These are snapshots from a five-week trip to the US this summer by Linda and me, which included a strong DUP and Sufi flavour.
On the East Coast…
This began on Day 3, with the monthly zikr group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, organised by Abraham and Halima Sussman Abraham is a wonderful presence and a great musician, who has worked with Saadi on Bridge and other masterpieces. It felt to us like being with family, and there was great power and vitality about a group of forty people, with a wide age and ethnic range, who know the dances and needed little teaching. This was the day after the Malaysian airliner was shot down over the Ukraine, so our dances for peace had a real passion to them.
The most remarkable dance had the words, Om mane padme hung, Alleluia: it had an exuberance I’ve rarely seen in a dance with a Buddhist mantra – another example of the American flair for unlikely combinations!
We stayed for 2 nights at the Abode of the Message, a Sufi community and main teaching centre for the Sufi Order of the West in the USA. It’s a beautiful place: old Shaker barns in 400 acres of forest, 3 hours north of New York City. It’s a welcoming community with an interesting programme of retreats and events. The Thursday evening zikr was beautiful: for much of it, the group was singing in two parts, like a call and response.
Alan at the Abode
Then the West Coast…
Our next Sufi stopover was Khankah SAM in San Francisco. This is a small Sufi community started by Samuel Lewis. It owns two houses where six people live, and there are a few rooms for visiting guests: we can highly recommend this – it’s a haven of welcome and beauty, in a cosmopolitan part of the city, the Mission District. The resident group is very welcoming, and there are meditations and classes you can join in. Only 5 minutes away is the Mentorgarden, the house where Sam lived, whose converted garage has been a sacred space for DUP since the earliest days, and still has a powerful atmosphere, and a connection to Samuel Lewis and the dances.
Linda in Sam’s Chair at Mentorgarden.
North West Sufi Camp
Some days and hundreds of miles later, we’re near Portland, Oregon for the North-West Sufi Camp. This is one of the older camps in the US, now in its 37th year. It feels different from typical UK camps in many ways. For example:
- Buildings: like most US camps, this one rents a large summer camp facility, so dancing, eating, etc. happen in buildings. Sleeping quarters are a mix of tents and cabins, but there are no camp circles. Dancing in a large hall does mean that acoustics and concentration are easier.
- Focus: NWSC focuses on DUP and Sufi practices: less diverse than typical UK camps, more akin to the Ruhaniat Summer School in Germany. Each year, this camp has a different Spiritual Director, appointed 3 years in advance, who chooses the theme and visiting leaders. This year’s camp focussed on deep ecology, akin to the groups Jilani and I led at 2014 Sacred Arts Camp.
- Music: Most US camps have mains electricity, and the musicians are amplified. This, plus diverse instruments including drums, wind, and several guitars, gives a quite different flavour to the sound.
- Food: is all cooked in a big catering kitchen, and eaten together in a large hall or outdoors. This saves time, helps with special diets, and gives a more communal feel to the whole event.
- Age range: as at UK camps, the range runs from kids to elders, but it was striking that there were plenty of older teens, and adults in their twenties and thirties. The camp pricing structure and bursary fund help with this.
Dancing with Munir Reynolds and the redwoods.
The two main teachers at NWSC were Wali Ali and Leilah Be. Murshid Wali Ali was one of the original students of Samuel Lewis, and still gives a strong sense of Sam’s transmission. Leilah is a brilliant creator and leader of dances, and her zikrs on camp were outstanding.
This was also a chance to experience local teachers: we were especially impressed by Munir Peter Reynolds from Montana. He studied creation spirituality with Matthew Fox and Saadi in the 1980’s, and has been leading DUP and retreats since then. He combines a warm, wise presence with beautiful musicianship and a fine dance repertoire, including some of his own.
Retreat in New Mexico
Two days after the North-West Camp, we arrive at Lama Foundation, in Northern New Mexico. Lama is a nonprofit wilderness retreat centre and spiritual community, with one of the most inspiring settings you’ll find anywhere. It is 8600 feet up, on the western slope of a wooded mountain, and the views stretch for over a hundred miles, with little sign of human habitation. The stars at night are almost dazzling, and the play of light on the frequent clouds is exquisite.
This is not an easy place to be: the altitude, heat, cold, wind are all tough, and the off-grid facilities are pretty basic. But the buildings are beautiful: mainly built of adobe (mud brick), with lots of craftsmanship in timber and stone details.
Samuel Lewis, the originator of DUP and the Ruhaniat order visited Lama in its early years. He said that community at Lama “practice, practice, practice, what others only preach, preach, preach”. He especially admired the inclusive spiritual approach (not tied to one religion) which continues now, over forty years later.
Murshid Sam chose to be buried here, and there is a shrine or darga at his grave. We are here for a retreat led by Saadi, Tansen, and Gita Onnen from Germany: it is a group of 60 people, mingling Europeans and Americans.
Being at Lama has been a catalyst for all three of our leaders, and it is touching to listen to their early memories here. Saadi explains how, on a retreat here at Sam’s darga in 1982, he felt guidance from Sam himself to start offering DUP beyond Sufi circles.
Saadi was instrumental in opening dance leader training to non-Sufis, and he told us how he organised the first ever DUP Camp, at Lama, in 1984. This was successful beyond anyone’s expectations, and sowed the seed for many other dance camps. Until this time, DUP had only been offered as part of Sufi camps like Mendocino in California.
Most of our dance and teaching sessions happen in the Dome: an outstandingly beautiful circular space with adobe walls, a timber geodesic dome with windows above us and one huge hexagonal window in the wall which faces the view.
The Dome at Lama Foundation
In the early mornings, we walk further up the mountain to Murshid Sam’s dargha, and meditate with him. There is also an open-air dance space up there, and we have a memorable session, with several of Sam’s original dances.
Leaving Lama, we gave a lift to a lively 76 year old woman from Pennsylvania, whose travel plan was to ‘see the USA the Sufi way’. That’s what we did, and a warm welcome awaits you if you go that way.
Alan Ahmed Heeks