Photographs and narratives by ROBERT LEUTHEUSER from and of his travels through Kurdistan and the greater Middle East. Published in conjunction with his photographic website

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27 December 2009

Yezidis in the Sinjar

Thursday, 14 October 2009

Faqir Khalaf stood outside the walls of the small village of Karsi, his white beard resplendent against a brittle and blue Mesopotamian sky. Nearby was an Ottoman police station last used almost a century before. Although the stone walls are battered, it remains an imposing structure and reminder of an earlier era drenched in ferocity and oppression. I was in northwestern Iraq's Sinjar (Shingal) region, of the same name as the 75-kilometer long mountain, near the Syrian border visiting an isolated population of Kurds who adhere to the Yezidi religion.

With an unbroken gaze, he held my hand in both of his to punctuate his request … or I should say demand … that when I return to America I must tell the President that the Sinjari Yezidis are poor and in danger; they need America's help. Only when I agreed did he release my hand and eyes. Although a small man, he suddenly looked smaller.

I had been hearing this same refrain since arriving in Iraqi Kurdistan several weeks prior: The Sinjari Yezidis were alone and they knew it.

They resented their comparative poverty and feared for their very survival once the American military withdrew from Iraq 10 months hence. This fear was not abstract; it was palpable and rooted in personal experiences. (Indeed, earlier in the day my host, Sheikh Gharbi, took me to the grave of a friend who was killed in a terrorist attack but a month before.)

For centuries Sinjar Mountain was a refuge for Yezidis, but that was to change under Saddam Hussein who relocated ethnic and religious populations to eliminate feared or actual opposition to his regime. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Sinjari Yezidis were forced from their traditional villages into collective villages (mujam’at) located on the plains below the mountain,  and Arabs were brought in to the region. The Sinjari Yezidis now share the area with Muslims – Arabs and Kurds. They are no longer the feared 19th century brigands, and the mountain is no longer their refuge.

Yezidi'ism is monotheistic and regarded by many to be related to Zoroastrianism, the first of monotheistic religions. The Yezidi religion has absorbed seemingly discordant fragments of beliefs and rituals from other religions that have flooded the region and has for centuries protectively wrapped itself in its own secrets. A result has been a perfect environment for the propagation of benign and malicious misinformation, such as casting Yezidis as “devil worshippers.” (The Yezidis believe in a Lucifer who was actually loyal to God.)

They are a small religious minority within the sprawling Sunni Muslim-dominated Kurdish community. Some Yezidis vigorously maintain that they are a separate ethnic group; many acknowledge that ethnically they are Kurdish. Some Muslims believe that Yezidi'ism is a 12th century apostate offshoot from Islam; most Yezidians believe their religion to be very ancient and they alone are the true descendants of Adam. Regardless of the viewpoints, substantiated or not, for centuries Yezidis have been intermittently and violently persecuted by Muslims – Kurdish, Turkic, and Arab alike.

Fakir Khalaf wore a roughly woven black shirt under layers topped by a white robe. Such shirts are only worn by faqirs, those who choose to lead ascetic lives, a choice limited to members of four tribes. Because the shirt had been soaked in Zamzam, the holiest of springs at the Yezidian religious site of Lalish in Iraqi Kurdistan, itself is considered holy. All who greeted Khalaf did so with reverence and kissed the sleeve of the black shirt.

Contemporary news from Iraq rarely includes the plight of the Yezidis. Even when the occasional story about the religious minorities reaches the Western press, with very few exceptions, the emphasis is on Iraq’s Christian communities whose situation is also dire. The last spate of significant news regarding the Yezidis was in 2007. In April of that year, 23 Yezidis were taken off a bus outside of Mosul and executed. Others on the bus were not harmed. And on August 14th, suicide bombers killed over 500 Yezidians two Sinjari villages. Many considered these to be strategic terrorist attacks to stoke the furnaces of sectarian violence in Iraq. Yezidis were the victims nonetheless.

Such news still crackled unspoken through the air in the village, even when four young men retreated to the shade to resume a game of cards on the ground covered by powdered sand, while we drank the obligatory sweet tea from stocks that had none to spare.

That night while sleeping in a mujama’at on the plains at the foot of the mountain, I was awoken by the deep rumbling of large military planes flying low overhead. Soon, silence will disturb the sleep of Sinjari Yezidis.