Rumi's Circle

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Konya: A Christmas Tale 1975

We are pleased to share another reflection from Shaikh David Bellak on Christmas with Suleyman Dede.

Konya snowIn the autumn of 1975 I returned to Konya, Turkey, home of the ‘Whirling Dervishes’ since the 13th century, to which through seemingly odd circumstances I had become connected in 1972. Unbeknownst to me at that time it was to also become my temporary home during this prolonged period of rootlessness.

I was determined by now in a hazy kind of way to remain there to be near the one who had ‘adopted’ me three years previously in 1972. I had met Suleyman Hayati Dede, Sheikh and Murshid of the Brotherhood of Jelalud’din Rumi, or Mevlevi Dervishes, through a series of chance encounters that year. I could not yet understand why he had become in the most sublime way a light and guide on a road I could not yet see or comprehend, as well as being the father I had never known.

A silent voice of intuition seemed to tell me that my Destiny was connected to him. Perhaps it was his grandfatherly smile or gentleness of manner, but an inner voice or thought impressed itself upon me that ‘this was it’ until whatever it was that drew me to be there would make itself clear. To this I became committed. The voice had made itself clear. There was no going back.

Following the two previous visits to Konya in 1972 and 1974, I had slowly developed a very basic facility with Turkish, but by no means adequate. However, with the help of my trusty yellow Langenscheidt’s Turkish-English dictionary and a small notebook, gradually I developed a more coherent grasp of the language day by day. I was not to know at this time that in a short time a reasonable fluency would be a necessity when Dede was invited to England and the United States the next year.

By early December winter had announced its arrival, as winter does: icy winds, occasional snowfalls and below-freezing nights replacing the soft gentleness of autumn’s glow which by now had faded away in the greyness of the Anatolian hills touching the edge of the ancient city. Dense coal smoke permeated the air day and night from the ever-present stoves of homes and shops everywhere.

Home was a corner room on the second floor in the somewhat ancient Olgun Palas Oteli with its windows along both walls. While welcome in Spring with its pleasant temperatures and warming sun filling the little room, they became walls of ice barely keeping the frigid winds at bay a few millimeters away on the other side of the thin glass. There was no heating other than a coal fire lighted each night in the common area just outside my door.

Eventually a small gas bottle with a reflecting attachment became the sole source of warmth which managed to take the temperature above freezing each morning. A small table and single lidded pan became the kitchen to accompany the gas bottle for making the occasional simple dish, even pancakes at times of homesickness. Necessity brings resourcefulness! A nearby lokanta became my regular dining room, or one closer to the commercial market area of dusty streets, now wet with snow. Meals generally were quite modest. They often consisted of one of the delicious Anatolian soups and bread, sometimes taş kebab, beans, rice and salads and for desert my favourite fırın sutlaς (oven-rice pudding).

Olgun Palas manager Ali Bey seemed to accept this arrangement of light cooking in the room, particularly after Suleyman Dede cajoled him on occasion about how I was learning to be a good Muslim and therefore it was his duty to help me by allowing me to cook a little. It was when I found a stray kitten in the snow crying through the night downstairs outside my window and brought it in that he drew the line.

Kedi yok!” he exclaimed several times very tersely. “Kedi pis, bitli, olamaz!!” (tr: “NO cat…it’s filthy, it has lice, absolutely no way!”) However with much pleading and assurances that I would personally clean it and provide a litter box (sawdust found in a nearby carpenter shop) and not allow it to bother his customers, he finally relented. Kedi and I had now become firmly established at home for the winter.

December was quickly passing. The New Year’s festivities were not far away, but thoughts of Christmas invaded my quiet days mixed with visits to Dede’s simple home a ten minute walk away adjacent to the Haji Fettah cemetery. I had become an addition to the family: Dede and his wife Farişta Hanim, who were grandparents several times over.

One morning Mehmet, Ali Bey’s teenage nephew and hotel attendant, knocked on my door. “Davut Bey, Suleyman Dede geldi, ofisde seni bekliyor”, he announced. (tr: “Mr David, Suleyman Dede has arrived, he is waiting for you in the office.”)

I quickly made my way down the two flights of stairs to the little office with its oversized desk behind which Ali Bey usually could be found sitting with his endless glasses of tea and strong Bafra cigarettes. Dede was sitting there in a guest chair, his hat adorning the desk corner. “Salaam Aleikhum, Efendim”, I greeted him, stepping through the door, bowing to kiss his right hand as is the Turkish custom of respect and submission before one’s sheikh and spiritual guide.

“Son, what are you doing just now?” asked Dede. “I am only writing a few notes”, I replied, “but I have no plans really”, I added. Taking his hat, he stood up and with a definitive air said, “Haydi gidelim, gezelim.”(tr: “Come on, let’s go, let’s walk around.”) With Dede leading the way we left the Olgun Palas for the cold, noisy busyness of Alaaddin Street, the main thoroughfare through the city centre to the Turbe (mausoleum), resting place of the Master Jelalud’din. We must have presented an odd sight: this small grandfatherly figure in his 3-piece suit, overcoat and fedora , barely 155cm tall, and this lanky, 183cm tall, long-haired European trailing behind him.

Crossing the street to a small shopping arcade, suddenly Dede stopped and exclaimed, “Davut, it is nearly Christmas – you should have a Christmas tree for your room. We shall try to find one!” Somewhat shocked and in my poor Turkish I protested, “But Dede, Christmas is a Christian celebration, Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, it will not be appropriate.”

At this he turned off into the arcade to a florist shop where he asked if they had anything like a small pine tree, but not finding one he led me off by the hand, from street to street, shop to shop asking here and there. Finally with no success and disappointment in his voice he said it was a good time to go home for lunch and tea.

Looking at me Dede quietly said, his voice firm with certainty, “Why should you not celebrate Christmas. Wasn’t Jesus a peygamber (prophet/messenger)? Do not Muslims honour all God’s prophets? Why should we not honour Hazreti Isa (the Holy Jesus) at Christmas?”

We turned, walking silently through the busy lanes and streets dodging honking cars, rattling 3-wheeled motor carts and pedestrians to his simple home and a waiting meal by Farişta Hanim.


~ Shaikh David Bellak, Edinburgh


2 comments on “Konya: A Christmas Tale 1975

  1. AngelA Jonsen
    April 24, 2020

    Shaykh s. loras 1972/ in Christmas Harvard Avenues los Angeles CA// Sufi music- a magical holiday…

  2. Shima
    September 5, 2021

    David please write a book. Your stories were my favorite in Bruce Miller’s book.

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