In a small corner of East Turkey, just a stone’s throw from the Iranian border, exists a race of semi-nomadic folk called the Jelali. The Jelali follow a lifestyle founded on livestock farming across a mountainous landscape that includes Mount Ararat, the fabled resting place of Noah’s Ark; Little Ararat, a smaller version of its big sister just a few kilometres to the Southeast; and Fish Lake, a large scenic lake, tucked away in the mountains to the west.
The Jelali Nomads live under a feudal system ruled by a number of aghas. Each agha rules a community known as an ashirat (large community) or ashirah (small community). In some feudal systems the agha is considered nobility and is not of the same blood as the serfs; however, in the case of the Jelali the aghas’ distinction is more of a social nature founded on success in business, and marriage between the higher and lower classes is not uncommon. The main role of the agha these days is to handle any disputes or other dealings between his and neighbouring ashirats/ashirahs or the state, and also to provide support to his serfs in times of need, such as medical emergencies, where they may require financial assistance for example.
The Hasasori ashirat, ruled by an agha named Riza Bey, is one of (if not) the largest of the ashirats occupying an area that reaches from the upper slopes on the south face of Mount Ararat to some 16 villages on the flat plains along the foot of the mountain. Each village is home to between 200 and 300 people in the winter, putting the Hasasori’s total population at around 4000, although hundreds more besides have moved into Dogubeyazit, only a few miles along the main highway; some to find more lucrative work, some to marry out of the ashirat. For those that continue the traditional lifestyle, theirs is a pattern of transhumance commonly referred to as semi-pastoralism, where livestock is moved around the open mountain in the summer months and returned to the confines of village life in the cold winter months. When on the mountain the people make temporary camps of black felt tents and dry-stone walling as they herd the cattle and sheep from pasture to pasture although it’s very normal for the men to continuously move between the camps and the towns. Consequently, it’s women who take the dominant role in the running of the camps.
Jelali Kurds are monogamous people unlike the Kurds of other tribes such as the Bhotan, whose men can have up to four wives. This paints a picture of equality between the Jelali men and women and it’s true to say that Jelali women are strong, proud, resourceful, and not at all the beleaguered, brow-beaten spouses that westerners often expect all Muslim women to be. Nevertheless, the archaic and much maligned practice of honour-killings, along with other harsh punishments, still have their place in Kurdish society, with the law, more often than not, turning a blind eye. Women still need to know their place..
It’s mid-June and there’s activity everywhere you look. The winter snow has disappeared from the plains and is fast receding to the higher slopes of Mount Ararat, the snow-topped, volcanic peak standing dominant in a rugged landscape of lower mountain ridges. The nearby town of Dogubeyazit, down on the lowlands, languishes in the somnolent midsummer heat; an urban sprawl choking in a permanent cloud of exhaust fumes and dust.
For the Hasasori it’s business as usual and time to gather essentials and depart the winter villages at the foot of the mountain for the summer pasture on the mid-slopes. Modern times have intervened and lent a helping hand. Tracks have been carved into the mountainside, which now means trucks are able to transport people and their belongings as far as 2300m. Even for those that don’t have the luxury of motorised transport the tracks make the ascent a far site easier, and therefore quicker, for those that still rely on beasts of burden; donkeys, horses, cattle etc…
Three of the winter villages – Turkmana, Çiftlik and Ganigork, lie close to each other on our route. Each is a tight cluster of homesteads, built from local rock. There are mosques too, smaller and simpler than the grand structures that dominate the big towns. They may be simple villages but the ubiquitous satellite dish has still found its way in, even though many of the older people speak only Kurmanji and the television stations only broadcast in Turkish; something else that may change soon. For now the villages are like ghost towns, with just a handful of people and a few dogs left behind. We take a route through Ganigork and, apart from two children and a dog, I don’t see another soul, despite taking a wander through the village to get some pictures. The population of our jeep, it appears, exceeds the current population of this entire village. It’s a small jeep.
The drive up the mountain takes us through dozens of camps in all stages of preparation. We pass small family units making their way up the track with donkeys, hauling clothes and bedding, pots and pans, and timber for the tent frames. Further up we pass through camps where the tents are already erected and people are moving rocks around to build sheep pens and sitting/cooking areas. It’s all performed with quiet resolve as pastures that are close to running water in the mountain brooks are all claimed one after the other.
Many set camp at or below the 2300m contour but a handful press on further and settle closer to 3000m, not far below the current snowline. Apart from relatively flat ground the main criterion that influences camp selection is the proximity to running water. Those that set camp lower down will inevitably need to move higher as the summer progresses and the mountain streams dry up.
We rattle, bump and grind our way up the steep track in the beaten and battered old jeep. It’s a museum piece but has character, much like Saim, the owner. There’s no ignition barrel to speak of – hot-wiring is the only way to get the thing started. The front passenger’s seat requires a pair of knees in the back in order to stay above the reclined position (guess who was sitting in the back!) At full speed, along on the highway we struggled to overtake an old man on a pushbike. And any suspension the jeep originally came supplied with has long expired, so when you do finally go off-road, something jeeps are reputedly quite good at, it’s a wonderfully uncomfortable experience.
We stop to pick up four young lads who are on their way up the mountain to meet their families. There’s no room in the jeep so two of them stand on the rear fender, one perches himself precariously on top of the packs that are strapped to the roof, and the other sits out on the front of the jeep trying his damnedest to hold on and not slide off under the wheels. We continue onwards and upwards at something approaching walking speed.
I come bearing gifts – a blanket for Hanim and a stainless steel flask for Mehmet, the two most senior people who I’d met previously, but I’ve no idea if I even have any chance of finding them – after all the Hasasori range across a very large area indeed, and it could be like finding the proverbial needle in a somewhat colossal haystack – a mountain-sized one, no less; however, Juma, my guide and translator, knows precisely where we’re going – Mehmet is his brother. Small world.
An hour and a half after leaving Dogubeyazit we roll into a large camp at 2300m. Juma says that to reach his brother’s camp we need to continue on foot, but I’ve spotted a couple of familiar faces so this is as far as I’m going for now, as old acquaintance are about to be renewed.
Fortuitously the mountain track has taken us straight into Hanim’s camp. The familiar faces are those of 46-year-old Siddick Karaaslan and his 10-year-old niece, Derya Cevan. They remember me. I’m pleasantly surprised, and work stops as I’m led back to the communal tent for chai and bread. In no time at all there are about 20 people in the tent, mostly familiar faces. I fetch a wad of photographs (from my previous visit) out of my bag and in a matter of seconds they’ve all been claimed and spirited away. Then I show them a picture of my wife and 3-year-old daughter and this, too, is taken. I figure it’s a good time to give Hanim her blanket and she accepts my gift quietly and without fuss, placing it among the other bedding by her side.
Hanim, 53, is the oldest surviving member of her immediate family, which places her in a kind of matriarchal position. She doesn’t get involved in any manual work any longer, but is consulted as the key decision-maker in the group. She’s a frail woman, referred to by everybody as “Leh leh” meaning “Nanny”, and spends a large part of her time either sleeping or regarding all from her spot in the communal tent. Her frailty is part of the accelerated aging that’s brought on by the high levels of sodium fluoride in the mountain’s river water. She could easily be taken for thirty years older.
Hanim, daughter to Gozal and Bedir (both deceased) has four sons, five daughters and thirty three grandchildren. Her husband, Hassan Cevan, also, is no longer alive. About half of Hanim’s family are still with her, on the mountain, the rest, absent through marriage or through migration to the urban life. Some of the children are able to reap the benefits of both worlds, learning the traditions of Jelali nomad life for part of the year, while spending the rest of their time in the town, helping in the stores or going to school.
Mehmet, 49, is, in fact, of a younger generation than Hanim; his father, Ismail Ozturk, is Hanim’s brother. Ismail has eight sons (including Mehmet), seven daughters and fifty-nine grandchildren; they don’t go in for small families in this part of the world. Obviously there’s not an awful lot to do in the long dark evenings!
The four-generation family tree can be viewed by clicking on the following links:
It’s been three long hard days on the mountain, photographing the people, making contact with other families, avoiding the dogs that seem to be everywhere just waiting to give you a mauling if you step too close, and trekking up to the snowline at 3300m. I’m back down at Mehmet’s camp and my friend from the UK, David, is with us, along with a couple of French girls, who are travelling through. Mehmet’s wife, Fatma, and daughter, Sivo, are working furiously to make the communal tent comfortable for their guests. The light is dropping and there’s just about enough time to rustle up some supper for everyone before we’re all sitting in the gloom with only a small kerosene lamp to keep the pitch darkness at bay. Supper is bread, cheese, yoghurt, olives, raisins, and honey. We eat in silence and once finished, Sivo tidies it away and the French girls go back to their tent for the night. David and I are to sleep in the communal tent with Mehmet by our side in case he’s needed, which he is: At first light, David wakes to find a chicken roosting on his foot. There’s the sound of something moving around inside the tent also. It’s one of the camp’s dogs and it’s growling at the scent of unfamiliar people. Mehmet sits up and calls it softly to him. He strokes the dog gently until the growling stops and it lays his head on Mehmet’s lap. The dog’s eyelids start to droop and all seems well, it’s even beginning to purr. Suddenly, with no warning, the animal lets out an ear-splitting yelp and hurtles out of the tent with his ears back and tail between his legs. We’re not sure what Mehmet actually did, but the dog’s reaction would indicate that in someway its testicles were involved. In one short lesson the animal learned that his master has the means to make its life a pleasure or a misery, and that there’s a fine line between the two. I sleep on, undisturbed and blissfully unaware. The chicken hops down from David’s foot and strolls out after the dog.
As always, my time with the people is too short, but my notebook is full of information, my film almost used up, and there are other people to see and things to do. I have specific instructions to return soon and, surprisingly, I even have email addresses to send copies of the photographs to. It really is time to go and the jeep is about to leave, with or without me. With a final round of goodbyes I climb into the old wreck and we start the bone-jarring descent to the lowlands. On the way down we pass more farmers, bringing cattle up, before we finally reach the deserted village of Ganigork.
The Jelali first began the annual migration to the mountain slopes centuries ago. Aside from bringing respite against the mid-summer heat, it most likely was also a means of defense against incursion and subsequent assimilation from other cultures. Now the threat of cultural “pollution” is of less concern the shepherding families continue the lifestyle more out of tradition than any other reason; however, as more and more of the younger generation enjoy the privilege of schooling in the towns, so it follows that fewer of them are likely to settle as livestock farmers as they grow old. Only time will tell but fifty years from now I wonder, will villages like Ganigork be ghost towns for only the summer months?
Author – Lee Ridley