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.”