THE dancers are swirling kaleidoscopes of colour, lost in a beautiful, hypnotic music, while hundreds of Hackney’s men, women and children look on in wonder.
The ritual is centuries old and during three hours it builds to a crescendo of song, poetry and chanting, with devotees professing to hear the voice of God.
This was an event at the Alevi Cultural Centre and Cemevi in Ridley Road, Dalston, which is the country’s only meeting place for a very different Muslim community that rarely makes the news.
No mosques, no pilgrimage to Mecca, and no ban on alcohol – it can be easy to try and understand Alevism for what it isn’t rather than for what it is, but those at the centre, a registered charity that opened in 1993 and now has more than 1,500 members, are happy to explain.
“We believe that music is God’s voice, his language,” says Mehmet Yaman, a dede, or holy man, currently working at the centre and cemevi, pronounced chem-evvie and literally translated as worship-house.
“Alevism is a modern, progressive religion and we believe that all things must be done for peace between human beings all over the world.”
He oversaw the cem, or worship event, last week, reciting poetry, singing 400-year-old folk songs and playing the saz, a traditional, guitar-like instrument that has been used in such proceedings for centuries, while the dancing, or semah, entranced all those present in the hall above the centre’s cafeteria.
There is no need for a mosque in Alevism, Mr Yaman says, as a cem can take place in any room where it is convenient for the community to gather.
He explains this stems from a belief that Alevi Muslims make their own spiritual journey through life and, therefore, have no need of some of the outward signs of Muslim devotion, such as traditional dress for men and women, the pilgrimage to Mecca, or abstinence from alcohol.
“We drink alcohol at certain times, in certain situations and conditions, such as when we are with friends, or particularly at a wedding party, but it is forbidden to drink very much,” says the dede.
Yet, the Prophet Muhammad, his nephew and son-in-law, Ali – from whom Alevism takes its name – and other holy leaders remain central to Alevi Muslims’ beliefs.
Although Alevism is an international faith, most followers are Turkish or Kurdish, so it’s no surprise there is a substantial community in Hackney.
As well as hosting religious ceremonies and community meetings, the centre provides English language and IT classes, tuition in saz and semah, and stages cultural events, including concerts by visiting musicians.
“It has become a key support centre for thousands of Alevis living in and around London, serving the community from the cradle to the grave, from a ceremony of blessing when a child is born, to a funeral,” says Turabi Keskin, the centre’s chairman.
Hackney’s Alevis have just finished a 12-day fast to honour their 12 religious leaders and are preparing for Nevros cem in March, when more than 1,000 guests are expected at the centre.
However, after many happy years in the borough, the management committee has bought new, bigger premises in neighbouring Haringey for the centre’s rapidly growing membership, and is about to embark on a fundraising drive to finance the £1.8 million development.
“The new cultural centre is a unique venture for the Alevi community, never before attempted outside of mainland Turkey, and it will be a project that will change the way Alevis both see themselves and are seen by the outside world,” says Mr Keskin.
As the beating heart of a community prepares to move on to bigger and better things, you can’t help feeling how Hackney has once again played a key part in a success story driven by its people.
First published in the Hackney Gazette on 2 March, 2006. Details referred to above may have since changed, and for up to date information, please visit: http://www.alevinet.org