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 aghasí 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.
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 itís 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..
For the Hasasori itís 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 donít 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 etcÖ
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. Itís all performed with quiet resolve as pastures that are close to running water in the mountain brooks are all claimed one after the other.
We rattle, bump and grind our way up the steep track in the beaten and battered old jeep. Itís a museum piece but has character, much like Saim, the owner. Thereís no ignition barrel to speak of - hot-wiring is the only way to get the thing started. The front passengerís 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, itís a wonderfully uncomfortable experience.
We stop to pick up four young lads who are on their way up the mountain to meet their families. Thereís 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 Iíd met previously, but Iíve no idea if I even have any chance of finding them Ė 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 weíre 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 brotherís camp we need to continue on foot, but Iíve spotted a couple of familiar faces so this is as far as Iím going for now, as old acquaintance are about to be renewed.
Hanim, 53, is the oldest surviving member of her immediate family, which places her in a kind of matriarchal position. She doesnít get involved in any manual work any longer, but is consulted as the key decision-maker in the group. Sheís a frail woman, referred to by everybody as ďLeh lehĒ meaning ďNannyĒ, 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 thatís brought on by the high levels of sodium fluoride in the mountainís 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 Hanimís 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 Hanimís brother. Ismail has eight sons (including Mehmet), seven daughters and fifty-nine grandchildren; they donít go in for small families in this part of the world. Obviously thereís not an awful lot to do in the long dark evenings!
Itís 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. Iím back down at Mehmetís camp and my friend from the UK, David, is with us, along with a couple of French girls, who are travelling through. Mehmetís wife, Fatma, and daughter, Sivo, are working furiously to make the communal tent comfortable for their guests. The light is dropping and thereís just about enough time to rustle up some supper for everyone before weíre 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 heís needed, which he is: At first light, David wakes to find a chicken
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
A previous article on the Jelali Nomads can be viewed by following this link
More photographs of the Nomads can be viewed here
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