Cairo's whirling dervishes

Many visitors to Cairo are familiar with the whirling dervishes — the stylized spinning dancers who perform across the city at cultural centers, cruise ships, hotels and weddings.

The art form draws its roots from the ecstatic movements of Sufi Muslim mystics seeking a state of delirious oneness with God.

But Amr el-Toney, founder of the Mawlawiyah dervish dance troupe, says there are also parallels to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

El-Toney says there is evidence painted on the walls of temples and tombs that ancient Egyptian mystics would also whirl in circles as a form of meditation. Later, the 13th century Islamic scholar and Sufi mystic Jalaleddin Rumi used musical instruments and complex body movements for a similar purpose, and formed the original Mawlawiyah fraternity of Sufi Muslim mystics.

El-Toney's crew is more of a crowd-pleasing dance troupe than any sort of religious order, but he says the roots and the inspiration of the ancient Mawlawiyah shine through.

"We aim to keep the balance between the Sufi recitations and modern signing style, looking to leave our own heritage to the coming generations," el-Toney said. "All of the words of our recitations are about loving God."

Religious devotion is at the heart of almost everything. The spinning of the dervish dancers is partially meant to symbolize the way Muslim pilgrims performing the Hajj pilgrimage ritually circle the cube-shaped Kabaa in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, el-Toney said. Even the name of the troupe comes from the Arabic word "mawlana" which means "our lord" — a reference to God.

The dancers themselves earn between 100 and 250 Egyptian pounds (between $13 and $32) per performance. But many of them describe it as far more than just a job.

"I'm ready to dance for free, especially with the Mawlawiyah dervishes," said troupe members Ali Taha. "While whirling I feel like a white bird flying in the sky."

 


 

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Text from the AP news story, AP PHOTOS: Cairo's dervishes spin for their supper, by Amr Nabil.

 

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Nat Castañeda is an interdisciplinary visual artist based in Brooklyn, New York. A California native, Castañeda works primarily in video and collage, with an emphasis on tactile intimacy with her materials remaining an important aspect of all her projects. Common issues in Castañeda’s work are the conflating of iconography and pornography, the questioning of traditional gender binaries, and the role of technology within personal narratives. She received her MFA from the School of Visual Arts and has shown at venues such as El Museo del Barrio and Electronic Arts Intermix. In addition to her art practice, Castañeda currently works at The Associated Press where she leads a team that curates AP's online archive of historic and contemporary photojournalism. Castañeda’s photography has appeared in the New York Times,U.S. News & World Report and USA Today.