The Yazidis:  Between Lalish Festivity and ISIS Captivity

In this season of the Yazidi “Festival of Assembly,” Iraqi novelist Layla Qasrany remembers her encounters with the Yazidi people:

By Layla Qasrany

Photo courtesy Layla Qasrany.
Photo courtesy Layla Qasrany.

For the last twelve autumns — ever since the US invasion of Iraq — I’ve been starting letters and emails to my friends with a verse from the Prophet Jeremiah:

“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” (Jeremiah 8:20)

But last year and this year, it was more painful to write, knowing that the vulnerable minority of Yazidis are still in captivity as the annual celebration of their holiest religious festivity takes place each year in Lalish (about 40 miles northeast of Mosul). Each early October, thousands make their way to this magnificent valley to celebrate Eid Jama’a (The Festival of Assembly) — seven days in which the Yazidis celebrate the upcoming season of harvest and pray for a good rainy season. On the fifth day, a blood sacrifice is offered: a young ox is set loose on the upper hill on the way to sheikh Shams’ shrine. About a hundred men from a special caste chase the ox in the fields of Lalish and try to pluck a hair out of the creature; the lucky man who does so will be blessed for an entire year and prosperity and health will be upon his home. Later, the ox is slaughtered and cooked, with all of the pilgrims partaking of the feast.

It is in this valley that Sheikh Adi, martyred in the eleventh century as the defender of his people, is buried. This makes it one of the Yazidis’ holiest sites.

Each Yazidi brings for this holiday a shiny cloth called paria and ties it to the bars that surround Sheikh Adi’s tomb. They believe that, if you make a knot in the colorful cloth, your wish will come true.  Such was the simplicity of life for these peaceful people before ISIS overpowered the town of Sinjar.

The spring water of Zamzam flows a few steps away from Sheikh Adi’s tomb, the Yazidis make their way to this water to drink and wash. Only Yazidis are welcome to make use of this holy water.

The heartland of Lalish is considered a sacred place by the Yazidis. In this ancient religion of Iraq, the Holy Peacock was sent by God to earth, alighted in Lalish and spread his seven colors of glory over this valley.

The story of The Creation in the Yazidi creed goes like this: The creator threw a pearl on the face of the oceans and it broke into pieces that shaped the planet Earth and all the stars.

A first visit

Last May, I visited Lalish for the first time. I was nervous as I stepped  barefoot into the valley (all walk with bare feet  in Lalish — even when snow falls). I asked myself: What if I do something that might be considered offensive?  So  I decided to sit for a moment at a threshold by a small shrine and to watch the people. An elderly woman nearby told me, “You cannot sit here; we don’t place our feet on any doorstep here.”

Soon, we were engaged in conversation, communicating through a translator. I hugged her as I left, when a young man took me on a tour inside the sanctuary. He showed me how each shrine’s entrance has an elevated step — and told me it’s mandatory to skip it.

By the entrance to the temple where Sheikh Adi is buried, there is a statue of a black serpent. There are many stories about this deadly snake, but the one I heard had to do with Noah’s ark.  When it started to sink, the snake saved it by plugging up the hole. This is why the Yazidis will never kill a black snake.

The Yazidis are prohibited from getting married in the month of April, for this is the month when the angels unite — moreover, the flowers in the fields are way too beautiful for anyone to lay down on them!  In general, people in this region get married in harvest season, when there is lots of food for the invitees to their weddings. It’s also the season when animals are killed, and their meat preserved for the cold winter nights ahead.

I knew the Yazidis were a great people when they made me feel welcome as a non-Yazidi woman to move freely around their sanctuary. The tour guide took me inside a room where the olive oil is stored. The olives are picked from the mountains around the valley and are pressed in Lalish; the oil is set apart for religious rituals and for burning in lamps, and is stored in big black pottery jars. The strong smell of the oil comforted my soul as I walked on the cold smooth ground.

Suddenly, the tour guide stopped and told me, “You see those two openings on the ground? Take this stone and throw it in one or the other.” The two pits are considered heaven and  hell.  I threw the stone and it didn’t end up in either!

“How about a cup of tea?” the man asked, then we went outside and sat under a mulberry tree, drinking our tea and smoking. Only then were we able to talk about the tragedy that took place in August of 2014.

‘I saw Daesh killing fifty of our men’

One man was from Sinjar (which the Yazidis pronounce Shingal.)

“I am Shingaly,” he said, “and from atop a hill I saw Daesh killing fifty of our men.” The stories were overwhelming, but not all tragic; some expressed gratitude to Arab Muslims. “One Syrian Muslim man saved two sisters from ISIS,” I heard. “He claimed he was buying the two girls and taking them as wives, but he went hundreds of miles out of his way and faced danger till he made sure he had reunited the two women with their family in Iraq.”

I wonder how many more harvest seasons will come and go with the Yazidis still captive to ISIS. But I will never lose hope, and will be in spirit with the thousands of Yazidis knotting the cloth. As Victor Hugo wrote in his poem, “L’enfant,” “Les Turcs ont passé là.” One day I will be able to say regarding the part of Iraq occupied by The Islamic State, “ISIS passed by here.”

Layla Qasrany an Iraqi-American writer who published her first novel in Arabic (Sahdoutha) in 2011.


Also by Qasrany:

The Meaning of ‘Haditha, Iraq’

From Diyarbikkir to Lalish: Walking in the Footsteps of Genocide