‘I am a Yazidi’, I said. That statement shocked my interlocutor since he knew that I came from an Arab Muslim family, despite him suspecting that perhaps I belonged originally to either a Mandai or a Christian background. I told him I don’t harbor any doubts about Yazidism as a doctrine, while at the same time I share with the Yazidis common love and trust. Now that the Yazidis are targeted by ISIS for religious reasons, considering them heretics and outside the Ibrahimi faith, I declare myself a Yazidi.
Yes, I am converting to Yazidism, announcing it, and willing to bear all the consequences of such an announcement.
My interlocutor tried to dissuade me from taking such a decision, pointing to the text of the last Firman (Ottoman or Persian royal decree), regarding the Yazidi sect. I said there were seventy-two Firmans issued against the Yazidis by Muslims, be those Muslims Ottoman, Kurdish, or Arab. He said he was ready to forget about the religious consequences of my decision to adopt a vague and non-messianic belief such as Yazidism, but what he was not willing to accept was my attempt to prove that Yazidism was a monotheistic religion. He also said that my defense in my book ‘Hundred Illusions about Minorities in Iraq’ was unacceptable. His defensive attitude was motivated by a horror that the history of extermination and Firmans against the Yazidis implied a tacit accusation that Islam as a religion was intolerable and that Muslims as peoples refuse to co-exist with others. As for my declaration that I was a Yazidi he considered that an unjustifiable act of blasphemy.
This attitude was not by any means an exceptional or an individual stance, for despite the fact that my interlocutor is an academic holding a PhD in political science he subscribed to a dominant culture that negated any critical thinking regarding identity. A year ago and while Yazidis were targeted in Bagdad by militias I wrote an article in al-Mada newspaper with the title ‘Yazidis between the memory of Firmans and the siege of dominant cultural structures’ where I condemned the silence of intellectuals, religious institutions and the government lead by ideological parties, who did not accept diversity and difference. That silence about the prosecution of the ‘different other’ condemns us all. As the catastrophe taking place in Sinjar Mountain unfolds, that silence has been revealed for the horrific immoral act of callousness it has always been. This prompted me to write a second article about ‘ISIS’ partners in the extermination’ pointing a finger at those who live amongst us, and calling for a total revision of the culture that produced Al-Qaida yesterday, ISIS today and Frankenstein tomorrow.
Declaring I am a Yazidi is not enough unless it is coupled with a revision that would become a driving force behind active memory and change. Most of my attempts have been in that direction. Because of the ambiguity of Yazidism as a belief and the superficiality of knowledge about Yazidis as a social group we need to delve deeper. Upon the request of the director of the Arab Institute for Studies, Hany Nesira, I wrote a study entitled ‘Yazidis in Iraq: the wounded memory and present extermination’, which was published by that institute. Since years of civil work have taught me that images are more effective in the battle of gaining the hearts and minds of others, we produced a documentary film: ‘The Last Firman’, which highlighted the ordeal of the Yazidis.
However, such efforts were not enough to change the dominant stereotypes, which made me write an article with the title ‘Deconstructing a deeply-seated hatred’ and another ‘Cultural diversity and the homo-cultural structures in Iraq and the Middle East’. My efforts, according to a friend living in Sydney, were useless; and according to another Iraqi friend from Nasriya dreamy. A third friend, living in Cairo, believed my efforts were suicidal. As for my Yazidi friends, some of them believed my response (i.e. response of the Arab-Islamic surrounding) is not commensurate with the event itself; and that the positions of sympathetic intellectuals no matter how brave would not succeed in deconstructing a stifling culture or achieving recognition of the other.
The Yazidis, I felt, have reached the end of the road with their Arab Islamic surrounding. Here is a Yazidi friend living in Germany urging his compatriots to leave Iraq and never to return back, for neither Arabs nor Kurds are trustworthy after what had happened. Despair has made another Yazidi writer, Pierre Khidr Suleiman, burn all the Arabic books in his personal library in protest. Those who pondered the scene of the flames swallowing the books could not understand the significance of the act by a writer who considers writing a sacred mission. It was like an epistemological suicide, the burning down of Gods that failed. Those of us, who followed the story of Suleiman and his efforts since the 1970s, could perhaps understand the present degree of despair dominant among the Yazidi elite. Despair due to the total cultural blockage of their Arab-Islamic surrounding.
Khidr Suleiman was the first Yazidi writer to break the silence and work with other writers towards a new positive position, to replace the old negative Yazidi school, which refused to respond to the distortion of the Yazidi religion and beliefs by others. This positive attitude made itself clear beginning with the 70s of the last century when a number of Yazidi writers found it necessary to write about themselves rather than leave others to write about them. Among those writers, the two names of Khalil Jendi and Khidr Suleiman became known when they published in 1979 a book in the Kurdish language entitled ‘Yazidism in the Light of Yazidi Religion’, which was published by the Kurdish Academy.
The reason behind the writing of this book goes back to an old story that prompted the two authors to show the unilateral nature of an educational system that does not suit a multiethnic society like Iraq. Suleiman and Jendi were students in the Secondary School of Ain-Sfini and their class was composed of Muslims, Christians, and Yazidis—the Yazidis being the majority. In one bitterly cold winter day in 1964, and as the Arabic language and Islamic religion teacher entered the class, he asked all those ‘without religion’ to get out of the class. Suleiman and Jendi and all their other Yazidi and Christian colleagues with a deep wound in their hearts, feeling humiliated as what the teacher said meant that non-Muslims do not have religion. The rain was pouring and they found no shelter so Suleiman and his friend tried to return back to the class and object to what the teacher had said about them having nor religion. As they confronted the teacher an unequal dialogue about the Yazidi belief ensued. The teacher posed many aggressive questions for which they had no answer.
Ever since, as Suleiman says in his book on Yazidism, “the search for the essence of the Yazidi religion became our main preoccupation. We used to seize any opportunity to unlock the secrets of that religion buried in the chests of priests, and narrators who constantly turned us down. Suleiman and Jendi did not only face a surrounding that misunderstood Yazidism, but also faced strong pressure from the priests in their community. Suleiman wrote in his article in the magazine ‘Popular Heritage’ in 1974 about the importance of a new generation of researchers and their role in discovering their literary heritage, especially that the Yazidi literature has not been written. To achieve such task Suleiman went to ‘Baba-Sheikh’ and other men of religion several times, finally being allowed to write down some of the Yazidi heritage texts. The magazine ‘Popular Heritage’ offered a unique opportunity for writing about the heritage and folklore of ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq. It published a different narrative about Yazidism as a belief and heritage, thus attracting wide attention, especially for what Suleiman wrote about Yazidism.
His writings, however, which rectified the common distortions, elicited the anger of the most senior Iraqi historian ‘Abdel Razak Al-Hassani’. What a young, ambitious Yazidi man such as Suleiman wrote presented a challenge to the older school. Suleiman has read the book of Abdel Razak Al-Hassani about the Yazidis published in 1968 and the book was full of mistakes. Thus Suleiman wrote in 1973 a series of articles correcting such mistakes and he published three of them in ‘Popular Heritage’ but as he took the fourth to the editor ‘Lotfi El-Khori’, the editor gave him back his article saying he could not publish it:
“I asked him what’s wrong sir? He handed me a letter from the Iraqi ministry of information directed to him ordering a ban of publication of anything on the Yazidis. He told me that professor Al-Hassani had visited the magazine and was very angry as he said ‘how dare a young man such as Suleiman attack my writings and I am Iraq’s most senior historian’”.
Suleiman comments had nothing personal or subjective against Al-Hassani, they reflected the wish of one member of the Yazidi sect, who knows his belief better than others, to divulge suspicions and prove that Yazidism is a monotheistic faith, contrary to how Al-Hassani describes it. Al-Hassani argued it was heretic and Suleiman tried to prove this was a misconception. This prohibition of Suleiman’s writings was quiet shocking for him, for he felt as if he was sentenced to silence in Arabic and forbidden from defending his belief and convection. Since the magazine ‘Popular Heritage’ had a wide circulation and was the specialized organ for writing about heritage diversity in Iraq, whether this diversity was ethnic or religious, the prohibition represented another ‘cultural Firman’ no less cruel than the extermination of the Yazidis since that was a cultural extermination.
Suleiman stopped writing and publishing in Arabic and began writing in Kurdish throughout the period between 1973 and 1991. This abstention from writing in Arabic by Suleiman came to an end in 1991, with the Gulf war. As the Kurds ained relative autonomy after 1991, that allowed the Yazidis to move more freely and to establish special research centers for the study of Yazidism. The two researchers Suleiman and Jendi had a major role in raising the awareness of the Yazidis by establishing specialized centers; the Center of ‘Lalsh’ in Iraqi Kurdistan, presided over by Suleiman, and the Center of Yazidism abroad presided over by Jendi.
The Lalsh Center was established in 1993 and it was the first research center to focus on Yazidi cultural heritage and to disseminate knowledge about the truth of the Yazidi faith, its philosophy and identity, its customs and rituals. The ‘Lalsh’ magazine which appeared in three languages: Kurdish, Arabic and English, represented a major shift, as it published studies on heritage and folklore and documentation of customs, beliefs and religious texts all in one magazine. The centre held cultural festivals and seminars providing a solid ground for researchers interested in the Yazidi faith. They also prepared the curriculum regarding Yazidi religion to be distributed to schools overseen by the ministry of education in the Yazidi towns.
However, all such efforts did not prevent the publication and appearance of new books and academic dissertations in Arabic, especially in Sharia colleges, describing the Yazidi religion as one worshiping the devil. Arabs don’t read and prefer to quote inherited mistakes rather than making new discoveries. Indeed we could say that the Arabs did not discover Yazidism until the present moment. Neither shall they discover it tomorrow as long as they remain in their stagnant intellectual context, prisoners of the shackles of the past. The present moment of ISIS, and the extermination this organization carried out, poses a new question regarding the essence of the Yazidi group and their faith that occupy an alien and distant place in the Arab mind. Who of the Arabs had heard before the extermination of Sinjar Mountain or Lalsh Valley? Iraq remains in the Arab perception a dubious geography producing creeds, sects and religions which make Arabs ill at ease.
Two weeks ago and as I was presenting a research paper on ethnic and religious diversity in Iraq in a conference in Jordan about ‘The Sectarian Question and the Making of Minorities in the Arab Mashriq’ a female Arab academic commented on my presentation saying “you presented a picture of cultures I never heard of, you make me think of what historian Abdel Aziz Al-Douri said about the danger of such minorities on our identity. It is like such believes and creeds are targeting our Arab-Islamic identity”. The previous academic position is the typical Arab one, which is diametrically opposed to a western Orientalist school, which invented a group outside history. In face of both perceptions, the Yazidi School tried to speak out and challenge such taken-for-granted perceptions.
Here I return once again to emphasize that our silence and indifference represent a clear alliance with ISIS in the extermination of the Yazidis. It’s also a discreet cultural Firman practiced by the Arab-Islamic surrounding against the ‘different other’. Without exposing the significance of such a shameful Firman’s, we will never be able to understand the real context of the angry fire of Suleiman. The fire that swallowed Suleiman’s Arabic books was a protest against the chronic Arab silence; it was a symbolic act expressing frustration at decades of writing in Arabic which did not succeed in changing the stereotypes about the Yazidis and the origin of their religion; It was an announcement that we are all partners to ISIS. It was as if Suleiman was holding mirror for us all, to be able to see our appalling inhuman faces.
From the other side of the world, from my isolated small room in Bagdad, and as I look at the screen of my computer showing images of Suleiman’s books being burned down, I declare myself a Yazidi as a sort of apology. The fire makes me see a salvation in extending a long overdue apology; an apology to a generation that survived the seventy-two exterminations, an apology to a generation of marvelous young researchers such as Adnan Zian Farhan, Kader Selim Shamo, Maged Hassan, Arshad Hamo Maho, and Khidr Adomaly. To this generation of researchers I apologize for the bloody history, the shameful silence, and bitter forgetfulness. I apologize while knowing that all those Arab-Muslim intellectuals, if they raise their heads today because of the screams coming from Sinjar, will soon lower them again and indulge in sectarian debates. Debates, which borrow from history its dust but not its fire. They shall soon forget any responsibility about what had happened, is happening or shall happen. As they sip their tea they will quickly forget the heart of a mother who left her child to die of thirst, a heart that was broken one hot summer day while stranded on Sinjar Mountain.
Saad Salloum is the editor in chief of Masarat, a magazine that advocates for Iraqi minorities, and a co-founder of the Iraqi Council on Interfaith Dialogue.