Keywords: memory; Alevi; religion, Turkey; Sunni; Sufi; sema; Mevlevi; whirling dervish
Yesterday the paper gave some brain exercise tips. It seems that old people who are losing their memory can recover somewhat by exercising the old neurons in a rigorous way. However, the brain calisthenics that they described don’t seem like exercise but rather like ways of coping when the memory fails. Making lists is the key thing. I do that already. I couldn’t go shopping for five items successfully unless I made a list or at least developed some kind of mnemonic device for each item.
But I did learn one possibly helpful tip: keep a log of my the memory lapses. I decided to try it, and now there’s a yellow stickie note on my computer saying “dandelion, Alevi, Joy's Japanese friend, Peter Ackerman, Cynthia Who? (Erindale gal).” These are words that I couldn’t recall in the past few days. All except one are proper names.
The article suggests that many old people forget to do things, or lose their keys and other personal items. I don’t think I’m losing the ability to manage things in that sense. It’s mostly names, but that failing can wreck a whole line of conversation. I wanted introduce Joy’s Japanese friend the other day but I couldn’t remember her name, so I left her un-introduced, though maybe that was more impolite than asking her name when I should have known it.
It was the same with the word Alevi.” I’ve forgotten that word two or three times before. This time I was with friends who had been to Turkey and I wanted to discuss the situation of the Alevi people, but all I could say was, “There’s a certain pain medication that has almost the same name. It starts with A.” My friends guessed: aspirin? No. None of us came up with “Aleve,” the name that would have triggered my memory.
A week later it came to me — Alevi — and I put it onto my new yellow sticky log of mental lapses. I also decided to study up on the Alevi, to pound their memory into my head harder. One should not let things escape the mind without putting up a struggle. And so this investigation took over my day.
I printed out and read everything Wikipedia says about Alevism and spent three hours pursuing other leads. Oddly, my friends wouldn’t have been able to discuss them anyhow, because they had never heard of the Alevi, which is a pity. They are a stigmatized religious community — the second largest one in Turkey, comprising between 25 and 50 percent of the Turkish population, living mostly in Anatolia — who survived only by hiding their identity for centuries.
Admit the truth: Do you know who the Alevi are? No? That’s because, fifty years ago if you had asked one of them point blank whether he was Alevi, he would have denied it. He might even have attended mosque, prayed five times a day, and observed Ramadan just to pass as Sunni, the dominant religious group in Turkey. Only lately have the Alevi been coming out publicly, asserting their identity and learning their own traditions, which they themselves had come close to losing because of this secrecy.
About three years ago I met a Turkish guy here in Canada who told me about his religion. I was the first time I’d ever heard of them. Unfortunately, he didn’t really know enough to describe the group correctly, and today I’ve been studying Google, You-Tube, and Wikipedia to correct the misinformation he gave me.
I don’t think he was trying to mislead me, but he told me that the Alevis are not Muslim. (Actually, they are Shi'a Muslims.) And he told me that they do a whirling dance as part of their ritual, but when I asked whether they are Sufi, he said no. (Actually, they are Sufi.)
I wondered whether their dance, the “sema,” is the same as that of the so-called “whirling dervishes,” who belong to the Mevlevi Order. So I’ve watched several You-Tube videos of sema performances. The Alevi dances do include a bit of whirling, but not nearly as much as the famous Mevlevi dervish men, who constantly whirl, wearing tall hats and white full skirts. The Alevi don’t seem to be in a meditative state during their sema, but they do wind up kneeling and bowing.
I admire the Alevi. In no way do they resemble stereotypical Muslim extremists. Like all other Shi’ites, they do revere Ali, Mohamed’s son-in-law and the Twelve Imams of his house. However, their religion is an expressive, mystical spirituality with a strong aesthetic dimension — a religion of the heart. They teach love and tolerance. Their everyday style of dress and behavior are secular, but spiritual values suffuse these secular activities. Alevi women have full rights and do not have to go about in veils. In his day, Kemal Ataturk, who modernized Turkey, could count on the enthusiastic support of the Alevis. Indeed, as Mark Dressler writes:
“Entering Alevi spaces, such as association buildings, private living rooms, or cemevis, one is very often confronted by a surprising visual arrangement: the portraits of the two Alevi saints, Ali and Haci Bektas, accompanied by that of Kemal Ataturk, the founding father and first president of the Turkish Republic, whose picture is almost omnipresent in Turkey. Ataturk is commonly understood as a symbol for the state ideology of Kemalism, especially its key republican and secularist principles. Some Alevis, however, not only strongly uphold these republican and secularist principles, but also give them a religious meaning. These Alevis honor Ataturk as a saint, and also embed laicism and certain themes of republican history into their religious narrative.”
The fusion of politics with religion, of spirituality with secularism, supposedly reflects a distinctive aspect of Alevi culture. As Dressler puts it,
“the Alevi worldview has no proper equivalents for a paradigmatic way of thinking that explores religion by reference to dichotomous notions like religious/secular, religious/political or sacred/profane--especially if these notions are conceptualized in an essentialist manner.”
How refreshing! Alevis do distinguish between the outer forms of religious and its inner meaning, which is what is truly important. That is why they are not particularly concerned with the literal meaning of the Koran or the practical religious obligations prescribed by orthodox Islam, such as the haj to Mecca, fasting, and ritual prayer. I like that.
I also like the fact that no clear distinction is maintained between God and the world. God is not transcendent but immanent. He is in the human being, but not in the Koran. There is an Alevi saying: “The greatest book to read is the human being.”
Lovely. It’s been a good day. That happens sometimes when I can allow my curiosity to carry me off into unexpected excursions. It probably does nothing for my failing memory, but it’s good for the soul.