Did you ever wonder why the Yazidi people have been so persecuted by ISIS? Why were their women enslaved, raped and abused? Why were they systematically killed in their thousands in 2014? There is of course no justifiable why. But that sort of thing takes a lot of time, effort and resource investment, so why did ISIS think it was such a good idea?
There is a character familiar to many, he crops up regularly across the Abrahamic religions. Sometimes he is called Iblis, sometimes Lucifer, sometimes Satan. No matter his name, he was an angel, or jinn, so the story goes – a divine being – who fell from grace and was outcast by God/Allah, lending a name to evil, a face to pure sin. Most texts reference some manifestation of conceit or pride as the reason for this banishment: Iblis got somewhat miffed at being asked to grovel to Adam, who was made out of mere clay while he himself was formed from fire, and threw a hissy fit. Allah showed him the door. Lucifer got too big for his beautiful boots and corrupted his wisdom for the sake of his splendour. God wasn’t a fan and told him to get the hell out (quite possibly coining that particular phrase). Humankind went along with the deities and Iblis/Lucifer/Satan developed rather a poor reputation – with some even going so far as to call Iblis “the Peacock of Angels” for being so up himself. However, there is more than one interpretation of this tale:
The Yazidi version begins similarly – God creates angels. God creates Adam from dust. God demands the angels bow to Adam. Tawsi Melek, the first of the seven archangels, and the most beautiful, doesn’t think much of this idea. He’s rather affronted by the thought of submitting to a being other than God, especially one made from dust. And here’s where the tales differ. When Tawsi Melek says, thank you but I’d rather not if it’s all the same to you, instead of punishing him for insubordination, God promotes him. To lead a sort of crack PR team of Heft Sirr (archangels), seconded to Earth, where he is worshipped as one third of a divine triad by the Yazidi people. Incidentally, Tawsi Melek translates to Peacock Angel.
So it really does start to look a little like one religion’s divinity is another religion’s devil. Though it should be noted that in order to practice devil worship, it’s sort of integral to imagine the object of one’s worship to be the Devil. If that isn’t the case, it’s just worship. And in the case of the Yazidi (who reject conventional concepts of hell, believing instead in continual reincarnation until Heaven is attained, rendering hell essentially obsolete), there is no devil to their worship.
But that’s not how ISIS see it. For an organisation duty bound to wipe out infidels according to their interpretation of the Koran, where the Peacock of Angels is the Devil, Yazidis are considered especially heinous. The most infideley of infidels. Essential to invest considerable means in obliterating if you happen to have dedicated your life to an extremist cause.
Lalish’s relative peacefulness is broken with wild abandon for the April Sere Sal and Charshama Sor celebrations to bring in the Yazidi New Year. This celebration of fertility and renewal is marked with flames and ululation; dreams are tied into fabric draped over tombs, where they wait to be released by the next dreamer, who will then knot their own dream; coloured eggs are boiled to symbolise the solidifying of the world when it was created, and then competitively smashed against each other; diaphanous dresses come out en masse, both women and men get dolled up to the nines; shrines are visited, circled, kissed, wished upon; picnics are shared with the living and the dead; selfies are tirelessly embarked upon; wild red anemones and coloured eggshells are hung above doorways; a constant rush of gleeful children carries on long past bedtime.
Glancing around this year’s Sere Sal (Yazidi New Year) celebrations in Lalish, it is difficult to imagine that these people underwent the earth’s most recent genocide in 2014. They look relaxed and happy, excitable too. But this did happen to them. And many of these people are survivors of the flight and subsequent siege of Sinjar Mountain. Some are survivors of the ISIS program to enslave Yazidi women. They were captured and used as sexual entertainment for the troops. Which seems somewhat odd at first, given the Islamic Extremist’s usual stance on sexual relations outside of marriage. They side-stepped these using the “temporary wife” or Mut’a – Pleasure Marriage contract. It is unclear whether or not they stuck to the rule that a woman cannot enter Mut’a with another man for a period of two months following the termination of a previous Mut’a. Dressed in white and surrounded by a chain of people holding hands, these women form a procession through the temple courtyards of Lalish, heads held high.
Meanwhile, everything from frying pans to gravy boats to pieces of smashed tile receive a second lease of life as oil lamps. The oil used is locally extracted olive oil, from the many ancient olive trees in Lalish. It is stored in huge amphora within the temple, to be used on Wednesdays and for celebrations. The temple courtyard is packed. Clusters of effervescent people armed with naked flames, disperse and conglomerate. The place is all of a light hearted jostle and bare footed throng, permeated by sporadic bursts of gleeful ululation, picked up and tossed from one group to the next on the warm evening air. Children wend their way through the dense crowds, eyes huge and glowing as the daylight fades and their flames, carried disconcertingly quickly at approximately knee height, cast timeless mesmerisation borne on parted lips and the sparkles of their gaze. It’s loud, joyfully brash, seriously burn prone. Magical.
Lalish is the most sacred Yazidi spot in the world. Dating back to the Sumerian era it contains a temple that’s architecturally unique in the Middle East. Instead of domes it boasts conical spires that resemble Burmese or Hindu pagodas more than anything else to be found in the region. Shoes are forbidden at the temple and so is stepping on the threshold of a doorway – stepping over, left foot first is the done thing.
The Yazidi faith appears to draw primarily on Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. Yazidi creation, while featuring Adam and Eve, is not quite the same as that of the Abrahamic religions. There was Adam and there was Eve. And they were in the Garden of Eden. But before they resorted to recombination as a reproduction option, they first had a go at autogamy. They each put their seed into separate jars, or so one story goes, leaving these sealed for nine months. When they opened them, Eve’s contained nothing but insects/worms/dust/versions vary. But in Adam’s jar was a baby boy – Shehid bin Jer, literally “Son of Jar” and from him were all Yazidis descended. Everyone else descended from both Adam and Eve, in the usual way.
For more pictures, visit EF Images