Just as clay needs to go through intense heat to become strong, Love can only be perfected in pain. – Elif Shafak
I came to Turkey to breathe and get some much needed Vitamin D. I try to travel as much as I can and when I’m old I’ll probably have to live in a shoe box because of it. Anyhow back to the story, it was the love letter of Suleyman the Magnificent to his wife Roxelana, that left me intrigued and wanting to visit Istanbul before I headed to a beach destination to play dead in the sand (I do well at being dramatic and feeling sorry for myself). When I read the letter, I could imagine how dreamy Roxelana must have been when she received it. I wanted to visit the land where love had blossomed so beautifully and a land that had driven my new love for cooking.
I was in an anxious state when I left London, change was churning inside of me and I was feeling like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz. Rigid and without a heart. Only a week earlier I realised I couldn’t face my prayer mat or open the Quran. It gave me no comfort. A friend once wrote a song verse ‘Turn to Mecca to find God isn’t there.’ That’s how I was feeling. Still at 2am at night, when I couldn’t sleep, I would sit down with my tasbih and ask for forgiveness. With the emptiness growing, I began to wonder if I wasn’t a believer anymore.
A friend who follows the Baha’i faith is so content with his choice and path that I decided that I wanted to understand another faith. I wanted to see if Islam is my choice or just what I’ve been conditioned to. randomly I contacted a local Baha’i group and met with a small group of women. I was told by two women who were raised by Baha’i parents that in their teens they had the choice whether to continue following it or not. I didn’t get that choice. The questioning they did at 15, I am now doing at 29.
I spent an hour with these wonderful women. They didn’t feel like strangers and we shared our thoughts on God and our lives. I told them, ‘I’m facing infertility and I’ve lost God. I thought I might find Him here…somewhere. I don’t know.’
It’s funny how struggling to have a child can turn you and your world upside down. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again; emotions are like wild horses. Just as I feel I have control, I lose it again.
My husband was of course a little skeptical of my sudden interest in the Baha’i faith and I knew he was putting it down to my crazy ways. However, he said that if I found God there then he’d be happy for me. He’s a good man.
By the time I left the women, I had discovered a piece of what I was missing. A group of women to learn and grow with on a spiritual level. God was still nowhere to be seen but at least the journey to finding Him had begun.
The first night in Istanbul, I experienced the morning call to prayer and it sounded harsh to my ears. In fact I can shamefully admit that I complained, “Can’t they find a muazzin with a more comforting voice?” Shame on me. I visited mosque after mosque and felt nothing. Even when I visited the brilliant Blue Mosque. After two days of exploring, when we returned to the hotel, I sat on the bed and cried “I’ve lost God and I feel like I’m being pushed in a direction I don’t want to go.” I didn’t want to live life feeling empty, bitter and at a loss.I felt disconnected from love in every form. The door to my heart was on lock down.
I didn’t think or know that through a series of events, I would begin to experience a different kind of love and find my faith again.
One night I decided to watch the whirling dervishes perform. At this stage I knew little behind the dance and only had a limited understanding of Sufism. As I watched a young woman twirl tirelessly and gaze above, I smiled at how content she looked. I once wrote that I think we humans don’t dance enough and how amazing it would be to dance under a tempest sky. To feel at one with nature and God. Time seemed to stand still as the dervishes span to the sound of the ney. I wished then that I wasn’t observing but instead dancing with them.
Then at the museum shop in Topkapi Palace, I moaned about how overpriced everything was as I perused the bookshelves. I noted some authors to search up on Amazon later and was about to go off in search of more cats when my husband pointed to ‘Forty Rules of Love’ by Elif Shafak. I gah’d as I read the back description and said ‘This just sounds like a Sufi version of ‘Eat. Pray. Love.’ I don’t need to read about middle aged women and their discontentment.’ I should have added that I have enough of my own. He then pointed out that one critic compares her to Paulo Coelho. I often joke that ‘The Alchemist’ by Coelho has led to some pretty crazy life decisions.. like marriage at 20. I like Coelho’s storytelling so as an avid reader of his work, I decided to see whether Shafak measured up.
Seven days later my eyes and heart were open. The main character was one dimensional and as usual she wanted to work for a literary agency which made me roll my eyes but the real storytelling was in the friendship of Shams of Tabriz and Rumi. The Forty Rules of Love by Shams was a language I recognised. I highlighted quote after quote on my Kindle App. The book was speaking to me.
While I was engrossed in the story and learning more about the Sufi way, I continued to explore Istanbul. I was more excited to visit the tombs of Suleyman and Roxelana than visit the mosque. That changed when we arrived there, the tombs were closed for renovation but the mosque was open. As I made wudu in the open air women’s bayan, I looked up at the minarets and felt there was something strangely serene about this place. The atmosphere reminded me of Medina.
I visited Suleymaniye Mosque again for the auspicious Friday prayers. The call to prayer was sang, no part of it rushed and it made my hairs stand on end. When I stood in line for prayer with Turkish women that I could barely communicate with, my heart softened and the tears came as the Quran was recited. I felt God. Finally.
Now I can feel God’s kisses on my skin as a cool breeze caresses me on a hot Turkish day. When I stand in the sea I feel overwhelmed by how much power He has and as I look out at the vast ocean I’m reminded that there’s so much beyond my reach that I cannot see or understand from where I’m standing today. After twelve years of being disconnected, I finally feel His blanket wrapped around me and that He has invited me home.
I’ll leave Turkey with an open sufi heart and that my friends, is better than leaving with a full womb. (I mean both would be nice but you know I’m trying not to be greedy!)
Pics: Whirling Dervishes, Suleymanye Mosque, Cat at the graveyard near Pierre Loti’s cafe