Interviews with Academics researching the cultural traditions of Yezidis in Armenia

Armenian News Network / Groong
October 24, 2006

    The interviews form part of continuing research by Onnik Krikorian
    on Armenia's largest minority and the division within the
    community regarding ethnic identity. Interviews that form the
    basis for later articles are made available through the Armenian
    News Network ` Groong in the interest of maintaining a plurality
    of differing views on this sensitive matter.



    Interview with Dr. Christine Allison, Institut National des
    Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO), Paris. France,
    October 2006

ONNIK KRIKORIAN: In what capacity are you researching the Yezidi in
Armenia, and what are you specifically interested in?

CHRISTINE ALLISON: I am lecturer in Kurdish at Inalco and am
affiliated to the CNRS, which is the scientific research organization
in France.  I have researched Kurdish folklore in the past. My
doctorate was on oral traditions among Yezidis in Iraq, and I am now
writing a book about discourses of memory amongst Kurds in general `
in Kurdistan and the Diaspora.

As a case study I am working on a small-scale project on discourses of
memory in a village in Aparan [in Armenia].  It will involve creating
a memory website about the village in cooperation with the people
living there, and I hope that this will be used by people from the
village now living in other parts of the former Soviet Union, Europe
and elsewhere.  Fortunately, for the terms of my research, the
inhabitants of the village consider themselves to be Kurdish.

OK:	What has been your experience regarding the division of the
Yezidi regarding Kurdish and non-Kurdish identity. Have you
encountered it and in your opinion, to what extent does it appear to
be evident?

CA:	I have met more people on the 'Kurdish' side and when I first
came across this several years ago I thought it was a 'little local
difficulty' knowing how the Yezidi identity in Iraq has been variously
officially defined as 'Arab' under the Ba'athists in the 1970s, then
'Kurdish' under the Kurds, and according to Ocalan, they were
Zoroastrians, I could see the whole issue was a political football and
the Yezidis, as a colourful folkloric sort of group were exploited in
good Orientalist fashion by everybody.

What I can say as an outsider is that with the exception of two
villages in Iraq they speak Kurmanji Kurdish, their verbal and
material culture is typical of Kurdistan and indeed pretty much
identical with non-Yezidi Kurds, and their religion is not found among
people who consider themselves to be Arabs, Turks, Persians or
Armenians.  Those are the facts.  Identity of course, is not about
objective facts, but is more complicated and variable, and what seems
to be important is that people define their identity freely for

However, I am not at all sure that this is the case in Armenia. For
example, nobody seems able to tell me how the famous census was
carried out. I've heard all sorts of rumors in Armenia, such as people
on different sides often don't speak to each other, but it was in the
community in Russia that I really began to understand how noxious this
whole question is in the Yezidi community.  There are many stories
about intimidation of people who refused to say they weren't Kurds,
for instance.

The Russian Yezidis say there is not open discrimination and
intimidation of Yezidis now but there was a peak of it in the 1990s,
and many people use the example of Dr. Ibo who died under mysterious
circumstances at about that time. In Armenia I also heard him referred
to. Anyway the problem is, as so many people say there, whether people
consider 'Yezidi' to be an ethnicity or a religion.  For Armenians the
two go together, but not for Kurds.

I came away from my visit to Russia much more aware of how deeply this
divide is hurting the community which already feels small and
threatened by macro-economic and political forces beyond its control.
And as I've said before on the subject of education I think people are
less inclined to send their kids to school not only because of
poorly-qualified teachers, but also because of this general

I think it's insecurity about the future which plays a role in keeping
girls at home, people are becoming moreconservative because of this.

In lots of communities where people feel insecure, the control of
women and girls is a knee-jerk response. It's not just because of the
Yezidis' traditionalism, which after all wasn't so much in evidence
during the Soviet period when there was some sort of economic and
cultural security.

			    *  *  *  *  *

Interview with Nahro Zagros, PhD Student, University of York, UK.
September 2006

ONNIK KRIKORIAN: You've just returned from Georgia and this was your
first albeit brief visit. What are your general impressions of the
Yezidi community there when compared to Armenia?

NAHRO ZAGROS: It seems quite different knowing that the issue of
identity is a problem for the Yezidi community in Armenia. This
problem doesn't seem to exist in Georgia although I haven't spent much
time there. However, it's certainly not a problem over there.

OK:	The majority of Yezidi, if not all, in Georgia are also
urbanized whereas most live in villages here. Does that fact manifest
itself in terms of music in terms of type of music, how it is played,
and its quality?

NZ:	There was no difference in terms of the music I heard being
played in Georgia although I was listening to old musicians so I would
imagine that the younger generation is probably less aware of its own
cultural heritage.

OK:	I suppose this would be an issue because here the Yezidi are
mainly living in villages populated by other Yezidi whereas over there
they're living among Armenians, Azeris, Georgians&

NZ:	That's right, yeah, and according to Rostom Atashov, 90
percent of Yezidis live in Tbilisi, the capital, so they're surrounded
by lots of other types of music.

OK:	Was there any difference in the music being played and listed
to by the Yezidi in Georgia and Armenia?

NZ:	It was the same and the lyrics were very familiar. Also, one
of the families of the singers I listened to moved from Armenia to
Georgia and in the 1960s and 1970s he recorded music for Kurdish radio
in Yerevan, and it was the same for the duduk player.

OK:	I've heard about the Kurdish duduk which is a higher pitched&

NZ:	Well, we don't call it a duduk. We call it the balaban or mey
which is the most common term among the Kurmanji Kurds in Turkey. In
Iraq and Iran it's balaban. It's basically higher-pitched.

OK:	Does the duduk play an important role in Kurdish music. I've
heard a lot of saz, but never much duduk even in Turkey.

NZ:	You'll hear duduk if you go to the villages, but saz is more
popular than the duduk. However, in Armenia the duduk is more popular
than saz or other instruments.

OK:	What did you hope to get from your visit to Georgia and what
information and conclusions did you leave with?

NZ:	Well, I went over there to really make contact with the
community so that hopefully in the future I can return to extend my
research and make a comparison between the music of the Yezidis in
Georgia and Armenia. In other words, I want to understand the process
of music-making in both communities.

I'm also interested in understanding the patterns of listening
especially among Yezidi youth in Armenia and Georgia. So far, the
teenagers I've spoken to seem to be very influenced by the music
played on Mesopotamia TV and Roj TV ` songs about Kurdistan.

OK:	With regards to the political orientation of Georgian Yezidi
towards Iraqi Kurdistan and Armenian Yezidi towards the PKK, does this
come across in the music as well?

NZ:	Not as such, and the majority of people I spoke to in Georgia
were familiar with those songs as well. Maybe it's because of language.
They are Kurmanji speakers whereas the majority of songs from Iraqi
Kurdistan are sung in Sorani so it can be a bit difficult. On the
other hand, Iraqi Kurdistan is important to all Yezidis because of

If written down in an alphabet Kurmanji speakers could understand
there wouldn't be so much of a problem. Interestingly, all the
proverbs and cultural expressions are the same whether in Kurmanji or

			    *  *  *  *  *

Interview with Dr. Christine Allison, Institut National des Langues et
Civilisations Orientales (INALCO), Paris. France.
June 2006

ONNIK KRIKORIAN: This is your second visit to Armenia?

CHRISTINE ALLISON: This is my third visit to Armenia, but my second
for field work to Ortachiya. That's its official name now. It means
`mid-mountain' in Kurmanji [Kurdish].

OK:	We've come to a Yezidi festival where everyone is paying their
respects to relatives that have died. Is this festival always held on
this date, and is it specific to this region?

CA:	It's specific to this region. The Yezidis in Iraq observe it at
their New Year, which is in April, but there are several dates in the
Caucasus. In this village it's today, while in other villages it's in

OK:	Is this a specifically Yezidi or Kurdish festival?

CA:	It's a specifically Yezidi festival, yes.

OK:	The women are singing laments?

CA:	That's a common Kurdish thing, and laments are alive among the
Yezidi and Kurds in Iraq although every region has its own individual

OK:	What sort of thing are people singing about?

CA:	Well, the ones I've heard today are all very personal. The
wife of the man that had died at the age of 39 was lamenting, `why did
you leave us?' and then an aunt came and sang something more formed,
musical and sorrowful which was something like `Why did you
leave. It's unfair. You left your wife and two little daughters.'

OK:	What do the Yezidi believe happens to them when they die?

CA:	That's something I'm not sure about here because Yezidis are
supposed to believe in going to heaven or paradise, the Zoroastrian
`Behest,' if they're good, but there is also some kind of Yezidi
belief in reincarnation. Clearly, those two ideas don't go together,
but I'm not sure what the view on reincarnation is here, although
people appear to be wishing their souls well in the hereafter. That's
not something I've come across in Iraq.

OK:	What are you going to do with your research?

CA:	I'm primarily interested in memory in this village, and the
fact that people feel it important to bury their relatives here, and
even if they've left the village and to come back regularly.

OK:	I've noticed quite a few Georgian number plates here.

CA:	In the case of this family [points to group of people], half
have come from Georgia and the other half are from Moscow. And in the
case of the family I'm staying with, some have come from Georgia, but
there was a sister-in-law that was supposed to have come from
Irkutz. In fact, they went to meet her at the airport last night, but
it turned out she couldn't get any further than Krasnodar because of
problems with her passport.

OK:	So the Yezidi really take this event very seriously.

CA:	Yes, they do. I was speaking to the father in the family I'm
staying with, and he said that people come every year. I said that it
must be very expensive, or dear, and he responded by saying yes, it
is, but our dead are also very dear.

OK:	You're researching the oral history traditions of the Kurds,
and you're in Ortachiya now. What have you discovered so far?

CA:	This is part of that research, and what interests me
specifically is how folklore becomes history. The Kurds in Turkey
especially feel that they haven't had an official history, and they
know that a lot of their folkloric songs are about events in tribal
times which have been transmitted quite well, but sometimes you see
attempts to write historical novels use those same songs as factual
sources. Of course, it's almost impossible to write a definitive
modern-style history using those sources.

OK:	How important have publications such as Riya Taza been in this
context in Armenia? It's the oldest surviving Kurdish-language
newspaper in the world, and is based here.

CA:	Riya Taza is important because here we don't have quite the
same picture as we do with the Kurds in Turkey. In some ways, they're
more in touch with their past here in Armenia, and they've been
studying it for a long time. One thing that I've noticed here, though,
with the literary production from the period of the Soviet Union, has
been what I would call works of memory. They're about the history of
people's families or reconstructions of historical events.

There's no doubt that this is the largest center for Kurmanji folklore
studies ' here in Armenia, as well as other places in the former
Soviet Union. Essentially, all the people doing that work were from
here, and mostly Yezidis as well. Riya Taza is part of that ' to have
a real Kurmanji intelligentsia, and they really did have one. In
Turkey they just can't do it without falling back on Turkish all the
time. They're so much in the Turkish mold.

OK:	How long will your research last?

CA:	It will be going on for a couple of years because I want to
build a memory web site about the village, and I hope that people from
this community will find it useful.

OK:	Why this village?

CA:	Because I had an entry into this village. It was purely by
chance, although Aparan interests me anyway because these villages
have been here since the 1820s. A lot of the other villages have only
been here since 1917-8. These villages have been here longer, and
there's still this very strong memory of those desperate battles.

You know, the Sardarabad battle when the Turkish army went around the
mountain two ways. If you go to Sardarabad you'll find a plaque about
Jahangir Ahar and it tells of the role he played, and also about
Youssef Bek. Jahangir Ahar is buried somewhere in Russia because he
ended up in exile, but Youssef Bek is buried in Shamiram.

OK:	So when you're conducting your research, you're picking up
history such as this?

CA:	Well, because I'm interested in discourses of memory ' what
some people call defining events ' this 1917-8 thing is always
important for everybody because even though the village was already
here, there was this big battle. In some villages, for example, they
remember the Moslems that used to live in the newer villages.

It's all at quite an early stage, but the web site is part of my work,
and the idea is to make it accessible to people from the community.

			    *  *  *  *  *

Interview with Nahro Zagros, PhD Student, University of York, UK.
April 2006

ONNIK KRIKORIAN: You're in Armenia to look at Yezidi musical
tradition, but you're an ethnic [Moslem] Kurd. Do you see Yezidi
culture in terms of music as being specifically Yezidi, Kurdish, or a
combination of the two?

NAHRO ZAGROS: What makes Yezidi music different from Kurdish music is
the behavior displayed by Yezidi towards it. For example, the funeral
we attended today. It's traditionally very Kurdish, but does not exist
among Kurds any more in the various parts of Kurdistan. It only exists
among Yezidis.

OK:	So it's been preserved among the Yezidi?

NZ:	It's been preserved in the [Kurdish] Diasporas, and in Armenia
this means Yezidis. Interestingly, a question emerges here. Why
doesn't this tradition exist among [Moslem] Kurdish people in
Azerbaijan and other parts of the former Soviet Union? Maybe Yezidism
as a separate religion has contributed to this and the fact they have
not assimilated into a different culture.

OK:	The music that I heard today was both sad and beautiful. What
are your impressions?

NZ:	The formation, structure and melody of the music were very
Kurdish as were the words and narrative. All the songs were about
Diasporas in a sense, and the fact that there is no home to go back
to. They are here as visitors and it isn't their home, so everything
was very Kurdish. On the other hand, it's very Yezidi because it only
exists among them now.

Also, the Yezidis get together for formal social gatherings twice in
Armenia. One is for weddings and the other is for funerals. There are
informal gatherings, of course, but these two events are very formal
although there is no formal invitation as such. It's an obligation and
it was nice to see people from other villages as well as Yerevan

OK:	There were also some Armenians in attendance and the toasts at
the mean after the funeral were in both Kurmanji [Kurdish] and Armenian.
They were about two nations, which I assume Armenians and Yezidi or
Kurds or whatever.

NZ:	It was said that anyone present was welcome. We are all one at
this gathering.

OK:	Talking of formality, you told me earlier that the music was
informal and improvised. With the exception of those women that were
related to the deceased who also improvised, the singer that came
improvised what he sang based on what he was told about the family.

NZ:	He had a piece of paper with the names of all of his relatives
including those living outside of Armenia in Russia or Germany, and he
used those names in his songs. Several times he mentioned a sister in
Germany, and when she rang he improvised a song for her which she
listened to from the other end of the phone.

OK:	You recorded the music and spoke to several people, so what will
you do with the audio material you gathered today?

NZ:	That's quite a complex question. I might use these tracks for
different purposes and it's hard to say when. I'm going to use them
for my dissertation, of course, but I might use them in 10 years for
something else. For the time being, though, I'm looking at the
question of music and identity and where its place is in this culture.

OK:	What is your conclusion so far?

NZ:	I think I'm surrounded by lots of different thoughts and ideas
which I can only describe for now as something beautiful.

Onnik Krikorian is a freelance journalist from the United Kingdom living
and working in the Republic of Armenia for various international and
local organizations and publications. He has a blog from Armenia at
Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written consent from Groong's Administrator.
Copyright 2006 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.

| Home | Administrative | Introduction | Armenian News | World News | Feedback |