Tagging along with Anatolian nomads

The Anatolian nomads of the sun, mountains and endless winds of the plateaus agreed »»
The Anatolian nomads of the sun, mountains and endless winds of the plateaus agreed to let us accompany them for a small part of their journey.

 The three days we spent in and around the Aydın and Gülnar districts of Mersin proved insufficient to truly get to know them, but this period was long enough for us to learn to love these people, who are not tainted by obsessions with the trappings of modern life. 

Turkish nomads in Anatolia are known as yörüks, and they claim that they continue to migrate in order to find suitable grazing land for their livestock, but could the truth actually be that they enjoy migrating, as suggested by their rush to dismantle their tents before dawn? They set off as if it is their first time on the road, and the journey continues from where it left off the previous evening.

The yörüks of Sarıkeçili, a village in Adana's Ceyhan district, have learned of the many risks of migration. For instance, they may be fined for passing through certain districts in which goat herding is illegal. They are well aware of the risk and have decided to take their chances this year, but what about next year? "Migrating -- we are terribly disheartened by the many risks, but settling is so much more difficult!" one yörük from Ceyhan told us.

It's Monday, when are we migrating?

We were still trying to shake off our drowsiness in the small concrete building in which we spent the night, as we were expecting to set off with the yörük group that would leave before dawn. One of the last April showers was falling. This raised two questions in our minds -- do yörüks set off in rain, and what if they don't and this rain continues for days?

Fortunately, the sun was quick to reveal itself, and we were finally given the good news that we would be hosted in one of the yörük's goat-hair tents. After a mildly tiring trudge up the hill, the tent of Kerim Karadayı's family appeared amidst the trees. The owners were waiting for us in front of the tent. We exchanged smiles from afar, and although everything seemed to be going along just fine, a voice inside of me questioned: "At most, you are going to observe these people and all you will be doing is surveying everything with a curious gaze and trying to attach meaning even to where things are placed in the tent. Your eyes will alight upon everything that seems strange to you and you will never stop asking questions; but will you have understood anything at all about these people in the end?"

The tent had no doors, but there appeared to be room for everyone. In all yörük tents, there are two teapots -- one for boiling water and the other for brewing fresh tea. The one used to boil water is sooty in the bottom due to being placed over the fire all the time, not on a burner as we are used to. The other teapot is about the same size, but it is always kept a little farther from the fire. Once inside, we didn't really want to leave the tent, as it offered an unfamiliar sense of sincerity and warmth. Another reason we were unwilling to leave was our hosts' reluctance to set out on their journey. The reluctance of a yörük to set off on his path is not considered a good sign. It's like goats that stop jumping and running and instead sit lethargically on the ground all day. A yörük should always be on the move.

But what if some officials had outlawed their migration and fined them at every stop of the way for one thing or another? We later found out that the tent hosting us should have been dismantled and loaded on the camels a long time ago, but that Kerim and his family were not sure about migrating this time because of new laws that had been passed on the practice. As we spoke to Kerim, we sensed that he was very pessimistic about the whole thing; he seemed to be seesawing between migrating and settling down, which, of course, both have their pros and cons.

"This entire yörük thing is now a thing of the past. If you ask people what being a yörük means, most will give you incorrect answers. They consider us obsolete now. It's sad but true; this has become our reality," laments Kerim.

"When were these new laws passed?" we asked him curiously, at a loss to understand why anybody would want to change the harmless lifestyle of these people. The yörük tradition is an extension of the millennia-old tradition of migrating. Kerim, just like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather is part of this tradition, but wonders whether it will end with him. With a slightly hesitant look on his face, he finally revealed his real thoughts. "Well, I can't hold it back any longer; since this government came to power, we have been flat broke. Before, people did not blink an eye when we passed by and we did not have any problems," Kerim said. The family doesn't encounter any problems while spending the winter in Mersin, but once they set out for the places where they will spend the summer, such as Karaman, Beyşehir and Seydişehir, they begin to come across gendarmes who are overly eager to enforce the recently passed laws. They are fined YTL 16 for each goat seen near trees; their goats allegedly damage the forest, but according to the Sarıkeçili yörüks, "Our goats have never been observed destroying a forest." Last year, the family paid a total of YTL 3,000 in fines and now feels very frustrated over the laws. "If the owners of this incomprehensibly repressive mindset give us full-time jobs and houses, we will throw away the tents," Kerim remarked.

During one part of the journey last year, they covered a normally seven-hour distance in 14 hours in their attempts to stay clear of gendarmes. This year, they wanted to play it safe. Imagine having to listen for every single engine sound that draws near and fleeing into the hills to avoid security forces, in which case the journey becomes longer and longer. The migration has become so difficult in the recent years that Kerim is seriously considering a settled life. "We are tired of running from security forces," he said. Yet they have many misgivings over changing their way of life.

"If they put us in a cage [he refers to a small house], we will simply die there. They should give us houses with porches in the Konya basin. My trade is not dealing with greenhouses. If they give us livestock, we could do okay," stated Kerim.

"These small houses, they are like boxes. Not a house, a box! They don't even have gardens. They only have a few saplings. How can people live so out of touch with the earth?" he questioned.

And we ask about the finances of the Karadayı family, making the heedless mistake of asking them what function money could have in the mountains as we know that they don't pay utility bills.

Kerim smiled, saying, "We save our money in a sack." "For one truck-load of water we search in certain places with our special drill; other yörüks pay us YTL 25 for this water. Strangely enough, livestock are expensive; the fodder is expensive. We make oil and cheese ourselves, but we have to pay for fruit and vegetables. If any yörük says he makes YTL 100 a month, I would give him 10 goats for free. I have a herd of 150 goats and six camels. If it were possible to exchange these for a house, I am prepared to give them away. Just buy me a house with land," said Kerim.

The Karadayı family was simply killing time, unsure of which direction to take. Thus, we were left with only one option -- to catch up with the Bacak family, who, we were told, set off a couple of days ago. Another yörük called İbrahim Bacak, the father of the family, on his cell phone and the latter told him where his family would be spending the night. They gave us a rough map so we could make our way to the Bacak family. Now our task was to find the Bacak family's goat-hair tent, which, on the map, appeared to be set up right next to a fountain called Kucum. The yörüks told us that it would be a walk of about five kilometers and that we would find the family with great ease. However, we later discovered that five kilometers actually meant 15 in yörük terms.

Mehmet Ali, our photographer, and I were accompanied by two photo buffs from the Adana Amateur Photographers Association. Without losing any time, we set off as a four-member team, but the road leading to the Gülnar district, where the fountain was supposed to be, was not familiar to any of us. We kept looking at our map and the directions, which were quite ambiguous in places. And imagine our urbanite horror to see the "no network" message on the screens of our cell phones. Luckily, after walking a little further we reached a place with coverage and called İbrahim straightaway. When we told him the name of the village we were in, he cried out, "The Sheikh Omer village?" which clearly implied to us that we had taken a wrong turn somewhere. We walked all the way back to Pembecik village and took a right. Finally the Kucum fountain appeared before us, but where was the tent? We noticed a man herding a few camels and asked him about the family; he pointed to an ambiguous spot on the horizon, saying, "Right there." Unfortunately, we could not see anything "right there." It turned out that he was İbrahim's brother, Hasan.

Reaching "right there" took us another long walk. Finally we spotted the goat-hair tent and immediately made for its entrance. This time we were much more comfortable although we hadn't met anyone from the family yet. This comfort stemmed from our hasty conclusion that "we have walked such a long way to get here and to find these people; we now deserve to be invited inside." We absolutely deserved a hot gözleme and a copper cup of frothy ayran, too.

We slowly realized that our new tent was pretty crowded. The famous duo of teapots was used here as well. They took out a wooden chest of glassware, and we sipped our freshly brewed tea from the traditional tulip-shaped glasses.

We headed back to Gülnar to find a place to spend the night. Not just the nine-person household, but even the goats and the dogs outside the tent were still strangers to us -- or more precisely, we were strangers to them. The dogs looked at us menacingly. We went on our way planning to return by dawn on the morrow.

Watching sunrise from a goat-hair tent

We got to the tent before they finished their last glasses of tea and watched in amazement the orderly manner in which everything was done. However, we still needed time to understand how they lived within this space. After walking for several kilometers, Fadime, walking next to the horses with a rifle in her hands, and Hasan, holding the ropes tied around the camels' necks, started wondering out loud when we would start to feel exhausted.

We, on the other hand, were wondering how they have the energy to set up and dismantle their tent every single day. "It's easy for us," said Fadime. "Can you tell me exactly what it is that you enjoy about living the life of a yörük?" we asked. "Migrating everyday," she replied.

The walk was shorter than we expected and the men had already started looking for the best spot to set up the tent. After the camels crouched down, the loads were taken off their backs, the sacks were placed side by side like a wall and the poles were hammered into the ground for the tent. They quickly started a fire. And what came next, tea, of course.

"Sorry about that; maybe you are not used to drinking tea before and after meals like us," Hasan told us. Who could reject a glass of tea after such a tiring walk, even if we were hungry?

The sun disappeared and the air quickly cooled. The entrance of the tent was covered with a piece of specially woven, thick cloth. The night brought an elderly female guest to the tent, Aunt Dudu, a yörük woman who finally got tired of migrating and settled in one place several years ago. She is one of those cheerful old women with a great sense of humor and thus is a must-have in every environment.

You might wonder what yörük people talk about at night in their tents? One of the topics that always seemed to come up was wolves, which they refer to as the monsters. As goats tend to enjoy wandering freely, they are easy prey for wolves at night. Thus, a yörük, even while sleeping, listens for noises outside the tent. The morning brought bad news -- two of the goats were killed by wolves near Çakıldere,

Herding the crippled camel 

Some of the goats and sheep had gone missing. Nothing could be as much fun in the chill of the morning as looking for missing goats and sheep that may have been eaten by wolves.

But Hasan, who knows what is behind every stone in these districts, suddenly turned up with all the missing animals. The rest of the day was the same as the one before; they gather everything together and dismantle the tent, load everything on the camels and set out again on their journey.

However, on this day we were given a task -- herding the crippled camel that didn't want to walk and thus was always lagging behind the convoy.

The weather was much more pleasant but the road was more difficult. We hardly ever saw any pavement. We walked along a small stream with pebbles on one side and a field ablaze with red papavers (Papaverum rhoeas) on the other. When the dogs finally stopped barking at us, we smelled one another and realized that we stank as badly as goats after three days in the great outdoors.

Mehmet Ali finally got the hang of herding the crippled camel and just when we all caught up with the rest of the yörüks, our road came to an end. The yörüks have another 40 days to go before they make it to Seydişehir.

The yörüks don't carry axes; they never chop down trees or leave behind garbage.

If I had my way I would let them walk as they have walked for thousands of years. However, it is more likely that the yörük tradition will disappear with the coming generations.