Jalaleddin vividly portrays the Kurdish massacres against the Armenians during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. In our earlier post discussing the Kurdish tribes in Jalaleddin, we surveyed the Kurdish tribes of the Ottoman Empire during the late 19th century in order to examine correspondences between the tribes Raffi named in the novella with real tribes of the time. However, alongside the Kurds, we also meet characters in Jalaleddin such as the cheerful and brave Město (pronounced must-owe), whom Raffi introduces as a “Yezidi Kurd”, and discover that the Yezidis were equally persecuted during Sheikh Jalaleddin’s incursion against the Armenians. Here, we will briefly overview the Yezidi people of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century before discussing why Raffi described Město and his compatriots as Kurdish in Jalaleddin.
Jalaleddin, Chapter 12:
On the western shores of Lake Van, at the base of Mount Süphan near the verdant edge of a small stream, a few shepherds’ tents could be seen, but their poor outward appearance indicated that their owners did not belong to one of the more fortunate tribes of Kurds. They were the tents of Yezidis, who were even more persecuted than the Armenians and had withdrawn to the loneliness of that mountain during the chaos of the war to protect themselves and their few livestock.
In the 19th century, the Yezidi people (also spelled Yazidi) resided in a large region that extended throughout the Ottoman Empire into northern Persia and the Caucasus region of the Russian Empire. Writing about the Yezidis in 1861, W. Francis Ainsworth explained that, “One of their chief strongholds is the Sinjar mountains, in central Mesopotamia, and several tribes have taken refuge from Muhammedan persecution in Georgia; but the residence of their spiritual and temporal head is in the neighborhood of Nineveh” (p. 12; Nineveh is located near Mosul in Iraq). Ainsworth also goes on to note that Yezidis were generally known by the name of the district in which they dwelled, and Yezidi villages could be found throughout Mesopotamia and Anatolia including in the districts of Julamerk (Hakkâri), Amadiya, Jezira ibn Omar (Cizre), Zakho, Mardin, and Diyarbakır.
Although the Yezidis speak Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish, also called Ezdiki by the Yezidis), they are not Muslim like the majority of Kurdish peoples, and instead follow their own religion, Yezidism. In the 19th century, this resulted in foreign travelers to the Ottoman Empire incorrectly describing the Yezidis as “devil worshippers”. Despite the Yezidi belief in one God consistent with other monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, scholars such as Kreyenbroek and Omarkhali (2016) have suggested that the misunderstanding of Yezidism arose due to, “a misinterpretation of the Tawûsê Melek (“the Peacock Angel”), the “Lord of this World” who is responsible for all that happens on earth, both good and bad (as humans would see it)” (p. 123). The unique religious beliefs of the Yezidi people, particularly their lack of a sacred text such as the Bible or Quran (i.e., they were not “Masters of a Book”), contributed to their persecution during the 19th century. In his contemporary account, Ainsworth (1861, p. 13) suggested that:
The harems of the south of Turkey have been recruited from them [Yezidi women]. Yearly expeditions have been made by the governors of provinces into their districts; and, whilst the men and women were slaughtered without mercy, the children of both sexes were carried off, and exposed for sale in the principal towns … This system was still practiced to a certain extent to within a very short time ago, and gave rise to atrocities scarcely equaled in the better known African slave trade.
In order to survive such persecution, many Yezidis fought back. Ainsworth (1861) went on to note, however, that they did not attack Christians, viewing them “as fellow sufferers for religion’s sake” (p. 13) within the Ottoman Empire. This is consistent with what we read in Jalaleddin when we meet Město, a young Yezidi man who had once been a servant in an Armenian home. Město is portrayed by Raffi as brave and loyal, and offers his Armenian friends protection among the resilient people of his tribe.
Jalaleddin, Chapter 5:
The young Kurd responded with self-assuredness and boasted, “Sheikh Jalaleddin and his entire army could not penetrate Město’s tent! You know well the Yezidis’ zealousness: whenever a man, no matter his race, enters a Yezidi’s tent, he becomes the happy guest of the entire tribe, and the entire tribe will shed blood to prevent that guest from falling into enemy hands.”
Despite the Yezidis unique religious beliefs and persecution as a result of those beliefs, Yezidis were usually identified as Kurdish in the late 19th century when Raffi wrote Jalaleddin. Even so, the identification of Yezidis as Kurdish continues to be debated, with many arguing that the Yezidis are a distinct ethnic-religious group. Belkis Wille, a senior Iraq researcher with Human Rights Watch, said in a recent interview with SBS, “If you ask Yazidis whether they are Kurdish, they very vehemently disagree with that. They do not want to be identified as Kurdish. They think of themselves as an entirely separate group.”
The oppression Raffi described in Jalaleddin was far from the only example of persecution the Yezidis have experienced. Most recently, the Yezidi community featured prominently in the news due to the devastating 2014 genocide that resulted in thousands of Yezidi men being killed and similarly large numbers of Yezidi women being sold into human trafficking. In 2018, a survivor of the genocide, Nadia Murad, was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Congolese gynecologist, Denis Mukwege.
Ainsworth, W. F. (1861). The Assyrian origin of the Izedis or Yezidis—the so-called “devil worshippers”. Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, 1, 11-44.
Kreyenbroek, P. G., & Omarkhali, K. (2016). Introduction to the special issue: Yezidism and Yezidi studies in the early 21st century. Kurdish Studies, 4(2), 122-130.