Wild facts with no stall or pigeon-hole

That photo was taken by me recently in Turkish-occupied North Nicosia. There are strong historic links between Sufism and Cyprus due to the close proximity of Turkey. The dergah of the Naqshbandis - an order that has made numerous appearances on An Overgrown Path - is in Lefke in North Cyprus, while the Mevlevi Order of the followers of Rumi came to the island in 1571 when the Ottoman Empire conquered the island. In the heyday of Ottoman occupation there were thirty-six Mevlevi lodges in Cyprus, but these have now all fallen into disuse or disappeared. However the Mevlevi Museum at the Kyrenia Gate in Nicosia keeps the Sufi flame burning, and committed adepts such as the one above keep the tradition alive without devaluing it to a mere folkloric spectacle.

Too often Rumi's poetry is reduced to a transcultural blancmange targeted at the lucrative self-help market. Just one example of this is Deepak Chopra's The Love Poems of Rumi. In his introduction the new age guru confesses that the poems are not faithful translations but “‘moods’ we have captured as certain phrases radiated from the original Farsi”. As well as conveniently writing out of the script its deep roots in Islam, reducing Rumi's verse to no more than mood poetry is contrary to his and Sufism's core message that humankind is not lost, but has just fallen asleep.

The purpose of the whirling ritual and other Sufi dhikr is to transform by awakening the adept from the sleep realm where the ego rules. This transformation is not a comfortable process, and Rumi's mentor Shams was a polarising figure who divided loyalties. This polarisation is captured very effectively in Michael Ellison's opera Say I Am You - Mevlâna. Michael Ellison splits his time between teaching composition at the University of Bristol and co-directing the Hezarfen Ensemble in Istanbul. Say I Am You - Mevlâna is one of a new generation of uncompromising 21st century operas that includes Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream. The scoring includes Western and Turkish instruments and the pivotal role of Shams is written for a mugam voice - the declamatory Azerbaijani vocal style.

Say I Am You - Mevlâna was premiered in June 2012 by VocaalLAB and the Hezarfen Ensemble in Rotterdam and Istanbul - see performance photo below showing video scenography - but has struggled to break through the first performance glass ceiling that constrains so much new music. You will not find it on Deepak Chopra's YouTube channel, and that absence is a very strong recommendation indeed. But you can hear the opera performed by the forces it was written for in an excellent recording on the Métier label, and substantial extracts are on SoundCloud and elsewhere on YouTube. The persistence of the whirling dervishes and the timeless power of Michael Ellison's opera serve to remind us of the truth expressed by William James in What Psychical Research Has Accomplished:

If there is anything which human history demonstrates, it is the extreme slowness with which the ordinary academic and critical mind acknowledges facts to exist which present themselves as wild facts with no stall or pigeon-hole, or as facts which threaten to break up the accepted system.

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Pliable said…
Neil Talbott's comment on a Facebook heads up for this post is probably a better headline than the one I came up with - 'Trying to perceive Rumi without the obfuscation of New Age baloney...?'

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