This weekend, we visited Konya, the ancient Selcuk capital and final resting place of the great Sufi poet Rumi. Before he passed away in 1273, Rumi established a Sufi brotherhood that practiced the sema, a ceremony of whirling and circling in seven parts. The circles represent harmony and union with the beloved divine from whom we’ve all been separated and seek to return to. Rumi’s former monastery is also his final resting place, which he shares with his father and son. This space was converted into a museum in 1927, and now Rumi’s tomb draws nearly two million visitors each year. Many of these people are curious tourists, but the tomb remains a holy site for pilgrims.
The diversity of people and clothing and color at the Mevlevi museum was incredible: a huge group of women in chadors who had matching lanyards stretched around the black fabric; a woman wearing uggs and red leather short-shorts standing by the gift shop; two Japanese girls who tied scarves around their waste to hide their legs, accompanied by a conservative Turkish family; hip Istanbullus in desert boots and elephant pants; and us – a giant group of giant Americans (seriously, though, we are a tall group).
The museum was crowded, which made it difficult to look at the monastery’s rooms and admire much else besides the calligraphy painted high on the walls and ceiling in Rumi’s tomb. I walked around for a half hour, glancing at a few signs and slipping into rooms that weren’t packed beyond fire capacity.
Curiously, the placards describing each room and the wax figures were written in two languages – Turkish and English. I get that English is a universal language, of sorts, and I’m not complaining about the convenience of understanding all the information presented in the museum. But Rumi spoke Farsi, and many of the people who visit the museum are Muslim – why were Farsi or Arabic not included on the posters; if not replacing English, then as another column?
While waiting to leave, a few people in our group commented on how the crowds made it impossible to enjoy the museum. “I tried reading the signs to learn about the monastery, but people were just too darn rude!” I realized early on that I didn’t have it in me to compete with people for space to read the signs or look around many of the rooms, but it didn’t even cross my mind that these people were being rude. The mentality of standing in lines just doesn’t carry over to all places – in Russia, I remember being shoved by 5-feet tall grannies who were more determined than me to buy tickets to the opera. In Konya, at the museum, people pushed and shoved and blocked doorways and signs.
Was this rude? We were all visitors to this place, so whose conception of etiquette prevails? Is it the host city or country? The rules of the majority culture? There’s an environmental economics principle that states who cooperate to protect the environment make the rules very easy to follow (and so not incredibly effective) so that the weakest country can participate and comply. Should visitors to a place operate by this principle and treat each other just courteously enough to avoid the label “impolite,” when in reality this standard requires very little effort or awareness?
Even though we thought the way these people interacted with the museum’s space was rude, more likely than not these other visitors thought we were inconsiderate and out of place. Someone forgot a headscarf and so wore the hood of her jacket; a clever solution to the problem, but probably seen as rude (especially since mosques offer scarves to forgetful visitors). Some of the students were taking pictures in the tomb, even though the museum asks visitors to refrain. Others were talking loudly about topics that are probably inappropriate for a public space in general, let alone in a place where people are praying.
With this in mind, it’s better to give people benefit of the doubt. If we hope to be forgiven for transgressing unfamiliar cultural standards of etiquette, the least we can do is extend the same treatment to fellow guests of this holy space.