Misadventure in the Middle East – another extract

The setting here is Istanbul, and we have just spent the first part of the evening in a little-known Sufi tekke.


I woke to the booming thud of a bass drum. The entire congregation had moved next door where they had formed six or seven concentric circles, each man with his arms over the shoulders of the men on either side of him. They looked like footballers in a series of overgrown pre-match huddles. Coming to fast I hurried next door, got out some paper and started to draw. I was the only person sitting down. There was no audience. The men were chanting “hai-hai” in unison now and it was louder than before.

Something had begun. In a gallery above, screened by wooden lattice meshrabiyehs, women I had not noticed as I walked in sat cross-legged watching the men. Some of them began to rock back and forth.

More drums started up and a different man began to sing, his voice thin and feverish, nothing like the soporific drone from before. Still the men chanted, “Hai-hai. Hai-hai.”

The singer’s voice grew, becoming louder and more shrill, until it was piercing and made my ears ring on certain notes. On a signal I did not see the circles began to sway as one, each man shifting his weight from left foot to right foot, left foot to right foot. Then the circles began to turn slowly in a clockwise direction. “Hai-hai. Hai-hai.”

Near the centre of the circles the leader of the ceremony was ducking in and out of the lines of men as they moved past, chanting at worshippers from point-blank like a sergeant major as he exhorted each man to greater heights. His eyes looked enormous behind the bulletproof bulk of his glasses. I was drawing as much of this as I could, taking in the shapes, the movement, the noise, and wanting to paint but not having my paints with me. As the drumming and chanting grew louder, the circles accelerated. The men on the outside circle began to look out of breath. Still they went faster, the chanting becoming more frenzied.

“Hai-hai,” gasp, “hai-hai,” gasp, “hai-hai” pounded through it all, over and over, as a man appeared in the middle of the rotating circles wearing a black cloak and a conical camel-hair hat. I hadn’t seen him make his way there. He stood very still before shedding the black cloak to reveal a white skirt and a white shirt with a black sash round his waist. The circles widened to make space for him. This forced the men on the outside circle into a canter. “It is when he drops his cloak that he leaves the mortal world,” Abdullah had explained earlier, grinning at the thought. I could see Abdullah now in one of the outer circles, his face blank and his eyes shut as the circles hurried him on. “The white is the white of death. Only in white can he throw himself at Allah, like a butterfly at the light.”

The black sash round the man’s waist was the conscious, nagging reminder of his setting, of his ego and of his mortality. In slow motion he crossed his arms over his chest as if about to go down a steep slide and he began to spin. His arms opened out above him like those on a corkscrew as it grinds into the wooden flesh below.

“Hai-hai,” gasp, “hai-hai.”

The eyes of the spinning man were empty. Open but empty. His head hung to one side as he spun faster and faster in the opposite direction to the mass of men around him.

“Hai-hai,” gasp, “hai-hai.”

The men shooting past allowed me split-second stills of the centre man’s face. It was like watching an oldfashioned mechanised animation. Above, women rocked with more intensity and some began to moan. The room now smelt of sweat and deodorant.

“Hai-hai,” gasp, “hai-hai.”

It sounded like someone trying to hyperventilate.

“Hai-hai,” gasp, “hai-hai.”

One by one, men began to lose themselves.

“Hai-hai,” gasp, “hai-hai.”

Their faces went limp and their smiles hung loose as if they were drunk. Their heads lolled like flowers too heavy for their stalks. Their feet mimicked movement, the momentum and shoulders of those around them hurrying them on. Head after head bowed in submission.

“Hai-hai,” gasp, “hai-hai.”

A whisker of saliva formed in the mouth of one man and I watched it grow and grow, its angle jaunty as the man hurried on, his face blank, until the spit caught on the shirt of the man next to him. He too had been consumed.

“Hai-hai,” gasp, “hai-hai.”

On and on they went, head after head bowed in trancelike ecstasy.

“Hai-hai,” gasp, “hai-hai.”

The room smelt even more of deodorant.


I felt like the one sober person at a drunken party.


A voyeur.


On and on the spinning went, as the drumming built to a crescendo. The leader joined one of the circles and was consumed immediately. His head rolled about like the men on either side and the circles around him began to tighten, moving faster and faster, closer and closer, rudderless, until the singing reached one final crescendo and the circles all collided, bodies piled up in one great heap of flesh.

“Hai-hai.” Gasp.

Heads and shoulders and arms were as one, and for a moment it looked like the remains of some awful massacre.


Deodorant and sweat.

It was over. The circles retreated a little and the dervish who had been whirling in the centre began to look for his black cloak. One by one the men removed themselves from the mêlée and sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor. Each man looked exhausted. Another prayer was said and the ceremony closed. The hall emptied slowly, with devotees offering hushed and almost embarrassed pleasantries to one another, and for some time the room remained thick with the intensity of what had just happened; in the film of sweat on my forehead I could feel it still…


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