About ten days ago we received an email from someone working in the Ninawa Province of Iraq. This is in the north — Kurdish country — though Sunni Arabs inhabit some of the area also. I will relate the main story we received further down in the post, but first a little background. While any country or section has its factions and complications, Iraq seems to be more cursed with these fractures than other places. You need a scorecard to keep them all straight, which is to be expected given how long the area has been inhabited by Homo Sapiens (seems to me we ought to have been named Homo Stupido, but that’s a subject for another post).
For some time now I have been attempting to research the Assyrians in Iraq. They interest me for several reasons: first, they are among the oldest Christian groups anywhere. Secondly, they have maintained a separate existence, refusing to be subsumed into the conquering Arab hordes that invaded Mesopotamia. Assyrians have paid a high price for their dhimmi status, of course. In addition to persecution (see “Arab Sport: Crucifying Christian Children in Iraq“), they are scapegoated on a daily basis. They are an intelligent people and Arabs consider them conceited — this probably true, as it is of the Egyptian Copts. Both groups value education and are used in jobs where Arabs can’t work due to lack of skills.
Many Assyrians live in Ninawa; others are scattered in small enclaves through out Iraq and Iran. Or rather, more accurately, a remnant of Assyrians linger on here, those who survived the genocide carried out by the Kurds. As one Turkish Kurd expatriate living in Germany remembered:
My childhood was affected by two important historical events. One was the Dersim massacre of the Kurds in 1937/38 , when 70,000 of them were killed by the Turkish army which still is very fresh and sorrowful in my mind. The other was the Armenian Genocide, of 1915-16 by the Turks which exterminated one and half million Armenians and a half million Assyrians. During the winter months I often heard about the sorrowful fate of our Armenian neighbors and it made me cry.
To achieve racial supremacy in Anatolia, the Turkish regime wiped out first the Armenians and Assyrians and then the Kurds. General Kazim Karabekir, who had participated in the killing of the Armenians and Assyrians once had said: “le yandan zo zo lari, doenuence de lo lo larin isini bitirecegiz.” ‘We will exterminate the Armenians with an invasion to the east, on our way back we will do the same with the Kurds.’
It was always the strategy of the Turks to kill or drive out the country first the Christian Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks to turn the country into an Islamic nation, then to carry out similar genocide and ethnocide against the Kurds. To accomplish this Turkish rulers promoted hatred and incited one people against the other… The Kurdish feudal chieftains became instrumental in carrying out these Turkish policies.
The Turkish regime used Sunni tribes in Northern Kurdistan who lived side by side with the Armenians and Assyrians in Mesopotamia [he is referring to Iraq here — D.] to implement its policies…
When I replied to our correspondent about the problems in the Yezidi village, I also inquired about the Assyrians in the area. This is the response:
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Interestingly enough a few months ago we were able to meet the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East in what we believe was his first trip back to Iraq since he moved the seat of the Church from Baghdad to Chicago sometime in the late 70s/early 80s. He was in Irbil in the Kurdish Regional Government area basically to give his blessing to the reestablishment of Assyrian communities that were abandoned under Saddam’s Arabization program. He was also there to give his blessing to the work of Mr. Sarkis Aghajan the KRG finance minister (and an Assyrian) who is acting as a protector to Chaldo-Assyrians who have fled the south for Kurdish areas.
Some of the Christians we meet here have memories of Kurds that are as equally bitter as those of Arabs. They speak about the 1922 genocide and how the Kurds and Ottomans miraculously put aside their intense mutual animosity long enough to kill off thousands of Assyrians. But the consensus seems to be that, at least for now, Kurds are behaving more fairly and openly than in the past and may be worth the risk of trying to build a political relationship with them.
That’s a brief sketch of some 20th century events that affected lives in Ninawa. It doesn’t mention the other minority groups, one of which is the Yezidis, and it is the current safety of this group that worried my correspondent:
I have communicated with AINA, the Assyrian International News Agency and the gentleman that runs the ChristiansofIraq.com website but I think this might be worth further outside attention. As is explained below it appears that a combination of “Muslim rage” and Kurdish ethnic intimidation worked to create a situation where the Kurdish Regional Government has declared martial law in a community of minority Yazidis.
The events that transpired in mid-February are clear enough, but the motivation for the attacks is murky, as you’ll see:
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The town of Ain Sifni is being garrisoned by a force of approximately 1000 Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) and police. It is not clear when Kurdish forces will leave but the Yazidis are quite intimidated at this point. The Yazidis have long endured persecution and intimidation from their Arab and Kurdish Muslim neighbors as have the Christian Chaldo-Assyrians of the region. It would be great if a legitimate reporter could get in and take a look at what’s going on but based on how a journalist was treated when we were there yesterday, they may be very restricted in their movement and activities.
There was an incident on the night of the fifteenth in the town of Ayn Sifni in Sheikhan district of Ninewa Province. Several days prior to the outbreak of hostilities a Muslim Kurdish woman who was ostensibly attempting to flee her husband’s house was taken to her relatives in Dahuk by two Yazidi men who happen to be body guards to the district mayor. When the woman met with her family in Dahuk they took her back to her husband in Ayn Sifni who in turn took her to the town Imam to explain herself. Following questioning by the Imam (and perhaps sentencing under sharia), the husband took her somewhere out of town and murdered her on the suspicion of adultery. It was at this time that crowds began gathering in town and started demonstrating against the actions of the two Yazidi men. Slogans were shouted including, “How can Yazidis do this to our [Muslim] women?!”
Shortly after this point a fairly organized series of incidents began which included attacks on the private residence of the Amir of Yazidis (he was in Dahuk at the time), two Yazidi community centers, on a Yazidi owned liquor store and on the home of one of the mayor’s body guards. The damage to these structures was quite extensive and in the case of the attack on the Amir’s house it was clear there was intent to kill. No one was killed in any of the attacks however. The demonstrations went on until the next morning. There were large numbers of Dahuk based security forces in Ayn Sifni by the next morning and by mid day of the sixteenth an estimated brigade sized element of Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) secured the town. It appears however that these security forces allowed these events to continue for quite a while before they were quelled.
The Amir of the Yazidis, who is their leader (I think this is a hereditary position), exerted enough influence with the Yazidis to prevent retaliation. He talked them out of returning fire against their attackers and the ploy seems to have worked because the attack eventually died out. Our correspondent says—
One of the police commanders we met with claimed Jihadi “fifth columnists” were in part responsible for stirring up the violence. Since this sort of behavior is not normally associated with Kurds it was a clear implication that outsiders (Arabs) were involved.
I presume this means the Sunni Arabs again. While the Kurds have dirty hands historically vis-à-vis the Yezidis, they also have other fish to fry: they like the Americans, their lives have improved immeasurably since the Coalition Forces arrived, and they want to be moving forwards, not back. This does not hold true for the Sunni Arabs.
Our correspondent continues his report:
Another element of this incident that is not clear is that the “rioters” were fairly systematic in their attacks. The buildings that were attacked were farther than walking distance and none of the establishments that separate the attacked buildings were damaged.
He then makes an important and telling point about the character of this attack versus a simple riot:
Going on the assumption that rioters tend not to be selective in their targets there appears to be more organization than a normal crowd would have. The overall uncertainty is if this was a case of “Muslim rage” or Kurdish intimidation. Perhaps it was an example of both. On the one hand the presence of Peshmerga was instrumental in preventing further escalation, but on the other hand it appears that they allowed this activity to go on long enough to give the Yazidi community a good reason to be fearful.
My guess — and it’s a whole lot less informed than our correspondent’s since he was on the scene and took the accompanying pictures — is that it behooves the Sunni Muslims to keep things stirred up. The Kurds have put the rest of Iraq to shame when it comes to setting up a working government, attracting outside development, and defusing violence. While there are still insurgent activities there, the level is much lower and reconstruction is continuing apace. If Iraq ends up partitioned — as it well may — the Kurds will be in a superior position. This fact makes the formerly in-charge Sunnis angry and vengeful. And the Yazidis are easy enough to scapegoat. They have no political ambitions and harbor no secret desire to take over anywhere. In fact, one cannot convert to the Yezidi religion, and they are endogamous in their marriage practices. If a Yezidi marries outside the group, he loses his identity as a Yezidi. Their “let-us-alone” message could not be clearer.
Here’s how our correspondent sees them:
The Yazidis are an ethnic group and a religion that predates Christianity and Islam by hundreds of years. They have lived on the northern border of Ninewa province for many centuries and now that that region has become central to Kurdish territorial ambitions they are becoming somewhat more prominent politically. It appears that their greatest objective is simply to be left alone and treated fairly but because of their location Kurds and Arabs tend to exploit their religious peculiarity, (they’re takfiri, infidels, and even worse than Christians because they’re not “People of the Book”) to attain their compliance on political issues.
First Michael Yon, and then later, Michael Totten, visited the Yazidis. Both came away with positive impressions of the people and wonderful pictures of the area. Reading their reports — they are both excellent story-tellers — is like stepping back into an ancient and beautiful cave. First Michael Yon, from his account of a visit to the village of Yezdina, twenty miles outside of Dohuk. His essay, “Lost in Translation,” is an account of his visit there in June, 2005. I am excerpting only his prologue, before he arrives at Yezdina. However, I urge you to ponder the whole essay, and look at Yon’s excellent pictures.
In the story, he mentions being limited in his picture-taking because of his old camera. That was back when he was operating on a shoestring; he had no night vision goggles and a battered camera, and he posted on blogspot. His appeal for donations touched my heart. A man with a vocation for photography deserves a good camera, and accompanying the troops at night with no goggles sounded like a good way to get killed. Back then, the Baron was employed so I sent a donation after Mr. Yon set up a PayPal account.
In his opening, Mr. Yon sketches the cultural and historical web of the Yezidi people, their theology and practices, attempting to set them in the context of other religions and cultures in the region:
Some tenets of Yezidism are readily understandable to westerners: Yezidis worship one God but no prophets. They recognize and respect both Jesus and Mohammed, but as men of faith, not prophets. Where the doctrine starts to become hazy is when the angels appear.
An older Yezidi man with whom I speak on occasion says there are seven angels: Izrafael, Jibrael, Michael, Nordael, Dardael, Shamnael, and Azazael. All were gathered at a heavenly meeting when God told them they should bow to none other than Him. This arrangement worked for a span of forty thousand years, until God created Adam by mixing the “elements”: earth, air, water and fire. When God told the seven angels to bow before Adam, six complied. A seventh angel, citing God’s order that the angels bow only to God, refused. Although this angel was God’s favorite, his disobedience cast him from grace.
There is some dispute among Yezidis about the identity of the seventh angel; some believe it was Jibrael, while others believe it was Izrafael. Much seems lost to time. But whatever his former name, when this seventh Angel, most beloved of God, fell from grace, he was the most powerful angel in Heaven and on Earth. He rose as the Archangel Malak Ta’us. (Although this, too, is the subject of some debate; some Yezidis call him Ta’us Malak.) His herald is the peacock, for it is “by far the most beautiful bird in the world,” and the name, Malak Ta’us, literally means “King of Peacocks.”
Most Yezidis equate Malak Ta’us with Satan, a mainstay in many religions but otherwise not mentioned in Yezidism. Some Yezidis claim that Malak Ta’us is like a god himself, at least in terms of his power-particularly over the fortunes of the descendents of Adam. In this religion, God created Adam, but no Eve, and therefore all men came from Adam alone. The Yezidis were first born among all men, and consider themselves to be “the chosen people.”
Malak Ta’us descended from Heaven to Earth on a Wednesday to tell man that he is the Archangel, making this a day for religious observation. The Yezidis mark the day by not bathing on Wednesday evenings. They believe their dead must wash, and for this they need water; the dead wash on the holy day of Wednesday.
Not only do shards of Judeo-Christianity glint in this amalgam, but a close look also reveals pieces of Hinduism, especially in the prominence of castes. There are five Yezidi castes-depending on who one asks-the “most important” being the Pir, then Shaikh, Kawal, Murabby, and finally the Mureed (the follower). Descriptions of the Mureed are similar to the Dalits of Hinduism. The Yezidis are strictly forbidden to marry outside the Yezidi, and must marry within their caste.
Yezidis have two holy books: the Book of Revelation and the Black Book. The old Yezidi man informed me that although the Black Book is kept secret so it cannot be defamed, he would like to translate it into English. The title apparently has been rendered.
While Kurds say the Yezidis are Kurds, the Yezidis claim to be neither Arab nor Kurd, simply Yezidis or, perhaps, Yezidi first and Kurd second. In a fashion similar to how the word “Jewish” is used, the designation “Yezidi” applies to both a set of religious beliefs and a genetic or tribal identity. Because Yezidis keep to themselves, it is easy for others to misunderstand, or deliberately mis-project, the Yezidi religion. This can have dire consequences.
Remember that Yon is writing this when Saddam Hussein had already been captured by Coalition Forces. The eventual execution is far in the future, so Yon refers to him in the present tense:
The most recent example was when Saddam Hussein labeled the Yezidis “Devil Worshippers,” which he justified by equating Malak Ta’us with Satan. This was no minor misunderstanding, nor was it just a rhetorical flourish, but a deliberate attempt to exploit the reservoir of suspicion that encircles enclaves of people who keep to themselves, and in this case to cleave the Yezidis from the Kurds.
Exacerbating matters was that the Yezidi religion is such an amalgam of beliefs and practices. History, more so than theology, provides a key to this code. When a Yezidi holy man asserted that Yezidis all love Jesus, too, it lent credence to other reports I’d heard that Yezidism conflated with religions such as Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and even Zoroastrianism over the centuries, as the Yezidi came into contact with the followers of these religions.
Even without an authoritative timeline showing when these mergers occurred, the mixing of diverse dogma and symbolism in Yezidism does not flow logically or track a linear course of thinking. It goes far beyond the bounds of any off-the-shelf syncretism, and stands as testament for the ability of the Yezidis to dissimulate in the face of destruction to preserve the body. Rather than cast off their beliefs in subjugation to conquerors, they instead incorporated elements of the dominant belief system into their amalgam, using their cultural and racial identity as Yezidi for the mortar. They built their faith, and their villages, with this concrete; its ability to withstand the destructive forces of outside elements would have a severe test in recent times.
Saddam Hussein’s hatred for Yezidis and Kurds was matched only by his desire to eradicate every last one of them from Iraq. Even though most Kurds are actually Sunni Muslims [but notArab Muslims, as they will be quick to tell you. A Kurd is not an Arab, thankyouverymuch —D] as is the now imprisoned dictator, his hatred for them remained unabated, and was relentless. Hussein knew that a collision of religious beliefs carved fault lines between the Yezidis and the Kurds who surround them. He used his common point of reference with the Kurds to sharpen their divide from the Yezidis, by calling them “Devil Worshippers.” But just because the Yezidis don’t have a Satan figure in their holy book, doesn’t mean they can’t spot a devil when they see one. Together with the Kurds, they resisted Hussein’s will. Today, while the real peacock sits in jail, the unvanquished Yezidis are rebuilding their homeland.
Mr. Yon has some wonderful pictures of the village, but what captured my attention was his final image, a crayon drawing by a Yezidi child of a house complete with garden and lawn furniture. It’s amazingly Western, and exactly what I used to draw — right down to the smoke coming out of the chimney — when I was a child, longing for a secure home. This child managed to capture her village’s deep desire for safety in one poignant drawing. Unfortunately, the reality is seen in the photos our correspondent sent of the recent attacks.
“The Beginning of the Universe” is how Michael Totten describes his visit to the Yezidis. Mr. Yon visited a village, Yezdina, in June. Mr. Totten went to Lalish — the Yezidi’s “Mecca” — in cold February, when the ambience is quite different, as you will notice from his pictures and the tone of his essay:
In Northern Iraq there is a place called Lalish where the Yezidis say the universe was born. I drove south from Dohok on snowy roads through an empty land, seemingly to the ends of the earth, and found it nestled among cold hills.
I went there because the President of Dohok University told me to go. “I am a Muslim,” he said. “But I love the Yezidis. Theirs is the original religion of the Kurds. Only through the Yezidis can I speak to God in my own language.”
Yezidis are ancient fire-worshippers. They heavily influenced Zoroastrianism, and in turn have been heavily influenced by Sufi Islam. The temple at Lalish is their “Mecca.” Hundreds of thousands of remaining Yezidis — those Kurds who refused to submit to Islam — make pilgrimages there at least once in their lifetimes from all over the Middle East and Europe.
Here is an enlightening conversation he has with Baba Sheikh, the religious leader in Lalish:
“Can someone from another religion become a Yezidi?” I said.
“No,” Baba Sheik said. He shrugged his shoulders and cocked his head. “We are the original people,” he said and spread out his arms. “We can’t become a cocktail religion like Islam.” Everyone, including my Muslim driver and translator, thought that was hilarious.
They’re a bit like the Druze then, the fierce people who live in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon. You can’t convert and become a Druze either. Yezidis believe they will be reincarnated as Yezidis after they die, just as Druze believe they will be reincarnated as Druze.
Baba Sheikh apparently didn’t want me to think they were close-minded bigots. “We are a peaceful people,” he said. “We don’t interfere with others. We are the nation of generosity and kindness.”
He didn’t think that about everyone else in the region.
“72 times Muslims tried to conquer us,” he said. “Christians never once tried to conquer us. The Christians are wise, not like Muslims.”
“Can Yezidis marry people from other religions?” I said.
“No,” Baba Sheikh said. “We cannot intermarry. A Yezidi might want to convert to Islam or Christianity if he behaved badly as a Yezidi and needs a new beginning. Only then can he marry someone who is not a Yezidi.”
What about the significance of fire?
“Fire is from God,” Baba Sheikh said. “Without fire, no one would live. When Muslim Kurds swear today they still say I swear by this fire.”
“Do you think of yourselves as Kurds?” I said. They self-identify as Yezidis, but they speak Kurdish and obviously feel some kind of kinship with the Muslims.
“When there is politics, we are Kurds,” he said. “When there is no politics, we are Yezidis.”
He told me about their “Bible.”
“Our holy book is called The Black Book. It is written in gold. The book is in Britain. They took our book. That is why the British have science and education. The book came from the sky. If you go to the British Museum you can see it.”
Did they have any copies?
“There are no copies,” Baba Sheikh said. “The book is in our hearts.”
“Christians have churches,” I said. “Muslims have mosques. What do you call your temples?
“We call them mazars,” he said.
“Do you have any in Europe?” Hundreds of thousands of Kurds live in Europe, and tens of thousands of those are Yezidis.
“We have no mazars in Europe,” he said “Only in the Middle East and in Russia. We cannot make new ones. These are all originals. Muslims will build a mosque on top of a dump site after clearing the garbage. We could never do this.”
Our correspondent is right. These are a fascinating people. And the concern for their safety is not misplaced. On the other hand, think of the fact that they have managed to maintain in the face of a murderous environment. For thousands of years they have endured. There is even a small diaspora of Yezidi in Europe and parts of the Middle East; they still carry the flame.
Even though concerned about the violence, our correspondent expressed the same feeling I have about how things may go, God willing:
As for the Kurds themselves I cannot deny my affinity for them. They’re hard working (relative to Arabs) and ambitious, and everyone loves the underdog especially when he’s making the big comeback.
I agree. The Kurds see themselves as similar to Americans and their vision seems accurate to me. Our correspondent closes with this note about the influence this experience has made on him personally:
My time here in Iraq is getting very short (approx one month) and when I get back I hope to be able to speak to small groups in at least my hometown about some of my experiences and especially about the issue of Islam and how it confronts us. The general ignorance of it and ignorance of the goodness and decency of our civilization is breathtaking.
Breathtaking? Yes, indeed. But not among the Kurds it would seem. They like us and we have earned — so far — their trust.
Meanwhile, it is good to know that those with first-hand knowledge are coming home to speak about their experience.