In this season of the Yazidi “Festival of Assembly,” Iraqi novelist Layla Qasrany remembers her encounters with the Yazidi people:
By 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)
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.
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:
Click HERE to read more