Brass figure of a horn blower, Benin, sixteenth century.
SONGS FROM SINJAR
by Alex Cuadros
There is a Yezidi hymn about a man whose tongue was cut off by the sultan of Mosul.
For three days and three nights, he could not
even lament. So he went to the valley of Lalish,
to the holy community led by Sheikh Adi—
the only perfect being other than God. “Sheikh
Adi blew on his mouth/four times,” and the
man’s tongue grew back better than before.
Some nine hundred years ago, before
Sheikh Adi settled in Lalish, he is said to have
stopped at a spring in the Sinjar Mountains,
eighty miles west, near what is now the border with Syria. I could hear the spring’s trickle
when my pickup’s engine shut off. It was at
the end of a rutted track off a narrow asphalt
road, past hundreds of white poly-cotton tents
branded UNHCr and UNICEF. A shrine was built
there, a conical spire rising from a slash of green
in the dry scree. My interpreter called out for
the caretaker, and from an adjoining compound
a man emerged whose beard reached almost to
his eyes. He was a feqir, literally “poor man”—
a Yezidi ascetic. Introducing himself as Khalid Barakat, he led us to a patio and pulled out
mats for us to sit on. One of his sons served
fresh goat yogurt and sugar-rich tea.
Khalid agreed to talk about August 2014,
when the black flags came. Suddenly the valley
filled with Yezidis fleeing their villages in the
surrounding plains. ISIS had rounded up and
murdered a thousand Yezidis in the space of a
few days. Thousands of women and children
had been abducted. Khalid sheltered as many
people as he could, American planes dropped
water and food, but it was not enough. Sinjar in
summer is sun scorched. Desperate young men
snuck into the nearby town of Snuny to raid
abandoned shops for supplies; some were shot.
The siege lasted a week, until the American air
strikes began, and Kurdish fighters helped the
stranded Yezidis get to Syria.
ISIS tried to wipe out the Yezidis because
it believes them to be infidels. According to the
rules of the caliphate, even Jews earn protections as a People of the Book, but the Yezidis
have no book. Instead they have memorizers
like Khalid who have passed down the religion
by singing hymns and telling stories. This has
brought endless trouble, for in the absence of a
scripture, outsiders smeared the Yezidis as devil
worshippers. Wherever ISIS soldiers found the
cone of a Yezidi shrine, they blew it up.
Of the half a million Yezidis in the world,
more than 300,000 used to live in Sinjar. The
vast majority ended up in temporary camps
by the highways of northern Iraq if they did
not flee the country altogether. Some carried
pieces of unwritten scripture in their heads,
Alex Cuadros is the author of Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American
Country. He has contributed to The Baffler, Bloomberg Businessweek, NewYorker.com, and the
Washington Post and is currently working on a book about the Yezidis.