Scorned as `Devil worshippers’, Iraq’s Yezidi tribe have survived centuries of abuse. But could the overthrow of Saddam Hussein provide their greatest challenge yet?
Don’t even mention the word Satan,” we were warned before we went to Sinjar. “If you even say that word there, they will make serious trouble for you.” That seemed a little strange, as the people we were going to visit are a religious community persecuted across the Middle East as Devil-worshippers.
It does not take long to find unusual-looking people in Sinjar, a pleasant town of old stone buildings under a barren mountain ridge. There are old men with their hair woven into long plaits on either side of their heads, who look like nothing so much as Asterix and Obelix. Others wear huge, bushy, untrimmed moustaches and strange, conical caps. These are the Yezidi, wrongly called the Devil- worshippers, Iraq’s most bizarre, and most persecuted minority. The overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime has opened the Yezidi to the outside world in a way they have not known for years.
The Yezidi sound like the stuff of legend, or 19th-century novels – a people who live in the remote mountains at the borders of Turkey and Iraq, and pray to the fallen angel Christians and Muslims call Satan, because they believe he was forgiven by God and reinstated in heaven.
The Yezidi never wear the colour blue. They are not allowed to eat lettuce. They do not believe in heaven or hell – instead they believe in reincarnation, which they call the soul “changing its clothes”. They have two holy books, but they believe the only copy of one of them, the Black Book, was stolen years ago and taken to Britain, where, they say, it is kept in a museum.
They have kept their religion alive through oral tradition. Yezidis known as Talkers can recite the entire lost book from memory. They are taught it as children by their fathers, and teach it to their own sons in their turn.
The Yezidi believe that after man’s creation, God ordered the angels to pray for Adam, but that one angel refused – there is a similar belief in Islam. But the Yezidi believe that instead of becoming the fallen Satan, the recalcitrant angel was forgiven by God. They do not call this angel Satan – they will not say the word, and are deeply offended by it – but Malek Tawwus, or the Peacock King, and they pray to him. As a result, the followers of other religions have condemned them as Devil-worshippers.
Exotic as they sound, the Yezidi are real: you can find them just two hours’ drive just outside of the bustling city of Mosul, through the f American checkpoints in the desert, where the soldiers stop cars, looking for weapons being smuggled in from nearby Syria.
Sinjar feels like the end of the world. The people at the local Yezidi cultural centre were so surprised at foreign journalists coming to speak with them, they started to take pictures of us. Few of the Yezidi actually live in the town. Majdal al-Hakkari, the earnest young man who runs the cultural centre, took us to the wretched streets of mudhouses outside the town where the Yezidi live.
And there, as the sun sank behind the dusty mountains, an old Yezidi man lovingly unwrapped a long wooden flute, kissed his finger- tips reverentially and began to play. A small boy beside him started to play along on a huge drum, and the people started to dance in a long line around them: the last sizeable community of Yezidi in the Middle East, keeping alive a culture and a religion that has been threatened with extinction here in recent years.
It is hard to separate myth from fact when it comes to the Yezidi. Long turned into the bogeymen of the Middle East by other religions, they are the subjects of tales to frighten children. It is not true, for example, as my Iraqi driver and translator earnestly believed, that the Yezidi frequently burn women at the stake in their villages. Nor is it true that in order to get married, a Yezidi man must kidnap his bride and run the gauntlet of being shot dead by her family for 40 days before they will consent.
But the truth is exotic enough. That last myth is based on the genuine Yezidi practise of kidnapping their brides – it’s just the bit about being shot that’s not true.
“I kidnapped my wife, my brother kidnapped his wife, and my father kidnapped his,” laughed the Yezidi in Mosul who told us how to get to Sinjar. But it’s kidnapping by consent, a form of eloping – the practise developed as a way for lovers to marry even if the woman’s parents were opposed. In Yezidi society, they can be forced to accept the match if their daughter is willingly “abducted” by her lover.
There is nothing mythical about the persecution of the Yezidi. I once spent several days searching south-eastern Turkey for Yezidi. I only found one, a nervous man who at first was too afraid to admit he was Yezidi, and who claimed he was the last one left in Turkey.
The Yezidi have been persecuted for centuries, chiefly because they pray to an angel other religions consider to be the Devil. Perhaps a little melodramatically, they claim they are the victims of 72 attempted genocides.
But in recent decades the oppression has forced thousands to flee their traditional homeland, which spreads across the mountainous borders of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and the former Soviet Republics of Georgia and Armenia, to become refugees in the West.
The Yezidi community in Iraq is the largest left in the Middle East – the Yezidis say there are hundreds of thousands of them here. But that does not mean life was free from persecution for the Yezidi here. “If there was an opportunity for Iraqi Yezidi to emigrate to another place, especially under Saddam Hussein, we would have,” said Sheikh Hamid Hama Kaski, the tribal leader of the Yezidi in Sinjar.
The slums Majdal al-Hakkari took us to, outside Sinjar, look more like Afghanistan than Iraq – the country with the world’s second largest oil reserves.
The children play in dirt streets lined with single-storey mudhouses, next to mangy dogs who growl menacingly at strangers. In places, the road is too uneven for a car to pass down, but few of the people here own a car. There is no running water; for clean water, the Yezidi have to take a donkey the 10 miles or so into Sinjar – if they can afford a donkey; otherwise they have to carry the water themselves.
The Yezidi were forced out here from their homes in Sinjar and in nearby villages. It was a policy that began before Saddam became president of Iraq, but continued under him. They were ejected from the towns to live in “collective housing” projects like the slums outside Sinjar. Similarly, they were excluded from senior jobs.
And their problems haven’t ended because Saddam is gone. After the war, Kurdish guerrillas poured into this area from further north. They appointed their own mayor and tried to take over the town. Eager to expland the area under their control, Kurdish forces were trying the same across northern Iraq. The victors were trying to take the spoils.
In a dingy liquor store on the outskirts of Sinjar – in Yezidism, drinking alcohol is allowed – we met Nawroz Ali, a local Yezidi who said the Kurds had ordered him out of his house in Sinjar and taken it over when they came.
There were many similar cases.
But, after so many years of persecution, the Yezidi were not going to take this lying down. Sheikh Kaski chuckled as he told us how he dealt with the problem. As Saddam’s troops fled Sinjar, he and his Yezidi followers had collected the weapons they left behind. When things got out of hand with the Kurds, Sheikh Kaski and the Yezidi took the arms and surrounded the building in town where the f Kurdish guerrillas had set up shop. The Yezidi were armed with rocket-propelled grenades. They even had an anti- aircraft gun pointing at the Kurds. Enough, said the Yezidi. Leave us alone. The Kurds got the message, but nobody here believes the problem is over.
The Yezidi have been the victims of an ugly ethnic tug-of-war between the Kurds and the Saddam regime for years. In fact, the Yezidi are originally ethnic Kurds. They speak the local dialect of Kurdish, and claim Yezidism is the original Kurdish religion. But Saddam and the Kurdish factions all wanted control of this area of Iraq, an ethnically mixed region between the Kurdish north of Iraq and the Arab bulk of the country. Despite their Kurdish roots, the Yezidi were co-opted by the Saddam government as “Arabs” to tilt the ethnic balance in the Arabs’ favour. It became illegal to describe themselves any other way. Cultural centres like the one run by al- Hakkari could not operate freely.
When the Kurdish enclaves were set up in northern Iraq in the wake of the Kurdish uprising after the 1991 Gulf War, things only got worse. This area was left inside the part of Iraq still under Saddam’s control, and the Yezidi were under more pressure than ever. Things were little better for the tiny minority of Yezidi who were inside the Kurdish enclaves. Muslim Kurds were forbidden to buy anything from them, and they were trapped in their own tiny communities.
Across the rest of their homelands, the situation has been worse. In Georgia and Armenia, the Yezidis were forced out by nationalist movements that emerged in the new republics after Soviet rule, demanding that they become ethnic homelands and other races leave. Muslim Kurds have faced similar problems but the Yezidi have been rejected by the Muslim Kurds as well. In Turkey, the Yezidi suffered both as Kurds and because of their religion. The Turkish government has long made life uncomfortable for religious minorities. In the middle of a war between the Turkish military and Kurdish separatists, the Yezidi were particularly vulnerable. Looking to divide and rule, the Turkish government turned a blind eye when Kurdish Muslim extremists attacked the Yezidi. Yezidis were issued identity cards with “XXX” printed where their religion should have been entered. With those ID cards, they could expect no help from the police. They could not get jobs.
Worse, as a Yezidi who fled Turkey to Germany but was too afraid to give his name explained, Muslim extremists turned the Yezidi elopement tradition against them and started kidnapping Yezidi women from the fields by force, then making them convert to Islam. The Yezidi fled in their thousands. There are now Yezidis living as refugees across the world: in Australia, Canada, Germany.
Their problems have been compounded by the widely accepted belief that Yezidism was a sect that split from Islam – which makes them apostates in the eyes of many Muslims. The Yezidi deny that their religion is an offshoot of Islam – they say it is centuries old and predates Christianity.
Given all their problems, it is perhaps surprising that the Yezidi have clung to their religion. Few of the young men at al- Hakkari’s cultural centre were religious. “I don’t pray or fast,” confided al-Hakkari. “I don’t think it matters how you pray, but whether you are a good man or not.”
One reason to keep their roots is the Yezidi practise of killing those who convert to other religions. It’s not universal, but some Yezidi families have killed their relatives who have converted.
But out in the slums with al-Hakkari’s family and their neighbours proudly showing off their traditional dancing, you sense there is another reason: immense pride that, against the odds, the Yezidi have kept their religion and their culture alive in the face of oppression.
Al-Hakkari and his friends say that, rejected by everyone else, they have come to think of themselves as ethnic Yezidis. One of them proudly reads out a list of demands, for recognition for the Yezidi in Iraq’s new government, for UN protection. But the sad truth is that no one is listening.
The Yezidi are almost the only minority in Iraq not to have a seat on the new US-appointed Governing Council. Despite Yezidi representations to the Americans, the powerful Kurdish factions simply announced that the Yezidis were Kurds and should be represented by them – an easy way to boost Kurdish numbers, and therefore, influence.
Without a stake in power, the Yezidi remain at risk as conflicting parties struggle for control of this part of Iraq. Worse, they are in serious danger from the Wahabi Muslim extremist factions that have been growing in power since the fall of the Saddam regime.
Iraq’s Yezidi are the last large community of a religion to have survived the oppression of the modern Middle East and still be living in their homeland, but in the precarious situation in Iraq, they are at risk. I cannot help remembering the dire prediction of an Iraqi Yezidi who fled to Germany years ago, before the overthrow of Saddam. “We have faced 72 genocides,” he said to me. “If Saddam is overthrown I fear we may face a 73rd.”