A Time of Strife: Travels Among the Yezidi People in the Land of ISIL

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Zivistan be min diyarbun vîdja jiwân…

It is a time of strife; it is a time of hardship. Everything humans used to take for granted, from environmental issues to fundamental human rights, is changing. The world itself is changing and the West, like most of the world, is seeing a massive uprising.

I left Seattle amidst a series of marches where millions took to the streets. It was hard to take a step onto a plane. It was hard to leave my country when I knew that every forward thinking American, even I, was needed. But there was a far greater cause before me.

On August 2nd, a group calling themselves the “Islamic State,” but referred to by their victims as “Daesh,” laid siege to the Sinjar region in Iraq. Having obtained advanced U.S. weaponry from the capture of the U.S. bases in Mosul, the Daesh terrorist organization routed the small Peshmerga force that was protecting the villages of Sinjar. The region was overrun. A massacre followed, unlike anything we have seen in the Middle East since the Armenian Genocide.

An incalculable number of the Yezidi, an ethnic minority in Iraq, were left alone to fend for themselves against a trained fighting force with the most advanced weapons on earth. Unlike the Sunni Muslims in the region who could pay a tariff and were released, the Yezidi faced sudden and painful deaths at the hands of the extremists. Within days, videos by the Daesh showed hundreds of Yezidis being strafed mercilessly with gunfire and their bodies thrown into mass graves. Those that escaped were seen fleeing to the Sinjar mountain range, the traditional safe haven of the Yezidi when assaulted by warlords.

But this time the mountain was a trap. The Islamic State guerrillas had planned for exactly this maneuver. They encircled the Yezidi on the mountain for a week while the world watched in disbelief: a quarter of a million people, on foot, running from a well-equipped army.

For those of us who knew of the Yezidi it was an atrocity that was unbearable to watch. Many voices rallied and called for U.S. intervention. Nothing seemed to happen, until a force few people had heard of, the Syrian Peoples Protection Units (YPG), stormed out of Syria to break the siege of Mt. Sinjar. In a fight no one thought winnable, using nothing more than homemade armored cars and small arms, they broke a hole in the mountain siege. A revived Peshmerga supported by United States airstrikes finally rallied, giving the YPG much-needed air support.

Then began the largest land evacuation the world has ever seen. The Kurdistan Workers party, known to the West as the PKK led the way with a massive exodus, taking the Yezidi that had not made it to Dahouk onward to safer grounds.

In the West, the media showed endless images of small villages being overrun. What was really happening was an exodus. With a horde of people numbering roughly the population of the greater Seattle region setting off on foot, the humanitarian organizations rushed to do anything they could, but they were confronted with a flood of refugees an order of magnitude greater than what they were prepared to handle. Brendan McDonald, the acting head of the UN’s OCHA has called this displacement the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation.

Amidst all of this, the world looked to the Middle East with a confused fascination. Throughout it all many of them heard for the first time about the previously unknown Yezidi.

Since time immemorial the Yezidi have fascinated religious scholars. From their earliest mention in the Ras’il of the Ikwhan Al Safah all the way through Henry Layard’s seminal text Nineveh and its Remains, the Yezidi have been a mystery to the academics and students of esoteric lore since their existence has been known.

Modern anthropologists debate the origin of the sect. Some argue that the faith was codified by Sheikh Adi in the 12th century and thus is fairly recent. Other scholars, particularly Yezidi who have entered academia, see their faith as much older, dating to Assyrio-Babylonian folklore. Regardless of their age, the Yezidi have fascinated the esoteric mind with their unique syncretism and striking angelic lore. The children of the sun, ruled by the ambiguous peacock angel Tawsi Melek, fascinate many readers’ imaginations.

But what would become of them as they faced a fatwa from the most brutal and extremist Islamic forces to have come out of the middle east?

Noticeably lost from the headlines, the Yezidi are only occasionally on the news now. Regardless of the largest refugee exodus since the Armenian genocide, few know exactly what is happening. Those of us who know Yezidi cry with them as we hear a never-ending series of stories about their ongoing trials.

This cultural treasure, the spotted leopard of minority groups, is nearly fully displaced. Even as their homeland is cleansed of terrorists, the fear is still ever present, the cities they lived in now burned out wastelands.

What will the West do to be present for these people now living in constant fear?

***

My own experience began in 1991 with a brief encounter in the Taurus mountains. As time passed and I became more interested in the myths of the ancient world, they became more and more fascinating to me–so fascinating that I have been planning a project with my friend Bill Cody and my group The Cabiri for many years now, which when completed will be one of the capstone moments in my career as a performer.

With my affection for these people so strong, seeing the senseless massacres on August 3rd left me unable to move as I lay sobbing on the floor for hours. There was some part of me I had invested in the Yezidi that still aches and halts my breath when I even try to relive that bloody day in Singal.

When I found there was a Yezidi community in Seattle, I reached out. Cultural affinities notwithstanding, I am still an American. This means baggage whenever interacting with other cultures. Meeting the Yezidi of Seattle was traumatic at best. Slowly, though, I began forging friendships that have guided me through the past five months.

Like the Hittite god Hahimas, the winter spreads a dry cold to the Zagros mountains that turns it into a frozen wasteland. Through all the televised carnage and Internet imagery I thought of the ever-approaching winter, slowly creeping out of the north and moving ominously into Kurdistan.

A time comes when you have to jump.

I have waited for two decades to travel to the Yezidi lands. I have always put it off for work and projects. But when The Cabiri finished our last show of 2014, I jumped–hard. Winter is here; I will not let these people suffer this alone.

I landed five miles from the border of the Islamic State in a small but resilient Yezidi community where I stand with them as a companion through the next three months of winter. While I am protected like family by these noble people, to the West is a constant reminder that any city can be overrun at any time. I live with the reality that this may be my last work on this earth. It may be a simple exploration. It is definitely a journey that must be written in real time. If nothing else, I am going to do my best to make them feel that they are not alone.

Some of this will be humanitarian, some of this will be political, some of this will be folklore. All will be a celebration and defense of the children of the sun.

This is the story of my winter in Kurdistan.

Bidi xatire tayre simir.

***

Authors Note: 100% of the “Tips” donated to these articles will be delivered as aid to the Yezidi people when I am in journeying through Kurdistan. Please help. We in the West made this mess; let’s clean it up.