It’s a lovely evening. The air is comfortably warm, the hospitality warmer still. We arrive in Konya from Antalya after dark to find two host families waiting at an outdoor restaurant flanked by two, brightly lit, 900 year-old tombs. Three teenage girls, one wearing a headscarf, all shyly giggling, practice their English with us. Interesting conversations about life, education and religion passes between the hosts and ourselves.
Konya is the spiritual center of the Sufism. Here, the great poet, theologian and mystic, Rumi, lived eight hundred years ago. Sufism is the most peaceful and spiritual of Muslim sects. The roots of the Whirling Dervishes are here.
The Mevlani Way is an ascetic, spiritual life. Rumi believed passionately in utilizing music and dance as a path to God. This evolved into the whirling ritual, focusing the mind so intensely that the soul is both destroyed and resurrected. Apprenticeship entailed a final test; meditating in the communal kitchen for days without food as meals were prepared around you.
It is evident from the women’s dress that Konya is the most traditional of the places we’ve visited thus far. Many more women with headscarves are on the streets. Most wear the shapeless, full-length overcoat of the devout and there is a hint of ethnicity in their style of scarf and flowery skirts.
As we approach the Mevlana, Rumi’s tomb, its green dome sets it off as different from other mosques. The colorful gardens surrounding the complex are immaculately maintained. Sculpted rose bushes and topiary set amidst lush green lawns give color and style to the sanctuary.
I would love to have photographed inside the tomb. The marble walls are covered with flowing Arabic script and, like most mosques, the ceiling is a delight of design. On display are many elaborately illuminated Korans. The beauty of their calligraphy and wealth and creativity of their gilt illustrations captivate me. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed, something, as a professional, I always respect.
Rumi’s epitaph reads: “When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.”
Lunch is at a primary school built by a local businessman and follower of Fetullah Gülen. This is the first day of school. Garlands of balloons welcome the students. Lunch is with one of the teachers. Peppered by questions from our inquisitive group, we learn that English is taught from the primary level and that the success rate in the Gülen schools is exceptionally high. The vast majority of students pass the national college entrance test and graduate from university.
Music sounds in the hallway. It’s the end of a period and the corridors fill with happy voices. Our group wades out amongst the excited throngs, cameras in hand. We are met with many Hellos, What is your names and Where are you froms. For a quick five minutes the smiling faces of beautiful, happy children besiege us. They make the most of this strange group of visitors who enhance their first-day-of-school enthusiasm.
The evening promises a visit to another school though little do we know what we are in for. A few hours on the bus and we arrive, again after dark, in the small town of Nigde. Here, we are to be divided between the homes of the host families for the night.
Our hosts greet us warmly, taking our bags to their respective cars. Climbing the steps to the school we are ushered into a large, comfortable office for the obligatory welcomings and to again, one by one, recount a bit who we are. The founder of the school, Mr. Celal, a spitting image of Sigmund Freund, leads us into an assembly room where the surprises begin.
Ten, beautiful, young girls in traditional, folk dress, bouquets in hand, flank the entry. Smiling and laughing, they hand each of us a bouquet while welcoming us in English. A mouth-watering aroma wafts through the room as we are shown to our tables surrounding the central floor space.
Suddenly, the girls are lined up in front of an imposing image of Ataturk. Music begins and they dance a well-rehearsed folk dance. We’re delighted!
More introductions follow along with an invitation to line up and be served. Following the dinner of too much delicious, regional food, a tray is wheeled out to the floor and the local master treats us to a demonstration of traditional, Turkish water painting.
In a tray of water, oil paints are dripped onto the surface. The artist uses special implements to shape the drops, adding more, shaping those, until, within five minutes, a lovely image of carnations floats upon the water. Placing a piece of watercolor paper on the surface transfers the painting to the paper and the artist smoothly draws the paper from the tray revealing an amazing painting of life-like carnations.
We are asked to take seats in a row beneath an imposing image of Atatürk, and then are called upon in turn to receive a framed water painting and say a few words.
With the last gift given, music swells, fireworks in front of us gush twin fountains of sparks while cannons on either side engulf us in confetti. I am beyond words.
A late night ensues as we each go to our respective host’s home. Yolanda, Serkan and I go with a doctor and his wife along with another couple; Turks living in London. We talk about everything, learning about each other’s cultures and religions. For the first time this entire trip, Serkan is fading.
Breakfast is late for a change. We gather, along with our hosts, at the home of a family with a large, abundantly productive garden. Long tables are arranged beneath a grape arbor planted by the host’s grandfather’s.
Once again, we are treated to incredibly warm hospitality as we partake of the bounty of the garden. Conversation ranges over a myriad of topics, always penetrating and pertinent to today’s world. It is difficult to express how fortunate I feel to be able to meet people of the Muslim faith on this level. We experience nothing but respect, warm hospitality, dialog, interest and polite acceptance of our differences.
As we reluctantly take our leave, handshakes, hugs and traditional kisses on both cheeks abound. I feel a glimmer of understanding, not through words but through direct experience, of the philosophy and teachings of the Fetullah Gülen. If our experience reflects some basic principles of Islam, then the world is a less dangerous place and the future brighter still.