Magazine article Geographical

A People Divided: The Break-Up of the Former Soviet Union Has Given Armenia's Largest Minority, the Yezidis, New Freedoms. but This Has Proven to Be a Mixed Blessing, as Geopolitical and Historical Concerns Have Riven the Small Community

Magazine article Geographical

A People Divided: The Break-Up of the Former Soviet Union Has Given Armenia's Largest Minority, the Yezidis, New Freedoms. but This Has Proven to Be a Mixed Blessing, as Geopolitical and Historical Concerns Have Riven the Small Community

Article excerpt

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Nestled at the foot of Mount Aragats, Armenia's highest peak, the villages of Riya Taza and Alagyaz hardly merit more than a passing glance from motorists heading north towards the border with Georgia. Elderly women dressed in colourful garb nonetheless line the road, while children play nearby among rusting abandoned vehicles and farmers herd their cattle in the surrounding pastures. Few stop at the makeshift shacks selling basic groceries and provisions on the roadside. In fact, nobody pays much attention at all.

But for academics from as far away as the UK, France, Germany and Japan, these small, impoverished villages are a dream come true. Located 60 kilometres from Yerevan, the Armenian capital, Riya Taza, Alagyaz and other villages interconnected by pockmarked roads are home to one of the biggest concentrations of Yezidis in the country.

As a group, the Yezidis are defined by their religion, which combines elements from Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. They are often accused of devil worship by Christians and Muslims, because they believe that both good and evil are manifestations of God. The Yezidis are the largest ethnic minority in Armenia, the majority having arrived in the country during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Worldwide, their precise number is unknown, with estimates varying between 200,000 and 500,000. According to a 2001 census, there are just over 40,000 in Armenia.

What makes the Yezidis so interesting to the academic community is the fact that they are considered to be ethnic Kurds who resisted pressure to convert to Islam. Speaking Kurmanji, the dialect of Kurdish spoken in Turkey, Armenia's Yezidis are considered by many Kurdologists to represent the purest form of Kurdish culture in the region.

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MUSIC TO THEIR EARS

Nahro Zagros, a 33-year-old ethnic Muslim Kurd, escaped Saddam Hussein's Iraq seven years ago. Today, he's studying for a PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of York. He has come to Armenia to conduct research into Kurdish musical tradition.

Each day, he strolls through Alagyaz armed with a digital recorder and an uncanny knack of being able to convince almost anyone to burst into song, often at just a moment's notice. In the South Caucasus, where culture and tradition are still considered to be of paramount importance, that isn't too difficult, but there are dangers. Even the most unexpected of guests are often obliged to partake in a few glasses of industrial-strength home-made vodka. Zagros, however, usually manages to avoid this trap. Partaking in food is another matter, however. As he explains, it can be considered an insult for a Muslim Kurd to refuse to eat at the table of a Yezidi.

Wandering from house to house in search of singers to record, Zagros finally ends up at what appears to be a cattle shed. In an adjoining room, the family that lives here is burning dung for heating. An old Yezidi man smokes a cheap cigarette by a stove erected on an earthen floor. Zagros and 75-year-old Bimbash Kochoyan are from very different worlds, but it isn't long before the room resonates with traditional Kurdish song.

Zagros is spellbound and sports a customary grin. He can barely contain himself and is eager to explain why. 'The songs are traditionally very Kurdish, but they don't exist among the Kurds of Kurdistan,' he says.

TROUBLED HISTORY

There is a certain irony to this sudden interest in the Yezidis' Kurdish heritage. Although the Yezidis are considered to be ethnic Kurds, there has been a long history of animosity between them and their Muslim counterparts in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Many of Armenia's Yezidis arrived in the country during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, when an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were massacred during deportation from regions in what is now the Republic of Turkey. …

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