In a room full of cigarettes and mustaches, Sheikh Selman Tusan said no, being a whirling dervish is not what it used to be.
The sheikh is 71. His mustache is white and he held his cigarettes precisely vertical between the thumb for forefinger, the way Turks are supposed to do, and the way lots of them did yesterday at a Turkish Embassy lunch for the dervish troupe that drummed, piped and whirled itself into ecstasy, or something indistinguishable from it, last night at Lisner Auditorium. The sheikh has been at it since 1909 or 1910.
"There were so many more elders then," said the sheikh, who is one of the last of them now. "But Kernal Attaturk closed all the religious places in 1925, for modernization, so what we are doing is a show, not the real thing."
Dervishes: the name has the ring of 19th-century esoterica, raising images of English scholar-explorers flogging entourages through the bleakest reaches of Islam. In 1868, for instance, John Porter Brown published "The Darvishes." Despite his efforts, he concluded about the Mevlevi sect, which does the whirling, that: "I have been unable to learn any creditable reason for their peculiar form of worship."
According to tradition, the whirling began 700 years ago when the poet Mevlana (often known as Rumi) heard a goldsmith hammering and, moved to rapture by the rhythm, began to turn and turn.
Nowadays it's a ritual, with the participants wearing tall fezzes (also outlawed by Attaturk, founder of the Turkish republic), black cloaks and white gowns that lift into lovely bell shapes as they spin on the left foot, counterclockwise with the right foot pushing. Hands are extended, right palm up to receive the blessing of God, the left down to dispense it to those below.
"Sometimes we turn for 35 or 40 minutes," said the sheikh, slicing with bemused detachment through the American version of a shishkebob.
"The old turn slowly, the young faster," he said speaking through an interpreter. In 1921, an observer timed a dervish at one turn per second for 22 minutes. "If you did it, you would get dizzy," the sheikh said, sparking a furor of Turkish etymology. The word "basdomnesi," meaning dizzy, also means spiritual intoxication, it seems.
The dervishes avoid confusing the two by staring at their left thumbs while they spin, said the sheikh, enabling them to spin indefinitely.
"Mevlana said that when he was turning, there was nothing between him and God - not angel, not prophet. When I turn, I'm completely lost. If something from the outside disturbs me, though I wobble."
The practice is virtually unique - the province only of dervishes, with occasional ad hoc turns taken by children. "I don't know of it anywhere else in the world," says Nahoma Sachs, professor of anthropology at Princeton. Uniqueness, however, is not unusual; Sachs points out that there's nothing like a very complicated polyrhythmic West African dance, either.
But whirling is so simple. In 1968, a dissatisfied New York dancer, Laura Dean, decided to recover the true basics by refusing to do any dance she'd been taught. So she just sat; then she walked, then walked in circles, which became spinning, and by 1974 she'd choreographed "Spinning," in which three women turned to the right for about 40 minutes, then to the left for about 20.
"Autistic and emotionally disturbed children can spin and spin and not get dizzy," says Georgia DeGangi, who uses spinning in her work as an occupational therapist at the Georgetown University Child Development Center, where it's known as vestibular stimulation therapy. "We even work with infants who can't gain weight - we strap them to boards and spin them at about one turn every two seconds. Spinning is a tremendous stimulant to the brain."
The vestibular system is located in the inner ear, a series of canals where fluid moves as we move - nerve endings pick up the movements to enable us to adjust posture and muscle tone.
"The vestibular system is tied in to a lot of other systems - that's whast makes spinning useful as therapy," DeGangi says. "There's a connection with the auditory system; spinning can improve children's understanding of words. It improves motor control, helps them with language processing, helps with coordinating the two sides of the body. Children will often feel a lot better about themselves after spinning, too. It helps for conceptions of visual stimuli, by helping the eyes to focus - children can sometimes do puzzles better after spinning."
DeGangi speculated that since the hope of the dervishes is to circumvent the mind in order to find God - rather then increase its ability to manufacture concents - "it could be that they stimulate it until it breaks down."
Of course DeGangi, who never spins herself - "I'd get nauseated" - has only been at this for a few years.
The sheikh, however, is the son of a sheikh who's the son of a sheikh, back to antiquity. Regarding his baked potato with a certain wariness, he dismissed a hypothesis, offered by a fellow Turk, that the spinning had slowed down of late. "It's always been something between the individual and himself. And it is always done exactly the same way."
The sheikh has three sons, none of whom has studied to succeed him. This saddens him, he confessed with a frail teetering of his hand in mid-air. "One of them lives in Switzerland," he said, as if that were enough to signify the hopelessness of the situation.
Turkish law restricts public performance to December 1-17, in the city of Konya, when the dervishes mark the death of Mevlana. There are more Mevlevi dervishes in London than in Konya or Istanbul.
Things are not what they used to be. But the sheikh leaned forward to make one point very clear: "We don't do it for the concerts," he said, touching has necktie with curled fingers as he looked up with "you know?" eyebrow lifted, venerably white.