I stepped off the bus in Konya, one of the most conservative cities in Turkey with my pants falling down. I had bought them the night before in a rush and without trying them on. When I realized, first to my delight and then to my horror that I had underestimated how much weight I’d lost in four months of walking, I was already late for my date with a dead Persian poet in small city in Anatolia.
Fighting a losing battle to keep my butt covered up, I walked from the bus station to my hotel and gave myself a silent talking to. “Why can’t you just get off a bus and walk to a hotel like a normal person? Why does everything in your life have to be an audition for a comedy sketch?” Then I thought about the joy my friends will feel when I tell them this story, a joy similar to what they felt when I told them that I showed up to my job at one of the world’s top fashion magazines wearing one brown and one black boot. My self-shaming took a surprising turn as I began to see what a gift it is that in my life, even the most ordinary act such as getting dressed in the morning, turns into a story worth telling. Thanks to my inability to just wake up and start my day “like a normal person,” an otherwise unmemorable walk down a wet, grey street in Turkey was now etched in my mind, much like the occasionally visible lace of my underwear is now permanently etched in the memory of the pious citizens of the town where Rumi created his magnificent poetry. I think the Sufi mystic would have been proud of my journey from self-chastising to self-awareness.
“Who could be so lucky? Who comes to a lake for water and sees the reflection of the moon.”
Konya is said to have been quite a sight during the 13th century, when Rumi lived here, though now his legacy is all that colors an otherwise monotonous landscape of boxy apartment buildings, souvenir shops and expressionless hotels. Luckily, I had ignored the accommodation recommendations of well-meaning travelers and instead followed my heart to a small two-story house with an ornate gate and a garden where an eager black cat let me stroke its soft fur, even as rain fell on us both.
While I waited for my room to be ready, I wandered around the garden photographing dried up sunflowers, the scroll-like curled petals of zinnias and the velvet fringe of marigolds with no real aim except to acknowledge and capture the moment in the same way a much less poetic struggle to hold on to my pants had captured my arrival in Konya.
In the days leading up to my pilgrimage I was constantly drawn to flowers. I bought a pink scarf tipped with red, blue and peach blooms, a top with swirls and pale carnations and a notebook with a reproduction of Mignon’s painted tulips, bearded irises and red currants. I even packed a bottle of rose oil into my backpack before leaving. Flowers have been an important part of my life ever since I got my first job as a florist at eighteen. They have always been my escape. While writing is more risky and demanding because there is more of me at stake, flowers are my creative refuge, a world where I wholeheartedly embrace myself as an artist, without judgment and let myself play without any policing. They connect me with my past as the appearance of tiny clusters of grape hyacinths remind me of the time I fell in love early one spring. They also put me squarely in the present, as I smell the first paperwhite narcissus flower in November. Flowers remind me of both how fragile and prone to withering life is and how confidently and brilliantly it always comes back.
“The words that make the rose bloom were also said to me.
The instructions whispered to the jasmine.
And whatever was said to the sugarcane to make it sweet.
And to the pomegranate flowers to make them blush.
The same thing is being said to me.”
Between Gwyneth Paltrow quoting him on Oprah and his poetry, which can be playfully naughty and includes references to sex outside of marriage, it’s easy to forget that Mevlâna as he is known in Turkey was a dedicated Muslim, given the name Muhammad at birth and who exalted the Quran in many of his poems. I can’t think of any other man whose words have burrowed into the hearts of Hollywood actresses, lovesick teenagers, veiled women and literary college students alike. Everyone loves Rumi—the Pope, atheists, intellectuals, and even a very smart and sweet woman I met in the hotel who believes we come from a different planet entirely.
In the kitchen of the hotel a tall, pencil-straight, grey-haired woman, who was clearly a guest was grating cooked quince.
“What are you making?”
“I’m trying to make my grandmother’s dessert, but I think I’m failing.”
Having been given the rare gift of watching someone other than me crash and burn, I decided to stick around and get to know this lady. Her name was Muriel and she was a French ex-pat living in England who adored the owners of the hotel and has known them for years, which explained her taking command of the kitchen. She is an expert on Rumi, lecturing and writing about the Sufi mystic and his poetry.
“I wrote a book called ‘Rumi’s Daughter,’ maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s been translated into nine languages.”
I wanted to say “ But can you do this!” and do a back flip off the counter except I remembered that I don’t know how and instead offered to take over the grating for a bit. Despite our efforts, the quince did not resemble the smooth paste Muriel remembered from her childhood so we called it quits and went to the tomb of the teacher we had traveled here to see.
When Rumi’s father died in 1231 the Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad offered his rose garden as place to bury the well-respected mystic and scholar. Forty years later, after celebrating his “wedding night” as he had asked his death be referred to, Rumi was laid to rest in the same place. Though the rose garden is still there, it blooms in the shadow of a marble and tile complex that has developed around father and son over the centuries. At first, a sea green, rippled conical tower was built over the two graves. Then the Mevlevī Sufi, an order of Rumi’s followers built a Dervish Lodge where the members of the order lived, studied and prayed. Suleiman the Magnificent built an adjacent mosque in the 16th century and eventually more than forty people, including members of Rumi’s family and prominent dervishes (followers) of the Order were buried in the Mausoleum.
Muriel and I were approaching the Mevlâna Museum when we heard the first notes of a nearby mosque’s call to prayer. A second muezzin began just behind the first, and then a third, a fourth and on and on until the echoing voices were impossible to separate from each other and the words of praise to Allah became an indiscernible, passionate, pulsating cry that overtook the sound of traffic, tourists and even the endless stream of my thoughts. What is it about this Sufi man that gathers everything that’s magic around him and the nearer you get to him the more magic your own life becomes? Or maybe it’s that he inspires you to see the magic that’s already there?
“You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck.”
The quiet space for reflection that I expected his grave to be was crowded with a stampede of people who were probably seeking the same solitude. While a recording of a mournful ney melody played on a loop over the loudspeaker, Japanese tourists took photos, despite the protests of the guards. A clean-shaven man in a suit prayed quietly next to them and an older Turkish woman turned away her tear-stained face when I accidentally caught her eye. Muriel sat on her heels in a corner with her eyes closed, meditating. Rumi’s tomb shrouded in black and gold was the only grave I’ve ever been to where I felt like the person was actually still there, hovering and observing. I wonder what he would think of all this, given that he had wanted to be buried under an open sky. I wonder how he’d feel about a million people coming to see him every year.
“Either give me more wine or leave me alone.”
When we came out of the mausoleum, the sky was bruised with rain clouds except for one patch, through which a ray of light reached out towards the Mevlâna Museum, singling out the Master as the lucky recipient of its warmth. Despite the cold and the promise of rain, Muriel and I strolled to the Alaeddin Mosque, an ancient place surrounded by a park with views out into the plains beyond the city line. Rumi had attended prayers here, in what I imagine was then a majestic mosque, but was now dusty and worn. In the courtyard we found the grave of the same Sultan who had offered up a patch of his rose garden centuries ago to Rumi’s father. We wandered among the cream and orange dahlias and blue irises just outside and talked about Rumi.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Rumi’s poem that begins ‘Come, come, whoever you are,” I started.
“You know there’s a good chance that it’s not actually Rumi’s poem?” Muriel stopped me.
“Don’t tell me that, it’s one of my favorites!”
“There is a theory that it was written later,” said the Rumi scholar.
“But it’s even in the Rumi book that I have,” I pleaded.
“Who is the translator?”
“You know that he doesn’t actually translate the books, since he doesn’t speak Persian?” Seeing the shock on my face, she quickly added “But he’s not without his purpose, he adds some value to the translations, some interpretation.”
“My favorite poem of my favorite poet was not written by him and my favorite Rumi translator didn’t actually translate Rumi. Fantastic.”
“But that’s the essence of Rumi—he confuses you, he makes you lose yourself so then you find your own way back. You have to decide for yourself.”
I understood what Muriel meant. Rumi isn’t the bones and dust lying below a slate of marble. Rumi isn’t the warm, fleshy thing those bones used to cling to. Rumi is the inspiration, the love and the poetry that I feel when I read the words. Who wrote and who translated them has no importance.
“In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you,
but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.”
In fact, Rumi might never have become Rumi, the man that draws more than a million people to a small town in Turkey were it not for a fateful meeting with a basket weaver in 1244. Shams Tabrīzī had been traveling from town to town hoping to meet his spiritual equal, the one person who could understand him fully and his search ended here, in Konya. The two became the closest of friends and that friendship opened up some new divine place in both of them. Though Shams was almost thirty years older than Rumi, it seems their relationship was more teacher and teacher than teacher and student.
“Hurry and get out of this wind, for the weather is bad.
And when you’ve left this storm, you will come to a fountain;
You’ll find a Friend there who will always nourish your soul.
And with your soul always green, you’ll grow into a tall tree”
Rumi’s disciples and his sons, jealous and distrustful became weary of Shams and his influence over Rumi. Legend has it, that one night while the two friends sat in Rumi’s home someone knocked on the door and called out for Shams. Shams went to see who it was, disappearing out of view. Rumi heard his friend cry out and ran to the door but found only a drop of blood in the snow. Or so one story goes. Shams was never heard from again and Rumi’s grief was endless. He wrote volumes of poetry dedicated to his Shams. He even said that the poetry was not his, but his friend working through him.
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
On the way back to our hotel, Muriel pointed down a narrow street filled with souvenir shops and jewelry stores, “There is a mosque over there that’s supposed to be where Shams is buried, but I don’t think so.” Officially his tomb is in Khoy, Iran. There is another one in Pakistan. The legend of Shams has spread far and wide, it seems.
That night I dreamt that a sorcerer kept sending wild animals to attack me. Every time I’d fight one off, another one would appear. Exhausted and angry I pleaded with the sorcerer “Why are you doing this to me? Why do you hate me?”
“Don’t you know that I am doing it because I love you most? I am sacrificing these animals so that you can practice fighting. That way, when you have to face the biggest battle of your life you will be sure to win.”
Given how close the hotel was to Rumi’s grave, I am inclined to think that the mystic’s ghost is predisposed to sleepwalking and making poetry of people’s dreams.
The next morning while I loaded up my plate with cheese and olives and cucumber slices, I told the owner of the hotel about my dream.
“What were the animals you were fighting off?” he asked.
“I think they were wild boars.”
“Hmm,” he examined me for a second and walked away.
Alarmed, I looked up the symbolic meaning of boars. I found that they could mean battle (usually to the death), needing to face a conflict head on and the odd man out—really passionate sex. I am hoping that the dream was not a prophecy of a life spent killing every opportunity for great sex. Considering that I am on a quest, making my way around the world in search of answers, looking my fears squarely in their serpent-like faces, it’s easy for me to believe that there are more challenges ahead and with them more answers and more beauty. That the battles of today are preparing me for those of tomorrow seems logical, but who is this magician who is training me to fight? Who cares! Did you not hear the part where he said he loved me most? Except for that particular bit that most probably came from my egomaniacal subconscious, I honestly think the voice of the magician is the same voice that told me to go walking around the world and the same one that told me to not leave the house for three days and write this all down.
“Learn the alchemy true human beings know.
The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given the door will open.”
On the whole spectrum of my life, there are pockets of time that I fall into once in a while that are filled with such perfectly orchestrated magic, that I begin to think I’ve fallen off the spectrum completely. If you haven’t guessed it, this trip to Konya was one of them.
Before getting on a bus again I went back to the Mevlâna to say goodbye. It was sunny now and I sat in the rose garden with a volume of poetry translated by someone who doesn’t speak the language it was was written in and read my favorite words from the poet who probably didn’t write them.
“Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again , come , come.”
And he was right—it didn’t matter.