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Cultural Diplomacy, Poetry, and Love

A guest post by Bina Shah.
The author at the tomb of Yunus Emre
The author at the tomb of Yunus Emre

Come, come, whoever you are.
Worshipper, wanderer, 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.
- Rumi

One of the best parts of being a writer is that I sometimes get to travel for work. It's not the kind of travel of businesspeople and bankers, or politicians or doctors, but the kind of travel that writers do: in caravans of joy, to visit faraway places, to be inspired by that travel and the discussions, conversations, and friendships that take place in that space and time.

Poets and writers in Konya for The Same Gate
Poets and writers in Konya for The Same Gate

Last week, I traveled to Konya in Turkey, as a participant in The Same Gate - a creative exchange of 18 poets and writers celebrating the life and work of the Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi. This six-day conference was envisioned and executed by the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, the international residency I had participated in back in 2011. But Christopher Merrill, IWP's director, also takes groups of American and international writers all over the world, and so our band of writers from Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, America, and Pakistan met to undertake a poetic, spiritual, and intellectual journey. This too is the best kind of cultural diplomacy, and I feel extremely committed to this path, having seen how effective it can be in bringing diverse groups of people together under a common artistic banner.

Entering Rumi's tomb
Entering Rumi's tomb

I flew into Istanbul and met some of the group at the airport, and we flew to Konya late in the evening. From then it was five days nonstop of sightseeing, travel, discussion, and socializing. We visited the tomb of Jalaluddin Rumi and Shams Tabriz in Konya; the tomb and mosque of the Turkish Sufi poet Yunus Emre and the tomb where Rumi's mother is buried in Karaman, 70 miles away. We visited a Greek village called Silla (the Greeks settled this part of Turkey, Anatolia, in ancient times); Armenian churches, Greek orthodox churches and temples -- we even saw a popular Turkish soap opera being filmed in one of the villages -- and gathered together in the afternoons to talk about Rumi, Rumi, Rumi…

I am no expert on Rumi. I've long avoided delving into his work, perhaps wary of the extreme sentimentality and commercialism that 20th century charlatans have introduced into his legacy. But I was forced to think long and deep about who Rumi is to me: the best metaphor I could find to understand him is that Rumi is a mirror: we look into his work to see ourselves.

Sema ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes
Sema ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes

The exchange was also meant to foster closer relations between Iranian and American poets, and our Iranian colleagues from Tehran had spent their academic lives studying Rumi. They dominated the conversations with their expertise, but at times on the bus or at dinner they would break into recitations of his poetry in beautiful Persian, and the other Iranians from America and Mexico City and the Afghans would join in, reciting together in Persian and Dari while the rest of us looked on, amazed. One afternoon I gave a talk on the role of women in Rumi's life and work; and then we translated together the famous lines of Rumi that begin:

Morden bodam, zindeh shodam
Geryeh bodam, khaneh shodam

(I was dead, then I came to life/ I was sorrow, then I became joy)

There was much laughter, some wine, lots of prayers, and so much poetry. I who am no poet, but a prose writer, sat enthralled while listening to my colleagues talk about rhyme, rhythm, meter, the merit of some words over others. I learned that poetry, which has sometimes eluded me, is nothing less than a mystical code that you could spend your whole life learning to write, or learning to decipher. And I wrote these lines while I was on the road with them, listening to their talk:

Poets to me are holy people

Their faces glow, their heads are expansive and enlarged
They have auras and halos around them
Like the angels in the paintings of Michelangelo

Cappadocia landscape
Cappadocia landscape

Then we traveled by bus three hours east, to Nevesehir Province, to visit Cappadocia, the Land of Beautiful Horses. This land was shaped by volcanos that spewed lava and ash which then formed the most unusual geographical formations I've ever seen: giant conical caves, mushroom-shaped spires called "fairy chimneys", and miles and miles of valleys with more conical dunes. The people of the area found that the structures could be easily shaped, because they were soft, and so they etched out dwellings, churches, temples, and monasteries - and people were living in caves up until the 1950s in this region.

I stayed in a cave hotel, Serinn House, which had been carved out of cave rock. We visited Derinkuyu City, an eight-story underground city where early Christians hid from Roman armies in 35 meters of labyrinthian rooms and tunnels set with booby traps. We went to the Gorime Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which was a huge religious complex with a monastery, nunnery, and churches with colorful and mystical religious frescoes etched into the walls. And we took a walk in a "Fairy Chimney Forest", where I sat and had Turkish tea and a friendly Turkish man told me he recognized the Pakistani clothing my Afghan colleague was wearing.

On our last day, as we drove to the airport in the early morning, we saw hundreds of hot air balloons up in the sky, exploring the lunar landscape, like alien life forms. Nothing could better encapsulate the experience of being in Cappadocia, or indeed on that entire trip, than the joy of uplift and elevation and being able to defy gravity underneath the bright hues of a globe-shaped multiverse. As a Muslim, worshipping at the shrines of the enlightened beings, I received affirmation and confirmation of my beliefs, and understood the connection across borders, generations, and centuries of those of us on the Path. As a writer, I made friendships with fantastic poets and scholars, learned at their feet, danced and sang with them in bliss and celebration. As a human, I saw places I never thought I'd be able to go.

May we all be blessed in such ways of seeking!

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