Roger Lescot

A visit to the Yezidis in 1935

Roger Lescot (1914 – 1975) was a French Orientalist. 

The Yezidi Photo Archive translated some of the parts Roger Lescot has written about the life of the Yezidis in Sinjar in Enquête sur les Yezidis de Syrie et du Djebel Sindjār.

Far from any major urban centre, away from major roads and, moreover, almost impenetrable, Sinjar has been able to live its own life and escape external influences to this day. Such a country offered the Yezidis an ideal place of safety, allowing them to maintain, despite their political weakness, the purity of their traditions in absolute independence.

The Yezidis are gardeners rather than farmers. Each tribe has gardens that it cultivates with love and which no one speaks of without pride. This predilection for gardening is easily explained: to harvest cereals, one has to go down into the plain, the sown fields remain at the mercy of the first enemy raid; on the contrary, an orchard is easily hidden in a mountain fold and is therefore less exposed. The gardens (bustan) are generally located a little far from the villages. Each family has its own plot of land, as well as a cabin where you can sleep when the work requires it or when you have to hunt marauders.

Yezidi clothing differs considerably from that of the surrounding populations. Men wear, over their large cotton pants a very long shirt, with the collar widely indented on the chest, and a tunic opened from the front and tightened at the waist by a colored belt. The Yezidis are wear a high felt cap (kim), most often brown, sometimes white, with a turban of any colour. Among men, Arab fashion is becoming increasingly popular. All the chiefs have replaced the felt cap with the keffiyé and many imitate them. Some even go so far as to adopt the Bedouin dress. 

Some of the women, all dressed in white, wear a large white turban and a scarf whose ends fall back on their shoulders and wrap around their necks. They wear over their dresses a tunic similar to that of men. Other Yezidi women wear a light black turban, a white wool jacket with short sleeves and a red or green scarf. They wear a lot of necklaces, bracelets and rings, while other women have very few jewellery.

Every new birth – whether of a girl or a boy – is hailed as a happy event. As soon as the child is born, parents and friends come to congratulate the father and give the mother some gifts (clothes or money). A snack of figs or dates is offered to visitors. If the newborn is male, he receives the name of the first well-known figure his father meets: one of Dawûdê Dêwûd’s sons is called Hadi, in honour of Chief Sammar Hadi.

If the child is male, the Sheikh and the Pir bring him a dress and they put it on with their own hands. They then pour water on his forehead and cut off a lock of hair at the top of his head. This rite of passage does not give rise to any particular celebration. However, the circumcision of boys is accompanied by a feast that brings the whole family together.

As the Yezidi people have no known book similar to the Quran or written traditions, the religious or legal provisions are established only by custom. Everyone complies with it only as much as he or she wants, because there was never, in Sinjar, a central power strong enough to impose respect for the law on everyone.

Image on the right: Dawûdê Dêwûd and one of his sons

Despite the brutality that marked them during the Ottoman era, government interventions remained, until the establishment of the Mandate, without much influence on the political life of Sinjar. Until recently, the nature of their relations with neighbouring Christian or Muslim populations was more important to the Yezidis than their relations with representatives of the central government. They have always remained on excellent terms with the Christians of the cities of Mesopotamia. 

Although the Yezidis were frequently persecuted under the Ottoman regime, no one seriously considered depriving them of their political autonomy; moreover, their isolation and military value allowed them to repel many attacks. The creation of a modern Arab state in Iraq has completely transformed the living conditions of the inhabitants of the Mountain. As long as the British Mandate lasted, Jebel remained relatively calm. 

The community even witnessed timid attempts at modernism. Ismail Beg had his children educated, and two schools opened, one at Sheikhan, the other at Balad Sinjar. The proclamation of Iraqi independence marked, for the Yezidis, the end of this period of tranquility.

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