Searching for Sufis

"I found no Sufis, just confusion."

"I found no Sufis, just confusion."

Istanbul, Turkey, Autumn 1992: I withdraw a thousand dollars from the last ATM for 3,000 miles and hide it all over my body. I am a novice American reporter out of Jerusalem, a town full of big-time correspondents — bottomless expense accounts, satellite phones, prime ministers’ home numbers. They are always rushing off to meet nuclear arms traffickers or Muammar Qadaffi at his private compound. A lowly stringer, I never get invites.

I was no good at pack journalism, anyway. It was time to begin a mission of my own: Crossing four or five civil wars in newly independent Central Asia to find a Sufi master.

I was raised with two religions, neither one Islamic: Judaism and Zionism. In fact, I’m a not-so-distant relative of Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion. Probably it was rebelliousness, but I’d always felt a gravitational pull towards the Arab and Muslim side of things. Late in 1992, with Communism’s fall, I suspected that, as two minorities (“nationalities” was the preferred Soviet term), the Jews and the Muslims were heading for interesting times. Central Asia was also appealing as the birthplace of Sufism — mystical, ecstatic, meditative Islam. I’d read that Sufi mathematics, medicine, and poetry, developed in the medieval courts of Avignon and Andalusia, had spread from there to permeate Europe’s Enlightenment. Sufi masters were jesters and folk heroes. Carl Jung equated their mental-healing techniques with psychotherapy.

And how about this: Through the centuries, wherever Sufism held sway — like Ottoman Turkey — Jews could find safe haven. If I could find a Sufi, I thought, I could approach him with genuine respect, bringing my own real curiosity about mysticism, and produce for American newspaper readers a kind of encounter that might help them understand Islam in a different way than a demonizing story about a radical hostage-taker or half-crazed suicide attacker ever could. And if not, well, Judaism reserves its mystical texts and practices for old male scholars who’ve mastered everything else. Perhaps the more tolerant Sufis would open a door for me.

There was little sanctuary, however, in Istanbul. The Berlin Wall’s fall had launched millions of Eastern Bloc youth into almost an outer-space orbit — homeless, penniless, stateless, jobless, confused. Many had ended up here. I gathered courage for my journey from Mari, a skinny Romanian maid in my cheap pensione. We were both 26, empty inside, tethered to nothing. She’d gone weeks without food, determined not to cave in to the pimps and the brothels, yet I was the one feeling depressed. She had the guts to believe in her destiny. Now it was my turn.

Much later, a Sufi would tell me that waking up with an overpowering feeling of being drawn toward your destiny is completely natural and normal. Once awakened, you must jump in, “learn how to swim,” according to the symbolism of one teaching story. Pursue adventure, guided by love. Knights’ quests are rooted in this: both chivalric customs and wandering troubadours’ love laments come to us from the Sufis of Islamic Spain.

In an icy drizzle, I hugged Mari good-bye and booked a third-class sleeper going east. I spent my last hours drifting around Istanbul’s antique book bazaar, pondering my crazy quest.

The odds were long. It was unclear, first, whether any Sufis had survived Stalin. They were persecuted for centuries — by Crusaders in the Levant, by the Inquisition in Iberia. They were hunted down on their home turf only in the 20th century, when the Communists took power. From 1917 to about 1929, the Sufis inspired Islamic rebels (the Russians called them basmachi –– bandits) to fight the modern era’s first jihad. In response, the Red Army bulldozed 4,000 Central Asian mosques and shrines.

I wandered into a charming old courtyard, down a short flight of stone stairs rubbed round by centuries of slippers. One small, cozy shop beckoned. Inside, a dark-eyed, bearded young man with a velvety buzz cut sat on a stool. Soggy and getting cold feet in every sense, I pulled up to his stove and spilled my story. The empty feeling. The weird quest. The frightening bloodletting on my intended route.

Karabakh, for example, was the scene of terrible mutual slaughter between Azeris and Armenians — neighbors, former friends, mob attacks, scorched earth, tens of thousands had fled. There was also a lot of death and displacement in Georgia, which was a lawless and frightening place, lots of organized crime violence, murder just for the money. Also in Abkhzia, Daghestan. And the civil war in Tajikistan displaced about one quarter of the population.

In perfect English, the shopkeeper said to be careful, but he didn’t try to dissuade me. Then he leaned over his dusty books and, without a word, fastened something to the front of my sweater: a bunch of tiny plastic grapes surrounded by little blue, white, silver, and purple beads, threaded onto a mini gold safety pin.

Travelers’ suitcases often jingle with little amulets, and I had my share, but more as kitsch than out of real belief. A quarter-sized medal of St. George (patron saint of travelers) buried somewhere. A gold-plated hand-of-Fatima, a Moroccan-Jewish pendant, in another pouch. The grapes, I assumed, were some kind of Turkish good-luck charm. I had little opportunity to think more about it — hours later, I was sitting between exhausted Armenians hauling crates of cooking oil and chickens on an old Turkish train rumbling toward the long-closed Iron Curtain, into the bowels of a disintegrating empire.

That night, our train smacked into a winter storm over Mount Ararat, where the Bible says Noah’s Ark made landfall. Like the Ark, we stalled in the weather, though the blizzard lasted only two days. I shared my high-tech sleeping bag with an elfin teenage Armenian priest-in-training. At night, he sang lullabies of haunting liturgy.

When the storm lifted, I got moving again. And I searched for my Sufis. In wintry Armenia and Georgia, bombed buildings smoldered. In Azerbaijan, leaking refineries stank of oil. I visited mosques, shrines, and grave sites. In Daghestan, Turkmenistan, there was little heat, medicine, or fuel. In the breadlines, Soviet scarcity had turned into full-blown hunger. Three months passed without a Sufi in sight.

In Uzbekistan, I lunched with the leader of a banned Islamic movement. The future he envisioned had no room for pluralism, no place for the resident Russians and even less room for Bukharan Jews, whose houses of worship, even skullcaps, could pass for those of the Muslims. The Bukharans wanted what he wanted, peace and quiet, to worship and to prosper. But he didn’t see it that way. I began accepting, then, that I wouldn’t find Sufis. Only the vacuum, the intolerance, growing in their absence.

Towards the end I reached Ferghana, a valley of failing farms where the basmachi had once held fast. Now, again, it was embattled. Soldiers had opened fire there on Islamic demonstrators, jailed and disappeared students (and would again, later, in 2005, killing thousands in cold blood). I met one young man patiently repairing a ruined mosque. He’d learned the Koran as a child from a wandering teacher who would gather up the village children in a barn. Parents paid the old man with bags of rice and lodging.

A Sufi! I thought, feeling the trail finally get warm. Perhaps I’d find him after all.

But the old man, he said, was long gone. The youth had new mentors: the Saudis, and perhaps Pakistan and Iran, according to other farmers’ reports. It seemed to be a replay of what had happened during the 1980s, when the U.S. used those countries to flood the region with holy books — packed in the same cases as weapons, destined for the Soviet-Afghan war. The legacy of such gifts, we now know, was Osama bin Laden.

Were the Sufis complicit? Had they simply died out?

My last stop was the Pamirs, Kipling’s “Rooftop of the World,” home to shaggy black Bactrian camels, where and sacred yak tails fluttering on stakes, towering animist prayer flags. Russian pilots were strafing the villages. The goal was to flush out Islamists, but it was mothers and children I met, fleeing down trails waist-deep in snow. But it turned out the rebels were up there, too. I hitched a ride on a farm cart bringing them fresh supplies of shoulder-fired missiles. They were holed up in an abandoned village’s police station, wearing frankly theatrical gold-lame turbans and bandoliers strapped across flowing black blouses. These men were Soviet-schooled soldiers, experts in war, not piety. What they wanted was funds, political power, resources.

I’d been five months on the road and had found no Sufis. Just confusion and strife.

It was just before spring. I’d already had several run-ins with the Uzbek KGB and now they’d begun deporting reporters. My time was up, which meant facing the facts. I’d documented intolerance. Filing stories that brought attention to little-known cases of human suffering had restored my sense of purpose. In a sense, I’d succeeded. But what the hell was I thinking? That some weathered old Sufi, a master for decades at evading the secret police, would suddenly emerge after 70 years underground just for me?

But guess what? I’d been hoodwinked.

I met an American diplomat, perhaps a spook. Certainly a senior Asia hand, fluent in Turkish, Farsi, and Urdu, a former academic with a PhD in Persian literature. He noticed my little grapes amulet, still faithfully pinned to my only sweater. He asked where I’d gotten it and I explained.

“In the book bazaar? You mean the little shop on the left? Down the stairs?”

Yes. But how did he know?

The diplomat was an expert on classical Persian poetry, most of it religious, so he knew the Sufis well. Where I’d met the handsome bookseller, he said, was the understated headquarters of a Sufi order that had inspired the basmachi. The ones I’d set out to find. I thought I’d found no Sufis, yet they had found me, before the train I’d taken to reach them had even left the station. Hidden so well, I didn’t notice even when he pinned his logo right above my heart.

Jesters, indeed. He had made me the fool in a mystical fable. I could find what I was after only by looking at myself.

Later, of course, more questions arise. For example: Why grapes? One answer came in Sheikh Idries Shah’s book The Sufis, which has a whole chapter called “The Travelers and the Grapes.” It includes this famous Sufi tale:

Four traveling companions, one Persian, one Arab, one Greek and one Turk, become hungry. With just a coin between them, they begin to argue.

“I want angur,” says the Persian.

“I want uzum,” says the Turk.

“I want inab,” says the Arab.

“But I want stafil,” says the Greek.

A Sufi takes their coin and shortly, returns with grapes – angur in Persian, uzum in Turkish, inab in Arabic, stafil in Greek.

It spoke to me of my quest, of the splintering nations that are the legacy of the post-Cold War world. And of this country’s pervasive, post-9/11 concern with the “enemy religion.”

We’re all seeking something greater, the Sufi says. It is only our surface differences — and a world that can resemble a pile-up of horrors — that blind us to the essential sameness of our need.

A Sufi might call this common need a drive toward union with the divine. The secular might call it the drive for wisdom, or peace. Reporters call it a great story. If your turn of mind is therapeutic, it’s healing. They all begin in self-knowledge. Look down at the pin, you rookie.

Jill Hamburg Coplan teaches journalism at New York University and is writing a novel set in the Middle East and Central Asia.