Kurdish nomads of eastern Turkey

Originally produced September 2014

The number of Kurdish nomads in eastern Turkey has declined significantly over the last two decades, according to anecdotal accounts from members of this community. This seems to be partly due to the draw of modernity and its comforts over the nomadic lifestyle, as well as a result of pressures from the Turkish military related to the government’s conflict with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK). As the nomads inhabit the same mountainous, isolated areas as the guerrillas, the government’s restrictions on movement there have made it hard for the nomads to maintain their lifestyle.

The nomads in Turkey have a distinct sub-identity within broader Kurdish culture, speaking their own sub-dialect of the Kurmanci dialect of Kurdish, spoken mainly in Syria and Turkey. They have certain practices and knowledge particular to the community that are of interest. They have an exceptional knowledge of plant life, knowing at what altitudes and in which seasons the plants that they use in many of their day to day activities are to be found. They produce wool products, part of the preparation of which involves dancing and music. Many of the tribes gather yearly at a sheep-shearing festival near the border with Iran. Moreover, among Kurdish communities there is a long-standing practice of oral story-telling, often sung. These are all practices that would be interesting to document. We have contacts with academics focusing on the sung story-telling tradition that could help us expand this aspect away from just the nomads.

The nomads tend to migrate three to four times a year, walking for about a month before setting up a camp again for three months or so. One group with which we have contact follows a fairly regular path from the west of Lake Van to the banks of the Tigris River in the countryside around the oil-producing city Batman. They move the sheep to keep them able to graze on fresh pastures. This route takes them through some of the most stunning scenery in Turkey. This community that speaks an Indo-European language has a history stretching back thousands of years in the region. Members of our team are from this community and grew up nomadic, providing us with unparalleled access and trust.

Now with the peace process between the government and the PKK, the region is facing the beginning of what may be a transformation. Does the possibility of the region being able to open up to investment represent a new threat to this way of life and to Kurdish cultural practices or are we seeing the beginning of a renaissance of minority identities that have been suppressed in the region for the last century? As part of the policies of the pro-Kurdish party in the region (BDP), a rapprochement has begun with the Armenian community, with many people “coming out” as Armenian and seeking to re-learn the language. The party is also actively supportive of equal gender rights, an aspect of the Kurdish movement that has received greater attention since the conflict between the PYD and IS in Syria. Is life changing in the Kurdish region of Turkey or are these shifts skin-deep?

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