1The religious tradition of the Alevis in Turkey is characterized in large part by mysticism. Definitions vary, but the broad understanding of mysticism is that it denotes an interest in the experiential knowledge of God rather than, or in addition to, adherence to text-based religious law. In the Alevi case, the mystical pursuit is complex. Whilst it is strongly influenced by the precepts of classical Sufi thought, as well as elements of Sufi ritual practice, Alevilik also draws on the theological motifs and concerns of other religious and cultural traditions, namely, Shi’a Islam and pre-Islamic Turkic shamanism. These influences complicate Alevi cosmology and approaches therein to mystical encounter with God.
- 1 The three major didactic poets are Shah Hata’i, Pir Sultan Abdal and Kul Himmet, although different (...)
2There is no clear codification of Alevi mystical religious belief in the form of a written text or creed. Alevilik existed in Anatolia for centuries as a predominately oral tradition, and religious knowledge was transmitted from one generation of Alevi leaders (known as dedes) to the next through the singing of didactic oral poetry.1 This ritual poetry addresses the following themes: adulation of Ali and the Twelve Imams of Shi’ism (Düvazimam); mourning for the martyrs of the Battle of Karbala (Mersiye); and the retelling of the Alevi interpretation of the Islamic Miraj story (Miraçlama). Such poetry forms the backbone of the central Alevi religious ritual, the cem ceremony. Whilst the Alevis do not generally reject the written word of the Qur’an, they have not traditionally emphasized it in their religious life; indeed, the centrality and sanctity of sung poetry within the tradition is demonstrated by the euphemistic term ‘telli Kuran’ (stringed Qur’an), used reverentially to refer to the saz (Turkish lute), which accompanies the performance of poetry in the cem.
3The role of poetry in Alevi society extends beyond the ‘sacred’ space of the cem. Singer-poets known as aşıks (lit. ‘lovers’ of God) also perform a crucial function in day-to-day Alevi life. The aşık serves as a kind of voice of his (or, occasionally, her) community, and the poetry may address themes ranging from mystical and profane love to appreciation of the natural world, physical and economic hardship and suffering, and socio-political comment, often tending towards rebellion and dissent. The poetry spans sacred and profane themes without necessarily drawing boundaries between them (Dressler 2003).
4Much of the language of Alevi aşık poetry is familiar from the classical Persian Sufi verse of poets such as Hafiz, Sa’di and Rumi. It is in this common poetic idiom that the Sufi foundations of Alevilik are perhaps most clearly evident. Yet whilst Alevi poetic language and concerns are familiar from the Sufi canon, the meanings that lie behind that language are, significantly, often quite divergent from mainstream Sufism and are particular to the Alevi context. The language of Persian mystical poetry articulates a complex theology based on the Qur’anic revelation as its major source. In the Alevi case, the language is often used more flexibly and carries different associations that, in turn, reflect the distinctive characteristics of the Alevi mystical worldview.
- 2 The author carried out fieldwork interviews with Ozan Seyfili at his home near Antalya between Sept (...)
5In this article, I explore that worldview through an ethnographic study of the poetry and life experience of a contemporary Alevi aşık called Ozan Seyfili.2 I begin by analyzing one of Seyfili’s major early poems, called Yolcuyum Yolumda (I Am A Traveller On My Way) in light of the Persian Sufi influence on it. I then move on to discuss other examples of Seyfili’s work, in which his usage of the Sufi idiom appears to diverge from the Persian comparison, and contain meanings and referents that are specifically Alevi. I conclude by discussing the status of the community in the Alevi mystical pursuit, which I suggest is distinctive and somewhat elevated.
- 3 Not all Alevi aşıks are of dede lineage, and not all dedes sing and play the saz. If this is the ca (...)
6Seyfili is the pen-name of Hüseyin Yorulmaz, who was born in the 1940s in the province of Erzincan, central-eastern Anatolia. He has been composing and singing poetry to his own saz accompaniment all his life. Seyfili is a member of an extended family of dedes called the Derviş Cemal Ocak, and as such, he is qualified by birth to potentially lead his Alevi community (Tee 2010). He was apprenticed in his youth in rural Erzincan in the art of leading a cem ceremony, and in performing the ritual poetry therein.3 Outside the ritual space his poetic mentor, a rural aşık also from Erzincan called Beyhani, shaped his early development as an aşık. The influence of Beyhani’s traditional, rural mysticism is very evident in Seyfili’s early poetry.
7In the early 1960s, like many of his fellow Alevis, Seyfili left the village of his birth and migrated first to Istanbul and then to West Germany. He remained there as a migrant laborer until the early 1980s, whereupon he returned to Turkey and settled on the outskirts of Antalya, where he lives today. Throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s, Seyfili was heavily involved in the socialist movement that attracted many in the Alevi community at the time. His involvement in Alevi religious practice ground to a halt, and he became instead intensely politically active. As such, much of his poetry of that era reflects a Marxist political agenda. Since the so-called ‘Alevi revival’ of the late 1980s, Seyfili has consciously returned to Alevilik and has been involved since that time in renascent Alevi religious activity amongst the urban Alevi diaspora in the west of Turkey. Much of his recent poetry is concerned with Alevi identity and heritage, topics that are very pertinent within the contemporary movement.
- 4 Many Alevi communities suffered intense periodic persecution under the Ottoman Sultans (Imber 1979) (...)
8The total corpus of Seyfili’s poetry spans more than half a century, and incorporates poems addressing the broad range of themes that is typical of its genre (Silay 1998). With the exception of some of the extremely politicized poetry of the 1970s, the Sufi idiom is prevalent throughout, both in poetry that addresses religious topics directly as well as that which does not. Many of the early poems, which Seyfili wrote under the guidance of Aşık Beyhani as a young man in rural Erzincan, are particularly religious in character, and might be described as traditional, Sufi-inspired love sonnets. In his later work, Seyfili’s use of the Sufi idiom becomes more flexible, and serves firstly as a broad vocabulary of suffering, often in reference to the historic persecution suffered by the Alevi community,4 and secondly as a metaphor of lament for the fragmentation of the Alevi community during the early migratory era. Here, the Sufi idiom – usually reserved for describing the quest of man for relationship with God – is used to describe the Alevi community itself, and Seyfili’s nostalgia for the lost human relationships and shared religious ritual that had been the cornerstone of traditional, rural Alevilik.
9Seyfili’s use of the Sufi poetic idiom in this way reflects a major definitive aspect of Alevi mysticism: the primacy of the community of believers in the mystical quest (Gökalp 1980). Whilst the religious community generally plays an important part in most mystical traditions – Islamic as well as non-Islamic – in Alevilik, its status is greatly elevated. The theological framework for this elevation is provided by the mythological prototype of the cem ceremony, the so-called Kırkların Cemi or ‘Cem of the Forty’ (Yaman 1998). The ‘Cem of the Forty’ is the Alevi interpretation of the Islamic Miraj story, and its primary significance lies is its designation of Ali as the possessor of the secret knowledge of God – knowledge which, in the story, even the Prophet Muhammad himself is not privy to. The other important aspect of the story is the unity of the Forty, who are proto-Alevi believers: when one of them (Ali himself) is cut with a sword, all of them bleed simultaneously and even the blood of Selman, the only one who is not present, drips from the ceiling in solidarity with the group. They declare that, ‘birimiz kırkımız, kırkımız birimiz’ (‘we are one and we are forty, we are forty and we are one’). The cem ritual is intended to replicate this ‘Cem of the Forty’, and the primary mystical experience that is sought is a return to the spiritual unity of the Forty. This pursuit differs from that of the urban Sufi mystic, whose experience – whilst being rooted in his community, or brotherhood – ultimately seeks to transcend both the material world and his own self, and leave it behind as he is annihilated in (Arabic: fana), or united with God (Netton 2000).
- 5 These observations are made with an awareness that certain aspects of (historical) Alevilik are bei (...)
10The philosophical and theological framework of the ‘Cem of the Forty’ is a necessary backdrop to understanding the weighty emphasis on the human community in Alevi thought. It helps to explain the preoccupation in Alevilik with the primacy of ‘insanlık’ (humanity, or the human being), and its tendency towards humanism and a pantheistic understanding of God and nature.5 In the selection of Ozan Seyfili’s poems that follows, I explore the way in which his use of the Sufi poetic idiom is subtly transformed in a way that reflects the humanist emphasis and particularities of Alevi mystical thought.
- 6 English translations of the poems are by the author. The full texts of each poem cited in the artic (...)
11Chronologically the first poem that Seyfili composed, which reflects the early influence of Aşık Beyhani and the rural mysticism of the pre-migratory era, is called Yolcuyum Yolumda (I Am A Traveller on My Way).6 It typifies the religious tenor of much of Seyfili’s early work, and represents a fairly conservative and traditional usage of the Sufi poetic idiom:
Yolcuyum yolumda eyleme beni
Söyle söylenecek sözün var ise
Senin için yüce dağları aştım
Gel bile gidelim arzun var ise.
Kalayım bağında bahçıvan eyle
Ben sana Mecnun’um yar bana Leyla
Kusurum var ise yüzüme söyle
Köle kıl beni lüzum var ise.
Gönül kuşum uçar yüce dağlara
Güç olur inmesi engin bağlara
Aslanım düşmüşüm tuzak ağlara
Öldür beni kalkan gürzün var ise.
Seyfili’yim yara söyler sözünü
Dön bu yana görem güzel yüzünü
Aşkın için hedef tuttum özümü
Öldür beni nişan gezin var ise.
I am a traveller on my way; don’t deprive me.
If there are words to be said, then say them.
I have scaled high mountains for you,
Come and let’s leave, if you desire it.
Let me stay in your garden, make me its gardener.
I am to you a Majnun, lover, you to me a Leyla.
If you’re offended at me tell me to my face;
Render me a slave, and sell me if you must.
My soul bird flies to the high mountains;
Its descent to the spacious gardens is strength to it.
My lion, I have fallen in the trap’s net.
Kill me, if you’ve a mace that will rise to do it.
I am Seyfili, he speaks his words to the lover.
Turn this way, let me see your beautiful face.
For love of you I held a target on my soul;
Kill me, if you have me in your sights.
12There are numerous instances in this poem of the language and theological motifs of Sufism, and it lends itself to a direct comparison with the Persian Sufi canon. The desire for unification with the addressee, whom we infer to be God, pervades the poem. As such, it follows the well-established literary precedent of ‘The Song of the Reed’ with which Rumi begins his epic Mathnawi. In the Song, the reed flute (an instrument frequently used in the Sufi semah and especially by Rumi’s Mevlevi Order) mourns its separation from the pre-eternal reedbed, as a metaphor for the separation of the human soul from God, who is its source (Mojaddedi 2004: 4).
- 7 This concept is most clearly seen in the progression through the different stages of the Sufi path. (...)
13Besides the broad articulation in Yolcuyum of this Sufic notion of separation and longing for reunion (Arabic: shawk), there are also specific instances throughout the poem of Seyfili’s use of particular Persian Sufi poetic concepts: in the title itself, the poet’s self-referential status as a traveller is typical of many Persian poets, who often use the metaphor of travel or wandering to express the movement of the restless, individual soul;7 in verse two, Seyfili mentions a garden and his own role as its gardener, both of which are familiar images in Sufi poetry. The garden of the soul is the metaphorical arena in which the Sufi (as the gardener) cultivates his mystical love, and it is also where the ubiquitous Sufi poetic motif of the nightingale and the rose belong.
14The reference to Majnun and Leyla in verse two, line two – which is the first of many such references in the wider body of Seyfili’s work - alludes to the romantic lovers of Nizami Ganjavi’s (d. c. 1209) famous poem Layli va Majnun (Gelpke 1997; Seyed-Gohrab 2003). Right across the Islamic world, Majnun (which means ‘madman’) is a popular symbol of the wild lover who loses his mind through years of desperate wandering in the desert in pursuit of Leyla, his earthly beloved. In the Sufi reading of the poem, Leyla the girl is transformed into the Divine Beloved who is the real goal of Majnun’s pursuit, and it is his un-realizable longing for union with God which drives him insane until the eventual attainment of that union through his death at the end of the poem.
15In the final line of verse two, Seyfili implores God to ‘render him a slave’, and offers him permission to sell him as such. The slave relationship with God is well understood in Islam generally, and is a notion substantiated by the Qur’anic text itself. In Sufi thought, the slave relationship between the individual believer and God is particularly important, and moreover it is a slavery that the individual embraces and to which he willingly submits. Nizami’s Majnun, for example, makes the following declaration at that stage in the story when his father takes him to be ‘cured’ of his love-madness by praying at the ka’ba in Mecca (Dastgirdi 1378: 335):
- 8 Persian to English translation by the author, with acknowledgement to Dr. Leonard Lewisohn.
In the circle of love I sell my soul; let my ear never be without her earring.8
16The earring that he refers to is that traditionally worn by a slave to denote his or her status, and is a metaphor for his complete submission to the rule of God – as love - over him. Seyfili’s use of the same metaphor in verse two, line four, and the submission of the poetic voice to the status of love’s slave, is resonant with the same mystical Islamic overtones.
- 9 In this Sufi allegorical tale, thirty birds (individual souls) are guided by the hoopoe (the pir) t (...)
17Verse three of Yolcuyum begins with a reference to the ‘soul bird’, another Sufi poetic motif for which the precedent was set by Farid al-Din Attar in his epic poem, Conference of the Birds (Darbandi and Davis 1984; Ritter 2003).9 The ‘soul bird’ can take a variety of different forms, the most ideal being the nightingale, which is infatuated with the rose, representing the beauty of God. Seyfili’s ‘soul bird’ flies to the high mountains, which represent the troubles of the world and the obstacles which must be overcome in order to attain the longed for union with God, and then descends to ‘spacious gardens’, a descent from which it gains strength because it is there that the love relationship with God can be cultivated.
18The third line of verse three talks of the ‘trap’s net’, into which the poet has fallen, an image whose juxtaposition with the ‘soul bird’ motif is common in Sufi poetry. This juxtaposition has foundations in Sufi theology, and Annemarie Schimmel finds one of many exemplary precedents for it in Rumi’s Divan (Schimmel 1982: 112):
- 10 Quoting the Divan of Rumi, 721/7577.
Love appears often as a trap or a net for the soul bird. What bird could or would flee from the grains, sugar, and almonds which are its bait? Indeed:
He who is far away from the net of love
Is a bird that does not have a wing!
[…] The paradox of Love is that man becomes the freer the more he is captured by it, for only thanks to Love will he be able to fly heavenward.10
19Being captured by the ‘net of love’ ultimately spells death to the mystic ‘soul bird’, which is a poetic metaphor for the theological doctrine of annihilation (fana). This is the final goal of the Sufi mystic, and is to be desired not only for the sake of union with God in itself but also to bring an end to the intense suffering experienced in separation. Thus the trap of the net is one that is paradoxically deliberately sought after by the metaphorical soul bird, and into whose clutches it desires to fall.
- 11 Hafiz addresses his beloved directly with the words, ‘To die by the stroke of your blade is life et (...)
20Accordingly in Seyfili’s poem, in the line following the image of the net (verse three, line four) the poet implores the lover to kill him, an imperative that is repeated in the final couplet of the poem. Death at the hands of the lover (in Persian, kushta-yi ma’shuq) is a fate welcomed by many Sufi poets, because of the ensuing title of martyr and guarantee of eternal life which are thought to be thus secured.11 An interesting comparison with Seyfili’s closing couplet in Yolcuyum can be made with one of the foundational texts in Persian Sufism, Ahmad Ghazali’s Sawanih (Seyed-Gohrab 2003: 127):
- 12 Quoted and translated from the Persian by Seyed-Gohrab.
Draw an arrow in my name from your quiver
And place it on your drawn bow;
If you seek a target, take my heart:
A mighty shot from you and a joyous sigh from me.12
21Seyfili follows Ghazali in using the same imagery of the bow and arrow, and makes the same allusion to willingly placing the target on his heart/soul. Ghazali’s ‘joyous sigh’ emphasizes to the reader that the moment of death is also the moment of longed for union with God.
22It is difficult to find any real evidence in Yolcuyum of the specifically Alevi identity of its author. Rather, it reads for the most part as a generic example of rural, Turkish, mystical Islamic folk poetry. As his life goes on and his poetry develops, however, Seyfili’s use of Sufi motifs becomes demonstrably more innovative and flexible, diverging from the mainstream tradition of Sufi literature and revealing more of his Alevi background.
- 13 The mum söndü allegation is that the Alevi cem ceremony – in which men and women participate togeth (...)
23Since the beginning of the so-called ‘Alevi Revival’ in the late 1980s, Alevi identity and practice has been undergoing a process of reformulation (Massicard 2005). This publicly reformulated manifestation of Alevilik is distinct in many ways from what might be termed its ‘traditional’ incarnation. One of the major features of Alevilik that has been emphasized in the revival is its apparently pacifistic nature. This is evidenced by Seyfili’s poem Katlandık (We Endured), which he wrote in response to the notorious ‘mum söndu’ allegations.13 He explains:
Katlandık is about not becoming like the oppressor. I wrote it on behalf of all the Kızılbaş Alevis when the Sunnis were slandering us with mum söndü allegations. My intention was to explain to the Sunnis what we Alevis believe. Each person should carry out his own worship and not worry about the others.
24The verb ‘katlanmak’ means to tolerate or to endure, and it is used in the poetic refrain at the end of each verse. It is a noticeably reconciliatory poem, which contains no suggestion of ill-will in response to the slanderous allegations but rather emphasizes the notion – popular since the revival - that Alevilik is a tradition of peace. There are Sufi motifs scattered throughout the poem, primarily in verse one, line one: ‘we waited in hope for the beautiful lover’; verse two, line two: ‘my flame has not gone out, my fire burns’; and verse three, line three: ‘turning the poison into honey, we mixed it with the wine’. However, the closing verse confirms that the subject of the poem is not primarily a mystical one, but rather a plea for tolerance of the Alevis as a religious community:
Seyfili duyulsun figanım zarım
Sevgidir barıştır dostluk ısrarım
Çok bühtanlar sürdü bizlere zalim
Pes eyledik acılara katlandık.
Seyfili, let it be heard, my lament, my anguish
My insistence is on love, peace and friendship
The oppressor has slandered us greatly
We yielded, we endured the pain.
25The Sufi motifs are, then, used in this poem to different effect than in the earlier work. The ‘beautiful lover’ who is referred to in the first line does not appear to be a reference to God, or even to a human beloved disguised by the language of mysticism, but rather to a generic notion of peace, tolerance and friendship.
26Verse three uses the language of mysticism to allude to the centrality of human reconciliation and peace-making to the cem ceremony:
‘Hü!’ deyip cemlerde çerağı yaktık
Zehiri bal edip badeye kattık.
Saying ‘Hü!’ in the cems, we lit the candle
Turning the poison to honey, we mixed it with wine.
- 14 The cem cannot commence until all members of the assembly have declared that they are at peace (rız (...)
27Katlandık illustrates one of the founding principles of Alevi ritual, which is the restoration and restitution of broken human relationships.14 The Sufi motifs of honey and wine are used here to express this principle, but their meaning has clearly departed quite considerably from the one implied by the Persian poets.
- 15 The correct spelling of the word for brother is with a ‘k’ and an ‘e’: kardeş. Seyfili’s spelling a (...)
28Gardaş (Brother)15 is a poem that was written in the 1970s, a decade characterized by serious civil unrest in Turkey and marked by a military coup at its beginning and end. Seyfili often speaks of ’12 Mart’ (12 March) and ’12 Eylül’ (12 September), references to the coups on those dates in 1971 and 1980 which he uses as a kind of idiom for that overall period of strife and oppression experienced by the Alevis then, for their participation in the activities of the political left.
29Gardaş articulates the difficulties of being an aşık during that time, and the repercussions that Seyfili faced at the hands of the authorities for speaking out (as it is incumbent on the aşık to do) against the injustice that he perceived was being perpetrated around him. As were many engaged in political activity during that period, he was arrested and imprisoned on various occasions. The first and penultimate stanzas of Gardaş are given here:
Engeller önümde, baskı başımda
Ozan olmak, aydın olmak zor gardaş
Savcılık, adliye, polis peşimde
Ozan olmak, şair olmak zor gardaş.
Bülbül ahraz olmuş karga önünde
Kuzgunlar şahinler karga yanında
Cehalet vurur o an damarına
Ozan olmak, şair olmak zor gardaş.
Obstacles before me, intimidation from above,
Being an ozan’s hard, brother; being enlightened is hard.
The prosecutors, the courts, the police are after me
It’s hard to be an ozan, brother, hard to be a poet.
The nightingale’s gone silent, there’s a crow before him
And ravens and hawks beside it.
Ignorance strikes him at that moment, in his vein
It’s hard to be an ozan, brother, hard to be a poet.
30What is interesting about this poem is Seyfili’s use of the mystical nightingale metaphor to talk of political oppression and socio-religious discrimination. The nightingale is no longer located in its traditional role, singing a mournful cry as it seeks the beauty of the rose. Rather, it is defined here by its very silence, and as such appears to have become representative of a new concern which, following on from the references to the ‘prosecutors’, ‘courts’, and ‘police’ is suggestive of the socio-political strife of the time, rather than having any association with its more traditional, mystical aspirations.
31Another poem that contains much of the imagery and language of the Sufi genre, but behind which is an autobiographically inspired sub-text of Alevi suffering and persecution, is Yüksek Uçma (Don’t Fly High). Seyfili wrote this poem in 1963, and explains the story behind its composition in the following words:
When I was a young man, there were fifty pairs of cranes which would come to our village every year. Cranes are monogamous so they would come in pairs. They were beautiful, and I am fortunate to have seen them. They would turn the semah over the water of the Euphrates. One day a soldier shot one of the cranes dead with his rifle. We protested to the ağa. Two weeks afterwards, the soldier was hit by a train and he died. The dead crane’s partner returned every year with its young, but it never took another partner. When I returned to the village recently, there were only seven pairs of cranes there. The natural environment has changed and so they no longer come.
32The poem is ostensibly an entreaty to the crane not to fly, that it might escape being hit by the soldier’s bullet, but there are various different layers of meaning and metaphorical representation involved:
Yüksek uçma telli turnam
Bu sevdanın gözü kördür
Bir ricam var gülüm sana
N’olur uğra Erzincan’a
Yardan haber getir bana
Ne olursun, ne olursun.
Bana gücenme gel canım
Ovalar senin mekanın
Yüksek uçma, tek ısrarım
Özlem çekersin yarına
Benzersin dertli birine
Benim gibi kaderine
İçim burkuluyor dertten
Yandım kavruldum hasretten
Seyfili gibi gurbetten
Don’t fly high, my wiry crane
You’ll grow weary, you’ll grow weary.
The eye of this passion is blind
You will be hit, you will be hit.
I have a request of you, my rose
Please, stop by Erzincan.
Bring me news from my lover
I implore you, I implore you.
Don’t be mad at me, come, my dear
The plains are your home.
Don’t fly high, it’s my one insistence
You’ll grow weary, you’ll grow weary.
You will yearn for tomorrow
You’ll be like a troubled one.
Like me, you’ll scold your fate
You’ll scold your fate.
My soul is twisted in affliction
I have burned, I have been scorched by longing.
Like Seyfili, you will be wiped on the floor
In a place far from home.
33The ‘rose’ and the ‘lover’ of verse two, the ‘yearning’ and the mention of fate in verse four, and the ‘burning’ and ‘scorching by longing’ in verse five are all extremely reminiscent of the mystical motifs of the Persian poets, and lend the poem a powerful atmosphere of tragedy and suffering familiar from the Sufi material. Yet it has a sub-text that is very specific to the Alevi case, which is particularly evident in Seyfili’s use of the crane as its central subject.
- 16 The semah is the rotational ritual dance with which the cem ceremony culminates. There is a particu (...)
- 17 Polygamy was outlawed by the Turkish Republic but remains permissible under the Islamic shari’a, wh (...)
34The crane is a popular motif in Turkish folk poetry generally, but carries special significance to the Alevis, who, like Seyfili in his story, compare its airborne turning to the movement of the semah.16 It is commonly referred to as the ‘telli turna’ (wiry crane), an appellation that carries associations of sanctity on account of its proximity to the term ‘telli Kuran’ (‘the stringed Qur’an’, Alevi euphemism for the saz), and this sacred association is further emphasized by the Alevis through their likening of its cry to the voice of Ali. The mention made of the monogamous nature of the crane in the story belies Seyfili’s reverence for it – and identification with it - because the Alevis generally pride themselves on practicing monogamous marriages, and are often critical of the polygamy sanctioned by other schools of Islam.17
35In the story that inspired the poem, the crane was brutally shot down and killed by a soldier whose rank and uniform make him representative of the state. The poem thus carries a heavy association of the historic ruptures between the Alevis and official authority. The identification between the poetic voice and the crane becomes stronger as the poem progresses, reaching a climax in verses four and five.
- 18 It is often found in partnership with the image of the moth (the mystical soul) that is irresistibl (...)
36The language used to express that suffering is profoundly Sufic in its overtones: the image of the individual burning in the fire of affliction (which dominates the final verse of the poem) is very familiar from mystical Persian verse.18 Seyfili’s use of the burning motif here does not seem to be so much inspired by the mystical concept of dard-i din (suffering for the sake of God), but rather, in light of the story that he relates as the background to the poem’s composition, to be a ‘burning’ of temporal oppression.
37As well as dealing with the issue of community suffering and oppression, the Sufi idiom also finds expression in Seyfili’s poetry that articulates his own very personal experience of pain. He wrote Dostlar Hey (Hey Friends) in 1993 following the loss of his leg to amputation, and it expresses the considerable physical pain experienced by the procedure, as well as the accompanying emotional response to encroaching old age (the last line reads, ‘the walking stick in his hand, youth has flown away, hey friends.’). It is not primarily a religious poem, and yet it makes significant use of the Sufi idiom.
38Fate, for example, features at the end of the second verse: ‘Fate found me and chose me, hey friends’; and verse four is resonant with references to mystical themes:
Sevginin kuluyum ben turabiyim
Bir pejmürde kulum ben harabiyim
Aşkın badesiyim ben şarabıyım
Deli gönül kana kana içti dostlar hey.
I am love’s slave, I am turabi
I am a wretched slave, I am harabi
I am love’s potion, I am its wine
This mad soul drank it down, hey friends.
- 19 Cahit Öztelli reports that Turabi was the dedebaba (head of the Bektaşi Sufi order) at the convent (...)
- 20 Edip Harabi is the author of the Vahdetname, a long poem outlining Alevi creation mythology.
- 21 Ebu Turab (Father of the Earth) is also one of the titles given to Ali in Alevilik.
39Turabi and Harabi are both references to aşıks from a previous age: Turabi was one of the great Alevi-Bektasi poets of the 19th century, to whom a substantial body of poetry is attributed;19 Harabi refers to Edip Harabi, an influential ozan who died in 1917.20 Both names also hold meanings of their own in the Ottoman-Turkish language, in which turabi means ‘pertaining to dust or earth’, and harabi means ‘ruin’ or ‘poverty’ (Redhouse 2000: 1191 and 449).21
40Seyfili’s use of the mystical idiom here does not necessarily imply that the poem has religious concerns. Rather, he uses the emotive language of Sufism to articulate his experience of a particular event that caused him significant physical and emotional distress. In conversation, he is clear that he does not intend the poem to be interpreted through a spiritual or religious lens.
41It is, perhaps, Seyfili’s situation within the broad genre of Islamic art that causes him to employ the rather clichéd images of the ‘wretched slave’ and ‘mad soul’ in Dostlar Hey, for in the broad field of Islamic literature the preservation of tradition is firmly prioritized over the quest for originality of expression. As such, it befalls Seyfili to make use of an established range of symbolism and imagery rather than fashion his own, and he can safely assume that his readers/listeners will not find it unusual, surprising or even disappointing that he does so.
- 22 For more on innovation and originality in Turkish folk music, see Markoff 1991:129-145, especially (...)
42Natalie Moyle reaches the same conclusion in her study of the hikaye tradition amongst the aşıks of the northeastern Anatolian town of Kars, where she observes that, ‘consistent with Islamic aesthetics, certain images are (indeed) used repeatedly’, but that this does not appear to compromise the artistic integrity of the poetry in any way (Moyle 1990: 135).22 Annemarie Schimmel makes the following observation of Islamic folk poetry more generally, and its similarity to the high poetry in this regard (Schimmel 1982: 142):
The folk poets followed the Koranic injunction to find God’s signs “in the earth and in yourselves – do you not see?” (Sura 51/21). In their poetry age-old symbols came to life again. Yet, in the history of mystical folk poetry too the process of repetition and fossilization of forms, topics and images is as visible as in high poetry.
43In Dostlar Hey, then, as in much of his poetry, Seyfili appears to be acting very much within the parameters of the mystical Islamic folk tradition, by taking those ‘age-old symbols’ and continuing to use them as poetic metaphors even when they have digressed from their original religious meanings.
44Seyfili’s tendency to use the language of Sufi mysticism when talking of the Alevi community can be seen particularly clearly in the poetry written around 1960, during his early years away from his homeland of Erzincan when he was a migrant worker in Istanbul. These poems express his sadness at the disintegration of the social and ritual institutions of rural Alevilik in the new urban setting.
- 23 In Alevi society, each male individual or married couple is joined to another by way of a ritual pl (...)
45The Alevi tradition indeed suffered a great rupture during the early period of mass rural to urban migration in the 1960s and 70s, for historically extremely close-knit Alevi village communities found no recourse to practice their traditions in the anonymous big cities of the Turkish west. With the loss of the closed social structure of the village, the crucial relationships between individuals23 as well as between dede and follower were severely weakened. Seyfili recalls his experience of that era in the following words:
When I first went to Istanbul, I was only a youth. I worked on a construction site in the summers when there was lots of work. I remember on Fridays, all the Sunni workers would go to do their prayers at the mosque at midday, but I had nowhere to go. We didn’t have anywhere to meet, anywhere to practice our cem. There was no togetherness, no community.
46Two poems that express Seyfili’s loneliness during this period, and his sadness at the disintegration of Alevilik, are Yozlaştı (Degenerated) and Ayıkmıyor Başım (I Can’t Clear My Head). Both poems draw on the language as well as certain broad theological themes of Sufi poetry. The opening lines of Yozlaştı are resonant with mystical metaphors:
Aşıklar sevdasız aşklar duygusuz
Mecnun’un sahrası, çöle yozlaştı
Bülbülün feryadı dillere destan
Bahçıvanı gafil, gülü yozlaştı.
Aşıks without passion, love without feeling
Majnun’s desert, his plain has degenerated.
The legendary cry of the nightingale,
The gardener’s been careless, the rose has degenerated.
47The Sufi image of the careless gardener who has failed to cultivate the rose is used here as a metaphor for the disintegration of Alevilik in the big city. In later verses of the same poem, Seyfili mourns the fact that ‘the seas have been dirtied and the lake debased’, and ‘the honey in the beehive has degenerated’, drawing again on the stock imagery of Persian Sufi poetry to express his sense of loss over the fragmentation of the Alevi community.
48Seyfili’s use of the Sufi imagery in this context differs from its usage in the comparatively straightforward, religious love poem, Yolcuyum Yolunda. In that poem, Seyfili’s poetic voice is situated very much within the tradition according to whose poetic norms it speaks. In Yozlaştı, however, he has taken a step back from that tradition and begun to use its stock imagery and metaphor to express something different: the idiom of Sufi mysticism is used here to describe the Alevi community itself, rather than the personal relationship between the poet and God, or the ‘lover’, as it does in the classical Persian context.
49This appropriation of Sufi poetic imagery, the language of love-mysticism, to express the demise of his religious community (rather than the unattainability of God) points to the greatly elevated status of the Alevi community and its function in Seyfili’s religious experience. Without the community, there can be no such experience, and the loss of that community is mourned with the same strength of feeling – indeed, the same poetic idiom – as the classical Persian poets lament their separation from God.
50This notion of separation is also powerfully expressed in Ayıkmıyor Başım. This poem laments the fragmentation of the Alevi community in a rather more straightforward idiom, but has at its heart the same powerful motif of separation that is so reminiscent of the Persian material:
Rıza ile lokma yenilmez oldu
Kırkların Cemine gidilmez oldu
Gülbenkler çekilip verilmez oldu
Talip ayrı düştü, pir ayrı düştü
Haydar Haydar Haydar, pir ayrı düştü.
The lokma could no longer be eaten with consent
The Cem of the Forty could not be held
Prayers could not be read, could not be given
The disciple and the pir have parted
Haydar Haydar Haydar, the pir has parted.
51The compound verb used in the refrain, and which occurs a total of ten times in the poem as a whole, is ayrı düşmek, meaning ‘to become separated’, the circumstance which is being so strongly lamented in the poem. The lokma is a reference to shared food, used primarily in the ritual context of the cem to denote the communal meal of sacrificed meat at the end, but also used more broadly in reference to food given and shared amongst the Alevi community. The eating of lokma in the cem can only take place when everyone in the community has declared rızalık (approval, or consent) with one another; that is, when there is peace established within the community. It is the loss of this experience that Seyfili is lamenting here, for in the anonymity of Istanbul in 1959 Alevi migrants such as he became isolated from their communities, cem ceremonies could not be held, and rızalık could therefore not be established. Seyfili explained to me the enormous spiritual significance of rızalık within the community to the Alevis:
C. Tee: How does an Alevi find forgiveness for his sins? Does God forgive them?
Seyfili: Only the people can be satisfied [razı] in the cem. Whether or not God has forgiven you is a secret. Neither the dede nor anyone else can interfere with this. There is a saying, ‘only God knows the heart’. God knows the secrets, and nobody has the right to say they forgive you in God’s name. We do not interfere with God’s work [Allah’ın işine karışmayız, biz].
52The authority of the community, and the importance of good inter-communal relations, is therefore paramount, and so separation from it should consequently be understood to be extremely grave. Its implications far exceed the anticipated realm of loneliness and socio-cultural isolation, and extend to the heart of Seyfili’s religious and spiritual experience as an Alevi. He uses the Sufi idiom of spiritual separation from God to articulate his separation from the Alevi community because it is there, in the human community, that he has access to rızalık, or forgiveness.
- 24 Altan Gökalp suggests that mysticism served as both religious legitimization and a form of social c (...)
53The use of the language of Sufism in Seyfili’s poetry reveals one of the distinctive features of Alevi mysticism, which is the greatly elevated status of the human community therein. This mystical cosmology and worldview was developed over centuries in often isolated and always introverted Alevi communities in rural Anatolia, where the unity and integrity of the community was paramount. Indeed, in the face of Ottoman Sunni hostility, it was a key to the survival and propagation of the tradition.24 In the present day, the situation is very different and most Alevis now live in the demographically mixed and relatively anonymous urban centres in the west of Turkey and Western Europe.
54The so-called modern Alevi movement, which began in the late 1980s, has seen a reawakened interest in Alevi identity in this new environment and, in many cases, a return to ritual practices such as the cem. These contemporary cem ceremonies – held in new, purpose-built urban cemevis – are, however, quite different from their rural prototype: rather than being intimate and highly secretive, they are large in scale and often open to outsiders. The desire for official recognition by the Turkish state and engagement in identity politics has meant that, in many cases, the cem has arguably lost some of its ‘mystical’ function and become a public symbol and even a defense of Alevilik to the outside world.
55It is unclear what will become of Alevi mysticism in this modern, reformulated Alevilik. Altered demographic distribution, together with the processes of codification and institutionalization, has had a profound and inevitable effect on the mystical significance of the community. It should, however, be expected that Alevi aşıks such as Ozan Seyfili will continue to use the language of mysticism flexibly and adaptively in their poetry, even as they articulate the myriad new challenges – be they religious, social, legal or political - faced by the Alevis in the 21st century.