Yezidis in Armenia

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Yezidis, Alagyaz, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian 1998

Recently EurasiaNet reported that Yezidis in Armenia have requested the authorities in Yerevan assist their counterparts in Iraqi Kurdistan who are experiencing violent attacks from Kurds for selling alcohol. Despite non-Muslims apparently being allowed to do so, militias are reportedly attacking shops owned by Christians and Yezidis.

Sasha Sultanian, head of Armenia’s Yezidi National Committee, has announced that the group plans to ask the Armenian foreign affairs and Diaspora ministries to promote awareness of the Iraqi Yezidis’ situation “in international organizations and [help] prevent the massacres,” Armradio reported.

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Several hundred thousand Yezidis are estimated to live around the world; the largest number in Iraq. Their religion is a blend of Zoroastrian, Muslim, Christian and other religious traditions. The central figure in the faith is a peacock angel Malek Taus, who dispenses both blessings and misfortunes as he finds fit.

However, one problem here is that no individual or group can claim to represent Armenia’s largest minority or speak on behalf of a very divided community. Much of the reason for this can be found in yet another spat between some Yezidis and Kurds, but this time over identity. Despite Sultanian’s distinction, most academics consider Yezidis to be ethnic Kurds.

As this division is very evident in Armenia, it’s difficult not to consider Sultanian’s statement in that context and part of an arguably politicized process to define Yezidis as a separate ethnic group.

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Yezidis, Armavir, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian 1998

It’s an issue that I’ve been covering since June 1998 when I visited Armenia to examine the situation of the Kurds in the country. As most of Armenia’s Moslem Kurds fled Armenia when the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh broke out, the main body of Kurds that remain are Yezidis.

Not that it’s a definitive source, but here’s how Wikipedia defines the Yezidis.

The Yazidi (also Yezidi, Kurdish: ئێزیدی or Êzidî) are a Kurdish religious group, who represent an ancient religious sect linked to Zoroastranism and Sufism. They currently live primarily in the Nineveh Province of northern Iraq. Additional communities in Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, and Syria have been in decline since the 1990s, their members having emigrated to Europe, especially to Germany. Their religion is seen as a highly syncretic complex of local Kurdish beliefs that contains Zoroastrian elements and Islamic Sufi doctrine introduced to the area by Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir in the 12th century. The Yazidi believe in God as creator of the world, which he placed under the care of seven holy beings or angels, the chief of whom is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel.

In a 1992 article, Jackie Abrahamian highlighted the problem that now exists in Armenia.

Simultaneously with the 1988 Armenian uprisings, a strong Yezidi movement began in Armenia, lead by four Yezidi religious and lay leaders: Azize’ Amar, Karame’ Salon, and Sheikhs Hasane Mahmood Tamoian, and Hasane Hasanian. The goal of the Yezidi movement is to separate the Yezidis from the rest of the Moslem Kurdish population, establishing Yezidis as a separate nation.

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Their opposers consider the Yezidi movement “absurd” and designed to take the Yezidis back to the “dark ages” as conservative religious Sheikhs practice power plays. Dr Karlen Chachani and Kurdish scholar and corresponding member of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, Shakhro Mehoyan, Charkaz Mesdoian, as well as a score of other Kurdish intellectuals who are Yezidi, argue that the Yezidi separatist movement has the full support of the Armenian government.

Interestingly, despite ‘warnings’ from Armenians not to cover the Yezidis, when I moved to Armenia in October 1998 to work for UNDP I had no choice. When Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fled to Rome, Yezidis demonstrated.

Camping outside the UN in Yerevan, they even stormed the building at one point and took the head of UNHCR hostage, dousing themselves as well as him in petrol and threatening immolation. It was reason enough for my article from Armenia published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

[...] Visiting Armenia in June 1998 in what was most likely a recruiting drive, Mahir Welat, the PKK representative to Moscow and the CIS, affirmed, “I am a Muslim Kurd but I also honor all religions. All Kurds used to be Yezidi [Zoroastrian] in the past. Some of us were forced into becoming Muslim, but now it is our intention to return and to educate ourselves again.”

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While the reasons for the increase in Kurdish nationalism among the Yezidi are complex, there is little doubt that one significant factor is a marked reluctance among many Armenians to consider Armenia anything other than a mono-ethnic country. [...] With Ocalan in Rome and with the Yezidi having found a new identity desirable in a new Armenia, open support for the PKK in Armenia is currently politically expedient in that it is directed against Turkey.

The division within the Yezidi community still lingers today, with many Armenian journalists only reporting on that side of the community which declares itself as having no connection to the Kurds. And when reporting on pro-PKK demonstrations in Yerevan, despite the exodus of Armenia’s Moslem Kurds alongside the country’s ethnic Azeris, few realize that those protesting are mainly Yezidis.

Yet, interestingly enough, the American writer Thomas Goltz speaks about how Yezidis were bused in to Lachin when it was taken by Armenian forces during the Karabakh war to pretend to be those Kurds that had actually fled. Lachin and Kelbajar had been part of the short-live Autonomous Soviet Republic of Red Kurdistan during the 1920s.

Meanwhile, so sensitive is the situation that I was even offered what I considered to be a bribe to stop writing on the Yezidis in Armenia, as detailed by a U.S. Embassy cable released by Wikileaks.

PKK activities in Armenia seem thus far to be fairly low-level, though Armenia’s Yezidi community — an ethnic minority related to Kurds by blood and language — may be receptive to PKK outreach. Among other things, we have heard reports that the PKK sends money to some Armenian Yezidi and that there are links between Yezidi communities in Armenia and Kurdish militant groups in Turkey. We have also heard that the Armenian government has made lukewarm attempts to hush a freelance journalist who reports extensively on the Yezidi and their affiliations with Kurdish militants. We believe many of these reports to be credible.

[...] [...] Krikorian told us that a Yerevan State University professor approached him in 2004 and asked him to take a group of students to Georgia on a reporting trip. When Krikorian agreed, he says, he was asked to name his price, which struck him as quite unusual. The professor then took out a sheaf of papers, which Krikorian recognized as his writings on the Yezidi. “Every reference to the PKK was underlined,” Krikorian said. He said the official told him that, if he were to accept YSU’s offer of employment, he would have to stop writing those articles, because the topic was a “very sensitive” one for the Armenian government. [...] The professor said his friends at the MFA had told him that passportless PKK fighters were slipping through unattended pockets of Armenia’s western border, implying that there was nothing the MFA could do about it, Krikorian said. (NOTE: Professor Asatrian, who is not the professor to whom Krikorian referred, told Poloff during a separate conversation that he had heard reports of PKK militants entering Armenia through gaps in the western border, in order to receive medical treatment. END NOTE.) Unswayed, Krikorian said he declined the job offer — which he considered a bribe — and left the office.

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Yezidi, Armavir, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian 1998

The division within the Yezidi community has also prevented the small community to function as a whole, as another U.S. Embassy cable explained.

Yezidi leader Tamoyan also noted that the cultural mis-identification of Yezidis as Kurds as a major problem for the community. He said the confusion stems from the linguistic similarity between Armenian Yezidis and Kurds who both speak a Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish. This misidentification was exacerbated by the 1989 Soviet Census that counted Yezidis and Kurds as one ethnic group. According to Tamoyan, there are no more than 1,500 ethnic Kurds in Armenia, and they define themselves as separate from the Yezidi community. Tamoyan also pointed to the religious-based ethnic strife between Kurds and Yezidis in Northern Iraq over the past two years as an example of how the communities differentiate themselves.

10. (C) However, when the Ambassador visited Aragotsotn Marz, the local Yezidi leaders were adamant that they are Kurds, ethically, culturally, and linguistically. The only point of difference between the groups is religion, they declared. The Aragotsotn Yezidis said that a group of “illiterate” Yezidi in Aragats Marz (where the majority of Yezidi live) do not understand this and believe that they are not Kurds. The Aragtosotn Marz leaders attributed this belief, at least in part, to the Soviets who they allege tried to divide and conquer minorities and established a new minority of “Yezidi” in the last Soviet census of 1989. Clearly, the matter of whether one is Kurd or Yezidi remains open for debate. [...] [...] [...] (COMMENT: We were left with the impression that the divisions in the community caused by the Yezidi versus Kurd debate hampers the establishment of an effective and unified organization that can represent the interests of the Yezidi. END COMMENT)

This has also frustrated attempts to provide minority education for the Yezidis in the country. That was the topic for another article I wrote for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

Yezidis in the western Aragatsotn region of Armenia have taken a dim view of government efforts, supported by the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, to bolster minority education in the republic.

At the beginning of September, at an event staged in the Yezidi village of Alagyaz, government officials said that new textbooks in minority languages would be distributed to schools in minority-populated villages, while UNICEF said it would provide stationary and other supplies.

Less than a month later, however, Yezidis in Alagyaz and ten surrounding villages were complaining. Their language is the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish, but the books funded and provided by the government were instead written in Ezdiki. While the latter is still Kurdish by another name, the alphabet chosen for publication was in the unaccustomed Cyrillic alphabet instead of the more usual Latin or Arabic scripts.

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Some experts believe that the government has only succeeded in alienating the Yezidis through its education policies. One academic from Europe speaking to IWPR on the condition of anonymity said, “The state seems to be distinctly encouraging the Ezdiki faction and has not latched on to the fact that Kurmanji and Ezdiki, which were the same language for the entire Soviet period, are still the same. The most obvious and cost-effective compromise would be to produce Ezdiki-Kurdish schoolbooks in a mutually agreed alphabet.”

Kharatyan says that she proposed a solution such as this to resolve this conflict over language, but was threatened by both sides of the Yezidi community instead. The government has since said it will monitor the distribution of the controversial textbooks, but the Kurdistan Committee is now printing its own textbooks in the Latin script for distribution to Yezidi schools during the second half of November.

Of course, the division among Yezidis and Kurds can also be found elsewhere, including Iraqi Kurdistan, but for most academics there is little doubt that there is an ethnic, cultural, and sometimes political connection, as I detailed in an article for Geographical.

Hasan Tamoyan, deputy president of the National Union of Yezidis, is one of those who maintains that the Yezidis have no connection with the Kurds. He is also head of Yezidi language programmes at Public Radio of Armenia and, sitting in his office in Yerevan, he even goes so far as to call their language Ezdiki, denying that it’s Kurmanji, despite the presence on his desk of a Yezidi magazine from Germany written in the dialect, with almost every headline including the words ‘Kurd’ or ‘Kurdistan’. He responds with threats rather than answers to questions about Armenia’s Kurdish population or suggestions that Kurdish is spoken in the country.

Prominent specialists on the Yezidis disagree. ‘I have met many Yezidis in Armenia who believe they are also Kurds,’ says Dr Christine Allison, a lecturer at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris. ‘And with the exception of two villages in Iraq, Yezidis speak Kurmanji Kurdish. Their oral and material culture is typical of Kurdistan and pretty much identical to [that of] non-Yezidi Kurds.’

Philip Kreyenbroek, head of Iranian studies at the University of Göttingen in Germany, agrees, saying: ‘The Yezidi religious and cultural tradition is deeply rooted in Kurdish culture, and almost all Yezidi sacred texts are in Kurdish.’

When I relate such opinions to Tamoyan, I only succeed in making him more irate. ‘I’d like to pass this conversation on to the government,’ he says. ‘Will you be responsible for your statement? Because I will take the recording to the National Security Service [the Armenian successor to the KGB].’

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Two years ago, a Yezidi from the Armavir region of Armenia was killed alongside six other PKK members in the Turkish town of Batman, and there has been a notable increase recently in the number of Muslim Kurds from Turkey, Iraq and Syria who have materialised in Armenia to work alongside Yezidis. At weddings, these new Kurdish arrivals perform pro-PKK songs, while senior PKK representatives regularly visit Armenia to speak at Yezidi cultural events such as the annual pilgrimage to Shamiram, a village outside Yerevan that hosts a Yezidi monument.

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A Yezidi girl in Alagyaz, Armenia, stands in front of a picture of her brother killed fighting for the PKK in Turkey © Onnik Krikorian 1998

Despite the divisions and the politics of the Yezidis in Armenia, however, there’s also something refreshing about every visit, especially in a country where 97.5 percent of the population is ethnically Armenian. It’s also why I mentioned the cultural work of one academic in my Geographical article.

Nahro Zagros, a 33-year-old ethnic Muslim Kurd, escaped Saddam Hussein’s Iraq seven years ago. Today, he’s studying for a PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of York. He has come to Armenia to conduct research into Kurdish musical tradition.

Each day, he strolls through Alagyaz armed with a digital recorder and an uncanny knack of being able to convince almost anyone to burst into song, often at just a moment’s notice. In the South Caucasus, where culture and tradition are still considered to be of paramount importance, that isn’t too difficult, but there are dangers. Even the most unexpected of guests are often obliged to partake in a few glasses of industrial-strength home-made vodka. Zagros, however, usually manages to avoid this trap. Partaking in food is another matter, however. As he explains, it can be considered an insult for a Muslim Kurd to refuse to eat at the table of a Yezidi.

Wandering from house to house in search of singers to record, Zagros finally ends up at what appears to be a cattle shed. In an adjoining room, the family that lives here is burning dung for heating. An old Yezidi man smokes a cheap cigarette by a stove erected on an earthen floor. Zagros and 75-year-old Bimbash Kochoyan are from very different worlds, but it isn’t long before the room resonates with traditional Kurdish song.

Zagros is spellbound and sports a customary grin. He can barely contain himself and is eager to explain why. ‘The songs are traditionally very Kurdish, but they don’t exist among the Kurds of Kurdistan,’ he says.

[...] [...] for academics such as Zagros, there is something far simpler in the allure of Armenia’s Yezidis. Sitting in a room filled with Yezidi women improvising songs sung to honour their recently deceased patriarch, he is captivated. ‘The music, words and narrative are very Kurdish,’ he says. ‘It’s about how the Yezidis have no homeland to return to. They are in Armenia as visitors and this isn’t their home. On the other hand, it’s very Yezidi because it only exists among them now. ‘In fact, it’s beautiful.’

More photographs of the Yezidis in Armenia are here.

1 Comment Add Yours

  1. Mirza Shingali

    First of all, the Yezidis are not Kurdish by any mean; a Yezidi becomes Kurd, when he/she loses his/her “Yezidi Identity” only. Those Yezidis who consider themselves as Kurdish, they are already accepted “Kurdification” which means he/she lost his/her Yezidi Culture. Those Kurdified Yezidis are trying to convince the West that the Yezidis are Kurdish!
    I think the Armenian Government knows this very well; during the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were behind mass attacks against the Yezidis, Armenians and Assyrians in the early 1900s.

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