Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Twirl and spin: Damascus family preserves Sufi whirling tradition



Twirl and spin: Damascus family preserves Sufi whirling tradition

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
In Syria, members of the Kharrat family are one of the largest Damascene families trying to preserve the Sufi whirling ritual. AFP

Twirl and spin: Damascus family preserves Sufi whirling tradition

Three-year-old Anas al-Kharrat gracefully raises one hand to the sky as his long white robe twirls around his tiny spinning body.

His dancing skills run in the family – his dervish dancer father Muayad is whirling next to him, in front of a spellbound audience.

"Anas learnt to whirl before he learnt to talk," his father said, speaking inside a Damascus restaurant. "He is the youngest dervish dancer in Syria".

Whirling – a sort of moving meditation through which Sufis seek to commune with the divine – sees performers twirl to the hypnotic rhythm of prayer, until they reach a trance-like state.

Popular in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey, the dance emerged alongside Sufism – a spiritually focused approach to Islam, founded by followers of 13th-century Persian mystic and poet Jalal al-Din Rumi.

The Kharrat family is one of the most reputed in Damascus, and boasts 20 dervish dancers who often perform during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Muayad started twirling as a child, taught first by his grandfather, then his uncle and finally his father.

At 28, he now owns a fragrance shop in a popular Damascus market, but his real passion lies in Sufi spiritual practise.

"Sufism in general is a means to worship and exaltation," he said.

"Whirling is just one way of reaching God."

'Humility'

Muayad said he can twirl dozens of times per minute "without moving an inch away from the axis".

In war-wracked Syria, whirling offers relief from the woes of a conflict that has been exacerbated by a dire economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

"Whenever I feel distressed... I confine myself to my room, and turn and turn until I feel at peace."

In the living room of their Damascus home, Muayad pulled a long white robe over Anas's head before helping him with a matching jacket and a tall burgundy felt cap.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Sufi Dervish dancer Mahmoud al-Kharrat (C top), his brother Muayad (R behind), Muayad's son Anas (C below) and other members of the Kharrat family pose for a picture at their home in Syria's capital Damascus. AFP

Around them stood relatives in matching outfits and similar "sikke" caps, which can be brown or black and are designed to emulate the stick shape of the first letter of the word God in Arabic ("Allah").

They then descend a long staircase towards a courtyard, to practice whirling to the rhythm of prayer with Muayad's brother Mahmoud.

The 34-year-old is teaching the children how to hold their arms while twirling.

"By raising our arms we are begging for mercy from God and sending a prayer to the heavens," Mahmoud said, gesturing toward the sky.

"Placing our hands against our chest is a sign of submissiveness and humility before God."

Ramadan special

Before the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Mahmoud performed in several European countries, and even toured the United States.

"We spent more time outside Syria than inside," he said.

Travel restrictions imposed on Syrians due to the conflict brought the family's performances abroad to a halt, forcing them to keep up the tradition by performing at local events.

"We have performed in restaurants and weddings," Mahmoud said.

Evening performances during Ramadan "are one of our last hopes" to make a living, he added.

The holy month is a busy time of year for whirling dervishes, who perform for audiences sipping coffee or smoking shisha in cafes and restaurants after a day of fasting.

Almost every popular spot in the capital offers some form of dervish performance to attract customers.

"We eagerly await the month of Ramadan to share this ritual with people," said Mahmoud.

"Whirling is for every time and place, but it is even more spiritual during Ramadan".

MOST VIEWED

  • With herd immunity likely in 2022, is Cambodia ready to reopen for tourism?

    The government aims to inoculate 80 per cent of the target population by June next year, giving it a head start among regional peers to reboot the sector but first, it has to do a few things to up its game A sign on a glass

  • Quarantine still a must for all arrivals, in next Covid chapter

    Since early May, an average of five to 10 Cambodian people have died from Covid-19 a day with many others testing positive amid the ongoing community outbreak. At the same time, however, hundreds of patients also recovered a day. The first Covid-19 case in Cambodia was

  • US wants 'full access' to Ream Naval Base

    On June 11, the US embassy's Defense Attaché Colonel Marcus M Ferrara visited Ream Nava Base in coordination with Cambodian officials following the recent approval of Prime minister Hun Sen to allay the concerns on Chinese military presence at the base as raised by US Deputy

  • Jab drive heading to 5 provinces

    The government is set to vaccinate more than 1.2 million people in five provinces after finishing with Phnom Penh and neighbouring Kandal in an ongoing campaign administered by the ministries of Health and National Defence. The five provinces are Preah Sihanouk, Kampong Speu, Takeo, Kampong Cham

  • New immigration bill targets illegal foreigners in Kingdom

    General Department of Immigration (GDI) officials are discussing revisions to the new draft law on immigration to prevent foreigners from entering Cambodia illegally and to supervise those living in the Kingdom more effectively. The revisions draw wide support among civil society organisations. GDI director-general Kirth

  • Kingdom set to be a gold producer

    Cambodia will soon join the roster of gold producing countries after the government announced the commencement of commercial gold mining operations in the Okvau area in southwestern Mondulkiri province's Keo Seima district from June 21. Prime Minister Hun Sen on June 10 announced that after 14 years of