I have always wanted an opportunity to meet some people from the several Yezidi communities that are scattered mostly in the northern areas of Armenia, predominantly in Aragatsotn but also in Shirak and Armavir. Although I read quite a bit about them and heard other things about their renowned barbeque or whatever, they were a mystery to me because there was never an opportunity to mingle with them. There were also stereotypical labels placed on the Yezidi people whenever I inquired about them, for instance that they are dirty and uncouth, live in filth, are ethnically Kurdish fire worshippers, no-good Kurds, and so forth. In other words, no one really had any idea about what they were talking about because they were evidently never exposed to them or their culture.
So when Onnik suggested that we take a ride out to Aragatsotn on Sunday so he could take some photographs for a story he has to write about Yezidis in Armenia I agreed immediately despite a strained back, the stinging pain of which I ignored during our trip. On the north-bound highway to Vanadzor along the stretch between Aparan and Spitak there are three Yezidi villages that I know of at least—Ria Taza, Alagyaz, and Jamshlu. Each village’s name has a story behind it—Ria Taza is not only the name of the oldest newspaper in the Yezidi community but it also means “new path” or something like that. Alagyaz is the old Turkish/Kurdish/Armenian name for Aragats, close to the foot of which these villages are situated. Jamshlu I am sure means something but I have no idea what. Onnik wanted to get to Aragats to catch up with some people he knew. We met one family of five with three small children. The patriarch of the family, whose name is Vazir Avdashian, is the village’s schoolteacher. I asked him several questions about the history of the community, the school and so forth, and he was more than eager to explain things to me.
The school in the village was built with government funding last year, but it has already fallen into some disrepair since inferior building materials were used during construction. The chalkboards were donated by a Yezidi living in Iran. The school replaces a decrepit building housing the kindergarten that was attended by all grades. Apparently during the Soviet era they had a fantastic school in the village with a considerably advanced science lab and other amenities but it was destroyed in the 1988 earthquake. The students moved into a trailer to learn which didn’t last very long. Although the new school finally stands the village has no natural gas, nor does neighboring Ria Taza although gas lines have been installed there. Thus the school, which is a bit large with a high pitched roof, has to be heated with portable electric radiators, which cannot be that efficient.
Vazir’s relatives moved from Aintab situated in modern-day eastern Turkey to Alagyaz in 1828 when there was virtually no one there; it was just a barren space (and it actually still is for the most part). He told me that supposedly migrant dwellers would come to the area then leave before the winter came, although those were just stories that could not be substantiated. The house he and his family lives in was built by his father in 1968—the old house was situated where the highway exists today. It’s a good-sized home—the right side of it seems to be a stable while the left side is where the family lives. The house seems to be very roomy and is very clean, practically spotless, which obliterates claims of Yezidis being dirty people. The home is heated by a centrally located stove burning dried dung, which seemed to have no odor of any kind.
In Alagyaz out of a population of 2,500 up through the late 80s only 500 remain. Many undoubtedly have gone to Russia to work. The same holds true for the other villages as well. Vazir has five brothers and one sister. Although at least one of them remains, the other siblings have gone to Russia and even France. People in the village survive mainly by herding animals and cultivating the land. Indeed in the area there are perhaps thousands of sheep and cattle grazing across the plains. There is also a cheese factory in the village. Yezidis are known for their excellent diary products anyway as I have sampled them in the past since you can sometimes find them being sold door-to-door or in markets.
Many of the homes—but according to Vazir all of them—have satellite connections to the outside world. He showed us at least three stations that were Kurdish—one from Iran, another from Iraq, and one he said was broadcasting from Europe somewhere by Kurds from Eastern Turkey who could not get away with what they were doing back home, mainly broadcasting PKK propaganda and revolutionary songs that have a striking similarity to Armenian ones. In fact there are several PKK supporters living in the village. Satellite hook-ups including the dish supposedly cost only $120, and there are no monthly service fees which doesn’t sound too bad.
We spoke a bit about the community’s history and especially their education. Young students use Soviet-era printed books written in the Kurmanji Kurdish dialect but using the Cyrillic alphabet. He explained to me that the accepted practice now was implementing the Latin alphabet for reading and writing the various Kurdish dialects, including their own, so the children will eventually advance and use newer books. His older kids who seem to be five or six years old have already picked up the Latin alphabet. He told me they learn their language through the eighth grade while simultaneously learning Armenian and Russian. Vazir for one thing speaks superior Armenian to that spoken by most Armenians I have encountered in Yerevan. At home the family speaks mostly Kurmanji (as do all Yezidis) with Armenian mixed in along with the basic conversational Russian words that have been adapted into Armenian lexicon.
Vazir told me there are no clinics in the area although there were during Soviet times. Those who fall ill and are in need of vital medical care must either go to Yerevan or Spitak, which has very good hospital facilities there since the earthquake.
The Yezidis were basically compelled to live in Armenia having no where else to go when facing persecution by the Ottoman Turks. Vazir explained to me that there was a huge influx of Yezidis from 1915 onwards as they were also persecuted severely and massacred by the Turks, something that isn’t discussed. Although there is discrimination against Yezidis by Armenians (who are prejudice in general anyway), there is no real animosity towards them from what I know. There was an incident not too long ago where one was murdered in Yerevan, the particulars of which remain unclear.
Regarding their religion—I know from reading Onnik’s several articles that they are essentially pagans but their religion based on Zoroastrianism is infused with Christian and Muslin motifs. The other day I learned that their chief god is a gigantic blue peacock, which is fascinating. There are no places of worship in Armenia, and the only temple close by in their international community is in Iran, according to Onnik who perhaps is the unrivaled journalistic authority on all things Yezidi.
In any case, I came away feeling pretty inspired and certainly pleased that I finally had an opportunity to speak with them. If there is a chance to sample their supposedly fantastic barbecue for instance I will not decline. For people who are barbecue connoisseurs Yezidis simmer harissa, which is a delicate soupy mash of barley and chicken or lamb usually covered in butter, at the bottom of the tonir, or the round in-ground clay oven. Then they suspend long skewers of meat from a rod perched at the top of the tonir. The juices and fat drippings of the roasting meat are absorbed by the harissa, the results supposedly tasting divine. I am more interested in watching the entire cooking process than actually eating the food (actually that’s not entirely true). They are very hospitable—I remember someone from Holland actually who was staying with us for a few days last year and who was fascinated by Kurdish culture in general going out there and spending the entire day with them. I recommend for anyone wanting to experience something other than cafés and churches to travel out of Yerevan to a Yezidi village and get to know the the people. Alagyaz is certainly a good start.