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Anthropologist  Lolan Sipan Documents, Preserves Traditional Life

Modernity has a way of eclipsing, and sometimes even wiping out, tradition. There is a Kurdish anthropologist in northern Iraq who devotes his time and career to saving the traditions of Kurdistan's nomadic shepherds. In another in our series, Making a Difference, VOA's Suzanne Presto traveled to Mount Halgurd near the Iranian border to tell Lolan Sipan's story.

Nomadic tribes still roam the rugged mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, as they have for thousands of years. For months at a time, the nomads live in tents in the highlands, grazing their livestock in remote pastures. The nomads' lives are largely undocumented; their numbers on the decline.

Kurdish anthropologist Lolan Sipan is working to change those facts.

"I try to gather and collect data on the number of tribes," Sipan said. "How many tribes are they, how many families are they, the illiteracy rate among the nomadic children, the women's position, and, their struggle for survival."

Each summer, Sipan travels to the shepherds' mountain pastures. Life is not as serene as it appears because of Turkish and Iranian military threats.

"I found an unexploded bomb that big near the creek down there," he said.

A shepherdess explained of the danger and high costs of sheepherding. While making traditional cheese, she tells Sipan the price it fetches is too low.

"The revenue of cheese is not a lot," she said. "And plus, we sell sheeps and we get some money but then we have to spend it on the livestock."

Sipan has lobbied United Nations agencies and government officials to assist the nomads.

"If we do not do something immediately, or intervene immediately, the nomadism culture would disappear within years in Kurdistan," Sipan said.

In the past 10 years, Sipan says, 50-percent of Kurdistan's nomads have permanently settled in villages, abandoning their traditional livelihoods and mountain dwellings.

"We are here in a traditional nomadic home, a black tent, which is made out of goats' hair," Sipan said.

This nomadic tent is not in the mountains. Sipan reconstructed it in Kurdistan's capital city, Irbil, on the roof of the museum he founded four years ago to showcase traditional art and weaving.

Sipan says more people come here each year. There were nearly 50,000 visitors in 2007. "They like the black tent because it is very decorative and very impressive, but on the other hand they are not touched very much," Sipan said. Sipan adds, it makes him feel bad.

Earlier this year, Sipan lobbied for, and received, U.S. funding to help revive vanishing traditional arts. Elderly nomadic tribeswomen are now passing their embroidery and weaving skills on to younger generations of women.