Popularity of healers challenges Turkey's modern, secular self-image

by @T_I_Burton November 30, 2014 5:00AM ET

Hocas, who mix Islam and folk tradition, attract an unlikely demographic: the young, educated and nonreligious

Religion, Spirituality & Ethics
Hoca Durmuş Ali Kurum burns a drawing he made of a face during a consultation over the phone in his office in Bağarası, a neighborhood in Izmir, Turkey.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America
Hoca Ali tucks one of his charms into a packet of instructions.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

IZMIR, Turkey — When locals have problems in Bağarası, they go to Durmuş Ali Kurum. Kurum is a hoca — one of several in this village of fewer than 7,000 people — a term given to local healers and advisers practicing a syncretic combination of Islam and folk tradition. Walk-in clients wait on a dirty yellow sofa in Kurum’s courtyard while he holds consultations in his makeshift office, an unlit room across from his residence, its pipes discolored by rust. On the walls, a poster detailing the perils of smoking shares space with his list of signs of the coming apocalypse: men wearing silk shirts, women covering their hair but wearing tight dresses.

People come for all kinds of reasons, Kurum says: problems with love, money or fertility; the evil eye from a neighbor; a nasty encounter with a jinni (capricious spirits common to Islamic and pre-Islamic tradition). He provides his clients with protective muskas: triangular amulets made from paper on which he has written relevant verses from the Quran. To others, depending on their complaint, he offers verses that must be metaphorically consumed by the patient: They are required to soak the paper in a glass of water that they subsequently drink, for example, or burn the paper or use it to infuse a bath.

Kurum is not affiliated with any mosque or religious organization. “I am a private contractor,” he says. Before becoming a hoca, he was a farmer; he still tends his land on his days off. He is careful to emphasize that he is a registered, tax-paying hoca — a vital distinction when tax laws are often used to prosecute these shamans. While their activities are not illegal, hocas are vulnerable to charges of fraud, of practicing medicine without a license or of illicitly practicing fortune-telling for money. In addition to their shadowy reputation, they are viewed with suspicion from secularists and practitioners of mainstream Islam alike, who see them as avaricious frauds at best and dangerous practitioners of occultist heresy at worst.

Eager to show that he is part of the mainstream, Kurum adds, “People say a hoca should not go out. But I go to the beach, to the casino. I am not backwards-minded. I am a modern hoca.”

A sampling of charms that hoca Durmuş Ali Kurum keeps in his office.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America
Hoca Ali in his office.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

But what being  “a modern hoca” entails in a Turkey balancing both fiercely secularist and religiously conservative factions is unclear. Traditionally, says Christopher Dole, a professor of medical anthropology at Amherst College who has conducted ethnographic studies of hocas, they attracted “utter disdain.” From a mainstream Islamic standpoint, Dole says, “these practices are considered not part of, or even permissible within, mainstream Islam.” And the Turkish state is equally hostile: “[People are] also very invested in an image of Turkey as a secular, modern nation, and the hoca is a figure that is contrary to that.”

But even in this famously liberal, secular region not far from Izmir, Turkey’s second-largest city, hocas are proving attractive to an unlikely demographic: the young, educated and nonreligious. For them, visiting a hoca or a falcı— a traditional fortune-teller, many of whom read fate in the grounds of Turkish coffee — is increasingly popular. Dole says falcılarare “an interesting remnant … a curiosity of Turkey’s past remaining after its modernization.”

Yasemin Çatalkaya, an Izmir-based yoga instructor, describes her visit to a hoca in Sevaştepe, a village about two hours’ drive from the city. Çatalkaya identifies as nonreligious; a friend who previously visited the hoca convinced her to go. “I was opening a new business,” Çatalkaya says, and “I had some stress in my personal life.” She was skeptical, but when the hoca handed her a protective muska, she “felt an incredible sense of calm.” Now, she is prepared to believe the muska might have had some genuine effect. She likens the experience to a traditional folk practice of her grandmother’s, who used to recite a Quranic prayer into a glass of water before drinking it. It’s not something she would ever do herself, Çatalkaya says, but she nevertheless finds it reassuring to call her grandmother and ask her to say an extra prayer for her during difficult times.

Hoca Ali Gucenmez meets with a client.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

Some hocas are working hard to project a modern image. Ali Gucenmez, who works from his brightly lit, minimalist apartment in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Izmir, keeps his office bare of apocalyptic posters and books on folk magic; his only book, he says proudly, is the Quran. He advertises online and takes visitors by appointment only. “I am not one of those hocas who keeps people waiting in line,” he says. He dismisses his brethren who give papers to be burned or soaked as liars and show-offs, as “everything outside the Quran is false.” The Quran and its verses provide the basis for his muska: “Just as doctor gives a prescription, a doctor uses the Quran to write the remedy.”

Still, Gucenmez’s theology contains elements of folk magic as well. He is guided in his approach to patients by the jinn he summons after midnight at his desk. These jinn advise him, helping him to choose verses from the Quran that apply to his clients' situation, he says. These are usually, but not always, “good jinn,” distinct from the more malevolent types some of his clients are seeking to cast out. Sometimes, though, bad jinn have their uses, he says. “For example, if a woman comes to me and says, ‘My husband is beating me and I really just need to get away from him,’ I call the bad jinn and ask them [if this is true].” If it is, Gucenmez says, they help him find “the breaking-up verses from the Quran” and he then writes them on the muska. Gucenmez says that most of his clients are female, young to middle aged; about 40 percent are regulars. The most common complaint, he says, is relationship problems.

Gucenmez denies that his work replaces the work of a traditional doctor or psychologist: “If there really is a problem they should go to the doctor. You can’t play with people’s emotions ... we understand that our power [alone] is not enough to help them.”

Hoca Durmuş Ali Kurum consults the Quran.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

But in a slum behind the neighborhood of Altındağ, on Izmir’s outskirts, the local hoca takes on a far more central role. Sheikh Hasan (“Sheikh” is an adopted honorific; Hasan says he has no last name), a hoca of Kurdish and Arabic descent who hails from the southeastern city of Diyarbakır, not only heals jinn and cures the effects of evil eye, but also more prosaic complaints. Like Gucenmez, Hasan likens himself to a doctor, often informally prescribing herbs and plants for common ailments “like bronchitis.”

For Hasan, the supernatural and the medical often collide: When describing the most common complaint among his patients — infertility — he rattles off what he sees as its major causes: jaundice, abnormality on the part of the uterus, the malevolent presence of jinn. He has cast out more than a few jinn, he says; he recently cured a boy whom five men couldn’t hold down, and whom the local hospital couldn’t treat, by sentencing the jinn to 150 years’ imprisonment. Within his community, he is considered the embodiment of the mainstream. For Hasan doubles as an imam, and until his retirement, he was the leader of the community’s local mosque.

Hasan describes himself as an intermediary. Most of the people who come to see him are uneducated, he says, as well as illiterate; Hasan is able to use his religious and basic medical knowledge to help them, he says, proudly showing off his collection of books, including guides to medicinal herbs. His study at the religious Islamic school, or madrassa, he says, allowed him to combine the folkloric traditions of his Kurdish upbringing with a tradition of Islamic education that he says dates “back to the ages of the caliphates.”

Yet, to some, the idea of the hoca still conjures up a host of negative stereotypes. To Zeynep Öziş, a hotel owner in Alaçati, a high-end resort town about an hour from Izmir, hocas represent ideas she sees as incompatible with the customs of this area’s liberalism: “In my day, nobody I know would ever have gone to a hoca.” They’re dangerous, she says, citing the hocas’ reputation in Turkish media for sexual abuse of their clients (most hocas are male). “[People say] they might ask to see your navel to write a prayer on it or have sex with you to help you conceive a child with your husband.” She sighs, then adds, “but times are changing.” Now, open displays of folk religiosity are not as taboo among the upper-middle classes as they once may have been. She herself would never visit one, though, she says. “I’m the least religious person I know.”

A lack of faith doesn’t stop Öziş, like many other Turkish women who consider themselves secular, from believing in other elements of Turkish folk tradition. “Of course I believe in the evil eye,” she says. When she was in the process of opening her hotel, she had a falcı, or fortune-teller, read her coffee grounds to predict whether the hotel would be a success.

Four fortunes: At the Café du Fiesta in Izmir, fortune-telling is offered free with a $7 cup of coffee.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America
A fortune-teller at the Café du Fiesta consults her tarot cards.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

For nonreligious Turks like Öziş, using a falcı is less culturally or theologically weighted than going to a hoca; falcılar operate outside an Islamic context and claim no religious authority, which often allows them to skirt controversy. This has allowed falcılar to experience a cultural resurgence among young, urbane Turks for whom, until recently, going to a hoca might have been unthinkable; over the past two decades, new establishments, following the model of Istanbul’s wildly popular fortune-telling café, Melekler Kahvesi, have spurred a craze for falcılar among the secular, urban middle-class.

In the heart of Izmir’s Alsancak district — home to several high-end bars and cafés — Cafe du Fiesta gets around Turkish laws prohibiting commercial fortune-telling by offering the service free with a $7 cup of coffee, three times the price of the coffee in other cafés in the area. Fiesta’s main coffee reader, Burcu Hanım (Madame Burcu), describes her clientele as composed largely of young, educated women with relationship problems and university students seeking her help in deciding what to study — a far cry from the largely illiterate clientele of Hasan Hoca. Fortune-telling, she says, is popular at all levels of society.

While hocas have not yet entered the cultural mainstream the way falcılar have, there are signs that they, too, may be becoming an acceptable option for the young, the educated and the curious. The Izmir-based hoca, Ali Gucenmez, reports that he is starting to see a few younger, skeptical visitors like Çatalkaya. And in the village of Bağarası, the son of one of Ali Kurum’s local rivals, Mustafa Sakarya (known as Bülbül Hoca), says his father is currently unavailable for any walk-in consultations, citing a packed patient schedule. “We’re booked up until November or December,” he says.