I have a soft spot for headscarves and I actually quite often cover my head with a piece of coloured cloth from my collection. Of course I lack the religious disposition which prevents me from letting it fall back on my shoulders rather often. These headscarves do not even fit in with the rest of my clothing style I must say, but I do find them beautiful and comfy. Especially I love large, thick Pakistani scarves, no textiles are more beautiful to me than these.
So, even though I am definetely not Muslim, it did feel a
little weird to be the only woman in the room without a headscarf. I
simply had not taken one with me in my backpack on this trip, and so
there I was, the odd one out at the the 'dergah', the spiritual centre around the house of the Sheikh Nazim in the small town of Lefke on the island Cyprus.
I had just arrived and I was enjoying an evening of music surrounded
by other visitors. And as already noted, I was the only woman showing my
I must say life has blessed me (or cursed me,
more like it) with enough practice in being the odd one out, so I took
things in my stride. But I began wondering about the society I had
entered. Were all those present fervently religious? No, in the midst of
the group I noticed two girls, who, despite their long skirts and
hidden hair, were clearly the backpacker-type thirsty for an unusual
experience, rather than people committed to a chosen spiritual
path. I imagined that at least some of the young Central Asian women
sitting next to each other, laughing and sharing tea like best friends
do, also did not wear a headscarf in their every day lives, even though
they were of an Islamic background. When I started realizing that the
women here had donned the thing regardless of how they held it with
covering their hair elsewhere, I started to be thankful for the fact
that I had none with me. On the accounts of most, only in the mosque a headscarf is
proscribed, so why should I now swathe one round my head, just because
the others did? I do not need to bind my head into one, then pull it off
a week later, along with all religious inclinations.
friends had warned me, I might feel like in a sect if I went to the
community around Sheikh Nazim. If someone had asked me at that point, on
that first evening, I might have graced them with the secret thought
spooking about in the back of my head which was that 'to call them a
sect would be bestowing a compliment on them, they seem to lack all
seriousness'. That evening, as well as the days after I got the vibe
from some of the people that they had arrived less to immerse
themselves in faith than to simply enjoy the conviviality.
I had seen my friend the Joker's pictures from when he had visited the dergah. Photos of the bearded, charismatic men in long
cloaks and green turbans looked exotic and intriguing to me. Now
that I watched the spectacle with my own eyes, it all seemed so more
mundane. The parade before me seemed in fact to lack that pinch of
authenticity whose effect is so embellishing. It all looked more like
some sort of nativity play where everyone wanted to be one of the Three
Wise Men. The Sheikh's local shop must be making good business selling those
pine tree-green rough felt cloaks and emerald-bright turban-slash-hats. Interestingly, the Joker was surprised to hear that in no other Islamic country I visited, I
had actually seen people walk around like that!
Among the group listening to to the music that evening
was one guy with dread locks complacently lying back in his chair, next
to another hippy friend of his in corduroy trousers and a cardigan.
They seemed to belong to the same group as those backpacker traveller
girls I had noted earlier. The woman playing the saz took a break to
introduce the two young men: ''Tonight we are celebrating for these two!
It is their birthday. They became Muslims today. Happy Birthday!'', and
she intoned the following song. I must say I objected to her wording.
First you say we will all go to hell, if we do not accept your faith,
then you do not even grant us that we are alive down here on earth.
any case, I was going to talk about the two guys' conversion the day
after with one of their female friends in the women's guest-house,
Albina. I asked how come that her friends became Muslims so quickly.
''When they tell the story, they say it was a bit like they had no
choice. They were pushed into the mosque and asked to pronounce those
words, the sh...'' -''The Shahada'', I filled in the gap, 'shahada'
being the phrase which, if pronounced three times with conviction, will
make you a Muslim. ''It was more like a ceremony to welcome them to the
broherhood than anything else'', she finished off. ''Do they know that
the death penalty is proscribed for apostasy?'', I could not hold back. A
temporary puzzled look flashed over the girl's face before she
commented ''I don't think so! But you seem to know a lot about Islam!''
Well, it's not rocket science to have heard of that little factlet.
any case, that same evening, Albina was lolling in one of the
arm-chairs, and told the gathered women of the deep, loving relationship
that connected her with her two boy-friends in particular and about the
empowering benefits brought by free love more generally. The day she
left, she kissed me goodbye on the mouth. I admired her guts that
evening to speak her mind given the setting. It is difficult to speak
frankly about one's views in the face of those who shows you such
hospitality (you can stay ten days at least and the food is bounteous and delicious). As we will see shortly, I myself do not stand up to that task.
the women's guest house, the temporary inhabitants included a group of
students from Kirgistan, a couple of Russian-speakers, a lady
from Indonesia, three generations of Londoners of Sri Lankan origin, and
an American, daughter to converts to Islam. Permanent residents are an
amiable Lebanese and an imposing and intelligent German woman. The wider
community in the small town includes a handful of German women, and a
number of American men. These two last-named nationalities outnumber all
''Why do you think so many Germans and Americans become
Muslims?'', my friend whom we nickname the Joker, the guy who told me
about the Sheikh to start with, had asked me. I did not have to think
''I think it is because of shame. Growing up in Germany, in
the media, in school, everyone constantly confronts you with what your
ancestors did, with how much diligence and technology they went about
their cruelty. For how many deaths they were resposible. Of course you
are going to feel ashamed, you will start to seek distance to who you
are. And how else to create distance between yourself and the history of
your people, than to turn to the 'other'? Of course these are
subliminal processes most converts are not in the slightest aware of,
and would certainly not cite as one of their reasons, but to me it makes
And as for Americans, I can imagine the underlying, subliminal
psychological processes are much the same. Their government has been
going around the world, attacking Muslim states, causing the deaths of
millions. Many American citizens also feel ashamed for what their state
is doing to the world. And how better to take a step back from those who
kill in their name? It is easy, you do this by turning to the
The next morning, a group of six of us got
up very early to hike to a praying place on top of a mountain above the
village immediately after the fajr prayer. Still in the dark,
with only a strip of grey to be seen on one side of the horizon, we had
to take off our shoes and socks and walk ankle-deep through the ice-cold
water of a stream outside the village, before scaling up the slope
through a bit of forest and over fertile meadows.
The construction up there, which for lack of the correct word I would name a
"chapel", was a hexangular wood building with something of a large Chinese
hat for a roof.
After we walked around enjoying the fresh air, we sat down inside only to discover it was crawling with spiders, some white,
long-legged and hairy, some black, tiny and shining. These animals, of
course, are holy in Islam. One time they protected the prophet when he
hid himself in a cave, fleeing from a mob of unbelievers out to lynch
him. The spiders spun their webs very swiftly, concealing the entrance
We did not mind the arachnid company, and settled down quietly, preparing to chant a zikr together. In our case a zikr
meant we rhythmically repeated god's name as well as some phrases in
arabic to the sound of a recording on a mobile phone. It was a sweet
moment to share so early in the morning, with the sun coming up around
Before leaving -now in the full daylight- our new backpacker
friends, who had also come, made some yoga exercises. When seeing them
end the Sun Greeting with a 'Namasté', the Indian greeting
and gesture of respect, I was reminded of its etymological similarity
of this Hindu term with the Turkish term for the five daily prayers, 'Namaz'.
The word 'Namaz' seems to have entered Turkish from Hindi via Farsi. It
was used in Persia in the times of Zoroastrianism to mean 'to bow
before the fire'. 'Namasté' apparently means simply 'I bow before you', the 'te' particle meaning 'you'.
trotted down the mountain to join the rest of the women for breakfast.
That morning, Saima, the Lebanese cook made an amazing Lebanese yoghurt
soup to be eaten with rice. The handmade Baba Ganoush, with tiny pieces
of spicy pepper cut almost to dust inside the aubergine puree, was
simply legendary. Mariam, the indefatiguable Russian from the Far
Eastern city of Khabarovsk provided the dessert in the form of pancakes,
so exquisitely thin as to be practically see-through, with little holes
everywhere, as if they were woven. After the feast, I could hardly move
my limbs anymore, let alone go on another walk.
On that second evening of mine at the dergah,
when we were sitting with many women at the dinner table, an
enterprising twenty-something came along with a few colourful
headscarves on offer. A German lady offered to buy me one. I have
already made mention of the love I have for headscarves and here I did
see a couple I liked, but I did not want to take advantage of her
kindness. At that particular moment I did not even notice the fact that
it was also a gesture of trying to assimilate me to the community!
in the day the younger one of the women from London taught me how to
pray. I wrote down a transcription of the first seven lines of prayer
uttered in Arabic in the Latin alphabet in my own, scribbling hand, and
noted a rough translation in English next to it. After she showed me the
movements to make, she said it would be her pleasure if I kept the
headscarf I had used during prayer. Again, I declined modestly.
But when the morning after her mother with an actually quite pretty one, I could not help but accept.
thought if I ever wanted to try praying in a mosque without feeling too
silly, I might as well do it now. However, when I arrived just after
the call to prayer at sunset, the crowd in the mosque was missing. My intention had been to take my queues for praying movements from others, so now that there was no one in the women's part, I tried to peek down at the men. I
could not see any of them, although I could see that the imam send a
text message in the quiet moments between chanting, laying the mobile
phone on top of the Koran that was opened on his knees.
Then, the next day, as I walked into the dergah building to help prepare breakfast, having wrapped the headscarf I was given round the back of my head, then, only then,
the thought dawned in me that the community here did in fact have
something of a sect. Just look at my transformation in a few days!
(First Part, second one to follow in January.)