By Jimmy Dunn
You might run across a Whirling Dervish performance anywhere in the world, but your chances of doing so vastly improve in Egypt. Not only is there the dervish theater located near the Khan el-Khalili, but many belly dancing shows in nightclubs and dinner boats will also include Whirling Dervish. It is an entertaining performance that most will not want to miss. But most people who attend such performances have little idea of the nature of this dance, which is called the sema. It is a rare occurrence of religious ceremony transcending into performing art.
The dance has been performed for over 700 years by the Sufi, a rather mystic order of the Islamic faith. A story is told of a tradesman in a small village in the East who sat on his knees in his little shop, and with his left hand he pulled a strand of wool from the bale which was above his head. He twirled the wool into a thicker strand and passed it to his right hand as it came before his body. The right hand wound the wool around a large spindle. This was a continuous motion on the part of the old man who, each time his right hand spindled the wool, inaudibly said "la illaha illa'llah." There could be no uneven movement or the wool would break and he would have to tie a knot and begin again. The old man had to be present to every movement or he would break the wool. This is awareness. This is life. Sufi means awareness in life, awareness on a higher plan than on which we normally live.
The Persian word darwish (literally: the sill of the door) is accepted in Arabic and Turkish (dervish) to describe the Sufi who is the one who is at the door to enlightenment.
Some say the label Sufi (in Arabic suf means wool) grew from the wool cloaks worn by these holy beings. Others like to think that its origin is from the Greek word sophos that means wisdom.
But in fact, many of the dervish performers one sees in Egypt and elsewhere are performers and not truly of the Sufi order. There are some traveling Sufi, particularly from the Mevlana sect, who are indeed Sufi Dervish, and they perform the dance in a more or less traditional manner. But most of the more colorful performances are entertainers.
Originally, the dance, actually more accurately a "movement" was performed in tekkes that were dervish schools that existed in communal fashion and considered a prayer lodge. The sema began with the Sultan Veled Walk. The dervishes walk around the semahane three times wearing black cloaks which represent their tombs and their worldly attachments. Upon removing the cloaks, so to did they remove themselves from the world.
Like the weaver, traditional Sufi Dervish may be seen chanting a dhikr, which is the repetition of "la illaha illa'llah" (there is no god but God). However, some Dervish may only repeat "Allah" because they know man can die at any moment, and they want only the name of God on their lips and in their hearts. The left foot of the whirler should never be raised, but sometimes is in a fit of ecstasy.
Whether the performance is by a true Sufi, or simply a performing artist, it is nevertheless entertaining, and even amazing. The performer "turns" or whirls endlessly while manipulating skirts in a colorful display and the concentration and training is obvious. Actually, both the quality of the performance and the abilities of the performer can very greatly, so look and ask around before deciding on the show you will attend.