Wouldn’t you know it, but as I was walking down Istiklal Street in Istanbul days before the late May demonstrations, I ran into an old friend, visiting Turkey for the first time. We quickly dispensed of our surprise.
‘You come here often?’ she asked.
‘Whenever I’m invited. I like the food.’
‘What’s for dinner?’
‘Doesn’t matter. I have a workshop in Istanbul for an organization that provides services for disabled children, Metin Sabancı Special Education and Rehabilitation Center. Nilgun Turkan, the first Western-trained Turkish drama therapist, heads up the program. Very exciting. Then I go to Pergamon for the annual group psychotherapy and psychodrama conference. The theme is love.’
‘The word for love in Turkish is Aşk.’
‘Of course. Who’s asking?’
‘What do you know about love, Landy?’
‘Exactly. I’m here to find out, although they tell me drama therapists know about love.’
‘Who are they?’
‘I’m glad someone knows. Count me out.’
‘OK. I’m off.’
‘The Museum of Innocence.’
‘What’s that, some Sufi outpost?’
‘It’s from the novel by Orhan Pamuk. He won the Nobel prize.’
‘A museum based on a novel? I thought museums hold real things or at least dead objects that were once alive.’
‘Sometimes the objects are still alive.’
‘What’s it about?’
‘I haven’t been yet. I’ll let you know.’
‘What’s the book about?’
‘Obsessive love. But that is too harsh. Pure love, really, innocent love, a destination that remains elusive.’
‘To the reader?’
‘And writer. And protagonist.’
'Can you go to this museum without reading the book?’
‘Don’t know. They might not let you in.’
‘Give me a break.’
I bid goodbye, promising to call after my workshops and travels. And then I began my journey.
As I enter the Museum of Innocence, I find an inscription on the wall from the notebooks of Samuel Coleridge: “If a man could pass thro’ Paradise in a Dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, and found that flower in his hand when he awoke—Aye? and what then?”
Walking through the four stories of the museum, the question resonant, more questions surfaced: Was this a fiction, real objects assembled to mimic reality, or reality itself, artifacts of a love affair that could not be consummated? I wondered: Whose love is on display? Most of all I heard my friend’s question: ‘What do you know about love, Landy?’
For this drama therapist, there was so much work to be done, and so I innocently moved the questions to the background of my mind.
The work at Metin Sabancı Center in Istanbul was rich as the group created stories of their journeys toward love, constructing metaphorical obstacles and guides in their search for that elusive object. In-between the workshops, I found myself entering the dream of Istanbul spun by Pamuk, walking the streets and riding the dolmus from Karaköy to Taksim Square late at night. Others’ stories of love inflamed my own in the streets filled with an assortment of Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Arabs, Greeks, Jews, Roma—sitting in the squares, playing music, telling stories, fingering worry beads, hawking goods, holding hands, smoking cigarettes, responding to the muezzin’s call to prayer, racing toward unknown destinations. In a fleeting moment of innocence, I loved them all.
Following the workshop, I flew to Izmir, then drove to Pergamon, the ancient Asclepion, where thousands of years ago, celebrants appeared for cures to their physical and spiritual illnesses. Part of the cure involved spending a night in an underground passage, where priests induced them to sleep with songs and incense. After an evening in a tunnel lined with gentle flowing streams of water, the celebrants spent the morning with the priests, recalling their dreams. The priest interpreted the dreams, then lead them to the amphitheater, across the field, where they witnessed theatrical performances, sometimes appearing in the Chorus. The therapeutic effects of the theatre were cathartic, enabling the celebrants to release troubling emotions.
In 1982, Turkish psychiatrist, Dr. Abdülkadir Özbek, began psychodrama training in Turkey, profoundly influenced by J.L. Moreno. Shortly thereafter Özbek initiated a series of summer psychodrama conferences at the Pergamon Aesclepion. In 2009 and again in 2013, I was invited as a drama therapist to open up the dialogue of alternative forms of dramatic healing, more akin to the original theatrical intentions of the ancient priests.
And so I gathered with my group of nearly 30 to proceed in the shadow of the amphitheatre to dramatize the three-day journey of the hero toward the destination that is love. The group engaged deeply by creating metaphors of the journey through their bodies and imaginations. With stories intact, they were ready to dramatize the stories, with a hope of better understanding the complexities of love. But on day two, unbeknownst to me, the demonstrations and harsh police response took place 350 miles away in Istanbul.
As I approached the tent in the field in front of the amphitheatre on day three, I learned that one of the participants flew home to Istanbul as her cousin was killed in the demonstrations which began as a protest against the government developing a shopping mall on the back of the one green park in the bustling Taksim Square in Istanbul. The police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water canons, with thousands of injuries and four deaths.
I questioned whether to proceed with the dramatization of the stories or to directly address the feelings of the participants, which seemed to be spilling over. Evoking an old theatre chestnut, I asked the group: ‘Is it true that the show must go on?’ They responded with an emphatic no and so I asked what needed to be done. One brave soul proffered that she needs to be in Istanbul. It became apparent that the love had shifted to Istanbul where there was also great pain. And so I proceeded to dramatize the polarity of Istanbul and Pergamon, both places represented by the bodies of the group. In the dramatization of two homes, two loves, two places of heart-break and healing, the group discovered the goal of drama therapy—to be able to live within the contradictions of being, embracing each destination with conviction.
In the end, all were able to speak to the complexities of love. As an outsider, all I could do was to set up theatrical frames and watch. I watched as people played out a love of country and a fear of betrayal by a government. I watched as people played out cultural issues of divisiveness and connection that were well beyond my understanding. I watched as hearts were open and broken, as personal love merged with spiritual love, as risks were taken by joining and resisting the collective that appeared to speak as one voice. This is a country, I reminded myself, that is Europe and Asia, that is Turkish and Kurdish and Armenian.
After the workshops, I delivered a speech about the differences between psychodrama and drama therapy. Keeping with the theme of the conference, I called it The Love and Marriage of Psychodrama and Drama Therapy, playing with the metaphor of a love relationship in its erotic and psychological entanglements. As I was speaking a carefully written text, translated line by line into Turkish, I was aware of losing the flow of the prose. And I was aware of losing my audience, a separation I could not bear. In the distance I heard the muezzin’s call to prayer, which immediately changed the frame, reminding me that I was in an Aesclepion where change occurs through the discourse of the body and soul.
I paused, remembering that I chose to end my talk with a poem by Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic, who seamlessly linked carnal and spiritual love in his poetry. I asked the translator to read the poem through in Turkish. Spontaneously, I arose from my chair, walked downstage to the very edge of the stage, and performed the poem, words and improvised action. It is called ‘Like This.’ It begins like this (From The Essential Rumi, Translations
by Coleman Barks with John Moyne):
If anyone asks you
how the perfect satisfaction
of all our sexual wanting
will look, lift your face
If anyone wants to know what "spirit" is,
or what "God’s fragrance" means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close.
Later in the poem are two particularly mysterious lines, both which end with a sound:
How did Joseph’s scent come to Jacob?
How did Jacob’s sight return?
I wondered how to Huuuuu. What did it mean? Where did it come from? In the moment, I allowed myself to discover the elusive Huuuuu, trusting that the You or the I was the object of my search.
When finished, I felt connected again, to myself, to the audience, in a way beyond words. A Turkish woman approached and asked:
‘Do you know anything about the Sufi ritual of the whirling dervishes?’
‘Not really. I saw a performance.’
‘It is not a performance,’ she replied.
‘What is it?’
She responded with another question: ‘Do you know the meaning of hu?’
‘No,’ I replied.
‘In the dance of the dervishes, it is the sound that moves the body. It is the name of the unnamable. I thought you knew that. Just a moment ago you uttered that sound.’
I couldn’t wait to call my friend back in Istanbul and tell her my story. But she didn’t answer. When I arrived in Istanbul I learned that she left Turkey early, given the intensity of the police presence on the streets.
I walked through Istiklal Street toward Taksim Square. The crowds were exuberant. When I arrived back in New York, I received two photographs in my inbox. One was of a policeman firing a round of tear gas at demonstrators in front of a sign for the Museum of Innocence. The other was of a street off Taksim Square late at night. The street was blanketed in flowers. I wondered if this was a dream photo of Paradise. I knew for sure that these were flowers of love.