Three weeks with the Yörük nomads

Three weeks with the Yörük nomads

William Armstrong -
Three weeks with the Yörük nomads ‘The Caravan Moves On: Three Weeks among Turkish Nomads’ by Irfan Orga (Eland UK, 2002, 38TL, pp 176)

Irfan Orga’s travel memoir, “The Caravan Moves On…” opens with the author in a crowded boat on the Aegean Sea approaching the city of Izmir. It is the early 1950s and he is returning to Turkey from exile in London. Izmir is a paradigm of the new republican order: full of the new bourgeoisie, fast-developing, eyes fixed on the future.

From Izmir, Orga travels by train into Anatolia, and gives us a vivid snapshot of this particular early republican moment. He passes through the old Selçuk heartland and then begins his ascent in the Taurus Mountains with a small group of companions. There has been a drought; the grape harvest is struggling; the village institutes are still operating in rural areas; the recent language reforms are still sinking their teeth in. However, as he heads further up the mountains, these temporal details begin to melt away. The group follows the camel trails of the nomadic Yörük tribes on its climb. They stop to rest at a semi-nomadic village, but are pelted with stones and forced to flee their hosts. “Dusk was falling and civilisation was a long way off. Up here in this wilderness, the laws made in Ankara didn’t apply,” Orga writes.

When they finally reach the nomadic Yörüks, the contrast with Izmir could not be greater. They discover a way of life unchanged for hundreds of years, apparently existing outside of history. The Yörüks “were virtually untouched by the advent of the Ottoman Empire or by its fall and the rise of the new Turkey. They are still in the ancestral stage and speak of heroes dead a thousand years or more as if they are still alive.”

Orga spends three weeks as a guest at the Yörük camp high in the mountains. It’s a place of wild legends, ancient tribal conflicts, honor lost and regained, camels used as marriage dowries, blood feuds that last generations. He vividly describes primitive medical methods and religious beliefs that mix tribal shamanism with only a thin overlay of Islam, full of esoteric spells and enchantments. Initially, he is not immune to the easy myth of the noble savage. The nomadic life appeals to Orga for its timelessness, its “wild liberty”:

I suppose the imagination is always stirred at the sight of free men, people to whom time and earth satellites means nothing ... Their picturesque rags took one back to a braver era; so must one’s ancestors have looked in the time of the Moguls. They might have been beings from another world. Indeed, their world was, in physical and spiritual terms, so far away from our own that here on Karadağ it must have been us who seemed the apparitions.

With the Yörüks, Orga’s life in London and Izmir, with all its petty concerns, feels somehow inadequate. He envies these “primitives” for the apparent contentment they feel with their lot, contentment unavailable to the sophisticated modern city dweller:

Happiness is the inheritance of the nomad, whose infinity lies about him unquestioned. Freedom is his secret. Even the limitations of the small part of the world with which he comes into contact do not harass him ... He is built to a pattern of inevitability and accepts all things as they come to him without question, with forbearance and humour, and with the resignation that is born of simplicity.

If Orga initially sees the nomads as a variation of John Stewart Mill’s “happy pigs,” then he himself is certainly a kind of “sad Socrates.” A melancholy soul, I don’t think he cracks a joke throughout the entire book.

After more time spent with the Yörüks, however, a hardening in his attitude becomes apparent, and he begins to find it impossible to romanticize his hosts:

They are hidebound by taboos. They have freedom and yet no freedom, for their tribal etiquette is often more frightening than if they lived in chains. The very simplicity of their lives proves shocking after a time ... Our struggle to understand them, to make something grand and heroic out of them, linking them to Primitive Man, left them amused, bewildered, perhaps a little disdainful.

Orga experiences no great liberating epiphany in the mountains. He simply becomes aware of an enormous and unbridgeable chasm that exists between himself and the Yörüks. As he observes towards the end of the book: “Their simplicity and their cruelty defeated me. At no point did our minds meet ... We remained strangers.” Like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, he can only return from the whole encounter a sadder, wiser man.

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William Armstrong,