Text and Photos by Onnik James Krikorian
YEREVAN, Armenia — When Aziz Tamoyan sits behind his desk in the cramped and dilapidated room that serves as his office in the Armenian capital, he says that he does so as president of the country’s largest ethnic minority, the Yezidis.
Pointing at the handmade posters stuck on the wall to one side of his cluttered desk, Tamoyan reads aloud the slogan that also serves as the motto for his newspaper. “My nationality is Yezidi, my language is Yezideren, and my religion is Sharfadin,” he proclaims, opening a copy of Yezdikhana to reveal the results of the last census conducted in Armenia three years ago.
“There are 40,620 Yezidis and 1,519 Kurds living in Armenia,” he continues. “These are the official figures from the census and that should be all that you need to know. The Yezidis have no connection with the Kurds and there are no Muslim Kurds in Armenia. According to the census, nobody speaks Kurdish in Armenia.”
But Philip Kreyenbroek, head of Iranian studies at the University of Goettingen in Germany and a leading specialist on the Kurds and the Yezidis of Turkey and northern Iraq, disagrees.
“The Yezidi religious and cultural tradition is deeply rooted in Kurdish culture and almost all Yezidi sacred texts are in Kurdish,”he says. “The language all Yezidi communities have in common is Kurdish and most consider themselves to be Kurds, although often with some reservations.”
As if to illustrate how these reservations have manifested themselves as a problem far out of proportion to the size of the community, next door to Tamoyan’s office sits Amarik Sardar, editor of Riya Taza, established in 1930 and still the oldest surviving Kurdish newspaper in the world.
“Unlike some people who confuse nationality with religion, I recognize the distinction,” he says. “I am Yezidi by religion but also consider myself to be a Kurd. The majority of Kurds in Armenia are also Yezidis but apart from this religious distinction there is no other difference.”
Back next door, Tamoyan reacts angrily. “Nobody has the right to say such things. If we are Kurds, why were 300,000 Yezidis killed along with 1.5 million Armenians during the genocide [in Ottoman Turkey]? Why did the Turks and Kurds deport us? The Kurds are the enemies of both the Armenians and the Yezidis.”
Indeed, most of Armenia’s Yezidi minority fled persecution and massacre in Ottoman Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century, and it is perhaps this shared experience that makes the issue so sensitive in Armenia today.
The Yezidi Movement in Armenia
The Yezidi community is the largest ethnic minority in Armenia even though it numbers just a few tens of thousands of adherents. Although their precise number worldwide is unknown, the followers of this ancient religion are spread throughout Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and, as recent immigrants and refugees, Germany.
Widely misconceived as “devil worship,” Yezidism in fact combines elements from Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Yet despite the widespread belief that they are also ethnic Kurds who resisted pressure to convert to Islam, there have been attempts in Armenia to identify the Yezidis as a separate ethnic group since the last years of Soviet rule.
Soviet-style demography, which determined communal identity based on language and largely ignored religion, identified the Yezidis and Muslim Kurds living in Armenia together as members of the same ethnic group. But by 1988, during the period of glasnost, some of Armenia’s Yezidi religious and political leaders began to challenge this notion and the “Yezidi Movement” was formed.
The following year an appeal was made to the Soviet authorities requesting that the Yezidis be considered a separate ethnic group. The request was granted, and in the last Soviet census conducted in 1989, out of approximately 60,000 Kurds who had been formerly identified as living in the Soviet Republic of Armenia, 52,700 were for the first time given a new official identity as Yezidis.
During this time of “openness” that defined the last years of the Soviet Union, the Yezidis were not the only people striving to form new national movements. In February 1988, Armenians took to the streets to demand that Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Armenian-inhabited territory within Azerbaijan, be united with Armenia. Azeris responded with attacks on Armenians.
In the tit-for-tat expulsions that followed—marking the beginning of an ethnic conflict that remains unresolved—350,000 Armenians fled Azerbaijan and 200,000 Azeris and Muslim Kurds left Armenia. The Yezidi, along with smaller groups of other non-Moslem minorities, remained. By 1991, when the tension over Karabakh broke out in armed conflict, nearly all of the Muslims living in Armenia had already fled the country.
Proponents of the Yezidis’ claim to be a nation separate from the Kurds insist, however, that there was no connection between the Karabakh conflict and the promotion of a separate Yezidi identity.
Garnik Asatrian, the director of the Caucasian Center for Iranian Studies in Yerevan, has argued that rivalry and animosity have long characterized relations between the two groups. It was only natural that the resurrection of an independent Armenian state pushed the Yezidis to try to regain their own identity and religion, he believes.
While the Yezidis practice a religion dramatically different from that of most Kurds, it seems that political ideology is attracting some Yezidis to the Kurdish cause.
At a recent event in a predominantly Yezidi-inhabited village, the audience listened to pro-Kurdish speeches and songs, including some sung by Yezidi children. One of the speakers at the event was Heydar Ali, a Kurd from Iraq who openly identifies himself as the Caucasus representative of Kongra-Gel, the organization formerly known as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Engaged in a separatist conflict in the southeastern regions of neighboring Turkey, the organization is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. The PKK lost momentum when Turkey arrested its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999 but is still active in Turkey and abroad.
“Certain officials are using this artificial division in the community for their own interests,” Ali says. “In fact, the Yezidi religion is the original faith practiced by the Kurds before most were converted to Islam—just as Armenians were pagan before converting to Christianity.
“Of course, when the Muslim Kurds and Azeris left Armenia at the beginning of the Karabakh conflict, some Yezidis might have hid their Kurdish identity because they were scared,” he continues, “but in general, the attitude of Armenian society toward Kurdish issues is positive. We have lived together for centuries and we also have some common interests.”
Nineteen-year-old Gohar Saroava, who was also present at the event held in September, agrees.
One of the few Muslim Kurds who remain in Armenia, she says that her family and two Kurdish neighbors living in an Armenian village have never experienced discrimination. As a young journalist working for the Kurdistan Committee in Yerevan, she is very open about her views on the Yezidis.
“I write about Kurdish life in Armenia and about our leader, Abdullah Ocalan,” she says. “I have come to this [Yezidi] event today because we are Kurds. Our religions may be different but we are from the same nation.”
Saroava is one of a tiny and dwindling number of Muslim Kurds left in Armenia. According to reliable estimates, at most a few hundred individuals remain. Even government officials privately acknowledge that the 1,519 Kurds recorded in the 2001 census are mainly those Yezidis who instead identified themselves as Kurds.
“Another complicating factor seems to have been the lure of PKK ideology, which attracts some Armenian Yezidis as it does many others,” Kreyenbroek explains.
“As the PKK stresses that Kurdish identity takes precedence over religious affiliations, those who are influenced by it naturally go back to calling themselves Kurds. On the other hand, more traditional [Yezidis] feel threatened and deny the connection between the Kurds and Yezidis all the more strongly. To a lesser extent the same developments can be seen in Germany, where dislike of the PKK causes some Yezidis to play down their Kurdish identity, stressing the Yezidi aspect.”
“The division of the Armenian Yezidis into one smaller group identifying themselves as Kurds and Kurmanji [Kurdish]-speakers and one group defining themselves as Yezidis with their own language is part of the post-Soviet search for identity,” says Robert Langer, a scholar at the University of Heidelberg in Germany who is researching the rituals and traditions of the Yezidis in Armenia.
And it is language that might prove to be the most vexing problem facing the community in Armenia. According to Hranush Kharatyan, head of the government’s department for national minorities and religious affairs, so significant is the issue that it is now “the most actual problem existing among national minorities in Armenia.”
When the Armenian government considered ratifying Kurmanji as the name for the language spoken by the Yezidis and Kurds, for example, emotions ran high and Kharatyan says she was accused and threatened by both sides. In particular, she says, Yezidi spiritual leaders demanded that their language instead be classified as “Yezidi” even if in private they acknowledge that it is Kurmanji.
Unable to satisfy both sides of the community, the government ratified both Yezidi and Kurdish under the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. Although there is a sizeable but still-unknown number of Yezidis who consider themselves Kurds, there are just as many who do not. As a result, says Kharatyan, the government was right not to come down on one side or the other.
“Despite the fact that I am an ethnologist and a scientist, I will call people with the same name that they are calling themselves,”Kharatyan says. “I understand that during the establishment of a national identity this transformation brings with it some very difficult and serious problems and because of this, the government of the Republic of Armenia will not interfere.
“I don’t know what will happen to both sides of the community,” she concludes, “but in the world, this is not the only example. Croatians and Serbs are enemies even though genetically they are from the same nation. However, nations are social and from time to time, things change.”
First published by Transitions Online, 2004. More articles on Yezidis in Armenia will be available soon. Until then my series of interviews on the Yezidis in Armenia are here and there are photographs here.