The Circle of Men Destined to Incandescence

Probing the steamy baths, fleeing the tempting angel and his deceptive tortures, you suddenly come upon a scene of startling beauty: in a dreamy whirl, your eyes feast in turn on the vision of dozens of fierce, brawny fellows, alone or grouped together, hands clasped as if sealing a peace treaty; weight-lifters with flexed, bulging muscles; strapping, mustachioed lads, arms akimbo, lusty pectorals, radiating a glow from their leather breeches and foursquare physique. Their robust bodies, untamed features, and close-knit bonds are emblems of a vigorous faith; their musical and athletic exercises, of deeply spiritual forms of existence. When they jump up and walk round the arena where they perform, they kiss the fingertips of their right hand and skim the floor with them in a gesture of humility, pick up the boards lining the edge, and set them out by their feet, so as to encircle their leader. Facedown, legs as far apart as possible and arms open wide clinging to the ends of the boards, they execute a series of push-ups, raising their torsos, flexing their muscles, bodies undulating in an imitation of the ebb and flow of waves, the gentle ripple of marine currents. Sinuous, quivering, they seem to swim and glide on the subtle lightness of the air. Their leader encourages them by wiggling like a spirochete as he  counts his helicoidal contractions and calls on Allah and the Holy Imams for their help. Only then will you spot the master's seat of honor, concealed in the shadow beyond the clusters of light converging on the arena of delights; perched in his pulpit, drum on lap, both hands beating out the exuberant rhythm, he adapts to the patterns of the chant, marks the beginning and end of each exercise, rings the bell with exquisite timing and verve. His remarkable talent stimulates, galvanizes the strength of the athletes, enraptured by hearing his epic tales, prayers to the Prophet, and delicate mystical poems. Are you dreaming, still dreaming? Are the giants armed with hefty, oblong wooden maces that they rest in the crook of their shoulders raw recruits waiting for you to give the signal to begin? When you see them simultaneously lift the maces and describe full circles around shoulder blades, ribs, and chest, is your vision real? Does the imposing appearance of the mace-bearers, transformed into heroes of a sumptuous pack of cards, reflect a material, concrete image, or is it a product of an imagination dazzled by the nakedness of its uncertain, ill-defined status? Have these glorious kings of clubs with taut biceps and muscles of iron surged out of a secret, refulgent world, like beings or characters in dreams, suddenly and beautifully made flesh? Ecstasy, rapture, jubilation, joy, awareness of having reached your level, your share of immanent enjoyment and glory without your spirit even considering the possibility of better things! Didn't Ibn Arabi once say that, if it were not so, heaven would not be a blissful resting place but a mansion of pain and bitter disillusion? You sharpen your gaze, catch the apotheosis of the arena, that perfect ring, shape and tenor of your dual reward and punishment. Do the dervishes with the grace of slender distaffs, cutting cross-shaped silhouettes, spinning like tops or fans, possess the gift of tangibility and consistency? What fragile illusion or chimera do the athletes evoke as they tremble from head to toe, airy shrubs swaying in the breeze or the shimmering surface of a liquid stirred by a gentle breeze? When they raise their arms and their bodies flicker like pointed tongues of fire in the magic, circular space, do you still belong to the world of your body or are you experiencing a theophany, released forever from the creatures and snares of sensuousness? Drawn to the arena, illumined by the bright, intense spotlights, you admire, will forever admire the strapping lads fervently measuring the temper of their strength, each entwined in the limbs of his rival, nimbly wriggling an arm free. Sweet as the chains of love, sings the master, are each turn and hold in the fight; / to cling to his opponent according to the rules / is pure bliss. But you are ablaze, ablaze with them, wreathed too in their garland of flames, burning, consumed from head to foot, a creature of fire, immersed in the circle of men destined to incandescence, willing victims of their own vehemence and passion! The lack of pain takes you by surprise and, whirling in the diaphanous arena, oh divine epiphany, you will gently feel the sadness within the punishment and your own self fade and die.
The photos, from various sources, depict dervishes and Turkish wrestlers over the past seven or eight years. The text is from the surrealistic novel Quarantine by Juan Goytisolo (translated by Peter Bush), published in Spanish in 1991. The novel portrays a visit to the afterlife, combining elements of Dante's Divine Comedy (which, as I giddily point out to students in my World Lit class, alludes to oil wrestling in one key passage), the legend of the Prophet Muhammad's heavenly ascent, and the teachings of the 12th-century Sufi mystic Ibn Al-'Arabi--not a book for everybody, certainly, but transcendent in some of its breathlessly long paragraphs.


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