Ramadan and Whirling Dervishes – The Moon and Sun

Crescent Moon
A sliver of the moon hovered low over a deserted Khartoum. The streets were empty.  Anyone from anywhere would know that it was a special night. The smirk of light in the sky was the signal that drew families across the globe into their homes for the first night of Ramadan… the first night of a very special 30 days. This is the time when faithful Muslims fast for 30 days during daylight hours. Some even refrain from drinking water during the day. Every night after the sun is down and the special prayers have been said, families gather together at restaurants and in homes to have “breakfast” together. The feasting usually goes late into the night, and most people get into the habit of waking up long before the sun rises in order to eat before the day starts. I didn’t realize exactly HOW early people get up until about half-way through the first week of Ramadan. I was fast asleep when I was jolted awake by the very distinct sound of drums – loud drums – being beaten outside. With my heart racing, I peered through the window to see our guard standing and looking over the fence. The drums got louder and louder and I watched him watch the street. I grabbed my phone to see what time it was – 3:23 am. I laid back down cursing the drummers of the very loud – apparently tin – drums. The drums got louder and louder as the drummers walked past our house. They proceeded down the road and slowly the sound walked away with the drummers. The next morning I asked the guard what the noise was all about. He laughed and told me that the drummers are responsible for waking everyone up during Ramadan to eat while they can before 5 am prayers. He laughed as he watched my expression turn from one of curiosity to suddenly realizing that this was a routine I was going to have to get used to drums at 3:30 am for the next month… and I have become used to it… for the most part.
Since that first night when the sliver of light appeared in the sky there has been a distinct feeling in the air. There are special lantern decorations hanging in shops and restaurants, and there are even special commercials and movies on television geared toward families staying up late to eat their breakfasts. This time reminds me a lot of Christmas, especially now that we are in the last week and coming upon Eid, the celebration that follows Ramadan. We went grocery shopping this weekend and I noticed that there baked goods and cookies in colorful papers that I had never seen before. Eid is very much like Christmas in that there are a lot of parties, a lot of food, and a lot of gifts are given and received.
It has been so interesting and fun to live in a Muslim context this year. Last month we were finally able to go to see the Sufi “whirling dervishes”. I think I have heard that expression my whole life and never knew what it was until recently. Sufism is a sect of Islam that is known as the most mystical of the sects. I listened to a Speaking of Faith episode where the famous Sufi poet, Rumi, was quoted saying whirling is “the act of staying centered while moving.” This is what Wikipedia says about it:
Sufi whirling (or Sufi spinning), (Arabic: رقص سماع‎) is a turning meditation that originated among Sufis, which is still practiced by the Dervishes of the Mevlevi order. It is a symbolic ritual through which dervishes (also called semazens) aim to reach the “perfect” (kemal). The aim is to abandon one’s nafs, egos or personal desires, by listening to God and the music (hence the term sema), thinking about God and whirling which has been compared to the orbiting of the planets in the Solar System around the sun.[1]
So last month, late one Friday afternoon, Brian and I went out to the mosque where groups of Sufi’s meet every Friday night for worship. When we arrived there was a funny mix of tourists and Sufi men and women. The worshipers were really friendly and eager to spark up conversation. The thing that first struck me was the colors of the robes the men were wearing. I have heard it said that green is the color of Islam, which is clearly seen in the amount of aqua we see on mosques, in homes (our entire house in Kassala is painted in aqua) and speckled across shops in every town. However, the green that these Sufi men were wearing was the like the green of the greenest lawn you can imagine. The contrast of the brown, dusty earth and the lively green against white robes was stunning and refreshing.


When we arrived the sun was just beginning to give that late-afternoon glow and people were milling around, waiting for the “whirling” to begin. There were small groups of musicians sitting on the ground singing songs about the Prophet. After about an hour a procession of men in long white and green robes came marching in a long line, beating drums and singing. They spread out from their line to create a large circle with the guests and spectators creating a second line of the circle – like the rings around Saturn. From there a series of songs began with beats from a group of drummers. Every one sang with the songs (who knew them) and a few men entered the large circle and began to pace and dance. One man did start to spin around and around, and as we watched he continued and continued and continued. It was amazing to watch. As the sun sank lower in the sky, the drums beat harder, the singing got louder and the dancing and whirling got more intense. Unfortunately we had to leave just as the sun was approaching the horizon and from what I hear, that’s when the real party starts. I am hoping to go back and see the second half of an extremely fascinating worship practice.

Mosque at Sunset

Speaking of Faith has been doing a series on Ramadan this month, so if you’re interested in learning more, check it out here.


Rainy Season

So if you know me well, you know that I love rain. Living in North Sudan under the consistent desert sun has made my craving for rain all the stronger. Well it’s rainy season and the past two weeks I have seen and heard thunderstorms rolling in over Khartoum. Last Wednesday a particularly heavy rain fell for the better half of the day. Most of the staff weren’t able to come to work because their houses were flooded – not to mention the fact that the streets were completely flooded. The city essentially shut down.


My flat-mate, Donna, is from Maine and she and I were talking about how reminiscent the day was to a snow day back in the States. However, the next day we heard from the staff that it was quite a bit worse than a regular snow day…

It turns out that Khartoum – or the country for that matter – has not seen so much rain since 1988. Thousands of people have lost their homes and belongings as a result of the rain and hundreds have lost their lives.  Living in a setting like North Sudan, homes aren’t built and cities aren’t planned with heavy rains in mind. It’s been so sad to hear the stories of the thousands of people who are still recovering from last week’s rain… and as I type this clouds are forming on the horizon.

Street in Khartoum

So I still love the rain, but I have never been so grateful that I have a strong roof over my head to protect me.