- Pir Sultan Abdal:Encounters with Persona in Alevi Lyric Song
Encounters in Text
In his 1997 Nobel Prize lecture, Contra jogulatores obliquentes, Italian dramatist Dario Fo makes an oblique reference to a famous medieval Ottoman "jester." 1 The "jester" is not mentioned by name but rather in the context of the murder of 35 artists and writers in July 1993 when religious bigots set alight the Madımak Hotel in the eastern Turkish city of Sivas. 2 Those killed were there to participate in the Pir Sultan Abdal etkinlikleri (festivities). 3 The "jester" Fo refers to is the eponymous identity in whose memory the festival is held, the Alevi dervish, poet, rebel, and martyr Pir Sultan Abdal. Fo's reference to the Sivas massacre was a significant statement about this incident in an international forum; but it also demonstrates the misunderstanding of the persona of Pir Sultan Abdal when refracted through time, language, and the chasm that beckons when peering askance into the opaqueness of an esoteric culture. Pir Sultan Abdal's persona, as perceived and expressed by contemporary intellectuals and artists, was fundamental to the Sivas events, 4 but Fo's commendable reference gives no sense of this potent and complex persona. Indeed it even distorts and trivializes it.
Pir Sultan Abdal dominates the Turkish Alevi-Bektaşi oral lyric tradition in his influence through text and persona and is counted as one of the seven great bards, the yedi ulu ozan, of Alevi-Bektaşi ritual tradition. 5 His deyiş, 6 along with those of Yunus Emre and Karacaoğlan, 7 are commonly regarded as the epitome of the genre and together form the most significant and influential canon of Turkish folk literature. While Yunus is the universal mystic, even humanist (Halman 1972) and Karacaoğlan the incorrigible wandering lover, Pir Sultan Abdal presents a complex persona encompassing the mystical expression of sixteenth-century 8 antinomianism together with a personal story of integrity and betrayal. This faceted persona has provided, in the texts attributed to him and identified as such by the self-naming device (mahlas), the substance for the production of interpretative works and discourse, especially in recent decades.
The significance of the figure of Pir Sultan Abdal can be understood from the number of deyiş attributed to him and, perhaps more importantly, from the influence that both his lyrical works and his persona maintain over Alevi-Bektaşi ritual and, especially, social and political culture from his home and heartland in Anatolia to the Balkans and beyond to the modern Alevi disapora in Europe and elsewhere. No other poet has quite the reach or engenders the continued engagement of scholars, writers, musicians, and social and cultural activists as does Pir Sultan Abdal. This profile makes him a figure of interest and fascination. The persona of Pir Sultan Abdal might be understood as perceived through a prism: from one perspective there is a focused, iconic persona; from other perspectives we may view the refracted strands of illumination that serve to build that persona. Such strands encompass the legendary personal story of steadfastness, betrayal, and martydom; the elusive historical identity; the historic milieu from which he emerged (being the formative period for modern Alevi-ism); the transmission and development over time of a large body of deyiş and of a poetic identity through the use of the self-naming convention (mahlas); and the appropriation of the persona for the service of identity politics and artistic creativity in modern times.
Pir Sultan Abdal emerged from the esoteric and guarded community of Alevi ritual and culture into a wider public scrutiny shortly after the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. 9 Besim Atalay included a number of texts among the nefes 10 published in his 1924 book Bektaşilik ve edebiyat (Atalay 1991), the earliest work on Alevi-Bektaşi-s published in republican Turkey. In 1928 Mehmet Fuad Köprülü published a short "life" of Pir Sultan Abdal in Hayat mecmuası (Köprülü 1991), followed in 1929 by Sadettin Nüzhet's publication of the first substantial collection of poems (Ergun 1929). The fact that such a collection 11 could be put together...