Following yesterday's Interview with Karlene Chachani by Onnik Krikorian, where reference was made to an article by Jackie Abrahamian, we felt it would be useful to bring this article to the reader's attention. Armenian News Network / Groong The Yezidi movement in Armenia by Jackie Abrahamian First published in "Kurdistan Report", September 1992 Since 1828 when the Kurds first immigrated to Armenia (fleeing the Russo-Turkish wars) Kurdish culture has flourished rapidly in the smallest of the former Soviet republics which in 1991 gained independence. The relative socio-economic freedom in Armenia gave the Kurdish community, which soon grew to 75,000, an ample opportunity to fully preserve its cultural heritage, becoming an inspirational source to the Kurdish diaspora. Various Kurdish cultural and intellectual institutions, established and founded by Armenian intellectuals, were instrumental in the preservation of the Kurdish culture in Armenia. It was in Armenia that the Shams (sun) alphabet textbook was created in 1921, by Armenian scholar, Hagop "Lazo" Ghazarian. In 1930 the first Kurdish newspaper, Ria Taza (New Path) was established by Armenian writers Hratchia Kochar and Harutuin Mkertchian (its first editors) to report (in Kurmanji) Kurdish news from around the world as well as publish literary works of Kurdish writers and intellectuals. During the same year a Kurdish Children's School opened to serve all the Soviet Kurds, and later in 1955 the one-and- a-half-hour-long daily Kurdish (Kurmanji) Radio Hour broadcast its first programme, and continues to go on the air daily to this day. In 1948 the first Kurdish State Theatre, later renamed Alagyaz People's Theatre was formed. In addition, more than a dozen Kurdish musical groups originating throughout Armenia, preserve the rich Kurdish musical heritage. By 1934 the Armenian Writer's Union established a Kurdish Writer's branch, which until 1965 was directed by Kurdish writer and intellectual Hadji Jendi, and has since been directed by writer Dr. Karlene Chachani. More than 50,000 books on all aspects of Kurdish culture were published in Armenia, in Kurdish, Armenian and Russian and distributed throughout Kurdistan, as well as the North American and European Kurdish communities. In 1969 the Armenian Academy of Sciences founded a Kurdish Studies Department to document and research all aspects of Kurdish culture,as well as to study Armeno-Kurdish relations. In the 1970's the State University of Yerevan established a Kurdish Studies Department which due to lack of attendance, was later closed down. Today the independent David Haghtanagi University of Yerevan, offers a Kurdish Studies programme under the direction of Kurdish scholar Charkaz Mesdoian. Since the start of the 1988 uprisings in Armenia, the decades old harmonious relations betwen the Kurds and Armenians have been severed. More than 15,000 Moslem Kurds, some intermarried with Azeris living in Armenia, fled Armenia as Armeno-Azeri relations intensified over the disputed are of Nagorno Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Today, the 65,000 strong Kurdish population in Armenia is, for the most part, concentrated in the agrarian region of Hoktemberian, where approximately 20,000 Kurds live as farmers and herders. Within the northern Aragatz region, there are 11 Kurdish villages with a population of 7,000; in the Talinn region there are six Kurdish villages with a 5,000 population. The purely Kurdish villages in Armenia are Shamiram village in Ashdarak and Ferik (named after a Kurdish revolutionary) in the Etchmiadzin region. Approximately 12,000 Kurds live in Armenia's capital, Yerevan. Simultaneously with the 1988 Armenian uprisings, a strong Yezidi movement began in Armenia, lead by four Yezidi religious and lay leaders: Azize' Amar, Karame' Salon, and Sheikhs Hasane Mahmood Tamoian, and Hasane Hasanian. The goal of the Yezidi movement is to separate the Yezidis from the rest of the Moslem Kurdish population, establishing Yezidis as a separate nation. Who are the Yezidis? There are approximately one million Yezidi Kurds in the world. Many of the Yezidis who arrived in Armenia following the Ottoman Empire's 1915 massacres, emphasized their Yezidi religion and were thus marked as "Yezidis" in their passports rather than Kurds. The word Yezidi is derived from the Farsi word of Yazdan (sun) attesting to the Yezidi's sun worshipping and Zoroastrian religious beliefs. the Yezidi Kurds defied the Islamic movement in the 7th century choosing to preserve their "pagan Zoroastrian" way of life. "Yezidi Kurds have various traditions which are very close to that of Christians," explains Dr Karlen Chachani. With traces of the Islamic, Christian and Zoroastrian religious influences, the Yezidi religion is ruled by Sheikhs, who are descendants of the Arab Moslem Sheikhs who were sent to the Kurdish villages to propogate Islam, but were converted to Yezidism. This is why many Yezidi Sheikhs are of Arab origin. The Yezidi holy bible, Kitabi-Jalwa, is dedicated to Malek Tavous (Grand Peacock), and the Yezidi religious hierarchy separates into four distinct positions of Mires, Sheikhs, Pires (believed to be descendants of Malek Tavous) and Merides. The Sheikhdom tradition, passed on from brother to brother, or from father to son, discourages followers from education, which they believe takes them away from "the Yezidi traditions". Customarily Sheikhs only marry into other Sheikh families, and in the event that there are no available women to marry, the Sheikhs wait for the availabilty of a widowed woman. The Sheikhs deeply influence their followers, and are thus generously compensated for their religious services with donations of such currently scarce goods as gold, money, dairy products and livestock. The six sects of Yezidi Sheikhdom are Sheik Rash (arch Sheikh of Sanjar, Iraq, where the seat of Yezidi religion sits); Sheikh Shamsa; Sheikh Sheikesan; Sheikh Obeker; Sheiikh Biske (taking its name from the Yezidi tradition of baptizing a child by cutting the child's hair for good luck) and Sheikhs Sadjadin or Nasardin. In an interview with Sheikh Hasane' (AIM May 1992) he emphasised how some Yezidi intellectuals "consider it advantageous" to be part of the 20 million Kurdish nation. However, he stated that Yezidis are a separate nation as "Yezidism cannot be considered the name of the religion only, because no nation in the world is named after its religion". He further claimed that the "Yezidi alphabet is the alphabet of the Yezidi people", as there are no religious alphabets. Dr Karlene Chachani, himself a Yezidi, argues that "Kurds are one people, who speak one language, and have one Kurdistan> There is no such thing as a Yezidi nation, or a Yezidistan. This new movement goes against all the political and social convictions of 30 million Kurdish people. It goes against all that Armenia has created and given to the Kurdish people. We can't forget that Armenia has been the centre of Kurdish culture." In their effort to create a separatist movement the Yezidi movement leaders have established themselves within the newly formed Armenian government. Sheikh Hasan Hasanian appointed himself archbishop of the Yezidis and as a member of the Armenian Parliament, often voices anti-Kurdish, pro-Yezidi sentiments. Supporters of the Yezidi movement often resort to violence and intimidation to silence the Kurdish intellectuals, who although Yezidis themselves, oppose such a separation. These violent actions have been reported to the government officials, but no legal actions have been taken. To further expand their movement, the Yezidi movement leaders established in 1991, the bi-weekly Dinge Yezdisa (Yezidi Voice) newspaper, edited by Sheikh Hasane, who is a former staff member of the Kurdish radio programme, who in 1990, opened the first Kurdish school in Yerevan. The Yezidi Voice is published in Armenian, which Sheikh Hasane explains is done to "introduce Yezidis to our Armenian brothers". In addition the Yezidis now have a 30 minute Yezidi Radio Programme. While the Yezdi programs receive financial support from the Armenian government, the Riya Taza, and the Kurdish Radio Programme suffer from severe financial problems, which have halted Riya Taza's publications for the last six months of 1992. "Sixty two years of Communism supported the publication of Riya Taza," says Teimur Muradov, a veteran Kurdish journalist of Riya Taza and the Kurdish Radio Programme since 1977. "And democracy in Armenia caused its closure. Meanwhile in Turkey, the worst offender against Kurdish rights, three new Kurdish newspapers have been established." A group of Kurdish intellectuals in Armenia, who are themselves Yezidis, recently formed the Kurdish Intellectual Advisory Committee. During the committee's second conference, held in early May, 1992, in Yerevan, they focused primarily on the detrimental effects of the Yezidi movement in Armenia, and its aims to destroy Kurdish unity. Supporters of the Yezidi movement had threatened to blow up the building in which the conference was to be held, but forces from Armenia's Interior Ministry were assigned to guard the building against such violence. "This convinces me that we have an internal enemy - both the Armenians and the Kurds. They are trying to create an ethnic problem in Armenia to threaten Armenia's independence. There has never been an ethnic problem in Armenia between the Kurds and the Armenians, and there won't be one now," explains Dr Chachani. Their opposers consider the Yezidi movement "absurd" and designed to take the Yezidis back to the "dark ages" as conservative religious Sheikhs practice power plays. Dr Karlen Chachani and Kurdish scholar and corresponding member of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, Shakhro Mehoyan, Charkaz Mesdoian, as well as a score of other Kurdish intellectuals who are Yezidi, argue that the Yezidi separatist movement has the full support of the Armenian government. "Even in Baku, Azerbaijan - where Kurds have been forcibly assimilated - Kurds are gaining power, while in Armenia, the centre of Kurdish cultural life, we're lagging behind, losing our Kurdish language schools, newspaper and other cultural instituions," argues Riya Taza editor Amarik Sardar(ian), another opponent of the Yezidi movement. Meanwhile the leaders of the Yezidi movement insist that Armenia has given them nothing and that they are now simply regaining their power and establishingthemselves as a separate nation. In the 21 December issue of Yezidi Voice, the editorial message insisted that Yezidis "must reinstate our national feasts, traditions and show the entire world that the Yezidi are truely a unique and rich culture and nation." It emphasised how Yezidi traditions, lost for 70 years in Armenia, must not be reposeessed. the January 1991 issue of Yezidi Voice has a photo of Sheikh Hasane with the Armenian Catholicos Vazken I, proving the Armenian Church's solidarity with the Yezidi movement. Meanwhile Hasan Hasanian's message urges all Yezidis to unite, and contribute money to the Yezidi Cultural Fund by sending their contributions to a numbered account in Yerevan. "One million Yezidi Kurds around the world are amazed at this division of Yezidis in Armenia," says Teimur Muradov. "Their propoganda is absurd. Two days' expense of Yezidi Radio Hour's operating cost can cover one month's publishing cost of Riya Taza. The anti-Armenia news the Yezidi movement leaders publish and broadcast is beamed into Turkey... making Armenia look very bad." Hoping that the newly formed government in Armenia "understands the Kurds' scholar Shakhro Mehoyan explains that "what the Kurds have gained intellectually in Armenia is indebted to the support of the Armenian intelligentsia throughout our history. Now only time and patience will test the goals and intentions of the Yezidi movement in Armenia." -- Jackie Abrahamian is a journalist and Public Relations Consultant living in Boston. She has written prolifically on Kurdish and Armenian issues, especially around the areas where Armenian and Kurdish histories overlap. Her first book "Conversations with Contemporary Armenian Artists" was dedicated to Yilmaz Guney, one of the founders of the Kurdish Institute in Paris.
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