REPORTER: Mark Davis
In a back lane in the suburbs of Istanbul, an extraordinary ceremony is unfolding. An Islamic ritual that is rarely filmed. With its music, praying with women and ecstatic chanting, it is heretical to other Muslims, illegal in the eyes of the Government. Although this group's religion is frowned upon by many in Turkey, they have another more public ritual that has made them internationally famous. They are the Mevlevi, better known as the whirling Dervishes.
Amid ancient ruins in the old part of town, the public side of the Dervish religion is on display. This whirling prayer, known as the Sema has become a tourist icon for Turkey and a source of income for professional Semazans like Adnen.
ADNEN: I love it.
REPORTER: Even though it's five nights a week, you still love it?
ADNEN: Yeah, I still love it five times a week - not five times, seven times a week.
UNESCO has declared 2007 as the international year of Rumi, the whirling founder of this sect born 800 years ago. But despite the added international attention this year will bring, performers like Adnen know they will still be viewed with suspicious in Turkey.
REPORTER: How do other people see the Dervish in Turkey?
ADNEN: Some of them they like, some of them they don't. The eyes is open. If the people watch openly, they like it. But the people who watch like this way, they don't like it.
REPORTER: The narrow-minded?
This trans-like dance reaching up to God with one hand and delivering a message to mortals through the other is seen as hallucinatory and dangerously mystical to many in Turkey.
ADNEN: When I am whirling, if the people watch me, if the people understand me, you make this for Islams, then I win. I like it. But if the people say we only see this for the dancing, I lost. This is not dance, this is something extra.
PROFESSOR MAHMOUD KULICH, DIRECTOR OF THE TURKISH ISLAMIC MUSEUM: In the past actually, started from the early period of Islam, Dervishes were at the very core of the Islam.
The director of the Turkish Islamic museum, Professor Mahmoud Kulich is Turky’s foremost academic in the study of the Mevlevi Dervish and the suffi tradition that they belong to. A religion that is effectively outlawed under the Turkish constitution.
PROFESSOR MAHMOUD KULICH: In constitutional law it says that suffi training and suffi activities and running Dervish lodges is forbidden.
To professor Kulich, the Mevlevi suffis have become wedged between the dominant Sunnis Muslims of Turkey and the suspicions of the secular arms of the state.
PROFESSOR MAHMOUD KULICH: Those kind of suffi were born.
The Mevlevis have become the perennial outsiders of Turkish society, only allowed to silently spin.
PROFESSOR MAHMOUD KULICH: They cannot give an opening. They say do your platform us and don't talk anywhere else.
REPORTER: They can't have a true lodge, they can have a rehearsal.
Despite their international acclaim, the religion of the Mevlevi suffis is still largely taught and practiced underground or under the cover of a tourist dance.
PROFESSOR MAHMOUD KULICH: I cannot have private house for suffi gatherings and lodge legally.
REPORTER: The one I went to is a suburban Hall and it is dedicated to the Mevlevi but I’m assuming that it is a practice Hall.
PROFESSOR MAHMOUD KULICH: Folklore dancing.
REPORTER: They do but they are not meant to have the prayer, not meant to have the leader, not meant to have their own rituals?
PROFESSOR MAHMOUD KULICH: Which is ridiculous. If you want to ban, ban all of them, any kind of these activities.
This Hall is provided for the Mevlevi to practice their whirling Sema but it has become a bit more than a dance Hall under the spiritual guidance of Hassan Dede.
REPORTER: Strictly speaking the ceremony I attended would be regarded as possibly illegal?
PROFESSOR MAHMOUD KULICH: Yes, if they chant in the name of God such as Allah, a big gathering is unfortunately forbidden.
REPORTER: To have a leader, a religious leader?
PROFESSOR MAHMOUD KULICH: It is called sheihk, religious leader, suffi master, spiritual master is forbidden.
Hassan Dede gives me permission to film this private gathering, stretching the envelope a little in this year of UN recognition. As the preparations for the most sacred part of the evening, the whirling Sema unfolds, I am free to film but no-one is free to talk at any length.
REPORTER: Why were they so wary about talking?
PROFESSOR MAHMOUD KULICH: In the past they had very bad experience. That's why they are afraid of speaking. I know some suffi girls, for example, they never accept any filming or any type of conversation, interview. Because, you know, in the past they will count, they accept interviews. They give some speeches and unfortunately some of them taken to police and they were sentenced them, 10 years, five years, they lost their job, they lost their family. That's why now they don't want to be disturbed until they will have full freedom of speech.
But in some ways, the whirling Sema speaks for itself. For even a casual observer, it is clearly sublime. For the Mevlevi, it is one part of their culture and religion which they feel a little safer discussing.
HASSAN DEDE, (TRANSLATION): During the sema ritual they have no connection with the world. The Semazan can’t have any worldly thoughts during the ritual. If he does, he will get dizzy and collapse. The Samazen is in love at that moment, and in a trance.
MAN: Everything is whirling from a centre. For example, protons and neutrons whirl from an atom. Stars are whirling around the sun and these suns are whirling from another galaxy. This is the time that I can feel I’m a part of all the whirling in the universe, and I whirl around my heart. We make a voyage into ourselves.
WOMAN: We love the whirl, it's worship for us, it's a peaceful time for us, it's a beautiful time. We are repeating the God's name inside, Allah and we think the beauty is there.
It is a staggering physical feat to whirl like this for an hour or more. For the Mevlevi it is a unique spiritual feat as well. They aspire to enter an ecstatic state where they can communicate with God. This direct communication poses the biggest threat to Islamic orthodoxy as well as other unique concepts such as Hassan Dede’s belief in immortality for Samazans who give everything for God and in reincarnation for those who don’t.
HASSAN DEDE (TRANSLATION): They come back to this world and this time, as human being again, so they can complete themselves. Like failing in school and having to repeat.
For Adnen, whirling each night in the tourist quarter, his objective is no less profound but it takes a little prodding to hear of it.
REPORTER: What is the religious experience for you?
ADNEN: Well the religious experience for me, I’m going to tell you honestly. Turning, turning, turning, when we find Him, The feet will go up.
You feel like you rise?
ADNEN: So your feet, it cannot be seen but your feet will go up, then you will be a perfect person.
So this is what you aim for, yes? This is what you whirl for?
ADNEN: So when you have done this, then you can see the way to the gods. Then you can see, you don’t need people, you don’t need the world. You go the other way when you have done this.
Feature Report: Whirling Dervish
Translations / Subtitling