KurdishMedia.com - By Maya Ehmed22/07/2010
The road to the village of Mebtali, north-west of Aleppo, was adorned with verdure. The olive trees were as numerous as stars in the night sky, side by side with fig, pomegranate, walnut, lemon, and orange trees; virgin forests - according to the guide of my trip there- that are untouched by man until now, in the magnificent mountainous regions that surround the quintessentially Kurdish city of Afrin.
History and Origin of the Alawites
The Alawites are an Imami Shia Muslim sect. Their beliefs are similar to those of the Imami Jaafari Shiites (Twelvers), and believe in the same sequence of the twelve Imams, and only separating from the Imami Jaafaris after the eleventh Imam Al-Hassan al-Askari, with the difference between the two centring on leadership and guidance, and other issues that were customary for the Imamis.
Alawites are accused of many things; for example, some Shiites describe Alawism as being excessive while some Sunnis accuse it of being an esoteric sect that conceals its true beliefs. The original Alawites live in coastal Syrian mountains today, and differ from the Alawites in Morocco, Yemen and Turkey.
The name Alawite is used to describe all those who backed Imam Ali bin Abi Talib and followed him and adopted his views, and the term was often used by the Umayyad and Abbasid rulers to describe them. The Alawite sect follows the same succession of the twelve imams, beginning with Imam Ali bin Abi Talib (Peace Be upon Him) and ending with the absent Imam Muhammad ibn al-Hassan.
Most of the Alawites are concentrated in the chain of mountains stretching from Akkar in the south to the Taurus Mountains in the north, while the remainder are distributed among the governorates of Homs, Hama, Damascus, Horan, Cilicia, and Iskenderun (Hatay). Moreover, there is more than a quarter million Alawites in the Americas, in addition to a number of them in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Iran. This is not to mention the Alawites in Europe, including those in Turkey, Greece Bulgaria and the lower regions of Albania.
The Alawites are known by many names including the ’Nusayris’ in reference to Mohammed Ibn Nusayr, and also al-Khasibiya after Husayn ibn Hamdan al-Khasibi. However, the name Alawites stuck to both the Alawites and the Shiites from the days of Imam Ali, and the Alawites kept the name after the Imam Al-Hassan al-Askari.
Many ethnicities and sects live in Syria today. In addition to the Arabs, the largest ethnic group in the country, there are Kurds, Assyrians, Syrians, Chaldeans, Armenians, Turkmen, and remnants of Chechens, Circassian and the Tats. Also, many religious groups live in Syria, including Muslims and Christians, living across all parts of the country.
While other groups such as the Yezidis, the Alawites, the Unitarian Druze, the Ismailis, the Murshidin and the Jews live in various parts of the country, the coastal regions and the al-Ghab plain from Hama and Homs, in addition to the Syrian al-Jazira area and the governorate of As-Suwaida, host the most important concentrations of minority religious groups.
We kept travelling for more than an hour, and in addition to the driver, we had with us someone from the village of Mebtali, or Mabta as it is called in Kurdish. During the trip, we passed through tens of villages in the vast countryside of Afrin, villages as numerous as days in the year - according to the driver: three hundred and sixty six villages all located across the mountains of Afrin, known in Kurdish as Kordag Ai, i.e., the Mountain of the Kurds.
Mebtali is the only Kurdish village in Syria where half of the population belong to the Alawite denomination, as the majority of Syrian Kurds are Muslim. Also, there are a few thousand Kurds who profess the Yezidi religion, one of the oldest religions in Mesopotamia. The Yezidis reside in the Syrian al-Jazira region and in some parts of the Afrin countryside, but they are deprived of all religious rights.
Alawite Kurds in Syria are only a few hundred, and most of them live in the village of Mebtali, while some occupy senior government posts in Aleppo. They enjoy better benefits compared to the Sunni Kurds in the same area, and despite the regime’s discrimination against them for being Kurd, the fact that they belong to the Alawite sect has secured some measure of privileges for them.
The Alawite Kurds in Syria practice the same religious traditions of the Arab Alawites in the country: they celebrate the same religious occasions, marry in the same manner, and commemorate the same important feasts and occasions such as the Nowruz feast, fasting the month of Muharram, observing al-Khadr’s fast, Khadr Elias, Eid al-Adha, and the ’Wandering Moses Feast’. However, these celebrations have been on the decline in recent years, and people have started pursuing a more secular lifestyle instead of religiosity, and only a few now celebrate these religious occasions. In fact, religious observation in many instances is now limited to elderly men and women.
According to one of the senior residents of the village, following the Kurdish Alawite leader Abdullah Ocalan’s entry into Syria in the eighties, many agreements were held between him and the Syrian regime whereby the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was given many material and military privileges. Subsequently, Kurdish fighters’ camps were established in many regions of Syria in the mountains of Afrin, and other areas in Damascus, in addition to very large camps in South Lebanon during the Syrian presence there.
After the conclusion of the Adana Agreement between the governments of Syria and Turkey in 1999, whereby the Syrian side pledged to ban the activities of the PKK on its territory, confidence was restored between the two countries. As a result, the Syrian regime has been cracking down on any activities by the PKK in the country, despite the fact that the same regime exploited this party for many years in its war with Turkey.
Many Kurdish commentators believe that the relationship that brought together Abdullah Ocalan and the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was forged on a sectarian basis as both men professed the Alawite faith. In truth, the first meeting was held in Aleppo, between Abdullah Ocalan and Jamil al-Assad, the brother of the late President Hafez al-Assad, given his position as a prominent religious figure in the Alawite community. Accordingly, all those privileges were given; however, it all soon came to an end when the late President asked Abdullah Ocalan to leave the country, after Turkey mobilized its army on the border with Syria near the end of 1998. Subsequently, Ocalan left Syria to Greece then to Italy, before being ultimately arrested by the Turkish intelligence services in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, on February 15, 1999.
Alawites but dissidents!
The most famous Alawite figures in the Middle East include the leader of the Syrian coastal mountains’ rebellion against the French, Sheikh Saleh al-Ali, the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar al-Asad, the current president, in addition to a number of writers and intellectuals such as the poet Adonis, the poet Badawi al-Jabal, the poet Suleiman al-Issa, the poet and playwright Mahmoud Adwan and Saadallah Wannous and many others.
In 1971, General Hafez al-Assad seized power in Syria following a military coup. In the next year, he held a referendum following which he became the president of the country. After that, the power and influence of the Alawites grew in the army and the institutions of the Syrian government.
According to a number of dissidents, the priority in hiring in the military and the security services was given to the Alawites, while officers from the sect are continuously appointed in posts at the two infamous military prisons in Tadmur and Sednaya. In short, they control all parts of the state, beginning with the presidency down to the traffic police. This, however, does not invalidate the fact that there is a large segment of Alawites in Syria who live in poverty. For instance, the villages of the Alawites’ Mountains in the Syrian coast contain a large number of poor and marginalized areas. This is mainly attributed to the fact that Alawite officials contribute to the development of their own villages and cities, while neglecting the remaining areas where poor Alawites or those Alawites that are not supported by the regime dwell. From the viewpoint of the Alawite opposition, the explanation is simple: despite all claims to the contrary, the regime is not an Alawite regime. Rather, the ruling class in Syria comes from mixed religious and sectarian backgrounds and monopolizes power, devouring everything and everybody.
A strong opposition among Alawites themselves soon emerged against the Syrian regime. In fact, many leftist activists in the eighties were Alawites, and many of them were subsequently arrested and imprisoned for many years in prisons across the country. These include: Professor Aref Dalilah, Fateh Jamous, Faeq al-Mir, Hasiba Abdul Rahman, Habib Saleh and many others.
The Alawites’ Kurdish roots in Turkey
Alawites in Turkey are divided into two groups: the first lives in areas close to Syria, in particular in Iskenderun. This group is in fact an extension of Alawites in Syria and other Arab countries, and by some estimates, they number up to 250 thousands. They mostly live in Iskenderun, and also in Adana and Mersin, in addition to a few thousands in Istanbul and Ankara. Their native language is Arabic, as Iskenderun was part of Syria in the past, while Turkish is their second language.
The rest of the Alawites, meanwhile, are known as the Alawites of Anatolia, and include both Turks and Kurds, where Kurds make up 35 percent or more of the total number of Alawites in Turkey, which is estimated at eight million. They are present in the provinces of Bingol, Tunceli, Erzincan, Sivas, Yozgat, Elazig, Malatya, Kahramanmaraş, Kayseri, and Corum. There are also a number of them in the provinces of Adiyaman, Gaziantep, Hatay (Iskenderun), Kirsehir, Nevsehir, Samsun and Tokat. They speak the Kurdish language in the Kurmanji dialect in addition to the Zazaki dialect.
Turkish persecution of the Alawite Kurds
The Alawites were persecuted in Turkey by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern secular Turkey. In truth, Turkish policies against the Kurds whereby clans were oppressed and the Kurdish language was outlawed, in addition to imposing martial law in successive instances, had an adverse impact on the relationship between the Alawites and the state, thus encouraging them to steer away from it.
In the nineteen-thirties, the Alawite Kurdish aversion from the Turkish state developed into a call by their leaders to establish an independent Kurdish district within the country. When the Turks refused to comply with this demand, it evolved into a call for the establishment of a Kurdish state, as happened during the Seyed Reza uprising of 1947.
Since 1927, the Alawite Kurds unleashed several uprising the most significant of which was the revolt of 1947, during which the state orchestrated a broad military campaign to crush it and arrest its leaders. Subsequently, three of these leaders were executed, who were Seyed Reza, Diab Agha and Hassan Khairi, despite the fact that the last two were close to Ataturk during his reign.
After crushing the Alawite Kurdish rebellions, and the state’s growing might, armed insurgencies against it waned in the fifties, prompting the Alawites to see no other alternative than political activism.
Cool breeze and the dusk disappear with Kordag
On the way back, dusk was slowly approaching the foot of the Kordag Mountain. The sun disappeared slowly, behind those big mountains, as the spring’s breeze made me somnambulant. In front of the hotel entrance, the driver shook my shoulders to let me know that we have arrived in Aleppo. There is no comparison between the beauty of Afrin and a city covered with the fumes of cars and factories. A feeling that cannot be imagined unless one spends her day among the olive trees, and her night in car fumes.
This report relied on:
1 - Documented historical sources.
2 - Alawite Kurdish figures who asked not to be identified.
3 - Alawite opposition figures who asked not to be identified.
4 - Articles and studies translated from Kurdish and Turkish.
5 - Various Internet sites.