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 Celali (pron: je-LAH-li) have emerged as one of the largest and strongest, with notoriety for being accomplished fighters. The Celali 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 Celali 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 defense 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 meters, 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 Celali to welcome passers-by in for a glass of tea. Generally speaking though, each nomadic family keeps themselves to themselves and rarely interacts with outsiders, including other camps that may be only a few hundred meters away on the mountainside.
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.
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 skillfully rolling and flipping the dough into wafer thin forms and casting it on a red-hot steel dome thatís 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.
Marriages are arranged as tradition dictates but itís no longer as rigid and inflexible as in previous generations. Young men and women will 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 ďother businessĒ 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 her comments are dire and shouldn't be dismissed.
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 too 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 itís hard not to believe the dogs haven't figured it out too.
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 ÷zdem, as always, sleep with their parents in the family tents. Thick mats are laid down 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 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
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.
During my time with the family at the summer camp I notice 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 Celali 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 British 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 theyíre highly skeptical and in any case dismiss that possibility as largely irrelevant to their existence.
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 Celali has been troubled and arduous; there's every reason to expect the future will be no different.
Author - Lee Ridley
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