The Basseri are traditional pastoral nomads who inhabit the Iranian province of Fārs and migrate along the steppes and mountains near the town of Shīrāz. The Basseri are a clearly delineated group, defined—as are most groups in the area—by political rather than by ethnic or geographical criteria. In the late 1950s there were an estimated 16,000 Basseri living in Iran. More recent estimates of the Basseri population have not been widely published. This article focuses on the traditional Basseri culture, which still existed in the late 1950s. Owing to political circumstances in the region, the current situation is not reliably known.
The Basseri speak a dialect of Farsi. The majority know only the Basseri dialect, but a few also speak Turkish or Arabic. Most of the groups with which the Basseri come in contact speak Farsi, Turkish, or Arabic. Some of these groups claim a common or collateral ancestral link with the Basseri. Many people among the settled populations in southern Iran claim to have Basseri origins. There are also other nomadic groups—namely the Yazd-e-Khast, the Bugard-Basseri, and the Basseri near Semnan east of Tehran—who are believed to be genetically connected with the Basseri of Fārs.
The Basseri were part of the Khamseh confederacy, which formed in the mid-nineteenth century. At the outset, they were not predominant within this organization, and, later, when the Basseri grew in importance within the confederacy, the confederacy lost its importance as a political and social unit.
The habitat of the Basseri derives from the hot and arid climate of the Persian Gulf. The approximately 18,000 to 21,000 square kilometers that they traditionally inhabit spans a large ecological range. In the southern section there are deserts at elevations of 600 to 900 meters, and in the north there are high mountains, preeminent among which is 4,000meter Kuh-i-Bul. Annual precipitation totals about 25 centimeters a year, which falls mainly in the higher regions in the form of snow. Much of this is conserved for the shorter growing season in that area. Mountain precipitation also provides support for considerable vegetation, and even some forests, in the higher elevations. In the southern lowland, however, rapid runoff and summer droughts limit vegetation to hardy desert scrubs and temporary grass cover in the rainy season of winter and early spring.
Extensive pastures are an essential part of the pastoral economy of the Basseri, but these pastures cannot support flocks continuously over the course of a year. Along the migratory routes of the Basseri, pastures are utilized by different Basseri groups in succession. While snow covers the pastures in the mountains in the north, extensive though rather poor pastures are available in the south. In spring, good pastures are plentiful in the low and middle altitudes, but, beginning in early March in the far south, they progressively dry up. Usable pastures are available in the summer in areas above 6,000 feet, but the grasses dry up in the latter part of the summer. In the fall, when pastures are generally poor, the remains of harvested fields become available for pasturage.
All of the major tribes of Fārs have traditional routes that they travel in their seasonal migrations. They also have a traditional schedule of pasture occupations at different locations. The combined route and schedule, which describes the locations of a group at different times in the yearly cycle, constitutes their il-rah. An il-rah is regarded by tribesmen as the property of their tribe. Implicit within the concept of il-rah are rights to pass on roads and over uncultivated lands, to draw water everywhere except from private wells, and to pasture flocks outside cultivated fields. These rights are recognized by the local populations and authorities.
Although the Basseri keep a variety of domesticated animals, sheep and goats have the greatest economic importance. Other domesticated animals include donkeys for transport and riding (mainly by women and children), horses for riding only (predominantly by men), camels for heavy transport and wool, and dogs for keeping watch in camp. Poultry are sometimes kept as a source of meat, but not for eggs. Cattle are not herded because of the long migrations and the rocky terrain.
Sheep and goats provide milk, meat, wool, and hides. Camels provide only wool. These products are consumed immediately, stored for later consumption, or traded.
Kinship and Sociopolitical Organization
One of the primary social units of Basseri society is the group of people who share a tent. The Basseri keep a count of their numbers and describe their camp groups in terms of tents (sing, khune, "house"). Each tent is occupied by an independent household, typically consisting of a nuclear family. Tents are units of production and consumption; each is represented by its male head. Tent residents hold rights over all movable property including flocks, and they can act as independent units for political purposes. For purposes of more efficient herding, these households combine in small herding units, the composition of which depends on expediency rather than kinship or other basic principles of organization.
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. At all other times of the year, camps are larger—usually numbering ten to forty tents. These camps are in a very real sense the primary communities of nomadic Basseri society. The members of a camp are a very clearly bounded social group. Their relations to each other as continuing neighbors are relatively constant, whereas all other contacts are passing, ephemeral, and governed by chance.
The maintenance of a camp as a social unit requires daily unanimous agreement on questions of migration, the selection of campsites, and all other economicaliy vital considerations. Such agreement may be achieved in various ways, ranging from coercion by a powerful leader to mutual consent through compromise by all concerned. The compositon of a camp will thus indirectly be determined by shifting circumstances in the formation of a consensus whereby the movements of economically independent households can be controlled and coordinated. The unity of a camp is enhanced by the existence of a recognized leader, who represents the group for political and administrative purposes. Leaders of different camps may be of two kinds: headmen (sing, katkhoda ), who are formally recognized by the Basseri chief, and, where no headman resides in camp, informal leaders (sing, riz safid ; lit., "white beard"). The latter, by common consent, are recognized to represent their camp in the same way as a headman does but without the formal recognition of the Basseri chief. Technically, therefore, the riz safid is under a headman in a different camp.
The Basseri chief is the head of a very strongly centralized political system and has immense authority over all members of the Basseri tribe. The chief, in his dealing with the headmen, draws on their power and influence but does not delegate any of his own power back to them. Some material goods—mostly gifts of some economic and prestige value, such as riding horses and weapons—flow from the chief to the headmen. A headman is in a politically convenient position: he can communicate much more freely with the chief than can ordinary tribesmen, and thus can bring up cases that are to his own advantage and, to some extent, block or delay the discussion of matters detrimental to his own interests. Nonetheless, the political power that a headman derives from the chief is very limited.
The authority of headmen is derived from agnatic kinship in a ramifying descent system, as well as from matrilateral and affinal relations. As is commonly the case in the Middle East, the agnatic lines of the Basseri are predominant in matters of succession. The son of a Basseri is regarded as Basseri even though his mother may be from another tribe or village. On the other hand, when a Basseri woman marries outside the tribe she transmits no rights in the tribe to her offspring. Although patrilineal kinship unites larger kin-based groups, bonds of solidarity also tie matrikin together. For example, the relation between a mother's brother and a sister's child is an indulgent one among the Basseri. Affinal relations are also regarded as relations of solidarity and kinship. They appear to be most effective in establishing political bonds between tents.
A marriage is a transaction between kin groups constituting whole households, and not merely between contracting spouses. The head of a household, or tent, holds the authority to make marriage contracts for the members of his household. A married man may arrange subsequent marriages for himself, whereas all women and unmarried boys are subject to the authority of a marriage guardian, who is the head of their household. The marriage contract is often drawn up and written by a nontribal ritual specialist, or holy man. It stipulates certain bride-payments for the girl and the domestic equipment she is expected to bring, and the divorce or widow's insurance, which is a prearranged share of the husband's estate, payable upon divorce or in the event of his death.
When a household was established by marriage, the groom's father gave the new household an "anticipatory inheritance"—the groom received from his father's herd the arithmetic fraction that he would receive as an heir if his father were to die at that moment. From then on, the new household was on its own. If its herds failed, it received no second inheritance, nor was it lent animals to help it maintain itself.
The Basseri are Shia Muslims who accept the prescriptions and prohibitions of Islam to the extent that they are familiar with them. The Basseri, however, seem not to be very familiar with Muslim beliefs, customs, and ceremonies. There is some confusion among the Basseri with respect to the divisions and events of the Muslim year, even though they are continually reminded of them through their contacts with sedentary villages. Even when they are aware of specific customs, they are not consistent in observing them. Islamic feast days are rarely celebrated. Even the fast of Ramadan and the feast of Moharram, which are of central importance to the surrounding Muslims, are observed by only a few Basseri. Rituals are more often connected with the life cycle—birth, marriage, death—than with Islamic traditions.
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