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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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

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