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A Whirling Dervish for Turkey?

Was it his credentials or his name that catapulted Kemal Dervis to the top of the Turkish Economics Ministry?

March 8, 2001

Was it his credentials or his name that catapulted Kemal Dervis to the top of the Turkish Economics Ministry?

When it was announced in early March that Kemal Dervis would return to Ankara to become Turkey’s economics minister, Turkish media greeted the appointment with enthusiasm. Aside from Mr. Dervis’ impressive credentials, the main reason might be that his name is actually pronounced “dervish.” And dervishes — a prominent and varied group of Muslim mystics — enjoy great respect in Turkey’s overwhelmingly Muslim society.

In that light, the pronunciation of Mr. Dervis’ name may lead some newspapers to anticipate a howling dervish-like approach to the country’s economic woes. A closer look at the dervish tradition, however, reveals a very different picture.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the English use of the word ‘dervish’ as describing someone with boundless energy. This undoubtedly goes back to common Western images of the howling or whirling dervishes — more accurately known as sufis — who are famous for their trance-like, ecstatic dances during which they whirl around and around their long flowing robes.

An economics minister with boundless energy is certainly good news for Turkey. Yet, the dervishes that whirl around are but one group of the Muslim mystics. In fact, the actual word “dervish” derives from the Persian “darvesh.” And “darvesh,” believe it or not, means beggar.

Some cynics might think that this is a fitting description of someone who has decided to lead Turkey’s Economics Ministry in these turbulent times. After all, Mr. Dervis will have the task of rebuilding the country’s economy with virtually empty public coffers.

Of course, the similar pronunciation of “dervish” and Dervis could easily be dismissed as a freak coincidence. But there is more to the name than just a phonetic curiosity. Bear in mind that not all dervishes lived in monasteries. Some went on extended journeys wandering for years.

That is not unlike what Kemal Dervis did himself. He left Turkey when he was in his early 30s and lived abroad for the next 20 or so years. During his expatriate years, he worked at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where he was the Vice President for — another freak coincidence? — poverty reduction.

And even though it is unlikely that Kemal Dervis has any interest in turning himself or his country into beggars, many dervishes live a life of seclusion and meditation. Yet, meditation and a secluded life certainly do not appear to be the answer for Turkey’s troubles.

Rather, for the sake of Turkey’s economy and its financial institutions, it may be better to hope that Mr. Dervis will display the activism of the howling variety of the dervishes. As a nation in economic turmoil from the political feuding between Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Turkey surely needs someone with boundless energy.