I greatly appreciated participating in the Rumi Forum Turkey trip in May 2007. A number of years ago, I visited Turkey to present a paper at the World Congress of Philosophy in Istanbul and participated in a seminar in Turkey on “Religion and Politics in Contemporary Turkey.” Although I greatly appreciated these opportunities to visit a fascinating society, neither of these previous trips had given me the opportunity to interact directly with so many segments of Turkish society as the Rumi Forum trip. This trip opened up the world of Turkish culture and society much more extensively since it allowed for interactions with people from very different segments of the society, such as teachers, physicians, journalists, Sufi scholars, and family members. I greatly appreciated the opportunity to visit beautiful cultural sites in places such as Istanbul, Izmir, Ephesus and Cappodocia, but it was the extended interactions with people that made the trip most memorable.
I teach a philosophy course that explores the conditions that enable cross-cultural understanding and dialogue, focusing specifically on the attempt of persons from the West to understand the experience of women in the Middle East. In the course, I try to bring students to understand both the distinctive aspects of Middle Eastern culture and the diverse range of sub-cultures within the Middle East. The Rumi Forum trip deepened my understanding of and appreciation of the topics explored in this course, since it directly encouraged people to think about our common humanity and rich diversity and encouraged the kind of patient, respectful, engaged dialogue which characterizes and enables cross-cultural understanding.
Our Rumi Forum hosts embodied so many of the very positive traits I have come to associate with and admire about Middle Eastern society. They were gracious, kind, hospitable, patient and welcoming. They welcomed us on this journey, shared with us the beliefs and practices central to the Fethullah Gulen movement, and encouraged us to voice our questions, reflections and responses. They set up hospitable situations that enabled us to learn about each other in varied ways, encouraging us to converse on many levels, lightly with humor and intensely with passion and conviction across different points of view and from different life experiences.
In a short time, we came to know each other, welcoming and, even at times, anticipating the responses and reactions we came to associate with each other at various points of the trip. We valued one member’s probing critical questions, another’s depth of factual information, another’s kindness and patience in dealing with the endless curiosity of local travelers, another’s lively, non-stop bus discussion while all others drifted off into sleep, and another’s never-to-be-imagined tour questions. The group of total strangers soon became a caravan of interesting, enjoyable fellow travelers seeking to understand the spirit of Rumi and the culture he so deeply influenced.
My most memorable moments of the trip were the evenings spent in the homes of Turkish people – seeing glimpses of their lives, hearing about matters deeply important to them, and learning of their hopes for what we might learn of them from this journey. Tourist travel rarely affords such rich opportunity for personal interaction through which we can begin to see our shared humanity expressed in such varying ways. Having lived in Iran and traveled in the Middle East, I found myself very pleased to see revealed to my fellow Americans the goodness, kindness, and generosity I have come to associate with people of the Middle East. These Turkish people manifested so many of the positive traits I know to be distinctive of the Islamic way of life and confirmed my belief that such face-to-face interactions lessen the fear, hostility and misunderstandings too often influenced by the media’s shaping of public perceptions.
The Rumi Forum trip captured well the inviting spirit of Rumi, which calls us to open ourselves to each other with the hope that others come bearing gifts we can appreciate. We have already had friends from our Rumi Forum trip visit our home to continue our journey of fellowship and look forward to continuing conversations and interactions over time traceable to the welcoming graciousness and generosity of the Rumi Forum. The trip opened our eyes to much that is not seen by Americans, allowing us to continue to reflect on the lessons of human understanding realized through the trip. Thinking on this trip and what I learned from it, I found myself recalling the words of the poet, Rainier Maria Rilke:
“Work of the eyes is done,
now go and do heart-work.”