Dem is drunk through the ears: sound, space, and listening in Alevi collective worship ritual
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In Turkey, Alevi social and religious identity is often constructed in conscious opposition to institutionalized Sunni Islam. Sound is an important medium by which the relationship of violence and resistance between Alevis and the Sunni state is produced and perpetuated. This paper focuses on the ways in which Alevi aural dispositions and spatial constructions constitute and reinforce one another. These auralities and spacialities are rehearsed and disciplined within the context of collective worship rituals [cem or muhabbet], but play a broader role in molding and thus preserving the Alevi community as a religious minority under the threat of assimilation. In particular, I examine how Alevis map space by cultivating listening habits based on oppositions of interior and exterior, private and public, and esoteric and exoteric. Two Alevi concepts play especially prominent roles in regulating the relationship between sound and space. Dem refers to the divine power which resides in the words, voice, and breath of spiritually mature individuals. It is also the name for the alcohol Alevis may drink as part of their collective worship services. With the idea of dem, Alevis draw a link between listening and the acquisition of knowledge on the one hand, and drinking and interiority on the other that is embodied in the phrase “dem is drunk by the ears” [dem kulaktan içilir]. Just as tea is said to steep [demlenmek], Alevis steep—discipline themselves as Alevi subjects—during muhabbet by listening to words of wisdom spoken or sung by spiritually mature individuals. Meanwhile, dem is emplaced through its association with a face, or didar. The Alevi fixation on didar creates spatial orientations also experienced as listening vectors linking people together. Instead of facing towards Mecca while praying, Alevis face towards one another because they see God as the human being him/herself, and the beauty of God as reflected in the beauty of the human countenance. As a result, Alevi spiritual landscapes strikingly different from those of Sunni Islam, in which prayer is oriented towards a single, remote point.