|Hey poor people. I am only trying to help you quit smoking. Think of me as a political nicotine patch.|
Before I start this up…this weeks perfidy champion is Vice President Bulent Arınç. You see, the government has raised gas and electricity prices this year. I wasn’t thrilled, but could understand higher prices for resources among the deepening crisis, falan filan. But then Arınç goes on TV and explains that the price hike is for our health. To wit, the lack of money will help us stop spending money on unhealthy things like cigarettes and cell phones. ‘Some people actually have two cell phones!’ he says in horror.
You might want to skim down to the end. The music there is fan-f'ing-tastic
An Old Alevi Tradition Passed On to Me
It’s not like anyone named me Eamon or Aloyisius or Zaqrtyux. My name is not hard to pronounce, and yet no one makes use of it. My mother calls me Joe for obscure reasons (don’t like the name you first picked out, Mom?) Delal’s grandparents on her mother’s side call me Jack, while Dede calls me Cem. There’s at least a reason for that. For someone completely unfamiliar with English, Cem (pronounced like ‘gem’) is the closest thing to Jeff he knows. And yet we subtly try to correct him whenever we get the chance. These days, as a full fledged family member, I now have been given the responsibilty of phoning Dede from time to time. But the quandary remains, how to break the ice when he picks up the phone.
‘Hi Dede, it’s me….um….Cem....Jeff…Jefcem?’ Or maybe just talk till he recognizes my voice.
Today is one of the interminable weddings, and Dede comes over for tea before we head out. We are chatting about Kurdish names.
‘So are Heval and Delal and Zelal the old Kurdish names?’ I ask.
‘No, no! In the old days we used the good-old reliable names--Suleyman, Mehmet, Ali. We named each other after the prophets and the saints. I’m Mehmet, my father was Suleyman, his father was Suleyman, his father Mehmet.’
‘But you, Cem, you have a good name. It means something in our language, too.’
I pause with tea in mid-air. ‘Actually.…’
‘Cem is the name of our holiest ceremony,’ he goes on. ‘You know, we’re Alevis. We go to the Cem ceremony to worship. In the Cem house everyone is equal, men and women, poor and rich. We are all human beings first! It’s a good, noble name, and you should be proud of it.’
So much for that. I am Cem forever now.
This line of talk launches Dede off on the topic of being Alevi in the old days.
‘Things are so different now. You have courts. Today they’re arresting people left and right, but when I was a boy, you went to the pir if you had a complaint. He was the leader of the village cem. Then he would gather up his congregation, you know, everybody in the community, and they would have a meeting and make a decision. We never had one murder in Conag. Never.’
‘Impressive,’ I say.
‘And then there was the musahip.’
Back in college, a few friends and I discovered each other (They also call me a variety of names I won’t mention here.) We were the misfits, the weirdoes, and because of a kind of esprit de corps, we became very attached. At one point, I remember discussing a plan for the end of our lives. When all the children were grown and neglecting us, when we had nothing better to do than sit by the phone and wait for young’uns who never call to call—then we were going to pack up our stuff like hobos, get back together at a point on the railroad tracks in Florida (home forever) and start walking. A last adventure—kind of like Eskimos sending their elderly off on iceflows.
If we had been Kurds before assimilation, we would have become this thing called musahip.
The musahip is a special kind of relationship observed by Alevis way back when. Dede explains as I fix more tea. I decide to cut it with fresh milk instead of water, Dede’s idea. Delal has been buying farm milk from the Thursday Market, and Dede told me that it would be delicious with tea.
‘My father used to do it,’ he said. ‘All the time. Of course he preferred coffee. We’d roast and grind our own right in the village, but you can’t find coffee beans anymore.’
It is a late October afternoon, and that clear autumn sunlight falls behind him over the rooftops and skeletons of the rising skyscrapers of the neighborhood called New Sahara. Behind me, the TV has been muted but is set to the Kurdish Roj TV which is showing footage of rock throwing boys confronting tanks.
‘Everything from the old days has been taken away!’ he said. ‘Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Like having a musahip.’
In my entries on Conag, I spoke about Ali. I mostly glossed over him because to explain his actual relationship to Delal and to me would have taken a few paragraphs. He is the grandson of Dede’s musahip, and therefore, by custom and ceremony, equal to a blood cousin.
‘When you’re young,’ Dede told me, ‘And you have a close friend, you make a pact, a promise to each other a lot like a marriage. There’s a ceremony in front of everybody in the village—there must be witnesses, and from then on you are like brothers, even closer than brothers.’
‘Really? So how did your ceremony go?’
He looks down as if thinking, and then suddenly raises a finger in an aha moment.
‘Yes! There’s a story. A long time ago there was a great Alevi teacher named Pir Sultan Abdal. He was hung by Hizir Pasha who was a very oppressive dictator of the people. He was hung and as he dangled there, the crowd started to throw stones. Now he had a musahib. His name was Ali Baba, I think. And I guess Ali got caught up in the crowd fever and didn’t want to stick out, because he decided to throw something, too, just for show, but to not hurt Pir Sultan Abdal, he threw a rose instead of a rock. As he breathed his final breath, Pir Sultan Abdal told his musahib to go home. ‘Because your flower has hurt me more than all their stones put together.’ Ali Baba went to his own house and there found his wife making bread. ‘Pir Sultan Abdal has been hung!’ he said. ‘My brother is lost! Do you know what his last words to me were?’ The wife shook her head. ‘He said go home!’ At that, his wife put the dough she was kneading down and began to rhythmically brush the flour from her hands.’
Dede demonstrates, patting his knees as if beating out a drum rhythm.
‘Why are you here then?’ said the wife. ‘You should be home.’ ‘But I am,’ the man protested. ‘You’re home is not here,’ she said. ‘Not anymore.’ And the man understood then, that he now belonged to the house of Pir Sultan Abdal! And do you know our women still do this when they make bread?’
And he kept drumming his knees in that rhythmic way.
‘They hung him in Sivas,’ he went on. ‘Centuries ago. And then just a few decades ago they came back and massacred all the Alevis there again. They called them infidels and traitors. I tell you I can’t understand it. A human being is a human being. You do your best not to hurt others.’
Dede is wearing his cap and brown jacket, looking a bit dapper for the wedding we have to go to later. The incident he speaks of was at the Mardımak Hotel in Sivas in 1993. A mob, probably instigated by the police, tried to burn to death the participants at an Alevi conference in honor of Pir Sultan Abdal, partly because one of the guests was Aziz Nesin who had translated segments of the Satanic Verses. Thirty seven people died.
‘So what was your musahib ceremony like?’ I repeated. ‘You know, where you make your promise.’
‘You wear a white shirt and underwear. Like a shroud. No, not a shroud exactly, but like the white robes they wear to Mecca. You take all of your old clothes off and put these white ones on. Then sometimes you go down to the river and stay. And there you die together--not really of course, but symbolically. That’s the meaning of the white clothes—death to your old life. Not everyone does this, though. Of course in the old days, you and your musahip would wear the same shirt. I mean, they’d put you in the same shirt and you would become one that way, but we never did anything like that. People way back then were strange.’
I nod to let him know that I think it’s a little freakish, too.
‘Now no one did this until they were at an age where, you know, they knew good from evil, right from wrong. You had to be mature enough to make this kind of decision, but after that, you could be joined together. Your children cannot get married because they’re considered family. And if someone hurts your musahip it’s the same as hurting you. Of course, this is a very serious relationship, stronger than blood, so you had to speak to your wife and family. It seals a relationship for seven stomachs, so you must get permission from all sides.’
‘You know, his children and children’s children and children’s children’s children.’
He points his finger and grins. ‘Right! Exactly! Seven generations.’
‘So Delal and I are only the second stomach down, eh?’
‘Yes! So your children can’t marry Ali’s for example. Anyway, after you make your decision, you announce it in front of everyone. The pir explains all the responsibilities.’ Dede wags his finger in imitation of a holy man’s voice. ‘You are entering into a very solemn thing. You must be sure. Take a year and get to know each other. If after that year, you still want to be musahip, then we’ll do the ceremony.’
One Alevi sheikh says this, ‘A musahip must know his or her musahip’s inner world.’
‘A musahip can be a woman or a man,’ Dede goes on with a shrug like que sera sera. ‘In the Cem, we are all just human beings after all. I had two musahips in my life, Ahmet and his wife Hatun.’
He starts to pull up his sleeve and runs his hand up and down his arm.
‘When I did it, we also had a branch wrapped up in green cloth. It was as big as my arm. It came from a sacred tree, maybe one in Mecca? I’m not sure. But the Pir hit us each in the shoulders with it and said prayers over us.’
He smacks himself on one shoulder and nods.
‘Just like that.’
We sip our tea in silence for a moment, looking out at the buildings in New Sahra.
‘And oh yeah,’ he says. ‘Some even say the Prophet Mohammed had a musahip. I almost forgot. I think the story goes that one day the Prophet went home to his wife. He smelled something in the house, something really nice, a rosy fragrance and he asked his wife what it was. The sweater (hirka) of his musahip had arrived as a gift and a beautiful aroma lingered on it from the man himself, detectable only to Mohammed himself.’ Dede shrugs. ‘That’s what they say, at least. Rumor and gossip. His name was, let me see…yes! Veysel Karani.’
Some historical stuff:
Veysel Karani was a man contemporary with Mohammed, a camel herder famous for his devotion to his mother. He was not able to go and visit the Prophet because he was too busy carrying for his blind and lame mom. He sent a sweater to the Prophet instead, as a gift. He later died fighting as a partisan of the Prophet Ali, which may explain why the Alevis like him.
The other man Dede mentioned was Pir Sultan Abdal. Whenever they Alevis have a demonstration or a march, they use the symbol of a man holding up a bağlama—if you don’t look closely, it resembles a rifle. This is Pir Sultan Abdal—poet, musician, rebel, and symbol of the Alevis. He died as Dede explained after leading a rebellion against the Ottoman governor Hızır Paşa.
According to the website of the Young Alevi Movement: ‘The roots of the Musahip go back to the Prophet Ali. He once said, ‘All people are spiritual brothers—from either faith or from creation’ With these words, Ali underlined the two aspects of brother (or sister) hood—genetic and spiritual. It is possible to characterize the relationship of Ali and Mohammed as Musahip.’
Dede’s musahib passed several years ago, but the responsibility has passed onto us, the second (or would it be third?) ‘stomach’ down. We’ll have to keep any future daughters away from any of cousin Ali’s future sons…or vice versa.
Not sure this is true...but two of the all time türkü/bağlama masters is Muharrem Ertaş and his son Neşet. A couple of website claims Ertaş (born in a village called Abdallar) is the 8th generation grandson of Pir Sultan. In any case, this song is amazing. The caption says--although not an exact translation, I think it captures the spirit 'Heart! What are you looking for in this place of wandering? Muharrem Ertaş-Pir Sultan Abdal.' Someone correct me if I am wildly wrong!http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvm5C2-lvMo