A Dervish’s Coat

Acne and Soul

It is very hard to start a piece about my own healing. My own healing and the insecurities that caused it are infinite. This is a piece about my healing. This is a piece for everyone who wants to smash their mirror because they scorn their face, for some reason they usually feel too ashamed to speak about. This piece is difficult. It comes from so many places. I can’t even find the quote I’m thinking on to start out this conversation: mainly because the quote exists in too many books, across large swaths of time. This piece is trying to pin my soul in time. As a follower of that Sufi path, as a daughter of the Dervish, I contend that on the esoteric side of all creeds, exists the truth that we are barely are bodies, and that we are trying to be only our soul.

I hesitate, however, to define the soul because I believe it has no definition. The problematic nature of theology stems from the fact that scholars look for definitions, believers look for behavior. Sufism, in extension, defined as the mystical form of Islam, belongs to every creed. It’s connection to Islam serves as a scholarly containment device, not as a representation of its true form. Anyone, from any belief, can be a Sufi. The dervish, also, held in commonality to be a Muslim holy man, saint, or missionary— doesn’t have to be Muslim at all. A dervish too can come from any place, any time, any religion.

The fact that you are not your physicality can be found in work from 3,500 BCE to the present. From Sufi Master Farid ud-din Attar, the man who was said to have balanced Rumi, another great Sufi Master, on his knee as a child; to Dr. Idries Shah, who synthesized Sufism during the advent of Modernism— the fact remains to those of us who see this way, that as a dervish, your soul is you. It is a part of the human experience. You are not your body, it sounds almost simple. With this inclusivity of terminology and history in mind, what do I mean when I say “I want to be my soul?" It is understandably off-putting. We live in a secular and diverse West, where the word “soul” is reduced to a consumable, often placid, version of itself. When heard in connection to divinity, and then the renunciation of beauty and physicality, it can make the average reader scorn even more.

Yet if you are already scorning your face, if you are already smashing your mirror, your options for anger become rather slim. I realized when I began to hate my face and every scar and scab that came with it, that I was not doing my own beliefs justice. I am a scholar at times, but I am a believer all the time. Sufism, in its own way, deals with epistemology, the theory of knowing- albeit it does not look for answers, but just encourages the need to ask a lot of questions. "Why do I feel ugly?” Became the chief question I posed to myself.

Beauty is very potent part of everyday life. For women, it is also the most exhausting. To be beautiful in every waking moment is incredibly hard, no exaggerated language needed. When it came to me dealing with why it is difficult, the loaded nature of the question was answer enough. This isn’t a conversation on beauty standards or the objectification of femininity in modern society. Going into the anthropological, aesthetic, or sociological history of wanting to be beautiful doesn’t serve anyone's purpose. It won’t help me, or really anyone who faces crippling insecurities. This conversation chiefly is about my acne, and how the race to get rid of it found me searching for material definitions, over soulful behavior.

I have acne. I have little acne sometimes, a lot of acne at other times. There are times when it is almost gone— then my hormones spike, and my skin begins to produce sebum at rates I still don’t believe to be real. It shocks me and fills me with a smug sense of bewilderment; that my pores, smaller than needle eyes, can hold over a teaspoon of blood and puss. My skin hurts. My pores bleed. I am textured. I am scabbed. I am considered, at my natural state, ugly, by societal standards. I am tired of people trying to romanticize my acne. I am tired of trying to justify it myself. I have studied book after book looking for its place in the cultures that breed me— it seems no one has ever spoken about it. If in this age, they do speak about it, it is to get rid of it. You must look to the future: a future in which your skin is flawless, a future in which you do not bear the blood sacrifice of popping zits and whiteheads until your face hurts.

That is not my future. I can’t say for sure that my acne will go away. That isn’t the point. I have this acne now. It covers my entire body. All over my skin, I boil up and bleed out. This is the state of my being. The state of my physical being, that is. I often remind myself that I am my soul, but when it comes to exhausting myself by trying to attain beauty standards, these active reminders go silent. I see my skin as the only thing seen by others. A new pimple means a new scar and a new scar means a new mark and a new mark makes me suicidal. Anyone who has dealt with this knows that acne breeds an all-encompassing tension in your being. There is a physical dread you feel when you cannot like the face you see in the mirror. You begin to think people only see your skin, but this is, as I continually remind myself, incorrect. People see the collective that is me, they do not see my skin. I am not just my skin. I am my soul. The skin that wraps it is a compliment, is a coat. It is my dervish’s coat.

In old fables of forgotten days; dervish’s, defined early as an ethereal mystic men, are said to wear patched coats of mismatched fabrics. Coats so holy that king’s robes are written to be worthless in comparison. It is by those coats that they were identified and granted passage into rooms too secret for the common man, it is by those coats that their practices and rituals were passed down through time. For so long I only saw those coats as literal coats. Images of robed men with long beards and eyes full of noor filled my mind when reading lore- but I failed to see that if I am my soul, those masters are their souls too. Everything on the Path is a metaphor, everything is a double meaning, everything is a representative symbol. A coat for the soul is the skin that binds it to this world. My scabbed, bumpy, and forever dynamic skin is not a mark of disdain, it the coat of a dervish. It is proof that I am my soul, and that my soul is wrapped in holy patched fabric.

I disagree with anyone who calls this another ploy to justify a feature I dislike. I have fought hard to love myself, I waver on it because I am human. Acne is difficult. But it is proof, at least, that I know how to heal. I know how to sew into my coat new fabrics and stitches time and time again. The problem with how society portrays acne is that it is dealt with in the future tense. We do not look back. Look back at every scar and scab that has healed, look back at how your skin’s texture has changed through the months and years. Look back and see that your skin, if not clear, is dynamic, and that proves that you too are dynamic.

I am a devotee of God; I see my relationship with divinity to be paramount to any other. That devotion takes many shapes, it is not just prayer. It is understanding that I am my soul. It is accepting my dervish’s coat. It is allowing myself the catharsis of looking back at my old self to see that “bad skin” is language I can silence. There are scores of women, and in extension, scores of people on the broad spectrum of gender identity, who exhaust themselves with the forced need to be beautiful by a standard they did not create for themselves. To those individuals, I offer no moral lesson, no didactic response. I simply want to offer them another option, that your physicality is only the beginning of the person you claim. How you choose to contextualize your inner self, the understanding that it is your person is very crucial in letting go of the exhaustion beauty can cause. The scorn you feel towards your physical attributes are makings on the world you happen to inhabit very physically, you do not have to, in any way let that scorn enter the soul that inhabits you intrinsically.

I look back at old selfies and see how my dark spots have shifted. In 2015, I only broke out on my forehead. In 2017, my cheeks erupt and bleed to leave new scars gracing my contour. I remember who I was in those photos, I realize that I find myself beautiful in those photos- even if I knew my acne at that time was worse. We romanticize the past, because we rarely let ourselves look at it, and in the process, forget that our bodies are not the be all end all’s to our being. My new goal is not to get rid of my acne, it is to get rid of the exhaustion I have caused myself from craving beauty. My new promise is to remind myself that I am always a believer first and that instead of fiending for definitions to justify myself, I should simply behave kindly to my inner person. My new goal is to love my skin as a dervish’s coat— to let it hold secrets and traditions, to let it simply exist without expectation. My new goal is not to “love myself.” It is to be my soul, only my soul, and always my soul. My new goal is to look at my skin and say Alhumdulilah, instead of Inshallah.

An essay by Suraiya Ali