Culture

In His Father’s House: John Murphy’s Travels among the Yezidi

Salem at the Castle of Mir Ali.Photo by John Murphy.
Salem at the Castle of Mir Ali.
Photo by John Murphy.

In my surrogate home town here in Iraq, my anchor is my dear friend Salem Daoud. When I first arrived, I was somewhat dazed and confused from jet lag, the fatigue of finishing a Cabiri production and a serious chest infection. I was unprepared for the harsh task of being a solo American, without support in Iraq. When my original contact in Erbil was not responding, walking out into the lonesome day and having an American UN officer brush me off was cold comfort. I was very fortunate to meet Salem, and finally have someone to pull me away from the situation I was in with the Western team and deliver me, warmly, into the arms of the Yezidi communities where I’ve been residing.

Salem is the cousin of Tassim Beg, the Mir of the Yezidi people. The Yezidi are separated into several social castes, the most common of which are three principal classes: Murid, Pir and Sheikh. Salem belongs to the Sheikh class. They lead the Yezidi and offer them protection and comfort when times are tough. A stellar leader, Salem has helped many dive into the maelstrom, doing what they can to help others.

Salem has not been in Iraq for nearly two decades. Seeking a more stable home for his family, he had moved to Arizona where he built a very successful automotive repair business. But on August 2nd, as he watched Sinjar overrun and his people killed, he heard the calling of his blood. Upon meeting his son in Seattle, I was discovering that his sister had been abducted by the Da’ash terrorists who had moved beyond Sinjar and were taking control of Yezidi towns.

Before I had even the chance to meet Salem himself, he had packed his bags, directed his sons to maintain the business, and jumped on a plane to return to his homeland. As Yezidi were running in droves across the Turkish and Syrian borders to get away from the onslaught of forces that had routed the Peshmerga, Salem drove straight into his hometown of Sheikhan to save any and all of the people he could.

I first met Salem by phone while I was visiting his son, Seif, in Arizona. We had been heading to California for a cultural summit with the Iraqi embassy when Seif connected me with his father via my Viber account and we began talking. His first requests were desperate pleas for arms and protection. At this point, 80% of the Yezidi families were still on the run. Yet as time passed, our conversation grew. I began to realize how much Salem was working to be a leader in his community.

The road to Dahouk.
The road to Dahouk.
When I came here, I had planned to work independently of any official organization. Being part of one of their large projects places one in a position where one’s presence affects all interactions. They see only part of the story. The people with whom I had made the trek to Dahouk were on a specific mission, but to achieve their task they had to focus on it and blind themselves to anything else. I quickly realized I couldn’t work that way, and that I needed to be off on my own.

Having talked with Salem already, I realized the opportunity was here to connect with exactly the people I was seeking: those who are betwixt and between. I wanted to help catch the lost ones. For an individual, that is the best place to start. So Salem came to Dahouk to pick me up and we were off to his sister’s house, where he had been staying while trying to do his work here.

My first step into Yezidi culture was supernal as we went down the hill, passing the spired minaret of the town’s quppa Ezi, a Yezidi facet of their principal god, and onward to a gathering of senior men of the village. My first experience of Yezidi tradition: to attend his cousin’s sister in law’s funeral rites. Salem led me through it all, helping me with the proper etiquette. This would be the first of many funerals.

It has been very important to Salem to help me understand his culture as a native. I’ve studied the Yezidi for 20 years, but living in their homes is a whole new world. He gets this. Like few aid workers or Yezidi, Salem wants to connect the Yezidi to the West in a way that preserves the best parts of their ways while ending the isolation that has allowed the Yezidi to be murdered time and again in silence. This is the new face of their culture. Their hands are reaching out to the west. We must carefully grasp with respect and understanding. Listen. Learn. Offer help where it is appropriate and desired.

***

In early December, Salem received a phone call from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) notifying him that he had been selected from among 450 candidates as a finalist to be tested for placement as a camp supervisor. The challenge of this position is not to be underestimated. With just 40 hours of classes, UNHCR is asking a pastoral people to learn fundamental project management skills including work flow, grant diagrams, etc. Salem jumped at this chance to lead.

I could tell the first three days of classes were scary for Salem. This was a different world, with alien ideas. I met regularly with him after his classes to tutor him on various Western ideas and project management concepts. We used his successful auto repair business in Phoenix as a model to create analogies to camp operations. Our study sessions consisted of building models that do not make cultural sense to the pragmatic efficiency of the Yezidi.

After class, there was still the task of the caring for the refugees. One day, we paid a visit to his best friend who was just back from dialysis at the clinic. Mute all of his life, he communicated with Salem in gestures. Salem understood. The next day, Salem drove yet another friend’s child to the hospital, because very few here have cars.

Soon after, I parted ways with Salem and wished him luck. I had to travel to Lalish to meet the council of Pirs for the winter fast of Ezi.

Throughout the entire two days of fasting, I thought non-stop about my friend. During my time here, Salem has been many things to me: a translator, a facilitator, an information resource, and a friend. And now he had shown me my first really important task: returning the favor of education. I wondered how his class was going, and wished I could be there to help.

On the day of his test, I climbed to the top of a mountain to send him a text message, wishing him luck on the exam.

I left Lalish on pins and needles as I traveled through to another camp collecting news and interviews, all the while wondering how Salem was faring. When I returned, I met with him as soon as I could. He had tested at top of his class and had been offered the position as a multi-camp coordinator.

Salem's diploma.
Salem’s diploma.

Normally we would have celebrated, but it was not the time. For Salem, one small victory simply leads to another urgent matter. We began to prepare for our trek to Erbil. Now that Salem would have a regular schedule, we had to rush to the consulate to obtain a passport for his eldest sister Shamsa, who needed to fly to Europe for a spinal fusion.

There is no rest in this land. And for the rising face of the new progressive individuals in the Yezidi community, the volume of work is a titanic burden to bear.

As Salem enters his next phase of his work here, I have moved west. Shepherded by his advice to examine my own experience, I feel more prepared for this next phase. I will be back this way soon and I look forward to seeing what he does. I know who he is: a rare kind of leader amongst these people, people created from a perilous fire, who rise like the fabled bird Anfar, carrying a pearl of light that promises a new world.