by Onnik Krikorian
10 November 2004
Transitions Online, Czech Republic
Nov 11 2004
Caught between competing ideological interests, members of Armenia’s
most numerous minority struggle to define their identity.
YEREVAN, Armenia–When Aziz Tamoyan sits behind his desk in the cramped
and dilapidated room that serves as his office in the Armenian capital,
he says that he does so as president of the country’s largest ethnic
minority, the Yezidis.
Yezidi children, Armavir region. The Yezidi here say they are not
Pointing at the handmade posters stuck on the wall to one side of his
cluttered desk, Tamoyan reads aloud the slogan that also serves as
the motto for his newspaper. “My nationality is Yezidi, my language
is Yezideren, and my religion is Sharfadin,” he proclaims, opening a
copy of Yezdikhana to reveal the results of the last census conducted
in Armenia three years ago.
“There are 40,620 Yezidis and 1,519 Kurds living in Armenia,” he
continues. “These are the official figures from the census and that
should be all that you need to know. The Yezidis have no connection
with the Kurds and there are no Muslim Kurds in Armenia. According
to the census, nobody speaks Kurdish in Armenia.”
But Philip Kreyenbroek, head of Iranian studies at the University of
Goettingen in Germany and a leading specialist on the Kurds and the
Yezidis of Turkey and northern Iraq, disagrees.
“The Yezidi religious and cultural tradition is deeply rooted in
Kurdish culture and almost all Yezidi sacred texts are in Kurdish,” he
says. “The language all Yezidi communities have in common is Kurdish
and most consider themselves to be Kurds, although often with some
As if to illustrate how these reservations have manifested themselves
as a problem far out of proportion to the size of the community, next
door to Tamoyan’s office sits Amarik Sardar, editor of Riya Taza,
established in 1930 and still the oldest surviving Kurdish newspaper
in the world.
“Unlike some people who confuse nationality with religion, I
recognize the distinction,” he says. “I am Yezidi by religion but
also consider myself to be a Kurd. The majority of Kurds in Armenia
are also Yezidis but apart from this religious distinction there is
no other difference.”
Back next door, Tamoyan reacts angrily. “Nobody has the right to say
such things. If we are Kurds, why were 300,000 Yezidis killed along
with 1.5 million Armenians during the genocide [in Ottoman Turkey]?
Why did the Turks and Kurds deport us? The Kurds are the enemies of
both the Armenians and the Yezidis.”
Indeed, most of Armenia’s Yezidi minority fled persecution and
massacre in Ottoman Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century,
and it is perhaps this shared experience that makes the issue so
sensitive in Armenia today.
THE YEZIDI MOVEMENT IN ARMENIA
The Yezidi community is the largest ethnic minority in Armenia even
though it numbers just a few tens of thousands of adherents. Although
their precise number worldwide is unknown, the followers of this
ancient religion are spread throughout Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Georgia,
Armenia, and, as recent immigrants and refugees, Germany.
Widely misconceived as “devil worship,” Yezidism in fact combines
elements from Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Yet
despite the widespread belief that they are also ethnic Kurds who
resisted pressure to convert to Islam, there have been attempts in
Armenia to identify the Yezidis as a separate ethnic group since the
last years of Soviet rule.
Soviet-style demography, which determined communal identity based
on language and largely ignored religion, identified the Yezidis and
Muslim Kurds living in Armenia together as members of the same ethnic
group. But by 1988, during the period of glasnost, some of Armenia’s
Yezidi religious and political leaders began to challenge this notion
and the “Yezidi Movement” was formed.
The following year an appeal was made to the Soviet authorities
requesting that the Yezidis be considered a separate ethnic group.
The request was granted, and in the last Soviet census conducted
in 1989, out of approximately 60,000 Kurds who had been formerly
identified as living in the Soviet Republic of Armenia, 52,700 were
for the first time given a new official identity as Yezidis.
During this time of “openness” that defined the last years of the
Soviet Union, the Yezidis were not the only people striving to form
new national movements. In February 1988, Armenians took to the
streets to demand that Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Armenian-inhabited
territory within Azerbaijan, be united with Armenia. Azeris responded
with attacks on Armenians. In the tit-for-tat expulsions that
followed–marking the beginning of an ethnic conflict that remains
unresolved–350,000 Armenians fled Azerbaijan and 200,000 Azeris
and Muslim Kurds left Armenia. The Yezidi, along with smaller groups
of other non-Moslem minorities, remained. By 1991, when the tension
over Karabakh broke out in armed conflict, nearly all of the Muslims
living in Armenia had already fled the country.
Proponents of the Yezidis’ claim to be a nation separate from the
Kurds insist, however, that there was no connection between the
Karabakh conflict and the promotion of a separate Yezidi identity.
Garnik Asatrian, the director of the Caucasian Center for Iranian
Studies in Yerevan, has argued that rivalry and animosity have long
characterized relations between the two groups. It was only natural
that the resurrection of an independent Armenian state pushed the
Yezidis to try to regain their own identity and religion, he believes.
While the Yezidis practice a religion dramatically different from
that of most Kurds, it seems that political ideology is attracting
some Yezidis to the Kurdish cause.
At a recent event in a predominantly Yezidi-inhabited village, the
audience listened to pro-Kurdish speeches and songs, including some
sung by Yezidi children. One of the speakers at the event was Heydar
Ali, a Kurd from Iraq who openly identifies himself as the Caucasus
representative of Kongra-Gel, the organization formerly known as the
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Engaged in a separatist conflict in the southeastern regions of
neighboring Turkey, the organization is considered a terrorist group
by the United States and the European Union. The PKK lost momentum
when Turkey arrested its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999 but is
still active in Turkey and abroad.
“Certain officials are using this artificial division in the community
for their own interests,” Ali says. “In fact, the Yezidi religion is
the original faith practiced by the Kurds before most were converted to
Islam–just as Armenians were pagan before converting to Christianity.
“Of course, when the Muslim Kurds and Azeris left Armenia at the
beginning of the Karabakh conflict, some Yezidis might have hid
their Kurdish identity because they were scared,” he continues,
“but in general, the attitude of Armenian society toward Kurdish
issues is positive. We have lived together for centuries and we also
have some common interests.”
Gohar Saroava helps a Yezidi girl get ready for a pro-Kurdish event.
Nineteen-year-old Gohar Saroava, who was also present at the event
held in September, agrees.
One of the few Muslim Kurds who remain in Armenia, she says that her
family and two Kurdish neighbors living in an Armenian village have
never experienced discrimination. As a young journalist working for
the Kurdistan Committee in Yerevan, she is very open about her views
on the Yezidis.
“I write about Kurdish life in Armenia and about our leader, Abdullah
Ocalan,” she says. “I have come to this [Yezidi] event today because
we are Kurds. Our religions may be different but we are from the
Saroava is one of a tiny and dwindling number of Muslim Kurds left
in Armenia. According to reliable estimates, at most a few hundred
individuals remain. Even government officials privately acknowledge
that the 1,519 Kurds recorded in the 2001 census are mainly those
Yezidis who instead identified themselves as Kurds.
“Another complicating factor seems to have been the lure of PKK
ideology, which attracts some Armenian Yezidis as it does many others,”
Kreyenbroek explains. “As the PKK stresses that Kurdish identity takes
precedence over religious affiliations, those who are influenced by
it naturally go back to calling themselves Kurds. On the other hand,
more traditional [Yezidis] feel threatened and deny the connection
between the Kurds and Yezidis all the more strongly. To a lesser
extent the same developments can be seen in Germany, where dislike
of the PKK causes some Yezidis to play down their Kurdish identity,
stressing the Yezidi aspect.”
“The division of the Armenian Yezidis into one smaller group
identifying themselves as Kurds and Kurmanji [Kurdish]-speakers and
one group defining themselves as Yezidis with their own language is
part of the post-Soviet search for identity,” says Robert Langer, a
scholar at the University of Heidelberg in Germany who is researching
the rituals and traditions of the Yezidis in Armenia.
Alagyaz, Aragatsotn region, a predominantly pro-Kurdish village.
And it is language that might prove to be the most vexing problem
facing the community in Armenia. According to Hranush Kharatyan, head
of the government’s department for national minorities and religious
affairs, so significant is the issue that it is now “the most actual
problem existing among national minorities in Armenia.”
When the Armenian government considered ratifying Kurmanji as the
name for the language spoken by the Yezidis and Kurds, for example,
emotions ran high and Kharatyan says she was accused and threatened
by both sides. In particular, she says, Yezidi spiritual leaders
demanded that their language instead be classified as “Yezidi” even
if in private they acknowledge that it is Kurmanji.
Unable to satisfy both sides of the community, the government ratified
both Yezidi and Kurdish under the European Charter for Regional and
Minority Languages. Although there is a sizeable but still-unknown
number of Yezidis who consider themselves Kurds, there are just as
many who do not. As a result, says Kharatyan, the government was
right not to come down on one side or the other.
“Despite the fact that I am an ethnologist and a scientist, I will
call people with the same name that they are calling themselves,”
Kharatyan says. “I understand that during the establishment of
a national identity this transformation brings with it some very
difficult and serious problems and because of this, the government
of the Republic of Armenia will not interfere.
“I don’t know what will happen to both sides of the community,” she
concludes, “but in the world, this is not the only example. Croatians
and Serbs are enemies even though genetically they are from the
same nation. However, nations are social and from time to time,
Onnik Krikorian is a freelance journalist and photojournalist from
the United Kingdom living and working in Armenia.
Photos by Onnik Krikorian.