Khalil Ibrahim’s village in rural Aleppo is only about fifteen kilometers away from the Turkish border. It is bound on the north and east by Turkmen villages, and on the south and west by mixed villages where Arabs and Kurds live alongside Turkmen.
“The Turkmen villages are spread across a large area of land that stretches from the east of the town of Azaz to the town of Jarabulus in the countryside around Aleppo,” says Khalil. “There are also Turkmen in many other different provinces in Syria, in places such as Homs, the Golan and Latakiya, and there are also numbers of them in Iraq.”
The Turkmen in Khalil’s village share many of the customs and traditions common among their people, though they differ in terms of the language they speak and some of the habits they practice. The people in the villages located on the border with Turkey generally speak Turkish, and in some cases Arabic, though it is often quite broken as they use the language infrequently. They also have some customs different to those of the villages in the interior, as the latter are more integrated with the Arabs and their customs.
Khalil says he never really understood what it meant to be a Turkmen until he was sixteen, as he had grown up in an environment that fully rejected racism and sectarianism, with a father and grandfather who didn’t speak Turkish and in a village society that was quite mixed, with Arabs and Turkmen living together.
Khalil completed both his elementary and middle school education at his local village school, then went on to secondary education, specializing in agriculture at a school in the city of Al-Bab, whose population was made up of Kurds and Armenians in addition to Arabs and Turkmen.
After secondary school, Khalil moved to the Sweida province to study at the Agricultural Institute. Most of the Turkmen in rural Aleppo worked in agriculture, though some pursued other professions or public sector jobs. Given Khalil’s family’s difficult financial situation and the fact that he was unable to find a job that would accommodate his school schedule, he decided to drop out of the institute and go to work in construction so he could help support his family.
Khalil worked in construction in Syria for three years before moving to Lebanon and continuing the same work there until 2009, when he went back to Syria to complete his obligatory military service.
“Those who go to work abroad are unable to come back and settle easily into working in Syria again,” says Khalil, “because there’s so much difference in the currency and such low wages and difficult working conditions here in comparison.”
Khalil describes some of the habits and customs of the Turkmen in his village, saying: “There is no particular religious holiday among the Turkmen. We celebrate the same big holidays celebrated by the Muslims, which are Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, and the Prophet’s Birthday. Our different origins never translated into any different customs among the people of our village, which were largely the same save for some small details. For example, during weddings, Turkmen will traditionally play drums and the mizmar (a small wind instrument) and have celebrations that last seven days and seven nights, though in more recent times they have been restricted to a single day. When it comes to mourning the dead, our mourning periods are quite long, usually between fifteen days to a whole month, and food will be served at the house of the departed for the entire duration of mourning. Traditional Turkmen dress consists of a special sirwal (a loose type of pants) and a high red hat for men, while women wear a particular headdress and a shawl wrapped around their bodies that makes it easy for them to work the fields.
“Turkmen follow a tribal system,” continues Khalil, “that has some positive sides and some negative ones. The most important positive is that it maintains a sense of security, with very few incidents of robbery or kidnapping in our areas. The downside is that it comes with a high level of aggression and the imperative to exact revenge on wrongdoers, which has led to the death of dozens of people and forced entire families out of the area in order to avoid conflict and other revenge killings, and those self-banishments last for decades.”
When someone is killed, tribal leaders intervene swiftly and immediately in order to prevent further bloodshed, and the clan of the one who has carried out the killing gathers together a sum of blood money, which is then presented to the victim’s family. Khalil sees this as a negative thing, as something that incites members of larger clans to murder given the ease of being able to collect the blood money afterward. Other clans will also intervene between the two warring clans or families in order to try and broker peace between them, trying to foster a positive atmosphere and not take any one side in order to avoid worsening or widening the conflict. The clan that successfully manages to mediate the conflict will also undertake all the costs associated with officiating peace, which includes the slaughtering of animals and mounting a large banquet for the two warring clans. State security might sometimes intervene when they are notified of certain problems or when someone is killed, with policemen sent to secure the area for some days or weeks so as to keep the situation under control and not have it spread into a bigger conflict. Members of warring clans are never prosecuted under the law even in cases of murder; the wronged tribe will always prefer to take matters into their own hands and take their own revenge instead of seeking to put the murderer in prison.