Sufi Snaps: Saturated (A photo and a story)

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by Ali Hammad

The sky was about saturated with nimbus, the lake with boats, and my head with thoughts. A fine summer morning it was.

It was quiet. Quiet except the susurration of a morning breeze. The boats rocked atop gentle waves, their engines asleep. The clouds weren’t ready to discharge their load. The path along the lakeshore was empty, and I its sole occupant.

Earlier, I had rolled out of my bed, put on my jogging attire, and was now on a run along the shore. I looked at my watch. It was less than two hours to the beginning of the annual regatta. In my years of residence in that town, I had always found this to be the rowdiest event of the year. I had expected that day to be busy, too, but it wasn’t: no roaring engines of fast boats, no shouting from boat captains, no noise from makeshift cheerleaders, no blare of music from lakeshore restaurants, no hum and buzz of hundreds of spectators.

The quiet was such that for an instant I thought I was still asleep—dreaming perhaps. What divides a dream from wakefulness, have you ever wondered? Well, I don’t know about you, but I am one of those who cannot run in their dreams, even though I’m a fast runner in real life. Conversely, whereas in real life I find myself shackled to burdens of daily life, in my dreams I’m generally able to escape them.

On the day and time in question, I was running and also feeling the weight of my problems: lost job, alimony, home rent, creditor calls, doctor bills, car payments, depression, daily headaches, body pains, loneliness, and many other. I was awake indeed and wishing I could run away from it all.

I had been running a short time when, not far from where I was, I spotted a figure in pink. It was a little girl; she was dancing. It was a vigorous dance. She was pounding the ground with her feet. Her arms were flailing in the air. Sometimes she would bend forward at the torso and set her head in a spin, her reddish hair flinging in wild arcs, flames leaping from a conflagration. All of this was rhythmic, as if set to a metronome. And yet, I could hear no music, no melody. But I did recognize the dance. It was a dhamaal, the trance dance of the South Asian Sufi.

“What are you dancing to?” I shouted.

She stopped for a second and seemed surprised. “To the drums, of course,” she said.

“What drums?” I asked.

“They are all around,” she said.

Perhaps my heavy breathing from running was not letting me listen to the drumbeat. I stopped and concentrated. Nothing.

“I don’t hear anything,” I said to her.

“You don’t hear this music, silly, you feel it,” she said.

I looked down, shut my eyes, and concentrated harder. Still nothing.

I looked back at her. She had changed her dance. She was whirling now: the dance of the Mawlawiyah, the Whirling Dervishes.

“What are you doing now?” I said.

“Dancing to the music of the strings,” she said.

“Are you listening to an iPod,” I said, though I could see she had no earphones in place.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“There is no music here, you know,” I said. “No instruments, no musician, no composer. What tune are you dancing to?”

“We’re it,” she said. “Don’t you know it? You’re the composer, you the note; you’re the musician, you the tune; you’re the dancer, and you the dance.”

I focused on her words for a few moments and, to my utter amazement, a tune seemed to waft into my ears from all directions. The music was like a meld of violin and the Irish fiddle, classic and the impromptu. At first it scared me. I tried to run but I couldn’t. Then I began to whirl and noted that I had been lightened of all my burdens.

So I whirled and I whirled, and would have kept on whirling had it not been for all that noise around me. You see, I don’t know if I told you, it was the day of the annual regatta with all its attendant noises: roaring boat engines, shouting boat captains and makeshift cheerleaders, blaring music on the back decks of lakeshore restaurants, and the hum and buzz of hundreds of spectators.

Story and photo by Ali Hammad

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