Yazidis: Power and Peril

In the mountains of northwest Iraq, people are gathering again. Four times a year they pile their cars high with mattresses and food and travel to the base of a narrow valley to visit Lalish, the place where the earth began.

As they enter the village, families stop to remove their shoes. The slow tide of people makes its way through the gates of the temple, pausing to kiss the stone archways. In a corner of the courtyard, white-clad children recite stories of the faith in unison as their teacher and families look on.

As a stranger in this crowd, this is about the time you might begin to feel on edge. In the past, these men and women, the Yazidis, were condemned and persecuted as devil worshippers. Even in the sun-dappled courtyard, there are eerie cues - a carving of a snake in high relief, a crescent moon, a holy man dressed in black kneeling by the temple door.

The Yazidis' secretive and peculiar beliefs date back more than 4,000 years, they say, before both Islam and Christianity. They have been misunderstood and maligned by the outside world for almost as long. But as modernity encroaches on this ancient faith, the balance of power between the tribe and the outside world is shifting. The Yazidis have more power to change the world around them now than at any other point in recent history. But the tribe is facing new threats from its own.

Inside Lalish temple, believers stand in front of pillars representing seven angels and tie colored silks in knots with the hope that their wishes will come true. The Yazidis believe the angels were put in charge of watching over the earth.

The story of the angels is similar to one found in the Bible, in which God asked the angels to obey him alone. Later, when Adam was created, God demanded that the angels obey man as well. One angel refused. In the Islamic tradition, that Angel was Satan, who was punished for his disobedience by being sent to hell.

But to the Yazidis, the angel is Tawûsê Melek and God's second command was a test of the angels' loyalty, explains Shahwan Sabri, a Yazidian religion teacher from Badra. "He said to God, 'you created us from your light and you created Adam from the soil. How can the light obey the soil?'" God was pleased with Tawûsê Melek's answer and he was rewarded with the position of leader of the angels.

In one corner of the temple, a few people pause in front of a polyester blanket hung from the wall. It bears the image of a peacock, Tawûsê Melek's likeness. Lalish temple is either less than 1000 years old or as old as time, depending on whom you ask. The Yazidis believe that when God created the earth, he first created the temple and all living things sprang outward from its walls.

Its labyrinthine rooms comprise a series of holy sites. In one is the marble tomb of the Yazidi prophet, Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, a Sufi who the Yazidis believe incarnated Tawûsê Melek until his death in 1162. Sheikh Adi influenced the largely Zoroastrian tribe with Islamic monikers and beliefs -- a set of stairs nearby his tomb lead to a cave from which the holy waters of Zam Zam flow, which he named after the spring in Mecca.

Though the temple remains dark and smoky even in the heat of the day, the reverent air is often broken by a giggle as Yazidis try their luck at a series of wishing games. A scarf tossed to perch perfectly at the top of a stone means one wish will come true. A pebble thrown blindly at two holes will show them where their souls will land on judgment day. They have three tries to toss toward their preferred fate.

But fewer people fill the temple during this Feast of the 40 Days of Summer than in the past.

Their numbers have been dwindling for centuries. Though there have traditionally been Yazidian communities in Armenia, Turkey, Syria and Russia, most are in Northern Iraq. The Ottomans and other enemies, they say, have waged 72 separate genocides on them throughout their history, which has slowly pared down the religious group's numbers. Though exact estimates vary wildly, there are now less than a million Yazidis worldwide.

During the Iraq government's Arabization campaign in the 1970s, Yazidis were officially stripped of their Kurdish identity and reclassified as Arab. Many were forced to leave their villages to be dispersed or concentrated in smaller territories.

But in recent years the main threat against the Yazidis is from militant Islamic groups like Al-Qaeda, who view Yazidians as infidels.

Terrorism has driven the Yazidis from Mosul, where their numbers were once strong. Violence has even reached their smaller villages. In 2007, a set of truck bombs killed hundreds of Yazidis and effectively put the tribe on lockdown. Baba Chawish, the head of Lalish, called off the next feast day all together. The tribe has since begun to gather again, but festivities remain subdued.

"There are so many rituals and traditions from before, but this current situation in Iraq means most Yazidis don't come here," Baba Chawish explained.

Many in Iraq have sought refuge from the continued violence by leaving to Europe. But unlike the past, the threat of attrition from the Yazidi faith isn't just coming from outside pressures. It is the rigid resolve of the tribe itself that is making some question their ability to carry out the responsibilities of a Yazidian.

Off of the main entrance to the temple and past a line of families filling buckets with water from Zam Zam, there is another courtyard surrounded by small rooms.

Alia Bayazeed Ismail sits on a mat in one of them. Like most women of a certain age at the temple, Alia has donned traditional Yazidi garb for the weekend - a blouse tucked into a high-waisted skirt and a white scarf over her hair. Children wander in and out while she sits chatting with other women in the temple.

There is an air of nobility around her. Alia is from one of the highest families in the Yazidi order and is close relatives with its prince. She was also the first Yazidian woman to graduate from law school, some 30 years ago. But following her husband's death a decade ago, she was forced to close her practice.

"Yazidis are a quiet and peaceful people, they are very nice and very kind to other people because of the many genocides we have had," she says softly. "But maybe between us, among us, we are not, we are cruel."

Alia was raised in Baghdad by a liberal family and until her husband's death she remained ambitious in her professional career, owned her own property, drove her own car. But when he died, Alia wasn't allowed to live alone. She had already outlived her parents so Yazidi custom dictated that she move in with her in-laws.

"Our traditions are very heavy to a woman if she is without a man and also I have no son, so it's not allowed for me to work anymore," she explained. "I am staying at home. I read and write, only this. My world is all within my home really."

For 10 years, Alia has lived in a room in her father-in-law's house. She is banned from meeting with friends publically, attending conferences or even shaking a male colleague's hand.

She calls her home her prison. Her loyalty to the tribe keeps her captive. "I belong to Yazidi, I am Yazidian and I am very proud of this," she says. "But in my life, I am secular. I don't believe in religions that would separate people from each other."

Separating people from each other is what has helped the Yazidis survive through time. There is no way to become Yazidian - Yazidi souls must be reincarnated into new Yazidis, so there aren't enough souls to accommodate new converts. This also means that followers can't leave the group because their souls are Yazidian. To maintain order, the religion upholds a complicated caste system that divides members into three groups by status, which are then in some cases subdivided by occupation and wealth. Yazidis are only allowed to marry within their caste. Marry outside your caste or marry outside your religion and the punishment is often death.

"If someone decides to marry outside of Yazidi they have to leave us," Alia says. "Maybe if they catch any young person who gets married to one from another religion, they kill them. If anyone wants to get married from another religion they make their plan to escape and get away from here, from us, not to be caught."

In April 2007, a 17-year-old Yazidian girl named Du'a Khalil Aswad fell in love with a Muslim boy in Bashika, Iraq. Rumors flew through her community that she had converted to Islam to marry him. The girl went into hiding but was found and dragged into the town square where other members of the community spent half an hour stoning her to death. Others watched and recorded the event with cell phone cameras, sparking national outrage and the ire of extremist Muslim groups.

To escape, couples have to leave the country. For them, distance means safety. But for women like Alia, going abroad is a sort of Yazidian "get out of jail free" card, a way to live more liberally while still maintaining the respect of the tribe.

She is making plans to move to Germany later this year. "I want an open society. There, anything is open to you and you have just to decide what you want," she says. "Maybe there I will have more freedom and maybe I can practice more activities and works to serve my people."

Serving the Yazidis in the outside world is a relatively new idea for the community. The religion has largely kept to itself to avoid persecution and was banned from participating politically in Iraq until 1991.

But in the last few years, the group has undertaken a PR overhaul. Visitors are welcomed into parts of the temple that had been previously off limits, an educational center for the religion has opened in Dohuk. Outside of Lalish, Yazidians are building a modern visitors center and guesthouse.

Moreover, Yazidians have started to occupy political positions across Kurdistan and Iraq. A Minister of Yazidian Affairs took office in 2004 and Yazidians can be found in the Iraqi National Assembly and other parts of the government.

In 2005, when a referendum for Iraq's new constitution was voted upon by the entire country, Yazidis quietly and deliberately showed up at the polls, explains Khairi Bozani, Director-General of Yazidian Affairs.

"If it was not for the Yazidis of Mosul, who approved the constitution, the constitution would not have been approved because the Arab part of Mosul plus Salah ad Din and Anbar refused the constitution. It was mainly the Yazidis who didn't let the constitution fail," Bozani says.
If they continue to turn out at the polls, it may be in the Yazidis' power to decide the future of Mosul, a city that has been bitterly fought over by both Kurds and Arabs. Here too, Saddam Hussein's Arabization campaign forced out thousands of Kurds and replaced them with poor Arabs from the south. Decades later, both groups consider the city their own territory.

Article 140 in the Iraqi constitution allows residents of disputed regions the right to decide whether they want to be governed by Kurdistan or Iraq. One of the largest populations of Yazidis lies in the Ninawa Governorate, the same province as Mosul. The Yazidis here have been both courted and targeted by pro-Islamist groups hoping to make the city part of Southern Iraq.

To the Yazidis, a Kurdish-run secular government would mean new religious freedoms and the reunification of their tribe for the first time in decades. Yazidis near Mosul are currently much more limited in how they can practice their faith than those in Iraqi Kurdistan. A strongly religious future administration like those from Southern Iraq, could geographically divide them from their brethren and prevent them from practicing all together.

"The article 140 is not only the matter of land, it's not oil." Bozani says. "We see the article 140 quite differently. Especially for the Yazidis, the connotation of the Article 140 is just like the recombination of the Yazidi community. We don't want the Yazidis to be divided anymore between two governments. We look forward to the referendum when the Yazidis can decide for themselves to be whatever they want."

The freedom to decide is a rare opportunity for Yazidians.

In Lalish, the last feast day is winding down. The barefoot children who started the feast with their singing now sweep the streets clean of trash with sheaves of brush.

Their future husbands and wives play in the gutters next to them. Some of them will return here every year for the rest of their lives. Others will grow up, move abroad and perhaps never see this temple again. A few will worship openly while their relatives do so in secret. It will depend on the people chosen to govern them. And how they choose to govern themselves.

For now there is a fragile balance, an eerie quiet just as in Lalish after its worshippers leave.

These people, Bozani says, "are the beginnings of civilization. It's the same as when you are excavating an area and you take out an ancient broken vase. You have to see us like that pottery."

What value are a people of the past in today's world? If the rest of Iraq disregards the Yazidians and casts them aside in this new democracy, they may lose a piece of the region's history forever. But even if the pieces of the tribe are restored and the Yazidis can practice their faith without fear, there is no guarantee that the group's existing fractures will hold for another four thousand years.


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Tiziano Reporter

Victoria Fine,

Los Angeles, California

The Tiziano Project provides community members in conflict, post-conflict, and underreported regions with the equipment, training, and affiliations necessary to report their stories and improve their lives.

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