mule, and asked a question Molana knew not the answer. He stared at Molana as he struggled to say something, and that one look was enough to cast an eternal spell on the theologian of Konya and throw him into the fire of love. Molana could not sleep, nor could he stay away from the older man. He closed the doors to his maktab—the school he taught—and spent forty days and nights with Shams. Everyone got scared of the older man, as he had stolen the sheikh of the Konya, the Molana of the order, the master of the dervishes. No one whirled, no one sang, as the master smoldered in the fire Shams had kindled behind closed doors. People got angry with the older man whose name meant A Sun from Tabriz. The stranger no one knew his past, no one liked, and no one welcomed but Rumi. The jealousy killed the older man at last. You can’t just walk into a city, ask about the sheikh of the town from a ney-maker and steal the illustrious scholar for your own. You have to pay the price, and in the Shams’s case, he paid it with his life. A tomb and a mosque were erected beside the well his body was thrown.
The Shams Mosque was unlike any other I’d ever seen. Instead of a dome, a tin pyramid stood on an octagonal base. No colorful tile adorned the exterior of the structure, and the four enclosing walls contained large, coarse stones, resembling the rough character of the older man buried in that place. Inside, a pine green velvet counterpane covered a giant prism erected on the grave. Nothing else caught the eye, but the embroidery on the velvet sheet. A dark green turban was set on the head of the prism as it is customary on the graves of the scholars in Konya. I noticed a grandfather clock at the corner of the grave. Of all the adornments I’d seen placed in tombs—and I have visited many tombs in different parts of the world—I found this clock the most absurd gadget to be placed at the head of a grave. What benefit time has to the dead? To wake the man up at the resurrection day? Or was it placed there for the spectator, as a reminder for the only true treasure he possesses in life?
I climbed the wooden stairs to the women’s praying balcony to take a photo from the velvety green tomb. But instead, I saw the most bizarre scene I could imagine I see in a mosque. Beside his grave, men and women stood together in one row, women wearing no hijab, praying side by side with men. Their strands of hair kissed the earth as they kneeled and prostrated in front of Allah.
I remembered the days I prayed in my high school’s praying hall. No man was allowed in that hall, and not a single strand of hair was supposed to be out from the headcovers we had to wear at all times. The school staff told us that Allah wouldn’t accept prayers from women whose hair showed from under their hijabs. I always wondered about such a rule from Allah, the All-seer, and the All-knower of the universe. Why did it matter to Him if a few strands of hair jutted out from around the headscarf? Weren’t prayers supposed to be accepted based on the purity of one’s heart? But Konya is the city of Molana, the religious scholar who welcomed pluralism in the practice of Islam. He believed the only real virtue of humans to be of love. In whose mosque then, one could see women pray without hijab in one row with men? Only at that mosque, the master of Molana, the man of oddities, Shams of Tabriz. That scene could have only happened at his grave.
The Lovers’ Hill
On our way back to the hotel, we reached the citadel of the city on Aladdin Hill. Showing traces of the Byzantine forts, the citadel was turned into a majestic mosque by Aladdin Keyghobad I, one of the most powerful and progressive Sultans of Rum. Water murmured as it flew from four columns of fountains down the hill. We treaded the low steps beside the fountains and climbed up to an evergreen garden. Even though it was mid-December, the shrubs and trees created a vivid scene on top of the hill. A young couple stood on the last step, the girl wearing a pink and blue striped scarf, the boy in jeans, facing the girl. I couldn’t see her face, but I sensed the glamour of her face in the lover’s passionate gaze. He had a broad smile on his lips.
We noticed a teahouse as soon as we reached the top. It stretched under a series of wooden arbors that were covered with orange-tinged ceramic shingles. Yellow leaves covered the ground around the arbors, the maroon colored chairs and checkered tablecloths went well with the orange shingles and golden leaves. No one was sitting around the cozy tables of the teahouse. At first, we thought the teahouse was closed, but the notice on the entrance welcomed the guests. Two men motioned their heads from inside the teahouse and asked us to go in. A huge samovar boiled the water in the open kitchen of the teahouse. The vapor whirled upward, clouding the kitchen. Cupper and china teapots lined over the counter with different aroma teas. We sat beside a tiny two-seat table and waited for them to get our order. A sugar bowl decorated every table of the teahouse, the sugar cubes wrapped in twins. In the Great Divan, Molana’s book of love poems, there are countless verses about the sugarcane and the pure cubes of sugar. In Rumi’s time, sugar was an expensive commodity, not available in every house. Only the rich could afford to buy the white, purified sugar cones. The cones, which were usually the size of small bolsters, were shattered into larger pieces with a hammer and then broken into smaller cubes with a nipper. The cubes were served in brass bowls at the end of the Sufi ceremonies as a gesture of sweet endings.
The server brought mint tea, my favorite drink. I picked a twin wrapped sugar cubes and read the writing on it. Rumi’s seven words of wisdom were written on the wrap. In compassion and grace, be like sun. Before the cubes reached the bottom of my tea, I heard a giggle and a cry. The lovers I saw beside the fountains entered the teahouse. Unaware of my glance, they sat a few tables ahead of us. They brought the wooden chairs close and laced their fingers in each other’s hands. They saw no one; they heard no one; they were in love. Was it true that whoever came to Konya had to be in love? Did they choose this place for its reputation for being the city of lovers? She rested her head on his shoulder. The fallen leaves danced in the breeze, stem in stem. The sweet flavor of the cube sugar lingered on my taste buds.
What does it take to be compassionate and graceful, like sun?
The Whirling Dervishes
His dying night, Rumi himself called it the Wedding Night. Because for him, dying was a mere transformation, a pass from the pains of this life to the pure pleasure beside the Beloved. He prepared himself for a wedding, for unification with the one he longed to join all his life. Who mourns on a wedding night?
My lover and I hit the road at sunset, hoping to see the dance of dervishes at the Wedding Night. To see them whirl, you get to walk away from the restaurants, and kebab houses, the confectionaries and sugar stores, and even pass the resting place of Molana to reach the hollow lands the municipality has built a cultural house for Molana. Not knowing exactly where to go, we asked a passerby. An older woman who sold cube sugars told us about the place. You need to be in pain to search for the medicine; You need to be thirsty to seek the water. Don’t search for water, look for thirst, she sang the words of Rumi to us. We looked at each other, my lover and I, neither of us understood what she meant. But we didn’t give up; we followed the path that led to the Glitter House at the far end of the city. In that foggy cold night, we decided to stop asking, become silent, and let the light lead us to the dance.
A thousand candles hung from the ceiling in goblet-shaped glasses above the dancing floor. The dervishes entered the hall in one line and stood in the perimeter of the dance circle until the master allowed them to enter and whirl. Hands up in the air, they spun around an imaginary pole that stretched to the sky. They wear a pristine white coat and a maxi skirt, with a conical brown headdress. They looked like giant white pinwheels when they twirled and danced relentlessly in the hall.
I had heard about the dance of dervishes since I was a little girl. I wore my mother’s flared skirt, tied it with a thin cotton rope around my waist, and whirled in our guest room until I became dizzy and out of breath. I loved the squiggles I felt in my stomach after the dance. At that time, I wasn’t familiar with the quaint emotions I felt during the dance. I wanted to cry and cackle at the same time, a sort of ecstasy without knowing the name. My mother never liked seeing me spinning around the house. She said I would become mad and “out-of-control” if I kept spinning around myself. Three decades later, I realized why she thought I could grow out of control. The dervishes whirled until they became numb, feeling they could break the chains that shackled them to the ground. At the crux of an ecstatic moment, they drifted away like the lightest breeze of the dawn. Dizziness and tinnitus overcame the perception of the terrestrial and opened the doors to the sky.
I was thirsty after the dance of dervishes and sick from cold. Perhaps, as the sugar-seller woman said, I was getting prepared. We roamed outside the Glitter House aimlessly, accidentally, mirthfully. The night was crisp and brisk and kept us shivering and nimble on our toes. We started to whirl, my lover and I, to stay warm. We had paced the streets of Konya for five days. We’d treaded more than a thousand steps to reach that state, to stretch on our toes and dance to the dreamy lamentation of ney, the mellifluous music that sprawled out from the arched windows of the whirling hall. We closed our eyes as we twirled, we imaged ourselves among the dervishes, One hand carrying a chalice of wine, the other holding the tress of the beloved, this how I yearn to dance.
Are you thirsty? Are you cold? the voice of a young girl asked. I stopped whirling, and I opened my eyes. I saw a beautiful girl with braided hair wearing an Ask Me apron in front of me. She worked for the Glitter House as a volunteer to help the guests find their way. I am, I said to the apron girl. Holding a cup full of a milky drink, she asked, Do you want to drink sahleb? It’s the divine drink of Konya on the Wedding Night. She offered the cup to me. I sipped, and the taste of cinnamon and creamy milk saturated my buds. Oh, the tastes of childhood, how ardent and indelible you are! The taste of sahleb, the hot starchy milk drink with cinnamon mother used to give me when I was sick.
The Ask Me girl was gone. My lover took a sip from my cup. My lips and his lips were covered with creamy milk, cinnamon sprinkled on top. The hot mist rose from his lips and mine. I kissed his lips, and he, mine. We are whirling, drunk from the water of life, Not from the music of ney, nor from the tambourine, No doubt the Shah is hidden in this Wedding Night, So sweet as it is, oh love, oh love, oh love.
The taste of cinnamon prevailed; the cast was spelled; the thirst and the cold-sickness were gone. I’d sailed through the past as I strolled in the streets of Konya, nous flânions dans les rues de Konya. I’d freed myself from the chains that shackled me to the past. I’d learned to dance away from the disabling moments of stress. Konya had given me more than an escape.
* The verses written in Italic are from Molana Rumi, translated by the author.