Centuries after Seyyid Hasan Basri arrived in the village of Şeydinar, members of his family continue to tend to his tomb, maintaining his holy resting place and offering a traditional medical treatment to visitors of the village.
When I arrived at the mausoleum, Döndü Cetainkaya and her daughter Maria were sitting beside the adjacent cemetery where generations of Basri’s descendants are buried. Basri, himself a descendant of Caliph Ali – a figure especially revered in Turkey’s folk Islam – had six brothers who each specialized in treating a specific medical illness. Basri’s focus was rabies and mental illness.
The women answered my questions about the rabies treatment with a calm shrug: no, it does not work for animals, but they don’t try; yes, people know about it and come from the surrounding villages when they need to be cured; no, they don’t know how it works.
Döndü is an older woman who stood with a stern expression each time I pointed my lens at her, but otherwise she seemed content and distant and patiently told me the story she has obviously told a thousand times.
The women said the family traded off cleaning and occupying the tomb, with a different branch of the family taking over the responsibility each week. She said the men were busy, so it was left to her and her daughter to tend to any patients this week. “We had many visitors once,” she offered, “but now not so many.”
She said she has seen hundreds of rabies cases in her lifetime, “impossible to count,” and almost all were successfully treated.
“Only one died,” she said, “It was a child and they brought her too late. The cure must be administered within forty days to be effective.”
While I waited for her to bring the powder, her daughter explained the freshly made bed that sat in the corner of the mausoleum, alongside the resting places of Basri, his wife, and his children. “When children have mental problems – nightmares, anger, these sicknesses – they bring them here and they sleep in this room.”
My interpreter was not eager to translate my question – “what was Basri’s philosophy on mental illness, how did he treat it?” “Faith,” he said with a smile and before I could continue, Döndü returned with the panacea.
Every year a small bug appears in the sands around Seydinar for a few weeks in August. These insects are gathered and ground up along with the sand and stored for the rest of the year. The treatment involves fasting and taking a pinch of the powder every three hours with Turkish tea or coffee until you are cured.
I asked Döndü whether they have tried to publicize this miraculous treatment, especially considering that rabies continues to be a problem in Turkey. “We are not exporters, there is no money involved here,” she answered, “People bring their sick from other villages and we treat them.”
Do I think the treatment works? I have no idea. It’s certainly not outside the realm of the possible, but that’s for scientists to figure out. Modern medicine has produced a vaccine that the World Health Organization says is “virtually 100 percent effective,” if administered correctly – maybe that’s why there are less visitors.
I do have some thoughts on the bed in the corner of this mausoleum.
Will it cure autism or schizophrenia? Probably not. But consider the effect of arriving in a solemn, ancient place where there are devoted caregivers to watch over you in absolute confidence, asking about your symptoms only to ascertain the contents of their prayers.
I spoke with a social worker here who learned English from her academic studies. She told me her recent cases include a series of suicide attempts by adolescent girls in a small town. Speculating on how best to treat the girls, she said isolation was a big problem.
“At that age, they hide many things from their parents and they feel them so intensely – it is a very self-centered time in our lives,” she said. Surely there is nothing uniquely urban, or Turkish, or Islamic about that.
So imagine that instead of shuffling from one expert’s waiting room to the next, you take a trip outside your village – possibly for the first time – to a place revered almost since the time of Mohammed and spend a night in the company of the peacefully deceased. How can this not be a viable treatment for a child – or anyone really – who is suffering from mental anguish?