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Nomads

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The life of the Kurdish nomad is seasonal. The tribe spends the winter months in the villages and valleys of the lowlands (German) and the late spring and summer in the highland mountains (Kiwestan or Zoran) 3,000 to 5,000 meters above sea level, among the lush pastures, fresh lakes, rivers, and snowy mountains of the highlands. There they find plentiful grasslands and fresh water ideal for raising livestock. They return to the lowlands in the autumn (mid to late September). Each nomadic tribe was led by one tribal chief. Nomadic women enjoyed liberty and freedom, mingling with men in all social gatherings and working side-by-side with men.

The move

As the Kurdish nomads were a totally self-sufficient community, much preparation was required in the weeks leading up to the departure. The preparation also included important rituals and ceremonies. A lot of preparation would take place before departure to the highlands, an event which took place no sooner than a month after nowruz (New Year, 21st March), often in May but depending on the snow conditions. The daughter of the tribe's leader would be decorated with the finest clothes, sat on the back of a finely decorated horse, and would lead the whole tribe to a predetermined highland summer pasture.

The tribes consisted of between 100 and 1000 families, traveling with hundreds of horses and mules, and would settle in the summer encampment. Once there they would erect hundreds of black tents (reshmal) in which they lived for the summer months.

Summer encampment

The summer encampment was a time for social gatherings. This would include story telling, hunting, horse riding, dancing, and the singing of traditional songs. There are hundreds of Kurdish poems and traditional songs (Lawku Heyran) on the life of the nomadic Kurds, and it describes the simplicity of their life, the climax of the ceremonial departure time of the tribes from the plains to the valleys, and the lush landscape and the snowy mountains with fresh lakes, rivers, and the panoramic landscape full of wild plants and flowers. The romantic songs and poems of the shepherdesses and shepherds (Beri and Shiwan) were especially popular.

Weaving

Weaving also took place in the summer camps. Young girls from the ages of six to eight would learn the traditional art of weaving rugs, kilims, saddle bags, baby carriers, and sacks from their mothers, grandmothers, and relatives. Skillful nomadic weavers were in high demand as wives. They also enjoyed great respect and individual freedom within the nomadic community. The tradition of passing the weaving art from generation to generation continued until the 1980s when it was irreparably disrupted by the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and the destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages during the Iran-Iraq war. The art of Kurdish weaving has never recovered.

Dairy

The dairy products of the nomadic tribes, essential to their survival, were also very much appreciated by the villagers, and by city dwellers, and so the trading of dairy products with cheese dealers in the city would take place in the autumn. You can still see a few shops in Erbil traditional bazaar where they sell these cheeses. They can be recognized by their traditional storage containers, a sheep or calf's skin, though the quality of today's cheeses is perhaps not as reliable as it was in the past.

Today

Currently, there are some twenty semi-nomadic tribes in the regions of Kurdistan, including the Herki, Surchi, Bradost, Gheylani, Balaki, Heruti, Ako, Boli-Baboli, Mengur, and Mirawdeli tribes. In addition, there are a few surviving fully nomadic tribes such as the Mentik, Bilbas, Sireshmey, Mamsal, and Heruti Gheylani tribes.

Once free to follow traditional migration routes, they are now confined within the borders of Iraq and have consequently lost critical seasonal grazing areas. Unfortunately, Kurdistan's nomadic tribes are today struggling to survive.

Today, the Kurdish nomad is no longer self-supporting. The destruction of their migratory lifestyle has resulted in the loss of many traditional items associated with migration, such as saddle textiles and saddle bags. The use of automobiles by nomads also has caused the demise of traditional work.

Threat summary
National bordersThe closure of national borders, especially with Turkey and Iran, blocks access to traditional migration routes and pastures, forcing nomads to semi-settle and rent grazing land.
ConflictThe countryside is infested with hundreds of thousands of landmines. Turkish and Iranian airstrikes also disrupt nomadic life and movement. Village destruction, slaughter, and displacement were addition factors.
Refugee statusFleeing as refugees.
UrbanizationA labour shortage — especially for shepherds — has arisen as young men go to urban centers for other opportunities.
ArabizationForced Arabization under the former Iraqi regime threatened Kurdish cultural identity in general, and eroded nomadic traditions.
Cheap alternativesMass-produced (often foreign) alternatives has depressed demand for hand-made, home-produced items.
New expensesHay and barley, animal vaccine, land rent, and shepherd hire are modern expenses.
Cultural apathyDiminishing interest in and appreciation for cultural heritage by modern Kurds, and their desire to be modern. There is also a rapidly widening generation gap.