Martin van Bruinessen, Aslını inkar eden haramzadedir! : The debate on the ethnic identity of the Kurdish Alevis - PDF

Martin van Bruinessen, Aslını inkar eden haramzadedir! : The debate on the ethnic identity of the Kurdish Alevis [extended version of an article published in: Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi, Barbara Kellner-Heinkele

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Martin van Bruinessen, Aslını inkar eden haramzadedir! : The debate on the ethnic identity of the Kurdish Alevis [extended version of an article published in: Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi, Barbara Kellner-Heinkele and Anke Otter-Beaujean (eds), Syncretistic religious communities in the Near East. Leiden: Brill, 1997, pp ] Aslını inkar eden haramzadedir! The debate on the ethnic identity of the Kurdish Alevis 1 Martin van Bruinessen The existence of Kurdish- and Zaza-speaking Alevi tribes, who almost exclusively use Turkish as their ritual language, and many of which even have Turkish tribal names, 2 is a fact that has exercised the explanatory imagination of many authors. Both Turkish and Kurdish nationalists have had some difficulty in coming to terms with the ambiguous identity of these groups, and have attempted to explain embarrassing details away. Naive attempts to prove that Kurdish and Zaza are essentially Turkish languages have not been given up, and have after 1980 even received a new impetus. 3 Kurds, on the other hand, have emphasized the Iranian element in the religion of the Alevis and suggested that even the Turkish Alevis must originally have received their religion from the Kurds. 4 Several articulate members of the tribes concerned, appealing to alleged old oral traditions in their support, have added their own interpretations, often all too clearly inspired by political expediency. 5 The tribes have never had a single, unambiguous position vis-à-vis the Kurdish nationalist movement and the Turkish Republic. The conflicting appeals of these two national entities (and of such lesser would-be nations as the Zaza or the Alevi nation) to the loyalties of the Kurdish Alevis have torn these communities apart. The conflict has thus far culminated in the Turkish military operations in Tunceli and western Bingöl in the autumn of 1994, which were continued through This is an extended version of a paper originally presented at the conference on Bektashis and similar syncretistic groups in the Middle East, held at the Free University in Berlin in April A shorter version of this paper will appear in the proceedings of that conference. 2 Names like Koçuşağı and Aşağı Abbasuşağı are common in Turkish-language sources (see the tribal lists in Kemali 1992[1932]: , Yavuz 1968: and Dersimi 1952: 46-69), and local people themselves refer to their tribes by these Turkish names when speaking Turkish. When they speak Zaza, however, they do not use these Turkish forms but say, e.g. Kozu instead of Koçuşağı, Abasanê Cêrî instead of Aşağı Abbasuşağı. It is not clear whether these are more authentic forms or, to the contrary, bastardisations of the Turkish. Mustafa Düzgün (1992) gives the local (Zaza or Kurmanci) equivalents to many of the Turkish names occurring in Nuri Dersimi's well-known history of the region. 3 The semi-official Türk Kültürünü Araştırma Enstitüsü in Ankara has published a long series of books on this and related themes. 4 See e.g. Cemşid Bender's books and articles, especially Bender 1992b. 5 E.g., Dersimi 1952; Fırat 1970 [1946]; Kocadağ 1987; Pamukçu 1992; Selcan 1994, all making contradictory claims concerning the 'original' ethnic identity of Kurdish Alevis. Martin van Bruinessen, Aslını inkar eden 1 Who are the Kurdish Alevis? I shall use the term 'Kurdish Alevis' as a shorthand for all Kurmanci- and Zaza-speaking Alevis, irrespective of whether they define themselves as Kurds or not. My use of this term does not imply any claim that they are 'really' or 'essentially' Kurds or whatever. The heartland of the Kurdish Alevis consists of Dersim (the province of Tunceli with the adjacent districts of Kemah and Tercan in Erzincan and Kiğı in Bingöl). The Dersimis themselves perceive a cultural difference between the (Zaza-speaking) Şeyhhasanan tribes of western Dersim (Ovacık and Hozat with parts of Çemişgezek and Pertek) and the Dersimi tribes proper of eastern Dersim (Pülümür, Nazımiye, Mazgirt), among whom there are both Zaza and Kurmanci speakers. From Dersim, a series of Alevi enclaves stretches east, through Bingöl, northern Muş, Varto all the way to Kars. The largest and best known of these tribes, the Kurmanci-speaking Hormek (Xormek, Xiromek) and the Zaza-speaking Lolan (see Fırat 1970 and Kocadağ 1987, respectively) claim Dersim origins, and there are in fact sections of the same tribes still living in eastern Dersim (in Nazımiye and Pülümür, respectively). 6 Further west, we find another important Kurdish Alevi population, the Koçgiri tribal confederation, in and around the Zara district of Sivas. The Koçgiri claim a relationship with the Şeyhhasanan of western Dersim, although they presently speak a Kurmanci rather than a Zaza dialect. 7 There are several other small Zaza- and Kurmanci-speaking enclaves in Sivas, that also claim Dersimi origins. Another indication of their relationship with the Dersim Alevis is the presence of seyyids of the same lineages (notably Kureyşan) living in their midst. 8 Another series of enclaves stretches south, through Malatya, Elbistan (in Maraş) and Antep to Syria and Adana. Little more is known of these tribes than the names of the most important among them. According to Dersimi (1952: 59-60) these tribes, all of which allegedly speak Kurmanci, also claim an old connection with Dersim. We do not know to what extent their religion corresponds with that of the Dersimis and how it relates to their Yezidi and Nusayri neighbours. At least some of these communities were served by seyyids 6 Dersimi (1952: 65) also notes Hormek at Refahiye, and there is another Lolan enclave near Yozgat in Central Anatolia. 7 See Dersimi 1952: Tankut, though usually well-informed, calls the Koçgiri Zaza-speakers, perhaps because of this relationship with western Dersim (1994a: 415). Sykes remarks that their language is seemingly a dialect of Kurdish, but hardly comprehensible to Zazas or Baba Kurds, or Diarbekir Kermanjis (1908: 479). 8 The Kureyşan, perhaps the most important seyyid lineage of the Dersim Alevis, have their largest concentration in Mazgirt and Nazimiye, but there are also sections of them in Kiğı, Hınıs and Varto, Pülümür, and Sivas (Jandarma Umum Kumandanlığı, n.d.: 33). Martin van Bruinessen, Aslını inkar eden 2 of lineages based in Dersim, but there were also other ocak (seyyid lineages) among them. 9 The American missionary Trowbridge reports that the Alevis of Antep, whom he knew well, considered the Ahl-i Haqq seyyids of Tutshami (near Kirind, west of Kermanshah) as their highest religious authorities. 10 It is only about the religion of the Alevis of Dersim and the Koçgiri that we have more than superficial information; we do not know to what extent these beliefs and practices are shared by the other Kurdish Alevis. 11 Most of our information is from older travellers' and missionaries' reports or in the form of memories of what people used to believe and used to do , for, as Bumke aptly remarks, the Dersimis seem to adhere to a religion that is not practised (Bumke 1989: 515). This statement is perhaps taking it a little too far, for certain practices like the pilgrimage to mountain sanctuaries, small offerings at numinous spots to prevent bad luck, and making vows at holy places, are still very much alive, although perhaps only a small minority takes part in them. 12 It is true, however, that for most Dersimis the food taboos and the veneration due to sun, moon and fire are items frequently mentioned but rarely respected in practice. 13 The beliefs and practices of the Alevis of Dersim, as they are known to us from 19th and early 20th-century sources, appear to be more heterodox and 'syncretist' than those of the Tahtacı and the central Anatolian Turkish Alevis although this may of course in part be due to the fact that the latter have hidden their beliefs better or have gradually been further islamicized. The belief in metempsychosis, for instance, was more pronounced among the Dersimis; the Armenian author Andranig (1900) gives a fascinating account of the belief that human souls are reborn in animals. 14 The Dersimis apparently recognized, like the Ahl-i 9 The Baliyan tribe of southwestern Malatya considered Hüseyin Doğan Dede (d. 1983), a seyyid of the Aguçan lineage, as their mürşid-i kamil but also had dedes of local lineages such as the Kalender (Şahhüseyinoğlu 1991: 83-8). The Aguçan are one of the minor Dersim ocaks, identified there as the descendants of an eponymous khalifa of Hacı Bektaş. 10 The Geographical Centre of [the Alevi] religion is in the town of Kirind, Kermanshah province, Persia. Four of Ali's male descendants now reside in Kirind. They are by name, Seyyid Berake, Seyyid Rustem, Seyyid Essed Ullah, Seyyid Farraj Ullah. (...) These men send representatives throughout Asia Minor and northern Syria for preaching and for the moral training of their followers (Trowbridge 1909: 342-3). Sayyid Baraka (d.1863) and his grandson and successor Sayyid Rustam (still alive in 1920) had established themselves as the chief religious authorities of the Guran Ahl-i Haqq, and commanded great respect among other Ahl-i Haqq communities in Iran (see my Satan's psalmists ). 11 See however Trowbridge 1909 (on Antep), Chater 1928 (on a village between Elazığ and Malatya), and Şahhüseyinoğlu 1991 (on a tribe living between Malatya and Elbistan). 12 For a description of perhaps the major pilgrimage of Dersim, to the mountain sanctuary of Düzgün Baba, see Ferber & Grässlin 1988: Recent publications referring to these taboos and forms of 'nature worship' are Bumke 1979; Feber & Grässlin 1988: ; Özkan 1992: ; Düzgün 1988; Düzgün et al. 1992; Dedekurban Andranig 1900: I wish to thank Professor Jos Weitenberg of Leiden University for translating these passages for me. One of Andranig's interlocutors, a seyyid, told him that humans return after their deaths as mammals, then as snakes, birds, insects, butterflies, mosquitoes and finally as flies. Another claimed to still remember a previous existence as a Martin van Bruinessen, Aslını inkar eden 3 Haqq, various degrees of divine incarnation or theophany, from the full manifestation of God in Ali and possibly in Hacı Bektaş, to a more modest but nonetheless significant divine presence in the seyyids. Mark Sykes, usually a good observer, wrote of the Dersim tribes that they were in name Shi`is but appeared to him to be pantheists. 15 Sun and nature worship appear to have had at least as prominent a place in the life of the Dersimis as the ayin-i cem and other common Alevi rituals. 16 Andranig adds to this the worship of the planets, of thunder and rain, fire, water, rock, trees, etc. (1900: 169). Worship of the sun, however, was the most regular of these rituals, taking place each morning at sunrise. The form of this worship varied from place to place. Ali Kemali writes that the Dersimis worshipped the first spot that was touched by the sun's rays (Kemali 1992[1932]: 152). Melville Chater, who spent the night in a Kurdish Alevi village near Malatya in the 1920s, gives a slightly different description of this morning worship. The villagers woke well before sunrise and went to work in their fields. As the sun rose, each man, woman and child turned eastward, bowing to it a polite good-morning, then resumed to the day's routine (Chater 1928: 498). More reliably perhaps, a study of the traditional religion of Dersim by a person of local origins has it that when the sun comes up, people turn towards it and utter prayers and invocations; or they prostrate themselves and kiss the earth, or each brings his hand to his mouth and utters a supplication 17. Dersimis explained their sun worship to Ali Kemali with a legend according to which Ali after his death had risen to heaven and changed into the sun an interesting statement for those who wish to recognise remnants of the worship of (old Turkish) Gök Tengri or (Iranian) Ahura Mazda in the Alevis' veneration for Ali. Öztürk, however, reports that in Dersim the sun is associated with Muhammad and the moon with Ali, which appears to defy such simple single-origin explanations. The Kurdish Alevis' sun worship especially is strongly reminiscent of identical practices among the Yezidis, about whom more will be said below. It also brings to mind a now extinct sect called şemsi (i.e., sun-worshippers?), that is known to have existed in the districts of Mardin and Diyarbekir at least into the 19th century. 18 donkey. He had been reborn human again because a previous human existence had ended unnaturally, in the war, and had therefore not been properly completed. 15 Sykes (1908: 479) wrote of the Kureyşan, Balaban and şadilli that they were Shias or Pantheists and noted of the Koçgiri, In religion I take them to be advanced Pantheists, who recognize nature as a female principal and God as male. This opinion I give with every reservation as the result of interpreted conversations with well-to-do elders. 16 Riggs, one of the best informed missionary writers, emphasizes the worship of sun and fire and only later mentions the ayin-i cem (1911). 17 Sabahları güneş doğarken karşısına geçilip dua edilir ve salavat getirilir. Ya yerde secde edilerek yer öpülür veya her kes elini ağzına götürerek niyaz eder (S. Öztürk 1972: 100). 18 These şemsi are mentioned by the 17th-century Polish Armenian traveller, Simeon (ed. Andreasyan 1964: 100), by Carsten Niebuhr, who also met them at Mardin (1780: 376-8), and by the Italian missionary Campanile (1818: ). An old şemsi place of worship near the city of Diyarbakir was only recently destroyed when the Mardin road was widened. Martin van Bruinessen, Aslını inkar eden 4 Moon worship, though less frequently mentioned in the literature, is perhaps even more typical of the Dersim Alevis. Our sources do not make clear whether this also was a daily ritual or took place on certain nights only. Melville Chater gives the only eyewitness account, from the same Malatya village. He noticed the villagers climbing on their roofs in the evening, waiting for the moon to appear. As soon as it became visible, simultaneously the Kurds arose, making low bows and salaaming profoundly to the risen planet; then they descended their stone stairways and disappeared for the night (Chater 1928: 497). Yet another minor but distinctive trait of religious practices in Dersim consists of the remnants of what may be called a 'snake cult' (which also once existed among the Armenians of this region). Several tribes have their own centres of pilgrimage, where the image of a snake is an object of veneration. The best known is that at the village of Kiştim near Erzincan, where a wooden snake known as the 'saint of Kiştim' (Kiştim evliyası) appears to come alive during pilgrimage rituals at the shrine. The Bektaşi çelebi Cemalettin, the nominal head of the rural Alevi communities, in the 1910s made a vain attempt to have the centre at Kiştim closed and the piece of wood destroyed. 19 The more specifically Alevi rituals, however, appear to connect the Dersimis with the Turkish Alevis. Most of their gülbank (invocations) and nefes (religious songs) are in Turkish, and they were so well before the first efforts at assimilation under the Republic. According to Ali Kemali, who had been vali of Erzincan and knew the region very well, there were no Kurdish gülbank at all (Kemali 1992: 154-5); the same observation was made by Mehmet Zülfü Yolga, who was born in Pertek and became kaimakam of Nazımiye (1994: 99). Nuri Dersimi contradicts this and claims that the seyyids of the Kureyşan and Bamasor (Baba Mansur) lineages always recited gülbank in an archaic form of Zaza (Dersimi 1952: 24). Hasan Reşit Tankut, writing in 1949, claimed that the Dersimis had only recently, at the instigation of the nationalists Alişêr and Seyyid Rıza, begun to replace the Turkish nefes with poems in their own language. 20 Another practice connecting the Alevis of Dersim with Turkish Alevis was the relationship with the central tekke of Hacı Bektaş. This is mentioned by Molyneux-Seel Niebuhr remarked that many şemsi converted to Jacobite Christianity; others may have merged with the Yezidi or with the Alevi. A major tribe among the Yezidi of Armenia is presently named şemsiki, but nothing is known of their relation to these earlier şemsi. 19 Dersimi 1952: The cult of the 'saint of Kiştim' is also decribed by Asatrian & Gevorgian 1988: 588. Another 'snake' pilgrimage centre, Bone Ocak in the district of Hozat, is briefly described in Kaya 1995: 97. On the snake cult among the old Armenians, see Abeghian 1899: Tankut claimed they wrote in Zaza (1994b: 298). His editor, Mehmet Bayrak, corrects him and states that Alişêr's poems were in Kurmanci; he also claimed that Turkish had never been the only language used in ritual. Informants from Dersim give contradictory accounts regarding the use of Zaza and/or Kurmanci in the ritual of the cem. Very few prayers and nefes in these languages have been published, however (Düzgün et al. 1992). Martin van Bruinessen, Aslını inkar eden 5 (1914: 66) as the chief place of pilgrimage outside Dersim. 21 In theory, the Dersimi seyyids, who acted as rehber and pir to the common tribes, recognized the çelebi at Hacı Bektaş as their murid, but in practice they all took seyyids of other lineages as their pir and murid and had little to do with Hacı Bektaş. Three minor ocak of western Dersim, however, the Aguçan, the Derviş Cemal and the Saru Saltık, claimed descent from khalifa appointed by Hacı Bektaş (Dersimi 1952: 27-8; cf. Birdoğan 1992: 152-7). Turkish or Kurdish origins? The Kurdish Alevis are commonly called Kızılbaş by their neighbours. This is also the term by which they occur in Cuinet's late 19th-century population statistics, without further ethnolinguistic designation. This name of course associates them with the Safavids, whose followers were mostly Turcomans. Sümer mentions in his study of the Safavids' Kızılbaş supporters (1976) only two Kurdish tribal communities, and those were relatively insignificant: the +ınıslu and the Çemişgezeklü. Many of the latter must have followed the shah into Iran, for we find in the 16th century a large Çemişgezek confederation living south of present Tehran, whence they were sent by Shah Abbas to Khorasan in order to protect Iran's northeastern border against Uzbek incursions. The present Kurdish Alevis are too numerous to be the descendants of only the remaining parts of those two tribes. This raises the question where the Dersimis came from, and the answer suggested by most Turkish scholars, both of the official history school and liberal ones, is that they are Kurdicized (or Zazaicized) Turcoman Kızılbaş tribes. This assumption appears so reasonable that is has been unquestioningly accepted by some western scholars as well (e.g. Mélikoff 1982a: 145). However, it is hard to imagine from whom these tribes could have learnt Kurdish or Zaza, given the fact that social contacts with Shafi`i Kurmanc and Zazas are almost nonexistent. In Sivas, on the other hand, Kurdish (and Zaza) Alevis have long been in close contact with Turkish Alevis, without the latter being assimilated. I propose the alternative hypothesis that a considerable part of the ancestors of the present Alevi Kurds neither were Turcomans nor belonged to the followers of Shah Isma`il, but rather were Kurdish- and Zaza-speaking adherents of other syncretist, ghulat-influenced, sects. I shall presently present some evidence to support this hypothesis. It has too often been taken for granted that the Kurdish tribes were, at least by the time they were incorporated into the Ottoman Empire (roughly 1515), staunch Sunnis, whereas 21 The list of other pilgrimages given by Molyne
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