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Searching for the roots of present Turkey, by Etienne Copeaux

Anatolian Tribes, between Folklore and Politics

Publié par Etienne Copeaux sur 24 Octobre 2020, 09:20am

Catégories : #The War Against the Kurds, #Turkey in the 90's

[This paper was published on susam-sokak.fr, in French, on July 30, 2011: http://www.susam-sokak.fr/article-esquisses-16-istanbul-redecouvre-les-tribus-80513457.html]

In 1996, the Southeastern Anatolia Regional Development Administration (GAP Bölge Kalkınma Idaresi) published a report dealing with the influence of the tribes on rural life. GAP is the acronym of Güneydogu Anadolu Projesi, “Southeastern Anatolia Project”, a development project, including a irrigation program centered on a giant dam on the Euphrates, the “Atatürk Dam”, north of the city of Urfa. As the report stated, no less than 61% out of the villages of the region were de facto bound to one or several tribes (aşiret), and that 47% out of the householders had recognized that there were depending on a tribe. Was the tribe phenomenon actually living, or was it an abnormal heritage of the old pre-Kemalist Turkish society, an anachronistic phenomenon that should have been erased by the “modern” and Jacobin administration of the new republic? As the Civil Code (Medeni Kanun, 1926) had instituted in the Law the European-type nuclear family, the tribal system had become inconsistent with the new legislation.

In fact, around 1995 and to the eyes of the urban population of Western Turkey, the tribe was something out-of-date, a rather folkloric fact, not very worrying, provided it would be confined in Eastern Anatolia which seemed to be so far with regard both to time and space. A tribe headman (reis) was considered as a character belonging to the past, altogether local tyrant, kinglet, smuggler, and warlord, condemned to vanishing due to the progress of modernity. In the mainstream media, mainly broadcast from Istanbul, and at least at that time, the tribe phenomenon does match with such a mental image. The tribe is a negative phenomenon, but it is supposed to harm its own subjected only - or its rivals. The existence of the tribal fact could even reassure the Occidental – I mean the Turkish Occidental – as he feels so different, so “advanced” and “modern” with regard to these Eastern populations.

This perception fits quite well to the analysis made by Gilles Dorronsoro. According to him, the image of the tribe given by the media stems from “the perception of the region [the South-East] by the authorities, above all by the army”. The presuppositions that underlie this perception would result of “a pronounced form of Orientalism”; in sum, a social representation, in which the press undoubtedly plays a part (Dorronsoro, 2009). In the authorities' vision of the problem, the role of the tribes might be excessive, and these remarks incite to shift the fictitious frontier between East and West. As a matter of fact, Europeans tend to consider Turkey as an Oriental country, but they can't conceive that Istanbul – or Izmir - residents also consider themselves as Westerners facing up to an “Eastern” otherness, that is, Anatolia.

What is “the Orient” in the mind of the Istanbul residents by this time? Grossly, it is a tribal world where men inevitably are polygamous and have dozens of children, always wander around armed to the teeth and kill each other for questions of honor. This is exactly the image of an agha of Bismil (Diyarbakır province), as it is given by Milliyet in 1997: the man, in front of his rather modest house, caracoles on a graceful white horse. Facing the photographer, he proudly brandishes his Kalashnikov. In the chest-pocket of his vest, he wears a talkie-walkie which, before the mobile phone's era, denotes a certain control and power ability. Behind him, lined up along the house, his wives and some twenty children. Polygamy, numerous progeny, fascination with weapons: Milliyet broadcasts an ideal type. The photographer even could be himself the author of the staging, to which the agha, his children, wives, and horse, might have obligingly collaborated (Milliyet, September 16, 1997).

A tribe's headman near Bismil (Milliyet, September 16, 1997)

A tribe's headman near Bismil (Milliyet, September 16, 1997)

Thus, in their description of the Turkish “Orient”, the journalists from Istanbul tend to highlight what seems rather folkloristic. For example, Yeni Yüzyıl reports in July 1996 that the Çaçan tribe decided one-year mourning following the accidental death of the tribe's agha, Resit Çaçan, 90, run over by a bull. According to the tribe's members, the bull himself would have cried; but he was sacrificed anyway, and the meat distributed to the poor persons (Yeni Yüzyıl, July 25, 1996). Typical are the ingredients of this story: these people are hyperbolic when expressing joys or pains; they do respect their reis (chief), even if he is a very old man; they are presented as gullible, and open to the influence of the natural world; they are tough, but brave and generous as well.

Similarly, wedding folklore is highly prized; in November 1996, a three-day wedding, uniting members of the Sinika and Gülçin tribes, in the Silvan region, delights the leftist daily Radikal. Fifty sheep have been sacrificed. But one scene particularly draws the reporters' attention, the presence of seven gunmen on the terrace of a house, with rifles, machine guns, and pistols in their hands. The caption of the photograph says: “That's a wedding photo!” Festivities, war, violence, and joy, mingled together, are supposed to astonish the reader (Radikal, November 2, 1996).

“That's a wedding photo!” (Radikal, November 2, 1996)

“That's a wedding photo!” (Radikal, November 2, 1996)

These southeastern people, supposed-to-be warriors, quarrelsome, subjected to out-of-date honor issues, submitted to their own tribe, menaced by rival tribes, and restrained by bizarre and anachronistic customs, needless to say, are mostly Kurds. And in fact, the weapons often speak, sometimes for reasons the media don't mention: political rivalries, or dragooning of the tribe on one side of the war or on the other. The general impression given by the press is that these people do not even know why they fight each other. In February 1998, in the region of Siverek, a fight between the Sislice and Kesmekaya tribes lasted no less than ten hours. Ten thousand cartridges have reportedly been fired but without any casualties. The police force could apprehend 14 people but was unable to get their hands on the weapons (Milliyet, February 20, 1998).

The reconciliation between two clans, another favorite topic of the daily newspapers, is an object of amusement, for the meal that puts an end to the vendetta (kan davası) is a curiosity for the city dwellers of the west. The meal is prepared for an exclusively male assembly. No table, of course: the men who seal the peace with a common meal are cross-legged on the floor, on either side of long tablecloths, unknowingly providing the photographers with another stereotypical image of the "Oriental". In September 1997, the daily Sabah reports a ceremony of restoring peace after 72 years of both intertribal and “international” conflict between the Şükran (Turkish side) and the Hırba (Syrian side). The only women mentioned are the fifteen cooks who worked for a fortnight at a meal attended by 3,000 men (including the mayor of Mardin, the vali/governor and the deputy), a meal at which "only bird's milk was missing" (Sabah/Gazete Pazar, August 23, 1998).

Two reconciliation banquets (Sabah, September 17, 1998 and August 23, 1998). And an election banquet (Milliyet, September 23, 1998)Two reconciliation banquets (Sabah, September 17, 1998 and August 23, 1998). And an election banquet (Milliyet, September 23, 1998)Two reconciliation banquets (Sabah, September 17, 1998 and August 23, 1998). And an election banquet (Milliyet, September 23, 1998)

Two reconciliation banquets (Sabah, September 17, 1998 and August 23, 1998). And an election banquet (Milliyet, September 23, 1998)

The tribal banquet of reconciliation, or of a wedding (which itself often seals a reconciliation process) has thus become a stereotype. The image of these cross-legging assemblies of men comes up regularly in the press. Ideally, the size of the assemblies is in proportion to the tribe's prestige but is also supposed to increase it. The photograph often includes in its field, often in the foreground, the guest of honor, a local or national politician, or sometimes the journalist himself; these guests are easily spotted at their awkwardness, as they are not used to staying for hours in this posture and do not know where to put their legs. In the press and, today, on the Internet, it has become an icon of the tribe, and of reconciliation, and therefore at the same time the icon of the opposite, that of inter-tribal war and vendetta. Meals prepared for thousands of people are not uncommon: in 2010, 15,000 men attended the meal for peace between Metinan and Kanco tribes, a politically highly significant event for the Kurdish movement (Sabah, October 11, 2010). Significant images and videos can easily be found when searching for the request “aşiret yemeği” ("tribal banquet") on Google.

The state and the tribes


To be fair, in 1996, the folkloric vision is not exclusive. Some daily newspapers are making the tribe a more serious topic. This is the case in Zaman, in September 1997. Lawyer Mustafa Sefik Arkan does not portray a situation inherited from the past, but rather the history of a relatively recent process of tribalization in the region: The society's tribal structure in southeastern Anatolia was strongly reinforced, he reminds, by the policy of the Ottoman sultans, after the conquest of the border regions of Iran following the battles of Çaldıran (1514), Mercidabık (1516) and Ridaniye (1517): the sultans then relied on the tribal heads to hold these regions. The Ottoman state then extended the system of zeamet, which were large fiefdoms taken from the state domain (mülkiyet) and granted to the tribes in exchange for services. Thus, it became customary to delegate to the tribes the regalian functions of warfare and border defense. At the end of the 19th century, the system was reinforced by the creation of the Hamidiye (1891), auxiliary troops raised on the spot within the framework of the tribes, for the control of the southeast. These troops enjoyed great autonomy. Thus, the Hamidiye system certainly has reinforced the tribal system and furthermore reinforced inter-tribal wars, since not all the tribes were admitted into the Hamidiye system.

The vision proposed by this article is neither orientalist nor folklorist; it is based on history and challenges the usual modernist teleology: the tribe is not presented as an anachronism, a relic from another age, but on the contrary as a phenomenon which, upon ancient bases, has recently been strengthened.

After the Kemalist era (1923-1950), the tribes again win the authorities' favor under the Menderes government (Democratic Party, 1950-1960). M.S. Arkan cites as an example the Çaçan tribe (centered near Ağrı), already mentioned, whose reis Reşit was one of the founders of the Democratic Party (Zaman, September 12, 1996).

The role of tribes in politics, especially as a transmission mechanism of the central power, was described by Martin van Bruinessen (1992). The system of the “village guards” must be analyzed within this context: from 1984 onwards, the Turkish state, i.e. the army and the administration of the "region under special regime" (Olağanüstü hal bölgesi, OHAL) delegated a part of its military role to armed auxiliary troops organized within the tribal framework. According Dorronsoro (o.c.), these guards were about 35,000 in 1993, 56,000 in 1995, and 89,000 in 2005.

In a way, this system could be considered as a re-enactment of the 19th century's Hamidiye, in spite of important differences, underlined by Gilles Dorronsoro in the above-mentioned article. In the “village guard” system, the tribal chief negotiates with the authorities, or is contacted by them; he has the responsibility to organize his men, and to distribute weapons, wages, prebends and benefits: the power of the reis, and the tribal system, are greatly strengthened, since, on the one hand, the collaboration with the state provides important incomes, and on the other hand it often makes possible an amnesty for the crimes of blood committed by the guards, whether in the frame of fights, or not. Moreover, the collaboration can ensure almost impunity in the trafficking (arms, drugs) favored by the war (Bozarslan, 1997, 246).

According to Martin van Bruinessen, tribes and tribalism were permeating Turkish society more in the early 2000s than at the time the PKK rebellion began (1984). The history of the Bucak (pronounce 'Boodjak') tribe, which we will discuss later, is typical. According to Hamit Bozarslan, in 1979, well before the breaking-out of the war against the PKK, an attack on Mehmet Celal Bucak, deputy of Urfa and considered a state collaborator, led to the death of his eight-year-old son. This is the starting point of a real war between the Bucak tribe and the PKK. Celal's nephew, Sedat, created a large militia of 'guards' which enabled him to establish his authority over the neighboring tribes.

The collusion between politics and the tribal world would go back to the nineteenth century, and would have known a great era in the fifties. The responsibility of the Democratic Party's government, led by Adnan Menderes (1950-1960) in the strengthening of the tribal system is evoked in the analyses published by the press during the nineties, as we saw before. After the coup d'état of 1960 and the fall of the Democrat Party, 55 tribal chiefs who had supported Menderes paid for it with relegation sentences. According to the Kemalist daily Cumhuriyet, the "tribal culture" would even have been born with the Democrat Party, and would have infused the political culture of the parties that followed: Erdal Atabek, in Cumhuriyet, states that Turgut Özal and Tansu Çiller in their time would have behaved like tribal chiefs (Cumhuriyet, November 18, 1996). The PKK, as a Marxist-inspired party, officially aimed for the destruction of the tribal system. But the rebel organization was obliged to adapt to the instrumentalization of the tribes by the state; and, as often, the methods of the adversary were copied. The rebels soon put pressure on the tribal chiefs so that they accept to tip their subservients into the rebellion side.

Thus, very often, the choice for a side of the war do not fall to the individual, but to the tribe and its reis. Obviously, a tribe who accepts to serve one of the sides takes risks, but gains in power, arms, and income. Conversely, a reluctant tribe takes an even greater risk and incurs the worst difficulties. Zaman mentions, for example, the Gurs tribe, which had to leave its territory in 1993 and was living in caves in 1996, because its reis did not accept the system of "village guards" and refused to take sides.

Regarding this process, Bozarslan uses the term "retribalization" (Bozarslan, 1997: 246), and Dorronsoro specifies: "Since the emoluments of the village guards generally are paid to the clan chief, who then freely redistributes them to his men, we observe a reinforcement of the tribal hierarchy. Moreover, the administration does not strictly control the enlistment of the guards. Therefore, illegal enterprises such as smuggling or banditry are based on the tribal institution and thus indirectly on the militia system" (Dorronsoro, 2009: § 27). In short, according to Van Bruinessen, Bozarslan or Dorronsoro, the tribal system, as it exists at the end of the 20th century, can be considered, at least partly, as a creation of the state. Tribes paradoxically are, then, part of modernity.

(to be continued)



Bozarslan (Hamit), La Question kurde, Presses de Sciences-Po, 1997, p. 246.

Dorronsoro (Gilles) (2009). “Les politiques ottomane et républicaine au Kurdistan à partir de la comparaison des milices Hamidiye et korucu : modèles institutionnels, retribalisation et dynamique des conflits”. In European Journal of Turkish Studies, May 2006. Online: http://ejts.revues.org/index778.html. (accessed on September 28, 2020.

Van Bruinessen (Martin), Agha, Saikh and State. The social and Political Structures of Kurdistan, Londres, New-Jersey, 1992 (malheureusement introuvable).

id, « The Ethnic Identity of the Kurds », in Andrews (Peter Alford) (éd.), Ethnic Groups in the Republic of Turkey, Wiesbaden, Dr Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1989, pp. 613-621.

id., « Les Kurdes, Etats et tribus », in Dawod Hosham, Tribus et pouvoirs en terre d’Islam, Paris, Arman Colin, 2004, pp. 145-168.


Press Articles:


Rezzak (Oral), “Güneydogu’da sonbahar [Autumn in the South-East)”, Milliyet, September 16, 1997.

Aşiretlerin Sosyal Yapısı Üzerine Sosyolojik Bir İnceleme http://tekniksosyoloji.wordpress.com/2010/07/08/page/3/

Arkan (Mustafa Sefik), « Dogu’da asiret yapısı ve koruculuk sistemi [Le tribalisme et le système des protecteurs dans l'Est] », Zaman, 12 septembre 1996.

Atabek (Erdal), « Asiret devlet olmus, Devlet asiret olmus [La tribu s'est faite Etat, et l'Etat est une tribu] », Cumhuriyet, 18 novembre 1996.




History of the GAP project: https://web.archive.org/web/20080422165950/http://www.gap.gov.tr/gap_eng.php?sayfa=English%2FGgbilgi%2Fgtarihce.html


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