Friday, May 6, 2011

Bademler village reflects Alevi philosophy

Bademler village reflects Alevi philosophy - Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review

The village of Bademler and its people have their own unique social structure, mixing tradition with modernism and depending entirely on gender equality

The Alevi travelers settled beneath the imposing trees and so begun the village of Bademler.
Bademler village is a small farming community located on a hillside near the bustling market town of Urla near İzmir in western Turkey. The legend of how the village of Bademler began focuses on a period in time roughly 200 years before, when a group of Alevi farmers who were looking for work traveled from Central Anatolia to the western coast of Turkey.
The travelers searched the region for an ideal spot to set up camp and came across a group of local farmers from the nearby village of Ulamış. Those farmers recommended a hillside on the opposite side of the valley where two great almond trees stood. The Alevi travelers settled beneath the imposing trees and so begun the village of Bademler. Bademler, meaning “almonds,” is recognized locally as an Alevi village. They retain their traditional farming roots and today agriculture is responsible for approximately 75 percent of their economy. Although the ties to their historical beginnings are strong, the village is recognized throughout the region for being a modern society; a community built on gender equality. The atmosphere in Bademler is relaxed and friendly.
The muhtar (village headman) of Bademler, Mehmet Uysal, attributes this to the special philosophy of the village people. He believes this because the Alevi of Bademler are like no other.
In a league of their own
Uysal has been the village muhtar for the past two years. Uysal agreed to an interview in the hope of explaining the village’s beliefs. They are Alevi, a branch of Shiite Islam, however there are significant differences between Alevis in terms of beliefs, traditions and rituals. Alevism can be described as a moderate branch of Islam, however according to Uysal, it is not something people can convert to. Uysal said it is more than just a religion; it is a type of culture. “The origins of this village lie with Alevism. We were born Alevi. Alevism is not something that can be taught, it’s something that you ‘are.’ That’s not to say we differentiate ourselves from anyone else. We are simply Turks who follow a slightly different brand of Islam and share a common belief in Allah.”
Uysal confirmed the majority of Alevi who live in the village of Bademler were also born there, although a handful of Alevi moved to the village after hearing about it’s tranquil setting close to the city of İzmir.
Music, art and theater
Bademler’s amenities include a bar and Internet cafe, a couple of small village stores, a handful of traditional lokanta restaurants that serve whatever the chef is preparing that day, a library and a bakery. The library has around 7,000 books, covering subjects such as art and culture, religion, philosophy, geography and poetry. There’s also a section for foreign languages including French, German and English, although there are no foreigners residing in the village.
On a Sunday they hold a traditional village bazaar, which Uysal claims is totally organic and apparently was running before the Cittaslow Sığacık bazaar, some 15 kilometers further south. However Bademler’s most renowned facility is undoubtedly the theater.
Mustafa Anarat, a young high school teacher, was assigned to Bademler in the late 1920s. He became an instant hit with the children and village folk alike and seemed to admire the village philosophy. Uysal said it was Anarat who first brought theater to Bademler. “Anarat introduced the villagers to the concept of theater. He began teaching the children how to perform and raised an interest in the entire community. He was an instant success.” Uysal said that in the early days, Anarat’s productions were performed outside in the village square, where everyone would gather to enjoy the latest performance. It was Anarat’s determination and encouragement that ultimately led to the community’s decision to set up a fund in order to build the village’s very own theater house.
“During the 1960s, the villagers donated every spare penny to the theater construction fund. It was our main priority. However, the villagers’ main income at the time came from the newly sowed tobacco fields and quite regularly the farmers wouldn’t have a penny between them for weeks,” Uysal said. “Villagers relied upon a great deal of trust that allowed people to shop from the local stores without the need of paper money. This ‘loan’ system continued for years, and was always repaid when the crops came in, but every spare penny was spent on the construction of the theater. Eventually the money did run out and the village was almost bankrupt.”
Finally in the late 1960s, the village people turned to the well-respected businessman Selçuk Yaşar, of Yaşar Holding, and asked for financial support. Yaşar agreed to help finance the project and the theater was officially opened by the governor of İzmir, Namık Kemal Şentürk, in 1969.
The theater hall is possibly one of the busiest in the region nowadays, hosting productions every other week or so. Although it is small with a capacity of approximately 300, plus standing room, it is the most popular venue in town.
Alevis and the arts
There is a strong bond between the Alevi and the arts. In Bademler, their interest in art exceeds their need for religious practice, and this is highlighted by the fact that the residents chose to build a theater instead of a cemevi (an Alevi place of worship, assembly house) or a mosque. A large portion of the community’s social time is spent participating in productions. It is almost a right of passage in Bademler and something that is undertaken by everyone at some point or another. The theater’s long entrance hall walls are laden with pictures dating back to the early 1950s. There’s a picture entitled “first tourists” dated 1958 and another depicting a blind shopkeeper standing behind his countertop. In the black-and-white picture, the blind shopkeeper stands in front of a shelf of rakı bottles and before him is a till. Legend has it that this shopkeeper had the unusual ability of being able to tell the difference between banknotes simply by touch.
In 1963, a Turkish movie named “Susuz Yaz” (Dry Summer), a benchmark in Turkish film history to say the least, was filmed in Bademler and depicted typical village life. There are many photos from productions and a few of renowned artists who have visited the place. Aşık Veysel, a celebrated Alevi folk musician, visited the village and his picture is displayed prominently on the wall.
A unique culture
A brief jaunt to the village of Bademler may leave visitors with the impression that it is a typical Turkish agricultural village; the scene is set like any other – men sit outside coffee houses playing cards, children play in the empty streets and women in colorful attire sweep the steps leading to their front doors. Yet a second glance could afford you a deeper understanding – a lone woman perched on a bench reading a newspaper, a group of men sit on a curb talking fervently about last night’s episode of their favorite TV show and the realization that things may not be what they seem or that there is a distinct role reversal, begins to dawn. This is not your stereotypical Turkish village; this is the village of Bademler and the people have their own unique social structure that depends entirely on gender equality.
Gürsel Saygılı is the director of the local primary school and the sole English language teacher. Saygılı is quick to impress the importance of a society that values gender equality and she firmly believes that women and men share an equal footing in the village. “Women are valued in our community, perhaps even revered. I’m given the same opportunities as a man. I can achieve the same position as a man. I can enter the cafe and sit and drink tea with the men. I won’t be stared at or ignored. I am free from stereotypical social pressures.”
Saygılı also said it is normal for families in Bademler to have only one child and that the sex of the child in inconsequential. Other cultural differences are noticeable in the traditions surrounding marriage and funerals. “Alevi funerals are different from Sunni Muslims. Sunni Muslims bury their loved ones directly in the ground, in a simple wooden coffin. We also bury our departed in a coffin, but this is placed within a concrete casing. This tradition developed over time, when Alevi farmers lived in the hills and forests of Central Anatolia. The farmers would bury their loved ones in a handmade wooden casket but they were fearful of wild animals disturbing the ground, so I believe they started to encase the graves in cement so that their loved ones final resting place was protected.”
Villagers often head to İzmir to visit the memorial site of Hamza Baba, or Ameer Hamza Shinwari, who was a 20th century poet, playwright and philosopher and whose teachings are deeply respected throughout Anatolia. At the memorial site the villagers pray together and make requests, in return they promise Hamza Baba gifts such as homemade food or locally grown produce. The villagers’ requests vary but generally include wishes for the safe keeping of sons serving in the armed forces or for the health of their children. When their wishes are thought to have been granted, the villagers return in small groups with a picnic and the promised goods.
The tradition of cooking for an upcoming wedding is standard practice in Turkish society, but the food the Alevi prepare is different. During the wedding festivities, they cook keşkek, described as an egg coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Uysal said these traditions are specific to Bademler’s Alevi but that the slight differences are not always entirely understood. “Some people don’t understand our moderate form of Islam and that’s a shame. There’s a lot of negative propaganda about our culture and religion. This village benefits from being close to İzmir, one of the most forward-thinking and modern cities in Turkey, and we welcome people to come and see for themselves our unique lifestyle. We are Turks after all.”
Prominent figures
Headman Uysal said the village was also home to many renowned Turkish academics. “One of numerous prominent local residents of Bademler was Musa Baran, manager of the Ephesus museum in Selçuk. Baran was born and raised in Bademler.”
Baran was born in the village in 1924. As a young man, Baran studied archaeology at the University of Istanbul, later working at the sites of Ephesus and Pergamum (Bergama). In honor of Baran’s personal achievements, his former childhood home has been transformed into a children’s toy museum, documenting his studies on the subject through hundreds of generations. Pictures from the 16th century displayed in the museum show children playing with the same toys as 20th-century children, such as role-play games, building catapults, cooking imaginary food and making household utensils. Baran’s interest in children’s toys led him to discover that the games and toys children played throughout childhood remained similar throughout the ages. He once wrote, “Everywhere there seems to be a similarity among children’s games. One discovers no great differences between countries, peoples and times. We read in the works of Homer about some games; ball playing, the game of knucklebones, playing with wasps, playing in the sand and playing with tops. These games are still played in my hometown in western Anatolia.”
The Japanese authorities sent a selection of antique toys to be displayed in the museum in Bademler, acknowledging Baran’s success in the field. The museum is one of only two children’s toy museums in Turkey and is located in the center of the village.
Mahmut Türkmenoğlu, who was the customs minister in the 1970s, was also born and raised in Bademler. Uysal recounted how Türkmenoğlu’s advice and support during the 1970s helped save the village from a great financial crisis. “Mahmut Türkmenoğlu became the customs minister in Turkey and continued to support the people of Bademler with practical advice,” Uysal said. “During the 1970s, the German government offered Turkish citizens the opportunity to live and work in Germany, which at the time lacked manual laborers. Türkmenoğlu suggested that Bademler send some members of the community to Germany to work. His advice was well received and the move helped boost the village economy during the late 1970s and early 80s.” The money earned in Germany helped sustain the village economy for a number of years, however Türkmenoğlu’s greatest advice and the advice that continues to positively affect the village today well into the new millennium was his suggestion to build a cooperative. “Türkmenoğlu also introduced the idea of the cooperative to us. He suggested we develop our agricultural industry based on a cooperative scheme,” Uysal said. “The villagers built greenhouses to grow flowers and created a co-op for both the farmers and the villagers who supply the water to these farms. We continue to work together in this way. We have gained greater respect from the buyers and have become a stronger bargaining force.”
In 2009, a group of high-profile guests visited the village and raised awareness in the region, bringing about a renewed curiosity. Members from the World Bank were examining the region and stopped at Bademler during their guided tour. Uysal recalled how the event was important for the villagers. “Members of the World Bank wanted to visit a traditional working village and at first the Turkish authorities arranged for them to visit Çeşme, but somehow they were directed to us. We printed brochures for our guests in English and Turkish and wore fresh flowers in our buttonholes. The children of the village performed a traditional dance in honor of the guests. There were approximately 35 members in the group. It was a memorable day.”
Free to drink alcohol
According to Uysal, there are rituals and traditions such as the freedom to drink alcohol, the freedom to eat wild boar and shared religious festivals that are typical to all Alevis. On a Sunday, the village hunters indulge in the ritual of gathering at the municipal cafe and talk about the latest escapades of the hunt for wild boar. They feel free to eat wild boar and this social activity is undertaken every week with often the same tales of the hunt being relayed over brunch.
Generally life in Bademler is peaceful and relaxed. Improvements to the infrastructure and the continuous developments in the surrounding area of Urla and Seferihisar have established the region as an up-and-coming tourist destination, even if those tourists are homegrown. The organic village market, held every Sunday, has become a welcome boost to Bademler’s economy. Not only that, the majority of residents agree that it has improved the relationships between neighboring villages and created a social hub that everyone can participate in. Emine, a young local trader explained, “The market has encouraged day-trippers to the village and now we benefit from a secondary income. We cook homemade ‘mantı’ (similar to ravioli) and ‘gözleme’ (Turkish-style pancake) and even though our terrace is small with only four tables, it’s an added bonus and a fun activity. Four years have past since the opening of this market and it’s going well. I can say it’s been a success.”
On the whole, life in Bademler is moving at a reasonable pace and most residents would agree that the future does indeed look bright.
What is Alevism? Posing this question to a wide cross-section of the general public in Turkey – Alevis included – would likely net you dramatically different answers.
Alevism is often described as a liberal form of Islam, yet the definition fails to articulate the nuances of the community’s beliefs, which vary from region to region and person to person.
On the whole, Alevis believe that Allah is the supreme spirit, but also that the energies of the Prophet Muhammad and Ali, the nephew of the Prophet, represent Allah. Alevi religious life centers on the cemevi, or gathering house, where congregants of both genders mix freely while participating in ritualized song and dance.
Experts and community leaders, however, disagree over the finer description of Alevism as there is no centralized body or holy book to provide a authoritative definition of the community’s beliefs.
Alevis may define Alevism as a part of Islam, the true Islam, an independent religion with few ties to Islam, a Shamanist-influenced heterodox community, a humanist life philosophy with no connection to religion and more.
Alevis often simplify the community’s basic rules with just one sentence: “Eline, diline, beline sahip ol” (Control your hand, your mouth, and your loins), which effectively directs people to avoid stealing or hurting others, watch what they say and refrain from giving in to lust.
Close ties with the neighboring village
Demircili is a small coastal village, nine kilometers west of Bademler on the southern side of the Çeşme peninsula.
The residents of Demircili hail from a nomadic tribe which historically traveled between the coastal regions and the mountain retreats around the district of İzmir, western Turkey.
Typically, nomads spend the winters herding their sheep and goats and working their agricultural lands somewhere near the coast until the beginning of summer when the earth hardens and the grazing dries out in the hot sun. They then head to the cooler, more fertile pastures of the mountains. Nomads traditionally live in large family tents, the material of which is woven from goat’s hair, yet nowadays the settled nomads choose to build more permanent shelters, and the Demircili villagers reside in brick-constructed homes.
The settled nomads who choose to retain part of their ancestral culture construct their tents and shelters out of a more convenient plastic sheeting. Bademler share a friendly outlook and often visit the festivals and gatherings of each other’s communities.
Bademler village headman, or muhtar, Mehmet Uysal explained a compliment shared between the two communities: “We have a saying in Turkish which roughly translates to ‘See the thin membrane of an onion? This is the difference between us.’ It was said to express the humanity we share, and reiterate that ultimately all humans are the same.”