Culture of the Basseri of Iran
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The Basseri is a tribe that lives in Iran, occupying a certain territory in the Iranian province Fars. They live in steppes and mountains. Because they are pastoral nomads, it is hard to determine the exact territory which they inhabit (Khanam, 2005, p.121). Comparing with Bedouin cultures, the belonging to the Basseri is not so much a matter of ethnicity as of life style and politics. The recent serious ethnographic research was conducted in the 1950s, so the most trustworthy information dates back to that time. Today, it is harder to find out the true data and the changes that this tribe has undergone in decades, because of the political situation in Iran, which prevents foreign experts from visiting the region.
Like for other Iranians, the Basseri’s basic language is Farsi, though they have their own specific dialect. They speak other languages like Turkish or Arabic rarely because the neighboring peoples mostly speak Farsi too. They occupy a territory about 20, 000 square kilometers, which is variable because of their mobility. The area can boast of different types of climate, because it has both flatland and mountain parts. Depending on the season, the nomads move across this territory because their existence is dependent on their herds having enough food. They usually move in spring and autumn, and stay in one location in summer and winter. Besides, many of the Basseri tend to find jobs in the village during the summer season, which helps them increase their personal belongings.
Speaking about kinship of the Basseri, it is worth saying that they are mostly a patriarchal culture. Belonging to one or another family is determined by the father of a person. For instance, if a Basseri man marries a woman from another tribe, their child will still be considered a Basseri and have equal rights to other Basseri offspring. In contrast, if a woman marries an outsider, this is not the case. Overall, when speaking about a family in Basseri culture, it should be noted that an extended family is usually meant. A married couple is not a separate unit but it belongs to a larger group of people considered to be a family. Moreover, the spouse’s family is also regarded as close relatives. When man gets married, he becomes independent about his future decisions, including further marriages. It is not the case with women who are under control of a family’s head. Like in other cultures, a certain property is provided by a girl’s family when she gets married. A marital agreement is quite typical; its aim is to secure a woman’s prosperity in case of divorce or her husband’s death.
The beliefs of the Basseri are usually classified as Muslims, usually Shi’ite ones. However, because they live remotely from major centers of Islam, they are not very careful about observing its main rituals, including Ramadan. They lack knowledge of Muslim doctrines, so their life cycles are not religious but more related to season change and key events of human life like birth, death, and marriage. As a researcher notes, “ The Basseri show poverty of ritual activities which is quite striking in the field situation; what they have of ceremonies, avoidance customs, and beliefs seem to influence, or be expressed in, very few of their actions” (Barth, 1961 qtd in Eller, p. 263). Because of this type of beliefs, which are far from book-learning, some researchers call Basseri “secular Muslims”. This statement means that the Basseri are more focused on mundane life than on global issues of human existence posed by religion. They often invite mullahs from other tribes to make their marriages and other rituals go according to sacred traditions. However, they do not have any church or other types of religious gatherings, which people would attend to pray in a group and support one another’s faith. Likewise, they do not tend to pray individually either. Funerals of the Basseri lack the sacred element too, there is no special religious ceremony about burying, and no supernatural meaning attached to the point of human death. Thus, the tribe people are full of pragmatism and have little superstitions, which are typical for primitive religious communities. Barth explains this situation in the following way: “the society invested its values in their economic activities, especially their herds and their cyclical migrations…So the Basseri, through this reinterpretation, do have a religion of sorts, as long as we conceive of religion as “ultimate concern and value” but not supernatural belief and behavior” (Eller, p.264). The secular culture that the Basseri have is of primary importance to them, so they do not need other sorts of values.
An interesting aspect of the Basseri culture is the political and social hierarchy that exists within the tribe. It is remarkable that there is no formal political organization with power controlling organs, yet the chief’s power is quite strong. The chief (Khan) is at the head of this hierarchal pyramid, and his power is quite authoritative. He has a right to reward and to punish his statesmen, and to impose taxes on them. There is no special law about the exact amount of taxes, but usually it is one sheep per hundred that is given as a tax to the chief. In some cases, when he believes it is necessary to increase the tax, he can total three sheep out of each hundred. Thus, there is information that recent possession of the chief was about eight thousand animals. The role of the chief is quite respectable and awed, but not in a religious sense. His property should demonstrate the level of his position, so his tent should be quite large but at the same time quite open to his tribesmen. He can threaten with physical punishment for breaking obedience and yet he demonstrates generosity, which is a sign of his power too. He can present numerous gifts like herd and weapons to outstanding members of the community. Despite the fact that the power is formally passed from the father to a son, it does not appear to be this way in reality. In fact, any authoritative person can announce himself a chief after the current chief’s death. The chief’s power is quite autocratic, so he mostly makes decisions on his own. At the same time, when matters of household importance are concerned, they can be discussed inside. Agreements by the household members should be reached or, alternatively, the tent head takes decisions on his own. The chief’s decisions can be found out mostly through his messengers, who transmit them orally. Alternatively, some of his commands can be found out during a personal visit to the camp.
To conclude, it is worth saying that the Basseri is a pastoral nomadic tribe whose main value is attached to their herds. While they are mobile for some seasons, they occupy a static location during other seasons. They belong to the Islamic culture but do not follow the rituals strictly, being quite secular and pragmatic people. The political system is autocratic: the unlimited power belongs to the chief.
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