Have you ever wondered what the life of a shepherd is like?
Probably not! But bear with me on this one.
Within the first few days after moving to Cappadocia I was up early one morning sitting on our balcony and saw a shepherd heading out with his flock. I was struck by the lonely lifestyle and decided then and there that I would spend a day with him at some point.
Fast forward a year and here I was staff in hand directing the sheep and goats across the main road and up into the hills near our home.
“We eloped a week after we met!”
Ali and I had returned the sheep for their afternoon siesta and were sitting by the samovar drinking tea. Flies were buzzing chaotically, avoiding our constant swatting which soon calmed to a resigned annoyance. He was talking while his dad, wife, and two children completed the circle of friends.
“I went to visit a friend and saw her there…Love at first sight. I asked her parents but they said no, so I convinced her to sneak away with me.”
That was eight years ago.
The flock of 150 eating machines has walked this way before and needs to be coaxed to keep moving as they are distracted by every green leaf and sprout in sight. But having no destination we are not in a hurry so we mosey along making sure there are no stragglers.
Ali sings Turkish folk songs and clearly enjoys the solitude among the brush, trees, and fairy chimneys while hot air balloons float overhead.
Of course, it is nice at this time of year with the mild weather but in a few months the cold and cloudy days will make the quotidian work less romantic.
“That one cost 150. That one I got for 180.”
To me they are one big mass, but to him each is known and has a story.
Shepherding is good business with the two big Islamic holidays coming at the end of Ramadan/fast (Eid Al-Fitr) and the end of the Hajj/pilgrimage (Eid Al-Adha). Many Muslims sacrifice sheep during these times. They are to shepherds what Christmas is to a shopping mall.
This is Islam’s way of taking care of the poor when practiced as planned. The sheep is cut into pieces and given to the poor. This is supposed to earn credit or sevap as they say in Turkish.
Ali keeps encouraging me to buy a few sheep and put them in his care. He promises that it will be good money. He sells the sheep for at least twice the purchase price, more if he can get it. The advantage is that the buyer does not want a cheap sacrifice so they are less eager to bargain than they may be otherwise.
Like farmers who are accustomed to the cycle of life, Ali is able to spend time with the sheep, enjoy their company, and then slaughter them when the time comes.
Ali is Alevi and feels the pain of being a minority. Unfortunately, he has let roots of bitterness grow in his heart, and he clearly lives in a tension here feeling like the people of Cappadocia are not open to “foreigners”, even from other states in Turkey.
He often tells me how he is different from “them”.
“If I was your landlord, your rent would be less. I would not take advantage of you.” [Note: I do not feel taken advantange of, that is his opinion.]
And yet as we were drinking tea, a man came up to buy a sheep for an adak sacrifice. He entered the pen and “kicked the tires” of a few sheep (I swear it reminded me of shopping for a car) and finally picked the one he wanted. They haggled for a few minutes and shook hands.
When I asked Ali about the final price, he gave a figure that was much higher than he had told me was the average price for a sheep. I questioned him about not taking advantage of people, but he just rationalized it away. He reminded me of myself and the many ways I criticize others while doing the same things I criticize.
After walking into the hills a bit we stop in a harvested vineyard and let the herd fill their stomachs on grape leaves. Ali is a fourth generation shepherd, and as we sit and watch the sheep enjoy their meal, he tells me stories of his life before moving to Cappadocia.
His mother died when he was seven, and he was raised by his father with whom he still works today. A couple of years ago he had to leave his hometown a few hours to the north of Cappadocia because of the PKK (Kurdish terrorist organization). He explained that they had too many problems being out with the sheep and running into renegades. It became too much, and they decided to head to Cappadocia for peace and quiet.
Unfortunately, they do not seem to have found it as he told me that he wanted to move to Muğla where he says “foreigners” are welcomed. Having not been to Muğla I cannot say, but I can say that our experience in Cappadocia is quite different from his. I wonder how much our attitudes towards people affect the way we perceive them? I have never heard any of my neighbors utter a negative word about Ail and his family so I am not sure where his feelings originate.
At the same time I do not feel capable of accurately judging as I have not walked in his shoes even one step, although I did walk with his sheep for a few.
Goats are less expensive than sheep and harder to sell as they are rarely used for sacrifice but more often for milk. Ali only has 10-20 goats out of the 150 animals.
He started with 10 and built up his flock over time. Each ewe bears 1-2 lambs per year. They sell the rams and keep the ewes in order to grow the herd. The rams were fighting over the few females in heat. One massive ram towered above the rest and tried unsuccessfully to keep all the ewes to himself. Ali nudged me with his elbow at one point while pointing and saying, “See, we’ll have another lamb in a few months.” I did not get the impression that the ewes were enjoying themselves as every ram took his turn.
By the end of the fall, Ali tries to sell most if not all of the flock. He lives on the money during the winter and does some construction work when he can find it. In the spring he goes to the market and buys a new flock (not all at once), beginning the process all over again.
After an hour or so he gets up from his shady spot and starts moving the sheep back towards home. We end up in a ditch full of seeded pumpkin rinds and take another rest while the sheep and goats devour the soft, rotting pumpkin innards.
By this time they have grown comfortable with my presence but nothing like they are with him. They know their shepherd and obey his voice. He carries a stick but only uses it to guide them; just a few clicks of his tongue and a tap for stragglers and the herd moves wherever he guides it.
After a bit we end up back at the pen drinking tea altogether. Ali’s father took a much needed rest while I joined Ali with the sheep. He is a man of few words who has spent many days in all types of weather out with the sheep and his leathery skin proves it.
Wood-fire boiled tea from a samovar while sitting outside of a sheep pen with a Turkish shepherd family has an unmatched flavor that goes much deeper than the tea itself. I do not think I will ever forget this day.
Not long after this day I awoke one morning to find Ali’s sheep pen empty. Apparently, he left in the middle of the night and took his family and his sheep somewhere else. The neighbors could not explain it, but I was not surprised, saddened but not surprised. Like his sheep Ali is looking for greener pastures. I hope he finds a welcoming spot.
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Hanging with a Shepherd in Cappadocia
Have you ever wondered what the life of a shepherd is like?