MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 364: Armenia: Yezidi Identity Battle

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Sat Nov 11 09:19:23 2006

Original sender: Institute for War & Peace Reporting <editor@iwpr.net>



ARMENIA: YEZIDI IDENTITY BATTLE New textbooks highlight division within
Armenia's Yezidi community. By Onnik Krikorian in Yerevan

broadcasters are retransmitting foreign outlets illegally. By Mina
Muradova and Adalat Bargarar in Baku

mining villages cling on, defying resettlement and disease. By Zarina
Khubezhova in Galon and Sadon


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New textbooks highlight division within Armenia's Yezidi community.

By Onnik Krikorian in Yerevan

Yezidis in the western Aragatsotn region of Armenia have taken a dim
view of government efforts, supported by the UN children's agency,
UNICEF, to bolster minority education in the republic. 

At the beginning of September, at an event staged in the Yezidi village
of Alagyaz, government officials said that new textbooks in minority
languages would be distributed to schools in minority-populated
villages, while UNICEF said it would provide stationary and other

Less than a month later, however, Yezidis in Alagyaz and ten surrounding
villages were complaining. Their language is the Kurmanji dialect of
Kurdish, but the books funded and provided by the government were
instead written in Ezdiki. While the latter is still Kurdish by another
name, the alphabet chosen for publication was in the unaccustomed
Cyrillic alphabet instead of the more usual Latin or Arabic scripts.

"All schools have at present is old Soviet-era textbooks," said Gohar
Saroava, a young journalist with the Mesopotamia newspaper in Yerevan
and one of the few Muslim Kurds remaining in Armenia. Others, however,
are more outspoken. "These [new] books are a shame and we don't want to
have this rubbish," said Torkom Khudoyan, vice-president of the National
Committee of Yezidis of Armenia.
Speaking to IWPR, both UNICEF and Hranush Kharatyan, head of the
Armenian government's department for national minorities and religious
affairs, confirmed reports that the new textbooks are being rejected,
but said that it was outside their remit to intervene. Critics, however,
argue that the situation should never have arisen in the first place and
allege it is part a continuing attempt to promote a non-Kurdish identity
among Armenia's Yezidis.

Yezidis are the largest ethnic minority in Armenia, with most having
arrived in the country in the mid 19th and early 20th centuries. Widely
dismissed as devil worship, Yezidism in fact combines elements from
Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Although the Yezidis
are generally considered to be Kurds who resisted pressure to convert to
Islam, there have been attempts to identify them as a separate ethnic
group in Armenia since the last years of Soviet rule. 

In 1988, an appeal was made to the Soviet authorities by some Yezidi
leaders requesting that they be designated as an ethnic group. This
coincided with the beginning of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over
Nagorny Karabakh, as a result of which, thousands of Muslim Kurds fled
Armenia, alongside ethnic Azerbaijanis. Yezidis, however, were spared.

In 1989, the request was granted, and in the last Soviet census
conducted the same year, out of approximately 60,000 Kurds who had been
formerly identified as living in Armenia, 52,700 were for the first time
given a new official identity as Yezidis. The 2001 census put the number
of Yezidis and Kurds in the republic at 40,620 and 1,519 respectively.

Hasan Tamoyan, editor of the Armenian-language Yezidikhana newspaper and
head of the Yezidi programme on Armenian Public Radio, eagerly cites the
last census as evidence that Yezidis are not Kurds. Tamoyan is also one
of the authors of the controversial new school textbooks. 

"There are over 40,000 people who identified themselves as Yezidis and
only around 1,500 that identified themselves as Kurds," said Tamoyan.
"Aren't you inclined to believe the official data? Is Kurmanji listed as
a language in the census? The Kurdish language is not even mentioned.
There is only the Yezidi language, Ezdiki."

However, few specialists on the Yezidis outside of Armenia agree. 

"The Yezidi religious and cultural tradition is deeply rooted in Kurdish
culture and almost all Yezidi sacred texts are in Kurdish," said 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. 

Dr Christine Allison, a lecturer at the Institut National des Langues et
Civilisations Orientales, INALCO, in Paris currently conducting
fieldwork among Yezidis in Armenia, agrees. "I have met more Yezidis in
Armenia who believe they are also Kurds," she said, "and with the
exception of two villages in Iraq, Yezidis speak Kurmanji Kurdish. Their
oral and material culture is typical of Kurdistan and pretty much
identical to non-Yezidi Kurds."

Nahro Zagros, an ethnic Kurdish PhD student from Iraq studying the
ethno-musical traditions of Yezidis at the University of York, concurs.
Zagros says that he also stumbled upon what many consider to be the
artificial division of the community on a recent visit to Armenia. "The
school in Shinkani has refused these textbooks, and teachers from Rya
Taze, Alagyaz, Dirik, Orta Chia, Amri Taze and Jamushlow have also
rejected them," he said.

The situation in Armenia also differs markedly from that in neighbouring
Georgia, home, according to official statistics, to 18,000 Yezidis. 

"There are problems in Georgia, but we [Kurds] are one nation," said Pir
Dima, a Yezidi religious leader from Tbilisi visiting Armenia in
September. "It's just that our religion is different. However, the
problem in Georgia is nowhere near as serious as it is in Armenia.
Yezidis here [in Armenia] don't want Armenians to know that they are
Kurdish because Muslim Kurds killed Armenians as well as Yezidis [during
the 1915 genocide]."

Rostom Atashov, president of the Union of Yezidis in Georgia, told IWPR
his community uses the Kurmanji dialect and the Latin script. "We are
both Yezidis and Kurds," he said. "We have one language and it is
Kurdish, and if you look at where the Yezidis came from geographically,
it is Kurdistan. In Georgia, we've never even debated this problem.
Yezidis are Kurds, and we all believe that."

Atashov also says he believes that the division has opened up Armenia's
Yezidi community to the appeal of organisations such as the outlawed
Kurdistan Workers Party, PKK, currently fighting a separatist guerrilla
war in Turkey. "The Armenian government doesn't want to recognise
Yezidis as Kurds so the only people willing to help Yezidis in Armenia
with establishing their identity are groups such as the PKK," he said.

And that certainly seems to be the case in at least six Yezidi villages
in the Aragatsotn and Armavir regions of Armenia visited by IWPR this
autumn. While many Yezidis openly identified themselves as such, all
also said they were Kurmanji-speaking ethnic Kurds. They additionally
expressed support for the PKK and displayed portraits of Abdullah
Ocalan, the organisation's imprisoned leader, in their homes, cultural
centres and schools.  

In recent years, several PKK representatives have also openly visited
Armenia to tour Yezidi villages. Last year, Yusuf Avdoyan, a Yezidi from
the Armavir region of Armenia, was killed along with six other PKK
members fighting in Batman, Turkey. According to the Kurdistan Committee
in Armavir, his sister has now also joined the PKK and is currently
fighting with them. 

Some experts believe that the government has only succeeded in
alienating the Yezidis through its education policies. One academic from
Europe speaking to IWPR on the condition of anonymity said, "The state
seems to be distinctly encouraging the Ezdiki faction and has not
latched on to the fact that Kurmanji and Ezdiki, which were the same
language for the entire Soviet period, are still the same.  The most
obvious and cost-effective compromise would be to produce Ezdiki-Kurdish
schoolbooks in a mutually agreed alphabet."  

Kharatyan says that she proposed a solution such as this to resolve this
conflict over language, but was threatened by both sides of the Yezidi
community instead. The government has since said it will monitor the
distribution of the controversial textbooks, but the Kurdistan Committee
is now printing its own textbooks in the Latin script for distribution
to Yezidi schools during the second half of November. 

Knyaz Hassanov, head of the Kurdish community in Armenia, told IWPR,
"These books do not concern us. They are not important and we have
decided to publish our own. The overwhelming majority [of Yezidis in
Armenia] consider themselves Kurds, so if 1-2,000 do not feel the same
it's not significant enough of an issue for us. Besides, it's also their

Onnik Krikorian is a British-born journalist and photojournalist who has
written on Yezidis in Armenia since 1998. He has a blog from Armenia at

For Andrei Liankevich's vivid photo essay on the Yezidis, visit the IWPR
Caucasus website and scroll down the right-hand column


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