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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 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"?


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.


"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 Molavi:

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 saw.

"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 this Revolution."

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.

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Divinity within
Stills from "Beyond Words"
Jahanshah Ardalan



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