Al Jazeera World

The Israeli Dervish

We follow one man as he becomes the only Israeli granted access to the inner sanctum of the Whirling Dervish order.

Miki Cohen is a 58-year-old college teacher who has “discovered” the works of Jalal ad-Din Rumi, a 13th-century Muslim poet and Sufi mystic.

Attracted by Rumi’s writings and philosophy, Cohen translates his works into Hebrew and practises whirling in worship.

Rumi for me is an answer and the way.

by Miki Cohen, teacher and Israeli dervish

What makes Cohen’s story so remarkable is that he is an Israeli. The son of Holocaust survivors and a veteran of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Cohen found himself searching for answers to his spiritual identity.

“I was in the Israeli army in the 73 war. And the war mentality, the killing mentality, the feeling that we are on one side victims and on the other side were the oppressors. So, what are we? So I started, you know, looking for bigger answers let’s say or deeper … for many years I was looking in many places,” he explains.

Along with several other Israelis, he undertakes a spiritual search and is attracted by the mysticism of Sufism.

But Cohen goes a step further. He travels to Konya in central Turkey, the resting place of Rumi and a city once known as the “citadel of Islam” with a reputation for religious conservatism. It is the centre for the Mevlevi Sufi order of Islam.

Cohen becomes one of few outsiders – and certainly the only Israeli – to be granted access to the inner sanctum of the Whirling Dervishes.

By Yelda Yanat Kapkin

I met Miki Cohen, an Israeli university lecturer, in 2003, at a cinema seminar. He was teaching script-writing and I was a master’s student at the time.

During the class, we started to share our personal stories and I discovered that he had spent his life searching for a spiritual way that would fit him. After the class, talk turned to spiritual leaders and eventually to Rumi, an Islamic scholar, philosopher and poet who lived in Anatolia.

At the time, Miki had only a little knowledge of Rumi. But he asked many questions and I tried to explain his philosophy of “Divine Love” as well as I could.

When we next met – at an Israeli film festival in 2004 – I saw how much Miki’s knowledge of Rumi had grown. He had developed an enthusiasm for his poetry and was clearly greatly influenced by his teachings. It was around that time that he moved out of his house, bought a caravan and decided to travel.

In 2005, I received a phone call from Miki in which he declared: “I will go to Konya.”

Konya is the Turkish city where Rumi spent his life. Miki explained that he would like to visit Rumi’s grave and to learn sema whirling, the whirling rite practised by Rumi. 

I remember thinking then that it would be impossible for Miki to fulfil his ambitions. Konya is the religious centre for the followers of Rumi, the Whirling Dervishes, and I tried to warn him that it would be difficult for him to be accepted there – not only as a Jew but as an Israeli. He did not listen.

But when he called me a week later he had been accepted into a Mevlevi Sufi order as a guest and was learning sema. It was almost a miracle.

There was hardly anybody in the order who could talk English and Miki was unable to converse with most of his teachers, so I decided to help out by translating, over the phone, some of his classes and the entirety of his first acceptance ritual.

As a filmmaker, I knew that Miki’s story was a very unique one. Over the years we kept in touch and I followed his story as he moved to a cave in a mountain, met his wife, Ayelet, built a place on his land for sema and began practising it twice a day.

When I learned that he was planning to travel to Konya for a second period of training in 2011, I had no doubt that the time was right to film it.

I was unsure whether Miki would be willing to be filmed, partly because being on television would be such a sharp contrast to his isolated existence on the mountain. But, contrary to my fears, he said “yes” immediately. At that time, I was unaware that being a Dervish was just about saying “yes” to whatever life brings you.

I first filmed his life in Israel, staying with Miki and his wife in their cave. Then we travelled to Konya. 

It was Ramadan. Having never been to Konya before, I could not imagine how this very religious city would be during Ramadan. But I had imagined that filming in my native country would be easier than filming in Israel. It took me a couple of days to realise how wrong I was about that.

Finding people to interview during the fast was difficult, but even when I was able to reach them, communicating was not easy. They were not used to being close to a woman and during interviews they would often find it hard to look me in the eye. 

It was also difficult to convince the Whirling Dervishes to talk on camera – being lowly is at the heart of being a Dervish and being in front of a camera sits uncomfortably with their ways.

But the biggest challenge of all was being able to film the zikir ritual. Women are not allowed in the room during it and it took me a week to get permission to film, with one condition: that I be as close to invisible as possible so that the Dervishes would not be distracted by my presence and would be able to fully lose themselves in the ritual.

We became the first crew to film the ritual as Miki became the first Jew ever permitted to join the zikir ritual in that Mevlevi order.