ing. Khoshaba paused, looked at the ground.
One difference between words you read and
words you hear is that the drama of a pause
can’t be conveyed on the page. On the page,
a fermata is just a mute arc. Khoshaba’s eyes
opened wide for a moment, then reddened.
“People from Bashiqa and Bahzani are far from
their holy places,” he said. “Sinjar was a mountain of heroes and gentlemen, but now they
are scattered in camps across Greece, camps in
Turkey, camps in Syria.” He paused again. And
then: “What was our sin?”
Yezidi religious leaders had begun to discuss the creation of their first true scripture before 2014. For Yezidis living in Iraq, it might
fulfill the old dream of recognition as a People
of the Book. In the diaspora, it would provide
answers for new generations otherwise cut off
from traditional sources of knowledge. The clerical council had already formed a committee of
experts to start laying out the canon. They had
much to discuss: How to order the texts? What
to leave out? Should rules of conduct be ordered,
too? And, perhaps trickiest of all, how to determine which version of a hymn is the correct one?
But Yezidism is rich precisely because it
lacks a center. Even if the committee could
ever come to agreement, there are individual
memorizers who reject the process entirely, and
they have oral tradition to back them up. In one
important pairing of qewl and chirok, Sultan
Ezi—one of the names of God—converts a
sharia judge to the true religion. To demonstrate his faith, the judge tears up all his papers
and throws them into the sea.
Here is another story. At one point Taylor
and I went to the dusty town of Ain Sifni to
seek an audience with the Baba Sheikh. The
antechamber of the holiest figure in Yezidism
was a small room bathed in the pale light of
weak fluorescents, with a minifridge that heaved
to life now and then and couches whose fake
leather came off in filmy pieces on my palms.
After a while the electricity went out, and everyone turned on the flashlights on their phones
until a diesel generator revved up outside.
A man named Hadi, a brother of the Baba
Sheikh—his German national ID read “Hadi
Babascheich”—received us. He had a commanding mustache and wore a dark blazer and
a large watch. Taylor was telling him about his
plan for an archive of hymns when Hadi took
out his phone and started swiping. He wanted
to show us something. He crossed the room,
and I moved over so he could sit between us on
our couch. On the screen I could see a young
girl, unsmiling, in beige fatigues. She was a
Yezidi. The next picture showed her in lingerie. The screen was angled toward Taylor, but
I couldn’t bring myself to crane my neck for a
an ISIS soldier appeared. This grinning, graybearded man, Hadi said, had bought the girl as
his slave. The pictures came from some kind of
On the drive back to the city of Dohuk,
Mirza told us he had never been religious. He
didn’t care if the oral tradition was preserved
at all. “I never listen to qewls or chiroks, and I
don’t understand what they mean anyway,” he
said. He had served as a translator for the U.S.
Army during the Iraq War, received a special immigrant visa, and moved to Nebraska.
“Without religion people would have one less
reason to kill each other,” he said. “I moved
to the U.S. because I don’t want my children
to think about religion at all.” And yet he had
returned to Iraq. His wife, also a Yezidi, had
It was nighttime now. Mirza had been
translating conversations about the fate of
his people for many hours. Outside the window, an unruly flame spouted from an oil well;
then we passed it, and the highway grew dark
again. “You know what I think?” Mirza asked
at last. “One day the Yezidis will be finished.”
We drove the rest of the way to Dohuk without another word.
The tune I remember, could I but keep the words.
—Virgil, 38 BC