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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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.)

19 April 2014

The Place of Judgement

April 16, 2014 – Lalish, Iraqi Kurdistan

The smooth tan stone appears quite ordinary. Its slightly larger size than others in the open-sided courtyard area in front of the Lalish's Sheikh Adi temple draws no attention; nor does its position centered immediately in front of the arched entryway.  It has been trod upon by uncounted bare Yezidian feet entering the temple throughout the centuries, if not longer, the feet that carefully step over, never on, the portal's threshhold. 

Rather it is the throngs of people that draw the eyes; it is the two mirrored peacocks and other symbols chiseled into the stone above the entry that are admired; it is the prospect of visiting Sheikh Adi's tomb within that creates anticipation. Not the stone.
The Courtyard in front of Sheikh Adi Temple on a quieter day
But this stone is not merely a stone in a courtyard. This is the place of judgement.

As with many things Yezidian, there is a oneness of cosmology and place; a distance that is only broached by quantum leaps, if at all, in Western cultures.

This is The Place of Judgement for Yezidis. 

I am once again in Lalish, this time on the eve of the Yezidi new year, sere sal. When evening comes thousands will pack into and around this modest courtyard holding, in one fashion or another, burning cotton wicks. Excitement will mount, the trilling and whistling will rise and fall like summer cicadas as the flickering mass waits in anticipation for the Baba Sheikh and other religious men to emerge from the portal. Their bare feet too will step over the threshhold and on the stone.
The celebration on the eve of Sere Sal
That will be later. Now the crowds are happily assembling in the afternoon sunlight.

“When a Yezidi dies,” Amer Sedo tells me looking down at the stone as a steady crowd flows past us on either side, “he comes here. Right here. This is where he is judged. If he has lived a good life, he goes inside,” pointing to the temple's entryway. “If he did not live a good life he goes … “ pointing abstractly in other directions. I help him find the English word hell. “... he goes to hell.”

Passing through the Temple's entry passage
Amer points out some of the small shrines (nishangah) that surround the courtyard - all within immediate sight and most being the diminuative white-washed cones with blacked niches where the olive oil soaked wicks are burned. “He is judged by the six angels,” pairing names with shrines, “And by xwede [God].” pointing to the sky. I try reconcile six versus the seven Yezedian angels, and it is only later that I surmise that the archangel Meleke Tawus is included with xwede.

“Here? Right here?” “Yes, right here.”

Amer Sedo standing on The Place of Judgement
I pause to think of the tempest of other-dimensional activity passing through me as I stand on the stone. I quickly let go of the thoughts and step off the stone.

This is The Place of Judgement.

Amer is happy to have taught me another lesson, and I to have learned.
April 16, 2014
I will never be able to adequately express my deepest gratitude to Amer for his years of devoted friendship and patient teaching.  "Robert.  Why don't you remember!?"


13 April 2014

Where the Insane Are Cured

Pir Zêdo cradles the egg in his cupped hand, and with eyes closed softly intones a prayer as a young man in his tight fitting T-shirt stands to the side.  When done, they walk down the steps into the courtyard, Pir Zêdo guiding the man to the one spot where sun shines through the leafing mulberry tree.  He gently circles the top of the man's head with the egg, again murmuring prayer.

I watch transfixed.  Pir Zêdo suddenly drops the egg to the concrete; its yoke is deep orange.  With no fanfare, it is over.  The man gives Pir Zêdo's wife some money and he leaves.  “He will wake up tomorrow and the yellowness in his face will be gone,” Pir Zêdo tells me. Although the young man is not insane, the faith for the cure of his jaundiced face and fatigue is as complete.

I am in the town of Ba'adre in (Iraqi) Kurdistan visiting perhaps my best friend among the Yezidis, Amer Sedo.  It is the town of the Yezidian Prince's family, although the current prince, Tahseen Beg, has long since moved to the town of 'Eyn Sifni to the southeast.  Ba'adre is one of a string of Yezidian towns and villages that border the eastern edge of the Mesopotamian Plains, most hugging the gentle foothills of the increasingly rugged Zagros Mountains.

We are taking a leisurely afternoon walk below Amer's home built on the hill overlooking the town.  It abuts a teetering high stonewall, all that remains of Palace of the Prince.  After photographing the nishangah (shrine) of Sultan Eyzi, we wander on.

Remains of the Prince's Palace
nishangah Sultan Eyzi
Amer stops in front of a narrow tan building of unusual in design, its roof line sweeping like a generous Yezidi handlebar mustache.  But even as such, being tucked away on a tight residential street, it can be noticed and then quickly dismissed.  That would be a mistake, a mistake that Amer will not allow.

This is the Mazar Hajial.  This is where the insane come to be cured.  All are welcome, regardless of faith or ethnicity.

We open the door into the adjacent courtyard and are greeted by Pir Zêdo, a gentle man of soft features, beard, and voice.

Pir Zêdo and Wife
We proceed into the cavernous narrow room, barely noticed by the frenzy of swallows whose nests tucked into the florescent light fixtures above in the vaulted ceiling.  Pir Zêdo's wife brings tea and joins us as we sit on the thin patterned pads that border the room.  The conversation is leisurely and the tea sweet.

The mazar, renovated in 2007, has been here for “more than 1,000 years,” and the mejawar (keeper) has always been from Pir Zêdo's family.  She brings a picture of his father from the house:  Pir Ali, stooped with his hoop-handled cane and long white beard is a vision out of Victorian travels.

Pir Zêdo's father, Pir Ali
At one end of the chamber there is a door.  A locked door.  “May I look in?'”  “No no no.  Only me.”  He and he alone.  He explains that he only goes in to light the oil soaked cotton wicks on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and during the nights when the insane are cured.  Then and only then.

The day the afflicted is treated, a sheep is killed, and the “madman” is taken inside the mazar.  Pir Zêdo ties his hands and feet, softly “beats” the man saying the prayers all the while, lights the candles in the inner chamber, and leaves the afflicted to pass the night alone inside.  In the morning, the insanity is gone.  Done.  Infallible.

“When was the last time you cured someone?”  “Five months ago."

Pir Zêdo gently shakes my hand as we leave.

Pir Zêdo in front of Mazar Hajial