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The Yezidis of Armenia Face Identity Crisis over Kurdish Ethnicity

By Deniz Serinci 28/5/2014
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The Yezidis of Armenia Face Identity Crisis over Kurdish Ethnicity
Aziz Tamoyan: ‘We are not Kurds.’ Photo: Deniz Serinci
 YEREVAN, Armenia – The Yezidi community in Armenia is angry: First, over attacks on their religious kin in Iraq, and the other over being identified as Kurds.

Last week, Yezidis in Armenia held a demonstration outside the UN Office in Yerevan, protesting recent attacks on Yezidis in Iraq.

The protest was led by the Yezidi Union in Armenia, which is known for sharing the view that Yezidis have no connections to Kurds.

“We are not Kurds,” insisted Aziz Tamoyan, director of the Yezidi Union in Armenia. “They speak Kurdish, we speak Ezdiki. They come from the Middle East, Yezidis come from the ancient Babylonians.”

Armenia’s approximately 40,000 Yezidis, who arrived there as refugees from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, are the largest minority group in the mainly Christian country. The community is mostly composed of Yezidis from Turkey who settled in the Transcaucasus, mainly Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

For Tamoyan it is a matter of importance that the Yezidis have their own identity, separate from Kurds, although his is a minority view not shared by most academics or historians.

The Yezidis are largely regarded as a religious minority inside the Kurdish nation.  But unlike the majority of Kurds, who are Muslims, the Yezidis have their own controversial religious beliefs, leaving them open to attacks, especially by Islamic insurgents in Iraq.

Tamoyan pointed to the front page of the Yezidi Union’s newspaper, “Yezidikhaya.” A front-page headline declared: “My nation is Yezidi, my language is Ezdiki and my religion is Sharfadin,” a term the Yezidis use to identify themselves.

In 2002, at the request of a group of Yezidis led by Tamoyan, the Armenian parliament recognized the Yezidis as a separate ethnicity, and their language as Ezdiki.

At Armenian universities, Kurdish and Ezdiki are taught as different languages.

The Yezidis also have their own red-and-white flag with a yellow sun. It is similar to the Kurdish flag, but does not contain the green color, which the Yezidis equate with the color of Islam.

Kurdologist Garnik Asatrian from Yerevan State University supports the Yezidikhaya project’s denial of being Kurdish.

“Yezidis and Kurds are completely different ethnic identities. Language is not a decisive criterion, some people in Africa speak English, but has nothing to do with British,” Asatrian said.

But there are disagreeing voices, noting that Ezdiki sounds just like the Kurdish Kurmanji dialect.

“Obviously the Yezidis are Kurds,” said Philip G. Kreyenbroek, professor and director of Iranian Studies at the University of Gottingen in Germany. “Their common language, including that of their sacred texts, is Kurmanji Kurdish, and they originate in the Lalish area in northern Iraq,” he added.

Barzoo Eliassi, researcher at the University of Oxford in the UK, agrees with Kreyenbroek.

“There are no doubts Yezidis are Kurds. Kurdishness is not a homogenous category. Turks and some Kurds were involved in genocidal acts against the Armenians in 1915. So for Yezidis, to avoid being Muslim and Kurd, mean avoiding double stigmatization in the Armenian context,” he said.

Matthias Bjornlund, a Danish historian and author of books about Armenia, says there was added pressure on the Yezidis to distance themselves from the predominantly Muslim Kurds after the 1991-94 Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and predominantly-Muslim Azerbaijan.

Titale Kerem, editor of Riya Taze, the world's longest-lived Kurdish newspaper that was founded in Armenia in 1932, described himself as a “Kurd by ethnicity and Yezidi by religion.”

"Of course we are Kurds. We speak Kurdish. However, many Yezidis hold grudges due to past massacres against them by non-Yezidi Kurds and therefore will not be associated with them," he said.

Aziz Gerdenzeri, an author, playwright and doctor who was born in Georgia but lived for many years in Armenia and Central Asia, said there was pressure on the Yezidis to distance themselves from mainstream Muslim Kurds due to political events.

"Yezidi and Kurds are one and the same nation. We share language, history and traditions. But due to historical reasons, people perceive the word ‘Kurd’ as ‘Muslim’,” he said.

Outside Armenia most Yezidi associations do not share their views of their co-religionists in the Caucasian country.

The chairman of the Ezidi Culture Association in Denmark, Yilmaz Yildiz, questioned why generations of Yezidis have fought side-by-side with Muslim Kurds as Kurdish partisans, Peshmergas in Iraq, Turkey and Syria if they themselves were not Kurds.

"The Yezidi are and have been part of the Kurdish resistance movement throughout Kurdistan, simply because they consider themselves indigenous Kurds and are part of the Kurdish community," Yildiz said.

 

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