Turkish Rumi Pilgrimage
Tomorrow evening, God willing, I'll be on a United Airlines flight; we reach Germany the next morning at 8, which is still in the middle of the night here. To be precise, 2 A.M. An hour later Lufthansa lifts us on the way to what was once the most fabled city in the world. It was Constantinople, then; Istanbul now.
My very first flight, in case you're keeping score, came on Eastern Airlines; a flight that touched down at National Airport. We were on the ground long enough - in that pre-terrorist age - for passengers to stretch their legs and their curiosity. Looking around the main room, there was no hint most of my adulthood would be spent in the area served by the airport.
At any rate, as long time readers know, since moving to Frederick, I spent time in France, Spain, Morocco, Venezuela, Germany, Russia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Italy; I once covered the Vatican from Rome. The years in Cairo came before hauling up the interstate.
This coming trip, however, shapes up as very different from all the rest. Turkey is the Muslim country that was pulled, kicking and screaming, into modern times. The "puller" was Mustapha Kamal Ataturk, not his "given" name. He took the fez away from every man and forced a woman to give up purdah: the custom of concealing her face and body, including legs, from strange men.
About the name: When "the father of Turks" - that's what Ataturk means - was born (1881) the country was part of the Ottoman Empire. As a boy, he was simply Mustapha. After the order decreeing last names, he picked up Kamal. A grateful nation bestowed Ataturk.
By the way, it wasn't until 1930 that he officially changed the city's name to Istanbul. It had started simply as Byzantine and took Constantine's name, as a mark of respect and veneration; he was the Caesar that first made Christianity the Roman Empire's official religion. The east/west fracture happened long after his time.
Curiously, when the Ottomans finally conquered "the Rome of the East," the city remained the headquarters for the Orthodox Church. For over 400 years, under sultans who varied widely, some were not nice men, the patriarch of Constantinople remained the first among the others: Athens, Alexandria and Moscow, principally. Alexandria contained more Greeks than any city in Greece; the Egyptian city was also home to more Jews than Palestine.
My tour, under the auspices of Rumi Forum, run by a Georgetown University professor, is scheduled to proceed from Istanbul, by plane and minibus, to Bursa, Manisa, Izmir, Kayseri and Capodicia. At some point we will be exposed to the famous Whirling Dervishes; notice I didn't say entertained.
What they do is serious, a form of concentrating absolutely on their thoughts; the whirling helps induce a trance that removes them further from worldly concerns. In a real sense, theirs is the purest form of Islam, although relatively brief in time. They were founded, during the 13th century, by Jalal ad-din Muhammad Rumi. The Seljuk Turks ruled much of Asia Minor at the time.
He believed with the Bible that the way to reach God was by making "a joyful noise;" he fostered music and dancing. At one time his works were the best-selling poetry in the United States: over 250,000 copies have been sold. Madonna, Goldie Hawn and Demi Moore have all made records based on his lyrical verse.
Rumi was a practicing Sufi; so are his followers. They believe God - Allah simply means the One God - can be reached only through mystical means. I knew a Sufi in Egypt; he was a silversmith in the great bazaar, Khan al-Khalili. At prayer times during the work day, he simply closed up shop and tended to his obligations. He was a gentle man, always with a tear in his eyes, it seemed to me.
Naturally, traveling at this time of the conflict in Lebanon and Iraq, my reporter's instincts will be thrown into high gear. Turkey is separated only by Syria from the war in the Holy Land. There is no separation - except the mountains - from Iraq. The journey will keep me well-west, generally along the Mediterranean.
There will be daily reports on WFMD radio's Bob Miller morning show. Given the hectic schedule, I will still write when I can, God willing: "insha'lla" as the Muslims say, including the Turks, especially the Sufis.