Photographs and narratives by ROBERT LEUTHEUSER from and of his travels through Kurdistan and the greater Middle East. Published in conjunction with his photographic website

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21 May 2015

The Reunions Were Reaffirming, But Not So the Stories

In August 2014 the self-proclaimed Islamic State attacked the Yezidis in their heartland in northern Iraq.  The black flags showed no mercy.  Hundreds of thousands of Yezidis are now are refugees, among them good friends of mine.  I recently went back to see them; the reunions were reaffirming.

They shared their stories of terror-filled escapes and multiple resettlements, but they knew they were among the lucky who did not lose any immediate family member to death or captivity.  The intimacy of the descriptions of the experiences did not allow their stories to be minimized.

But all around the other stories, some of which I heard,  filled the air with an invisible weight. The tellers were compelled to tell, and all were compelled to listen.  Everyone has a story; everyone is a story. 

(The following names have been changed.)

Khider escaped from the jihadists 3 weeks before we met.  He and other Yezidis, initially numbering 800 in his group, were moved from town to town during his near-eight months of captivity.  Fear built their walls of imprisonment, and his recollections were a tangle of rusty barbed wire:  An old woman accused of being a witch beheaded; his sons being taken away to be converted to Islam and trained as jihadists; threats of being killed for little or no reason.  “I was not afraid of dying.  I was afraid of being tortured,” Khider said as he lit yet another cigarette.

Young teen-aged sisters Amsha and Rêsan entered the tent with uncertainty. They sat on their haunches and avoided eye contact.  Knowing that the girls were not going to talk, their uncle chimed in to tell their story for them.  The girls had been recently release after being held captive by the Islamic State jihadists since last August.  Someone had paid a ransom, but that was not discussed.  While in captivity Amsha pretended she was retarded, her lazy left eye helping the ruse.  Following suit, younger Rêsan chopped her hair short.  They were not sold and were returned unmolested for which all were grateful.  Nobody knows where their parents are, the uncle said. The girls' eyes remained locked on the ground.

Unlike most others, Ferhan was immediately engaging in recounting his story.  He and his family ran to the mountain when they heard of the Islamic State’s barbaric attacks on the other side of Mount Sinjar.  They and thousands of others took refuge at a spring tucked in the mountain, “drinking only drops of water.”  After 2 days they were reduced to eating the low quality grain intended for sheep, “… and finally all we had was leaves and grass to eat.”  After a week  an escape route was opened up through nearby Syria.  Ferhan’s family joined the Biblical throngs crossing the brittle landscape of summer.  Some died.

Faisel silently entered the room of the half-completed house, and immediately sat on a thread-worn mat by door.  He was thin with a young man’s soft mustache, and the familiar vacant look from hollow eyes.  He and his family tried to escape the jihadists on the first night of the attack, fleeing up Mount Sinjar’s southern steep zig-zagged road.  His parents and five of his siblings were captured, and there has been no news from them since.  

There was an edgeless matter-of-factness in the voices that only faintly suggested their sufferings, and their deeply shadowed futures.

I choose to believe that, as they have done throughout their long, uneven, and rich history, the Yezidis will survive; and, that they will again find prolonged moments of affirmation and joy in themselves, community, and religion.

24 May 2014

Jade From His Father's Father

A friend had just introduced me to Nevzat * and the three of us were sitting in front of his shop having a tea.  His thick black eyebrows were well paired with his dark and kind eyes.  I was told that Nevzat was Yezidi and I was keenly interested to learn his story.

“And you are Yezidi?” I asked.  Nevzat smiled.  From around his neck and under his shirt he pulled out a silver Zoroastrian symbol adopted by some Yezidis as a mark of their religion.  He looked around and suggested that we needed to be more discreet in saying the word “Yezidi,” a warning he repeated over the following days.

I was once again in southeastern Turkey, stopping by for a few days on my way home from Iraqi Kurdistan.


The fate of the Yezidis in Turkey was sealed 30 years ago when they were caught between the hammer and the anvil of the Kurdish separatist guerillas and the Turkish military.  Almost the entire Yezidi population of 30,000, already greatly diminished, emigrated to Europe.

A few remained in their villages, including Rojhat and her family.

Some emigrants such as Ibrahim, have recently begun to return to their villages for the summer months.  (see November 2009 entry in this blogsite).

And still others like Mezdar stayed in Turkey his family having become Muslim.

The majority who left Turkey, however,  have found their new lives elsewhere, like Ahmut and his family in Germany.


And then there is 35-year old Nevzat, a Kurd raised as a Muslim, seeking the religion of his father’s father.

His grandfather was Yezidi who became Muslim.  Although Nevzat didn't know the circumstances,  the “acceptance” of Islam would have been an act of survival in an overwhelming Muslim environment.  Nevzat was raised Muslim, but around the time of his grandfather’s death in the mid-1990s he became curious about the Yezidi religion.  There were clues he remembers from his grandfather, Nevzat said although he was not specific.  (I imagined the grandfather secretly lighting candles on Wednesday and Friday nights, much like the stories of New Mexico’s Crypto Jews lighting candles in their homes on the Jewish Sabbath.)

Eventually Nevzat discussed his interest in Yezidi’ism with his father, a respected Muslim Kurd.  It was a practical, not a spiritual discussion, he said.  His father was concerned about the reprisal of discrimination - if not persecution - by the Muslim Kurdish community, should the family’s Yezidi heritage become known.  Following his father’s advice, Nevzat has proceeded with discretion over the years.

He studied my photographs of Yezidi temples, shrines, and friends; and, listened intently as I passed on some of what I had learned and experienced over the years.

The night before leaving, I showed him the two talismans I keep with me during my travels:  A St. Christopher’s medal given to me by my mother: and, a plain silver ring given to me in 2010 by a young impoverished Yezidi sheikh working in a rundown hotel in Iraq.  Nevzat studied them intently.

Without a word he went into his shop.  Soon he emerged, holding his fisted right hand to his chest.  He hesitated a moment before sitting down next to me and then slowly opened his hand to reveal a pebble-sized piece of polished jade.  I looked at it and then at him.

“This is for you, Robert,” he said.  “My grandfather gave it to me just before he died 20 years ago.  He told me that someday I will meet someone who my heart will tell me I must give it to. I give it to you.”

After a long pause of warm silence, I feebly tried to refuse the gift.  I knew what the outcome of the attempt would be. 

I put the jade, ring, and medal into the small pouch, which with certain attention, I put into my shirt pocket over my heart.  We nodded and had another glass of amber tea.

(* All names have been changed;  identifying details have been omitted or altered.)