Chants of “Laa illaha ill-Allah” (There is no god but Allah), and “Allah huwa huwa” (He is God) echoed at the Desert Ashram in southern Israel at the 2013 Sufi Festival last weekend. The prayer fit its settings perfectly, as hundreds of Israelis reproduced its rhythms in a desert oasis surrounded by a vast expanse of empty space.
“The festival was a real experience, with music, workshops, and a special energy we have never felt before, managing to hold a genuine and unique connection between the guests as one community, one tribe,” one of the festivals producers, Kohra Yuval Itach, told The Jerusalem Post.
Intimate stages played host to traditional performances of Sufi music with a modern twist. The music was given another dimension as the audience engaged in workshops, seminars, and dance sessions intended to enlighten and explain.
“The festival produced the idea that the audience [member] is really participating in what’s happening, whether he dances or not, and he is really able to have a direct experience,” Itach enthusiastically said.
With masterclasses in six different compounds continuing throughout the weekend, guests were encouraged to open their minds to a new kind of experience. The seminars focused on the mystical way, and included discussions about great Sufi masters such as Jelaluddin Rumi and Yunus Emre. Beyond the classes were dance and singing workshops, where festival-goers could learn to swirl like a whirling dervish, authentically demonstrated by Harel Shahal and the Turkish Music Ensemble. Guests could also practice mystical eastern dance traditions through sacred movement, dancing the trance of release.
The workshops bound participants together, forming a community of beating hearts that were liberated on the dance-floor during vigorous and intense musical performances that bordered on the ritualistic. It became clear that the popular trance scene that exists in Israel has its roots in the ecstasy-inducing music of Sufi tradition.
But what draws trance-loving Israelis to a festival devoted to a mystical strand of Islam?
According to the festival organizers, the scene does not attract the mainstream, and is intended for those seeking a different path rooted in spiritualism.
Festival organizer and musician Gil Ron Sama explained: “Many Jews are Sufis without knowing it. This [Sufi] knowledge was practiced in countries that became Muslim, but it is not Muslim, it’s knowledge.”
Sufism is perceived in the Western world as a form of Islam that can counter the forces of extremism, holding a cultural and religious importance through its espousal of peace and tolerance. This goes far to explain its attraction for the ‘non-mainstream’ Israelis, who may seek new ways and solutions from which to understand and address the regional conflict.
The organizers were keen to distance themselves from the religious elements of Sufism, with both Sama and Itach explaining that Sufism began before Islam as a form of tribal tradition that is more ancient than Islam itself.
Itach told The Post that Sufism is gaining ground for those in search of spiritualism and peace of mind, with its teachings and practices becoming popular among Israeli musicians, dancers and followers alike in what he termed a type of ‘Neo-Sufism.’
“You don’t have to be a Muslim to be a Sufi,” Itach says, adding, “Sufis existed before Islam, it is just a name, but the idea behind it is about devotion, what is around you.”
Spiritual devotion was certainly present in the deep and wondrous musical performances by Israeli and international musicians who were inspired by Sufi philosophy, which advocates gathering for the purpose of realizing the ideals of mysticism through the ritual of listening to music (sama). In the traditional performances of dhikr (remembrance) ceremonies, musicians collectively recited Gods name, producing a powerful rhythm designed to arouse mystical love and even divine ecstasy – the central experience of Sufism.
Such traditions were expressed in many performances; while others took a more new-age take on an ancient tradition. Gerhard Fankhauser and Einat Gilboa, for example, voiced their healing world music by leading participants in an empowering chant. At the peak of the performance, rain began to fall during a strong sandstorm in what became a heightened magical moment for the festival.
A rare and exhilarating performance came in the form of a new album entitled ‘SOOF’ by the renowned Middle Eastern band ‘Sheva’ and ‘Diwan HaLev,’ who performed their first personal album at the festival.
SOOF is a multicultural project born and recorded during founder Sama’s travels from the Red Sea to Africa. The performance was compiled of nine songs in different languages and a varied spectrum of instruments in what culminated in a rare mix of Sufi sounds.
Sama said that although SOOF is a social, mystical and musical visual project, it is also a political one. “By sharing the ways and colors of different cultures, we are countering extremism.” The project’s arrival during the Arab Spring, Sama says, is an example of its part in a shared consciousness to awaken “love, inspiration and culture in the street, as a way to celebrate tribal beauty, wisdom and ethnicity through the wonder of our differences.”
“When I sing in Hebrew, and my friend in Arabic, and then another in Farsi, we are uniting the beauty of the languages,” Sama explained.
Talking about his inspiration for the festival, Sama declared: “Music and art is a way to connect. In any other layer, in any other place, if I want to meet an Iranian, or a Syrian, and do something on any social, religious or political level, it will be a disaster. But music brings layers of harmony we have to obey above our own identities.”
The founders of the festival had a vision; to travel a path of music, poetry and rhythm to discover the bridges that connect us all, away from the confines of religious structure and fanaticism.
Commenting on the dhikr ceremony performed by twelve members of the Qawalli Group at the end of the festival, founder Itach said that it "felt as though an ancient ceremony was taking place at the Bet HaMikdash." This perfectly represented the feel of the festival, taking the essence of Sufism out of its religious context and into a decidedly Israeli stage.