Tale from the Road

An excerpt from Diary of a Cycling Dervish – 24 Days on the Anatolian Sufi Trail

Back on my bike, I stop in a sleepy village to join the noon prayers. A calf standing at the side of the road is already mooing along with the prayer call, as if telling me to hurry up. I quickly perform my ablutions and step into the mosque. The threshold is adorned with a writing of la ilaha ilallah, the Islamic profession of God’s unity, which Sufis — who strive to perceive the divine in everything — sometimes translate as “there is no reality but the divine Reality.” 

Built in 1875, the tiny house of worship has wooden beams, a small minbar or pulpit, and an oval-shaped prayer niche. Today’s congregation consists of two elderly gentlemen, the imam, and myself. With masks on, we go through the different postures of the Islamic prayer that move from standing upright (symbolizing alignment) to bowing in humility, and finally into the surrender of prostration. 

The chubby prayer leader hails from Ağrı, a city in the far east of Turkey, and has been posted in this village for the last four years. As state officials, Turkish imams can be appointed to any of the countless mosques across the country.

“I got used to this place,” he says. “It is destiny.” But he admits that he misses his native area.

Then, with a stern look, he admonishes me for the fact that I was wearing short bicycle pants during prayer. I excuse myself saying that I was already late, which is why I didn’t have time to dig out any long-legged trousers from my bags. 

“You know there are a few conditions in Islam,” he says, noticeably content that he has found someone to teach. “You are standing in front of God, so you shouldn’t dress like that.”

I nod in agreement; he has a point. 

In the next town of Han, I visit a different mosque that is a few centuries older and has a circle with geometric patterns painted on its domed ceiling. They look like mandalas, with one of them resembling the Flower of Life. Touched by the serenity and beauty of the place, I follow a spontaneous impulse to use my voice. As I am alone, I step right under the dome and sing one of my favorite chants, the universal peace prayer “May peace prevail on Earth.”

After Han, the road leads through rocky and dry terrain full of juniper trees. The juniper is an important tree in Turkish culture, known for its resilience and healing powers. In some old Turkic tribes it was believed that juniper trees were specially planted by God, while its branches were used to be burnt as a purifying smudge.

I sit under one of the trees for a picnic of bread, olives, tomatoes and cucumber. With its silent presence and a trunk containing flowing patterns of grooved bark, the juniper generously grants me shade in the hot afternoon sun. The total stillness of the landscape has a timeless serenity to it, yet there is also subtle movement — blades of grass tremble in the wind, flies and wasps hum over the rocks. Before setting off I give the tree a hug, thanking it for taking care of me. 

As I am about to get back on the saddle, I notice that one of my trekking sandals has fallen off the pannier rack. Scolding myself for not having fixed it properly, I cycle back in a state of déjà-vu. After searching for a while — like on the day I dropped one of my gloves — I give up. My mood is affected by the loss of footwear, but I remind myself not to be attached to material objects, even if they are as essential as trekking sandals. Maybe the path is teaching me to let go and get lighter.

Pedaling up another set of steep slopes, my thoughts wander to the Taurus Mountains that lie between Central Anatolia and the Mediterranean coast. If everything goes as intended, I will find myself crossing those elevations in about a week’s time. Scenes of never-ending struggle on sharp hairpin curves appear in my mind.

Rolling down into a village named Muratkoru, my thoughts are suddenly interrupted. I notice a furry creature lying in the middle of the asphalt. Braking sharply, I stop my bike a little further down the road and walk back up. The body belongs to a squirrel, its four paws stretched out into the air, teeth sticking out, belly still warm. It must have been recently hit by a car.

I am heartbroken. With my bare hands I pick up the small body and take it to one of the junipers near the roadside. This little creature, an embodiment of innocence and joy, should not have died. I feel that in my bones. I dig a tiny hole in the soft forest floor, place the squirrel inside and cover it with soil, needles and some leaves. I pick up a few stones and lay them in a circle around the gravesite. While chanting the Fatiha and Gayatri Mantra, two prayers that are ingrained in my being, I begin to feel the pain of the whole natural world. The emotion is intense and I allow it to sink in for a while. In a very real sense, this squirrel represents the suffering of Mother Nature at the hand of man.

It strikes me that my spontaneous prayer for this precious being might be the most real prayer of my day. Having been embraced by the natural world for days has given me a new level of appreciation for how everything in nature displays a perfect balance, infused with profound humility and a powerful presence. It is human beings with our disturbing mindset of dominance and incessant progress that disrupts this balance. On my trail so far, I have observed this in the quarries, concrete factories, and chicken battery farms I have passed by. 

As I cycle down towards the plains of Afyon province, a breath-taking panorama of mountains and valleys engulfed in a magical play of light and shadows opens up in front of me. 

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