Friday, July 08, 2005

Being Yezidi

A Moslem Kurd helps a young Yezidi girl prepare for an event in Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia

Yannis, who describes himself as "as a foreigner in an ex-soviet country of transition" has very kindly linked to an article I wrote on the division within the Yezidi minority in Armenia for Transitions Online last year.
The Yezidi community is the largest ethnic minority in Armenia even though it numbers just a few tens of thousands of adherents. Although their precise number worldwide is unknown, the followers of this ancient religion are spread throughout Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and, as recent immigrants and refugees, Germany.

Widely misconceived as "devil worship," Yezidism in fact combines elements from Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Yet despite the widespread belief that they are also ethnic Kurds who resisted pressure to convert to Islam, there have been attempts in Armenia to identify the Yezidis as a separate ethnic group since the last years of Soviet rule.

Soviet-style demography, which determined communal identity based on language and largely ignored religion, identified the Yezidis and Muslim Kurds living in Armenia together as members of the same ethnic group. But by 1988, during the period of glasnost, some of Armenia's Yezidi religious and political leaders began to challenge this notion and the "Yezidi Movement" was formed.
Coincidentally, I met with a visiting British Lecturer in Kurdish from INALCO in Paris yesterday. She is in Yerevan to research the oral history traditions of the Yezidi minority in Armenia and, after reading my work on the Yezidi minority since 1998, wanted to speak to me specifically about this issue. Also coincidentally, I have to write a long-overdue article for UNICEF on the subject of national minority education in Armenia.

And it is language that might prove to be the most vexing problem facing the community in Armenia. According to Hranush Kharatyan, head of the government's department for national minorities and religious affairs, so significant is the issue that it is now "the most actual problem existing among national minorities in Armenia."

When the Armenian government considered ratifying Kurmanji as the name for the language spoken by the Yezidis and Kurds, for example, emotions ran high and Kharatyan says she was accused and threatened by both sides. In particular, she says, Yezidi spiritual leaders demanded that their language instead be classified as "Yezidi" even if in private they acknowledge that it is Kurmanji.

Unable to satisfy both sides of the community, the government ratified both Yezidi and Kurdish under the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. Although there is a sizeable but still-unknown number of Yezidis who consider themselves Kurds, there are just as many who do not. As a result, says Kharatyan, the government was right not to come down on one side or the other.

Not surprisingly, the division within the Yezidi minority, and especially in the area of language, has once again raised its head. That article will probably be available sometime next week so until then, the article I wrote for Transitions Online can be read online here. There's also a photo story in Macromedia Flash I shot at a recent Yezidi event here.


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