Tuesday, February 10, 2015

GACHO!!!! Kurdish Baseball/Kurdish Cricket

Gacho (Gaço)

It’s a cold February winter night. Outside is about an inch of slush and snow, with more falling. We have Dede (Delal’s grandfather) over a visit and he is explaining some of the summer games they used to play in the village—Conag, once connected to Kiğı (Keghi in Armenian). One game really grabs my attention—it’s called gacho (gaço) and bears a striking similarity to baseball, actually moreso to cricket.

There are two bases opposite one another, one for each team. You need a level and large enough field to play. Sometimes they would play in the meadow while tending the flocks, Dede says. Both men and women could play.

Four people stand at each base. This number on the team isn’t fixed, but depends on who all wants to play. One person on the batter's team throws the ball to the batter. The bat is specially made for the game. The hitter gets three chances to hit the ball (like three strikes). There is something called a nişantaşı (target stone) at an equal distance from both bases. If you hit the ball, you run to the target stone. You can be tagged out if someone hits you with the ball or catches your hit in the air. The fielding team's job is to retrieve the ball and hit you with it. If your ball is still in play when you get to the target stone, you run back to your base for a point. If the ball has been caught but you aren’t out, you stay at the target stone and let another player up to bat.

The "field" as drawn by Dede

You want to hit the ball far, Dede emphasizes. But the amateur show offs always make the mistake of hitting it far and up. If you hit it straight up in the air, the fielders on the other team can easily catch it and you're out (a pop fly from baseball). One out and you switch innings.

He isn’t that specific on the shape of the bat—it can be flat or round, he says. But it needs to be about arm length and thick, not just any old stick. The ball is generally made of wrapped twine—because “a rubber ball went too far.”

Everyone says the game resembles baseball—though in my opinion it sounds a lot more like cricket. In any case, there were lots of people from Kiğı working in America or elsewhere who might have brought the game back home or else, maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe it’s an older game with Mesopotamian roots (though I haven’t heard of it played anywhere else). Are there any Kurds or Armenians or Anatolians out there who have played gaço or something like it?

Addendum: I answer my own question with a little web search in Turkish--"Kürt beyzbolu"
Check out this video. In Van and Bitlis, apparently, a game like gaço is played. The Van people in this video call it topa garan with garan being a general word for group, often used for flocks and herds of animals. Herd ball? (And top is Turkishwhich is weird--ye olde assimilation). The word herd was used because it was played when people were tending flocks. One of your own team pitches the ball and it doesn't look like the batter runs, but another team member. One of the guys at the end explains that it is played with 15 players, 6 on each team and 3 others performing another job watching the animals. (Dede also mentioned the animals "leaving" when they played). He also says that the ball was made from goat hair stuffed tightly into a sock.

This article talks about how it is played in Bitlis. These guys say they mostly have tournaments in winter to reduce the chance of injury (less dangerous on snow?) One guy says "Most people say don't let the winter come, don't let it snow, but we can't wait for the snowy weather. It means Kurdish baseball!" They use an old axe handle for a bat.
A picture of the ball the  Bitlis players are using--the stitching is either just like a baseball (but white) or it is a baseball 

With all this talk of what they use for balls and bats, it makes me think how odd it is, the vagaries of politics and history. Delal and I went to a Birmingham Baron's game last summer and I had forgotten how much I really love the sport. "This is a whole culture," she said to me. "Look at all the rituals and shows between innings." If Kurdistan had been a stable country and wealthy enough, a la England, then perhaps this game would have developed into a ritualized national sport. There would be regulations on what the ball could be made of--tightly wrapped wool?--and on the nature of the bat and shape of the field. But it stays in the villages (or in Bingöl's case--in the memories of the old folk) and so always has the flavor of the more chaotic American baseball of the 19th century (check out Shelby Foote's documentary for just how ruleless things were) before it was taken up as a formal, national sport.

I wonder if the people of Bitlis, Van and Bingöl realize that they are all playing the same (or a similar) game, they might start organizing tournaments with each other--informal at first--and bring the game to wider attention. A Kurdish national sport?