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Looking for Sufi Dervishes in Kurdistan, Iran

Just another young guy hung up on mystic poetry.

I went to the Kurdish province of Western Iran in search of Sufis. The Sufis are a mystical order of Islam that could once have been found all over the Muslim world. They have rapidly diminished in the modern age, however, and it’s only in the more remote areas that their practices still survive.

But whereas the Sufism I’d encountered through the poetry of the old masters centered around ecstatic devotion to God, the Kurdish Sufis seemed more set on miraculous circus tricks.

“As clear as I see you, Tom, I watched one man have his head cut off with a sword and replaced with no harm done!” A professor in Esfahan told me.

Even on the bus journey there, the driver had proudly shown me the scar from where he’d had a sword driven through his waist in a ceremony the year before.

The family I stayed with provided me with a guide to the city in the shape of their nephew, Fahrzad. He and I made our way across town by means of shared taxis. These vehicles follow a set route through the streets but make absolutely no effort to let anybody know which way they were going.

Consequently one had to hover on the edge of the traffic shout questions through the drivers’ windows and then squeeze in quick before anyone else could get there first. The front seat was reserved for women so that they might ride but still preserve their modesty. In the center of town there was a statue of a devout believer with his arms raised aloft in the rapture of love for Allah. It set the mood for the sufi ceremony we were due to attend that evening.

We arrived in one of the oldest neighborhoods of the city and entered a maze of narrow streets and alleys shrouded in mist. We weaved our way through the night to the house of Fahrzad’s grandmother and I was careful not to lose sight of my guide.

His grandmother was a dervish and I recognized the word from the Sufi stories I’d read. It usually referred to one advanced in the study and practice of Sufism. But Fahrzad told me that it also meant ‘one who has nothing’, ie one who lives a pure and simple life valuing nothing except the presence of God. Maybe the two things were not so different.

We walked up to the building where the ceremony was to be held. Carpets covered the floor and the green flag of Islam hung in the corner to be kissed by all who entered. The preacher eyed me with curiosity as I entered but continued his discourse about the miracle of pregnancy to a small group of men. Some of them had long, flowing hair which they curled up in a hat like a Rastafarian.

After the first round of tea had been served an old man picked up a wooden ring bound with leather called a daf. His bony fingers tapped out a rhythm while he began to sing sutras from the Qur’an. His voice was raspy like that of a goat but so full of passion. Every time he mentioned the name of Mohammed all present murmured, ‘may peace be upon him.’

The old man was soon joined by two of his students and they began a vigorous beat that had every head in the place swaying. Then at the height of the recital each tossed his daf into the air and caught it with a thunderous clap that seemed to shake the walls of the building.

After the ceremony I could find few words to express what i’d seen and felt. The song still resonated within me and i didn’t need to know what the words meant to appreciate their beauty. Fahrzad told me it made him feel like crying for joy.

The next morning we climbed up the mountain while it was still dark so that we might watch the sun rise. It was Friday, the day of prayer and so everyone was on holiday. The young people were the swiftest of foot and so had gathered up there first by a small spring. It was one of the few occasions they had to escape the watchful eyes of their elders and they reveled in the taste of freedom. Hell, there were even boys talking to girls.

I was the first foreigner many had ever met but with a few days of beard on my cheeks I looked Iranian enough that I didn’t receive too much attention. No one expected to see a foreigner in these parts either so i was saved from answering the twenty questions that drive every long-term traveller insane.

Fahrzad told me that the Sufi ceremonies with swords that I’d heard about only took place in the wintertime. But he did manage to get hold of an amateur video of a session that had taken place the previous year.

The camera rolls. There are dafs being played to encourage the opening of the spirit and men in circles roll their heads and chant to Allah. Once everyone is sufficiently intoxicated with the presence of God, the rituals begin. Swords are driven through waists, needles through cheeks and one man even had spikes hammered into his head. All with no blood and no apparent pain on the faces of these ordinary people.

Okay, there are performers in the West who can also eat light bulbs and pierce parts of their body but the protagonists here were simple bus drivers, teachers and farmers. None of them had any experience of this kind of thing and no one was getting paid to do it.

Still, I didn’t really see the point of it all. Perhaps it was a powerful demonstration of the power of God to strengthen belief. But it all seemed a little extreme to me and i wasn’t very moved to test my faith with a sword through the waist.

I stuck with the stories and the poetry.