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The Whirling Dervish

January 30, 2011

I was in Kyrgyzstan, and a Dutch man named Dervish and a dreaded dude were playing dueling didgeridoos.

It was not a dream. It was not an exercise in alliteration. It was really happening.

Only my friend Aiday could craft such a scene. Her smile is like sunshine, and it seems she has used it to attract all of the strangest, most warm-hearted people in Bishkek to her with its hypnotic power. Today, Aiday’s crew of hippies had collected for an impromptu concert in a small yoga studio in an apartment building basement, and their free-loving attitude was a breath of fresh air. Outside, the general populus offered me little to like. There were lots of foul-mouthed teenagers and doltish thugs, taxi drivers ready to rip me off and babushkas giving me nasty stares. Rough-mannered boys with sun-stained cheeks fresh from rural poverty  (mirks, they were called) mingled with dolled-up Kyrgyz girls who could speak only in Slavic (chaikas). Sitting underground, though, with my new drone-playing friends, this nasty portrait was soon forgotten. Something strange was happening here. During their performance, the didge players would try resting their blown-out cheeks, but they would almost immediately blow out again with ceaseless smiles. There were some good vibes in the air, man.

When the main performer, Dervish, had walked in the room, he was like a sage coming in from the wilderness. His hair was long and unruly, silver like the beard that warmed up his face. Right in the middle of all that fuzz a soft smile seemed like a permanent fixture. He hugged the first person he saw, because that’s what you did in this carved-out corner of the world. You gave hugs and smiled. Mid-hug he started droning from deep within his throat like it was the most natural expression of happiness a man could make. Maybe it’s just how all didgeridoo players greet each other. In any case, it drew the room to him like some sort of love siren, and all were entranced. I turned to my friend and found myself saying, “Aiday, I think I love this guy.”

After dispensing some hugs, Dervish walked across the room and bowed in front of a framed portrait of a beatific Indian. The man was Osho, a new-age mystic best known in the states for taking over central Oregon with thousands of his followers, who then went on to poison local salad bars with salmonella. To this Dutchman, however, Osho was a spiritual guide and an object of worship. Dervish lived in an Osho commune in the Netherlands, and there he had perfected the Sufi art of meditative whirling – spinning around in circles to achieve a sort of spiritual high. Practitioners of this art are called dervishes, so when he was initiated into Osho’s community he took this as his new name. In some strange twist of fate, the owner and frequenters of this very yoga studio were also Sufi-spinning Osho-lovers, and this mutual devotion had lured him from the lowlands of Holland to the high mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

As if eccentricities come in threes, our Sufi-spinning Osho-loving Dutchman was also a didgeridoo player. In fact, he crafted his own – he said he had made over three hundred didgeridoos with his own hands. He had brought one of his creations with him for the performance, and without much ado he sat down, closed his eyes, and blew into it with all of his breath. Out came a drone so deep it shook our souls, and for fifteen minutes it never stopped. Using a kind of circular breathing technique, Dervish was able to suck air in through his nose and blow it out through his mouth so that the drone kept droning without pause. It was like a continuous “om,” and the free spirits in the studio fell into a trance. I had never thought of the possibility of using this aboriginal instrument for inducing meditation, but now it seemed obvious.

Eventually, the drone doubled as the dreaded dude joined in. He was a friend of Aiday’s, and had a story all his own.  First name Sasha, last name Nguyen, he was the product of a communist romance. A Vietnamese soldier had come to Soviet Kyrgyzstan for training and fell in love with a local Russian. He never went back to his homeland, but stayed and started a family. Now his son was a Kyrgyzstan hippie, and he played a mean didgeridoo. Sasha liked to beatbox and he would insert his percussive clicks somehow into the drone, until the beat and the dueling didges collided into one fat jam. The meditators didn’t just sit still and stare at their navels. They swayed back and forth to the rhythms of the beat, smiling and digging the groove.

At the end of the session, we sat in a circle and talked about our feelings, as hippies are keen to do. Multiple people said that, in the midst of all the droning glee, they could feel the grace of their Indian guide. Dervish put it most memorably. “Now there are only three words I want to say,” he announced. “And those three words are: Thank. You. Osho.” He seemed genuinely at peace, and I tried not to think of salad bars.

Before I left I wanted to tell him goodbye, but he was unavailable. He had left this plane of existence. Spinning in circles, his arms in the air, Dervish’ eyes were closed to the world and his mouth was spread in a smile. There was no drone but the one in his head. I stood and watched for a while, curious that one man could contain such happiness and wishing it were in me too. As I went out the door, the whirling Dervish looked like he would never stop; he would spin and spin into eternity.

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