hen the great Islamic spiritual teacher and poet Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi died on December 17, 1273, in Konya in present-day Turkey, men from five different faiths followed his bier in tribute. The transcendent appeal of Rumi's ecstatic Farsi verse has endured over the succeeding centuries, and in large parts of the world his writings are as familiar as Shakespeare once was in English-speaking lands.
So perhaps it's not surprising that Rumi's poetry would find a home in the Bay Area. Seven years ago, Dan and Dale Zola produced the first Great Night of Rumi in the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian-Universalists, and were pleasantly surprised when hundreds of people showed up. Over the years the event has moved between Marin and San Francisco. On Friday, for the first time since the premiere performance, the Great Night of Rumi returns to Berkeley.
For Dan Zola, the event's increasing popularity is sweet validation of a Rumi-esque moment of inspiration. "I'd never had this happen, but I was walking down the street one day and an idea literally hit me," Zola said. "It was a physical sensation, like in the cartoons when the idea bubble comes from one end of the frame and hits the person: Wouldn't it be great to have a whole night of Rumi's poetry, spoken aloud from memory?"
The event's format is like an old-fashioned revue, with one performer after another taking about ten minutes each to recite or sing a Rumi work. The Marin-based dervishes from the Mevlevi Order of America will perform the ecstatic whirling dance inspired by Rumi's writing. Among the dozen or so presenters are Doug Von Koss, who originally inspired Dan Zola to start memorizing Rumi's poetry, actress Chetana Karel, vocalist Kirsten Falke, and Afghani-born poet Halim Shayek (reciting Rumi's verse in the original Farsi), all accompanied by various musicians, including flutist Ernie Mansfield, Claude Palmer on oud, and Brad Van Cleave on tabla.
"One of Rumi's lines is 'Don't come to us without bringing music,' so at the first event we accompanied the poems with cellos, sitars, flutes, and drums, and it's taken on a life of its own," Zola said. "There's also a wonderful tradition of jazz and poetry that we're reclaiming, which somehow turned into the parody of the beatnik with the goatee playing bongos."
Born in Afghanistan into a long line of Persian religious scholars, Rumi fled with his family from the Mongol invasion and traveled throughout the Muslim world, eventually settling in Konya. When his father died, Rumi succeeded him as a professor in religious sciences, but it was his encounter with a wandering dervish, Shamsuddin of Tabriz, that launched his mystical spiritual quest. His poetry is marked by a sense of intimacy with the divine, often described in his verse as the Friend, and is remarkably accessible to people of any, or no, faith.
"For a lot of people Rumi is a spiritual teacher and they're coming at him from that angle," Dale Zola said. "We approach him the way you'd approach an artist, a John Coltrane, and whatever his art evokes in you is what's important."
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