Let This Sin Be Upon My Neck: Yezidi Songs, Genocide, & Scripture
October 4, 2017 1:13 PM   Subscribe

"The Yezidis kept their hymns secret for centuries, so scholars have barely analyzed them as music. ... the holiest of hymns is a qewl. The form is often cryptic: “Four lamps with one wick! / There are seven doorways for one Word. / Eleven are a deep ditch: / Seven are dark, four are luminous.” ... No one knows for sure why the qewls are sung and not just spoken. ... A memorizer, though, knows who taught him every piece in his repertoire. Each hymn is the product of a unique line of transmission, so the stanzas vary from region to region, generation to generation, person to person. ... One qewl, sung in Yezidi communities as far-flung as Germany and the Caucasus, has thirty known variations. It could be no other way in a game of telephone that has lasted centuries. ... A talented memorizer will intersperse sung stanzas with sections from prose narratives known as chiroks. Some chiroks serve mainly to illuminate the most enigmatic verses of a qewl, while others recount myths that are not in the hymns at all. They are just as important to the religion but even more flexible, with much room for individual flourishes and interpretations. Different versions can even contradict each other." (Lapham's Quarterly, longread) With this rich tradition of orality in danger from modernity, genocide, and diaspora, Yezidi leaders have decided to allow qewls to written down (beginning in the late 1970s) and are now in the process of forming, for the first time, a written canon.

The Yezidi (or Yazidi), an ethno-religious minority indigenous to northern Iraq, number perhaps a million worldwide, and have been a primary target of ISIL for their syncretic religious beliefs, the core of which may originate in Ancient Near Eastern bird worship dating back more than 6,000 years.

The Yezidi are strictly endogamous, believing that they are descended from Adam alone (who ejaculated into a jar on the instructions of Tawusi Melek, and from the jar grew a boy child, who married a houri), while all other humans are descended from Adam and Eve. (More on Yezidi creation stories.) Debates about their ethnic and religious origins are caught up in messy debates across the Middle East -- in Iraq they consider themselves ethnic Kurds, who are granted some autonomy from the central government and Yazdanism is accepted as a Kurdish indigenous religion, but in Armenia Kurds are identified as pro-Islam and thus anti-Armenia and Yezidi reject that ethnic label.

Following the Peacock, a documentary (in English) about the Yezidi, including examples of their music.

A written collection of qewls by a Yezidi scholar in Europe, Khana Omarkhali, with oral recordings.

An older work in English, incorporating the first 1970s written records of qewls

Yezidis in Germany recite a qewl

Lalish, 30 miles outside Mosul, is the holiest site of the Yazidi religion. Visiting Lalish. More photos of Lalish. Video.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (12 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Reminds me of the process for writing down and then annotating what is now called Gregoria's chant; you didn't have people start to write it down and capture the melodies until long after it was already fully formed.

This is awesome.
posted by resurrexit at 1:47 PM on October 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Gregorian, derp.
posted by resurrexit at 1:56 PM on October 4, 2017

fyi, these folks were a significant part of the population caught on the Sinjar mountain, verging on a genocide a few years ago. A really deeply strong people.
posted by sammyo at 2:06 PM on October 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's the 21st century and genocide is still an active part of our conversations.
posted by tommasz at 2:33 PM on October 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

posted by Schmucko at 4:08 PM on October 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

They hold very important pieces of human history in their songs and memories. Their way of worship the peacock reminds me of a the Sufi Story of creation, about the hoopoe bird, or that God was a bird and when he cleaned his nest feathers of all colors fell out. People would pick up the feathers and say, "See, God is blue, or God is red," or whatever color of feather they found. I have always liked this metaphor, or this story, however or whatever it is. The Yezidi have so many strands of human belief woven in to their faith. Even their cone temples and places remind me of tee pees. They are one of those people always in the wrong place, whatever the time, and I hope they keep everything, and find safety. All the more reason to grant the Kurdish State, it is likely they would find safety there for some of their numbers.
posted by Oyéah at 4:22 PM on October 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

This was a really interesting read, thanks for posting.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 4:25 PM on October 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Alan Moore created a Yezidi superhero. In the '90s, and bear in mind, the first English language studies of their culture only emerged in the '90s. His name was King Peacock, a superhero cop in a city where literally everyone is a superhero, and he's a darn good cop. On the one hand, the over-the-top nod-and-wink to the misapprehension that they are devil worshippers is at once an awesome skewering of trying to understand a religion from the outside, and a nod to the plight Gnostics and Zorastrians and others find themselves in. How can we dumb down millennia of tradition into something a Christian or Muslim or (Insert Dominant Culture Here) would get?

In the light of what has happened in Iraq since 2003, and especially since the Black Flags came to Kurdistan, the joke now falls spectacularly flat.

But, still, Moore created a moral and religious superhero cop who followed a religion not of a book, but of the songs they sing through the ages. He was pretty bad-ass.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:37 PM on October 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

What a rich and interesting post, thanks Eyebrows.
posted by spitbull at 10:09 PM on October 4, 2017

The Islamic State has impacted the Yezidi hard, as is demonstrated in Nadia Murad's forthcoming book The Last Girl (I read at an uncorrected proof; the story is so tough to read). She writes movingly of loving her people and her religion.
posted by gudrun at 5:05 AM on October 5, 2017

This is a great opportunity to re-read Ted Chiang's 'The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling', the messy consequences ramifications of writing down oral knowledge.
posted by LMGM at 7:36 AM on October 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Peacock Angel!!!!!!
posted by Liquidwolf at 10:29 AM on October 5, 2017

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