The following is a previously unpublished account of my January 2017 trip to Lalish in Kurdistan.
My growing sense of apprehension as I neared Lalish was expected. It had nothing to do with the fact that about 50 kilometers away, Peshmerga and Iraqi forces were locked in a life or death struggle over Mosul. Indeed, the war seemed far away as my car wound its way through the dry clay-colored hills of Kurdistan. No, what bothered me was that Lalish was the holiest city in the Yazidi faith, and I was an outsider.
It was a familiar sensation, the feeling of being a fraud. The momentary pang of embarrassment when kneeling at a mosque or taking a seat in a pew, a religious voyeur gawking at those who feel the transcendentalism of belief.
Before coming here, my Turkish drinking buddy had called these people devil-worshipers. It was a popular refrain in the Middle East, even among the educated and secular. But while I was aware that this was just another Abrahamic religion, one that never gained the popularity of Christianity or Islam, I knew very little of whom these people really were.
I was dropped off at the side of a road leading up a little hill. The driver asked if he should wait. I had no idea how long I would be staying so, reluctantly, I sent him away and began trekking up the hill. Before long I was met by a young, clean-shaven man. He had spotted me from the village. In passable English, he asked what I was doing here. I told him I had come to see Lalish. He smiled and told me to follow him.
As we came to a small flight of stairs that led up towards the village, the man pointed to my shoes. “Leave them here. No shoes are allowed.”
I dutifully obeyed. And then as if sensing the tension, the man smiled. “I am Kamal. Welcome to Lalish.” He stuck out his hand which I shook and then asked if I was hungry.
I told him that I had some food in my backpack.
“No, no,” he said. “You must eat with us.” Kamal led me up the stairs to an open courtyard, immaculately clean, with a few trees scattered around for shade. The village looked empty.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
“Now, the town empty. Only village families.”
I was led into a long rectangular building just off of the courtyard. A group of men was seated in a circle on the far side of the austere room. Kamal motioned for me to join them. It was a motley group, some wrapped in keffiyehs. They smiled as I sat down on the rug with them. “Where are you from?” asked one bearded man wearing a turban. America I told him.
A few moments later, a group of women came in with a large dish of rice and chicken flavored with saffron. They placed it in the center of the circle with some plates of fresh fruits and vegetables before handing each member of our group a plate. Then they withdrew and formed their own circle on the other side of the room.
As I struggled to eat with my hands (I could never quite figure out how to scoop the rice up without making a mess), Kamal pointed to the bearded man wearing the turban, “We call him the Arab,” he laughed, “We are all friends here. Kurd, American, Arab.”
Kamal patiently mediated our conversation as we ate. Most of the men were locals, although a few were refugees. One was from Baghdad but found the capital impossible to live. “Where is everyone?” I asked again.
“Few come because of the war,” was Kamal’s reply.
After lunch, Kamal took me on a tour of the village, really just a collection of stone houses strung between sand-colored conical temples. Through the cobblestone streets we made our way to the tomb of Şêx Adî, the Sufi mystic from the 12th century that the Yazidi believe was an aviator for Melek Taus, the peacock angel, one of seven holy beings that form the saintly pantheon of the Yazidi’s monotheist faith.
“Once in a life, one must visit the tomb of Şêx Adî and drink the holy water.” But before we did, Kamal led me to another building housing a simple well-worn column “You have to walk around it three times,” said Kamal. I did as he instructed which brought a smile to his face. “Now, we can go see the tomb.”
There was little light in the temple, the walls black from the burning of oil. Along the floor stood rows of amphorae, some that looked centuries old. We continued down a long corridor, deeper into the darkness until we came to the main sanctuary. It was almost pitch black, but as my eyes adjusted I could make out a cenotaph draped in multicolored cloth in the center of the empty and bare room.
After a few minutes of silent contemplation, we emerged back out in the daylight, a pair of village men sat by the temple, casually drinking coffee. They offered me a cup, and I sat down beside them.
Less than an hour away bombs were falling, machine guns were firing, and mortars were raining down on soldiers and civilians alike. On my way to Lalish, I had taken a detour to a monastery just off the main road to Mosul and had seen the white-tented refugee camps along the side of the highway, the result of the wanton destruction brought by ISIS. But here, the war was far away. Here it was safe.
Somewhere in the distance a child cried out, not in pain or fear, but in that egotistical way that children do when bored. A few women passed by with bags of laundry, casually chatting as their hair danced behind them. I watched the invisible wind ruffle the few dried leaves still clinging to the tree above me and sipped my coffee.