Healing Secular Life — Book Review

Savage Minds would like to welcome back guest blogger Ayla Samli and thank her for contributing this review of  Healing Secular Life: Loss and Devotion in Modern Turkey by Christopher Dole, a 2012 publication from the University of Pennsylvania Press. While at Rice U. Samli completed her dissertation field research in Turkey and currently is Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro.

Review by Ayla Samli

I met Christopher Dole’s Healing Secular Life: Loss and Devotion in Modern Turkey with an eyeroll, the kind you might give an old uncle who tries to tell you a joke you’ve heard at every family gathering since the beginning of time. I looked at the book, winced at “secular” and “Turkey” in the title, and put it down, realizing that my dissertation-related injuries were fresher than I had imagined.

But the word “healing” in the title surprised and enticed me just a little. Isn’t healing misplaced here? Isn’t healing part of a somatic process, an outlier in the religio-political arenas of Turkey? For those unfamiliar with the anthropology (or the news, or anything making mention) of Turkey, religious and secular are binarized, regularly cast at odds in very tired ways.

However, as the demonstrations happening now reveal to the world, Turkey is full of internal dissonance. Dole’s book pushes beyond the predictable configurations of secular and Muslim, addressing instead healing practices among Sunni and Alevi healers and their respective neighborhoods in Ankara, Turkey’s capital.

Dole uses data from two healers to draw out the differences between Sunni and Alevi healing practices, religious beliefs, political ideations, and life worlds. One Alevi saintly figure, channels Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whom she identifies as a healer and the reincarnation of Haci Bektaş Veli, an Alevi saint. A healer working through the image of the father of Turkish secularism brings to light the complexity of religious identification and establishing professional legitimacy in modern Turkey.

In contrast a Sunni cinci hoca, a ritual healer who began developing his skills in jail and distinguishes himself from fakes because he pays his taxes, relies on talismans to cast away jinns. These practitioners demonstrate their respective affiliations with different aspects of Turkish modernity in this spellbinding analysis.

Dole shows that healers establish legitimacy depends on their participation in various discourses of piety, secularism, narratives of how their skills developed or were delivered to them.

What appeals to me about the book is how it does not focus so much on these entrenched, familiar discourses that organize the literature on Turkey, but that it shows readers something about the techniques of healing practices and the subjectivities of those who seek out healing, what Dole characterizes, in Rancière’s terms, the politics of aesthetics (2006).

To his credit, Dole revives the magic of healing in Islam, forcing its fusion with neoliberalism and religion’s disavowal of magic. Healing Secular Life echoes what made Tuhami Portrait of a Moroccan compelling a richly told tale, grafted to the nuance of contemporary ethnography.

Dole’s refusal to simplify the healers’ techniques, his commitment to place the discourses of healing into the political field, does justice to his subject. These practitioners of healing, marginalized by the conventional discourses of both religion and secular life as practiced in Turkey, become interesting personae for viewing the disciplining (and subsequent dismantling) of these categories.

I especially enjoyed Dole’s rich descriptions, not of the healers or the healed, but of the spaces he shows as inhabiting the contradictory and constantly colliding categories of secularism and Islam.

The dergâh, the site of prayer and community of Zöhre Ana, shaped like a crescent and star, recreates domestic life within a its cavelike interior, where bread is regularly baked by covered women. Outside the building, a huge Atatürk portrait embellishes Turkey’s ambivalent history.

A saint’s tomb, hastily moved to the median of a newly-built the four-lane road in Ankara serves as a material complement to the personal stories fraught with conflicting definitions of equality, family, healing, and secularism.

These landscapes punctuate the book’s point that facile divisions don’t do justice to Turkish cultural experience.

Additionally, Dole locates his theory in the right places. He references Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety and gestures to Esra Özyürek’s Nostalgia for the Modern along with Michel de Certeau and Thomas J. Csordas. I like how he synthesizes the medical anthropological bits about healing with the political, economic, and aesthetic everyday terrains where healing takes place, forcing into conversations themes ritually separated by anthropologists.

Dole’s discussion on gender could have used development because it comes up and it matters for both the healers and those marginalized women who seek healing. Domestic abuse of the women who visit Zöhre Ana, who in her healing practices channels very powerful men, bring into question how gender feeds into these healing traditions.

This book would work well in a course on the anthropology of religion, Middle Eastern studies, urban studies, modernity, history and memory, or a course on ethnographies. It’s flexible and well-conceived.

Dole’s ethnography of therapeutics models the kind of nicely contextualized yet broadly construed work anthropology today should do—reading it was not so painful after all.

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR 'hidden collections' grant to describe the museum's collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.