Kismet: A Journey to Turkey
I stood on the rooftop of the small house built into the hill, looking over the strange moonlike rock formations of Cappadocia. I could see endlessly. I was on the edge of the roof, but I knew I was in no danger. I had hundreds of ancestors holding me, keeping me from falling.
My first encounter with kismet occurred before I even touched Turkish soil.
When I was on the second leg of my flight, from Detroit to Amsterdam, I had a strange but vivid dream: I was with my Sufi group in San Francisco, chanting our usual opening chant, “Towards the One.” One of the members of the group suddenly asked Iqbal, our teacher, “What does ‘the One’ mean? What is ‘the One’?” Iqbal replied, “Tomorrow, at this time, Joe will answer this question.” I was stunned! How would I, a mere student of Sufism, come up with an answer to such a difficult question, with only twenty-four hours to do it?
In the dream, I searched for everything I could find about “the One,” read through the poems of Rumi and Kabir, looked up “One” in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, racked my brains for an answer, stayed up all night. With only a few minutes left before the group was to reconvene, I suddenly shouted out, “I’ve got it! I understand ‘the One’!” Then I woke up—my momentary realization to remain forever in the realm of dreams.
I decided to write about the dream in my journal, and to write about everything I could remember about ‘Oneness’ while on my way to Amsterdam. I wrote pages and pages. I also looked through the Rumi book I was carrying in my shoulder bag for inspiration.
When I got on the last leg of the flight to Istanbul, I found myself sitting next to a woman with a similar Middle Eastern complexion, similar curly dark hair, so I asked her if she was Turkish. She said she was from Turkey, but was now living in Brooklyn. I smiled at the irony and told her that I was from Brooklyn, but had Turkish ancestry, and was travelling to Turkey for the first time. I also told her that my name was originally Turkish. She asked me my name, and told me that in Turkish it would be pronounced Shekerje, and asked if I knew what it meant. I told her I did. Shekerje means "sugar seller." My ancestors were probably candy makers in Istanbul, where they would have picked up the name.
Then I asked her what her family name was, and she said “Birder.” I asked her what it meant, but she replied, “Nobody knows.”
I asked, “What do you mean? Isn’t it a Turkish name?”
“Yes, it’s Turkish. But we only know the literal meaning. Nobody understands it.”
“What is the literal meaning?”
She replied, “It means, ‘the one who says one.’ Now what could that possibly mean?”
I told her, “I might be able to help you with this.” Then I showed her my recently filled notebook, with page after page about ‘the One.’ She was astonished, as I was. I asked her if she knew much about Sufism, or about Rumi, and she said “only a little.” I showed her my Rumi book and encouraged her to start reading his poetry.
How could my dream in the air over the Atlantic have anticipated who I would sit next to while flying over Europe?
Kismet is the Turkish word for “fate,” which most Turks, as Muslims, still believe in. But it could also refer to what we often call “synchronicity” in our more modern psycho-spiritual language. When some strange occurrence happens, or something that cannot be logically explained, Turks will just smile and say “kismet,” as if it happens all the time. It seems to happen quite frequently in Turkey.
I was on my way to Turkey on a sort of “roots” journey, combined with a spiritual pilgrimage. I was the son of an Iraqi Jew from Baghdad who had emigrated to America in the 1930’s, where he met a woman from a Syrian family that had also settled in Brooklyn. They proceeded to have three children, including me. My parents didn’t know much about their ancestry, except that they were Sephardic Jews that had lived in the Middle East for generations. The Sephardim--from the Hebrew word Sepharad, meaning “Spain”--were the Jews who were exiled from Spain by Queen Isabella in 1492, the same year that Columbus made history of a different kind. Many of them fled to Turkey, where they were welcomed, and started a series of bustling communities throughout the country, before spreading through the rest of the Middle East, during the era of the Ottoman Empire. In the centuries before the creation of the state of Israel, Jews and Muslims lived in harmony in many Arabic countries, before politics interfered with their lives.
The only thing my father knew about his ancestors was that they had lived in Turkey before coming to Baghdad, and our family name, Shakarchi, had originally been a Turkish name. The Arabic version of the name that we now used was given to them on arrival in Baghdad, then the crowning jewel of the empire.
The other reason for my journey was to learn more about Rumi and the Turkish dervish community, and to visit his shrine in Konya. I had been reading his poetry for many years, and also had been part of a Sufi group in San Francisco for several years. But now I was also studying Zen Buddhism, and had recently felt that this was the direction I was headed in. How could I reconcile all of these faiths or spiritual “paths”?
The Sufis are often described as the mystical branch of Islam, the ones who see God in everyone and everything, but in California, luckily, you don’t have to be a Muslim to become a Sufi. I was also friends with Coleman Barks and Robert Bly, two of Rumi’s most famous translators, and had met the well known Sufi scholar Kabir Helminski, who encouraged me to make the trip. When I asked him if he had any suggestions on who to look up when I got to Istanbul, he replied, “Just leave it to fate. You’ll meet the people you’re supposed to meet.” Another believer in kismet.
When I arrived in Istanbul, I found an inexpensive hotel in the Sultanahmet area, near the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, two of the oldest and most beautiful buildings in the city. After dinner, I went to a square outside a mosque and suddenly found myself thinking, “I’ve made a mistake coming here. I shouldn’t have come to Turkey. Maybe I’ll just leave for another country tomorrow. I can go to Greece instead and just come back to Istanbul in time for my return trip home.” I was almost trembling with panic.
Why this fear? I’d never experienced anything like it on any other trip, not even when going alone to China, a much more challenging venture. This was 1997 and there was no threat of terrorism, no danger lurking in the streets. What was I afraid of? What was it about coming back to my ancestors’ homeland that was so highly charged? I’d soon find out.
The only contact I had in Turkey was an American graduate student in music. She happened to also be Jewish, and showed me a book about Jews in Turkey. Most of the Jewish population of Istanbul had moved to the suburbs. But there was still Neve Shalom, the modern synagogue that had been attacked a few years earlier by Muslim militants who killed eighteen people while they were in prayer. I decided to make my way over the old bridge that spans the Bosphorus to Golata, the centuries-old Jewish neighborhood where I would find the synagogue. I found that the security surrounding it was very strict, and that I would only be allowed to meet with a synagogue official the next day upon presentation of my passport and a promise that I was Jewish. When I showed up the next day, after a perfunctory meeting with the shamash, or caretaker, I was told that I would be allowed to attend Saturday morning services. It would be my first shabbat service since my early twenties, and also would be my last for many years. During the service I was called up to the torah for an aliyah, going up to the podium to say a prayer over the Bible verses to be read. I was called up by my Turkish name, Yusuf Shekerje. It was a moment of deep emotion. I found myself remembering everything about the rituals of my own synagogue, Ahi Ezer, in the Syrian community in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst section where I had grown up. Ahi Ezer also had a domelike structure similar to Neve Shalom, and the rituals were identical, all handed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. In a strange way, even though I was in a Turkish synagogue for the first time, I knew I had returned home.
At the end of the service, when I saw the eighteen black memorial banners for those who had been killed in the attack, I realized that if I had come to Istanbul a few years sooner and been to shabbat services on that Saturday, I might have been one of the names on the banners. How much of our lives is determined by chance or fate? (Years later, after the 9/11 bombings and the invasion of Iraq, Islamic militants again attacked Neve Shalom on a Saturday morning, killing many worshippers. Once more, I thought: if I had picked that week to be in Istanbul, I would have been among the dead).
After leaving the synagogue, while walking through the medieval streets of Golata, with Jewish names like Kaplan and Eskenazi written on the signs above the old abandoned stores, I was aware of another presence. My ancestors had walked these same streets hundreds of years ago. Sephardic Jews had lived all over the western coast of Turkey, so there was no way of knowing if any of my family members had settled here, but with Istanbul such a major post along the trade routes, certainly some had been in this neighborhood and walked on the very same stones I was walking on now. I no longer felt afraid. I realized that the power of this homecoming was what had scared me.
When wandering around Istanbul, there are many attractions, especially the beautiful, grand mosques designed hundreds of years ago. There is also the Bosphorus River, and the lights of the Golden Horn. But a special pleasure is wandering into a shop where the proprietor will invite you to sit down for a cup of tea, ask you about your work and your family, and get to know you a little before encouraging you to bargain for rugs or jewelry, with the standard line, “Well normally it costs forty dollars, but for you I’ll make it thirty.” Even if you decide not to buy anything, you still feel like you’ve made a friend, and you can stop in his shop another time for conversation or more bargaining.
The advantage I had was that I could tell the storekeeper that I was part Turkish. This would always make him suddenly forget about trying to sell me something. “Really? You are Turkish?” I would tell him about my family history and my Turkish name. Then I would tell him about my Sufi studies in California. “There are Sufis in America? You do zikr in California?” I would describe my meditation group in San Francisco. I told the first two or three shopkeepers that I was a big fan of Rumi, only to be disappointed to find that they were not at all familiar with the name. I thought that Turks could not be unaware of their great Sufi poet, and then remembered that in medieval Persia, Rumi was given the nickname Molana, which means “the Master.” In Turkish, this was translated into Mevlana, hence the term Mevlevis to refer to his dervish community. This turned out to be the magic word. As soon as I said “Mevlana,” the storekeeper would respond, “You read Mevlana in America!” All he would want to do then was discuss poetry and philosophy. It seemed like every carpet seller in Turkey would turn out to be a philosopher.
I asked where I could meet Sufis who were practicing zikr, their word for meditation. One shopkeeper said something reminiscent of what Kabir Helminski had told me: “If your heart is pure, you will meet the right people.” In Arabic, zikr means “to remember,” and is usually translated as “remembrance of God,” but might really mean remembering yourself. Sufis believe that our true nature, each person’s true nature, is God, but this is not the God of Sunday school teachings, an old man up in heaven looking over us and judging everything we do. God is not a person, not a being, but the name for an energy that flows through the universe. This energy can be characterized by ninety-nine qualities, including compassion, truth, beauty, light, mercy, and most of all, love. Sufis believe that we never lose this original nature, but that we forget it, because of the way we are brought up by our families, the way we are educated, the way we are socialized. The way to remember our divine nature is through zikr, which in Rumi’s tradition involves celebration: music, poetry, chanting, bowing, and spinning around—hence the term “whirling dervishes.” Through this practice, we may achieve ecstatic union with the divine—our own inner divine nature. This teaching is almost exactly the same in Buddhism, where you use meditation and Buddhist philosophy to find your own “Buddha nature.” You do not have to look for something you don’t have; you merely recover, or remember, who you really are.
I found that there was a Mevlana Museum in Istanbul. They did not have zikr there, but I was told that I could find it the next night in the Jerahi mosque in the southern part of the city. The four caretakers then invited me to join them for lunch. All they had to share between them was a loaf of bread, a head of lettuce, a tomato and a cucumber, but they would not let me refuse their invitation. It reminded me of Rumi’s line, “A Sufi is someone who, when he only has half a loaf of bread, offers it to you.” I went to the mosque the next night and participated in the most energetic zikr of my life. When it was over, an old man came over to me and kissed me on the cheek. I had met the people I was supposed to meet.
My next destination was Cappadocia, one of the oldest inhabited parts of Turkey. The site of immense volcanic activity millions of years ago, its landscape is often compared to that of the moon. Rock formations are sometimes referred to as “fairy chimneys.” Caves have been burrowed for centuries into the soft volcanic dirt, and some people still live in them—now often fitted with electricity and plumbing. In the early days of Christianity, underground churches were built into tunnels to hide them from attackers or thieves—you can still go inside them and find nearly intact murals and mosaics.
In this ancient, otherworldly atmosphere, I found myself walking on a hilltop ridge only to realize that I was standing on the roof of someone’s cave home. I looked out into the distance to a neverending expanse of hills and plateaus. I realized that my own history was as ancient as these hills. My own immediate family, which I had become estranged from, had been marked by the anger, bitterness and occasional violence of people whose lives had been displaced, and who had struggled all their lives to get by, like the majority of immigrants in New York or anywhere else. But for the first time, I saw that my family included tens, even hundreds, of generations that had lived and died--in this country, on this and other lands--so that I might stand here now. I could feel their spirits now, joining me on this rooftop, protecting me from danger. I was now part of a larger family of ancestors, part of a history that was larger than myself or my own life.
My last stop in Turkey would be Konya, the city in which Rumi’s family settled after fleeing the invasion of his native Afghanistan by Genghis Khan’s armies. Everything in this city recalled Rumi, from the small clay figurines of whirling dervishes, to the city’s main street, Mevlana Avenue. In the center of town was the large green-domed Mevlana Museum where he and many other dervishes had been entombed. At the entrance of his tomb, in Turkish script, his famous lines:
Come, come again
If you are a wanderer, pagan, or fire worshipper
It doesn’t matter
Come, come again
This is not a doorway to misery or despair
Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times
Come, yet again, come
But I had not come only to visit memorials. I wanted to meet members of the dervish community that had been centered here for more than seven centuries.
My first morning in town, as I wandered around looking for a hotel, I kept passing a young man who tried to motion me into his streetcorner carpet shop. “Later,” I replied, not interested in bargaining at this time. After booking a room, I again passed him on my way to find a restaurant. Again I resisted his smiling invitation, promising that I would return “later,” not fully intent on fulfilling my promise. Walking by him again after breakfast, I did not want to waste time on carpets—I wanted to find Sufis. A friend of mine back in San Francisco had told me to ask for the Dervish Brothers carpet shop, where I would meet two Sufis he had befriended on his last trip to Konya. I went from shop to shop to enquire about where to find them, walking in circles for an hour, only to find that they had recently gone out of business. Disappointed, I went to a tourist office near my hotel, thinking they might help me. They offered me a Whirling Dervishes DVD, and tickets to a dinner cabaret performance that would include men in white robes and conical hats spinning around. That wasn’t what I had in mind, I told them. Where could I find actual Sufis? “Why don’t you ask that young man outside the carpet shop on the corner? He’s a Sufi.” Kismet again.
I spent much of the next few days in the Mevlana Museum, or in the mosque that according to legend contains the tomb of Shams of Tabriz, Rumi’s spiritual friend and inspiration. I spent the rest of the time in the carpet shop with the always smiling Errol and his mentor, the store owner Mustapha, who knew quite a lot about Sufism. I also found a Turkish rug that I fell in love with. “Normally four hundred dollars, but for you…” Mustapha and I discussed Sufi philosophy for hours on end. He challenged the distinction between Sufi teachers, or sheiks, and students of Sufism, saying, “Only Mevlana is our teacher. All of us are his students. No one should call himself a sheik. We are all students learning together.” He would also say, “Rumi was a true dervish. Who is like him today?” Throughout the week, he would constantly repeat the question, “Who is a dervish?” I could not come up with an answer. A dervish, literally, is “the one who opens doors.” Again, lines from Rumi: “People are walking through the doorway where the two worlds touch.” What is that other world? Is it part of this world? The dervish is the one who “lives in both worlds,” the one who stands at the threshold between the two.
Despite Mustapha’s warning against looking for teachers, I wanted to have conversations with Sufi sheiks from the Mevlevi tradition to see if they could help me solve my inner conflicts about threading together Judaism, Sufism and Buddhism. One famous Sufi teacher, Jelaleddin Loras, had come from Konya to California to start an American dervish community. I had seen him lead zikr in Marin, but had never had the chance to meet him. I asked around and found that he was now back in Konya. We had some mutual friends, so I was sure he would be willing to spend some time with me. After my preliminary “interview” with his nephew, also a sheik, Jelaleddin came to visit the carpet shop.
In America, as in very few other parts of the world, one could be a “non-Islamic Sufi,” studying Sufism without becoming a Muslim. My meditation group was part of the Sufi Order of the West. Some Islamic Sufis would say we were not “real” Sufis. I wanted to know how Jelaleddin felt about this. He replied, “Who am I to say who is or who is not a Sufi? Who am I to say you have to become a Muslim to be a Sufi?” He knew that I had been brought up Jewish, and said, “Judaism and Islam are almost identical.” He held up his index finger. “In Hebrew you say echad, and in Arabic we say ahat. Both mean ‘One.’ God is One. Everything is part of God. Everything in the universe is One.”
I was wondering what he would think of my Buddhist studies, knowing that Buddhists don’t believe in God. I thought of two famous Sufi teachers in San Francisco, Murshid Sam Lewis and Joe Miller, who both also had studied Zen. I overcame my hesitation and asked, “What do you think about Buddhism?”
“Buddhism is fine,” he replied. “Buddhists can be Sufis too.”
“But,” I hesitated again, “Buddhists don’t believe in God.”
“That’s okay too,” he smiled. “Buddhists have mind.”
Then mind and God were the same! There was no conflict in the two beliefs. I could cease my inner philosophical struggle. All of my spiritual pursuits had suddenly come together, like rivers all flowing into the same ocean.
I remembered a conversation I’d had years ago in Wat Bowonniwet, a famous temple in Bangkok, where a Buddhist monk had told me, “My students sometimes ask me, ‘What do Christians mean when they talk about God? What is God?' I answer, ‘God is the same as awareness, as consciousness.’” When I told him I wasn’t a Christian, but was brought up Jewish, he said, “Oh, I have a lot of respect for Judaism. It’s a lot like Buddhism.”
The last episode of kismet occurred on my last day in Konya. Another American, also a non-Islamic Sufi from New York who introduced himself as Marvin, wandered into the carpet shop and found himself engrossed in a conversation with Mustapha about the meaning of dervish. Marvin was an expert on this, and went through the history of dervishhood with exacting detail and precision. Even Mustapha was impressed. Finally, Mustapha hit him with the same question he had been stumping me with all week:
“Rumi was a dervish. But now, today, who is a dervish?”
Marvin astonished us by replying, “Well, I am.”
“You are?” we responded incredulously. “What makes you a dervish?”
Marvin pulled out his passport and showed us his name: Marvin Dervish.