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A Place of Their Own
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From Ritual to Revolution

Alevi and Sunni attitudes to their stay in Germany seem to differ. More Alevis appear to stay. Not only have Alevis left behind their minority religious status, they also have left a particularly difficult political and economic situation. Many are from the poor eastern, Kurdish regions that have been under martial law and suffered protracted civil war. Thus Alevis tend to see themselves as staying in Germany indefinitely. They are more apt than Sunnis to invest in nicer and costlier flats, while Sunnis might stick to a slum and a simple diet of beans, rice, and bread in order to save their money for investment in property or a business in Turkey. I contend that Alevis, by virtue of their historical tenacity in the face of centuries of repression, massacres, and discrimination, see in Germany, not a land of infidels whose influence is to be feared and avoided, but rather a land of opportunity and tolerance, neither of which they have found in Turkey.

Today, in Europe, several Alevi groups conceive of themselves in explicitly political—and national—terms. Perhaps the most extreme, a group calling itself “Kizil Yol” or Red Path, advocates the founding of “Alevistan,” or a nation of Alevis. Taking its model from the struggles of Kurdish separatists for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan, these followers of the Red Path are criticized by some on the grounds that Alevilik (Aleviness) is a religion, not a nationality. Most Alevis would not support this nationalist expression of Alevilik, and Kizil Yol is far from representative. Nonetheless, the notion of “Alevistan” is compelling, for it suggests the emergence in the diaspora of a consciously discrete identity that gravitates around a fantastic center.

Thus, it is precisely because of their absence from Turkey and their presence in gurbet, in diaspora, that some Alevis have begun to refashion their identity. Moreover, this condition has afforded them the political and conceptual freedom in which to imagine a nation-state for themselves. In terms of notions of place, it is important to note the influence of the discourse of Western nationalisms, and particularly the idea of the nation-state. For what is perhaps the first time, Alevis have begun to conceptualize themselves in terms of place, in a jargon borrowed from the West—territory.

In Turkey, anti-Alevi repression is felt in multiple realms, in explicitly political activity, and also in the religious domain. In particular, the Alevi practice of their central communal ritual, the cem (pronounced “gem”), was until recently outlawed.[12] The cem is the secret communal Alevi-Bektasi ritual of solidarity and “collective effervescence,” involving song, music, and dervish trance dancing, as well as a reenactment of the martyrdom of Husain (cf. Schubel, this volume). As part of Atatürk’s secularization policies, a law enacted in 1925 closed down all tarikats—religious, often dervish, orders—and forbade their ceremonies and practices. Even prior to this ban, the Alevis were forced to practice the rite of cem in secret. The clandestine nature of the cem is not only suggestive of a restrictive and oppressive political and social climate but resonates as well with the dissimulation condoned and practiced by the Alevis. In addition, the ceremony itself reproduces an identification with the oppression and martyrdom of ‘Ali, Hasan, and Husain.

In this diaspora, the celebration of the cem ritual provides a collective grounding for displaced Alevis. Similarly, it offers a familiar and emotionally charged mytho-historical charter, providing and suggesting an associated code for conduct. In recent years it has been celebrated approximately on an annual basis, although in a novel form and setting. A cem that I attended took place in a run-down working-class district of Berlin whose population boasts a high proportion of foreign—primarily Turkish—residents. It was held in a large hall, deep in a complex of large, old Hinterhäuser (like that in fig. 28), now converted and rented out for discos, parties, and the occasional religious ritual.

This cem was attended by about three hundred people, fairly evenly divided among genders and generations. It was complete with the sacrificed animal, divided, cooked, and eaten together. All presented niyaz offerings of food to the presiding dede. Several musicians played the baglama, or saz, throughout the ceremony. After the emotionally charged dousing of the candles (for the twelve imams and martyrs) came the semah, a type of music and dance associated not only with the Alevis but with dervishes generally. There are many varieties of semah, and the men and women who rose to dance to saz music represented stylistic and regional variants. The music is highly rhythmic, begins slowly, then speeds up as the dancers enter a dervish, or ecstatic trance state.[13]

The ritual and the feast are geographically movable. The organizers had brought the proper decor and affixed it to the wall behind the pirs (who are members of holy lineages). This consisted of pictures of Ali, Hasan, Husain, the other imams, Haci Bektash, the Bektashi Pir Ulusoy, and, to be safe (again, dissimulation), there was a large portrait of Kemal Atatürk. Above all these hung the Turkish flag.

Not only did this Berlin cem occur in an unconventional space, the time continuum was radically transformed as well by the addition of a novel element: video. Three video cameras had been set up, with blinding lights, all operated by amateur cameramen. No one thought it peculiar or paid the cameras any heed. The multiple recordings of the ritual on videocassette offer new meaning to the concepts of participant, observer, and event. For example, a few days after the cem, I was in an Alevi home, and someone suggested they watch it on the VCR. It was put on, but after about five minutes the father of the family demanded that it be turned off. He could not tolerate the children laughing and playing in one part of the room and his cousins on the sofa next to him gossiping about what some of the people in the video were wearing. For him, the only way to watch it was to recapture the intensity and sober ambiance of the ritual itself.

Despite the warehouse environment and the foreign context, it is at events such as this cem that Alevi identity renews itself for the migrants and their children. Much of the novelty lies in the very composition of the group participating—for example, the juxtaposition of pirs from diverse regions of Turkey, all seated at the place of honor, the post, with the officiating dede—some of whom had only become acquainted with one another at the cem itself. Until very recently, such a cem probably would not, could not, take place in Turkey.[14] Yet in the diaspora, highly effective informal networks forge a community of a sort that has never existed at home, as it attempts to worship and celebrate in concert.

Conversely, in the diaspora context, some leftist Alevi activists have again reinterpreted the meaning of the cem. A young leftist Alevi man in Germany explaining the cem in terms of the progressive nature of Alevilik said to me, “Without women there can be no cem; without women there can be no revolution.” Thus, the cem becomes the metaphor and template for social change. Quintessentially polysemic, the cem emerges as a ritual act, either reactionary or revolutionary,[15] depending on the context and interpretation. In its very practice, then, it assumes historical importance as an expression and assertion of an identity that must struggle to survive against odds at home and abroad. In that assertion, historical meanings and relations are assimilated and reinterpreted in a new, contemporary context—for example, “revolution.”

Migrant Alevis have in many ways successfully reversed their hierarchical subordination to Sunni Turks. While steadfast in their Aleviness, they identify with and admire many aspects of German society that Sunnis find threatening. Modeling themselves on certain German, Western modes, they pride themselves on how modern they are, as opposed to the “backward” Sunnis. They point to what they see as their more “democratic, tolerant, and progressive” stance, and to the “marked” village clothing many Sunni women wear: flowing salvar pants, head scarves, and so on. Finally, Alevis tend to be more politically engaged in leftist politics and syndicalism than Sunnis, and, through such activities, have greater contact with Germans. This greater contact with Germans reinforces their self-image as “tolerant.”

The differences between Sunni and Alevi attitudes can be seen in the way the two groups speak of Germans. Alevis referring to Germans will say, for example, “They’re people, too,” whereas Sunnis tend to be critical and dismissive of Germans, commonly disparaging them as gavur. Although still peripheral with respect to Sunnis, the Alevis may be slightly less marginal than Sunnis in relation to mainstream German society. As a consequence of their greater acceptance of German ways and people, they have become more accepted by Germans than are many Sunnis. The status of Alevis is also raised in the eyes of Germans by the fact that they characteristically do not attend mosque, and perhaps also by some aspects of the practice of dissimulation.

While Alevis abroad are doubly marginal, with respect to both Germans and Sunni Turks, their relative position vis-à-vis Sunnis has undergone a transposition. In Germany, Sunni dominance has become less and less relevant as a reference point. Alevis had traditionally defined themselves primarily in opposition to Sunnis, and always in relation to them; now, in Germany, they have in some respects gradually replaced Sunnis with Germans as their salient other. Whereas some Alevis in Germany have taken advantage of Western freedoms to adopt a more inward, communal orientation, unfettered by past political and social constraints, others have opted for an ecumenical stance, and still others choose to dissociate themselves from anything they perceive as religious.

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