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Anthropology on vacation: mass tourism, consumerism and Sufism in Central Turkey

Maja Lovrenovi? Somewhere between Göreme and Nev?eher, the towns in the Cappadocia province of Central Turkey, in an underground restaurant carved into the famed regional volcanic sediments, a tightly seated crowd of tourists was awaiting for performers to appear on the stage area in the middle of a huge circular cave-like space. We had all been shuttled there in tourist buses, to enjoy raki, meze and the “whirling dervishes”. We had been told beforehand that the dance performance is not the actual trance-reaching Mevlevi ritual of sema, but in the same note nevertheless kindly asked not to take pictures until the lights are turned on at the end of the act. The dancers might get distracted by the camera flashes, it had been explained to us, as they need to concentrate on the whirling movement “just as the real dervishes used to do”.

And so the night began with the lights going off as the ney music started to play and four dancers appeared on stage, slowly walking around and bowing to the audience and each other in the enactment of the Mevlevi greeting to their Sheikh at the beginning of sema. After a while, they started slowly removing their dark cloaks to reveal the white dervish dresses beneath, enacting the Mevlevi symbolism of revealing the inner truth. Their white robes began glowing in the intense bluish haze of the disco lighting, sparkling occasionally with the glitter from the two disco spheres attached to the ceiling. A group of Belgian tourists at the next table was getting impatient. Through their loud giggling, I heard a man complain: “Maar ze draaien helemaal niet!” But as soon as the dancers started turning in circles, the giggling went silent and, although explicitly forbidden earlier, the camera flashes went on. The restaurant waiters went hurriedly here and there towards the flashes to warn the over-eager photo-hunters once again to wait for their turn at the end of the performance.

When the lights were finally lit, with the performers still spinning, a massive outburst of camera flashes came over the cave-like restaurant. At the next table, the Belgian tourists seemed to have temporarily forgotten their skepticism and giggling of just one moment before, as they were fervently clicking their cameras and staring intently at their digital displays. A collective sigh of disappointment rippled through the cave as the performers finished their act and left the stage. A band of Gypsies was already beginning the next item in the night’s entertainment repertoire.

Central Anatolia has dramatically changed since my first visit to Konya and Cappadocia twelve years ago. Back then I travelled as an art history student fascinated with the syncretic originality of the 13th century Selçuk architecture spanning the pre-Islamic Persian motifs with the wealth of the Arabic geometry, as well as the Syrian stonecutting and building mastery with that of the Byzantine skill in dome construction. Many of the then visited sites were scarcely populated and we had travelled on the old two-way road. But now, from the new highway built across the Anatolian plane, I could see the old low Konya houses with their closed-off inner yards squeezed between the mushrooming construction projects for spacious new apartment buildings. And the image of the whirling dervish now seemed to be everywhere, from the back of the trucks carrying logos of a local cement factory, to a large tourist rest station, with restaurants and small souvenir shops, where one can buy ice cream or Turkish delight in the omnipresence of the Mevlevi heritage.

Even the little taboo on taking pictures of the dancers enacting the whirling dervishes in a restaurant, imposed on us as tourists by our guides, seemed to enhance this notion of the presence of the Sufi mystery, blurring the boundary between entertainment and ritual. Following thoughts of Michael Taussig, it could be said that the transgression of that little taboo by some of the most stricken tourists only added to the invisible presence of the mystery, providing the tourist experience with an infusion of the spiritual. How else to explain the sudden change in the collective tourist behavior just as the dancers began whirling, in the instance that could also be seen as the fervent fascination with the human body, manifesting itself in the craving to digitally record its movement? And all of this taking place in the part of the country, where, according to my guide, many traditionalists and pious people are strongly against not only such representations of the Mevlevi ritual, but also against dancing in general.

This fascination with the human body as a “sacred staging ground”, to borrow from Taussig, struck me again at one of the souvenir stands in Cappadocia, where an old man was making and selling variously sized statues of the whirling dervish. The souvenirs were special in that they had been attached to their pedestal with a little wheelbase, so that the statue could be gyrated by hand, to reproduce the representation of the Mevlevi ritual at a buyer’s will. If we would follow Taussig’s exploration of Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘profane illumination’ as that which “bears the emphatic trace of a religious illumination it has surpassed”, it could be said that this simple mechanism captures the profane illumination of the Sufi mystery in contemporary Central Turkey.

Marja Lovrenovic recently completed a Masters in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU University. Her thesis dealt with heritage and memory of the war-ridden past in Central Bosnia


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