The Basseri Khan
The Basseri of Iran have a formal leader called the Khan, or chief. Barth (1961, p. 74) describes him as having "great power and privilege," with autocratic power over his subjects. The Khan and his relatives form a wealthy, elite stratum who conspicuously displays its wealth in a large tent in camp and a large villa in the village. The Khan and his kin reside most of the time in the village, having given up their daily nomadic life so that others herd their animals.The Khan lives in conspicuous luxury and lavishes gifts on his followers. He needs more than his inherited wealth to be able to bestow gifts on his followers. He acquires wealth from his followers through taxes in the form of animals and butter. For example, he receives more than 8,000 sheep annually.The Khan's authority is focused in three areas: allocating pastures and coordinating tribal migrations; settling disputes; and acting as tribal representative to outsiders, including government authorities. Historically, this included protecting Basseri herder interests from the Iranian national government, which continually attempted to encroach on traditional Basseri pasture lands.But the chief's autocratic role described by Barth has been challenged by others, including Salzman (2000), who argues that the chief has little coercive means available to him beyond punishing tribal segments by allocating poor pastures or assessing fines. But Basseri tribesmen are highly autonomous, and they do not sublimate their opinions to the Khan. If fearful that the Khan will confiscate their livestock, Basseri sell off their herds and buy land in the local village, thus neutralizing the Khan's power and his ability to control them.As Salzman (1967) notes, if the common Basseri are able to resist the chief's autocratic attempts to rule, then he does not have omnipotent power. Rather, he is able to lead because the people support him; without the people's support, he is a leader in name only, with...
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