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The French dervish takes on online transcendence

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One of the few female Whirling Dervishes in the world, Rana Gorgani opened Sufism to a wider audience and is now making surprising spiritual connections on Zoom thanks to the pandemic.

Franco-Iranian Gorgani, 37, viewed the whirlpool – a kind of “moving meditation” through which the Sufis seek to commune with the divine – as something that should remain behind closed doors.

Although she grew up in France, she was introduced to the practice during a visit to Iran, a place where Sufis are often persecuted by authorities and dance in general is frowned upon.

She had never intended to perform the whirling in public – it was something normally reserved for men.

But about ten years ago, she decided she wanted to share her beauty with a festival audience in Montpellier.

“After a few minutes, I panicked and stopped for a few seconds. It felt like I was breaking a rule,” she recalls. “But I started spinning again and I heard a thunderous applause, and I was like ‘everything is fine’.”

When people came to see her after the show with tears in their eyes to thank her, she realized this was something she wanted to pursue full time.

– ‘Extremely intense’ –

The Sufi whirlwind, sometimes known by the Arabic name of Sama (meaning “to listen”), sees the performers twirl in distinctive broad robes in a rhythmic rotation that reflects the movement of the Earth around the Sun.

It is more than a dance, said Gorgani – “it is a prayer, an act of devotion to the divine”.

A traditional part of Sufism, especially in Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, it is normally only practiced by women when they are separated from men.

But for Gorgani, in Sufism – a more spiritual approach to Islam founded by the followers of the 13th century spiritual poet Jalal al-Din Rumi – the soul is neither male nor female.

Being a woman and a dervish “doesn’t go against this spirituality,” she said. “In Europe, I am lucky to be able to express myself artistically and freely.”

Her parents fled Iran after the revolution, and it was during her first visit there at the age of 14 that Gorgani became interested in Sufism. She has since participated in many ceremonies in Iran and Turkey, but often in secret.

Now her performance has been forced online by the pandemic, but she has been “touched and moved” by the number of people trying to find out more about Sama.

Her first Zoom course, during the first confinement in France, attracted a hundred people and the number has continued to grow as she performs with each new and full moon.

To his surprise, the experience was “extremely intense”, with participants saying they had a deep need for meaning and connection.

“I think I’ve helped some people turn out to be something,” she said.

Well rooted in her studies of anthropology of music and dance, she nonetheless enjoys mixing the soundtrack, opting not only for traditional Sufi music, but also for live piano and even traditional French tunes like those of Jacques. Brel.

“Everywhere I find a state of grace,” she said.

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