Standpoint of Turkey
Namık Kemal Dinç
Namık Kemal Dinç
The tradition of "kirve" is one of little known aspects of Kurdish-Armenian relations before 1915. Namık Kemal Dinç, who is co-author, with Adnan Çelik, of the book "The lament of a century, Diyarbekir 1915" (published in Turkish, "Yüzyıllık Ah, 1915 Diyarbekir", İsmail Besikçi Foundation, 2015) on the collective memory of Armenian Genocide in Diyarbekir region, explains the meaning of kirve tradition, its social function and its place in Kurdish and Armenian memory.
The "kirve" tradition is little known. It has a different meaning in the western regions of Turkey and in Kurdish regions. Can you explain this tradition?
Circumcision of boys is a rule in Islam that symbolizes the entrance of the child in the religion. Kirve is the name given to the person who plays a part in the circumcision ritual. During this ritual, the kirve takes the child in his arms, console him to avoid him to be afraid, he closes his eyes with his hands and the operation can take place as well. The role of kirve only start with this ritual. There is a kind of family relationship that is established with the family of kirve and the family of the child. This friendship is reinforced by a fundamental rule: the prohibition of marriage between members of two families.
When I started doing research on the subject, I thought the kirvelik existed throughout Turkey or in all Muslim countries. As an Alevi, it is a reality that I know since my childhood. This is one of the strongest principles of Alevism after “müsahiplik1”, so I thought it was widespread throughout Turkey. When I began my research in Diyarbakir, the Kurds have always told me they were taking Armenians as kirve2. But by continuing my research, I came to realize, contrary to what I thought, that the kirvelik is not as widespread in the regions at the west of Sivas.
What is the perception of the kirve tradition in the western regions?
According to Ayşe Kudat, the author of the only research done about this tradition, the western populations have learned the concept of kirve from the Eastern immigrants. For this reason, in the West, the kirve is only the person who plays a role during the circumcision ceremony: he takes the child on his lap, he close his eyes. In the West, it remains there. At the east of Sivas, conversely, the ceremony seals a relationship with the chosen person and his family. And this is not trivial, it is a real family relationship. A strong link is established then between the two families. Why this institution does not it exist in western regions? I think this is due to the great ethnic and religious diversity which prevails in the East. I speak not only of Muslims and Christians, there are other ethnic groups: the Yezidis, Alevis, and many others which we have forgotten the name today. A Diyarbakır for example, very different ethnic groups lived together: Jews, Greeks (Rum), Armenians, Syriacs, Alevis, Yezidis, Şemsi3. In most other regions, they did not have a such common past. I think the reality of diversity in the East has been the ground of kirvelik. There was of course a diversity in the western regions, but the people are not as mixed and they do not have this common past.
What is the meaning of kirve in the Kurdish regions? How is this virtual relationship?
The kirve statute is not established only between Christians and Muslims. Today, this tradition is perpetuated mostly by Alevis and Yezidis.
How is the sense of this tradition for Alevi population ?
Minority and oppressed populations, appropriate more the function of kirvelik. Yezidis and Alevis are in the minority, they occupy a social position makes them more vulnerable to oppression. This mindset drives minority populations in developing a mechanism to better create links with other communities. During our research interviews, some Sunni clerics have even said that they did not give much importance to kirvelik. This is an Islamic ritual while a religious leader himself gives no such importance. That is, conversely, very important for the Alevis and Yezidis. It seems to me that this is beyond the religious, deeply linked to a social position. They are a minority in society and they are more interested than others to protect themselves.
About the sense that it covers concretely, we can talk about a double function. First, any marriage bond with the family of kirve is prohibited. From the moment the kirvelik relationship has developed between the two families, the members of these have absolute prohibition to marry. And it is endless, even for the fifth or seventh generation, the rule remains appropriate. This is a ban that applies to all members of the family forever. This means that the forbidden, somehow, has a regulatory function of social ties.
What is surprising is that the endogamous marriage is not prohibited in areas where kirve tradition is spread. Rather, it is a very common practice, even preferred by some families.
Yes, endogamy is widespread, but is prohibited within the nuclear family, between siblings. The link established by the kirvelik is not one we have with cousins, but that between a brother or sister. The prohibition of marriage therefore from that which exists in a sibling. Apart from that, yes, inbreeding is common. In my family, for example, it is even a tradition of marrying children's paternal uncle, it is only very recently that it has started to change. With the prohibition, kirvelik seems that so sets limits, when in reality it releases other codes by establishing a fraternal relationship.
Perhaps we can think in terms of degree of privacy, with private concepts (Mahrem) and public (namahrem)4. According to this concepts, when a man who is not a member of the family enters the house, he can’t see the women, while with kirve statute, the ban expires.
Yes, all the rules for external relations to the family cease to apply. It's just like in a family. It is obviously easier to approach a family member, male or female, with which it is known that every marriage is absolutely prohibited. Anyway we know that marriage is prohibited, it is a rule and it is not possible to override. There are also a series of stories, traditional songs and legends about it. Mahmut and Yezida of Murathan Mungan, Kirîvo sung by Şivan, or Sînanê Kirîv sung by Gülistan5 tell the same story: you can not marry the daughter or son of the family of kirve. We can fall in love, but a love that will lead nowhere.
Christian or Muslim societies have difficulty accepting mixed marriages, indeed, but there were always some examples. But the ban imposed by the kirve tradition seem to have a stronger effect.
Yes, and this idea adds a religious dimension. It is a common point for every religion, and it is important for everyone to find his place, since kirve are often chosen among minority groups.
Do Alevis, Armenians, Syriacs and Nestorians also choose a kirve outside their ethnic or religious group?
There is no imperative to create a kirvelik link with another group. A homogenizing process is underway for a hundred years for political reasons, and problems appear. This is no longer so easy to find an Armenian kirve for example, and the Yezidis and Alevis continue to choose Sunnis as kirve. During the massacre of Sinjar6, we heard the Yezidis say that "their kirve" had brought the ISIS, which reminds kirvelik link they have with the Arabs and Sunni Kurds. If I take the example of my family, my kirve are shafiis Kurds from Bingöl. The tradition continues as well.
The shafiis were one of the religious groups that Alevis fear most.
Yes. I am aware since my childhood, but only now through this research that I truly understand.
Is it a preference reflecting a need for protection, related to the idea that "Kirve will protect them" in case of problems?
It all depends on what is meant by protection. It is in any case a possibility to create a link, an institution that allows close relations. In a context of cultural diversity, the risks of religious conflicts, tensions and other problems are a reality, and kirvelik helps to soothe and strengthen the relations. Prohibit marriage is also creating a bond of brotherhood. It is no longer possible to kidnap a girl to marry. It is very important that the kirve could be placed in the family and attends smoothly each of its members. Even today, there are many barriers between different ethnic and religious groups. In Turkish society, the various ethnic and religious groups are wary of each other. The kirvelik is a societal institution that has a very important religious function as it allows to overcome this distrust. Although initially a role of being a religious ritual, one must also consider the kirvelik as the product of a norm, of a wisdom of society to develop social ties.
Although they concerns different societies and contexts, can we compare the kirve and the Godparent role in the baptism among Christians?
Yes, there are indeed many similarities. It is also quite possible that they could be inspired by. However, for baptism, women and men have a role, while for kirvelik, they are only men. It is through kirve that creates the link between the two families. Include some similarities with the role of godfather: those present during circumcision are related to the child throughout their lives, they need support, have a responsibility to him.
What does this responsibility entail?
It involves support for the child from the circumcision ceremony (buying his clothes, his costume, paying ceremonial expenses) and the milestones that will cross throughout his life (the entrance to the school, marriage…). The kirve accompanies the child, and it is a link that materializes over time.
We know that Christian groups were part of some Kurdish tribal confederations, particularly in Midyat region. Does the kirve tradition can be considered, for Christians, as a social institution alternative to belonging to the tribal confederations? For those who were members of the confederations was already under protection.
These confederations were created after 1860. Before that, the organization was mainly according to the system of beylik7. The dissolution of beylik caused a period of confusion during which the tribes that were close or related created some confederations in order to better protect themselves. Within the Milli tribe8, for example, there were Syrians, Yezidis and Arabs. Before 1860, while the beylik system was still in place, protection of Christians depended on the mir9. It was at this time that Christians and Muslims have set up "a tolerable coexistence", in the words of Hans Lukas Kieser. This defense grouping can not be reduced to a functional combination, since this multiplicity of identities and cultures also entails reconciliation.
In this context, tribe members could also practice the tradition of kirve. This is to think for building relations as a way to limit the tensions inherent to a society. We must also consider the economic dimension of this tradition. In this region, there was a division of labor between Christians and Muslims, and it is essential to understand the institution of kirve. There is a recurring theme in the stories of genocide: "Once they are gone, here, everything has dried up." Formerly and until the constitutional monarchy, Christians do not have the right to bear arms, or to ride and they were kept out of conscription. That's how they have specialized in the craft trades, commerce and agriculture. Kurdish Bey10 had over the management of the whole region and of the peoples who lived there. Tribal Kurds were living with livestock and agriculture, but they had no knowledge of craft work. Christians get loaded, and it was also the despised Muslim tasks. The areas on which reigned the Kurdish tribes welcomed large Christian populations. The kirve is linked to this symbiotic relationship, this dependency ratio. From an economic point of view, they have established strong ties, and kirve traiditon is one way to strengthen these links. A Muslim can thus easily go in a Christian’s or a Jew’s shop, or ask him to shoe his horse, to make his sickle. I think the kirve can weld his relations there.
Is kirve tradition remains today and in which regions?
The most vulnerable groups essentially appropriated the kirve traditon, mainly Alevis. There are also Yezidis. It is not part of the first institutions of Alevism, but it remains important to them. In each circumcision, we necessarily find a kirve, but nowadays, they choose rather kirve which are also Alevis. We see it also remains among Yezidis.
Is still the tradition of being kirve with Armenians exists in Turkey?
I have not heard an example today. I do not know how far Armenians in Turkey have a memory of it, but today, they are more likely to flee Muslims that seek their protection. In his book “The Order of Eastern Anatolia” (1968), Ismail Besikçi explains kirvelik between Kurds and Syriacs, but we do not have enough information to know to what extent this continues today.
Today, we see that there is no memory of kirve tradition among Diaspora Armenians. How can we interpret it? Why in your opinion, there was no transmission about this?
Memory is a selective mechanism and essentially turned towards the present. It is also from this that interpreting the past. One wonders why the Kurds, conversely, remember so well the kirve tradition. This is because they compare the situation of Armenians with their own suffering and have empathy for them. The memory of the Kurds is still positive for the Armenians, to the point that they are almost idealized. There is a lot of nostalgia in the stories, and some stand an idealized picture of the period before 1915. These are the vagaries of memory. The tendency to put two pains in parallel, to consider similar is not without bias since it tends to blind about own responsibilities. In contrast, the selective memory of the Armenians has retained nothing positive about the Kurds. In the transmission of trauma, they speaks about Kurds in a negative way. The Kurds have a positive image of Armenians, while the reverse is unfortunately among the latter. For them, "The Kurds had a role in the genocide. They followed state policy and killed our ancestors ", and they have almost forgotten the rest.
In this perspective, there is not really a place for relationships as kirve tradition...
Effectively. Yet among the Kurds, 90% will tell you without exception that "We were on good terms with Armenians." They will insist kirve tradition, on good relations, and will highlight this kind of emblematic institutions to prove it. It's an interesting reaction.
And today, some Armenians and Kurds who don’t even have a kirve statute, choose to call each other as “kirve”.
That's right. It has also become a tradition. In the same way that Kurdish people says "Heval" (“friend” in Kurdish) to a friend, Kurds and Armenians called each other as "kirve". Nowadays, it is mainly in Dersim that this habit is still common. Even among themselves, the people of Dersim say "kirve" and this appellation is not reserved to Armenians. This even affects political organizations. Similarly the term "Heval" is usded in the PKK, "kirve" appellation is used in political organization like Tikko11, implanted Dersim. This is probably one of the things we needs to study.
1. Can be translated as "religious brotherhood." This is one of the principles of Alevism leading two men to maintain parallel spiritual lives throughout their lives.
2. Man assuming the function of kirvelik
3. A minority group of southeastern Anatolia.
4. These two concepts determine the limits of the family and therefore also the prohibitions according to the position of inclusion or exclusion of the individual vis-à-vis the group.
5. Gulistan and Şivan Perwer are two very popular Kurdish artists.
6. Massacre against the Yezidi people by members of the ISIS in Northern Iraq in 2014.
7. Province in the Ottoman Empire. The territory was controlled by a “Bey”, a seigneur.
8. One of the major Kurdish tribes under the Ottoman Empire.
9. Local Lords who, unlike the bey appointed by the empire, have local support.
10. Equivalent of the Lord.
11. "Workers and Peasants Liberation Army of Turkey's".The armed wing of "Communist Party of Turkey / Marxist-Leninist".