Annually the life of Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, a 13th century Sufi theologian, mystic and poet, is celebrated in Konya, Turkey on the anniversary of his death or Sheb-i arus - the wedding night of Mevlana with the Beloved. This year, Francis L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor of English and the Humanities Joanne Braxton will participate in this December 12 – 23 celebration as a writer-in-residence.
Seven hundred years after his death, Rumi continues to be an influential spirit, Braxton noted. The theologian’s 32nd granddaughter continues to keep his traditions and will serve as one of the hosts for the pilgrimage.
“This experience is about encountering the unexpected, celebrating difference, making new friends and to sharing with others,” she said. “I look forward to the things I can’t anticipate and to being immersed in a religious tradition and a culture different from y own.”
The pilgrimage is a two-week immersion experience of culture, faith and artistry that begins in Istanbul and concludes in Konya. The event is organized by the Starr King School for the Ministry at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, with the leadership of Dr. Ibrahim Farajeje, professor of Islamic and cultural studies and senior research scholar at the GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies.
Reflection, study and Sufi whirling-dervish dancing are all part of the program. The intense nearly round-the-clock schedule is not daunting to Braxton.
“I’m not a night owl,” Braxton added. “But I am an early riser and Istanbul is seven hours ahead of east coast time, I think the time difference will work in my favor.”
Braxton is a renowned writer and poet. Her scholarly focus is on African American Women’s writing with an emphasis on spiritual, religious and life writing. Her works include Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition (Temple University Press, 1989), Sometimes I Think of Maryland (Sunbrury Press, 1977), a collection of poetry, and the play, Crossing Deep River: A Ritual Drama in Three Movements.
Braxton is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, Yale University and the Pacific School of Religion. From 2000 – 2001 she served as a Fulbright Senior Professor at the University of Muenster in Muenster, Germany. She has served as a Mellon Scholar at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women and as artist in residence at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She has been a Danforth Fellow, a member of the Michigan Society of Fellows and a Trustee of Sarah Lawrence College. Braxton has also received numerous awards, including William & Mary’s Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, the William & Mary Alumni Teaching Fellowship and The Outstanding Virginia Educator Award from the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia. In addition to her teaching, Braxton is active in campus ministry and serves as faculty advisor to the William & Mary i-Faith organization, a multi-religious organization devoted to inter-religious dialogue, multi-faith understanding and civic engagement.
Being able to bring the experience of the pilgrimage back to her students and the campus community is one of the most appealing aspects of the journey, Braxton said.
“I absolutely think these experiences enrich the life of the university, especially when you can pass it on to your students.”
With daily class sessions, site visits to Christian, Muslim and Jewish sacred places, and interactions with scholars in Turkey, the lessons of the pilgrimage unfold along the way. As writer in residence, Braxton will be writing her own reflections on the journey for “Faith Narratives of Progressive People of Color,” an anthology that she is editing. She also will engage with graduate students as they document in blog=form their reflections on the pilgrimage.
“I expect to benefit from it in realizing both artistic goals and in the achievement of a new multi-cultural competency,” she said.
Braxton will be joined by other artists in residence including Duja, a Mexican Muslim Sufi woman; Ismail baba, a hafiz Qur'an (one who has memorized the entire Qur'an) , musician, and story teller; and Dhruv Sangari, an expert in the qawwali music tradition and researcher of the relationship between Islam and Hinduism.
The pilgrimage will not be Braxton’s first and is an experience she relishes.
“There is such value in removing oneself from ones comfort zone. It is a wonderful opportunity for me to push my growing edge and to learn where that growing edge is for me as a teacher and a writer.”