The Dervish by Frances Kazan

DervishSo what is a dervish you might ask? And why does Frances Kazan use it as her book title?

“Are the Sufis and the dervishes the same?” I asked.

“The two are like the threads on a loom. She replied. “Different colours, varying textures interwoven together to make a single carpet of immeasurable beauty.”

Perhaps it symbolises the unknown aspect, that thing just beyond our rational ideas, the reason we do certain things that can’t be explained. Not quite insanity, but on the way towards it and yet it is also that part of our nature that makes us feel most alive, that promises to make life interesting. When we choose not to indulge it, our lives, in consequence are more predictable, more balanced and much less exciting.

The protagonist of Frances Kazan’s novel Mary is an artist who lives in New York and is looking back on that period in her life just after she became a young widow, her husband was killed in France in WWI in the Battle of the Somme. Restless in New York, she responds to her sister’s invitation to join them in Istanbul where Connie’s husband works for the American consulate. In the last days of her time in Istanbul, the dervish becomes her sole subject to draw and paint, something about these mystical humanists resonating within her psyche and manifesting in her drawings.


Halide Edib

The story is set in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire post World War I, the country is occupied by the British which has spawned the establishment of the Turkish Nationalist movement. While the Americans are Allies of the British, they aren’t directly involved and therefore must exercise cautious diplomacy with whom they make friends. They have tentative relations with Turkish nationalists, but political tensions in the city are high and the two sisters have been warned to stay close to the consulate.

Unlike her sister who listens to that advice, Mary refuses to stay behind the protective walls of the embassy; a new city that embraces so many languages and cultures beckons her. These daring excursions result in her becoming witness to the murder by a British officer of the young son of Turkish Nationalist and to her being wanted for questioning by the British Army.

This encounter is a turning point in her visit, after which she befriends the Turkish novelist and feminist political leader Halide Edib Adivar who supported Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk) in the resistance against the occupation of their country by a foreign power and she will also meet and more than befriend the father of the young man who was killed.

“I was born in the harem, in the same room as my mother and her mother before her. Once upon a time we felt safe within those old walls; I fear we dwelt in illusion.”

Mary’s is with Halide and her husband Dr. Adnan, who has been appointed as Minister of Health in recent elections, when they hear there is to be a coup d’etat, which put them all in danger and forced them to flee. It also resulted in a warrant for Mary’s arrest and set her off on an overland adventure with her friends.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

France Kazan has written this story around a subject that is clearly one of her passions in life, the history of the Ottoman Empire and many of the characters are real historical figures themselves. Not just a scholar of Turkish studies and an admirer of Halide Edib, but her late husband the film-maker Elia Kazan, was born in Istanbul. In his book and film by the same title, America America, he tells how, and why, his family left Turkey and moved to America.

It is an entertaining read, not too burdened with political and historical recounting. I found it a little difficult to believe the somewhat complicated relationship between Mary and Mustafa Pasha, and her decision to stay when her sister and husband decided to leave. Perhaps grief makes us less sensitive to risk and more inclined to reckless adventure.

And those whirling dervishes? I will leave the last words to Rumi:

Rumi, the founder of the Mevlevi Order in the 13th century said the dancing dervishes represent the solar system and the planets that revolve around the sun. At the same time that they are immersed in their own microcosmos, they create new worlds and make contact with eternity.

The fact that humans can join the choreography of the cosmos by dancing to its rhythm is an awareness that humanity has had since ancient times. One can say that all dance, in a certain way, is yielding the body to the earth’s movement. Slowly, as the body sways and the blood rhythm changes, consciousness also changes. With the revolution paralleling that of the cosmos, the mind assumes a freedom from the earthly bondage. It would be as though the mind begins to concentrate on the depth of existence on its own, while the body has been given away to the earth.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided kindly by the publisher via NetGalley.