Troubling Identities and the Minds that Shape them

Conversation on the complexity of identities in an Istanbul café

“My body was not made for this weather,” I complain loudly as we enter the Grand Bazar. Anniqua and I have just come from a museum exhibit about the mystic tradition and the training of dervish in Turkey. We have a couple of hours before actual whirling dervish put on their show plenty of time for a coffee and a snack.

This freezing, slippery sludge on the cobbled streets of the old city makes a five-minute stroll feel like a tightrope walk across mountain tops. Neither one of us has slipped and embarrassed herself and we are now thankfully out of the snow and walking through the labyrinth of covered streets which is the Grand Bazar of Istanbul.

Let’s find a café, I say, still shivering in my thick woolen coat and Russian Ushanka hat. 

As we come out of yet another narrow alley, we see a gem of a café hidden between shops overflowing with treasures that could easily have come straight out of Ali Baba’s cave.

We find a table near a window display of local handicrafts. Bright red tulips and roses crisscross blue carnations on woolen rugs. Spring blossoms and tulips on ceramic bowls create an illusion of spring despite the heavy snow outside. The indoor heating helps keep up the pretense. I take off my coat and hat.

This is perfect, says Anniqua, picking up the menu to study it.

There is an assortment of sweets, kunefe, baklava, helva, the ever popular Turkish delight, and a whole slew of unfamiliar names. Anniqua orders coffee for both of us and a serving of warm kunefe. I breathe in the sweet fragrance of rose water and saffron on roasted vermicelli glistening with honey. The soft cream oozes out through the green pistachios on top as she sinks her fork into a corner.

I take my eyes off the kunefe and ask the waiter for a spinach börek, a savory diabetic-friendly snack.

So? What do you think of Pamuk’s book and the ideas of multiple identities that tear one apart?  She asks, wiping a bit of cream cheese from her mouth.

We’ve both done our homework for this trip. Read, Istanbul: Memories and the City. And I know exactly which part of Orhan Pamuk’s memoir she’s talking about. That caught my attention too.

About our own multiple identities?  I answer her question with my own.

Mmm-hmm, she replies, but right now neither one of us has the answer. We turn to our coffee, deep in thought, both wanting to be the first to come up with a profound response. Finally, I say:

I don’t feel like we’ve moved towards any specific identity. It’s like we’ve been spinning on a plank with a nail hammered into it, like whirling dervish in training. I use a metaphor from the museum we just visited.

A dervish-in-training places the hammered nail between his big toe and the next one and then uses his right foot to spin himself round and around until he has perfected the movement.

I wonder what spinning like that does for them? Anniqua moves the conversation away from where I was going. She thinks I won’t notice.

Probably works like meditation or prayers. We used to pray. Remember? I’m not going to let her get away that easily.

Guide us to the straight path, the path of those you have blessed. Anniqua recites a verse from one of our childhood prayers.

Have we been walking on the “straight path”?

What do you mean? Of course, we have.  Anniqua says popping the last piece of Kunefe in her mouth. 

I wish I had her confidence. 

Do you remember General Zia-ul-Haq and his 10-year dictatorship? In the 80s, when NASA selected the first group of women astronauts, when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. Do you remember what those years were like in Pakistan?

Yes, I do, she says quietly, and for a while we both sit in silence, thinking.


Military dictatorship in Pakistan

It is 1984, my first year as a middle school teacher. General Zia has already been in power for six years. 

Standing in the school yard, I wait for my students to arrive. They line up for morning assembly. Eager faces, bright eyes face the flag and sing the national anthem. My class. Preteen girls. The boys are in another building, on the other side of the wall. Every head of brown braided hair is covered with a light colored chador. I look at my class with tender pride. They are wearing baggy shalwar and loose tunics, their chests covered with a veil, even though their bodies aren’t developed enough to need one. Our military leadership has made the right decision, I think. Modesty is a good thing. Catch them when they’re young.

In the classroom, I take attendance. Then, without removing their chadors, the girls take their Islamic studies textbooks and walk to the room where they will study with a maulvi. Two of them stay behind to work on other subjects. Both are from the Ahmedi community. These girls are not allowed to call themselves Muslims, and therefore are not allowed to study Islamic studies with the rest of their class. This is the result of the anti-Ahmadiyya Ordinance XX recently issued by General Zia ul Haq, our self imposed leader, whose name means “light of truth”.

I look at Anniqua. Do you remember when they burned down the homes and businesses of the Ahmedi community in Jhelum?

It was a surreal time, she says. We didn’t know what to think or do.

Feeling nauseated, I ask for the check. We put on our coats and hats and head back into the snow. It is almost time for the Sufi dance of the whirling dervish.


Whirling Dervish and Unity in Diversity

The lights are dimmed, and the fifty or so spectators, including us, are seated around a circular space.  In a balcony above us, sit seven musicians. The ceremony starts with songs of praise for the divine. This is followed by drum beats, recreating the moment of creation. Then, the haunting sound of a flute, a soul cut from its roots, crying out in pain.

It’s called a ney, Anniqua whispers, a reed flute. 

Deeper sounds follow from the oriental lute, the oud. I hear cymbals too. There are other instruments, but now they have all merged into each other. I can’t tell them apart.

The dervish enter the room and step onto the polished wooden floor, their eyes lowered and their arms crossed. One by one, they kiss the hand of the sheikh who led them in. He, in turn, kisses their tall woolen hats.

Then, as they step away, they start to revolve. With the grace of a bird in flight, they lift their arms to the sky. The palm of the right hand faces upwards to receive the bounty of divine love, and the left faces down to pass it on to the rest of creation.

A slender dervish whirls past me, his eyes half closed. I catch a glimpse of a dark mustache and neatly trimmed beard. His smooth forehead is partly hidden under the rim of the tall camel hair hat, a sikke. Then the next dervish appears. The contours of his face are softer, he looks more like a boy than a man. The third dervish is heavier, probably in his fifties. None of them make eye contact. We sit in the shadows and I study them all, mesmerized.

The music from the balcony resonates in the hall, each dervish whirling in a dream-like trance, white robes rolling like circular waves in a dark ocean.

The beauty of what I am witnessing is incredible. This experience will one day be transformed into an oil painting. White petals of calla lilies spinning and twirling in the long skirts of the dervish. The yellow spadix in the center of the flower will be the sikke – the tall woolen hat.


 It is late when we get back to our hotel. Anniqua boils water in the kettle we requested from the concierge the day we checked in.

Isn’t it strange how each dervish was so different from the other.  You could sense their individual personality even though their outfits were identical, I say.

Like human beings, Anniqua replies. We’re all different even though we exist in similar human forms.

Then why the need to pigeonhole entire communities? Why otherize whole groups of people? I ask Anniqua as she passes me a steaming mug of tea. 

Power, control, greed, any, or all, of the above, Anniqua says climbing under the bed covers with her own mug of tea. After a few sips, she continues, I want to shed identities that no longer reflect who I am. I want to get off the plank with the nail, and stop spinning with my irrelevant selves.

Now THAT is profound, I tell her. You have won today.


Click here to read another post by Selma: Stealing like an Artist: How to be Creative

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  1. I have often wondered if we would be where we are today in Pakistan, with regards to the increase in religious bigotry and extremism if the powers that be had not delved into the realm of the Divine in 1974. Although the mullah had existed pre-partition also in the same form, my thoughts trace back the deterioration in the overall situation back to the decision that ostracized the Ahmadi community in 1974 as the starting point. Now it feels like the genie is out and it would take some miracle to put it back in the bottle. I am thankful to the handful of people who speak up and speak out against it, the most important contribution if we are to turn the tide. My father’s generation kept quiet but I am proud of the later generations who are finding their voices.

  2. I enjoyed this very much, the pictures of the snow and the Bazar, and the beautiful artwork. The description of the Whirling Dervishes made me want to know more about them.
    I have had many identities in my 77 years and I feel that the original one has come to the fore and all the others have taken a place in my personal history. I am who I always have been.

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