As the taxi pulled up to the gates of the cemetery, we all looked at each other with one thought- this is it? Each Friday evening at the Hamad el-Nil, followers of Sufi Islam perform a chanting ritual, referred to in Western culture as the Sufi dance, or whirling dervishes. But we were in a cemetery. Walking through the desolate and dusty graveyard toward the mosque, we taught our couchsurfing friend Sarah a new English expression- the heebie jeebies. It was really the only way to describe the graveyard experience. A few minutes later we arrived at the mosque where men were already congregating for the ritual.
Forming a large circle in front of the mosque the men began chanting as incense wafted over the group. “Chant leaders” led the feverish men, working them into a frenzy by raising their voices and beating on drums. Soon some of the men began to break from the circle and spin. The holy man, dressed in green with several strands of beads wrapped around his torso jumped and spun around almost lethargically. Entranced in the words of the chant “Allah, Allah, Allah”, most of the men remained in the circle rocking back and forth in a near trance like state.
The ritual lasted about 45 minutes and honestly I can say I’ve seen nothing like it. Slowly spinning, we could see the whites of one man’s eyes as he let the chanting quite literally move him. One man began biting his hand over and over again, which our CS friends told us is not at all uncommon. The chanting and “dancing” of the men in trance was fascinating, they seemed completely controlled by the power of the chanting. It was nothing like the Turkish “whirling dervishes” I’ve seen on TV, very few men actually twirled around, and it seemed at least from outside the circle that the trance like state from the chanting was more significant than the physical movements.
Sufi Dancing or the Whirling Dervishes as we call them in the Western world are a mystical sect of Islam. In Sudan, Sufi Muslims perform the weekly ritual wearing colorful patchwork robes. Some consider the dance one of Islam’s earliest rituals. At the climax of the dance, Sufi’s say they communicate with Allah.
Apparently more relaxed than Sufi dancing in other countries, the Sudanese ritual had a strong effect on the crowd. A few women, not traditionally a part of the ritual, stood behind the circle of men following the chants themselves, while children wandered in and out of the circle spinning. The chanting was haunting; a few days later going through our pictures in the car Ally remarked that she still couldn’t get it out of her head. I think I’ll always remember the fascination of the event, I literally could not take my eyes off of what was going on, it seemed incredibly powerful even from outside the circle.
Hopefully we’ll get the chance to see the Sufi dance again in another country and compare it to what we saw in Khartoum. I’m sure the ritual will be the same, but it was the atmosphere that I can’t seem to get out of my head.