Gavin Rabinowitz, AFP
Last updated: 29 August, 2012

Faith opens door for Israeli into whirling dervish order

As the sun begins setting over his mountainside dwelling, Miki Cohen takes his position under a wrought iron gazebo and slowly begins to spin in the meditative dance of a Whirling Dervish.

With his arms folded across his chest, he slowly picks up tempo in time with the mystical Sufi music playing on his mobile phone. Then, lifting his arms above his shoulders, he continues to turn, his eyes tightly shut in contemplation.

For 58-year-old Cohen, this is the answer to a lifetime of spiritual seeking, a journey that has seen him become the first Jewish Israeli to gain access to the sacred ritual of the Islamic Mevlevi Sufi order — better known as the Whirling Dervishes.

Born into a middle-class Israeli family living near Tel Aviv, Cohen’s odyssey began during the turbulence of the 1973 Middle East War when he was serving as a medic.

That experience, he says, shattered his sense of security and forced him to start questioning everything, sending him on a decades-long search for peace.

After a brief dalliance with Jewish spirituality, he spent two years at an ashram in Tel Aviv, then another three studying Taoism and kung fu in America, picking up degrees in psychology and philosophy along the way.

In between, he also managed to acquire the trappings of a normal life: a wife, two children, a house and a job teaching script writing.

But he kept on searching, and eventually came across the mystical writings of Jalal al-Din Rumi, a 13th century Sufi poet from Persia whose followers set up the order of the Whirling Dervishes after his death, with the trance-like dance a central part of their worship.

“The more I read Rumi, the closer I got,” said Cohen, dressed all in black, his long hair scraped back into a ponytail.

“I suddenly discovered Sufism, where the head stops and the heart starts. It suddenly became clear to me that the Sufis are the way for me.”

A Dervish is essentially a follower of the ascetic lifestyle of a Sufi Muslim, and as Cohen’s fascination with Rumi’s teachings grew, he began shedding the trappings of everyday life.

He separated from his wife, moved into a caravan and began travelling the country like a nomad.

Crediting Rumi with his transformation, Cohen decided in 2005 to travel to the poet’s tomb in the central Turkish city of Konya — “to say thank you”.

A chance encounter on a bus put him in touch with one of the Mevlevi Sufi devotees, who invited him to stay with them for a week and learn their mystical spinning dance, known as the Sama.

For a Jewish Israeli, such an invitation to enter the heart of this conservative Islamic order was unprecedented.

And there, amid the rhythmic chanting and frenetic whirling of the Dervishes, Cohen finally found the elusive peace he had been seeking.

Yelda Yanat Kapkin, a Turkish film-maker who has followed Cohen’s spiritual search for years, was sceptical when he first told her he was going to visit Konya, the most religious city in Turkey.

“I told him: don’t be disappointed, they probably won’t accept you. There are other orders in Istanbul which are more accepting, more multi-cultural,” she told AFP by phone from Istanbul.

Despite the language barrier, and a certain amount of suspicion and mistrust, Cohen’s clear devotion paved the way for him to be accepted where many before had been turned away.

“When Miki met the head of the order, he really believed Miki was a follower,” she said.

“If you are a real Rumi follower — not only in shape, but in heart — then you have to accept everybody who follows Rumi.”

Joining the order did not mean converting, but he went and studied the Sufi way with them and went back to Konya last summer for a further round of instruction, this time travelling with Yanat Kapkin who was making a documentary on his odyssey for the Doha-based satellite channel, Al-Jazeera.

“These guys were much more radically religious than I expected,” she said of the Mevlevi order, explaining that for them, it was more of a problem to accept her in to film.

“To be a woman was even more unacceptable than to be a Jew,” she said. They eventually relented.These days Cohen lives on an isolated piece of land on a rocky hillside covered with olive trees near the Druze village of Jat in northwestern Israel.

“I can’t describe the joy of disconnecting from everything,” he says of his remote mountain hideout, which he has slowly transformed into a home of sorts.

There he lives in a spacious round tent which looks like a Mongolian yurt. Inside, a central pillar swathed in purple, green and gold supports a roof draped with brightly-coloured fabrics, the floor scattered with mats and cushions.

A few battered-looking couches and chairs line the canvas walls, and two rickety bookcases groan under the weight of an eclectic assortment of books. A pile of mattresses serves as a bed.

What appears to be a cupboard hides the secret entrance to a cave he has chiselled into the mountainside.

Artfully lit by spotlights, and a bare wooden floor, it is sparsely furnished with an armchair, a bathtub and a sink — providing a sheltered retreat for days when the winds become too strong outside.

With only solar power at his disposal, he relies on his mobile phone for his Sufi music needs.

Outside the tent, on a patch of scrubby grass stands a tile-floored circular cage-like structure where Cohen stands to practise Sama.

“All the components of my daily life blur together and for a second there is a deep feeling of harmony,” he explains.

“And that, for me, is magic.”