Recently, I visited Konya, Turkey, where the great 13th century poet, scholar and mystic, Rumi, is buried.
As is usual on my journeys, I was on a search for meaning. I stayed in a small hotel and in the morning went downstairs for breakfast. As I sat at the table, a young man approached and said:
"Someone wants to meet you."
"Who?" I asked.
"Rumi’s grandson," he replied.
"Where is he?" I inquired.
"At the small hotel next door to this one."
I was totally baffled and wanted to ask so many questions. How could Rumi’s grandson be alive? Who was this young man and why did he choose me? What plane of existence was I experiencing in the breakfast room that morning? Was I, in fact, in search of the spirit of Rumi?
The young man told me he was from Aleppo, Syria, where there has been great destruction during the brutal civil war. And he told me to not mention that we met to Rumi’s grandfather. I also learned that in Turkey, grandfather can mean many generations, spanning centuries.
It took me the better part of the day to locate the grandson, an adventure which included meetings with remarkable men—fruit peddlers, hotel workers, beggars, old people in old apartments. When I finally met the grandson, he sat regally in a dark corner of the small hotel, dressed, I imagine, as an ancient dervish, in a vest he told me belonged to his grandfather, Rumi, and a conical hat worn by whirling dervishes.
He answered all of my questions before I could ask a single one. He was a refugee, originally from Afghanistan, as was his iconic grandfather. He wandered the world as a scholar and ascetic, subject to torture and intimidation, endlessly resilient, whirling through the vicissitudes of war and peace, violence and love. always returning to his home base in Konya, as this was the sacred space of Rumi’s maturity, ascension and death.
I left the grandson well into the 3rd hour of his monologue. He was disappointed when I told him I needed to make a flight back to Istanbul. My traveling companion doubted his authenticity and saw him as an actor and conman. I did not doubt his abilities to play those roles, with the ease that he played Rumi’s grandson. And yet, he asked nothing of me but to find him and to listen to his story. Brilliant, I thought to myself. That is what I do in my life—I search for people, sometimes welcoming people who search for me, and listen to their stories. I always had a particular attraction to refugees who leave one home in search of a return to, at the very least, the idea of home.
While in Konya, a number of people approached me—in mosques, kiosks, shops, on the street—some urgently, telling me stories. It was difficult not only to understand their language, but to understand why I was chosen. It was obvious that I was a tourist, and I assumed that I was seen as someone who would buy and spend. But no one asked for money or for anything other than to engage at a level that was just beyond my grasp. On the roof of a mosque, a man, whom I took for a beggar, insistently approached. His urgency to connect startled me. As a New Yorker, I ignored him, but he persisted. Finally I succumbed, becoming present.
When he left, I asked my companion: "What just happened?"
She replied: "He gave you a blessing. He chose you," she said, "because your heart is open."
On my journeys in and among other cultures, I gravitate toward outsiders, as I do in the most familiar settings in my homeland. Maybe I do this because they most truly mirror my sense of myself as other. One of my grandfathers was a refugee from Austria-Hungary. The other from Russia. My first wife was a refugee from East Germany. And I often take on the role of wandering Jew, identifying with my ancient ancestors who left the desert only to return thousands of years later to transform the desert into a new home.
The refugee as a role seeks to leave one unhappy home in order to discover a better one. The refugee does not move in straight lines, but rather in circles. In leaving, there is a hope of returning to a place that may no longer exist. After World War II, many Germans returned to rubble. Many Jews returned from the concentration camps to hostile, often violent villages. In the midst of the civil war in Syria, many reach for a destination beyond their grasp.
In much of my work as a drama therapist, I have developed a clinical model of The Hero’s Journey, which begins as the hero leaves home and ends as the hero attempts to return. Home is a metaphor for beginnings and endings, for inner journeys, for the body and soul, for union and relationship, for a search for safety and belonging. In a larger more abstract sense, home with its comings and goings, is a circle.
In 2015, tired of academic researching and writing, saturated with text, I began to make circles in photographs, drawings and assemblages. I did not know why.
One day, I shared my images of circles with a friend who is a Jungian analyst.
She asked: "Why do you make circles?"
I answered: "I don’t know."
Knowing me well, and not believing me, she replied: "I think you are trying to find a center, the wholeness in your life. That is why Jung made mandalas."
On my last night in Turkey in 2015, I met in the holy district of Eyup with a Sufi master, who came from three generations of Sufi masters. After a lengthy explanation about Sufi theology, he turned to me and asked: "What do you do?"
After quickly scrolling through many of my professional roles, I responded: "I make circles."
"For a Sufi," he replied, "a circle is never complete."
That simple sentence radically changed my thinking as I continued to explore the mysteries of the circle.
Ancient mathematicians attempted for centuries to square the circle, that is, conceive of a formula to reconcile the area of the circle and the square. They always failed.
In about 1490, Leonardo da Vinci sketched an intertwined circle and square, which held a naked man, drawn in two poses. He called it Vitruvian Man because it contained text, written backwards, from the ancient Roman architect, Vitruvius, about the relationship between bodies and buildings and, for Leonardo, the corporal body and the celestial bodies.
When I learned that some scholars believed Vitruvian Man was a self-portrait, I decided to do the same—placing myself inside the circle and the square, in digital photographic form.
Drawing upon the model of Leonardo, I searched for text. I taught myself mirror writing and inserted, first, old love letters into my self-portrait. When I discovered a quote from C.G. Jung on the squaring of the circle, I inserted that: “The squaring of the circle is one of the many archetypal motifs which form the basic patterns of our dreams and fantasies. But it is distinguished by the fact that it is one of the most important of them from the functional point of view. Indeed, it could even be called the archetype of wholeness."
As I made more and more circular self-portraits, as well as photographs of circles, I noticed that I was creating doubles—two figures side by side.
A friend commented: "You make circles because you are trying to hold many broken pieces of your life together."
Was I repairing lost ruptures, I thought, or visualizing the doubleness of my life?
On a trip away from home in 2016, I visited a refugee camp in Greece. I was curious to see the profound dislocation of people as well as to place myself among them. I was aware of my duality as witness and searcher. I was approached by a boy who wanted me to take his picture.
After doing so, the boy asked me to show it to him. I did. He nodded in approval. In the eyes of a stranger from another place and time, he existed. In the eyes of a refugee boy from Syria, waiting in a Greek camp for a better home, I existed.
In a tent at the refugee camp, an NGO group from Spain worked with children. The workers asked the children to draw pictures of love. It surprised me to see depictions of violence within expected drawings of heart and hand. In one drawing, a knife pierces the heart. It bleeds onto an outstretched hand. Seeing the image, the question came to mind: "What becomes of love within a culture of dislocation and violence?"
I returned to Greece several months later to work in a day center with young refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and several African countries. I worked in a small room with 20 young girls and women, all sitting around a large rectangular table. I asked them to tell stories about a hero on a journey. As I spoke, an interpreter translated my English into Greek. A second interpreter translated the Greek into Arabic. A third interpreter translated the Arabic into Farsi. Lost in a sea of languages I did not understand, I invited several to dramatize their stories.
Not surprisingly, the dramatized stories were about journeys from a war-torn country to Germany, which for many was the promised land. As I held the tears of the girls, I felt my own well up thinking of the journeys of my grandfathers from the Nazi genocide in the 1930s.
The refugee girls held up a mirror. All I needed to do was to look within and see my reflection.
When it was time to go home, I experienced a deep sadness leaving the women and girls behind, knowing I could go home. My grandfathers already made the journey for me, from the brutality of the German holocaust to the welcoming arms of the United States, closing the circle of family persecution and wandering. I was safe.
Or was I? My homeland was soon to regress profoundly and choose a dangerous, narcissistic, clown-like man with a long red tie and orange hair as its leader. With his entourage of sycophants and opportunists, reality as I knew it vanished.
It felt like a crisis and I was floating in a vortex.
Why do I make circles?
Maybe it’s my way of attempting to return home after generations of wandering.
Maybe it’s my way of squaring the circle.