Hanim is fifty-one years old, but she looks at least thirty years older, and for good reason: She’s the leader of the Hasasori, a small family of semi-nomadic Jelali Kurds who eke out a simple existence farming sheep on the southern slopes of Mount Ararat in East Turkey, and life is far from easy.
The region known as Kurdistan lies across the borders of five countries: Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria and is home to some 25 million Kurds. Within this population many ethnic tribes have evolved, of which the Jelali (pron: je-LAH-li) have emerged as one of the largest and strongest, with notoriety for being accomplished fighters. The Jelali can be found across many parts of Anatolia but are predominantly based in the region around the town of Dogubeyazit, most commonly associated with the towering presence of the snow-topped Mount Ararat that dominates the scenery on the outskirts of town. The people are darker skinned than many of their Kurdish cousins, the men taller and stronger, and the spoken language is Kurmanji, common throughout the northern Kurdish region but with minor dialectal variations.
Over the last few centuries, within the Jelali community a large proportion of the people have adopted and established a semi-nomadic lifestyle around the slopes of the biblical Mountain. Originally intended as a means of defence against incursion and subsequent assimilation from other cultures, the migration to the higher slopes was also found to be useful as it allowed the shepherds to escape the uncomfortable heat of mid-summer and find respite in the cooler mountain air. Now the threat of cultural “pollution” is of less concern, the shepherding families spend only the hot summer months at altitude on the summer pasture, referred to in Kurmanji as the “yayala” and return to the relative comfort and safety of low lying villages from October through till the end of May.
At 5137 metres, Ararat is the highest mountain in Turkey and according to the book of Genesis in the old testament, it is the fabled resting place of Noah’s Ark. It’s an isolated volcanic peak that lies very close to the border with Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan and until recently has remained off-limits to outsiders because of civil unrest between the Kurdish population and their Turkish hosts. Now the restrictions have been lifted, mountain climbers and those in search of the Ark have become a familiar aspect of the nomads’ life and its not uncommon for the Jelali to welcome passers-by in for a glass of tea. Generally speaking though, each nomadic family keep themselves to themselves and rarely interact with outsiders including other camps that may be only a few hundred meters away on the mountainside.
It’s mid-afternoon by the time I arrive at the camp with Aysegul, my guide and translator. The jeep is only able to take us to 2000 metres at which point the “road” is impassable and we have to disembark and continue on foot. Behind us the flat plains shimmering in the heat fall away as we climb, the Iranian border just a hazy line of hills in the distance. We stop for a short rest and listen to the “voice of the mountain” as my Kurdish guide puts it: The wind rushing through the long grass and about the rocks; the skylarks trilling as they hover overhead and the plaintive whistle from the wheatears atop their stony perches regarding us warily. It’s a perfect moment and one I am keen to prolong as much as possible before we recommence our slow trudge up the steep mountainside. We only need to climb a further few hundred metres but the thinning air and the afternoon sun conspire to make it difficult. Ahead of us, and some two thousand feet higher I can make out a handful of nomadic camps dotted across the face of the mountain, not far short of the snowline. The traditional black sheep-wool tents have been almost entirely replaced by government issue white tents that stand out clearly against the dark backdrop of the mountain. I silently hope that the Hasasori haven’t set up camp too high, and my prayers are answered when after only 400 meters climbed, we reach a plateau and the small camp comes into view.
We sit down on soft mats and within seconds a small glass of tea is placed before me. Much weaker than the tea that is served elsewhere in Turkey, I finish mine quickly and put the empty glass down. Before I have a chance to speak, the glass is recharged and placed back in front of me. After four refills, I finish my tea and lay the empty glass on its side to signal that I do not want more. Instead, I am given a large glass of “yurt” a watery yoghurt drink made from sheep’s milk. There’s a strong cheese flavour to it that remains on the palette and I drink mine quickly so as not to prolong the experience. Mistakenly they think this means I am enjoying it and another large measure is forthcoming.
I look around at the faces all regarding me with fascination. To my left is Hanim (pron: HAH-num) the oldest member of the family and subsequently the highest authority. Her colourful face is etched with deep lines and creases and my first thought is for my camera but I refrain, knowing its best to spend time with formalities. Next to Hanim is Mehmet. Also getting on in years, Mehmet looks like he may one day become Hanim’s successor. He’s quick to laugh and enjoys the fact that I can’t understand him. Two young girls of about 7 years old draw my attention: The nearest is squatting very close to me and regards me passively. When I stare back, she looks to her mother for reassurance and then smiles at me. Her hair is mousy and is woven into a long plait, which hangs loosely over her shoulder. Her eyes are almond shaped giving her an almost Mongolian appearance; again, I think of the camera. Her friend is also squatting close by. She has darker hair, darker skin and is equally pretty; she isn’t so quick to smile. Their clothes are bright but a little on the grubby side and their hair is clean but unkempt. The two together conjure an image of wild children of the mountain. I learn their names are Elif and Derya, aged 7 and 8, and over the next few days, they hardly leave my side.
The communal tent we are sitting in is about 20 square metres and is made from a large green tarpaulin suspended on supports over a dry stone enclosure. The stonewalling is precarious and the slightest touch can precipitate a chain of events that could easily result in broken bones; I am careful where I sit.
Across from me, a woman in her thirties squats in the corner by a large bowl full of dough and busies herself making flatbread. She spends the next four hours skilfully rolling and flipping the dough into wafer thin forms and casting it on a red-hot steel dome that is resting over a small fire. The fire is fed with dried sheep dung and the woman periodically fans the flames with the edge of her skirt. It looks like hot, uncomfortable, painstaking work and at times she looks like she’d rather be anywhere than here. Occasionally smoke fills the tent but no one complains. By the time the dough has all been used, there are over a hundred flatbreads piled on the floor. I’m told this is enough to feed the family for three days only, along with mutton and yurt, which comprise the staple diet for the Hasasori.
The day-to-day life of a Jelali nomad is simple. They rise and set with the sun and worry little about the world outside of their immediate social circle. On an average day the boys take the sheep to pasture first thing in the morning and although they tend to remain within sight of the camp they don’t return until late afternoon. The women wash, cook and make bread and the men will milk and shear the sheep if necessary and generally assist in the running of the camp. The young children are tasked with helping the adults and their duties will include baby care, fetching water, and bagging up the wool when shearing. There is no school because the children can learn everything they need from daily life and “emigration” to town life is extremely rare.
Marriages are arranged as tradition dictates but its no longer as rigid and inflexible as in previous generations. Young men and women tend to meet each other under various circumstances and then seek family approval if they wish to form a relationship. The result is that now people are choosing their own partners, more marriages are surviving and equality in the marriage is more noticeable. Women are marrying later too: Whereas the average age for a young girl to marry used to be in the early teens, now more and more women are waiting until they are in their twenties. There are two women in the Hasasori family who are eligible for marriage and I am asked not to photograph them or try to engage them in conversation. Despite this I frequently catch them watching my every move from behind their veils.
Hanim complains, half in jest, half in earnest that she feels she is losing control over her family. The boys don’t want to take the sheep to pasture, the girls won’t do their chores, the women are generally dissatisfied with their lot and the men are always off taking care of business and not involved enough with the running of the camp. On top of this she feels there are not enough babies being born to ensure a strong future. I laughingly suggest she thrashes her subordinates into compliance with a big stick and Hanim is quick to laugh and retort that she has tried it already without success, but I know the implications behind Hanim’s comments are dire and shouldn’t be dismissed.
I study her while she is talking with the others, and estimate her to be in her eighties. I’m staggered to learn later that she’s only fifty-one. People age very fast in this part of the world it seems but on top of that, Hanim has recently lost one of her brothers in a fatal car crash. He was a local mullah or holy man and the two of them were very close. A protracted term of grieving has left its mark and she now looks ten years older than her older sister who lives with another family elsewhere on the mountain.
I decide to take a walk around the camp and excuse myself politely from the communal tent. In the company of Nuri, one of the older boys, and the two girls Elif and Derya, I run the gauntlet of the camp’s dogs. There are four dogs for me to avoid: Big grizzly beasts that offer no brook, invite no quarrel and command a wide berth at all times. They are an absolute necessity for keeping wolves and bears at bay during the night and there is no question they earn their keep on a regular basis, as I am to discover that night. During the daytime they laze around the camp often sleeping, often bickering. If they get to unruly they are dealt with swiftly and harshly with a stout stick or large rock, but this is rarely if ever done without good reason and a tight working relationship between nomad and hound is maintained at all times. All the same, I am a perfect stranger and the dogs don’t recognise my smell. If I wander too far from camp and am confronted by one or more of these animals, chances are I’ll be torn to shreds; I know it and its hard not to believe the dogs haven’t figured it out too.
The afternoon passes quickly and as the sun begins to drop behind the mountain we all gather for supper. Aysegul and I had brought two frozen chickens with us, so supper is chicken stew with rice, bread and a generous measure of yurt. Everybody feeds in silence, although most eyes are on me to ensure I am happy with the hospitality. I remark, genuinely that this is one of the best meals I’ve had in Turkey but am careful not to finish the contents of my plate too quickly lest I create the impression I have not been given enough. When everyone has finished eating, the plates are tidied away and washed while tea is served. I take my lead from one of the others, downing four measures before laying the glass on its side. We all talk for a while and then abruptly, I’m on my own, as everyone disappears to their respective tents to prepare for the night, leaving me to contemplate my surroundings. From inside the communal tent where I am still sitting, somewhere close, either Derya or Elif is singing quietly to herself and faint voices carry from one of the other tents. The camp is the embodiment of serenity as even the dogs are silent for once.
Darkness descends on the mountain and people reappear for an evening of festivities. Its not part of their usual routine, but my mere presence constitutes reason enough for a shindig. Fortunately it’s almost a full moon so there’s plenty of light for us as we take turns to sing songs. We go through a large repertoire of songs and at one point I have the whole Hasasori nomad family singing along to “Tit Willow” from the Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. Then they invite me to join in a group line-dance where they all link their little fingers together but soon discover I have two left feet and politely encourage me to take photographs instead.
The evening wears on and it starts to get cold; the singing and revelries die away and finally its time to sleep. It’s decided that I’ll share the communal tent with Nuri. The girls, including Aysegul have a different tent to share and the youngest children, Elif, Derya, Yusuf and Özdem as always, sleep with their parents in the family tents. Thick mats are laid out and I drag my sleeping bag out of my rucksack but only use it as a duvet, rather than climb inside; it’s cold but not that cold. I wrongly assume that the day’s activity and the copious fresh air will instigate a good night’s sleep, but whereas the evening on the mountain had been quiet and peaceful, so the night is full of sound: To my side Nuri’s heavy breathing indicates that he has dropped off straight away. From the sheep pen, the persistent coughing of a bronchial ewe has a distinctly human quality and I can’t help but smile. From further afield a nightjar begins to “churr” the noise drifting on the air, monotone and persistent. A donkey brays, just to make sure I’m fully awake and the dogs wander around the camp yapping at anything and everything, knowing that now, they’re in charge.
At two thirty a.m. wolves are in the area. One of the camp’s dogs is just on the other side of the stonewall, barely a few feet from my head, and if I had fallen asleep I’m most certainly wide-awake now: All four dogs start barking together and then the dog near to me ceases and dashes to intercept the night raid. There’s no stealth in his movement and I hear his heavy feet drumming the ground as he races out of camp. From a distance I hear the same dog start barking again and the noise is maintained for a further ten minutes until the opportunist visitors have fled.
At about four o’clock dawn breaks and in the absence of a cockerel, the donkey self-appoints the role of alarm clock. The noise rips me out of the precious little sleep I had attained and defeated, I decide to get up and take a few pictures of the sleeping camp. Outside I see Hanim is already in the sheep pen, checking on the livestock. A quick headcount and she is reassured that the wolves were unsuccessful; the dogs have earned their keep for another night. I smile at her and indicate that I’m going for a climb with the camera and she nods and mutters something I don’t understand. When I’m about a hundred meters from camp and climbing, the dogs spot me and give chase. Apart from Hanim, the whole camp is asleep. My mind races; I have about 15 seconds to assess the situation and act knowing that my life could depend on it. I look for a sizeable rock to arm myself with but everything is either too large or too small and the dogs are almost on me. In the nick of time I seize a suitable projectile and hold it aloft as I stand with my back to a large outcrop to prevent myself from being surrounded. The dogs face me barking and snarling but keep a safe distance and I wonder how long I can hold this defence. But Hanim is alert to the situation and is on her way, bounding up the stony mountainside to rescue me from the seething hounds. She covers the distance in a fraction of the time it had taken me and cuts a formidable figure as she hurls a rock at the nearest dog. I’m forgotten as they drop their tails and try to avoid their hissing and cussing master. As the dogs run obediently back to camp, Hanim ushers me on my way and turns to follow them, forgetting me just as quickly.
For the next couple of hours from my elevated position, as the sun rises from behind Ararat I watch the mountain’s shadow retreat across the land below. Moorland birds flit around me among the nearby rocks and pay me little regard, while slowly the camp stirs to life. When two of the boys lead the sheep from the pen and towards me for the day’s pasture, I take the opportunity to return amidst the activity and elude the dogs and another confrontation.
Breakfast is not a social meal like supper and I’m given flatbread and yurt to eat on my own, although Elif and Derya are quick to join me; Aysegul is sleeping in, which is the source of some amusement as I was the one expected to rise late.
There is much to do in the camp today, as more sheep are being herded up the mountain to join the already large flock. Before they arrive, the sheep that are already here need to be shorn; Memet and Derya’s mother Naide will take care of that and will start as soon as the children are fed.
I join the group in the sheep pen and photograph them while they work. It’s an unhurried affair, punctuated by frequent tea breaks and it’s not until late morning that Memet pins down the last sheep and relieves it of its woolly coat using a lethal looking pair of 18 inch shearing blades. The girls are on hand to bag up the wool and finish off by sweeping up the sheep pellets with a small brush.
When I look at the people as they work and play, they look happy enough on the surface, but I know there are deep concerns throughout the entire Jelali community. High levels of sodium fluoride exist in the water that flows from Mount Ararat; water that thousands of people depend on for drinking, the Hasasori included. Highly toxic, in any great quantity sodium fluoride destroys tooth enamel, shortens life span and promotes various cancers. There doesn’t appear to be any solution to the problem forthcoming and many would argue that it’s not in the Turkish government’s interest to afford any priority to it. After all, what better way is there to subject the oppressed Kurdish population to more torment and misery? Now a Swiss scientist and a local student are working hard to pressure the government to act, and a glimmer of hope lies on the horizon. In the meantime the Hasasori and many like them will continue to rely on the mountain streams as their only source of drinking water.
During my time with the family at the summer camp, I realise that there is little or no conversation about the world outside of their immediate community and I wonder if this is the result of a lack of knowledge or lack of interest. The next time we are all together, I ask how they feel about the current unrest in Iraq, just a few hundred miles to the south. The response is not what I expected as suddenly four of the women start shouting and waving their hands in animated debate. Aysegul smiles and explains: The war in Iraq means little to the Jelali as their lifestyle results in very effective isolation from outside influence. However, they’re very aware of the hostilities and feel nothing but anger towards Bush and Blair, firmly believing that the Americans and the English have their own agenda in the Gulf, which has little to do with the interests of the local populace. I venture that it could mean a better future for the Kurds, but they highly sceptical and in any case dismiss that possibility as largely irrelevant to their existence.
When the time comes for me to leave Hanim and her family, they all come to see me off and wish me well. They invite me to return whenever I like and ask that I bring some photographs of my family; I promise to do so. As Aysegul and I begin our trek down the mountain I look to see if young Özdem is watching us go but she’s nowhere to be seen; I guess there will be no mountain climbers passing this way today.
I wonder what the future has in store for the Hasasori and the other nomads of Ararat. Tradition is well preserved up here at 7000ft but modernisation is spreading across the land below and is never far away. When I return, maybe Elif and Derya will be hidden behind veils and forbidden from talking to me, Yusuf will undoubtedly be leading the sheep to pasture each day and perhaps Mehmet will have ascended to authority.
The history of the Jelali has been troubled and arduous; there’s every reason to expect the future will be no different.
Author – Lee Ridley