Most of us knew little of Asia's nomadic tribes until recent events in Iran and Afghanistan thrust internecine rebellion, fiercely proud tribalism and the nature of Islamic power into the front pages of our daily papers.
"Murder in the Ironsmith's Market" is the first part of a projected trilogy, "the Lords of Akchasaz," that has special interest for us now. It is a novel which draws a vivid portrait of nomadic tribal life as it makes an agonizing transition to modern nationalism.
The setting is the Chukurova Plain of Turkey, the "age-old wintering ground" of the Turkoman tribes before they were compelled to give up nomadism nearly a century ago. Kemal, the author of "Iron Earth, Copper Sky," has created a massive epic focused on the remnants of two warring tribes locked into an ancient blood feud.
As roving nomads, the Akyolly and Sarioglu had long ago become honor-bound to a ceaseless round of retalitatory killing. The feud had been forged within the old cohesive tribal structure, where chieftain was feudal lord and tribespeople were vassals of utter loyalty.
Men were breeders and warriors, barbarous and cruel in a cruel environment: "The land you step on today is your homeland, yours today, but not tomorrow, this land for which you shed your blood, over which you chants your age-old immutable laments."
These are the lords of the Akchasaz swamp, a dense, murky primeval terrain, teeming with wildlife, separating the warring families. In it they hide. From it, they ambush each other.
Against this background, time is bringing irremediable change. Modern methods of farming are driving out sharecropping peasants: "One tractor is worth a thousand men, one harveser, ten thousand." The sons of the chieftains themselves value tractors over tribesmen, Mercedes over horses. They care nothing for their father's blood feud.
A new breed, the civil servant, corrupt to the bone, has taken power, replacing tribal justice.
A new merchants class has arisen, the "buy-for-five-sell-for-ten-Aghas," disdained by the old chieftains as "ravening hyenas" whose only interest is money, manipulation, loans and land deeds.
As tribalism dies, it leaves in its wake a displaced society, and a confused, chaotic culture.
The book is filed with blood and gore. Sadism, mutilation and death dominate whole chapters. Lives are snuffed out without a thought, often after long torture.
Yet in striking contrast to the brutality, Kemal renders a lyrical evocation of the wild and beautiful steppes of Asia Minor.
No matter how despoiled human beings become, nature remains incorruptible. Kemal used magical realism to evoke this natural force underlying and embracing life on the steppes: "He asked the earth, the trees, the clouds, the herds of gazelles sprinting by, the wild horses, the streams, the wedge-like trains of cranes winging above."
The translation from the Turkish, by the author's wife, Thilda Kemal, is excellent, capturing the powerful brutality, lyricism and essential mournfulness of the story.