Eszter Spät

From 2002 to the 2010s, what has changed in Yezidi material culture?

„After 08.03.14 Yezidi folk dress was rediscovered by young people as a symbol of Yezidi identity in the face of existential threat.“

With the kind permission of Dr. Eszter Spät, who has been working with and about Yezidis for about seventeen years now, her photos of Yezidis are published on the Yezidi Photo Archive. What has changed in the material culture of the Yezidis throughout the years?

Cema’iye or Autumn Assembly 2002

The Cema’iye or one-week-long Autumn Assembly is celebrated every year at the beginning of October. It is an important event, which offers both spiritual fulfillment and the chance to meet relatives and friends to socialize. Yezidis congregate in the sacred valley of Lalish, coming from all over Iraq. These days, most of the pilgrims are from Sinjar, as people living nearer to Lalish prefer to come when the sacred valley is less crowded. However, in 2002, when these pictures were taken, there was an internal border between Arab Iraq (where most of Sheikhan, Beshiqe-Behzani and Sinjar were located) and the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (where Baadra and the collective settlements of Shariya and Khanke are located.) As the religious feast of Cema’iye was one of the rare occasions when Yezidis living under Baghdad’s rule were allowed to enter the Kurdistan Region by the Iraqi border patrol, many pilgrims also arrived from Sheikhan, while others from the Kurdistan Region came in order to meet their relatives.

In 2002, when I first attended the Cema’iye, the valley and the festival still created the impression as if time had at least partially stopped here. Though pilgrims arrived by (mostly dilapidated) cars, rather than on the horsebacks described by former travelers, the valley lacked modern amenities (though some pilgrims brought gas bottles along for cooking). Elderly pilgrims still wore traditional clothes, some of the women even sporting face tattoos, while young men wore loose pantaloons and young women were decked out in modified Western-style dressed, which brought to mind the late nineteenth-century rural America with their long skirts, long sleeves, and high necks. At a time when Iraq, except for the Kurdistan Region, was almost hermetically isolated from the outside world, for the majority of pilgrims, who came from Saddam’s Iraq, the presence of a lone female Westerner was almost as fascinating as the pilgrims and their rituals were for me.

  1. Qewals sitting in the place reserved for them in the inner courtyard of the Sheikh Adi Sanctuary. Their sacred instruments, wrapped in white cotton sacks, rest on the low stone wall behind them. The other side of the stone wall is the place reserved for the Baba Sheikh.
  2. Qewals sitting in their customary place, counting their income.

The qewals, who have their headquarters in the twin villages of Bashiq and Bahzan, hold one of the most important positions in Yezidi religion. Today, their main task is to maintain the religious texts (qewls, beyts, qesids etc.) that are passed on orally and to continue this tradition. In the past, when the Yezidi princes of Sheikhan were largely independent, their role was more important. They acted as a kind of agency of the Yezidi Prince; they mediated between their princes and the Yezidi tribes, as well as the Ottoman authorities.

Furthermore, they annually led the Sinjaks in the various distant Yezidi settlements, where they instructed the Yezidis in their religion, transmitted orders to their princes and settled disputes. They informed the prince about the conditions of the respective Yezidi settlement areas. During these round trips the qewals also collected voluntary “taxes”. With these taxes, the Yezidi Prince had to look after Lalish and secure the livelihood of the religious leaders, including the qewals. This kind of tax system ensured the survival of this important position for centuries – until today. Despite the constant globalization and the writing of sacred texts, the members of the qewal families continue to dedicate their lives to the preservation of this tradition, which is essential for the Yezidi religion. Even today, the qewals’ livelihood is secured by voluntary donations from Yezidi pilgrims.

Changes

The guesthouse of Lalish (part of the complex of the Sheikh Adi Sanctuary). High ranking Yezidis (as well as Muslim guests) are hosted by the family of the Serderî (Guardian) of Lalish and his family here. Many higher ranking pilgrims ate and some even slept here. In 2002, the two guestrooms were still open to the courtyard. These rooms have since been walled in with glass. (See last photo: The courtyard in 2011. The three young women in the picture were Christians on a trip organized by the university of Duhok to Lalish.) Entrance to the guesthouse is also much more restricted these days. In 2002 any Yezidi could enter the courtyard. By 2011 and 2013 guards were standing by the door to the courtyard, checking if those wanting to enter were “entitled” to. The guesthouse and its courtyard lost its previous lively atmosphere as a place of welcome.

The change in the appearance of young people, since 2002, is nearly shocking. Their traditional, very “modest” appearance was supplanted by clothes and hairstyles which would be fashionable anywhere in the Western world, from blue jeans to leggings, sleeveless tops, capri pants and décolletage. While girls still wear their hair long, boys’ hair imitates the latest male fashion. Traditional moustaches, a religious requirement, have all but disappeared. Beards, previously the prerogative of certain religious ranks or special social groups, have sprung up.

While in the years following the collapse of the Saddam system, young people started dressing in the same style as their Western peers, a new trend became detectable after August 03 2014, the attack by ISIS on the Yezidi community. Prior to this date tradition dress was worn only by the old generation. After 08.03.14 Yezidi folk dress was rediscovered by young people as a symbol of Yezidi identity in the face of existential threat.

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