The Psychic Souk

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There has always been an impulse in me to jump the garden wall – a need to see what’s “over there,” or anywhere but where I am. Wherever I go, I want to go further. I don’t know if it’s a symptom of chronic dissatisfaction or just itchy feet. But I have been known to plan vacations on my vacation.

I think everyone wants to live forever..? We write songs, paint pantings, collect stamps in order to leave behind a legacy. We want to be connected to this earth for as long as possible and a song or film helps guarantee that (although not really, because permanence is an illusion). I feel like the reason the death of David Bowie was a shock is because he had already achieved immortality in his proliphic career-how could he die?

Travel gives me that feeling of living in the eternal. The universe feels infinite. I leave behind a legacy in the more places I go and fingerprints I leave. And in going outside my element, I no longer have those familiar cues that tell me who I am (my language, my street, my water pressure from my fancy western showerhead). So I’m forced to slay the ego-this idea of myself that I’ve been so attached to-and dissolve into a oneness with others. That’s that infiniteness I’m talking about. When you’re standing on a pyramid at Giza looking out onto the Sahara, you become that tiny grain of sand that makes up the whole desert. You gain perspective on your place in this world. “I’m just a grain of sand! Why do I give a fuck about that breakup when it’s just a blip on the cosmic plane!?” Nothing matters. Not in a nihilistic sense but in an existential one.

It took this writing project for me to see that collecting clothes scratches the same itch that travel does. When I can’t get away, I collect beautiful old things that I feel like have been somewhere. Through the folkloric prints of Thea Porter, theatrical colors of Zandra Rhodes, exotic silhouettes of YSL, I’m like an astral traveler. Clothes are transportive. They support the fantasy.

It’s kind of an exercise in conjuring. Like in meditation, when I invoke a deity for guidance on a certain prayer. “Empress, can you please give me some wisdom?!” and then I try to experience myself as inhabiting the Empress energy and being wise about the matter in question. Clothes work the same way. If I feel powerless, I put on Speakeasy-Era lesbian or Japanese Schoolgirl Assassin. You can transmute negativity to a higher energy. Or you can embrace the shitty feeling! Wear it with pride. Sometimes when I have an ugly or invisible day, I might surrender to it with Artfully Disheveled Waif. Loneliness gets Sicilian Widow (I really do this, think Dolce and Gabbana). Put on the clothes that get where you need to go-spiritually, emotionally, geographically. Wear somebody else’s ego for a bit. It’s a play on archetypes. It’s empowering.

That’s my axis of creativity-not in the classical, artistic sense but in the sense of spiritual creation. When clothes, travel and the divine can so strangely meet. Vintage and secondhand clothing is all energy. It’s been somewhere before you. And it contains magical qualities that can support you on this journey of life.

 

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The Head Scarf

Photo by Juhi Baig

I wear a lot of headscarves. It’s a go-to in my closet for work, travel, errands, anything. It all started when my mother and I began collecting Hermès scarves and I couldn’t find a place for them on my body that didn’t make me feel like one of those basics who follow the Parisian fashion blogs, layering it with their pearls or blue blazer (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”). But wrapping them around my head made me feel worldly and enigmatic. I became a woman with a fascinating story, who has a lot of lovers and secrets and who maybe lives some exotic “life apart.”

Photo by Thomas Julian

Then the fixation grew for reasons of convenience/laziness. I have hair that I loathe-unfashionably frizzy and unruly in most weather-that I can simply renounce with the twist of a scarf.

And then I started traveling to countries where I’m expected to cover my head out of deference to the local culture. I grew up punk and feminist and the Riot Grrrl in me asked herself if this was a conflict-but I secretly liked covering my head in Egypt…and my ankles in Morocco and my knees in Thailand. I think my self-satisfaction over dutifully abiding by another country’s cultural/religious values in the end supersedes my rebellion against those of my own country. Like, I will question my own culture but not someone else’s.

So I began to associate the scarf with far-flung parts of the world that I wanted to be lost in. A relic of ancient civilizations and spiritual traditions I wanted to be a part of. I wore it and was transported to another place or time where I’m anonymous and left to my own devices (I don’t know if you call this fetishizing…Sorry if it is)

Photo by Thomas Julian

Then I started to like the act of shrouding myself. There’s something about covering your head that makes you feel safe. Archetypally, to wear a scarf or veil is to cloister yourself from worldly life. I had a scarf on at the bank the other day when the clerk asked if I had the day off-as if to assume that I had to just duck out of the house for a moment and my scarf signaled that I didn’t want to be too engaged in the world (I did not have the day off-I wear my scarves to work-maybe because I don’t want to be there?).

Photo by Bruno Davey

These days, I’ve assigned another meaning to the headscarf. It also signifies aging gracefully (the Riot Grrrl in me definitely does not like this expression). At 36, I think about how I will adjust to changes in my appearance and what pieces might not work anymore. But my scarf is ever more a staple. In it, I feel wise and Empress-like. In my knowing. I have a station in life. And if I am ever unsure or feel too exposed to the elements, at least my headscarf has got me covered.

 

The Whirling Dervish

 

16th century --- 16th-Century Miniature Painting Depicting Dancing Dervishes --- Image by © Archivo Iconografico, S.A./CORBIS

Sufism is the mystical form of Islam. It’s peace-loving and pluralistic and predicates that love is the path to the divine. Communication with God is a personal experience so you may dance, sing, or bang on a drum and that’s a way of speaking with God. For this reason, it’s been banned in many societies by orthodox Muslims and puritan powers-that-be, who consider ritualistic song and dance outside of Quranic Law. So Sufism is kind of the wild child of Islam.

The whirling dervishes of the Mevlevi Order of Sufism are probably the West’s first association with Sufism. We know the dance, or at least the expression – “like a whirling dervish” – to characterize a frenetic or spastic person…a funny thing to say if you know the dervishes are actually in a state of Zen.

Because these whirlers are not dancing but praying. They pray to one of the great truths-that everything in the world is whirling, from the smallest cell to the galaxies of the universe. Everything is turning. Everything is in a state of flux/vibration/change. So to whirl is to join in this universal prayer.

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Their equally-recognizable clerical uniform also performs the role of conveying a spiritual message and prayer. If, for example, a member is on a higher plane, a sash is wrapped around the hat, signifying the gravestone that will one day stand at the head of their graves.

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The long tunic denotes a dervish’s worldly life, and when he casts it off during the whirling ceremony, he is turning his back on the world in order to get closer to God.

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The rida is a woolen, waist-length jacket that is worn by the sheikh of the dervish lodge. Made up of two equal pieces of cloth, the left side represents shari’a, or Islamic law, while the right side stands for education and truth.

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A sash, or kemer, is used as closure and is wound around the man’s waist three times to represent the knowledge of God, the seeing of God and the stage of true existence.

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After the republic of Turkey was established in 1923, a series of laws were promulgated to eliminate any reminders of the Ottoman Empire. The Dervishes were outlawed and went underground. Clandestine ceremonies are still performed. But you can no longer see the clerical garb in public save for tourist attractions. 

But we have runways to thank for recreating the past through appropriation. Traditions are kept alive through designers’ reinterpreted creations. Carolina Herrera, Tia Cibani, Damir Doma, and Josie Natori:

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The dervishes serve as a reminder that anything can happen. Today does not define tomorrow. Everything in the world is vibrating, including you and I. Our current situation is just that – our current situation. It does not dictate tomorrow. Let’s celebrate the mutable nature of the universe and the fact that we are constantly operating in the field of potentiality. And remember that anything can change/turn/go in reverse at any moment.

 

Morocco

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I’ve been meditating for about 2 years now. I knew I’d gotten to my next level in meditation when I saw what I later learned is called, “the Blue Pearl.” A luminous, spiraling ball of blue fire that centers itself in your crown chakra and overwhelms you with a feeling of peace and chill. I’ve only experienced the Blue Pearl twice since then. Once in another mediation and later, encountered it in Morocco.

It’s been a lifelong dream to see Tangiers. All my favorites found inspiration here – Yves Saint Laurent, Paul Bowles, the Rolling Stones. It’s known for being a bit of a salty city, and I love dark corners.

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The souks are choc-o-bloc with everything I’ve ever wanted. If I had to pick a favorite design aesthetic, Moroccan is it. The latticework, complex geometry and talismanic motifs – it’s like they contain some sort of esoteric algorithm behind the meaning of the human experience. What are you really seeing in a mandala? It’s a plan that represents the cosmos and hidden workings of the universe. It’s man expressing his existence in print and pattern.

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I trawl the souks and feel dizzy. I actually love the crap for tourists but it’s the older, artisan-made pieces that really grab me – those exude magic powers.

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The Evil Eye is one of my auspicious omens. I carry one with me at all times, and look for it when I need a sign from the universe that it’s all good. This metal, hand-stamped purse makes a good wall hanging.

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The Hand of Fatima wards off the evil eye and it’s another one of my omens. I don’t have to look far for it when in Morocco, home to the nomadic Berber people who know its powers.

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Deepak Chopra talks a lot about the Law of Least Effort. Try too hard for something or be too attached to it and you will jeopardize your chances of getting it. Release that sicky, yearning, have-to-have-it feeling and let it come to you.

There was a single shop in the city that I had been trying to find in the winding, Kafkaesque passages of the casbah that I had spent hours looking for when I finally gave up. The next day, I wandered aimlessly into a space with the most beautiful collection of objects I had ever seen and realized – this is the place I had been looking for! I spent the afternoon talking to the proprietor, a man who had been collecting treasures around the world for decades until he turned his collection into a shop and showroom. I asked him what his favorite piece was when he showed me a colossal amber necklace made of beads the size of golf balls (not for sale). He served tea and told me a story about how it took him 10 years and one sacrificial goat to convince the owner – an African tribesgirl who needed money for a dowry – to sell the necklace bead-by-bead. I was forbidden to photograph but I surreptitiously got in a shot of some wall hangings.

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Another serendipitous occurrence: The single restaurant on my to-do list was a little seafood place I’d heard about. It had like 10 colloquial names (the Saveur de Poisson, or Restaurant Populare, or Popeye’s, to name a few) and was run by this eccentric Moroccan man in a Fez who haphazardly circles the floor repeating the words, “waka waka waka.”

My first day in Tangiers and I was exhausted from the flight and struck by a sudden need to eat. I ducked into the first restaurant I could find and sat down. And what do you think I heard but, “waka waka waka”! I looked over and saw the lovely man in a Fez and knew this was meal was meant to be.

The food was amazing but the best part was at the end of my feast, “Popeye” approached my table and wordlessly beckoned me to the back of the restaurant (maybe he’s been saying “walk-a walk-a walk-a” this whole time?). I followed him to a storage room, where he thrust over my head a vintage 60s caftan, exclaiming “antique!” Tiny – just my size – with these swirling arabesques and a satin-ey finish. It had an unusual, otherworldly scent – something like a combination of flavored tobacco and clay (and it filled my suitcase and then my apartment for weeks after my return). And I walked out of the restaurant in it, joining all the other caftan-clad ladies of the casbah. I’ll never know the meaning of this gesture. Maybe he’d been saving that dress for just the right petite-sized magpie to pass through his door? Or maybe he was concerned I wasn’t dressed modestly enough (I wasn’t). In any case, it was the perfect memento of my magical time in Morocco.

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I make a shopping pilgrimage to Chefchaouen, a town in the Rif Mountains (read: “Reefer;” it’s the epicenter of Morocco’s weed industry). I hear there’s good deals on Berber relics and I’m on a mission for an authentic Berber headpiece. Chefchaouen is a strange, Seussian world of ramshackle, blue-tinted buildings that give it a sort of supernatural energy (or maybe it’s all the pot).

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Weeks after this trip, I look into what the blue was all about. I learn that the original Jewish residents established this tradition of painting the town top-to-bottom sky blue to mirror the heavens and remind them of God. And low and behold, I learn the nickname for this paranormal place – The Blue Pearl.

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The Romanian Blouse

Romania-my father’s country-is a place so mystical in beliefs and traditions that it’s really known for little else. Fortune-tellers, vampires and gypsies are generally people’s go-to associations (much to Dad’s resentment-he’s a scientist and long-time American citizen, eschewing any witchy, old-world identity). But there is actually a deep spirituality in the people that goes beyond the Disneyfication stuff and it plays out in really authentic, magic-making ways.

The blouse is the totem of Romanian folk dress and most people’s idea of a peasant top, with dense bands of embroidered geometric motifs and long, exaggerated sleeves. It’s has been co-opted up and down the fashion spectrum, from dumb, fast fashion brands like Urban Outfitters to amazing designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Jean Paul Gaultier. It got art world glory when Matisse painted it so vibrantly in his “La Blouse Roumaine” as an antidote to the darkest wartime years. Queen Mary of Romania made it her signature to show allegiance with her people.

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But beyond the pop celebration of the blouse is its secret life-a mystical narrative that has gotten a bit lost in so many generations of appropriation.

The magic is in the making. Designed and woven by a woman essentially writing her own destiny, it’s a powerful tool for manifestation. Every stitch in the motif is intentional and meaningful as she embroiders her wishes and will into the piece with symbols of fertility, love and spells against evil. There is an alphabet to it. A tree or branch represents wisdom and renewal. The sunflower means abundance-an especially meaningful symbol if you understand the importance of the sun in Romania, a traditionally agricultural society.

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On the rather witchy national holiday of Sanziene, or the Festival of Fairies, village women wear their blouse and handwoven crown of flowers, grab their love interest, and dance with them around a bonfire. Then a bizarre and somewhat macabre tradition ensues: the crowns are thrown onto the roofs of the village houses. If the crown falls, it’s said that death will befall the owners; if it stays up, then they see good harvest and abundance.

It’s said that later that night, the heavens open up, making it a favorable time for magic spells. Also, plants harvested have magical powers.

I own a few Romanian blouses. And a strange thing about wearing it is I feel more…intrinsically me. Like I’ve become a stripped down, transcendental version of myself. I exist in relation to nothing. I feel free of references. Or maybe I exist only in relation to myself. I am my own source. So is this an ego-dissolving exercise? Or maybe a reinforcement of cultural identity (the opposite of dissolving the ego I guess…maybe there is conflict there..hmm). It’s not a new idea, to clothe ourselves in the dress of our ancestors in effort to connect with them. In any case, I feel at home.

A funny thing happened as I was searching for images for this post. I stumbled upon a photo of Smaranda Braescu, the first Romanian pilot and record-breaking parachutist, nicknamed the Queen of Heights. She is seated in a cockpit, perhaps about to take off. I studied her image: her expression-a devilish grin-shows she is immensely pleased with herself. The twist of her body as she seems to be turning to onlookers and saying, “Goodbye and fuck you, I am going to go live my life!” Her hair, tied into two braids, so nationalistic and proud.  And then there is the blouse. An odd choice for a flight suit, totally out-of-context and yet fitting because it supports this powerful air of defiance and irreverence that she has.

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So I stare at this image-and burst into tears. She looks free. Superfluously happy, uncaring, ready to soar into the sky, conceding to no one’s idea of what it meant for a woman to fly and to jump out of airplanes in the 1920s. She’s who I aspire to be. And this moment is all wrapped up in these other beloved associations I’m having right now: The blouse and this girl-they are about Dad, about roots, about the divine feminine and probably a bunch of other stuff but I’m too emotional to sort it out completely.

And the blouse is this billowy, breezy armor shielding her from any outside crap. It shelters and separates. Like the proverbial veil between two worlds-the physical and the spiritual. She should be in her bomber jacket, being protected from sub zero temperatures but right now she is shrouded in a more spiritual kind of protection.

What can I say-this post is coming out differently than I had thought. And this blouse feels even more transportive than when I set out to write about it. I want to be this girl, and that’s why I’m getting myself into a tizzy, but really these are kind of cathartic tears of love. I have love for her and I want to inhabit such a kind of place in this world as she. I want to find all the joy, autonomy and creative fulfillment that she has. But I’ve got my blouse, and the protection of my ancestors and my own kind of magical narrative that I write for myself, so I think I’ll get to where I’m going. Xo

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