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ARTICLE

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Pistachio Mafia

Pistachio Mafia

Pistachio nuts are so prized in Turkey that the trees are protected by guards. Paul Salopek and his guide are warned about passing through the area as farmers might think they are thieves. Content warning: The following text contains references to violence.

Grades

5 - 12

Subjects

Social Studies, English Language Arts, Geography, Anthropology, Storytelling

















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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

This article is part of a collection called Out of Eden 10th Anniversary: Food. It is also included in the Idea Set, Exploring Food Traditions With the Out of Eden Walk.

By Paul Salopek

NEAR NIZIP, TURKEY (10/27/2014)

Editor’s Note: Security concerns in southeastern Turkey temporarily disrupted the sequence of walk dispatches. Today, we resume the storytelling from the trail in chronological order.

A man drives up behind us on a bright red motor scooter.

The scooter bears a decorative sticker: Atatürk, in famous silhouette, walking on a hilltop at the battle of Dumlupinar. The man carries a shotgun strapped across his shoulder. He wears an ammo belt glinting with shotgun shells cinched about his wide belly. His name is Cebir Sercan. He tells us to stop. He says we might get shot if we continue walking.

“Farmers will think you are thieves,” Sercan says.

Sercan is a pistachio nut vigilante. He pulls out a cell phone. He calls ahead: Allow two men and a cargo mule to pass. They are not the pistachio mafia. (I am plodding east with my Turkish walking partner, Deniz Kilic.) He then insists on escorting us.

The pistachio is a beautiful tree.

Its leaves are a dark, lustrous green. Its bole is round as a lollipop. Its bark is smooth to the touch. Spaced evenly across hundreds of square miles of orchards, their trunks blaze with whitewash paint against the afternoon heat. The ruddy Anatolian earth around them is neatly plowed—a Zen garden. In this way, the humble pistachio turns southeastern Turkey into a vast and pleasant parkland.

Turkey grows some of the finest pistachio nuts in the world. It is a point of national pride. After all, the classic Turkish dessert, baklava, is nothing without ground pistachios. The nut is baked into every slice of this distinctive, crisp pastry drenched in honey, in syrup. Pistachio powder—so bright green as to look artificially dyed (but it is not)—is the core natural ingredient of this sweet. Kilic and I are crossing the very heart of baklava country. What Champagne, France, is to bubbly wine, so is the rolling country east of Gaziantep, Turkey, to the baked Levantine treat. More than a hundred dessert companies produce baklava here using world-class pistachios.

“It must be light, and not too sweet,” Kilic had lectured me in a baklava shop in Gaziantep. (A baklava shop seemed, by city ordinance, to occupy every city block.) He used his fork to probe the dessert on his plate, to count its thin sheets of filo dough, like an archaeologist probing a Mesopotamian mound for layered civilizations. He counted 23.

Why is this sweet to die for?

The pistachio yield in Turkey has yo-yoed in recent years. In 2010, a group of crooked businessmen bought and hoarded immense volumes of the nuts, jacking up the prices. Then the civil war in Syria flooded the Turkish market with low-cost nuts of lesser quality. Farmers’ profits plummeted. This season, however, the culprit is erratic rain: climate change. Droughts have stunted much of the harvest. The small nuts, once favorite snack food along the old Silk Road, are scarce, coveted by the makers of quality baklava. And so the value of a pound of raw, un-dried pistachios has more than doubled—from about $1.45 to $3.10.

“That’s why there are thieves,” says Necip Karabac, a pistachio farmer who greets us along the trail. “A mafia.”

Karabac’s entire family is out gathering nuts—brothers, wives, nieces, toddling grandsons, all climbing tree branches, twisting off the pink-shelled nuts, plucking the fallen bounty from ground tarps. Each grown man keeps a pump-action shotgun within reach. The nut mafia killed a pistachio farmer the week before. The hapless young farmer, Osman Yilmaz, was camping under his trees, guarding his orchard. He caught the mafia red-handed. He was felled in an exchange of gunfire.

The criminals come in the night, Karabac explains. They ram the trees with their cars to knock the coveted nuts down. With each tree bearing up to a hundred pounds of pistachios, the haul is lucrative—at least $300 per tree. (More than two weeks’ wages for a farm laborer.) The stolen nuts are sold to wholesalers who ask no questions: a pistachio black market.

“Every time, it’s us who gets shot,” Karabac, the farmer, says. “We are afraid to kill a thief because our laws protect the criminals. We end up selling our orchards to defend ourselves in court.”

On patrol with his red motor scooter, Sercan, the orchard guard, blows a police whistle to announce our presence on the farms. He guides us out of the trees. We come a sunlit plain. The pistachio frontier.

“I’m very sorry for the dead boy,” says an old pistachio farmer who fills our canteens from his hand-pumped well. “He died for nothing.”

Sercan growls. He brandishes his shotgun. The old farmer shakes his head. With infinite wisdom, with sad eyes, he tells Sercan: “Don’t be a hero.”

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Editor
Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 24, 2024

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