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

All images and text are protected by copyright law. Please contact Robert Leutheuser at for any and all uses. Thank you.

27 December 2009

Yezidis in the Sinjar

Thursday, 14 October 2009

Faqir Khalaf stood outside the walls of the small village of Karsi, his white beard resplendent against a brittle and blue Mesopotamian sky. Nearby was an Ottoman police station last used almost a century before. Although the stone walls are battered, it remains an imposing structure and reminder of an earlier era drenched in ferocity and oppression. I was in northwestern Iraq's Sinjar (Shingal) region, of the same name as the 75-kilometer long mountain, near the Syrian border visiting an isolated population of Kurds who adhere to the Yezidi religion.

With an unbroken gaze, he held my hand in both of his to punctuate his request … or I should say demand … that when I return to America I must tell the President that the Sinjari Yezidis are poor and in danger; they need America's help. Only when I agreed did he release my hand and eyes. Although a small man, he suddenly looked smaller.

I had been hearing this same refrain since arriving in Iraqi Kurdistan several weeks prior: The Sinjari Yezidis were alone and they knew it.

They resented their comparative poverty and feared for their very survival once the American military withdrew from Iraq 10 months hence. This fear was not abstract; it was palpable and rooted in personal experiences. (Indeed, earlier in the day my host, Sheikh Gharbi, took me to the grave of a friend who was killed in a terrorist attack but a month before.)

For centuries Sinjar Mountain was a refuge for Yezidis, but that was to change under Saddam Hussein who relocated ethnic and religious populations to eliminate feared or actual opposition to his regime. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Sinjari Yezidis were forced from their traditional villages into collective villages (mujam’at) located on the plains below the mountain,  and Arabs were brought in to the region. The Sinjari Yezidis now share the area with Muslims – Arabs and Kurds. They are no longer the feared 19th century brigands, and the mountain is no longer their refuge.

Yezidi'ism is monotheistic and regarded by many to be related to Zoroastrianism, the first of monotheistic religions. The Yezidi religion has absorbed seemingly discordant fragments of beliefs and rituals from other religions that have flooded the region and has for centuries protectively wrapped itself in its own secrets. A result has been a perfect environment for the propagation of benign and malicious misinformation, such as casting Yezidis as “devil worshippers.” (The Yezidis believe in a Lucifer who was actually loyal to God.)

They are a small religious minority within the sprawling Sunni Muslim-dominated Kurdish community. Some Yezidis vigorously maintain that they are a separate ethnic group; many acknowledge that ethnically they are Kurdish. Some Muslims believe that Yezidi'ism is a 12th century apostate offshoot from Islam; most Yezidians believe their religion to be very ancient and they alone are the true descendants of Adam. Regardless of the viewpoints, substantiated or not, for centuries Yezidis have been intermittently and violently persecuted by Muslims – Kurdish, Turkic, and Arab alike.

Fakir Khalaf wore a roughly woven black shirt under layers topped by a white robe. Such shirts are only worn by faqirs, those who choose to lead ascetic lives, a choice limited to members of four tribes. Because the shirt had been soaked in Zamzam, the holiest of springs at the Yezidian religious site of Lalish in Iraqi Kurdistan, itself is considered holy. All who greeted Khalaf did so with reverence and kissed the sleeve of the black shirt.

Contemporary news from Iraq rarely includes the plight of the Yezidis. Even when the occasional story about the religious minorities reaches the Western press, with very few exceptions, the emphasis is on Iraq’s Christian communities whose situation is also dire. The last spate of significant news regarding the Yezidis was in 2007. In April of that year, 23 Yezidis were taken off a bus outside of Mosul and executed. Others on the bus were not harmed. And on August 14th, suicide bombers killed over 500 Yezidians two Sinjari villages. Many considered these to be strategic terrorist attacks to stoke the furnaces of sectarian violence in Iraq. Yezidis were the victims nonetheless.

Such news still crackled unspoken through the air in the village, even when four young men retreated to the shade to resume a game of cards on the ground covered by powdered sand, while we drank the obligatory sweet tea from stocks that had none to spare.

That night while sleeping in a mujama’at on the plains at the foot of the mountain, I was awoken by the deep rumbling of large military planes flying low overhead. Soon, silence will disturb the sleep of Sinjari Yezidis.

28 November 2009

Hoping the Weather Holds, Diyarbakir

7 November 2009 – Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey

In spite of brimming the river banks, the surface of Tigris' gray-brown water appeared peaceful as it rushed south to Syria. The week of rains were welcomed after a dry autumn in southeastern Turkey. I decided to take advantage of a break in the weather on my last of many days in Diyarbakir to walk through the puzzle of narrow streets in the old city – a municipality known as Suriçi – and along a stretch of the city walls looking down on the river.

Diyarbakir is the largest city in southeastern Turkey, officially estimated to have a population of 600,000 (but widely accepted to be at least twice that figure) overwhelmingly dominated by Kurds. Its population swelled during the 1984 -1999 guerrilla-styled Separatist War that pitted the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) guerrillas against the massive Turkish military juggernaut that, among many other things, employed the oft-used tactic of forcibly emptying and/or destruction of Kurdish villages thought to be providing succor to the PKK, who also victimized villagers. It is estimated that about 3,000 villages were so emptied and 1.5 million Kurds displaced. Many of the refugees streamed into Diyarbakir and other cities in southeastern Turkey, as well as in western Turkey cities such as Istanbul and Izmir. The effects on the unambiguous Kurdish social structure, still fully intact in the villages, have been profound. Urban poverty is a driving factor.

After a leisurely morning wander through the maze of passageways enlivened by occasional, if not rudimentary, banter with women and children sitting on the stoops, I emerged to the massive tower-studded black basaltic walls that encircle Suriçi. They are 5½ kilometers long and up to 9 meters high, and as magnificent as they are forbidding. I left the cramped surroundings to walk along the exterior base of the walls admiring cloud-laced sky, and the near-bucolic scene of garden plots that stretched along the Tigris and crept up the slopes.

As I walked three teen-aged boys approached and asked if I would take their photo. I agreed directing them to a spot that held feint promise for a good image. But apparently it wasn't to their liking so they drifted out of my awareness. It was a glorious morning. I heard voices behind me and thought little of it. A hand from behind shot in and out of my front pocket. With speed like that who needs finesse? The futile chase was on. I scrambled up the embankment behind the them, hurling universal English profanities - and a couple of rocks - along the way. I raced through a hole in the city walls but they had disappeared into the warren. The booty? A half a pack of cigarettes.

I was livid, and although not naive, obviously had once again become a bit too lax. Indeed, 2 years prior some children tried to steal from my camera bag while I walked through the back passages, and 5 years prior to that I was present when two young Kurdish men were caught trying to steal religious artifacts from a bunker of an Armenian chapel. And of course, the warnings of such thievery have been constant from local friends and acquaintances through my years of visiting.

I remembered what someone had recently related to me - A Kurd would be more likely to kill you than to steal from you - a notion which at first I thought preposterous. But I thought about it, and slowly came to realize that it was consistent with my (and most if not all others') estimation of the inordinately high value Kurds place on honor in their traditional societies. Therein lay the problem. Desperation was posting small victories in its war with honor.

Knowing that there was no future in continued pursuit, I resumed my walk determined to enjoy the day. Along the way another teen approached me and asked for money. As I was giving him a peace of my mind, an old man with his grandson in tow walked up and gave the teenager a spirited tongue lashing. The teen skulked away.

At the old man's insistence I walked back to town with he and the boy. He told me that his nephew was getting married tomorrow in a clearing by the city wall. He thought the weather would hold. I told him I thought it would.

08 November 2009

A Yezidian Village in Turkey

The first of the winter rains had come to southeastern Turkey in early November. There was a low ceiling of gray clouds and the wind was biting. “That used to be my house,” Ibrahim said pointing to a crumbling of tan stone down the slope. I stood on the hillside with he and Fathel (actual names not used) looking over the rocky landscape mutely adorned by the remains of a Yezidi Kurd village. With effort I imagined the village with a thousand inhabitants 25 years ago.

The Yezidi Kurds of this and virtually all Yezidian villages left Turkey in the 1980s during the early years of the Separatist War in eastern Turkey (1984-1999) that pitted Kurdish military guerrilla forces against the steroidal Turkish military. The war was an inevitable outcome of 50 years of State-sponsored spherical oppression of the Kurds. A central feature of Turkey's military strategy during the war was to destroy and empty Kurdish villages (Muslim and Yezidi alike) to deny the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) guerrillas support, whether such support was voluntary or coerced.

“And over there,” Fathel said, “is the school bombed by the "asker" (Turkish soldiers).” Even its once-white concrete walls were turning tan, disappearing into the landscape. The Yezidis had been granted political asylum principally by Germany and Belgium, and so they went. They had little choice Ibrahim said, drawing his finger across his throat.

They had returned from Europe to their village for a 2-month visit, as a few others have intermittently done as well. Two others had built new “summer homes” in the village, not willing to give up their past entirely, but not at the expense of their new found security. “In Belgium nobody cares if you are Yezidi,” Ibrahim said, still with a hint of wonder.

The Yezidis are an ultra-minority within the Kurdish family, itself a minority in the greater Middle East. It was this double whammy that convicted the Yezidians in Turkey to a near-complete diaspora in the matter of a few years.

There are many such vacant and crumbling Kurdish Yezidian villages in southeastern Turkey, another chapter in the their millennia-long history; in fact in the broader Kurdish history as well. Yezidi'ism is an ancient religion, believed by many to be a direct descendant of Zorastrianism, by others to predate it, and by a few to be an apostate offspring of Islam. Regardless of its longevity, its adherents have been routinely persecuted by Muslims – Arab, Turkic, and Kurdish alike - as Yezidis are not even afforded the shell of Qoranic legitimacy granted to Jews and Christians.

We walked over the sticky blood red soil that filled the spaces between the limestone bedrock, towards a modest mazar (Yezidi shrine or temple) named after the sun, roj. It looked tired and lonely sitting on another hilltop surrounded by a rock wall, kept company only by two mulberry trees, one bedecked by few swatches of cloth bearing wishes. “It is like Lalish [the Yezidi holy site in Iraqi Kurdistan],” Ibrahim said, knowing that it really wasn't true. It was a small mazar with a tented crown topped by a stubby spire. The Yezidi stone inscription above the 3-foot high locked door had been chiseled away by the Muslims he said. He didn't say "asker."

Ibrahim now owned a herd of 25 cows, and in an ironic twist of fate, hired a Muslim Kurd to tend to them. It was dusk when the shepherd walked the cows back from the day at pasture. We hurried to help corral them into their night quarters. From the outside it looked like a small stone house built into the hillside, but its back end was a cave that bore its way deep into the hillside. It was very dark inside.

05 November 2009

At the Spring - Sinjar, Iraq

On Iraq's Sinjar Mountain (Shingal), Pir Maholo and his son arrived at the spring-fed well with four donkeys in tow, each ladened with a dizzying variety of empty water containers. Their clothes were tattered and their deeply bronzed faces glowed under the loosely wrapped red-and-white kaffiyas. They had walked for 3 hours, leaving their flock of sheep grazing in higher in the mountains.

Pir Maholo's attempt to maintain his small flock of 20 sheep was an act of determination and desperation, desperation born from natural and political causes. The Sinjar region was in its 4th year of drought and the mountain showed it - brown and barren. The Sinjar is home to a large population of Yezidi Kurds, adherents to an ancient non-Islamic religion persecuted for centuries by Muslims. Unlike the Yezidians who live in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Sinjari Yezidis' security is vulnerable in the broken-glass pattern of  the Kurdistan Regional Government's and the central Iraqi Government's  military presence and jurisdictions. They are as isolated as the Sinjar Mountains.

I was the guest of Sheikh Gharbi, a Yezidi I had met the year before at Lalish during the annual Jama'iyya celebration. At first I hesitated to accept his invitation, noting that I would be leaving the security of Iraqi Kurdistan; but the doubt was quickly dispatched knowing I would be well taken care of.  It was a singular opportunity to visit this legendary community of Yezidians.

That morning we had left Sheikh Gharbi's home in Zorafa, one of seven collective villages strung along the northern toe of the Jebel Sinjar brutally imposed on the Yezidians by Saddam Hussein some 20 years ago. Later we arrived in the 3-house mountain village of Zerwa, home to one of Gharbi's brothers. He and others were slowly repatriating their villages. Yusef had killed a small goat in anticipation of our arrival. After the mandatory tea in a dim and small room, we piled into two pick-up trucks full of men and children driving up the mountain. It was a celebration.

The Yezidi mazar (temple) appeared as we bumped around yet another bend in the dusty wash, its blindingly white and fluted spire piercing the cloudless sky. Although monotheistic, Yezidis build such mazars at places deemed to be holy in their own right, such as springs; locales of historical events in their cosmology; and, to honor holy persons often in conjunction with their cemeteries. This mazar, Pir Ewra, dedicated to person, clouds, and the nearby spring, anchored one of three hillside cemeteries.

As Yusef started the fire of thumb-sized branches collected by the children, and Gharbi sat with Sheikh Fakir Murad in the mazar's anteroom, Pir Maholo arrived at the well. His son had already climbed down the well to reach the water now 10 feet below the concrete rim. It took an hour to fill all of the containers, and knowing that they would be lucky to reach their flock by nightfall, Pir Maholo refused the invitation to share in food. We watched as they left, donkeys laboring under their life-giving load.

We returned to the temple for our meal. Yusef presented the tin platter of charred and tasty goat meat, and his son unwrapped a bag of flat bread and another of fresh tomatoes. Spring water was our drink.

Robert Leutheuser
October 2009

02 November 2009

The Yezidian Sa'ama Ceremony at Lalish

Yezidi'ism is a little known religion practiced by a minority of Kurds. With the advent of the information age, their diaspora to western societies, and the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, Yezidis are straddling the threshold between their past and future.

As they attempt to seek their 21st century identity after centuries of brutal repression at the hands of Muslims – Turkic, Arab and Kurdish alike – the debates on their ethnic and religious history are significant. After visiting Yezidians in Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, Armenia, and Georgia (almost all Yezidis left Turkey for Europe during the 1984-1999 separatist war), I'm comfortable agreeing with the majority of scholars and many, but by no means all, Yezidians themselves that Yezidis are ethnically Kurdish, and that Yezidi'ism predates Islam by centuries, if not millennia.

Although Yezidians have many many holy sites, THE Yezidi holy site is Lalish - the place of earthly beginnings and home to the tombs and shrines of their most venerated. It is compactly tucked into the upper reaches of a valley and studded with the characteristic fluted spires. This is the third year in a row I have visited Lalish, and the second year I have attended the 8-day Autumn Assembly (Jema'iyye). Yezidians flock to the small site by the thousands, crowding into a space and time of religious and secular celebration. It seems impossible that more can fit, but they do, arriving with bedding and provisions to last for the duration of their stays.

This year I was privileged to watch the Sa'ama Dance, a dramatic religious night ceremony.

“The courtyard in front of Sheikh Adi's Sancutary's courtyard was packed – young and old, men and women – vying for position to watch the ceremony. To take a breath required effort. But now being familiar to many, an American, and the beneficiary of the harsh insistence of my friend Sheikh Gharbi, I was able to crouch on the inner margin of the cleared space. The sitting musicians - three playing flutes and two playing hand-held drums - began to play reedy and rhythmic music. The crowd roared in anticipation. Fakir Hasan lit the ceremonial fires fueled by olive oil on a small metal stanchion, his bearded face dramatically glowing in the darkness.

“Slowly the massive wooden doors to the Sanctuary opened and from the darkness stepped the head fakir, unrecognizable in a black robe and meter-tall conical hat bedecked with long knotted fringes that covered his face. Excitement turned to frenzy. Ever so slowly he took a series of four steps forward, followed by a paired procession of 12 bearded, turbaned, and white-robed holy men. Around the fire they circled three times – four steps with the final leaning forward dragging one foot and placing a hand over their chest – before pausing again. The drama of their glacial pace was accentuated by the frenzied rhythm of the musicians and deafening roar of the crowd. After a half an hour, the procession snaked its way back into the dark maw of the Sanctuary and the cleared circle quickly filled.

“Shortly thereafter the Yezidians were allowed to go inside to pay their respects to the tomb of Sheikh Adi, and the Baba Sheikh retook his place under the open-air roofed area to accept the devotional prostrations and blessings, and donations, from the faithful."

No mention of my visits to Lalish would be complete without thanking my many friends at the Lalish Center in Dohuk, especially my dear friend Qader Saleem Shammo. Thank you.

Robert Leutheuser,

October 2009

01 November 2009

Landslide at Mawaliyah

28 October, Wednesday
Rawanduz, Iraqi Kurdistan

Not all tragedies in Iraq are the result of war. On Monday night deep in Iraqi Kurdistan's Zagros Mountains, a mountainside collapsed burying two men.

Mawaliyah is a small village, a 45-minute drive from its district capital, Rawanduz which is renown for its history of Kurdish resistance, proximity to the famous Hamilton Road hewn through the mountains in the 1930s, and spectacular beauty.

At 7:30pm, 60-year old Zaniwar Ababakey called the owner of the quarry where he and 25-year old Hogr Mohammed were night guards. He reported that he had heard what he thought to be an explosion. His next, and final, words were, “He is going to die!” Their bodies were recovered early Wednesday morning, Zaniwar with his mobile phone in hand.

It is estimated that one million cubic meters of earth and rock slid down, the mountain finally responding to 7 years of mining at the quarry. I accompanied the Rawanduz District Mayor, Serwan Sereni, his body guard, and assistant, to the site on Monday night, speeding over the rough roads in the darkness, three hurried voices and three mobile phones. Hundreds of men milled about a mile from the site. After conferring with others, and inspecting the site eerily lit by headlights in the half-moon night, the mayor decided that the recovery actions would have to wait until the morning.

The next day a legion of 30 front-end loaders, bulldozers, and dump trucks began to nibble away at the unstable mass, uncovering some of the quarry's twisted heavy equipment, but no bodies.

Wednesday morning we drove back under overcast skies, Mr. Sereni having just gotten a call that one body had been recovered. Another call came while driving – the second body was being exhumed from the rubble.

A leg was all that was left to remove when we arrived. It was quickly wrapped in a prayer rug and carried away by a son, shouting at others who tried to stop him. It was laid covered on the ground with the rest of the body under the watchful eye of a serene white- turbaned imam, then put in the back of a pickup truck and driven down to Mawaliyah for burial.

Two men were already scratching the rocky soil in the small cemetery when we arrived.

Mr. Sereni was at peace, telling stories from his youth of his father's friend, Zaniwar Ababakey as we drove back to Rawanduz.

Robert Leutheuser

2009 Travel Color Photo Sampler

Mount Ararat - Dogubeyazit, Turkey

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Barzan Region, Iraqi Kurdistan

Village of Gobal, Sinjar Region, Kurdistan

Ba'adra, Iraqi Kurdistan

Village of Karsi, Sinjar Region, Iraq

2009 Travel Black and White Photo Sampler

Pir Malaho, Sinjar Region, Iraq

Lalish, Iraqi Kurdistan

Ba'adra, Iraqi Kurdistan

near village of Karsi, Sinjar Region, Iraq

near village of Karsi, Sinjar Region, Iraq

27 October 2009

Isthandbul Photos


16 October 2009

Handmade Photos from Prague