Gabriel Scheinmann is the director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center.
The city of Lalish, as many refer to the holy center of the Yazidi faith, is a bit of a misnomer. Wedged into the side of a small hill several hours’ drive north of Irbil in Kurdistan, the hamlet is remote and modest and has only one entry point, a partially paved strip that was guarded, at the time of my visit, by Kurdish pesh merga troops. The small group looked and acted more like parking attendants than hardened fighters. In the small valley between the hills, gas flares dotted an otherwise tranquil landscape seemingly undisturbed by modernity.
Days after the last U.S. troops left Iraq in late 2011, I found myself cradling a cup of tea in the Yazidi temple compound in Lalish, a place whose name sounds like something out of a Gene Roddenberry creation. As U.S. airpower returns to Iraq, at least partly to protect thousands of Yazidis from possible massacre, that afternoon at the Yazidi mecca has been on my mind.
Our visit was fortuitously timed. Two colleagues and I had embarked on a research trip to Iraqi Kurdistan that happened to fall between the exit of U.S. forces and the arrival of the resurgent Sunni jihadism that has since swept through much of western Iraq. After several days of meetings with senior Kurdish Regional Government officials, we ventured northward out of Irbil toward the Zagros Mountains, first to visit the Christian town of Alqosh, home to the tomb of the Jewish prophet Nahum, and then to travel onward to Lalish.
In Lalish, members of the Yazidi clergy welcomed us warmly, gave us a tour of their temple and explained the tenets of their faith. Yazidis are a small group of people — there are fewer than 700,000 worldwide, we were told. They have no written religious texts and no language of their own, which makes the continuation of their faith over time both difficult and impressive. Similarly, they neither believe in conversion, choosing not to proselytize in the shark tank of more aggressive theologies, nor in intermarriage among members of their strict castes. Bedecked in white, our host, a diabetic and smoker, was from the middle caste and was forbidden to imbibe alcohol or eat fish. Such constraints — no language, no conversion and strict caste divisions — likely explain their dwindling numbers even more than the very real historical persecution they have experienced.
The temple itself is fairly plain. Its conical roofs ensconce the tomb of Sheikh Adi, a 12th-century Lebanese-born Sufi canonized by the Yazidis. Engravings and statuettes of peacocks, a deeply venerated symbol, are omnipresent. Adherents, of which there were few that sunny December afternoon, would enter the temple barefoot, being careful not to step on the thresholds between rooms, and kiss the corners of the shrine. We watched devotees, some of whom had traveled from Germany and Sweden, where there are large Yazidi diasporas, participate in a ritual in which they threw a square of cloth blindly over their backs, hoping it would land on the shrine.
Yazidism has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance under Kurdish rule. The Kurdish Regional Government, the Yazidi clergyman explained, often allowed them to teach Yazidism, instead of Islam, in their schools. He told us that the Yazidis had no problems with Jews, Christians or Muslims — especially with Jews, since they, like Yazidis, are an older faith. Although it had been a while since he had received American visitors, he told us that U.S. soldiers had been regular visitors before the drawdown.
Our visit highlighted the diversity of experiences that is Kurdistan. The very next night, we enjoyed a concert by the internationally renowned Lebanese pop star Nancy Ajram, though it ended prematurely when adoring fans began to storm the stage. A couple of nights later we went to a Christmas party for foreign diplomats that was attended by many senior Kurdish officials. Christmas itself is a bank holiday there, and the Christmas lights of the relatively well-off area of Ein Kawa — including large, lighted-up crucifixes — could be seen from a distance. And one night that week, we celebrated Hanukkah with Iraqi Jews, Christians, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Kurds. As we explained the meaning behind the letters on the dreidel and noshed on sweets, we caught a glimpse of what a modern and liberal Middle Eastern society could look like.
Victory by the Islamic State and the slaughter of Yazidis would bury such a dream. Long repressed under Saddam Hussein, Yazidis, Kurds and other minorities were buoyed by the U.S.-led invasion. Kurdistan has served as a haven for many during the turmoil of recent years, including Iraqi Christians, as well as Sunnis fleeing both jihadists and Iraqi government persecution.
President Obama has warned that the U.S. military campaign will be a “long-term project.” Those words apply equally to the prospects of modernity in the Middle East. The fate of the Yazidis will be a small but telling example of the future of the region.
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