What a Sight: Mystical Men and Magical Machines

By William J. Furney

Half an hour before heading to the airport for a flight to Istanbul, I realised I didn’t have a visa and my passport was invalid. 

It occurred to me some time later that the reason I hadn’t thought of a visa was because on my last trip to the mysterious Turkish city straddling Europe and Asia and frequently rocked by mass demonstrations against an oftentimes heavy-handed regime, no one at passport control had asked me for it. Ho-hum: that was the easy bit — just apply online, which I instantly did from my Irish countryside location. 

But the system wouldn’t accept my passport-expiry date, because it was outside the so-called “six-month rule”, meaning it has to be valid for at least that amount of time from the date of your departure from Turkey. Mine was a few days shy of six months, and that morning in mid-January I was going to get photos taken, on the way to the airport, and apply for a renewal, online. 

Just give me some grace, and let’s not fall out, you old Turkish Delight. 

A fib of my passport dates soon fooled the Turkish online visa system, and I had permission to enter. But the perplexing passport problem persisted. 

“Don’t go, because they won’t let you in,” the stern-sounding woman with an eastern European accent at the Irish Passport Office told me over the phone as I waited for the bus to Dublin Airport. 

“What about a few days’ leeway either side?” 

“No.” 

“Howzabout an emergency visa?” 

“Only if you’re stuck abroad and have no passport.”

“What if I plead with the Turkish authorities?”

And she gave me the number of the visa section of the Turkish Embassy in Dublin. 

[Lots of recorded jibber-jabber, in Turkish, and then an actual, live person, speaking Turkish.]

“I’m on the way to Istanbul and my passport is a few days’ short of the so-called ‘six-month rule’, and I’d like a few days’ grace.”

“You call back after lunch, because Martin is out.”

“Oh, right. Yeah, OK. Thanks.”

I didn’t call back, because I was too busy heading to the airport, where there were big discussions at the departure gate that involved multiple personnel, and a woman counting my passport dates on her fingers — and further, late-night talks (1am+) on arrival at Istanbul’s new and cathedral-like airport, on the European side of the geographically (and often politically) divided metropolis of over 15 million people. 

Hooray for money! (Cash only, please.)

Now I had two visas, and was back in Istanbul, on my third trip in two years.

* * * * *

Thankfully my driver was still waiting for me as I arrived in the cavernous arrivals hall, around an hour late, due to the visa fracas, and by around 3am I was in bed in my spacious and central Istanbul apartment with minimalist touches and a huge, solid table with benches that put me in mind of my upcoming trip to Japan, albeit delayed, due to the coronavirus outbreak (if only people only ate plants, like me, this would not happen, as viruses would not have a chance to jump species and kill people). 

As I dozed off, I thought how fortunate it was that I had brought my home-cooked vegan dinner on the flight and not relied on the vegan slop I had ordered, because it was a disgraceful dish of white rice and insipid vegetable of no immediately discernible origin, and so I’d left it. Sometimes people think people will eat just about anything at all, and again I was left wondering just why Turkish Airlines bothered having a chef on board. 

Ansett Australia, before they went bust, also had a flying chef, and on a journey with them from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, he gave me a bottle of champagne when I complained that my pre-ordered meal was not exactly suitable, because it contained meat. (I was a mere vegetarian back then.)

At least now, as I lay in my Istanbul early hours bed and started to dissolve into the winding wisps of slumber, I was happy knowing that I was properly fueled up for several video meetings tomorrow, as well as excursions and preparing for adventures ahead. 

All Eyes on Istanbul

One of my reasons for coming to Istanbul was to have eye surgery, using an advanced laser, as I was tired of wearing glasses — cleaning them, wearing them, losing them, getting new ones and also traveling with sunglasses and running glasses. The type of laser surgery I wanted is called Supracor, which corrects long, intermediate and short vision at the same time, whereas the more usual refractive eye surgery surgery only sorts out nearsightedness. 

Istanbul, I had discovered through research, was a pioneer in this type of laser surgery — but there were few hospitals or clinics here, or anywhere, offering it. I found one, Istanbul Cerrahi (Istanbul Surgery), and before I traveled I was told that, based on my most recent eye test, I was a suitable candidate for Supracor laser eye surgery. 

Dr Berrin Toksu, a youthful woman with long and blonde hair and a pleasant smile, scrutinised a series of additional tests I’d had at the hospital. I’d had my pupils dilated for them, with drops, and they would stay that way — wide open and letting in way too much light — for several days, I was told. Dr Toksu carried out more tests on me, from the comfort of her chair across the room, operating the various lenses and vision tests by remote control. And then she declared that I could go ahead and have the surgery. 

Sight for Sore Eyes: The machine that restored my vision, with eye surgeon Dr Toksu at the controls. (Photo: Aynur Ibisdayi)

About an hour later, she was performing it, in a windowless room full of machinery, nurses and technicians. Wearing a blue surgical head-covering that looked like a shower cap, and surgical foot covers, I had been given a pill to sedate me. Who knew what was in it, but I was troubled by the fact that it was a capsule and therefore likely to contain gelatin, which is usually made from boiled-up animal bones and skin.

Pathetically, it didn’t stop me from downing the medication straight away, and immediately feeling the zap of vegan guilt that followed — how slippery and easy it is to accept just about anything in the face of fear. Already, this felt like an exercise in downright failure, and the only way to exorcise the evil indulgence was a vow to do lots of fasting to overcome the spineless moment of astonishing weakness. The laser might as well just cut me up into pieces. 

Then one of two young German men seated beside me started nosing about me — where I was from, what I was having done and anything else they could think of. Perhaps they had the jitters too. I asked them how they would cope that night, as anything with a screen would be out — including TV and phones — due to too much strain on newly operated eyes. The burlier of the two said he didn’t mind for one night, but that his pal would have three nights ahead of him just staring at the walls — whatever procedure he was having. 

* * * * *

On the table my heartisthundering discolightsflashing devices are wedged into my eye sockets and the nurse says, “You will not see anything for a few seconds” andigoblind as she cuts holes in my eyes and darenotmove and myheartraces and my spiritsuspends and iwonder if this machine of modernmarvels will doanything at all. 

The high-energy lights blaze; I smell a burning; omygod i am being fried alive. 

The surgery took about 10 minutes, and the lasers blasted and danced for less than nine seconds. And then, outside the operating room, Dr Toksu checked my eyes with an instrument and said the surgery had been “good”. She placed a dark mask over my eyes and instructed me not to remove it until I returned the next morning, for a check-up, apart from when I was to put drops in my eyes all during the evening and into the night. 

Eye Can See Clearly Now: After the laser surgery on my eyes, I had to wear this light-blocking mask until the next day — no TV or phone. I spent the night listening to BBC Radio 4. (Photo: William J. Furney)

Through the thick plastic, I noticed my sight had already improved, dramatically — near-and-far blurring was mostly gone, and I could read small print close-up. It would take several weeks for blurring related to the surgery to disappear, as the eyes healed, Dr Toksu said, and it would take anything from three to six months for full vision, or something near it, to be restored. 

As my driver took me back to my apartment, I was thankful for the incredible machines that make our lives so much easier and enjoyable. There’s a day every year in Bali where the Hindu faithful adorn every machine — from washing machines to motorbikes — with offerings to the gods, in thanks for the help that devices, contraptions, appliances and everything else mechanical gives them. I like this idea, and the staff at my house in Bali decked mine out in religious glory. To this day I silently thank machines that have done something for me, whether it’s one that’s washed my clothes, allowed me to write and given me an incredible window on the world (this laptop) or one I’ve just alighted from, having flown somewhere far or near. They’rel, like us, just a collection of atoms, after all.

Today I was marveling at the people who developed this sophisticated laser machine that restored my sight in seconds. It makes you think how powerfully creative and inventive humankind is, and when we put our collective energies into something positive, we can achieve just about anything. 

Spinning Out, Turkish-Style

I was also in Istanbul to see whirling dervishes. Most people I spoke to about them, before and after departing, hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. But I’ve always been interested in these spinning Sufi folk who get themselves into a mystical or trance-like state in order to achieve a spiritual experience.

After pestering locals Zeynep Tumerdem and Kubilay Karabulut, friends who run a tour company, they lined up interviews with two real-life whirling dervishes for a few days later, and they would pick up me and take me there. Afterwards, I’d get to see the dervishes in action, in a performance put on for tourists.  

Before that, I asked Mustafa Unal, a 38-year-old engineer who was born in the southwestern tourist city of Izmir and who was now working in property (and I was staying in his flat, or at least one he managed), what Turks generally think of whirling dervishes. He seemed to think they were mostly a tourist attraction, but also part of the “lore and culture in Turkey”. And as most Turks are Sunni Muslims, and dervishes adhere to Sufism — a mystical blend of the religion with links to Shia Islam — he felt that dervishes in Turkey were just about tolerated. 

“I suspect Sunni Islam does not care much for them. It acknowledges them as part of our history and culture, but is not greatly happy with anything out of fundamental Sunnisim. And also, the current, dominant Islam is not really looking for variations,” said Mustafa, who, it turned out, had eye surgery at Istanbul Cerrahi over a decade ago and has been enjoying 20/20 vision ever since. “New Yorkers are probably more interested in Sufism than Turks.”

I met the dervishes in an old tea room in what’s touristically called the Orient Express train station in the city, as it’s where the murderous Agatha Christie tale ended up, one Sunday evening around 7pm. Huseyin Coskun sat beside me on a low, traditional stool and, in his sharp beard, leather jacket and jeans, looked like he was either going to later hop on a Harley or do something extraordinary hipster. Instead, the 33-year-old father of three talked about God — his number-one devotion and the reason he was a full-time whirling dervish. 

I asked him how he feels when he’s whirling around, what goes through his mind. “I feel as though I am in another world,” he said in his soft-spoken voice. “I am thinking about God, and I don’t feel the outside world.”

Question Time: Zeynep (left) with dervishes Huseyin (centre-right) and Omer. (Photo: William J. Furney)

Huseyin, who comes from Corum in northern Turkey, became interested in the world of dervishes when he was in his mid-teens; a friend, he said, had suggested he try it. A dervish is like a monk, as members of the Sufi order take vows of poverty and lead austere lives, yet can marry and have children and don’t have to live in the monastery (Huseyin and his family live near his). 

“Whirling is a gift, and those who have it can learn how to do it quicker. It can take up to a year to learn how to whirl, and that was how long it took me,” Huseyin said. He said that tourist performances are a watered-down version of what happens at his monastery, where there are many whirling dervishes and people around — all chanting “Allah” and everyone getting lost in this incredible “active meditation”, as it’s been called. “The main intention is praying and focusing on God,” said Huseyin.

We were joined by another dervish, Omer Kahraman, who is 30 years old and works down on the docks, “with shipping containers”, he said — a stevedore, I said to Zeynep, who was doing the translating and grasping for a word. He was big and brawny and bald, and, like Huseyin, friendly in a reserved way. 

En-Tranced: I’m having a mystical moment with whirling dervishes Omer (left) and Huseyin, following our interview and shortly before their performance. (Photo: Zeynep Tumerdem)

Had they encountered any prejudice or hostility from the majority Sunni Muslims in Turkey? I asked, and they said no, that everyone was accepting and they never had any problems. What about their cherished spiritual ritual being reduced to a tourist attraction? I wondered. “We only do this for the benefit of tourists and to support our monastery,” said Omer, adding that their mystical Sufi traditions remained alive and well beyond being merely a tourist spectacle. (Advertising in the train station said tickets were “100 Turkish lira or €16” for adults, which probably brought in at least €550 that evening, going on my headcount of attendees.)

I’d been told, by Zeynep, that whirling dervishes can keep going for half an hour before stopping and I asked the two before me if they got dizzy at any stage. 

“We don’t get dizzy when we whirl [for long periods],” said Huseyin, who was the chattier of the two, “because of our love for God and because we practice it a lot. But certainly when we started we were dizzy after a short time.”

A Whirling Spectacle

Around 40 people, including a few restless and small children, sat in a large square of plastic chairs, fashioned to make them look old, in the train station’s function room. Some were Chinese and others European-looking, and before the dervishes arrived, a traditional musical ensemble appeared and played and sang religious tunes for around half an hour. No one seemed particularly interested — phones came out but were not pointed at the small group of musicians; instead, guests scrolled through their social media feeds. 

Finally, a lone dervish appeared, carrying a red and furry prayer rug. This he placed at one side of the performance area, and he was then joined by three others: somber men all (women are not allowed), dressed in white robes covered by long and black cloaks and tall, thimble-like, ochre hats. 

They removed their cloaks bowed and prayed and started to move, and one by one they spun off and started whirling like there was no tomorrow, accompanied by the instruments and voices of the musical masters. Their elegant movements generated a surprising wind that swept through the hall and gave you a chill. They raised their arms to the skies and had looks of adulation and serenity on their closed-eye faces — only flicking an eye briefly open every odd-rotation to make sure they were in place and not in danger of careening into spectators. 

It was a beautiful, mystical, unusual and joyous sight and one seen with my newly pristine and glasses-free eyes. The men whirled for five or 10 minutes, before winding down and starting back up again, in a dazzling performance that lasted for about half an hour, then retreating to a side room, with their prayer rug, and to the applause of appreciative people who had seen something they would not forget.

* * * * *

The young English woman seated beside me, a teacher from London, said the spinning men had made her own head spin, and that she had felt dizzy during the performance. Her cousin, an equally young woman of Kolkata origin (“Calcutta”, she’d said, using the obsolete name for the West Bengal capital) living in California and who had a big smile and a dazzling nose ring and was on the final leg of a world tour, had felt fine and, like me, had loved the fast-rotating spectacle. 

All I had wanted to do was leap in, fling my hands in the air and gyrate around with the indelible joy of life — I had asked, but was told “next time, when you come to the monastery”, and I was reminded what someone told me a while back, that dancing is not just good exercise but also a spiritual experience. When I got home, I did my own little whirling dervish dance, but after a few seconds my head was spinning too. 

That night as I slept, a rolling series of spirits zipped past my ajar door, peering impishly and in wonder, and one was brazen enough to leap into my bed and try to stop me from awakening, and in the struggle not to be overtaken but to retain myself, I woke, with a fright and a gasp and for some time wandered around the apartment, peeking here and there and looking for trouble, before settling down and slumbering again. 

But my spirit was awake.

  • Title photograph by William J. Furney

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