The ongoing identity debate over the slogan “Let’s be together, let’s be strong, let’s be alive” is dividing the oppressed Alevi-Arevi community. There are at least four opposing views being debated. The most radical proponents of Turkish nationalism, such as Halachoghlu, try to prove that the Arevi-Alevis of Dersim are “Kurdishized Turkmen”; the representatives of the Armenian Patriarchate, led by Archbishop Aram Ateshyan, declare that they are “converted Armenians”; for Kurdish nationalists, the people of Dersim are part of the Kurdish nation fighting for independence and autonomy. There is also the “Zaza” movement mentioned in Ms. Kharatyan’s article, which attributes ethnic and national characteristics to the Arevi-Alevis of Dersim.

In fact, none of these theses is sufficient for a proper study of the history of Dersim. For centuries, Dersim has been an area of metamorphosis where the Alevi-Arevi population, a unique synthesis of various ethnic origins, emerged: Armenians, Iranian Delamites, Kurds and Turkmens. Alevi-Arevis were called by different names in the Ottoman Empire, including derogatory terms: Kizilbash, candle burners (terah sondaran), unbelievers or gavur (zindik, rafizi), etc. Since they were not “protected” by the status of nation, they had the status of dhimmis (non-Muslims) and belonged to the Christian class. 

It was only at the end of the 19th century that the Ottoman authorities began to recognize Alevi-Arevis as “Muslims”, based on propaganda aimed to reduce the weight of the empire’s Christian subjects and ideologically involve them in rising up for the “jihad against Christians”.

Markus Dressler’s excellent work “Writing Religion, the Making of Turkish Alevi Islam” is the best study to better understand this phenomenon. In fact, the various names given to this population are mostly of Persian origin and closely related to the non-Muslim nature of the Alevis. Matti Musa claims that Armenians call them “Red Heads”, a literal translation of red head, but the term is also Persian. It was like that in Ottoman terminology as well. “In fact, it can be argued that the term ‘zındık’ (pilgrim, infidel) has direct associations with Zoroastrians, Mazdakis and Manichaeans. In Islamic history, the original Zendeka movements were groups of Persian origin that maintained their pre-Persian religious system under an Islamic guise.

During the reign of Shah Ismail (16th century), after the mass penetration of the Kizilbash movement into Anatolia, a new word called “Tat” came into use: “Another group of unknown origin, at least partly classified among the Anatolian Alevis, are the Tat, who are also explicitly condemned in Ottoman documents. In Turkey at the time, this name was used to mean “foreigner” but also “Iranian”.

Finally, many Alevi-Arevis, especially in Dersim, sincerely believe that they originally came from a province in Iran called Khorasan, on the border of Central Asia. This mythical homeland does not belong to Alevis, some of whom are natives of Anatolia, others from Gilan and Dailaman, or from Kermanshah in western Iran. The Khorasan in question is not a geographical region but a literary concept, i.e. the “Land of the Rising Sun”, as Arab writers called it, referring to the regions of pre-Islamic Iran that remained faithful to their ancient beliefs. In addition to this figurative description, Khorasan was a place of forced resettlement of the Kizilbash of Dersim by the Safavid Shahs of Iran, who used them as raiding parties against the Sunni Uzbeks who tried to invade Iran in the early 17th century.

According to historian Mehmet Bayrak, some 60,000 Kizilbash were displaced to northeastern Iran, where some of them settled, while others returned to Dersim some 30 years later.

Until the late 19th century, the Alevi-Arevis of Dersim had a collective identity in the form of the Kizilbash identity, closely linked to the religious and historical region. It is true that later both Western and Armenian ethnographers, historians and geographers almost unanimously categorized this population as “Kurdish”. The German geographer Kiepert, in a map from 1955, shows them as the “independent Kurds of Dujik”. In 1860, the Russian consul in Karin (Erzrum), Alexander Caba, described them as “the Kurdish tribe of Dujik”. The latter explains that the Turks called them “Dujik” or “Ekrat” (Kurds), but “the real Kurds called them “Kizilbash”. The Ottoman archives of that period also mention “Ekradlar” (Kurds) or nomadic Kurdish tribes (“Yörük Ekrad Tayfesi”). However, at a time when the Kurdish national question had not yet emerged and the main structure was tribal, I think that the name “Kurd” should be associated primarily with nomadic and shepherding activities rather than their ethnic origin. This is what Garnik Asatryan has been saying for centuries when defining the word Kurd: “Kurtan and Martohm-i Kurtan” from 6th and 7th century Iranian texts means a nomadic group living in tents and engaged in shepherding. From the 8th to the 12th century, the words “Kurd and Ekrad” in Arabic-Persian texts mean nomads, bandits and shepherds. A study published in Paris in 1913 makes a clear distinction between “settled Kurds”, “nomadic Kurds”, “Kızılbas” and “Zazas”.

The concept of identity among Dersim Alevis is partly linked to tribal and religious structure. As we mentioned in our previous article, “Dersimites knew each other by their clan names.” Belonging to a clan or tribal structure was extremely important, especially since it also represented the value of autonomy. It is not for nothing that they say that everyone in Dersim had their own agha. Hence the frequent land and property conflicts between the tribes in Dersim. However, identity need not be attributed solely to tribal membership. The Alevi-Arevis of Dersim and their tribes choose their spiritual leaders based on their spiritual wisdom and supernatural abilities. The lineage of these leaders, called Ocak, and their loyalty to the religious leaders of the tribes are as important as their tribal affiliation. It is not uncommon for Dersimites to experience identity confusion between the name of the tribe and the name of the hearth to which they belong. Sometimes a dual identity is even formed around the same name, such as the Kureyşan tribe and the Kureyşan Quarry. Considering the social stratification of the tribe, the religious aspect is important. 

Members of the tribe with patriarchal lineage are called Ras, those without are called Ram, and those whose mothers are patriarchal are called Tikme, the middle category. If the father is Ras and the mother is Ram, the children are considered Ras. If we focus on the religious aspect of identity, what I call loyalty to the Hearths, the linguistic case put forward by 19th century Armenian writers can no longer withstand criticism. Indeed, the three largest tribes of Dersim Alevi Pirs are carriers of different languages. The Kuresans speak Zazaki, the Kamasurans speak Kurdish, the Sari Saltuks speak Turkish. This may explain the fact that some tribes are bilingual. As researcher Ali Kaya notes, 126 tribes are listed, of which 80 speak only Zaza, 23 speak only Kurdish, 22 speak only Zazaki-Kurdish, and 1 speaks only Turkish.  Therefore, the hasty conclusions that Dersim Alevis who speak only Zaza are ethnic Zazas are too simplistic and partly wrong. If we define being Armenian as only speaking Armenian and belonging to the apostolic church, it would be pure sectarianism.

The current discovery of Dersim Armenians is the richness of Dersim’s cultural meticization. They have been living with the Alevi faith for several generations, sometimes speaking Armenian and more often a mixed language of Zazai and Armenian. At the same time, the Alevis of Dersim can feel connected to an Armenian, Zaza or other identity while maintaining their belief in Human Existence. Because “they look at the 72 tribes with the same eyes.” The Dersim Armenian Union has chosen a different path, which involves a name change (adopting a new Armenian name). This is a choice that everyone has the right to make.

To be continued…

Ashkhen Virabyan, journalist-analyst

western armenia tv

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