Dinner with a Kurdish Tribal Leader

After dinner with Haci Muhammed Baisal (center), leader of a local Kurdish tribe (Khan/TYG)

by Charlotte Parker

When our guide Nebi told us that we were having dinner with a Kurdish tribal leader, I think all of us expected that we’d be dining on the cushioned floor of an elaborate tent, with goats and the sound of drums somewhere outside the tent flaps. While we did go outside the city limits, we were surprised when we pulled up to a big stone house in the same style of our faux-desert-antique hotel. Haci Muhammed Baisal and two of his sons greeted us and ushered us into the front room, where we did in fact sit on cushions around a low table, but other than that the house was thoroughly modern—think iPhones charging in every outlet.

After a brief moment of uncertainty as to Kurdish tribal table manners, we dug into the food placed in front of us. When in doubt at table in Turkey, we’ve discovered, it’s eat first, talk later….Which was fine by us, as the food was some of the best we’ve had yet: rice with pine nuts and currants, succulently spiced lamb stew, yogurt and cucumber sauce, and a gazpacho-like salad special to the region.

When our hosts reclined from the table to digest, we followed suit. Sipping his çay Haci presided over the table a bit like “Santa Claus, with a Kurdish power broker twist,” as Luke put it: his crinkly blue eyes smiled, and he wore a button-up grandpa sweater over his paunch, but his words were measured and often intense.

His “day job” is farmer and he defines himself as such, but his sons protested that he was too humble and rambled off a list of his accomplishments, including building and supporting a large number of schools. As this is election season, he emphasized that he doesn’t tell his 20,000 constituents who to vote for, although he said that he is most sought-after for advice during election season.Throughout our discussion, history and present politics intertwined. Haci talked somberly about the bad years in the 1980s when the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party, generally considered a terrorist organization) encouraged tribes to go to the mountains and fight for Kurdish independence, and how his tribe suffered killings for their decision to stay aligned with the Turkish government. Later, a cacophony of criticism arose from all corners of the room when we brought up the BDP, the pro-Kurdish government party that, all insisted, is directly tied to the PKK.

Despite the issues, we were struck by the sense of optimism in the room, much of it due to positive social and economic change connected to the Turkish government’s development initiatives (namely the GAP, or Southeast Anatolia Project). His eldest son is a GAP engineer and a coordinator for the region, and we’re meeting with him tomorrow, so stay tuned for more details.

As we gathered to leave, three women—Haci’s granddaughters—emerged from the back of the house, which fleshed out our impressions of family life. We talked and laughed with them through hand signals and cavemen Turkish, and the evening ended with a gift of handfuls of roses from their garden. Overall, it was such a special night—putting faces to a tribal system that sounds exotic but really is just another means of governance, deeply rooted in history and community.

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