Photographs and narratives by ROBERT LEUTHEUSER from and of his travels through Kurdistan and the greater Middle East. Published in conjunction with his photographic website

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18 January 2010

Dengbêj of Diyarbakir.

2 October 2009, Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey

A dozen dengbêj, traditional Kurdish cantors of epic story-poem-songs, were gathered in the courtyard. I was among several visitors enjoying an understated and warm welcome. They were mostly older men, but not ancient, and all were rather nattily dressed in matched and mismatched western-style suits in various states of wear, as is the norm in Turkey. The ambience was as comfortable as a pair of old brown shoes of which there were many. They sung without musical accompaniment, their reedy and wavering voices saturated with sincerity, creating moods that swung between contemplative and joyful. There were brief moments of impromptu dancing. It was apparent that this group of men had shared many such days of camaraderie and mutual admiration, but also moments of competitiveness that comes with familiarity.

The muezzin’s call to mid-day prayer cawed over the open courtyard, but only a few gathered themselves out of their plastic chairs to go to the nearby mosque; the others enjoyed another round of sweet amber tea. The cadence was unbroken as a blind man wearing a black-and-white checked kafiya was led through the arched doorway to a chair among the others. He was greeted with welcoming murmurs and nods.

The place was the Mala dengbêjan (House of Dengbêj), a stone house in the narrow passageways of Diyarbakir’s old city, restored and opened in 2007 specifically to be a gathering place for the dengbêj. That it exists at all is rather remarkable as one considers the contemporary history of the Kurds in southeastern Turkey where just a decade ago any expression of Kurdishness was pronounced a crime against the State by the Turkish government. Through the years of the Kurdish separatist war in Turkey, and before, elements of Kurdish culture – including the oral histories sung by dengbêj - were first steadily, and then rapidly, withering away.

The blind dengbêj, Hafis Ali by name, sat quietly and patiently, head resting on his staff made of river alder still wrapped in its dark red bark. A long piece of black plastic pipe lay across his lap. The singer who monopolized much of the afternoon paused between songs, paused long enough for Ali to put the pipe-flute to his lips. The others welcomed the change as he played, then sang, the voice and flute conversing in melancholic voices. When the tempo picked up they twirled their prayer beads which up till then relaxed among the absent-minded fingers. The silvered dengbêj tried several times to regain his prolonged moment, but Ali’s firm voice gave him no quarter.

I returned to the House of Dengbêj a month later after traveling through Iraqi Kurdistan. Familiar faces and voices were in the courtyard, including the elfin and locally renown Seyidxan Boyaci.

And there were others as well, some much younger, singing to the measured and heartfelt approval of the old guard, demonstrating that for the meantime at least, the Kurdish dengbêj tradition in Turkey will not be lost.


For a thorough, if not rather academic, discussion of the dengbêj of Diyarbakir, please visit to read Clémence Scalbert Yücel’s “The Invention of a Tradition: Diyarbakır’s Dengbêj Project.”

To watch an Kelly Stuart’s and Emrah Kanisicak’s video of Seyidxan Boyaci singing, visit Mesopotamia Q at