Peacock Worship

Gerard Russell writes about the religion of the Yazidis

At the village of Khanqe, in Iraqi Kurdistan, tens of thousands of Yazidi refugees were living in rows of UN-issued tents. They had been driven out of their homes in Sinjar, sixty miles to the south-west, by an Isis attack on 3 August. It’s not the first time the Yazidis have been persecuted; it’s surprising that the sect has managed to survive at all. In the 12th century Europe’s Cathars were suppressed for their deviation from Christianity within decades of their emergence; the Yazidis, whose religion took its present form at around the same time, and which drew on still older elements of Middle Eastern ‘paganism’, still exist. How have they managed to last so long?

One of the refugees’ religious leaders is Sheikh Hamad Eido Hamu – ‘Pasha’, he added, making sure I noted it down. The Ottoman title of pasha was given to his grandfather in 1917, when the empire recognised him as the leader of the people of Sinjar. Sheikh Hamad’s followers, twenty of whom were gathered around him, were mostly wearing tatty T-shirts and trousers: presumably the clothes they’d had on when they fled from Sinjar ten days earlier. They had lost more than their possessions. Sinjar is one of their holy sites; the mountain at the centre of the region is dotted with Yazidi shrines, with their sharp conical spires. It was the mountain that saved them: once the Yazidis got there, and climbed far enough away from the roads, Isis couldn’t easily reach them, and they could more easily be protected by their own armed men, and by friendly PKK gunmen from Syria; from the mountain they were able to cross into Syria and then re-enter Iraq at a safer point further north. But the mountain is more than twenty miles from the Yazidis’ main settlements, and they were being pursued by Isis in armoured cars.

Sheikh Hamad fled with the others, but by the time I met him he had recovered some of his dignity. He was dressed in a white turban and white robe, under a cream-coloured woollen jacket tied with a Levi’s belt. The white robe was once a symbol of poverty, and is worn by members of an ascetic group called the faqirs to which the sheikh belonged by hereditary right. The faqirs observe rules which other Yazidis need not follow: abstinence from pork, for instance (a rule they share with Muslims), and from lettuce (a rule whose origin is different, and much older). Their status as faqirs, and their knowledge of the innermost secrets of the Yazidis’ faith, gives them the power to foretell the future. What the sheikh foresaw was bleak: ‘We revere seven angels who carry out in this world the will of the noble lord. And his will now is to destroy us. If God does not have mercy, we are finished. And if we are not helped, then God will send destruction on the world. Disasters will follow, not just for us, but for you as well.’ He dabbed at his eyes with a tissue. The children who were watching began to cry as well.

Their obscurity has been the Yazidis’ best defence against persecution over the centuries, but it means that we are in the dark about much of their past and even some aspects of their current beliefs. Because their faith involves mystery – in contrast to evangelical religions like Christianity and Islam, it aims to keep some of its teachings secret even from its own followers – the Yazidis are often in the dark themselves. They sometimes invent stories to explain their own curious customs. Why shouldn’t faqirs eat lettuce? It’s because lettuce gives you stomach gas, one Yazidi told me; no, it’s because the word for lettuce sounds like a taboo word, a second said. It’s because our persecutors the Turks forced us to eat lettuce, claimed a third. (Such confusion is not limited to the Yazidis: I had similar difficulty trying to establish from the Druze of Lebanon why their elders are not supposed to eat molokhiya, a dish of jute leaves common in Lebanon and Egypt.)

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