Nineveh Plains. Sheikh Adi is buried here, and
above the gate to his sanctuary, peacocks are
carved into the stone for Tawusi Melek. To the
right is a charcoal-blackened relief of a serpent,
which might seem menacing if not for qewls
that tell of a snake plugging a leak in Noah’s
ark. When I arrived, the parking lot was full of
pilgrims in a picnic mood unloading bundles
from cars. Before going in, they all bowed on
their knees to kiss the threshold; everyone went
barefoot except for the peshmerga fighters on
patrol. My Yezidi interpreter, whom I will call
Mirza, at first balked at taking off his shoes but
finally relented. He said he only ever came to
Lalish with journalists.
We made our way through dark passage-
ways and bright courtyards to a clearing over-
hung by terebinth trees. Men with billowy pants
hiked to their knees gathered around a tiled
pit, stomping on sacks of olives. Others passed
down tins of hot water to pour over their feet,
and gradually the pit filled with olive oil. One
man, his white dress shirt still crisp, stood to the
side and sang. He would draw a syllable into a
long vibrato, then blurt a quick string of words
before slowing down again, his eyes half-closed.
His eyes were green, his face young looking yet
gaunt, with a wispy beard and a red-checked
scarf wrapped tight above his ears. He crossed
his arms, and now and then a refrain of high
notes rose from seemingly patternless melodies.
In the qewls, Lalish existed before God
created the world. It was God’s throne. The
olives come from groves fed by a spring that
Sheikh Adi is said to have opened there, draw-
ing miraculously on the well of Zamzam in
faraway Mecca. The tombs of Sheikh Adi and
his successors are marked by conical spires;
the oil was for lighting lamps at their shrines.
When the pit was full, someone brought over a
machine like a giant eggbeater and plunged it
inside to mix the juice. The diesel whir of the
generator overwhelmed his voice, so the mem-
orizer stopped and pulled out a cigarette.
I was traveling with a documentary
filmmaker, Taylor Krauss, who recorded the
Murder of a Musician (detail), engraving by Charles Turner Warren, late eighteenth century.