To Fast with the Elders of an Ancient Race – John Murphy’s Travels Among the Yezidi

Photo courtesy of John Murphy.
Photo courtesy of John Murphy.

Ziyarat Lalish bikē

From the start of this trip I had felt that I was carried along by a tide that determined my future course. Now it had become all the more intense. Jung would call this perfect synchronicity, and I had remind myself that my fate is not my own. I hopped onto a plane into a war zone, and had to let go of everything. I expected hardship. I did not expect an invitation to a temple city I have dreamt of for over two decades, to sit with some of the holiest men in the world.

The term ziyarat, or “holy journey” holds over from the Arabic influences that date as far back to the time of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir. Adi was a Sufi ascetic who traveled north from Baghdad to find seclusion in his search for purity. What he found was an ancient people who seem to have changed him as much as he changed the prehistoric faith that he wandered into during his holy travels. To understand the Yezidi, it is helpful to look at other natural religions that were given a soteiric (reward of the soul in the afterlife) aspect to their faith by a mendicant traveler from a revealed religion.

I liken Sheikh Adi to Padmasambhava, the Indian bodhisattva who brought Buddhism to Tibet. Like Padmasambhava, Sheikh Adi was a traveler from a cosmopolitan city who encountered a tribal faith and pulled in tribal followers. In many ways, this was likely the first form of cultural imperialism. While in some cases it has decimated folk belief, to the Yezidi people it seems to have become a unique symbiosis not unlike Santeria, Vajrayana, or other faiths that span the abyssal gap of natural and revealed religions. When one studies Vajrayana Buddhism, for instance, one begins to see the presence of the Bonpo magical system that predates the movement of Indian philosophy into Tibet. So, too, can a scholar of ancient Anatolian religions see the holdovers from the Hittite and Hattian peoples, for imagery from the most ancient cultures saturates their faith.

Photo by John Murphy.
Photo by John Murphy.

When I arrived in Kurdistan, I found myself drawn rapidly out of the city and into the hills of the Yezidi holy lands. By the second day there, I was taken to the temple city of Lalish to meet with Pir Sa’ïd, one of the overseers of the holy city and a man I shall never forget. The translation of ideas was very challenging, but after some time he saw where I was going with my ideas and he liked my thoughts. This is a big plan that will take decades to come to fruition. But I spoke with the elders Pir Sa’ïd and Fakir Hussein, then finally Sheikan itself about meeting with Babba Sheikh.  They all agreed that I had thoughts that could be helpful. The challenge, of course, was the implementation of these thoughts.

In the process, Pir Sa’ïd asked my friend Amer if I would come stay with them for the first fast of winter. Amer is a very traditional sheikh that spends every fast at Lalish. When he said I was coming to fast with the high council, it was not so much an invitation but an instruction of what I was expected to do. At one level, this was the greatest of honors, but on another it was quite unsettling. The invitation to fast with the high priests of a faith is a responsibility. This is the test to see if one is a worthy human being. Like standing on Derea Mir, the stone of judgment that the entrance to the temple of Sheikh Adi, this would be a reflective moment.

The journey to Lalish was dreamlike. Originally I thought my friend Allawi was going to come with me. In the end, it was Amer, myself, the seven Pir of Lalish and the Babba Sheikh himself.

Lalish is unlike any holy city I have ever seen. Despite the prevalence of cell phones, there is no other Westernization. The West does not belong here and it would be wrong for it to ever be saturated with foreigners. Right now, there is a desire for Kurds to return to their Yezidi roots, but that is not possible in their faith. I hope they maintain their beliefs, for there is something special here that should never lose its sanctity.

This leads me to a slight digression here regarding one of the perils of Kurdistan. In any long discussion here, the greatest issue I face is the question of appropriation. The Kurdish people are a myriad of faiths and sects and sub-sects, but their enthusiasm for their culture is unimaginably strong: there are a host of Kurds who desire to return to their Yezidi roots. How do I, how does anyone explain the joy that I find in loving and aiding a culture without any desire to appropriate it? It is an urgent explanation so often lost in translation in these lands.

I am fortunate enough to have studied so many faiths in my work with The Cabiri that an ecumenical peace wraps me in its blanket in every temple I have visited in my life. Here was no different. I was enthralled by the magic of this land. My path now swept up the valley to the silent waiting spires of the qoppa that reach sunward from the holy city that lay eternally waiting for me in this ziyarat.

The fast — roji in the dialect of Kurmanji that is undertaken in this region — was a pretty simple affair itself. There were unique aspects that could fill a text on Yezidi tradition, but on a whole, it was simply a fast undertaken on a holy day. For me, there was much quiet watching and learning. Lost in the analysis of my internal mythographer was my own personal enjoyment, and a continually pressing feeling that I was not helping refugees. I was in a holy ritual and not in the trenches helping those who are suffering.

Fasts are for epiphanies and like any transcendental moment; in them, there is both desire and reality. Perhaps in retrospect this was a major ego transcendence for me. This is where the American alien within me could be purged. I learned their process. I learned that the Yezidi are a gentle people who have held on to their faith throughout a millennia of sufferance and that they are still holding on to the call of their avatar Tawsi Melek, despite being slaughtered by extremists and converted by their caregivers like homeless at gospel mission. It was in the firm grasp of their tradition that I was given the seeds to understand, as best a Westerner can, who the Yezidi truly are.

Photo by John Murphy.
Photo by John Murphy.

There came a moment in the middle of the night when I looked around at the gentle, caring men surrounding me and thought of Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street. There is a simple legitimacy to these men, as yet untouched by the Western ways, a gentleness not seen in faiths that have been appropriated by the disillusioned, Western, self-help culture lost in technology and media saturation.

It was a long night plagued by demons of doubt, shame of my culture, disillusionment of the reality of being here, and the ugly truth of my own poverty with the knowledge that the months of volunteerism I spend with the Yezidi will cost me seniority in my labor union. Hunger pains reminded me I would be lucky to break the poverty level myself when I got home. I began to see why most aid workers were from Ivy League schools. In the West, expect to pay a heavy price if you choose to help “The Other.” In God we trust.

The pragmatism of breaking fast is not Western. Sitting with Babba Sheikh I saw again his gentleness. We all knew the trials in the outside world and that soon it would be time to get to work, yet he made me smile with his kindness. He has seen so many deaths of his people, and through that he has gained the supernal ability to create happiness in those who are broken-hearted. I saw him clearly: he was a holy man, bringing smiles even to those lost in the depths of despair. He was giving peace, and a stability that would flower many weeks after the moment that we ate. It was something that elders have, for the most part, lost, something I hoped I would someday gain. It was faith that gave these people such kindness.

Those of us who have visited these people have been struck by how harmless and introverted the Yezidi are, from the core of their faith to their practical daily lives. Yet in the middle of the fast, nightmare imagery rose up through my subconscious. I felt the reality of how close Lalish came to bring sacked by the Islamic State. I saw a horrible vision of the violence that was nearly wrought upon this city and these people. I had to hide my eyes as I started to cry at the imagery roiling through my brain. I was nauseous as I thought of the senators of my home state rejecting the notion of protecting this peaceful city of gentle people. Recent memories, of watching passersby in Westlake Center mouth off to me that they don’t care about another massacre in the Middle East, flooded my mind. I was haunted by the words of one of my oldest friends telling me “I’m totally opposed of sending a single American over there or spending one more cent of our national treasure to help ‘those people.'” It was a shattering moment, one I may never recover from. I could see the city, its history, and its near-destruction and it left me with a terror and deep sadness that would forever be a scar on my conscience.

Out of this came a powerful epiphany. As with all epiphanies that open vision to the world, my pilgrimage with Amer through the path of the shrines the next day was a completely different experience.

There is an aloof Western assumption that these people are not doing all they can to defend themselves. They do not realize Lalish is more than a holy city now. Lalish is an ark. Nearly every shrine has been opened to house a refugee. Tents are everywhere. Lives are saved and no sacred ground is spared where it can serve to shelter their people. At the top of Mt. Ararat, there is a boy who sings songs while visitors perambulate the shrine. He is a refugee. In the reception chamber, tea is served by a refugee in the UK aid tents at the entrance. The city is dotted with people, most of whom are from Singal. Their eyes wear eternal fear — a gaze common among all Yezidi I have met.

A month later in a return visit, I learned that it was not like this in August. Lalish was not populated with refugees. Before the PKK arrived to protect them, all but Babba Chawash, Pir Sa’ïd, Fakir Hussein and Bakhtîar had left the region. I remembered that day: it was the day I realized I had to come to Kurdistan. Again — synchronicity.

If ever again there is a threat, there will be five souls there and not four. There are things one can not live with. I could never live with allowing the quoppa of this ancient city to be destroyed. I will move through all future days of my life with the knowledge of how I will stand with them if they are ever again threatened. Lalish is special. It truly is the last city that has not lost its magical heritage. In Lalish, the modern world is gone. It is a land of mythopoesis. A tourist might not enjoy the arduous trek to get here, but as my readers, you should thank the universe that there is still a gem like Lalish.

When I left the city from the fast the day after Christmas, I was confused, tired and emotionally drained. If ever there were too much to process, it was now. Stepping forth, I felt as if my soul had just gone a full match with a heavyweight boxer. But I kept going. There were many jobs and unknowns ahead of me still.

Riding out such changes always takes time. Only a month later, as I am alone with a dear friend in my third visit, the magic of Lalish finally hit me. On a recent aid mission we delivered bags of flour to Lalish for the bread that is the staple of this community. The population there was an order of magnitude higher, and they needed resources. But this time I was overwhelmed with peace and hope. Perhaps it was my friend Amer talking me to the shrine of their storm god, Mahamet Rasam; perhaps it was absence of electricity. Maybe it was simply the silence. But it finally entered me. Now I was allowed to walk the courtyards alone with time to process. Regardless of my connection with them, the Yezidi are tremendously communal, but my own relationship with human beings had left me always needing time alone. Alone, at night, in Lalish — I had been needing this for a long time.

My third and probably final time in this holy city left me with feelings of hope. And at this moment there were five weeks left here to serve my friends, with far too few resources and time clicking away far too fast. As time passed in this winter without me, my sense of duty grew with every step I took. Whatever was here, it did not allow me to come as a visitor, sterile, objective. It had penetrated me to the core. It was beyond the people and the place. I was welcomed — welcomed in the way that takes away your control and explains that, to serve truthfully, you must surrender your will.

The West was a distant, confusing thing now. Safe, distracted by the ephemeral moments they lived in. This was now. Here. The silent place. Lalish.

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