Dervish Dancing

Dervish Dancing from the Upper Nile

By Hanan

The day was still sweltering hot as sunset approached. I had tagged along on a “trip” across the river from Khartoum into the suburb of Ombdurman to watch what the local expatriates called Dervish dancing. Ombdurman was the village that preceded the founding of Khartoum, and it still maintains the traditional elite of the Sudan. This was a regular event, and the group of men who assembled now and then to partake of this ritual had no objection to spectators attending, nor to our photographing the event.

Arriving across the Nile into Ombdurman, we parked the Toyota Land Ranger and perched ourselves on top, waiting for their arrival. We were not the only spectators who had come for the event: there were perhaps a dozen or two foreigners among the hundred or so spectators there.

The green and white flags emerged from the horizon, followed by a horde of men. Most were wearing the standard male clothing of the Sudan: white jellabiyya turned dingy beige by the frequent sand storms of the desert, with matching baggy trousers, white skull cap and squashed-down leather sandals. Others wore robes of green. Green and white are the colors of Islam, and the writing on the flags were verses from the Koran. This was a religious event for these men, in spite of the touristy nature of our being there.

Finally, after some time, the green and white flags came closer, the horde of men approaching to the low hum of their chanting and the slow beat of the drums. Their line-up resembled the battle charge of medieval wars. Across the front stood several flag bearers carrying huge flags, followed by a line of bass drums of the same colors. Thereafter came several lines of men with their canes lined up at uniform height, bobbing to the gait of their walk. Many other men seemed to just be going along for the ride. And then there were the men in green, who resembled the high priests of the celebration unfolding. The spectacle was enthralling, as it loomed bigger and bigger and the crowd of men filled up all of the space in the dirt lot in front of the mosque. The different groups of men in attendance fell into place, as the rhythm accelerated, slowly. There was no music, only the chanting and the beat of the drums.

Dervish dancing. Photo by Hanan.

The dervish dancing seemed to have little in common with the pizza-pie type of spinning connected with Turkish Dervishes. However, there is a sizable population of Sufi Muslims in the Sudan, and the connection with other Dervish sects seems to be the spirituality the Sufis associate with this ritual of dance. This was not at all a performance, but a ritual in which the slow and rhythmic chant of “Allahu akbar” — God is greatest — was breathed in such a way that those chanting the words entered another state, and allowed their bodies to move to where the ever-increasing rhythm of the chanting would take them.

The men dressed in white fell into lines, and with their canes and their sticks, danced a dance that I associate more with the men of the Gulf states, bending forward at the torso and back again. These men were in the majority, and they provided the backdrop for the men in green who performed the spinning with which we associate Dervish dancing. There were but a handful of them, but they were fascinating to watch as their bodies were consumed by the ever-increasing energy of the drums and the chanting. Surrounded and animated by the men in white, they took the floor and danced unto themselves, at times seeming to communicate with each other through their energy, moving toward and away from each other as two magnets of the same pole repel each other if brought too close. As the energy increased, the entire area gradually lost its form and became a single, huge moving mass of energy. Those hitherto just hanging out let go and joined in the dance, and the dirt lot became engulfed in human movement.

Darkness gradually descended on the celebration, signifying the end of the ritual, since in the Sudan electricity is scarce and intermittent. The evening call to prayer was heard. We foreigners took our leave, and those participating dispersed into the night.

Photos of dervish dancing by Hanan.

Hanan lived in the Sudan in 1988-89, sharing her time between Khartoum and the Ethiopian border as part of a refugee relief operation. This event was one of the numerous adventures she was offered to partake in during her stay.

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