Duisburg’s old steel factory hosts odd tribute to ‘Love’

First we were surrounded by an anxious feeling of cold, making it impossible not to feel nervous.Massive iron towers beyond the limits of any metaphors, workshops of varied sizes and chunks of iron added to the chill of the weather and made the white night even chillier for those waiting outside to be granted entrance to the venue where the concert was about to start. Then the doors closed. Among a hasty crowd that wanted to reach to their seats immediately were women trying hard to keep their heels from getting stuck in the metal grate flooring. The venue was a former steel factory in Germany’s Duisburg which now serves as a cultural center.

On Saturday night this huge industrial plant-turned-art center hosted a concert titled “Sounds of Love,” which brought two of Turkey’s internationally acclaimed personalities, DJ-musician Mercan Dede and writer Elif Şafak, together on the same stage. The two artists, who both frequently voice their admiration for Sufi mystic Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, joined forces for the concert, which came as part of the Goethe Institut’s “European Literature Goes to Turkey-Turkish Literature Goes to Europe” program. The program will wrap up later this week in the Belgian capital after bringing European literature to 24 Turkish provinces and Turkish literature to eight European cities throughout its more-than-one-year run.

The much-anticipated concert was definitely a successful event; however, it left a somewhat bitter taste in the mouths of the audience filling Landschaftspark. Maybe it’s better to rewind the story and tell it all from the beginning.

The first appearance was by Mercan Dede and his ensemble of young musicians, who presented a slightly modified version of the program they presented last summer at the opening gala of the Season of Turkey in France series of cultural events. However, this time three additional musicians were accompanying him. The audience of around 500 people filled the concert area and most of them were Germans. The concert was a truly mesmerizing experience for them. But this was not the case for the Turks among the audience.

As Mercan Dede and his ensemble played their songs, a female dancer clad in Sufi dervish costume appeared from the stairs from the side of the stage. From the dancer’s moves, it was obvious that she considered what she was doing “a mere show.” As Mercan Dede songs played on the background, the dancer completed her number and disappeared. Next in line was Berlin-based dancer Kadir “Amigo” Memiş, who presented his own show and went. He was followed by another young dancer clad in a Sufi dervish costume that was “designed” as an amalgamation of attires of many different sects. The female dancer meanwhile returned to the stage to accompany him. The most interesting feature of their costumes was their battery-powered dervish skirts that emitted light in various colors as the dancers whirled onstage. From the way the two dancers swirled on the stage it was obvious that they had not even once watched a sema ritual before. This oddity was among the topics of discussion among guests during the cocktail reception following the concert.

Following this episode, Netherlands-based Turkish pianist-composer-singer Karsu Dönmez took to the stage to accompany Mercan Dede and his ensemble.

A little later it was bestselling author Elif Şafak’s turn to share the stage with Mercan Dede. It was time for the most anticipated part of the performance, for which Şafak and Mercan Dede said they would “recount love on the same stage together.” Şafak, clad in an entirely black costume, appeared on the stage and took her seat on a brown velvet chair. She was holding the English version of her novel “Aşk” (The Forty Rules of Love), from which she read excerpts -- mostly in English and occasionally in Turkish -- to the accompaniment of music from Mercan Dede. This caused most of the German concertgoers, who constituted the majority of the audience, to feel alienated.

When Şafak’s recital ended, the reed flute of Mercan Dede took over. Şafak, still on her chair, continued listening. Then two more dancers appeared on the stage, aiming to present a sema performance. Following the standard opening rituals of the performance, the “show” started. As the crowd watched in awe, a small child clad in Sufi dervish costume came to the stage. The child, whose name was Emir (as it was embroidered on the back of his caftan), started whirling like the other dancers did; unaware of whether he was performing a dance or a religious rite.

Then the music stopped. It was the end of the concert. In the finale, all performers came to the stage to salute the audience. Thus the historic steel factory has experienced a heavily Orientalism-flavored concert. Some members of the German and Turkish audience in the end had nothing to do but to send a sad salute to Rumi and Edward Said, while others faded into the cold white Duisburg night despite the chilly weather.

The same performance will be repeated this week in Brussels, which will be hosting the final leg of the “European Literature Goes to Turkey-Turkish Literature Goes to Europe” program from June 21-25.

Musa İğrek, Duisburg
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