The grand connection
A rare glimpse into the ceremonies of the Ghaderi
Derwishes of Kurdistan
Robin Jayne Goldsmith
December 7, 2004
Last year the Tehran-born and Los Angeles-based independent filmmaker
Jahanshah Ardalan finally released "Beyond Words," documenting
the ceremonies of the Ghaderi Derwishes of Saghez over a period
of eight years from 1991 to 1999. The secrecy of such ceremonies
is well known. But, as grandson of the last "Khan-i-Gowra" ("Great
Khan" in Kurdish) of much of Iranian Kurdistan, and because
of the relationship he developed with the Khalifa, or leader of
the Sufi group, the filmmaker was permitted a length and intimacy
of access that are probably unprecedented. "Beyond Words" is
thus a compelling and particularly visceral experience, placing
the viewer smack in the heart of their ceremonies as the Derwishes,
through chanting, drumming, and dancing, achieve ecstatic states
which open them up to the command of divine Love.
Love has many ways of commanding them. But whether they "draw
blades" upon themselves in what appear as acts of sometimes
extreme violence, form healing circles to cure the sick, or become
statue-like in states psychologists would probably describe as
catatonic, we are right there with them. And while we cannot travel
with them into their inner world (or is theirs a larger, more outer
world than the one we normally know?), we do come close, as close,
it often feels, as the director himself during the shooting. We
hear not only their groans but their panting breath, we see-feel,
taste-their beads of sweat, in sustained close-ups of these ordinary
men in extraordinary states. It can be a pretty gritty film. Yet
throughout this percussive, convulsive, and downright messy business
of Love, the calm, deliberate narration of the director guides
us, replaced at times by that of the Khalifa, in excerpts from
interviews skillfully interwoven with the footage.
"Beyond Words" opens with an exploration of Jahan's
personal relationship to Kurdistan: the history of his family there-the
oldest documented one in Iran, he tells us, dating back to 1006--and
his own childhood visits where he became intrigued by the stories
he heard about the Ghaderi order. He next takes us with him on
the bus ride en route to his first visit to the tekya (prayer house);
then, in a tour de force of editing, telescopes eight years of
footage into one ceremony; and ends with a musing on the commonality
between this particular ceremony and others throughout the world.
Scenes of different spiritual rituals of great, fragile beauty
unfold, interspersed with the earthy, gritty images with which
we have become familiar. Yet they all roll organically into each
other and Jahan reflects:
"We seem to be seeking in one way or another a connection
to something grand, something omnipresent, that is the source of
all power. This seeking is like a reply to our innermost call.
Our replies are many but the call is only one." Thus, a journey
begun in the personal ends in the cosmic-there where hopefully
a new journey for the viewer may begin.
THE JOY OF DISCOVERY
The promotional material for "Beyond Words" quotes
Marcel Proust: "The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeing
new lands but in seeing with new eyes." Prior to the genesis
of this article, I'd gotten to know Jahan fairly well through extensive
bi-coastal communications (New York/LA) via e-mail and phone. He
actually calls that voyage "the joy of discovery," and
had once described those on it to me as flying over a vast plain,
Jesuses released from their Crosses, their arms still flung in
the same wide-open position. An endless state of becoming,
So I shouldn't have been so surprised when, when I asked him
to talk about the history of his family in the land once known
as Ardalan Principality for this article, he replied that if there's
one thing he learned during the eight years of shooting this film,
it is that individual identity is not important. The essence of
Sufism is to open our perceptions beyond the illusion of separateness,
and that is what those years mean to him. Who he is, what his background
is--it simply doesn't matter. The material about his family in
the film (old photos, maps, his vast family tree), he insisted,
is there for documentary purposes--to show why he was granted such
extensive access to the ceremonies when so many were denied any
at all. I persisted. Might not it be important for the readers
of "Persian Heritage," in their quest for an Iranian
identity at this crossroads, to hear his perspective as scion of
their oldest family, the eldest son of the eldest son of the Khan-i-Gowra
of Ardalan? No doubt, he agreed, but that is the subject of another
film, another article.
I'd also expected to get some insights into Sufism within its
historical framework in Iran. Jahan's knowledge of Iranian history,
I know, is not only broad in scope but more significantly, trenchant
in depth. But in the one formal e-mail Q&A we had for this
article, responding to a question about the making of the film,
he wrote: "I started the film with the intention of making
another documentary in the old sense of the word. A cold, informative,
non-personal reportage. The more time went by, the more I realized
that this approach would not be close to my heart. I just didn't
want to make another typical documentary which starts with 'The
Qaderi (Ghaderi) order of the Derwishes started back in the...
' If you want that kind of information, go read a book on them.
There are a few good ones out there. If you want to get a feel
for what it's like to be there, then watch 'Beyond Words.'"
That assessment proves to be sweeping. The message of the film
is experiential and so should the focus of this article be, he
feels. But it's awfully difficult to translate the Derwishes' voyage
of discovery, or their joy, on the path of divine Love into words.
After all, doesn't the Khalifa himself tell us in the film, "Love
is such that it cannot be defined in words"?
THEY DO AS LOVE COMMANDS
The Sufis' ceremony, Jahan tells us, is about the breaking down
of an old order and its replacement with a new one. He conveys
this process symbolically by delicately placing the ceremony within
the film like a picture, as it were, framed in breaking glass.
Riding that bus with him en route to his first visit to the tekya,
he focuses the camera straight ahead and mostly we see Kurdistan
through a windshield in shards, precariously held together with
thick tape. What began as a small crack is progressively colonizing
the entire windshield, obscuring our view and his. Desperate attempts
to patch it are decisively thwarted by the blistering winds of
an unseasonal blizzard. The windshield is all but shattered. When
finally we do enter the tekya, Jahan stresses how at the beginning
of the ceremony, everything is structured and codified, but as
the drumming and dancing speed up, the Derwishes let their hair
down, and their chants become incomprehensible, a new order takes
over within the apparent frenzy.
They appear to depart from normal space as they enter their states
of ecstasy. The drumming and dancing reach a feverish pitch and
we witness those acts we've heard about. They hammer nails into
their heads, swallow razor blades, stab themselves with knives
which penetrate their inner organs; we're so close we can feel
it. Some who have viewed the film have found the violence disturbing.
Even Jahan, in his narration, tells us at first, "I'm having
a hard time finding the relationship between the Sufi teachings
of Love and compassion with what I'm seeing." Yet the Khalifa
assures us that there is order in this process: "This is about
the Love within a human being. Any time that Love within shows
a glimpse of that state to a person, that person is no longer in
control. He has to do what he is ordered to do." "It
is," he explains, "a battle with the Ego." If we
cannot fathom that new order within the seeming chaos of the movements,
we may perhaps within the depths of the shining, transfixed eyes
of many of the enraptured.
Jahan tells us that he comes to understand that the seeming violence
is not about self-mutilation, but to "demonstrate the power
of a divine being in every human being" and "to shift
the definition one has of oneself... The Sufis believe that one's
biggest enemy is found within and nowhere else... .Surrounded by
spiritually aligned seekers, ordered by Love, and fueled by the
sound of the daf, the everlasting battle goes on... In that state
they all unite as one. The power of that oneness, they say, is
what carries them on that journey."
In the Q&A I'd asked Jahan whether he'd used only one ceremony
or several in the film. His reply: "The footage you see in
the ceremony is a compilation of all those years... It's not just
one ceremony. That's why you see people who look different from
shot to shot. This is very evident in the case of the Khalifa himself.
In some shots he has greyish hair in some other ones his hair is
completely white." Yes, and in some he wears a turban and
in others not. Yet having already viewed the film several times,
it still seemed to me like one ceremony. This is of course a tribute
to Jahan's masterful editing, but I can't help wondering if perhaps
on some level we are supposed to see the ceremony that way... as
a new order existing outside of ordinary time and space. Eight
years telescoped into one eternal ceremony of rapture.
After that ceremony ends, while musing on that common search
for the "source of all power" in all those different
spiritual rituals, Jahan evokes Rumi (Molavi): "Many words
in this world mean the same. The water in different containers
becomes one, once the containers are all broken." The glass,
the old order, has fully shattered, revealing the essential Oneness
of Being. The film ends.
THE REALM OF INTENTIONS
"Beyond Words" was shot over eight years and took two
more to edit with a two year hiatus in between. When in that Q&A
I asked Jahan about this unusually long period, he had this to
say: "When I started shooting this film I had no idea it would
take that long just to shoot it and collect the footage. Maybe
if I knew how long it would take, I would have not done it. I'm
glad I didn't know when I started it. I did not have a specific
timeline in mind. I started this film with the intention of getting
some answers to my own questions. The more I saw, the more questions
arose. However I tried to avoid sounding like I have answers to
questions in my film. Just brief mentions of what the overall intentions
are. Matters of spirituality are subject to interpretations, especially
when they had to be under the protective covers of religions...
As for the two-year hiatus: "What happened on September
11th, 2001 froze me for quite some time. Considering the mood in
this country and in most of the world, I thought showing a group
of Muslims stabbing themselves could easily be interpreted in the
wrong way. That would have been completely against what I wanted
to achieve. I neither want to praise nor condone what they do in
the ceremony. But I don't want it to be misunderstood either. It
took me a while to realize that NOW more than ever is the time
for the message of this film. The ceremonies and rituals in any
and all cultures are created and performed to convey a message.
It's very much like pregnancy. It has a period that it has to complete.
No matter how hard you try, you cannot give birth to a healthy
child while you are only four months pregnant. And when your full
term is up and you are ready to deliver, nothing stops you." So
the film itself became a ceremony, which had to follow its own
internal rhythms and order.
"While gathering my thoughts on how to approach this film," he
continues, "I also realized a certain pattern that keeps occurring
in my life and that is somehow being a witness to ceremonies of
people who are not part of the mainstream religion of their land.
When I encounter a Brazilian woman in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro
at the height of her ecstasy or rapture at a Voodoo ceremony doing
the exact same thing as a Kurdish man in Saghez or a Jane monk
in Rajasthan or Buddhist monk in Nepal, that makes me stop and
wonder. It's these moments of wonder that make it worthwhile for
me. The joy of first hand discovery. The joy of going beyond the
ceremonies and the ritual and into the realm of intentions. The
film and I grew together ... As I mentioned when I first started
shooting this film it was going to be a different film. My focus,
as well as the world around me, changed quite a bit in those twelve
years. As did I."
I met Jahan face to face only once, in Los Angeles during the
writing of this article. As with all our communications, there
were many memorable things about that encounter, but most memorable
for me would be the moment when, in the kitchen preparing me my
nth cup of coffee, he burst into this spontaneous translation of
Like an embryo in the womb I grow on blood.
Once is a human being born; I have been born many times.
Look at me as much as you wish and you shall not recognize me
For I will have transformed a hundred times from what you last
"That," he says excitedly, "is what I mean by
the joy of discovery."-- the transformation that happens at
every moment in a person's life whose eyes are fully open. This
is not the calm, measured voice I know from the phone and the film.
It is a more urgent, and somehow richer, voice. The conversation,
as usual, takes many turns. At one point I ponder why so many Iranians
of a certain Mazdean stripe seem to cherish the myth that everything
was perfect before the Arabs came, as if the last 1400 years were
just somehow one big giant mistake. Jahan reminds me that in all
cultures most people look back to a Golden Age, adding, somewhat
wryly, that perhaps by looking backwards they hope to avoid looking
forward toward their deaths. Then suddenly, passionately, urgently:
" But I want people to know that Utopia is now! Every moment
is the moment of discovery, of limitless potential." Hs eyes
are now ablaze. "Utopia is now!"
I understand now why the Khalifa told him, when they parted at
the end of their last meeting, that he had only allowed him to
document the ceremonies because "I saw something in your eyes
that goes beyond words. And that's what it's all about."
Months before that, in one of our typical telephone "Iranathons." Jahan
stunned me when he commented with calm self-assurance, "We
Iranians needed this Revolution." At first it lands like a
physical blow. Then suddenly, intuitively, I understand Still,
his equanimity is unsettling and I blurt out, "But what about
what comes after the Revolution?, all kinds of nightmare scenarios
rapidly flooding my head. "Whatever comes after," he
chuckles-that quiet, reassuring laugh. "It doesn't matter.
One thousand years of toying with theocracy. Now we have it. And
now we know." Confidently, matter-of-factly. "We needed
He was speaking, although of course I couldn't have possibly
put it in these words at that time, of another Iran, a more fundamental
one. Of Iran as embryo in the Oneness of Being, in an ongoing process
of transformation. Not an Iran with an identity, but only a becoming.
An Iran, arms flung wide open, growing in the womb, on the voyage
of her own discovery.
I hope that he is right.
Yet I cannot help but wonder how anyone could so telescope time
as to perceive Molavi's delicate unfolding, not only within the
lives of "individuals", but within the entire history
of a people-and given their current heart-wrenching convulsions-with
such humor, such optimism, and such patience, unless...
Unless that person had an historical legacy, that is, an identity,
that was very... old... as old as, say, the grandson of the last
Khan-i-Gowra of Ardalan...
But that is the subject of another film, another article.
* See photos
* "Beyond Words" website: BeyondWordsFilm.com