In this article Kasia Micklem explores the revival of musical traditions among Yezidi communities in refugee camps in Iraq and argues that through music the ostracised populace is able to preserve its history, identity and heritage despite systematic attacks by the so-called Islamic State to erase the non-Muslim ‘other’.
The Yezidis are a Kurdish-speaking religious minority that first emerged as a small, secluded community near Lalesh in northern Iraq during the twelfth century. They observe a unique religious tradition, Yezidism, which is said to date back to ancient Mesopotamia and draws influence from several other religions namely Zorastrianism, Islam and Christianity.  Although just a century ago Yezidi tribes had never settled outside of Ottoman borders, at present most of the global Yezidi population live beyond the birthplace of their religion, dispersed widely across the Middle East, Transcaucasia, Western Europe and the United States. 
Transnational Yezidi migration has occurred primarily for two reasons. The first is poverty, amplified by hostile political and social conditions. The second factor is relentless religious persecution, of which Yezidi populations have been targets since the thirteenth century.  Labelled as “devil worshippers” for praying to God in front of the icon Tawûsî Melek (the Peacock Angel), the Yezidis have been historically misrepresented from the Orthodox Muslim perspective as worshippers of the fallen angel, Satan. The Yezidis in fact consider Satan as the angel who refused to prostrate in front of anyone but God and, having proven his honesty and loyalty, was made God’s only representative on Earth. 
The most recent plight of the Yezidis has received significant international attention since the summer of 2014. Before the atrocities conducted by so-called Islamic State (ISIS) commenced, the Yezidis in northern Iraq numbered around half a million. Data collection efforts reveal that at least 10,000 of this community were executed or abducted. The women and children taken hostage were often subject to sexual violence and forced conversion. Alongside mass displacement across Iraqi Kurdistan, many now reside in Western countries as refugees and thousands are still missing. More than twenty places of worship sacred to the Yezidis were destroyed around Dohuk, Mosul and Sinjar. This altogether marks the devastating impact of ISIS’ agenda to forcefully erase ‘other’ (non-Muslim) cultures.
In the aftermath of the conflict, the importance of preserving Yezidi culture has become acutely pronounced. Cultural practices can facilitate the restoration and reinforcement of communal identities among refugee populations by fostering a sense of belonging among otherwise displaced people. Among the Yezidis, given the oral-based observance of their faith, music especially has historically contributed to community cohesion by serving as an expression of their spiritual identity.
Yezidis living in five displacement camps across Iraqi Kurdistan have been working to preserve their musical heritage as part of a project led by the AMAR Foundation, endorsed by Yezidi community leaders and funded by the British Council. Many musicians were targeted during ISIS’ violent attacks aimed at erasing the Yezidi people and their culture. Passing on musical knowledge and skills is therefore now crucial for long-term preservation, particularly as the music is not written down.
At first, many in the community were hesitant to perform music in the camps out of fear of making themselves vulnerable to attack by distinguishing themselves from others. The music programme has thus been important in restoring confidence in outward cultural expression. Last year, daily classes in the folk tradition were held for the younger generation, who were taught by the last few expert musicians. For the youth, the classes may prove especially valuable as many have spent their adolescent years displaced or in captivity, thus separated from Yezidi social and religious life.
Music can also serve as an important medium for communicating the trauma of past events that have touched refugees. By commemorating the conflict, music-making can support processes of mourning among traumatised populations, thus allowing people to heal. The girl’s choir is one such an example of a successful initiative that aims to address the psychological consequences of conflict through music. The choir is composed of ten female survivors, half of whom managed to escape captivity by ISIS and return to their families living in the camps. Despite taboo around the issue of rape and sexual violence in the Yezidi community, the male spiritual leaders have chosen to welcome the female ex-ISIS hostages back. The lessened threat of stigma has encouraged some female survivors to return to their families and begin to talk about their experiences. 
The girl’s choir shows solidarity with these women who have been subject to sexual and other forms of violence. In a BBC interview, the singer Renas spoke of the happiness and relief that music can bring by allowing her to forget traumatic past experiences and instead tune into the present. When singing, strumming a tambour (a stringed instrument) and striking a daf (a frame drum), the musicians together can share a moment of unity and peace.
Here is an extract of the girl choir’s performance of the traditional Yezidi song, Şerfedîn, at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, earlier this year.
Credits: Michael Bochmann, recorded at Cumberland Lodge, February 2020.
The AMAR Foundation has collected over one hundred recordings of Yezidi music performances since May 2019 and has begun to deposit them at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, as well as the Mosul and Dohuk libraries in Iraq. The collection offers an essential memory space for the Yezidi community that is dedicated to their religion and culture, to assure preservation for future generations. Through narratives constructed and presented from the Yezidi perspective, the project has shown how engagement with the international community has provided displaced and threatened Yezidi populations with the opportunity to accurately present their culture and history. Such cultural preservation initiatives challenge misrepresentations of the Yezidi and prevent the silencing of survivors as they attempt to communicate their trauma, as well as that of previous generations through knowledge passed down orally from family to family.
This is not the first time that cultural mechanisms have been used by the Yezidi people to remember and process the trauma of war and forced migration. Songs and poetry have also been fostered within the Yezidi diaspora in Transcaucasia as a way of externalizing the collective suffering of the community, as well as preserving shared histories across the generations.
The Yezidi presence around Mount Aragats in Armenia is said to have begun with the settlement of the nomadic Hasanli tribe in the province of Van in the eighteenth century. At the turn of the twentieth century, a wave of migration from Anatolia followed due to persecution of Yezidis alongside Armenians, where the exiled joined the Yezidi villages in Armenia or went onwards to Georgia.  This plight, alongside the 1918-1920 war fought between the Ottoman Empire and Yerevan Republic, are remembered as testimonies of friendship between the Armenians and Yezidis, with both communities sharing memories of exile and bereavement. 
Photo: Christophe Kebabdjian, Armenia, 1999, Yezidi Kurds.
These histories are evoked in Yezidi lamentations called kilamê ser (“words about”), which are often performed in lilting vocals at funerals beside the graves of the deceased.  In this space dedicated to ancestry, the melodised speech is used to conjure specific imagery in memory of loved ones lost during conflict.  Other kilamê ser commemorate dead heroes, like the military commander Cenghir Aga whose memory is honoured for his courage and tragic end. Cenghir Aga is revered as a war hero for leading Yezidi horsemen into battle alongside a 4,000 strong Armenian force that pushed the Ottomans into retreat in 1920, only to die in exile following deportations of the Yezidis by Soviet authorities to Central Asia and Siberia. 
Bereaved women who call themselves dilşewat (“burning hearts”) to express their prolonged sorrow, perform these kilamê ser dedicated to the deceased. The descending pitch of their melodised speech enables listeners to reconstruct for themselves the emotional impact of the narrated events that burden the dilşewat. Yet, by using conventional melodic patterns rather than spontaneous intonation, the women can disengage from the strong emotion that their narrative induces.  In this way, the dilşewat are able to invite solidarity among Armenian Yezidi villagers through retelling memories of shared suffering, whilst being mindful to avoid reopening old wounds of their own. Performances of kilamê ser can therefore be understood as commemorative rituals of mourning for the community at large, rather than as cathartic expressions of the sentiments of the bereaved. 
The communal identity of the Yezidis in Armenia has been shaped by their common experiences with other groups in Transcaucasia and Anatolia. Some Yezidis identify closely with their Kurdish counterparts across Iraq, Iran, and Turkey as they share Kurmanji (northern Kurdish) as their mother tongue. Other Yezidis distinguish themselves as an ethno-religious group separate from the Kurds, in order to distance themselves from conflated understandings of “Kurd”, “Muslim” and “Enemy” in the Armenian media. This political divide was forged after the Nagorno-Karabakh war, 1988-1994, during which the Yezidis were spared the persecution of the Kurds within Armenia and Karabakh while Muslim Kurds were forced to migrate. 
Those on the Kurdish side of the Armenian Yezidi identity schism continue to disseminate their sung narratives via Kurdish radio. Their main channel, Radio Yerevan, has broadcasted daily in Kurdish since the Soviet era and reaches large audiences in Kurdish regions of Turkey as well as Armenia. Local poetry and song have thus come to embody a wider Yezidi identity by connecting communities across borders. This collective identity is not simply Yezidi, but shaped by migration pressures to accommodate feelings of affiliation with Kurds, as well as Armenians.
Transnational ties between Yezidi communities have thus been strengthening and with this, a global network of Yezidis has emerged, most prominently in Western Europe. Germany especially has become home to approximately 40,000 Yezidis since the 1970s, mainly from Turkey, but also Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Georgia.  Over time, these Yezidi populations have come together to establish a social and religious life in their adopted country.
The Yezidi global community is now increasingly involved in sustaining diplomatic and cultural engagement with those who remain displaced in northern Iraq. To commemorate the five years passed since the Sinjar genocide, the central Yezidi Council in Germany hosted a ceremony on 3rd August 2019 in Stuttgart, where Yezidi refugees, activists, NGO and diplomatic representatives gathered to hear the ‘Lament for Sinjar’ performed by Yezidi musicians.
Fate, do not make my heart suffer/ Ax, nor make me aimlessly wander/ You know how my heart fears, it will perish/ And this will be for my country //
Say father, say mother/ Oh brother, sister/ Ax, the era that has passed will not return/ What has happened in this world will not happen in others. // 
These words touch upon familiar themes within Yezidi music: mourning, exile, and nostalgia for the homeland, which communicate a sense of togetherness between those outside the homeland and those displaced in northern Iraq, despite the long distances that separate them.  The ceremony signals a proactive attempt to make Yezidi voices heard by the international community, to remind the world that this community should not be forgotten after the conflict.
The Yezidi survivors who remain in Iraq perceive their community to have been brought to the brink of erasure by the violence of ISIS and are doubtful of a future for their community in their historical heartland. Short-term and long-term recovery indeed looks bleak with the threat of COVID-19. Losing relatives to the virus, as well as enduring extended social isolation, are likely to deal a heavy blow to refugees who have been traumatised by the violence of ISIS, especially with the halt to the AMAR Foundation’s musical programme that has aimed to address the mental health needs of survivors.
One can hope that in months to come the efforts to revive Yezidi music, so intrinsic to the culture and religion of the people, will continue to bear fruit. The resuscitation of musical narratives has opened a channel for the survivors’ memories of conflict to be passed down the generations, as seen among the Yezidis in Armenia. The preservation of Yezidi music at libraries, such as the Bodleian, support these local efforts to prevent amnesia and misrepresentation of this maligned community. The proactive engagement of Yezidis outside of Iraq with the international community, in solidarity with those displaced within their homeland, is a call to keep Yezidi social and religious life alive. Together, there is promise of survival.
Kasia Micklem is in her third year of BSc International Relations and History at LSE. She is currently studying at Sciences Po Paris as part of the LSE-Sciences Po exchange programme. She is a flautist and has a keen interest in memory construction in post-conflict societies.
Author’s Note: This article has benefited immensely from the kind guidance and contributions of Michael Bochmann, esteemed musician who has been leading the Yezidi Music project in northern Iraq since 2019.
Featured Image: Image extracted from page 454 of A journey from London to Persepolis; including wanderings in Daghestan, Georgia, Armenia., by Ussher, John. Original held and digitised by the British Library.
 Açıkyıldız, Birgül. 2010. The Yezidis: The History of a Community, Culture and Religion. London : I.B. Tauris. The twelfth century marks the appearance of Sheikh ‘Adī (d.1162), said holy reformer of the Yezidi religion, although some Yezidi traditions are estimated to date back some 5000 years to ancient Mesopotamia.
 Gökçen, Amed & Tee, Caroline. 2010. Notes from the Field: Yezidism: A New Voice and an Evolving Culture in Every Setting. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 37(3), pp.405–427.
 Açıkyıldız. The Yezidis.
 For a biographical account of lived experiences see Mikhail, Dunya. 2018. The Beekeeper of Sinjar: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq. London : Serpent’s Tail.
 Açıkyıldız. The Yezidis.
 Amy De La Bretèque, Estelle. 2013. Paroles Mélodisées : Récits Épiques Et Lamentations Chez Les Yézidis D’Arménie. Paris : Classiques Garnier.
 Allison, Christine. 2013. Addressivity and the Monument: Memorials, Publics and the Yezidis of Armenia. History & Memory, 25(1), pp.145–181.
 Açıkyıldız. The Yezidis.
 Amy De La Bretèque. Paroles Mélodisées.
 Açıkyıldız. The Yezidis.
 Kreyenbroek, Philip G. 2009. Yezidism in Europe: Different Generations Speak about their Religion. Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz.
 Translated from French by myself. French translation from Kurmanji is accredited to Estelle Amy De La Bretèque and Farhad Shamo-Roto. See https://ebreteque.net/publications/des-larmes-pour-ambassade.
 Amy De La Bretèque. Paroles Mélodisées.