By MARY-JANE DEEB
The U.S. celebration of the UNESCO International Year of Mevlana Rumi was launched at the Library of Congress on March 14 with an evening of Turkish poetry and music. Funded by a grant from the Koç Group and sponsored jointly by the Turkish Embassy, the Library's African and Middle Eastern Division and the Music Division, the program was titled "Celebrating Rumi: An Evening of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi's Poetry and Sufi Music with Whirling Dervishes."
Rumi was a 13th century Persian poet and mystic philosopher whose work has not only survived for 800 years, but also has been translated into numerous languages around the world. Rumi advocated tolerance, reason and access to knowledge through love. His mystical relationship with Islam produced masterpieces that have marked Islamic culture and religious beliefs well beyond the borders of Turkey. His work and thought remain universally relevant today.
The event, which may be viewed on Library's Web site at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=4045, was attended by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and several members of Congress. At the event, Talat Sait Halman, head of the department of Turkish literature and dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Letters at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, read from his own translation of Rumi's poetry. He was accompanied by Ahmet Ozan, who sang Turkish Sufi (mystical) songs inspired by the works of Rumi. Several whirling dervishes performed on the stage of the Library's Coolidge Auditorium.
After Rumi's death, his followers founded the Mevlevi Order, also known as the Whirling Dervishes. They believed in worshipping the Creator with ritualistic music and dance ceremonies called sema.
"The ceremony of the whirling dervishes represents a mystical journey, man's spiritual ascent toward a state of perfection," explained this writer, chief of the Library's African and Middle Eastern Division, which hosted the event. "Man grows through love, leaves his ego behind, finds truth and eventually reaches a state of perfection. He then returns from his spiritual journey as a mature man who can better love and serve not only mankind but all of creation."
She noted that the dervish head-gear represents the ego's tombstone, while the white skirt symbolized the ego's shroud. At the beginning of the ceremony and at each stage, the dervish stands and holds his arms crosswise. In this position, he stands as one—testifying to the oneness of God. When whirling, the dervish's arms are open, the right hand directed to the heavens, ready to receive God's beneficence. When whirling from right to left, the dervish is turning around the heart and embracing all of mankind, and all of creation.
The Istanbul Historical Turkish Music Ensemble performed on six traditional musical instruments, which were discussed by Music Division Chief Sue Vita.
The qanún, Vita explained, is a Near Eastern traditional string instrument, similar to a zither, with a narrow trapezoidal soundboard. In Turkey, it has 26 courses of strings with three strings per course and is played on the lap by plucking the strings with two tortoise-shell picks.
The ney is an end-blown flute that figures prominently in Near Eastern music. It is a very ancient instrument that appears on wall paintings in the Egyptian pyramids. Actual neys were found in excavations at Ur, indicating that this instrument has been played continuously for 4,500 to 5,000 years, making it one of the oldest musical instruments still in use.
The kudüm, consisting of a pair of small, hemispherical drums, is one of the main instruments used in dervish mystical music, while the classical kemençe is a bottle-shaped, three-stringed fiddle played in the upright position. Some kemençes made for the royal palaces by master craftsmen had the backs, and even the edges of the sound holes, completely covered by mother-of-pearl, ivory or tortoiseshell inlay, with engraved and inlaid motifs.
Historians cannot agree about the exact origins of the tanbur. The first documentation of its existence comes from ancient Babylon. It is a two-stringed instrument with a pear-shaped body and a very long neck. It has been played at spiritual gatherings, for meditation and chanting purposes, ever since the 14th century.
Finally, the bendir—like the frame drum—is a hand drum which is known by many different names. It is found on every continent (except Australia) and is very popular in the music of Turkey, Persia and North Africa.
For more information about Rumi and the year-long celebration of the 800th year of his birth, visit www.mevlana800.info.
Mary-Jane Deeb is chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division.