At the moment I am grappling a bit with Clifford Geertz in an attempt to get a firmer background in classical anthropological texts, although of course that can be both a blessing in a curse. On the one hand I am learning the language of Anthro and its ancestor cult (!) but I also risk adopting ideas that have been morei ntegrated, critiqued, surpassed etc...by now. I risk being out of touch. Oh well!
While looking at Geertz have the impression that my emphasis on contextualization is closely related to his work but perhaps more postmodern in style. I begin from the point of recognizing his acceptance that there is a balance between biological and other reductionisms and a reliance on the intuitive. Somehow in the middle there must be a sort of common sense that can be agreed upon, although obviously not with unanimity. There must be a middle ground and there must be some room for fundamental assumptions, as it were, as far as I understand.
My own approach seems to be slightly more post-modern, as I was discussing with a colleague this morning. I am not entirely comfortable with drawing very direct lines between pieces of information so as to establish a motivation or a consistent meaning for ritual, but narratives about spatial practice and ritual are obviously not ignored.
Concretely, what sorts of contextualizations are my concern? Mainly I am looking at a practice that I have come across in both in contemporary Turkey and much older sources. During my MA I read a piece of Moghul literature in which a woman (in this case Princess Jahanara, daughter of Shah Jahan) describes a retreat she undertakes, the climax of which is the placing f headscarf on the tomb of the saint to which she is devoted (Moinuddin Chishti). Perhaps not so surprisingly, in Istanbul, 2012, I found that women were also leaving headscarves in shrines here.
The subaltern positioning of much of women's religiosity, for example. This is an act that is not textual and clerical and therefore asking people about it seems to not yield much material, I find. For now, what I know is this: Women have an historical connection, even dominance in the textile industry, weaving, which over time shifted towards male capital and governance although obviously there is not really a distinct patriarchal teleology at work. There is, though, a clear pattern, one that can be seen in the development of weaving guilds in Europe, for example.
Fabric as a ritual issue is a distinct one in an Ottoman (and also to some degree Seljuk, Anatolian, Republican) context in which textiles often held ceremonial power, as almost all modern nation states also recognize in their use of flags, as well. The Ottoman examples are, however, more complex and more tied to everyday life, particularly as one travels up the socioeconomic hierarchy of the time.
More and more I am seeing that when these factors of historical connection and meaning come together, it seems strange that a fabric would not come to represent the self in an offering of one's being or petition to a saint at his or her grave. After all, the mail saints in the Islamic world are often represented by a symbolic or actual fabric taj/tac ('turban') placed on a tombstone. How natural, then, that a self representing fabric could be presented to such a venerated figure. There is also the act of transference of self and status via the giving of cloth, whether a leftist bandana around the face or a Sufi khirqa/hırka etc...
I could go on but the point is more a methodological and theoretical one. I am not claiming to use thick description per se but rather a more loose concept of context. I cannot explain definitely why anyone offers a scarf to a saint as such, but I can certainly present the historical circumstances and contemporary habitus from which culture takes its form and informs. By seeing this perhaps we can understand the ritual choices people make in their cultural/economic/ritual settings. Choices, I feel, are understood better in a contextual model and perhaps this is what so many post-colonial and gender scholars worries have really been about. A set of options present themselves to us şn a ritual setting. Which one will we choose? Or is the sense of choice a largely western construct? I suspect taht in an exaggerated for it is and that tradition as pressure and as an inherited set of choices both play a role in any ritual act but for these very unofficial ones, context and choice are key, unregulated and unobserved as they seem to be.
We will see. Now back to actually writing this...
Two pieces for reflection, one an image from Egypt and another, a traditional Turkish song from the Balkans translated by Judd King a friend and Turcologist:
Mendilimin Yeşili (Amman Amman)
Ben Kaybettim Eşimi
Al Bu Mendil Sende Sende Dursun
Sil Gözünün Yaşını
The green of my handkerchief (alas, alas).
I lost my husband/wife
Take this handkerchief, and keep it.
Wipe your tears.
Amman Doktor Canım Kuzum Doktor
Derdime Bir Çare
Çaresiz Dertlere Düştüm
Doktor Bana Bir Çare
Mercy, doctor, my dear, sweet doctor
(find) a remedy for my suffering
I have fallen into incurable suffering
Doktor, (find) a remedy for me.
Mendilim Benek Benek (Amman Amman)
Yazı Beraber Geçirdik
Kışın Ayırdı Felek
My handkerchief is covered in patches (alas alas)
Its middle (?) is the machinations of heaven (lit. the "Wheel" of heaven)
in the summer we went out together.
But in the winter, fate separated us.