The Bektashi of Kayabelen

[slideshow] Sitting in the family room of the Cinars, I am surrounded by mothers holding children to my right and men against the wall to my left. Lunch has been laid out on the floor and we’ve all had our fill of fried sausage, feta cheese, olives, potato bread, eggs, yogurt, and a number of things I cannot remember and certainly would not attempt to spell – let’s just say a wide assortment of dairy products.

Today my friend (and translator) Ayşe and her friend have invited me to his village on the outskirts of Şuhut. With the meal and requisite photography behind us – “Ayşe please! Tell them to pretend I’m not here, no need for everyone to pose like a soldier beneath the map of Turkey” – the topic inevitably changes to who in the world I am and what am I doing here.

To Turkey’s great credit, this question only arises after I’ve been warmly greeted, offered tea, a cushion and then bountifully fed. I tell them I am writing about villages and almost immediately an itinerary is hatched. Sure, they can take me to see the poppy fields and the paht-pahts, but first a trip to the recently built cemevi, the pride of the village.

First we talked about life in Kayabelen. It was good, they said, the village is growing, with a population of nine hundred people, but the young people are leaving to find work in the cities. Ramazan Cinar, the oldest man of the family, told me that times are tough economically.

“Back in the 1970s and 80s, prices were higher. Now we are producing more, but the prices are half as much. Sometimes we cannot find someone to buy what we grow,” he said. “Before, if you sold thirty tons of potatoes you could buy a tractor, now it takes a hundred.”

But Ramazan’s family seemed happy and it was certainly growing. And how would life be different for all the children in the room, I asked. “Well, they will have a say in who they will marry,” said his wife, Nazik. Everyone agreed it was a change for the better, but Ramazan did not think the change in the culture was fundamental.

“The main reason for our cultural change is movement – from village to city,” he said and pointing to the television. Everyone agreed that technology had changed a lot of things. I asked when Kayabelen got electricity and without missing a beat, he said 1973. Then he paused to type something on his cell phone and continued, “But the culture is the same. It just looks like change.”

Nazik said the big difference was education. I asked what they would do if they were young today and she replied she would study. “To be a teacher or a doctor,” she said and then paused, “well probably not a doctor.”  And Nazik? “I would become an archeologist,” he said.

“Did the women in the other villages shake your hand?” he asked. I told him they did, but they seemed embarrassed to do it. “Our women would,” he said with some pride. The Ginars, like most of their village, were Bektashi, a form of Islam that combines elements of Shiite, Sunni and Sufi traditions.

I should pause here and make clear that my knowledge of the intricacies of Islamic sects is about two weeks old and any information I provide here has been gleamed from Wikipedia and the like, but verified with my own eyes.

Bektashi make up between twenty and thirty percent of Turkey’s population and they share many beliefs with the Alevi who also number in the millions.

As we toured the village, the first place they showed me was the cemevi, which is a hall filled with warm-colored carpets and pillows that serves as a gathering place, a prayer room and the stage for the Sema ritual. Had I known about this a week ago, I could’ve attended the three-day ritual of the twirling dervishes, when the villagers pray – meditate? – by spinning.

“Downstairs is the wedding hall,” said Nazik, “So there are times when someone is here praying as a wedding is taking place below. That’s not something you’ll find in a mosque,” he added.

Women are considered as equals among the Bektashi and can pray alongside the men in the cemevi. This is just one of many of their rituals and beliefs - including saints, sacred tombs and unorthodox interpretations of the Quran – that have caused suspicion and violence between them and certain Sunni groups in Turkey, such as the Sivas massacre, which led to the death of 33 Alevi cultural figures. The history of this tension goes back for centuries, deep into Ottoman Empire’s cultural and political history. For example, the Sultan’s infamous guards, the janissaries, were Bektashi.

Just I was getting my Ali’s mixed up and adding a year's worth of wear to Ayşe’s dictionary, we heard a wedding procession making its way to the groom’s house! Even without the gun shots, this was exciting enough to distract me from my exhaustive photo shoot of a local shepherd’s flock.

I rushed into the jubilant yard shortly after they arrived, the men dancing in a circle and the women looking on from the balcony, with children running in every direction, one firing a gun into the air before someone not-much-older took it out of his hands and unload a few more rounds.

I grabbed my camera and set to work (I’d love to embed it, but as Rumi said, patience is the key to joy). Unfortunately, the day was beginning to darken and I had yet to see the poppy fields, so I could not stay for long. Just as we were about to go, Hamza Kaya, another farmer (and as I would soon learn, the man responsible for creating the cemevi) had invited us for tea.

“Oh, we’re in a bit of hurry,” said Ayşe.

“How about coffee then?” He offered.

Ayşe looked at me and of course I knew what she was thinking: it would be rude to decline and besides, I have never said no to Turkish coffee.

We entered the house and began chatting, but contrary to my expectations, it was Hamza who went to make the coffee and we spent the next ten minutes chatting with his wife.

She had a big laugh and told us of how weddings were in her youth. Ayşe had some trouble keeping up with the translation, but I came away with the impression that it involved many flags and outfits as well as the groom’s entire family marching to the bride’s house and then taking her away upon a very handsome horse.

Hamza came with the coffee and then told a few of his favorite village memories, which Ayşe assured me simply cannot survive translation. The big knee-slapper was about the Worst Wife in the village.

She was riding along with her husband on a cart pulled by several bulls when they came to broken part of the road. Unsure if his animals would be able to pull him through, the man asked some locals about it and they jokingly replied, “Sure they’ll make it, once the road is fixed.” Unfortunately for the wife, the man seemed to be hard of hearing, because he only understood the first part of the sentence and set the beasts amarch.

Unfortunately for the husband, his wife only had one working eye, so when the cart got stuck and her husband joined the bulls in pulling, she didn’t have a clear view of who she was whacking with the stick – and hence, the Worst Wife in the village.

Next we trekked to the poppy fields, but that is for another post. Instead it seems most appropriate to end my story of Kayabelen with a question Ramazan asked me: “What do you think of Turkey?”

Having just eaten the best part of the milk from cows that are considered some of the best in Turkey, my answer was easy: it’s very friendly to strangers.

“Oh,” he said, “Well of course. In Bektashi culture our philosophy is to love people because God created them.”

Full size Photos:

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Seyyid Hasan Basri

Centuries after Seyyid Hasan Basri arrived in the village of Şeydinar, members of his family continue to tend to his tomb, maintaining his holy resting place and offering a traditional medical treatment to visitors of the village.

When I arrived at the mausoleum, Döndü Cetainkaya and her daughter Maria were sitting beside the adjacent cemetery where generations of Basri’s descendants are buried. Basri, himself a descendant of Caliph Ali – a figure especially revered in Turkey’s folk Islam – had six brothers who each specialized in treating a specific medical illness. Basri’s focus was rabies and mental illness.

The women answered my questions about the rabies treatment with a calm shrug: no, it does not work for animals, but they don’t try; yes, people know about it and come from the surrounding villages when they need to be cured; no, they don’t know how it works.

Döndü is an older woman who stood with a stern expression each time I pointed my lens at her, but otherwise she seemed content and distant and patiently told me the story she has obviously told a thousand times.

The women said the family traded off cleaning and occupying the tomb, with a different branch of the family taking over the responsibility each week. She said the men were busy, so it was left to her and her daughter to tend to any patients this week. “We had many visitors once,” she offered, “but now not so many.”

She said she has seen hundreds of rabies cases in her lifetime, “impossible to count,” and almost all were successfully treated.

“Only one died,” she said, “It was a child and they brought her too late. The cure must be administered within forty days to be effective.”

While I waited for her to bring the powder, her daughter explained the freshly made bed that sat in the corner of the mausoleum, alongside the resting places of Basri, his wife, and his children. “When children have mental problems – nightmares, anger, these sicknesses – they bring them here and they sleep in this room.”

My interpreter was not eager to translate my question – “what was Basri’s philosophy on mental illness, how did he treat it?”  “Faith,” he said with a smile and before I could continue, Döndü returned with the panacea.

Every year a small bug appears in the sands around Seydinar for a few weeks in August. These insects are gathered and ground up along with the sand and stored for the rest of the year. The treatment involves fasting and taking a pinch of the powder every three hours with Turkish tea or coffee until you are cured.

I asked Döndü whether they have tried to publicize this miraculous treatment, especially considering that rabies continues to be a problem in Turkey. “We are not exporters, there is no money involved here,” she answered, “People bring their sick from other villages and we treat them.”

Do I think the treatment works? I have no idea. It’s certainly not outside the realm of the possible, but that’s for scientists to figure out. Modern medicine has produced a vaccine that the World Health Organization says is "virtually 100 percent effective," if administered correctly - maybe that's why there are less visitors.

I do have some thoughts on the bed in the corner of this mausoleum.

Will it cure autism or schizophrenia? Probably not. But consider the effect of arriving in a solemn, ancient place where there are devoted caregivers to watch over you in absolute confidence, asking about your symptoms only to ascertain the contents of their prayers.

I spoke with a social worker here who learned English from her academic studies. She told me her recent cases include a series of suicide attempts by adolescent girls in a small town. Speculating on how best to treat the girls, she said isolation was a big problem.

“At that age, they hide many things from their parents and they feel them so intensely – it is a very self-centered time in our lives,” she said. Surely there is nothing uniquely urban, or Turkish, or Islamic about that.

Tomb of Seyyid Hasan Basri

So imagine that instead of shuffling from one expert’s waiting room to the next, you take a trip outside your village - possibly for the first time - to a place revered almost since the time of Mohammed and spend a night in the company of the peacefully deceased. How can this not be a viable treatment for a child - or anyone really – who is suffering from mental anguish?