Kurdish Life past
Carleton S. Coon
By far the largest area of high-valley and mountaintop pastoralism in the Middle East is that of the Zagros chain in Iran, Turkey and Iraq, and especially in Iran. Four different groups of hardy mountaineers are concerned: the Kurds, the Lurs, the Bakhtiari, and the Qashqai. Like the Berbers, the Kurds are a complete people in that they include farmers, city dwellers, and nomads and carry on a variety of occupations. Their home is the Zagros chain north of Kermanshah, as far as and beyond the Soviet border. Flanking the mountains on either side is a row of Kurdish towns, notably Sulaimaniya and Rowanduz on the Iraq side, and Sanandaj, Saqqiz, and Mahabad on the Iranian. Kirkuk, the oil center, is also largely Kurdish, and many Kurds live in Kermanshah. North of Mahabad the towns flanking the Zagros–such as Rezaiyeh or Shahpur–are inhabited largely by Azerbaijani Turks, Assyrians, and Armenians, but they serve as Kurdish shopping centers.
Many of the Kurds are farmers. Those who live on the slopes of the mountains usually send their flocks to the mountaintop pastures in the summer, under the care of some of their young people. In the winter when the snow is deep they stable them in caves. These caves are known by the number of sheep they can contain; for example, the cave of Tamtama in the Shikak country which I excavated in 1949 was a four hundred-sheep cave. Another in the hills south of Rezaiyeh was rated at three thousand. The famous Hazar Merd cave in the Sulaimaniya district on the ‘Iraq side, excavated by Dr. Dorothy Garrod, is named for the number of men it can hold–one thousand.
Some of the Kurds do not own villages on the slopes. The whole tribe summers on the upland grassland and then migrates en masse in the fall. He who travels the Kermanshah-Baghdad highway in the first week of November will see a most colorful sight along the road from Kermanshah to the border. On November 3, 1949, we counted roughly three thousand people, men, women, and children, walking, riding on horseback, mounted on cattle, and bobbing in cradles on their mothers’ backs, Every animal able to carry a load bore one. Sheep covered the road and left behind them a half-inch layer of droppings which, under the impact of truck and bus tires, soon turned to a temporary and slippery macadam.
Every two or three miles we would see a group of men, two to five in number, unobtrusively carrying rifles and sitting on heir horses, peering around comers in the rocky wall of the canyon, alert for trouble. These were the leader of the tribe and his man, policing the migration, seeing that no tw0- or four-legged creature should be left behind or get into trouble. Early every afternoon the advance guard would choose a camping place and unload their animals, piling the packs into semicircular enclosures and building fires. By dark most of the stragglers would be in. Animals and men usually could withstand the rigors and fatigue of this journey, except for the dogs. Even in the middle of the day they plodded along, glassy-eyed, their tongues hanging. By mid-afternoon some were riding.
These Kurds winter in the stubble of the fields of farmers who till the border of the Tigris plain, and on the grass which winter rains bring to the desert border. They make arrangements with these farmers, who may be Arabs, Assyrians, or Kurds like themselves, as they do with the villagers near whose homes they camp on the roads up and back. As a rule they do not own their winter pasture, but lease it. They do own the land of their summer pasture, however, and this they consider their home.
Economically, they produce an excess of wool, skins, milk, and mutton. Some of them are able to grow a little grain during the short summer season and to harvest a little fruit and pick some pistachio nuts, which they can also use in trade. The towns are so located relative to the maintain pastures that if a Kurd wants to trade during the summer he can usually reach a market within a six or seven hour’s ride. He will start at three or four in the morning and may be back late the same night. He can obtain his tea and sugar, shiny brocaded cloth, knives and axes, and whatever else he needs in the town. Even if the sale of firearms is prohibited, he usually knows where to find them.
However, he may not be obliged to leave his upland meadow at all, for itinerant peddlers move from camp to camp with their wares. Some are Kurds, non-tribal or from distant groups, selling sugar, tea, candles, matches, cigarettes, needles, and thread–the usual wares of the small peddler in any land. Others are Mongoloid wanderers from the cities of Russian and Chinese Turkestan; they specialize in repairing broken porcelain dishes with wire. These, two, the Kurds and the Turkis, come as single men. A third group joins the summer herders with entire families, and these are the Qarach, or gypsies, riding on mules and donkeys and driving with them a few cows and sometimes sheep.
Like gypsies everywhere, they are viewed with suspicion. The women, who wear bright-colored clothing as in Hungary and Spain, tell fortunes and sell semiprecious stones guaranteed to bring lovers and babies. Like the Kurdish chapmen the male gypsies peddle small wares, but they also sharpen knives and sickles, repair pots and pans, and mend shoes. Along with goods and services they bring the Kurds amusement, putting on acrobatic shows with tightrope walking, and making monkeys dance and turn to the beat of the drum.
Politically the nomadic Kurds have one need: a strong authority–to assign the grazing, to police the critical three or four days of migration and to deal with the owners of the warm lands where the tribe winters. This authority is furnished by the regular tribal mechanism of a division between nobles and commoners, chiefs and retainers, which all Kurds who live in the mountains, be they farmers or herdsmen, both need and possess.
Carleton S. Coon, Caravan: The Story of the Middle East, 1951
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