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Entangled Identities: Ritual Performance of Alevi in an Urban Area

By Seyhan Kayhan-Kilic, Ph.D. Cultural Anthropology

Alevi is a religious community found in Turkey, the Balkans, Iran and Syria. The Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic languages are appropriately used amongst the Alevi. In the Balkan area, the they are generally known as the Bektashis. Today, we can see them in different areas around the world. They migrated from their hometowns to major cities. These cities were to be found both inside their own home country or abroad in Germany, England, France, USA, Canada… etc.

Over the past two decades, there has been considerable debate concerning the identity of the Alevi. I shall now briefly explain those the debates. Some Alevi identify themselves as Muslim. They think that Alevism as an interpretation within Islam but, they think of themselves as non-Sunnis. Their belief is distantly related to Shiism. So, Alevism is a branch of Shi’a Islam. They are a minority group within Turkey. Sadly, they are persecuted by the majority Sunnis due to religious belief.

Other groups emphasize Alevi as an ancient belief of the Turks and their adoption of Islam. So, it is believed that the Turks kept many the old beliefs when they accepted Islam. They established connections between the new religion and their old beliefs. Here, the corresponding functions of Alevi may be described as adjustive, adaptive, and integrative.

There is another ongoing debate that sees Alevi as a sort of popular belief of those who live in rural areas and outside of Islamic orthodoxy. Popular belief was shaped by an environment of subsistence. People who advocate of this idea think that there is no obvious distinction between Alevis and Sunnis. Both Alevis and Sunnis live in a similar natural environment. They have similar economic and social\cultural conditions in their rural areas. Since the Alevis and Sunnis migrated to urban areas, their economic and social and political situation has changed significantly. They have become distinct from each other.

The last debate suggests or proposes that they are non-Muslim and that Alevism is a unique religion around the world. It is a considerable debate and perpetuated by both those inside and outside of the Alevi community. The folk believe that the identity, history and especially the place of worship, and the performances of the Alevis are quite different from Islam. Hence, Alevism must be categorically evaluated in a different way.

All of the discussions about Alevi beliefs were in the framework of syncretism, heterodoxy or some very local tradition. Their traditional culture has been lost due to economic and life challenges much like other traditional cultures would seem to have done around the world. This is noted not only individually, but also collectively and even globally. It is important to highlight that the change of the traditional cultures of Alevis first appeared when they migrated from rural to urban areas. Most of the Alevis couldn’t carry on their identity and culture when they migrated from their hometown to the areas where they live. Most have lost their sense of ocak identity.

I shall provide more in-depth information about the ocak here. The term ocak is a dominant symbol and it has multiple “significata”. Actually, ocak is linked to the fireplace or hearth, which implies cooking. Beliefs are strengthened and alleviated around the fire. The ocak refers to the sacred linage, supernatural powers of elders, descendants of dede families. Dede is the religious leader of Alevis. Their lineage comes from the historical, charismatic and religious ocak’s leader. The ocak represents dede’s family and their kinship as well. Although each Alevi belongs to an ocak, by birth, the system of ocak vanishes or is significantly changed because of the immigration of the talips and dedes.

At this time, the religious teaching of the Alevis is provided by many foundations and associations in urban areas. Foundations and associations are the place where includes places of worship for representations of their ritual performances named again gathering house (cemevi). Their ritual performances named cem is also an act of worship performed as a congregation.

Through the periodic performance of cem rituals, Alevis regularly remember their history and troth the saints to reaffirm their identity.  Hence, the union (birlik) cem rituals maintain unity for those Alevi that no longer have an ocak or religious leader and wish to return. Union (birlik) cem rituals has an education role in urban areas. Alevis would collectively buy sacrificial sheep and prepare food. They perform the ritual to maintain community conformity and fertility.

I shall now give the examples of ritual manifestations in urban areas to justify the idea of Alevi’s entangled identity. In recent years, elements of different religious identities have been let into the Alevi rituals celebrated in several urban areas such as Shiahs/Caferis and Mevlevis. For instance, semah is a religious dance of the Alevis. It is performed by both men and women. The semah participants communicate with each other through the use of words, movements, gestures, rhythms and melodies. On the other hand, it is well known that the sema is also a traditional ritual dance of the Mevlevis, a Sunni and Sufi-order within Islam still active in Turkey and is performed in their rituals as well. The Mevlevi sema is characterized by the whirling dervishes with the accompaniment of musical instruments, such as flute and tambourines. However, only males are allowed to dance. Today, the sema is also performed in the Alevi cem ritual along with the Alevi religious dance of the semah. While the semah dance performers turn in a circle, in the cem ritual there is a sema dance performer in the midst of the circle (Figure 1). This is a kind of composition. (Video: 1:34:44-1:42:53). Hence, these kinds of rituals can be seen as a current example of the entangled identity of Alevis.

Figure 1. Semah on February 17, 2016, Ikitelli Cemevi by Seyhan Kayhan Kılıç.

I previously gave a very short explanation of the ocak. So, I do not wish to repeat myself.  In most rural areas, and in each ocak, both males and females are uniquely dressed (Figure 2). Or, they wear same during the cem ritual with their daily life (Figure 3). In urban areas, ritual clothes are determined by each Alevi association. In recent years female performers have begun to wear black clothes. They also cover their heads with black during cem rituals. When they are twirling during this religious dance, their clothes can be seen to be very similar to the Caferi female clothes. ( Caferis are primarily a religious group belonging to Shi’a Islam. Caferis are non-Sunni Muslim. The most important commonality between the Alevis and Caferis is a belief that the Prophet Muhammad is loved by his family (Ahl’al Beyt) and the Twelve Imams, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

Figure 2. Semah on March 02, 2014 Hubyar Sultan Ocak. Ikitelli Cemevi by Seyhan Kayhan Kilic
Figure 3. Semah on September 02-03, 2011 Kececi Baba Ocak. Kececi Village by Seyhan Kayhan Kilic

Sunni Islam criticizes Alevis that their objective and ritual order is not standardized amongst the ocaks. This is because Alevi foundations try to standardize order of ritual activities to accomplish homogeneous structure in urban areas. In the traditional Alevi rituals, mostly persons are oriented directly to towards face-to-face and while seated, men and women are not separated (Figure 4). In addition, raki includes alcohol is a ritual drink which named dolu in the ritual. Today, in many ocaks, participants drink water instead of raki during cem rituals. The rule has changed, because they do not want to be judged by the others.

Figure 4. Interactions of participants. on June 02, 2013 in Turkali Village by Seyhan Kayhan Kılıç

In urban areas, they want to eliminate the prejudices of Sunni Muslims. This is because men and women are mostly separated in a ritual circle. At least, during the cem ritual, dede establish a highly hierarchical structure, but the dede’s place is not higher than the participants. They all sit on the cushions over the floor. There is only a post, upon which the dede sits. In urban areas dedes are sharply separated from the participants (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Semah on February 17, 2016, Ikitelli Cemevi by Seyhan Kayhan Kılıç

Hence, these kinds of rituals can be seen as a current example of the entangled identity of Alevis. The most important issue is how and why the Alevis are affected by other religious orders. Here, I shall explain something about my ethnographic method and how I plan to conduct my study and my preferences. As I mentioned previously, the structure of the Alevi rituals is based upon the tradition of the ocak. Hence, over the past ten years, I have focused on ocaks to better understand the Alevis. Now, I believe that comparison is possible between the traditional rituals and the re-affirmed and reacted rituals of Alevis in urban areas. I do this by using enriched fieldwork knowledge of their tradition. My observation is based on my participation in cem rituals. I also conducted in depth interviews with individuals during my fieldwork studies in different rural areas.

As a result, my objective shouldn’t be to verify the Alevi identity and their origins. With the completed fieldwork studies, I plan to write a paper on how I read the entangled identity of Alevis through physical, verbal and behavioral manifestations in their rituals. My principle focus will be this: With respect to Alevis in urban areas, do they reaffirm their identity through rituals, reinterpretation and debate? What are the roles of migration from rural areas to urban centres? What elements are found in their rituals to support the idea of the Alevi’s entangled identity? What defines their entangled identity?

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