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Cultural Research: The Basseri of Iran
Jennifer Elsberry
ANT 101
Michelle Neumyer
July 22, 2013 Cultural Research: The Basseri of Iran The Basseri tribe is located in Fars, just south of Iran. They are a traditional pastoral nomadic tribe, and speak the dialect of Farsi. The Basseri live in the hot and barren climate of the Persian Gulf. In this paper I will identify a few aspects of Pastorilism in the Basseri tribe. We will also discuss their religious beliefs and belief in supernaturalism, social organization, kinship, and political organization. Pastoralism is the herding of sheep, cattle, reindeer, goats, camels, and alpaca. According to the definition, pastoralists are people/tribes that move regularly in search of naturally occurring water and grass. (Nowak, B., & Laird, P.2010). "Nomadic pastoralists rely on their animals to fulfill most of their needs, using milk, blood, and meat for food and skins for clothing and tents." (Nowak, B., & Laird, P.2010 sec. 5.2 parr. 1). The nomads practice little to no agriculture due to them moving their herds from place to place. In consequence, the nomads must rely on village farmers for cereals and other necessities. The tribe move their herds on a seasonal schedule, "The Basseri move to high mountain pastures in the Zagros Mountains during the summer and return to the lowlands of southern Persia during the winter." (Crabtree, Pam J. 2006) Pastoral nomads are constantly moving pastures to feed their herds which in turn feeds their families. The Basseri practice Islam and are considered Muslims. Muslims are required to pray five times a day and fast during Ramadan. They are also required, if financially able, to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon their return from Mecca they are to hold a weeklong celebration in which the entire tribe is welcomed. The Basseri have a few taboos " “association of important animals in a certain situation. Thus, a horse must not be permitted to approach the sheep while they are being sheared, or milked, while lambs and kids should not enter a tent in which a new-born baby lies, likewise a woman wearing gold or yellow or white beads”. (Amanolahi, Sekander, 2007, pg 55 parr. 4). These are just a few taboos that they practice, and abide by. They also believe in supernatural powers and beings, and in fact it plays a big role in the tribe's day to day lives. "Supernaturalism must cover matters beyond the realm of natural phenomena" (Amanolahi, Sekander, 2007 pg 47 parr. 3), The belief in powers that go beyond natural forces and that are further from the ordinary human understanding. They believe in two kinds of supernatural beings; benevolent and malevolent. The most prominent benevolent entities are Khoda (or God), Prophet Muhammad, other Islamic figures and Saints. Khoda(God) is believed to have created the universe, and all those who inhabit it. "Khoda is omnipresent and omniscient and controls the destiny of people and all other creatures, including the supernatural entities." (Amanolahi, Sekander, 2007 pg 49 parr. 4). They believe that every individual must obey all of Khoda's orders, and not break any rules that are defined in Islamic rules. Those who disobey Khoda are believed to be punished in the present and in the afterlife. Ali along with the other Saints are other supernatural figures in their society. Supernatural power is attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, Ali, Abbas, and many others. "It is believed that all Saints are alive, but invisible to humans." (Amanolahi, S., 2007). The Basseri regard Abbas as the most respected of all the saints. It is believed that Abbas is the bravest Saint. Although, he is also revered as the most impatient Saint. The families would sacrifice goats or lambs to honor him, and in times of need or trouble an animal would be sacrificed in order to obtain Abbas' help. They believe in telling the utmost truth, because they were afraid to make false oaths in Abba's name. It is said that he will take revenge upon them for lying. Local holy shrines are also a big part of their beliefs. The belief in the power of holy shrines is very prominent in their religious customs. There are many shrines involved in the muslim's religieon, but some of the shrines revered as the most important are the Seyyed Muhammad, Sah Hajat, and Sah-e-ceraq. During the visits to these shrines they make request and provide animal sacrifices. When visiting the Seyyed Muhammad shrine men, women, and children dress in their best clothes. Usually several from one tent will go as representation for the entire family. Many times several tents will come together and make a single sacrifice to preserve their herds. The Basseri sacrifice animals requesting sons, protection, prosperity, and so on. The malevolent super natural beings are " hidden creatures that have the ability to change form, and are invisible to human beings." (Amanolahi, S., 2007, pg 51 parr. 3). These spirits are said to cause illness, crippling, and death. The tribe believe in Al, Ghul, Jin, Pari, Dive, and Malakat. Al is in the form of an old woman who has long teeth (Amanolahi, S. 2007). She attacks women after birth and tries to steal their liver and hearts. To protect women from Al the odum, or individuals who are believed to have inherited supernatural powers, perform protection ceremonies. During these ceremonies the man endowed with odum would slap the woman, who is believed to be attacked by Al in the face, pull or bind her hair in her mouth, and pierce her nose with a needle. Supposedly Al fears horses, so the odum would bring a horse close by the woman's bed to scare off Al. This ceremony is performed whenever a woman is in critical condition. The Basseri also believe in something called Impersonal Supernatural Forces. "we deal with sort of a magic quality (resp. power), which certain individuals possess as an inherited or acquired characteristic." (Amanolahi, S., 2007 pg 53 parr. 1). Odum is an example of an impersonal supernatural force. The Basseri also believe in nazar-e bad, evil eye. They believe that evil eye and envious thoughts can cause illness and death automatically. It is thought that some people in the tribe are born with evil eye and are unable to get rid of it. The tribe will wear blue bead around the necks of adults, children, and their animals to protect them from these people, and will also keep women and children from interacting with them. Often times they burn wild rue to protect themselves. Their religious and supernatural beliefs are the center of their culture. Society is organized into groups of people who share a tent. A nuclear family occupies each tent, and a male leads the household. (Sociopolitical Organization). The only time a woman would be considered head of household is if she was widowed, but even then most women elected another man to lead her household. The households combine small herding groups. These groups are not organized by kinship, rather they are organized by expediency. " In winter, groups of two to five tents associated in herding units make up local camps separated by 3 or 4 kilometers from the next group" (Sociopolitical Organization, 2013 parr. 2). During the rest of the year the camps are much larger, ranging between 10-40. In order to maintain such large numbers it requires for all to agree on migration, campsite selection, and many more. There are a few ways unanimous agreement is reached is coercion or bribery by a leader of the community. There are two types of leaders of camps, under the chief, a headman recognized by the chief and one that is not recognized by the chief. A headman's authority derives from the paternal kinship in a descent system, as well as from his matrilateral relations. If a male is born to a Basseri man and a woman from another tribe the child is considered Basseri. On the contrary, if a woman marries a man from an outside tribe she does not transfer any rights in the tribe to her children. "Affinal relations are also regarded as relations of solidarity and kinship. They appear to be most effective in establishing political bonds between tents." (Sociopolitical Organization). The paternal kinship ties the families together and creates political relations. In the Basseri tribe, " A marriage is a transaction between kin groups constituting whole households, and not merely between contracting spouses." (Sociopolitical Organization). The head of each tent, has the authority to make marriage contracts for every member of his household. If a man is married he is the one who arranges any further marriages for himself. All unmarried boys and all women are subject to the authority of their head of their household. The marriage contract is normally drawn up by a nontribal ritual specialists or a holy man. This contract dictates the stipulations upon marriage such as: bride-payments and the domestic equipment she is expected to bring upon entering the marriage It also stipulates the widow or divorce insurance. This insures that the bride receives her share of the husbands estate if divorce or death ensues. The political organization was based on, "First was the inability of the central government to establish law and order and provide security in regions occupied by nomads" (Amanolahi, Sekandar, 2003, pg 4 para.1).Due to no establishment of law nomadism increased and expanded. In the 1930's central government finally established order, and nomadism began decreasing. Their power gradually declined. Nomadism was influenced by the socio-political aspects of a greater population. The second major impact of the political organization of the Basseri tribe was the dependence upon their flocks for sustenance (Amanolahi, Skander, 2003). In order to rely upon their flocks to feed their families they had to have access to pastures. Therefore; they had to migrate to different pastures seasonally and by altitude. The tribe would migrate from low to high altitudes and then back to a lower altitude. The problem that arose from the constant migration is the ability to protect their tribe and their herd. The Basseri tribe had a segmentry structure that was headed by a centralized position. The Basseri are broken up into two categories: the tribe and its sections/ subsections. The tribe consisted of 13 separate sections which were all under the control of one kalantar, or chief. The chief's position was the "highest source of decision making and the primary factor in maintaining tribal unity" (Amanolahi, Sekander, 2003 pg 6 parr. 4) There are four aspects of the chief's power: income sources, sources of power and authority, organization of administration, and functions and responsibilities (Amanolahi, Sekander, 2003). The sources of income were village ownership, land, herds of sheep and goats, and revenue obtained from the tribesman. These sheep were collected as a tax, and once a year the chief would collect butter from each household. The last and final source is on special occasions the tribesman would gift livestock to the chief. In doing this it would insure the chief would be the wealthiest member of his tribe, which would insure his stature in the tribe. To maintain his power of his tribe he relied on a group known as the dour-o-bar, which translates to those who are attached to the chief. This group was made up collectively of members who were from different sections of the tribe, and they stayed with the chief at all times. The second way he maintained his authority was his own section, Kolumbei, which also consisted of the best horsemen in the tribe. The third way was that he must maintain an open and good standing relationship with government officials. Finally, by making alliances with other tribal chiefs. In many cases these alliances were created through marriages. The administration apparatus includes his court and the heads of each section and subsection. To communicate with his tribesman he would either speak to them directly or through the heads of each section. The chiefs responsibilities are to distribute pasturelands and coordinate the migrations of the tribe, settle controversy, and represent the tribe and its members. The traditional social and political organization of the Basseri tribe where characterized by dependency of herding, simple technology, seasonal migration, and lack of protection. The political system of the Basseri has undergone many changes, which are due to the intervention of the state as well as modernization. Consequent to these changes the Basseri tribe has disintegrated and no longer exists as a unified tribe. The Basseri's religious beliefs and belief in supernaturalism is very intriguing. The kinship, social and political organization supports that they were a very close knit tribe who really cared to see all members successful in life. It is unfortunate that they are no longer unified as one, but what can one expect when modernization enters a culture. Life is all about embracing change, and ultimately it is the same in every culture.

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