Karakuls and Kurdistan

by John and Kyrsten Brown

In the mountainous regions of northern Iraq, in the so-called "no-fly zone" of the Gulf War, lives an ancient people known as the Kurds.  For centuries the Kurdish have lived in their own self-sufficient little world, largely free from outside influences.  They governed themselves by tribal leadership.  For generations, shepherds with tents and vast flocks of Karakul sheep have been a common sight in the mountain meadows of Kurdistan (the term actually refers to regions of Iran and Turkey as well).  Their origin is unknown, but the Kurdish people have inhabited this region since ancient times - since Noahís ark landed on nearby Ararat, according to some of them.

In the far northwestern corner of Iraq, near the Turkish border, lies the Kurdish village of Zako.  This is the land where "John" Bashar Saadee grew up.  His father, head of the Sandi tribe, the largest Iraqi Kurdish tribe, owned more than 1000 head of Karakul sheep - sheep that had been in the family since time immemorable.  Johnís father loved his sheep.  He knew them by name, knew which lambs belonged to which ewes and could tell you the lineage of any sheep in his flock, John says.  He used to contract to drive large flocks of Iraqi Karakuls to Syria and sell them to agents of the Syrian government.  He walked the sheep all the way from Zako to Damascus.  In one single year, he exported some 80,000 Karakuls to Syria.

John left his homeland and came to this country some 26 years ago, fleeing the persecution of Sadam Husseinís government.  Today he and most of his siblings live in northern Virginia.  But John still keeps a flock of Karakul sheep, just as his forefathers did.  His sheep here in America are not exactly like the ones from "back home", but still remind him of home.

According to the Kurdish, a good Karakul should have coarse wool, a long body with wide hindquarters, a very fat tail and long drooping ears.  Most rams, but only a few ewes exhibit horns.  There are both clean-faced and wooly-faced Karakuls in Kurdistan.  The Sandi tribe prides themselves on their reputation of having some of the largest sheep in the region.  Most of their Karakuls have solid reddish-brown or dark charcoal-brown faces and legs with white fleeces.  It is rare to find speckled-faced or black and silver sheep in their flocks.  In other Kurdish flocks you can find many different color variations, shapes and sizes making it easier to distinguish which tribe the sheep belong to.

Karakuls are well adapted to Kurdistan.  The region is very arid so thereís a lot less problem with hoof-rot and other diseases related to moist conditions.  In fact, the sheep in Kurdistan are fairly disease and parasite free.  What few problems the sheep do have, the shepherds treat with local medicinal herbs and mountain grasses.

Karakuls do not do well in the heat, even grazing at night to avoid it.  In the summer time, the Kurdish shepherds move their flocks into the Zozan Mountains where temperatures run at most in the 60ís and 70ís and there are fewer flies.

A flock of about 1000 sheep is tended by five shepherd families and ten large "Marmar" dogs.  The Kurdish use these dogs not to herd the sheep, but for protection against predators such as wolves, badgers and brown bear that are native to these mountains.

The Kurdish raise sheep mostly for wool which they still spin with a drop spindle.  The wool is dyed naturally into a variety of bright colors and then hand-woven into intricate designs making beautiful rugs.  Some of the designs have been passed down for generations.  Mattresses and pillows are also commonly made from Karakul wool.

Even today the shepherdsí wives milk their flocks by hand.  It is said that the women surgically sever nerves in their thumbs so they can milk their large flocks painlessly.  While in the mountains, the women make soft herbed cheeses and yogurt.  Butter is made by shaking the milk in lambskins.  The milk products are then stored in lambskins, which aid in preserving the foodstuffs.  These lambskin containers are made by removing the skin in one piece at the time of slaughtering.  The wool is left on the skin, serving as insulation.  The skin is then tanned.  Later it is shaped into a useful container.  It is cold enough in the mountains that milk products can be stored in these lambskins until they can be brought down to the lowlands by horse caravan and sold.  Cooking oil and lard derived from the fat tail or as a byproduct of butter, however, are stored in clay jars underground to keep it cool.

The Kurdish slaughter only for their immediate needs, eating the meat fresh.  Lamb is considered a common food for everyday eating.  Chicken and turkey are reserved for guests.  Kabobs originated in Iraq.  They make them on two-foot-long skewers which resemble narrow swords.  The freshly-butchered meat is cooked over an open fire.  They also cut the fat tail into cubes and cook it on the skewers (the strong flavor of this fat is an acquired taste).

In the fall before the snow comes, the Kurdish bring their flocks back down to the warmer lowlands where there is better winter grazing.  They decorate the sheep with garlands when they bring them down from the mountains and celebrate the event with a festival.  The Karakuls are raised strictly on grass, never grained, but in a harsh winter the shepherds may gather leaves and other material for the flocks.  They also build windbreaks using a tall marsh-like grass native to the area to protect the sheep from winter winds.  Some of the luckier flocks may get the comfort and protection of a cave.  Karakulsí fat tails help them to survive the winter.  The Kurdish never dock the tails of their sheep, which grow considerably larger than those of American Karakuls - weighing from five to twenty pounds.

The sheep lamb in the valleys in the fall and early winter months.  The Karakuls have very few multiple births.  Rams and ewes are never separated, but left alone, to naturally breed only during a distinct breeding season in the late spring.  They usually keep one ram for every 25 to 35 ewes.  Yearling ewes rarely breed the first year.

The flocks of different tribes never mingle with each other because each clan has its own closed flock and its own designated grazing area.  These tribal areas are jealously guarded and a shepherd who infringes on a neighboring tribeís area does so at the peril of his own life.  Rams are occasionally sold between clans of the same tribe though, to prevent excessive inbreeding.  The lambs are left with their mothers for the first few months.  As soon as the early spring grass begins to grow they are partially separated from the ewes.  Kurdish women begin milking the ewes by hand and only allow the lambs to return to their mothersí sides to nurse for a couple of hours a day.  In the late spring just prior to breeding, the lambs are sheared so the mothers are no longer able to recognize them, and so wean the lambs.

Once the lambs are weaned the rest of the sheep are also sheared.  Hand shears are still commonly used; generally a good shearer can shear about fifteen sheep in an hour.  They mark their sheep for identification by notching their ears or branding them with hot coins.  In June when the snow melts, the shepherds move their flock back to the mountains and the cycle begins again.  In recent years there have been many changes in Kurdistan.  The Kurdish now make up only about 10% of the regionís population.  Today the Kurdsí self-sufficient lifestyle is all but gone.  They have become increasingly urbanized and few of the younger generation are interested in raising sheep as their grandfathers did.  The Kurdish, except for a very brief time in their history, have never enjoyed political autonomy or had a country of their own.  But many of them dream of the establishment of a Kurdish state.  These hopes were heightened during the Gulf War but were never allowed to come to fruition.

In the wake of disappointments and persecution many, like John, have been forced to leave their country and its ancient ways behind.  But they have carried with them pieces of the old like the little flock of Karakul sheep which John keeps in the Virginia countryside - each sheep representing a little piece of Kurdistan and centuries of tradition.