Nowhere to run
In February and March, 2013, Josh Wood, travelled through the Shinjar region of northern Iraq, spending time with the Yazidi sect. Since then, the people who worship a pre-Islamic religion linked to inked to Zoroastrianism have become a touchstone in the growing strength of ISIS, the militant group that has since seized and begun to rule large swathes of territory across Iraq.
This article, first published in Esquire in April, 2013, foreshadows the horrors that were about to befall them – expulsion, execution – unless they renounced their community’s faith and convert to Islam, and underlines the gathering sectarianism that has swept across Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The taxi driver seems uninterested in watching the road as he speeds along the winding route.
He tells us about his family, flips through pictures of his kids on his cell phone and, on a few occasions, resumes a game of Tetris. It is the kind of driving style that makes it harder to consider smoking a real health risk.
We’re driving through the hills and plains of northern Iraq to a smuggler’s home on the Syrian border (that’s another story), and most other drivers on the road seem to take a similar approach. But when our vehicle is cut off, our man shakes his fist and yells “Yazidi, Shaytan!” at them. Then he goes back to his phone, assuring us that they are devil worshippers, not Muslims, hence their recklessness.
The Yazidis are familiar to hostility. In a region of the world dominated by the relatively modern Islam, Christianity and Judaism, the Yazidi religion is an outlier. While it seems to be somewhat influenced by the Abrahamic traditions, its beliefs and rituals also seem to echo the ancient world.
Today, the Yazidis are among the most persecuted groups in the world. There are fewer than a million who practise the faith, with the largest population concentrated in northern Iraq with smaller groups living in Syria, Georgia, Armenia and southern parts of Russia. Tens of thousands more have fled bouts of persecution in the Middle East and Caucasus for Germany.
In a world where information flows freely, the Yazidi faith is still largely inaccessible to outsiders, thanks to a largely oral tradition. They claim to be the original Kurds, saying their religion predates Christianity and Islam, and believe they were the product of Adam rather than Eve at the birth of mankind. Converts are not allowed, meaning the only way to become a Yazidi is to be born into the faith. A history of persecution at the hands of neighbours has made many Yazidis wary of outsiders. Marriage outside the faith, or even the rigid caste system, is strictly forbidden.
Like other religious minorities in the region, the Yazidis chose isolation and seclusion as a means of survival. But this separation and lack of contact has also led to divides, misunderstandings and hostility from other communities, given some aspects of the faith.
In the Yazidi cosmology, God created the universe along with seven archangels to watch over it. The principal angel is Malek Tawse, a peacock, who serves as God’s representative to Earth.
As an archangel, Malek Tawse is separate from the beings of Earth as he is not a mortal. On Malek Tawse’s visits to Earth, the angel hovered above the ground as is known that all beings that touch the ground will eventually die. At one point in time, Malek Tawse was asked by God to bow down to Adam, the first man. As a superior being, Malek Tawse refused to do so.
This is where things get messy, for Malek Tawse’s refusal to bow down to Adam at God’s command is seen to mirror that of the jinn Iblis in the Holy Qur’an, who refused to prostrate himself before Adam at God’s behest. According to Islam, Iblis, driven by arrogance, was reprimanded by God and condemned to hell. After his act of disobedience, Iblis came to be known as Shaytan, the Arabic word for the devil. This is why many in the region firmly hold that the Yazidis are indeed worshippers and followers of the devil.
For the Yazidis, the story goes a little differently. After Malek Tawse’s refusal to submit to Adam, the angel was rehabilitated and again trusted by God. Another version goes that the whole encounter with Adam was merely a test of God’s deputy.
While versions of events differ, there is a strong taboo around saying the word Shaytan in the presence of a Yazidi. This has added to suspicions held by some non-Yazidis that Malek Tawse is the devil and, perhaps like the Jews, the Yazidis were forbidden from enunciating the name of their deity.
Seemingly odd, complex and sometimes unexplained rules have compounded misunderstandings. This has made the Yazidis seem even more alien to some outsiders. For example, religious Yazidis are forbidden to eat lettuce. Hues of blue are not allowed to be worn, perhaps as the colour too closely resembles the brilliant feathers of Malek Tawse, the Peacock Angel. At the Yazidi’s main temple in Lalish, stepping in the middle of doorways is a horrible sin. It’s also a place where heaven and hell can be decided by the toss of a stone at two holes in the ground with one’s eyes closed — right is paradise, left is damnation.
It is winter when I arrive in Lalish, the Yazidis’ holiest site, and a dark sky and leafless trees hang over the conical pyramids of the temples. The ancient shrines are strung along a valley and a few patches of snow still cling to their roofs. The cold has kept pilgrims away and only the caretakers of the shrines remain in the silence.
A sign warning of unexploded ordinance at the turnoff to the area is the only indication that I am just a few miles away from Mosul, one of Iraq’s most violent cities.
“Lalish,” wrote CJ Edmonds, a British diplomat who served in Iraq during the first half of the 20th Century, is “the Mecca of a most attractive but grievously misunderstood and misrepresented people.”
It is here that a Sufi ascetic named Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir spent time as a hermit and ultimately passed away in the 12th Century. The Yazidis came to consider Sheikh Adi an incarnation of Malek Tawse and his tomb here at the bottom of the valley is their main temple, and represents the centre of their spiritual world. Small shrines to other figures from the religion radiate out from here, climbing the surrounding hills.
Shoes are forbidden in Lalish, so I step out of the car barefoot. The last time I was here was in the summer when the ground was scorching underfoot, with little respite outside save for stray streams of water. Now my feet are painfully cold and caked in mud.
A courtyard of Sheikh Adi’s tomb leads to an intricately carved doorway with a depiction of a snake slithering up the wall alongside it. My guides go out of their way to assure me that this has nothing to do with the accusations of devil worship. Inside, the main temple is dark. What light there is comes from a few electric lights and lamps fuelled with olive oil. The oil is still made by hand and stored in ancient vats that seem surreal outside of a museum display. On the whole, the interior of the temple is sparse, perhaps underwhelming when compared to the key tombs and temples of other creeds. But beyond the dim glow of the lights, the temple feels like a portal to a past millennium, which it kind of is.
Pillars are covered in layers of colourful cloths, their ends tied in knots by the faithful who pray and make wishes as they do so. Sheikh Adi’s tomb sits alone in a high-ceilinged room, draped in the same cloths that adorn the pillars. Doorways are unevenly matched and some are quite small. Combined with the darkness, the temple feels a little cave-like.
Baba Chawwish, a Yazidi ascetic who has forgone worldly pleasures in service of his religion, is the temple’s overseer. He used to have a name, but since he took over the guardianship duties fifteen years ago, he has only been known by his official title. In the strict religious hierarchy and caste system of the Yazidis, Baba Chawwish is charged with watching over the temple as well as the “collection and stacking of wood for the kitchen” as one of the few available lengthy scholarly texts on Yazidis informs me.
He’s wearing a white robe and circular white hat as he receives me in his quarters. As I am introduced, he tells me that he does not want to talk about the politics of the religion. But the precarious spot of Yazidis in the Middle East is on the minds of many in the community and the conversation quickly drifts this way anyway.
“Since the Yazidis were created, there has always been fear and worry,” he tells me in Kurdish via a translator. “We have been exposed to seventy-two genocide campaigns,” he continues, mentioning the same number that many Yazidis claim. This chronology of violence, they
say, started as far back as the 7th Century. “Always, we are exposed to genocide by those who are living with us in the same country.”
It is these experiences with violence, both ancient and recent, that keep many Yazidis so visibly worried about the survival of their small community.
“A history of persecution at the hands of neighbours has made many Yazidis wary of outsiders. Marriage outside of the faith, or even the rigid caste system, is strictly forbidden.”
The girl is still alive as the grainy video begins. Men jostle for position around the seventeen-year-old Du’a Khalil Aswad where she lies on the ground, either to join in the attack or trying to get a better angle to film the assault. The blows are hard and frequent, mostly feet aimed at her torso. She briefly tries to shield her face, which is streaming with blood. She’s partially clothed in a red tracksuit top and black pants, though at points, these are ripped off. Eventually, she appears to lose consciousness. A man picks up a cinderblock and smashes it on her head. Blood pools around her crumpled, still face. She’s dead.
The attackers were Yazidis as was the girl. Du’a Khalil Aswad was from a small town just outside of war-torn Mosul, and it was believed that she had been engaging in a relationship with a Sunni Muslim boy. Other rumours circulated that she had eloped and converted to Islam. In the small village hysterias of the Middle East, precise truths are often elusive. An Amnesty International report on the April 2007 killing stated that some of those who killed her were said to be her relatives. This was an honour killing.
The story of Aswad’s murder highlights the paranoia that besets segments of the insular Yazidi community. They have long been fearful that Muslims have been trying to forcibly convert their women and children. Her death came at the height of Iraq’s bloody civil war and there could not have been a worse time for it to happen. Jihadi groups bought into the narrative that she had converted to Islam and claimed her as one of their own. They were outraged that the devil worshippers had murdered a Sunni.
A few weeks later, on April 23, a bus carrying workers from the Mosul Textile Factory to the surrounding villages was stopped by gunmen. Identity cards were checked to separate Muslims and Christians from the Yazidis. The Yazidi passengers were then lined up against a wall and summarily executed. Twenty-three people died.
That summer, on August 14, Sunni extremists set off car bombs in Yazidi towns around Sinjar on the Syrian border. Death toll estimates range from five- to eight-hundred people, making it the deadliest terror attack of the Iraq War and the second deadliest ever, trailing only 9/11. But coming as it did, while violence raged across the country, it never got the attention that was warranted.
Memories of the past stay fresh here, and Baba Chawwish is not in high spirits during my visit. He is concerned about the fate of an eleven-year-old Yazidi girl named Simone Dawoud who was supposedly kidnapped from a nearby village just days before I arrived. The perpetrator, he and others say, was a twenty-year-old Sunni Kurd, a travelling salesman who was familiar with the village and its families. Baba Chawwish and others are convinced that Simone was kidnapped so that she can be converted to Islam.
The disappearance has raised tensions between Yazidis and neighbouring Sunni communities. Relations are on edge. “Too many others are going to be kidnapped; she’s not the last one,” he says mournfully. “The Muslims say they take them to the right religion.”
A few weeks later, the Kurdish media will report that Simone Dawoud has been located. She says she is fifteen, not eleven, and that she ran away with a Muslim man to escape a forced arranged marriage. As usual, truths are elusive.
But the fear of forcible conversions runs high. It’s a paranoia rooted in the insulation of the community and a result of the discrimination and violence to which Yazidis have been subjected. “We only want to be safe and protected, we don’t want to take power or authority,” says Baba Chawwish. “We want to be treated as human beings, not second-class citizens. God created all humans. All humans are going to die, so there is no difference between us.”
As we talk, another visitor to Baba Chawwish’s reception room pipes up to mention that his brother was recently hired to work in a restaurant in nearby Dohuk. After his boss found out he was a Yazidi, he was fired after his first day. It is this kind of casual, widespread discrimination that can make life hell for minorities.
Near Lalish in the small Yazidi town of Sheikhan, I visit Baba Sheikh, the head of the Yazidis religious hierarchy and the community’s Pope, of sorts. A distinguished, rotund man with a thick white beard, Baba Sheikh wears a round white hat and flowing white robes. He sits on a low pedestal in his reception room, slightly elevating him above everybody else as he fidgets with a set of prayer beads. Visitors kiss the pedestal he sits on before they take a seat or go about their business.
As with other minority groups in the region, the Yazidis are targeted with accusations from the extreme and ignorant about having tails and horns. “Do you see horns?” Baba Sheikh asks as he lifts his hat up, letting out a hearty laugh. Such sentiments are ridiculous, but they are also dangerous and promote a hostility that can at times be very real.
In December 2011, riots broke out in northwestern Iraq after Friday sermons railed against alcohol and other vices. With drinking permitted in the Yazidi religion, many owners of liquor stores in Iraq are Yazidis. While attacks began against these stores, they eventually broadened to include other businesses owned by Yazidis and Assyrians, a larger ethnic minority with Mesopotamian roots.
On the outskirts of Dohuk, in the town of Sumel, I meet Dishad, a Yazidi man who owns a small liquor store that was targeted in the riots and burned down. He is edgy and nervous about speaking to a journalist. He insists on talking inside my hire car, rather than in more comfortable or natural surroundings. Even then, his eyes dart around and he leaves in a hurry when the questions end. Like other Yazidi liquor-store owners, he operates his shop in an area not lived in or frequented by members of his religious group. “All the Yazidis are in danger,” he says. “Not only the liquor-store owners.”
Attacks on Yazidis have not reached the levels of intensity that they did in 2007, during the worst days of the civil war, but protection is still something that many worry about. The Kurdistan Regional Government has been fair towards Yazidis, according to people like Baba Chawwish and Baba Sheikh. They say it has tried its best to afford some protection to the community. But there is little to be done about the mindsets of some in the Kurdish population, like those who perpetrated the December 2011 riots.
Security in Iraq is also slipping once again, as tensions between Sunnis and Shia rise amid greater Kurdish pushes for autonomy. Yazidis fear what a return to chaos could mean for them. “The United Nations is protecting animals not to become extinct, so why don’t they protect the Yazidis to keep us from being extinct?” asks Samir, a son of Baba Sheikh.
Oil-rich Kurdistan is one of the few places in the world where the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is still openly praised.
For the Kurds, who were subjugated under Saddam Hussein’s rule, it provided broader independence, security and opened the path to economic development. For some minorities, the U.S. saga in Iraq was seen not a stumbling miscalculation, but rather a layer of protection that they had been longing for. “At the beginning, we were happy that the U.S. came here because this big force might protect minorities and give us our rights,” says Baker Qassim, a resident of Sinjar. “But afterwards, they dropped everything and went back home.”
There is a new war in the region and Yazidis are fleeing again. In the town of Shariya, just outside the city of Dohuk, Yazidi refugees from Syria have sought refuge with their co-religionists. The Yazidi community in Syria is small, perhaps fifteen-thousand-strong, and is mostly centered in the Kurdish-majority areas, in the north east of the country. The Kurdish areas were relatively quiet until recently, when fighting picked up between Kurdish militias and rebel units. The Yazidis who have fled from here to Iraq are primarily afraid of the promulgation of Islamist and Jihadi groups across the border. They claim that their community has already become the target of killings, kidnappings and property seizures at the hands of such groups.
This is the second escape for Haji Deham, a man in his sixties dressed in a thobe and a headdress, in contrast to the modern clothes that many Kurds and Yazidis prefer. He is originally from Sinjar — the same town that was the target of the coordinated car-bomb strikes in 2007 — but has spent much of his life in Syria. Opposing the Ba’ath Party during the 1970s, he says he was sentenced to death in absentia and fled to the Kurdish-majority Hassake province in eastern Syria. In exile, he claims he organised armed Kurdish units to fight against Saddam Hussein and was funded by the Syrian government. Now he is back in Iraq. He says Jabhat al-Nusra — a Jihadi faction fighting the Syrian government that has been labelled a terrorist organisation by the U.S. — has targeted Hassake’s Yazidis and even forced his sons from their home.
The U.S. has said that Jabhat al-Nusra is simply an alias for al-Qaeda in Iraq and was formed on orders from the group. Nusra has spearheaded a number of key rebel assaults and has been responsible for hundreds of attacks against the government, including suicide bombs. Some members of the organisation speak of minorities as fellow Syrians who will have a place in a post-Assad state. But the group’s extremist worldview has done little to comfort minorities. “If Jabhat al-Nusra controls the area, minorities like the Christians, Yazidis and Druze cannot live there,” says Deham. “They are going to apply Shariah law and we will have to convert to Islam, otherwise we will have to leave the area.”
The erosion of the power of nation states, and the simultaneous retreat to ethnic and sectarian identities, is perhaps one of the most defining characteristics of the recent history of the modern Middle East. The past couple of years have seen the rise of movements that have toppled dictatorships. But this has also resulted in environments where divisions within once-homogenous societies have become more pronounced.
In a region filled with minorities fearing the worst, the Yazidis represent a minority within a minority, and they have few escape routes. The stream of persecution for the region’s Yazidis has been consistent. They had Saddam Hussein, then extremist Jihadi groups in Iraq, now Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and likely whatever order comes next for that war-shattered nation.
For as long as violence, extremist groups and chaos exist around the Yazidis, their sentiments of paranoia and fear of being “the others” will continue.