Travelers: Vasko, Alexandra, Nenad, Lazar
Date: December 2011/January 2012
"- Sheikh Adi is a dangerous den! – the captain said.
- Extremely dangerous! – added the lieutenant.
- People there pray to the Devil!
- The Devil! May Allah chop them up and crush them!"
Words from the book I read as a kid bounce in my head like pebbles crumbling off from the mountain of memory. The protagonist travels the world mediating between warring tribes, protecting the weak and stamping out tyrants. “Dear God, how precious human life is! – he cries at one point – and yet... yet... yet!”
This sentence he utters in Lalish, the place referred to in the book as Sheikh Adi. The urchin who devoured adventure novels in his primary school days could never imagine that Karl May wrote all those books never setting foot in Kurdistan. Or, for that matter, never having been to America, in which his hero knocks a grizzly bear down with his fist and becomes a blood brother of an Indian chief. However, our final breakup came much before I was able to question the veracity of the said adventures: Winnetou had died, and I no longer wanted to read.
Then other things started pouring into my life, teenage traumas and adolescent soul-searches, and the valley of the Devil’s worshippers was soon forgotten, just like many other, more important questions. And now – here I am, standing in that valley.
All around me are barren hills, covered in sparse forest and dry grass. Gnarly trees are leafless because it is January 3rd. The new year 2012 found us in a shabby motel in Sulaymaniyah, at the eastern end of Iraqi Kurdistan. Outside, the rain was moving streams of garbage, and our room had a broken window pane. Now it is sunny, the sky is perfect blue, and we are standing on a small square of a town where nobody lives. Tall ribbed cones, light beige in color, stick out from between flat-roofed stone houses.
Lalish is eerily quiet and, it seems, completely abandoned. Leaving my travel mates behind, I decide to climb the highest hill, following narrow trails, over boulders, through wintry groves and across steep meadows. First I take off my warm winter jacket, then the sweater, and finally the sweatshirt too as I reach the summit. I sit on a rock under a lonely tree.
Weeks before the trip flew by me like hurled rocks. I hardly had time to realize it, and there we were, sitting on the night train to Dimitrovgrad. I had copied a bunch of articles about the places we were planning to visit to a flash drive, hoping to print them out somewhere along the way, but the pace of the trip was such that there was no time for that. Trains and trucks, hitchhiking on desert roads of south-eastern Turkey under the freezing December sky, crossing the border into Iraq... And so I am here now, sitting on a hill above Lalish, the holiest place of the Yazidi faith, knowing about it even less than what Karl May wrote in the late 19th century.
"The large, wide cauldron of the valley was lit like in daytime. Most light came from two giant bonfires, whose roaring flames danced against the barren rocks on both sides of the temple. I was overcome by that sweet dread, pleasant and burdensome at the same time, that lights up a man’s heart when something divine penetrates his small inner world.”
In his novels, May describes Kurds as cruel highlanders, warriors who respect no power except that of their tribal sheikh, and whose blood vendettas span centuries. That was written more than a hundred years ago, but it might as well have been written yesterday in the rugged mountains of northern Iraq. Rough, hard facial features. Bad teeth, bushy eyebrows, furrowed foreheads. Loose trousers with legs connected at knee-height. Bearded old men with turbans and prayer beads. Guerillas with pubescent moustaches, armed to the teeth, barely able to lug their heavy Kalashnikov rifles, stopping cars and checking everyone’s IDs. Even though Kurds are predominantly Muslim, their women don’t cover their faces, maybe because that is an Arab tradition, and Iraqi Kurds generally dislike Arabs as much as Turkish Kurds dislike Turks.
However, Arabs and Muslim Kurds in the region are united by one thing: ethnic hatred of Yazidis.
Yazidis are Kurds who managed to resist islamization. Their faith is so old that nobody knows when it emerged. It most likely came from India, brought to the Middle East thousands of years before Jesus was born and Mohammad overhauled Christianity. Over time it absorbed fragments of surrounding religious ideas, evolving into a somewhat bizarre cocktail that teaches how in the beginning God created Heaven and Earth.
At one point, God sent his seven angels to bow to Adam. Six of them obeyed, but the seventh, Iblis, refused.
- Why didn’t you bow to Adam? – asked God, vexed.
- Because I’m better than him – Iblis replied. – Because you made him of clay, and me of fire.
- Well in that case, you’re not an angel anymore! – God bellowed. – And now, I’m going to...
- Please – Iblis said – could you postpone your punishment? At least until the Judgement Day?
- Deal – said God (merciful as he is) – But FYI, from now on you’ll be known as the Devil.
This, though maybe not exactly verbatim, is written in the Quran. However, Yazidis claim that that is not how it happened.
- Why didn’t you bow to Adam? – asked God, vexed.
- Because I’m better than him – Iblis replied. – Because you made him of clay, and...
- Atta boy! – bellowed God, giving Iblis a savage slap on the wings – you are the only one who understood that you must not bow to anyone but me! And that makes you the brainiest of all my angels.
- What happens now? – Iblis asked.
- Now I have to go, and you and your big brain are in charge of the world.
Extremist Muslims, of course, know that Yazidis worship the fallen angel, in some religions also known as the Devil. They see it as their holy duty to wipe out the Devil’s worshipers from the face of the Earth, which they have tried to do many times, with some success. Yazidis, on the other hand, passionately hate their Muslim neighbors, and would probably be happy to wipe them out too – if they only could.
In the Yazidi religion, the controversial angel is not called Devil, but Taus, which means – peacock. Melek Taus, or Angel Peacock, is in charge of the world until God returns. Where God has gone, what he is doing there and whether he is coming back at all is not for us to tell. When the Peacock heard that the world was now his responsibility, he spread his wings and flew down to Lalish. And he is still there.
"I know that for you this bird is not a deity, but a sign that you will put on yourself as a mark of our friendship. Every Yazidi to whom you show this Taus will give his property and life to protect you."
I get up from my spot under the crooked tree and slowly walk down towards Lalish. As I try to find the trail between boulders, it occurs to me that this hike wasn’t the most prudent idea. Iraq is boiling over with paranoia, feuding peoples and armed men. Only sixty kilometers from here lies Mosul, a city less known for the fine fabric by the name of mousseline, and more for the killings that go on in its streets, where extreme Sunnis are trying to eradicate Shias, Yazidis and Nestorian Christians. If someone stops me and asks what I am doing on top of this hill... Luckily, there is nobody. Only the wind, bringing the tinkling of sheep’s bells from the distance.
Together with my travel mates I go to the tallest ribbed cone: the tomb of Sheikh Adi, a mysterious Sufi who reformed the Yazidi religion in the 11th century. Adi was Angel Peacock’s reincarnation. At the entrance we are stopped by two men: one has a mustache, while the other one is bearded and wears woolen socks. The mustached one puts his hand out.
- My name is Lohman. And this is the head priest. We will show you the tomb of Sheikh Adi. Walk this way, but first take your shoes off. And be careful not to step on the doorstep.
- It is forbidden.
The Yazidi faith is rich in taboos, just like any other faith. Don’t step on the doorstep. Don’t spit on the ground, in the water or fire. Don’t wear blue clothes. Don’t eat lettuce. And so on.
We cross the stone-paved courtyard, past several ancient olive trees. Then we stop in front of a large door. Above them, in bass relief, I can see a peacock, a lion, a sun and a moon. Next to the door frame there is a long carved snake, black in color, getting out of a hole and crawling upwards.
- Why is the snake here? – I ask.
- When Noah’s Arc was about to sink, a snake curled up and blocked the hole in the hull. That is why we respect it.
"In that courtyard there is the building of the tomb temple itself, and above it there are two white towers that beautifully stand out against the dark greenery of the valley. The tips of the towers are gilded and full of sharp edges on which light plays with shadows. Above the main door there are several carved symbols of which I managed to make out a lion, a snake, an axe, a man and a comb. "
Even though Karl May never visited Lalish, writing his book in 1892 from his armchair in Germany, his descriptions of the far periphery of the Ottoman Empire are amazingly accurate (except for the carved comb, which might be down to a mistranslation).
The interior of the temple is dark, empty and freezing. The cold goes right through my thin socks, numbing my feet. In the spacious hall there is a spring with a tiny pool of water, and a sarcophagus covered with a big cloth.
"The interior of the building is divided, as I noticed later, into three main rooms: one large and two smaller ones. The largest nave’s ceiling rests on columns and arches. In it there is a spring whose water is considered holy by Yazidis. In one of the smaller naves is the tomb of the saint, and above it a large rectangular tower built of clay and covered with plaster. Above it, as the only decoration, lies a large green woven cloth."
- If you have any kind of problem – Lohman says – just tie a knot on this cloth. You can also try to untie some of the existing knots. If you succeed, the problem of the person who tied that knot will be solved. In that way one person helps solve another one’s problems.
Instead of exploring the spiritual implications of the knot system, I am painfully focused on the fact that I’ve been taking antibiotics since the beginning of the trip, my throat is so sore that I can hardly talk, and I will probably not get well by standing barefoot in a basement.
- Come on – Lohman says, pointing at a small door – this way. Bow down to avoid hitting your head. And be careful not to step on the doorstep.
We walk through the door, followed by the taciturn priest with a lantern. The first room we enter leads to another one, then another, each one narrower and lower. The floor is covered in thick sediments of olive oil crust, accumulated there over the centuries. Along the wall there are dozens of clay pots with oil, whose thick fragrance grates against my throat.
- This is for the lanterns – Lohman explains – for our greatest holiday. That is when Yazidis come here, to Lalish, for the festivities that last for seven days.
- How many Yazidis are there in total?
- Around 300,000 in Iraq. There are some in other countries too, but not that many.
- What happens at the festivities?
- Yazidis gather here in Lalish. All of the houses you saw outside are there for accommodation. Normally nobody lives here except the head priest, but during the festival the whole Lalish is full of people. That is when we sacrifice a bull, which is slaughtered on the main square.
Yazidis have a Hell, but they have no Heaven. There used to be one until Angel Peacock closed it down because it was always empty. When you die, the soul moves on to the next body, then to the next, and so on. Consecutive reincarnations continue until the soul reaches the level of spiritual purity necessary for entering the Heaven.
Apart from the reincarnations, Yazidis have kept another memory of their distant Indian motherland: the caste system. The society is divided into castes, and there are strict rules about what one can and can’t do. For example, you can’t get married to someone from a different caste. And whatever you do, you must never ever marry a Muslim. Lohman points that out at least ten times.
A large portion of Yazidis were killed off in the Ottoman days, when Belgrade and Baghdad were in the same country. They were killed by Kurds (because faith is stronger than ethnicity), Turks and Arabs. Their Islamic neighbors have never forgiven them their bowing to the Devil. After the collapse of Saddam’s regime, the local sheikhs became powerful and well-armed, and these rugged mountains slowly started sliding back towards the Middle Ages. People are killed for blood vendettas or religious hatred, women burned alive for alleged adultery, and complicated written laws are gradually being replaced with unwritten, but much easier to understand and follow, law of the jungle.
Off the temple courtyard there is a vast hall covered with thick carpeting, where we are served tea in round-bellied cups that Turks compare to the body of a perfect woman. I ask Lohman how much we should pay for the tour, but he just shakes his head, saying that it is his job to talk about Yazidis to anyone willing to listen. Then he interviews us for a Yazidi newspaper, which will publish a short article about our visit.
It crosses my mind that this is the perfect opportunity to ask some more questions about Yazidis, and I am angry with myself for coming on this trip so unprepared. I promise to myself to make up for that as soon as I get home. Several weeks later I was to discover more questions – when it was too late to ask them.
On the Internet I find an article about a Yazidi girl from the nearby village of Badri. Her name was Du’a Khalil Aswad, and she was 17 when she fell in love with a Muslim boy. After days of reading and following links, I realize that it is impossible to find out how exactly the events unfolded in that April of 2007. The girl ran away from home. According to some sources, the police offered her protection. In other sources, the sheikh of Badri himself offered protection. Some say that her parents forgave her and invited her to come back home. But this whole Rashomon effect actually bears little importance to what ensued.
When she returned, the girl was pulled out of her home and stoned to death. She was then tied to a car, dragged down the streets and finally buried with a dead dog. Of course, we read about such things all the time. In Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia... When we hear about it, it sounds almost unreal, distant and abstract. We slightly raise our eyebrows, and then forget. Those countries were not on our travel list anyway, and even if they were there is little chance that we will see anyone killing children with rocks.
However, in Du’a Khalil Aswad’s case, the stoning party made sure that everyone learn about it, probably not contemplating the horrible consequences that was to have for the Yazidi community. They recorded the stoning with their cell phones: rock in one hand, smartphone in other. Half an hour of brutal, sadistic murder. The recording quickly made it to YouTube. I will not describe the details of it here, and I don’t recommend checking.
"Even if they kill me – what of it? Doesn’t each drop of water have to rise towards the Sun? Doesn’t the shining Sun itself die every single day, only to be reborn tomorrow? Isn’t death a gate to a brighter, purer world? Have you ever heard a Yazidi say of another Yazidi that they have died? We only say they have transformed, because there is neither death nor grave, but only life and nothing but life."
The concept of the noble savage, a romantic ideal of living in harmony with nature, far from the demands of the industrialized society, could only ever have existed because the European authors of the time – Karl May among them – rarely bothered to take a closer look at those simple, honorable highlanders who talk straight, look in the eyes and honor their word as the highest sacrament. In his essay from 1853, Charles Dickens gave his opinion on this matter.
"If we have anything to learn from the Noble Savage, it is what to avoid. His virtues are a fable; his happiness is a delusion; his nobility, nonsense (...) The world will be all the better when his place knows him no more."
When they saw the video of the stoning, radical Muslims from Iraq only confirmed their long-standing conviction: that Yazidis are the Devil’s servants. Two weeks later, unidentified people stopped a bus on the way to Mosul. They checked the IDs of the passengers: Muslims and Christians were allowed to leave. The Yazidis, 23 of them (in some sources 24) were taken off the bus, made to lie face down, and shot in the back of the head.
Several months later, in August 2007, a series of bombing attacks shook the Yazidi villages around Lalish. The total death toll is estimated to 500, with 1,562 wounded. It was the bloodiest attack of suicide bombers in Iraq to date, and the second bloodiest terrorist attack in history, second only to the 9/11 in New York.
In a bizarre attempt to untangle this knot, the government of Iraqi Kurdistan ordered the exhumation of the girl’s body, which was then sent to Mosul for a post mortem. It was determined that she had died a virgin.
I tear myself away from the computer and suddenly realize that it is already dawn. I hear first morning sounds coming in from the street, suddenly become aware of the pulsating pain in my backbone, followed by a new wave of guilt for not having prepared for the trip, which made me unable to ask that very important question at the temple.
However, the more I think about it, the less I am sure what that question is.
"Dear God, how precious human life is! And yet... yet... yet!"