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Black Snakes, Undershirts and the Peacock Angel

December 28, 2009 Leave a comment

The penultimate chapter of Dining with al-Qaeda focuses on my experiences during the Iraq war with the Yezidi community, who straddle the northeastern corner of Iraq and patches of southeast Turkey. These 500,000 people seemed to me to be as representative as any of the other pieces of the Iraqi mosaic before, during and after the 2003 invasion that toppled Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein. Their fate seemed particularly unfair to me, since they had laid good plans for the future. Like many Iraqis, any hopes of quick improvement were dashed.

I also chose to write about them because, thanks to my Kurdish interpreter and fixer Sagvan Murad (see picture left), a Yezidi activist in his regular life, I had privileged access to the community. A strange aspect of the Yezidi faith is that even its adherents know little of the exact tenets of their religion — except for emphatic denial of outsiders’ prejudice that they ‘worship the devil’. Ultimately they are monotheists with a special reverence for their protector, the Peacock Angel.

One of the outsiders who knows the Yezidis best – Eszter Spät of Hungary, author of one of the only good books on the community – has now put together an intriguing website illustrating Yezidi holy objects from their peacock standards to the religious ceremonies surrounding their traditional undershirts. Through photographs (click on them to make them bigger), she and her collaborators show how straightforward observation and photographs gets as close to the truth about the Middle East than any formal history, theorizing or journalistic shorthand.

Spät’s website also set me straight on one thing about the black snake on the wall of the shrine of Yezidi divine Sheikh Adi in Lalish (visible on the photo here too). Nobody knows quite what it symbolizes, but Yezidi myths have it that a black snake led Noah and his ark of animals to safety. Yezidis had previously joked with me that this snake was kept black with shoe polish. According to Spät, however, it’s really done with the soot of the holy oil lamps…

The oil is still stored in ancient amphorae deep in the shrine, where, equipped with my trusty headlamp,  Murad and I explored the inner recesses and stone-carved underground spring. Murad taught me how to make a wish in the amphora store by tossing an old rag backwards over my head to land on a ledge (I was successful on my third attempt). One of his wishes must have come true: while things have been pretty tough for Yezidis since 2003, he’s now risen high to become acting chief of protocol for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani!

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