Celebrating Rumi: An Alchemical Feast of Food Poetry and Music
by Greg Stewart
On a blustery autumn night in the Lower East Side I found my way into a birthday celebration for the beloved Sufi poet, Rumi. In the 13th century this great lyricist and spiritualist lived amidst the Persian culture, in what is now present day Afghanistan. Rumi was born into a traditional Persian family; they were active in the world of Islamic preaching for many generations and Rumi continued this tradition. He went on to become a prolific writer, especially in the world of Islamic mysticism. Rumi popularized the form of meditative dance known as Sama. The story of Rumi is rich and full of a complex history; one important aspect in his life was the moment when he met an individual named Shams-e Tabrizi, the man who converted him from a strict jurist and teacher of traditional Islam into an ascetic. He went from there to establish a school of specifically mystical philosophy known as Sufism. Rumi and Sufistic ideas are predicated on the following doctrines; unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. Here is a poem titled The True Sufi by Rumi for your consideration:
The True Sufi
What makes the Sufi? Purity of heart;
Not the patched mantle and the lust perverse
Of those vile earth-bound men who steal his name.
He in all dregs discerns the essence pure:
In hardship ease, in tribulation joy.
The phantom sentries, who with batons drawn
Guard Beauty’s place-gate and curtained bower,
Give way before him, unafraid he passes,
And showing the King’s arrow, enters in.
The room smelt of Chacrona and Jagube, an incense made with Psychotria Viridis, Chacrona Leaf and Banosteriopsis Cappi, and Jagube Vine. Together these are the fundamental ingredients used during the preparation of the sacramental entheogenic Ayahuasca. A comforting scent which reminded me of the many small shops in Upstate New York and on Long Island which sold anything from records to crystals to books. Mom and pop shops of yesteryear experiences rattled about in my brain. Older folks who have settled into comfortable places in order to peddle goods to college students and suburbanites; a welcoming hippie smell.
So in this retail space on a quiet First Street and a bustling Second Avenue, I got a taste of Persian culture. Quite literally that is, for this event included a dinner. There was a wonderful spread upon a big wooden table right in the center of the upstairs area of the building. I entered through the glass doors, walked past the bar/open kitchen where a couple of baristas were happily preparing delicious tonics and elixirs for all of the guests to drink alongside the Anatolian cuisine. The food consisted of a yogurt soup made with rice and chickpeas, a vibrant green hummus, a traditional pastry made with wonderful spices and vegetables, a mixture of lentils with pine nuts, and veggies, and a traditional Persian dessert. The event was catered by Abracadabra Restaurant in Williamsburg. The chef, named Dilara, was one of the sweetest ladies I’ve ever met. She happily fed every person that walked through the door and gladly gave information to all who asked. She certainly made me feel like family when I spoke to her. The crowd for dinner was a comfortable size for the room. It was pleasant to see so many happy faces on a night that had such wicked, cold winds.
During this period, I got a chance to chat up some of the employees of The Alchemist’s Kitchen, including the president, the events coordinator, and the marketing manager. The Alchemist’s Kitchen functions on an in-house rental of space for products and services, as well as providing products, beverages, and light food items. They have many locally produced items represented along their walls and shelves, as well as products from outside of the New York metropolitan area. The open retail space in their upstairs was filled with pleasant conversation shared between friends, new and old. Echoes of laughter are interspersed between the soft strumming of Anatolian music through the speakers overhead. One product available at The Alchemist’s Kitchen is NutriDrip, a system of intravenous nutrient delivery based on a series of chemical compounds which they have available. With the options ranging from hangover cures to energy boosts and improved brain function, it appears to be a cure-all for whatever ails you. They provide other services, similar to spa treatments, but with a distinct focus on alternative medicine and spirituality. The Alchemist’s Kitchen is a botanical dispensary and whole-plant tonic bar serving elixirs and healthy treats; they are a gateway into a conscious lifestyle and community through plant-based products, wellness events, and transformational workshops.
Nessa Norich, the events curator for the past year, clued me into the origin story of Alchemist’s Kitchen over delicious soup and hibiscus tea. I learned from her that the whole project of The Alchemist’s Kitchen was started by Ken Jordan, an internet publisher who created SonicNet.com, the first multimedia music zine and digital music store in 1995. SonicNet was eventually bought by MTV, and now if you follow the link it brings you to VH1. Ken Jordan’s connection to publishing is directly linked to his father, Fred Jordan. He was the publisher of Grove Press and the Evergreen Review. Fred was also the publisher who took the place of the legendary André Schiffrin at Pantheon Books after a corporate gutting of the staff. His son, Ken, grew up realizing that the corporate, cookie cutter life was not the life he wanted to lead. Instead, he made his way onto the early internet, and was eventually brought out to the west coast to join a think tank known as PlaNetwork. This was a non-profit endeavor started by visionaries Jim Fournier and Elizabeth Thompson, individuals who saw the internet as a platform for working on ecological and social causes. Before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even MySpace, this think tank was working on the concept of the digital social network as a tool to bring like minded individuals together in order to enact social change. Ken wrote a long form thesis with the think tank titled the Augmented Social Network. This idea was based on the fact that it would be wise and efficient for individuals to have an identity within the digital space. These early ideas were basically like an online wallet for all of your personal information. It was intended to be a secure means for consumers to control their identity and data, which feels especially relevant nowadays with all the discourse about Big Data.
Ken Jordan started The Alchemist’s Kitchen out of the Evolver movement. This is the umbrella which the neat little spa shop is situated under. Evolver was started by Daniel Pinchbeck, a self-proclaimed addict for starting his own little magazines. He worked in some commercial art and lifestyle magazines as an editor before starting Open City with the fiction writer, Thomas Beller. This magazine survived due to its funding, originating from Rob Bingham, a short story writer and heir to a Southern newspaper fortune. However, through this success, Pinchbeck found no solace for his life’s goals and ambitions. He slowly worked through his fiction, but found himself stagnating. The fact that he was more interested in alternative lifestyles and psychedelic drugs than his peers lead to serious alienation and depression. He took many trips in life, visiting Gabon, and studying ayahuasca and LSD psychoanalyst Stanislav Grof for the Village Voice. Meanwhile, amidst his own studies and crises, Rob Bingham was found dead of a heroin overdose amidst page proofs of his first novel scattered about in his chaotic Tribeca loft.
Eventually, Pinchbeck bowed out of Open City, which still publishes to this day, in order to seriously focus on his books. But the itch got to him again. He had the need to start another little mag. This time, in 2007, he launched Reality Sandwich with Ken Jordan. The title is a pun on the writing of the beatniks. There was a flood of content that rushed to them. The world of psychedelics and alternative lifestyles was certainly quite large at the time, and it turned the magazine into a nexus where that culture, and mainstream social and environmental thought could intersect. This site had a decent following, and the featured articles often received hundreds of comments and the commentators often expressed a yearning to find others living near them who shared similar interests. This was three years after Facebook was founded. A time before it had billions of users, when it was just budding into the international sector.
One mission for Evolver is the organization of off-line real-world communities, which is why they opened up The Alchemist’s Kitchen about a year and a half ago, and run events a few times a week in their beautiful space.
After the delicious dinner our Sufi performer, Juliet Rabia Gentile, beckoned us to hush with a Farsi chant into her hand drum. The crowd quickly fell silent and we were told to enjoy the delicious Persian dessert, and to head downstairs. We were all ushered down into a space that had padded floors covered in woven blankets. We sat cross-legged in rows. The stage was modest, just a few microphones, music stands, and six chairs. Before each song, Juliet would read a poem from Rumi in English. All of the songs were Rumi poems sung in Farsi.
Everyone made this area a collective spiritual, ritual space, meant for the relaxation and meditation of everybody. We were invited to enter the cave of the heart in order to “let everything go,” a very strong theme in Rumi’s poetry. A truly Sufi event, the MC presents to us a moment of recognition for all Sufi orders and saints. Soft, mild tunes pour from the traditional instruments and the quiet, meditative crowd feels immersed in calm attention towards the performers.
The performers are people from all walks of life. Juliet has an interfaith background in community organization, two men are heavily involved in the world of Persian music, and two women play in Middle Eastern ensembles in New York. The final member, Gabriel Marin, was actually a familiar face to me. He is a member of the local Brooklyn band that has had remarkable success since their inception, Consider the Source. Their brand of psychedelic math rock is heavily influenced by the music of the Middle East and beyond. The whole group was remarkable in their skill and talent in coordinating the sounds of the instruments they played.
Juliet encouraged the crowd to chant which fostered a sense of togetherness, openness, and a certain spiritual uncovering reminiscent of breathing rituals practiced in yoga. Throughout the many songs, I felt a strong sense of peace. To our right was a performer of the traditional Sama dance, known as a whirling dervish. Our Sufi guide through the spiritual desert beckoned the crowd to stand with her, we all participated in a collective chant while we bounced together to the hypnotic rhythms of the band. We held hands in a circle and created music with this group. It was an extraordinary experience akin to something between a jam session and an intimate yoga group. This was by far one of the strangest and most fun experiences I have ever had in New York. The evening ended with pleasant smiles and the comfortable milling of the crowd which eventually poured out onto the chilly sidewalks and made their way home.
The Alchemist’s Kitchen is located at 21 E 1st Street and is open Sun-Wed 8AM-6PM and Thurs-Sat 8AM-8PM.
Abracadabra Brooklyn is located at 347 Bedford Ave, and is open every day from 8AM-9PM.