French-Iranian dervish whirls her way online

Rana Gorgani describes Sufi whirling, also known by the Arabic name Sama, as an act of prayer and devotion.
Rana Gorgani describes Sufi whirling, also known by the Arabic name Sama, as an act of prayer and devotion.PHOTO: RANA GORGANI/INSTAGRAM

PARIS • One of the world's few female whirling dervishes, Rana Gorgani, has opened up Sufism to a wider audience and is now making surprising spiritual connections over Zoom, thanks to the pandemic.

French-Iranian Gorgani, 37, used to think of whirling - a sort of "moving meditation" through which Sufis seek to commune with the divine - as something that should remain behind closed doors.

Despite growing up in France, she was initiated into the practice while visiting Iran, where Sufis often face persecution by the authorities and dancing in general is frowned on.

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

But, a decade ago, she decided she wanted to share its beauty with a festival audience in Montpellier.

"After some minutes, I panicked and stopped for a few seconds. It felt like I was breaking some rule," she recalled.

"But I started turning again and heard a roar of applause, and I told myself 'everything is okay'."

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

Sufi whirling, sometimes known by the Arabic name Sama (which means "listening"), features performers twirling in distinctive wide robes, in a rhythmic turning that mirrors the planet's movement around the sun.

It is more than a dance, said Gorgani, who described it as "a prayer, an act of devotion to the divine".

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

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

To be female and a dervish does not 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 in the late 1970s. It was during her first visit there at the age of 14 that Gorgani became interested in Sufism.

She has since taken part in many ceremonies in Iran and Turkey, but often in secret.

Her performances have been forced online by the pandemic, but she has been "touched and moved" by the number of people reaching out to learn more about Sama.

Her first Zoom class, during France's first lockdown, attracted around 100 people. The numbers have continued to grow as she performs every new and full moon.

To her surprise, the experience has been "extremely intense", with participants saying they are in profound need of meaning and connection.

"I think I've helped some people reveal something to themselves," she said.

While her performances are rooted in her studies of the anthropology of music and dance, she still likes to mix up the soundtracks, opting not only for traditional Sufi music, but also live piano and even traditional French tunes such as those of singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. "Wherever I find a state of grace," she said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2021, with the headline 'French-Iranian dervish whirls her way online'. Subscribe