The Beginning of the Universe

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LALISH, IRAQ — In Northern Iraq there is a place called Lalish where the Yezidis say the universe was born. I drove south from Dohok on snowy roads through an empty land, seemingly to the ends of the earth, and found it nestled among cold hills.
I went there because the President of Dohok University told me to go. “I am a Muslim,” he said. “But I love the Yezidis. Theirs is the original religion of the Kurds. Only through the Yezidis can I speak to God in my own language.”
Yezidis are ancient fire-worshippers. They heavily influenced Zoroastrianism, and in turn have been heavily influenced by Sufi Islam. The temple at Lalish is their “Mecca.” Hundreds of thousands of remaining Yezidis — those Kurds who refused to submit to Islam — make pilgrimages there at least once in their lifetimes from all over the Middle East and Europe.
“They worship Satan,” my Kurdish-speaking driver said to me through my translator Birzo before we got out of the car. It sounded like ignorant bullshit to me, and not only because Saddam Hussein also said so. I would have to ask the Yezidis about that.
We parked the car and approached a Yezidi man wearing Peshmerga pants and a checkered kerchief over his head and his shoulders.
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He greeted us warmly and introduced to another man who said he would be happy to show us around.
A small conical monument sits in a courtyard in the center of Lalish. It represents heaven and earth. The round knob at the top is the sun. Inside the cone are seven layers. Supposedly there are seven layers in the earth. “Science proves this,” my Yezidi guide said. A candle representing the life force of the universe burns inside.
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Candles are placed in wind-protected altars all around Lalish. The Yezidis keep the flames burning forever. Without fire, they say, all life would be extinguished. I supposed they were right. (I wondered what they would do to a person who blew out the candles.)
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Small buildings that I first thought were houses surround the central courtyard. These small buildings are shrines. (Lalish isn’t a village. No one actually lives there.) The shrines are sacred places dedicated to various Yezidi prophets who are said to help people with physical ailments. There is a shrine where you go if you have a back ache. There is a shrine where you go if you have a tooth ache. And so on. The soil inside and under the shrines is supposedly magic.
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My Yezidi guide (below, right) asked me and Birzo (below, left) to take off our shoes before he led us into the temple.
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“Please step over the entryway,” our guide said. “Don’t step on it.”
I stepped over the entryway.
“Why can’t we step on it?” I said.
“It isn’t proper,” he said.
The temple was dark inside. I could hardly see a thing. So I took out my digital camera, turned on the flash, and snapped a picture so I could see what it looked like.
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Silk cloth draped from ropes as though it were laundry hung out to dry. Simple brick arches separated two long narrow sides.
In the far corner was a small chamber. You had to duck your head to get inside. Non-Yezidis were not allowed to enter.
Two young men entered the temple, ducked into the sacred chamber, and came out with small metal stands with what look looked like square cooking pans attached to the tops. They poured oil into the pans, brought them into the public space, and dropped in some lit matches. Small flames burned in the corners.
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My feet froze. Never in my life have my feet been so cold. I’ve taken my shoes off in lord-knows-how-many mosques, but mosques have carpeted floors. The temple at Lalish was open to the winter mountain air, the floor was made of cold hard stone, and I stood on it for a long time. Pain shot up my ankles through the balls of my feet. But I wasn’t about to complain. When would I ever be here again? I was honored that they let me inside their “Mecca,” their birthplace of the universe, only because I showed up and said hi.
When we went back outside the temple I put my shoes back on with tremendous relief. Birzo’s feet didn’t seem to be doing any better than mine, but the Yezidis were used to the cold.
Birzo and I waited on a small elevated platform above the temple courtyard while our guide went and summoned Baba Sheikh, the Yezidi version of a top imam or priest. Actually, he was more like their Pope.
Baba Sheikh greeted us warmly. He wore a white robe, sandals despite the cold, a tan shawl, and a black belt. His face, with its fiercely intelligent eyes, was framed by a long black beard and a one-inch thick headband.
“Sometimes translators do not translate correctly for me,” he said to me in Kurdish through Birzo. He then squinted just slightly at my innocent translator before nodding at me as though he trusted me more, as though we shared some sort of a bond.
“Please,” he said. “Ask me anything you like.”
I wanted to ask about the accusation that the Yezidis are in cahoots with Satan, but it probably wasn’t the best thing to lead with.
“Are you married?” I said. “Can Baba Sheikh take a wife?”
Baba Sheik must be married before taking the job. Only men from his tribe can be sheikhs. It has always been thus.
I also wanted to know about prohibitions. I knew tobacco wasn’t a problem because there were several Yezidis around, including my guide in the temple, and they were chain-smoking Marlboros.
The Yezidis borrow from the three main monotheisms in the region. As it turns out, alcohol is prohibited. So is pork. So, of all things, is lettuce.
“Why do you not trust translators?” I said. “Do you think they misrepresent what you say on purpose?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “A journalist came and spoke to me twice in two years. He had a different translator each time. I was shocked the second time I saw him because his first translator told him so many things that weren’t true. There was no way I could know this until he came back with somebody else.”
“Are you friends with Satan?” I said. “Some Muslims have told me Yezidis are friends with Satan.” I didn’t tell him that my driver, who was standing right next to me, had said this only a half-hour ago.
“We are not friends with Satan. This is a common point of confusion. They mean Malek Taus. He is the King of the Angels, and the Yezidis follow his way.”
Malek Taus is some kind of celestial peacock. He supposedly said no to God, who did little more than create the universe from a pearl, when God asked all the angels to pray to Adam. “Adam,” he said (as in Adam and Eve) “was a prophet of God.” But Malek Taus later repented and has been in God’s good graces since.
What’s important about Malek Taus is that he (it?) was given the choice to follow good or evil, just as human beings are given that choice. Malek Taus chose the good path even though he did not have to. He sets the right example, then, for humans to follow.
“Can someone from another religion become a Yezidi?” I said.
“No,” Baba Sheik said. He shrugged his shoulders and cocked his head. “We are the original people,” he said and spread out his arms. “We can’t become a cocktail religion like Islam.” Everyone, including my Muslim driver and translator, thought that was hilarious.
They’re a bit like the Druze then, the fierce people who live in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon. You can’t convert and become a Druze either. Yezidis believe they will be reincarnated as Yezidis after they die, just as Druze believe they will be reincarnated as Druze.
Baba Sheikh apparently didn’t want me to think they were close-minded bigots. “We are a peaceful people,” he said. “We don’t interfere with others. We are the nation of generosity and kindness.”
He didn’t think that about everyone else in the region.
“72 times Muslims tried to conquer us,” he said. “Christians never once tried to conquer us. The Christians are wise, not like Muslims.”
I checked Birzo’s facial expression, body language, and tone of voice when he translated this for me. He didn’t seem offended at all, even though I knew he was a believing Muslim. He was almost certainly translating correctly. He’s a real professional, and I already trusted him anyway. If he was going to edit anything out, he probably would have edited that out.
“Can Yezidis marry people from other religions?” I said.
“No,” Baba Sheikh said. “We cannot intermarry. A Yezidi might want to convert to Islam or Christianity if he behaved badly as a Yezidi and needs a new beginning. Only then can he marry someone who is not a Yezidi.”
What about the significance of fire?
“Fire is from God,” Baba Sheikh said. “Without fire, no one would live. When Muslim Kurds swear today they still say I swear by this fire.”
“Do you think of yourselves as Kurds?” I said. They self-identify as Yezidis, but they speak Kurdish and obviously feel some kind of kinship with the Muslims.
“When there is politics, we are Kurds,” he said. “When there is no politics, we are Yezidis.”
He told me about their “Bible.”
“Our holy book is called The Black Book. It is written in gold. The book is in Britain. They took our book. That is why the British have science and education. The book came from the sky. If you go to the British Museum you can see it.”
Did they have any copies?
“There are no copies,” Baba Sheikh said. “The book is in our hearts.”
“Christians have churches,” I said. “Muslims have mosques. What do you call your temples?
“We call them mazars,” he said.
“Do you have any in Europe?” Hundreds of thousands of Kurds live in Europe, and tens of thousands of those are Yezidis.
“We have no mazars in Europe,” he said “Only in the Middle East and in Russia. We cannot make new ones. These are all originals. Muslims will build a mosque on top of a dump site after clearing the garbage. We could never do this.”
Birzo still didn’t seem offended by what Baba Sheikh said.
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Night was coming soon and it was getting colder outside. Birzo and I started to get shifty. We needed to get moving.
“Thank you so much for meeting with me,” I said and firmly shook Baba Sheikh’s hand.
“All people in the world should be brothers,” he said. “You are always welcome here for the rest of your life.”
We drove away from Lalish and stopped in a field to watch the sun go down over the mountains.
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I asked Birzo if he found Baba Sheik’s comments about Islam and Muslims offensive.
“Of course not,” he said. “I understand his mentality and he understands mine. It’s okay. We are Kurds. Kurds don’t get upset about religion. We aren’t like Arabs. We believe in arguments based on reason, not emotion. If people don’t agree with me about something, I’m not going to get mad at them. We will just have different opinions.”
“I like the Yezidis,” I said.
“I do, too,” he said. “They are peaceful people, but they resisted Islam for so many centuries. You have to admire them.” I didn’t expect a Muslim to say that. Perhaps my expectations weren’t fair.
Watching the sunset after being welcomed at the birthplace of the Yezidi universe, there was nowhere else in the world I would rather have been at that moment. Hippies would love the Yezidis, I thought. I felt lucky that I was able to meet them.
When we got back in the car it hit me: Oh that’s right, I’m in Iraq. For the first time since I got there I had completely forgotten.
Twenty minutes later we passed the turnoff to Mosul.
Postscript: If you enjoy my posts from Iraq, please don’t forget to hit the tip jar. I can’t do this for free. Thanks!
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