Armenian News Network / Groong June 8, 1998 By Onnik Krikorian Professor Garnik Asatrian is the Head of the Faculty of Iranian Studies at Yerevan State University. Born in Tehran in 1953, he moved to Yerevan in 1968. He has been prolific in his research into Kurdish tribal and linguistic tradition, and instrumental in the establishment of contemporary Kurdish academic study. He is Head of the newly founded Caucasian Centre for Iranian Studies, and is editor of the publication "Acta Kurdica". This interview was conducted by Onnik Krikorian during research undertaken in June for the Kurdish Human Rights Project investigating the situation of the Yezidi minority within the Republic of Armenia. As such, it forms part of a series of interviews with Yezidi, Kurdish and Armenian representatives. A report on the situation of minorities within the Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, with a focus on the Kurds, will be published this year by the Kurdish Human Rights Project. OK: You are very prolific, it is said, in the study of the Yezidi as a separate ethnic and national identity. It is also said that the debate over the Yezidi ethnic identity is a political one. GA: The Kurdish-Yezidi problem over recent years has acquired a political connotation, not only in Armenia but amongst the widespread Kurdish diaspora. Some Kurds think that the problem is initiated by the Armenians. That it is not right, that it is not true, because Armenians have no interest in this problem. Whether they are Kurds or Yezidi doesn't matter for us, or for the national interests of Armenia. As you know the Yezidi problem always existed from the beginning of this ethno-confessional group - from the early 16th century onwards - because the formation of a Yezidi religion, a Yezid confession, a Yezidi ethnic group can be dated from the 13th century. The Yezidi can be originated from the 13th century. So, the Yezidis have always been the subject of persecution on behalf of the Kurds first of all, and they have a deep hatred towards the Kurds. Although they speak Kurdish - Kurmanji - they do not consider themselves as Kurds, so this is the problem. During the Soviet period, during the process of the unification of all nations, of course Yezidi were considered as Kurds. The Yezidi clergy was persecuted by the state, not the Armenian state but the Soviet state, as the bearers of religious tradition. Most of them were shot, and those that survived were placed in Stalin's camps. So, in 1988 during the resurrection of Armenia, it was also very natural that the Yezidi regained their national identity, and their religion. This was the main reason for the emergence of the Yezidi movement, not because of the Armenian Government or Government officials. OK: But there are Yezidi who consider themselves Yezidi-Kurd and accuse the Armenian Government of trying to promote a separate Yezidi identity. GA: Yes, some. Among the Yezidi there are those that do have Kurdish ties, but not all Yezidi. To be part of the Yezidi or Kurdish nation is just as much part of an individual's personal ambition. So, it is very natural for some Yezidi, but I am talking about the Yezidi as a whole, and not some individuals, for example Karlene Chachani. OK: I met with a Yezidi family yesterday that bear out much of what you say, but there are still some confusing contradictions. For example, although you say that Yezidi are not Kurds, many Yezidi in Armenia, and despite the expulsion of most of Armenia's Moslem Kurds, consider "Riya Taza", a Kurdish newspaper with a Yezidi editor, their newspaper. Also, Kurdish academics have suggested that there is an Armenian nationalist movement that has attempted to supress the Yezidi Kurdish identity - for example, Mehrdad Izady in "Kurdish Life" has accused some Armenian nationalist newspapers of printing racist articles regarding the Kurds and the Yezidi-Kurdish identity. GA: Mehrdad Izady is a stupid man, a very stupid man. He is a Professor at the University of Harvard, and I wonder why Harvard has Professors such as he. For example, he could not even be a mere teacher here in Armenia, even teaching children. It's amazing, it's amazing, it's very amazing. OK: Articles written by a US-based Armenian journalist suggest however, that there is a link between the promotion of a separate Yezidi identity and the amount of money made available to promote separate Yezidi newspapers and culture at a time when newspapers such as "Riya Taza" were facing financial difficulty. GA: Do you know what is amazing for me, and I wonder as an Armenian, is how you can explain the very focused interest of political and non- political non governmental organisations in the Yezidi problem in Armenia. All of them are trying to represent the 50,000 Yezidi as Kurds. What is the interest of these organisations? OK: I do not believe that this is the interest of NGOs in the West. However, there are very obviously political groups in the west who see the Kurdish movement as a medium for whatever political interests, and the Yezidi are part of that political interest. However, the Yezidi can be seen to be an appropiate focus for any study of the situation of minorities within the Republic of Armenia, and that is why I am here, and why the issue of the Yezidi national and ethnic identity needs to be addressed. GA: Minorities within Armenia are living very well, and you can see that every minority, even the Yezidi, and even the Kurds, are living very well here. OK: However, in last year's US State Department report on human rights practices in Armenia it did state that there were cases of discrimination against Yezidi. GA: There is not any discrimination against Yezidi. You know where this rumour comes from? It comes from Germany and other countries because some of those Yezidi that left Armenia for the west found that European governments did not want to give refugee status to these people. The only people that can get refugee status are those that have experienced political persecution, and so this allegation was made in order to get refugee status. Even Armenians. For example, I have some acquaintances here that disliked Dashnaktsutiune who came to me two years ago. This was during a very dark period of Levon Ter-Petrossian's regime two or three years ago when Dashnaktsutiune was banned. But they wanted to join Dashnaktsutiune so that they could get refugee status in the west, and this is the same problem with the Yezidi. I read a report in Belgium that suggested that every Yezidi in Armenia has undergone persecution for speaking Kurdish, and that even some of them were killed in the streets. We sent a Yezidi to the west to show the real situation of the Yezidi in Armenia. There is not any discrimination in Armenia. I know of course what the real reason is for the interest in the Yezidi. OK: And what is that? GA: To include Armenia in the list of countries with a Kurdish problem. Having a Yezidi minority, Armenia can not be home to bases for the PKK, and a home for Kurdish guerillas. But if Armenia has a Kurdish minority, and it does not matter if they are only 50,000, then some of Armenia is part of Kurdistan, along with Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. This is very primitive and superficial. You can very easily detect the real reasons for the interest in the Armenian Yezidi. The [former] American Ambassador, Gilmore, on many occasions visited Yezidi villages. He wanted to insist on the Kurdish identity of the Yezidi. He even held a seminar on the Yezidi. It has a mostly political basis - nothing to do with human rights. There is even a speciality called "fact-finding". They teach people to identify human rights violations, but I can show you where human rights violations occur. Saudia Arabia for example - they cut off people's hands - and Africa, so its amazing. We are laughing at this attitude towards Armenia. Yezidi are citizens of Armenia, they are not Kurds, and you can visit Yezidi inhabited villages. OK: How many [Moslem] Kurds are left in Armenia GA: About 100. OK: 100 people? Someone told me around 2-5,000. Are they wrong? GA: They are quite wrong. That is the problem, Mr. Krikorian. OK: I would agree with you with regards to certain "fact-finding" missions, and there is no doubt that the best report on human rights violations in a specific country is one that simply states that there are no problems. However, there are reports and allegations that have to be looked into. For example, that there is an attempt to redefine the identity of those Yezidi that consider themselves to be Kurdish. GA: I have to specify a very important point. When you say that some of them are of Kurdish origin, or not of Kurdish origin, you have to specify the notion of "Kurd". The term "Kurd" only goes back to the first decades of the 20th century as a common denomination of a nation. We can not speak of Kurds and Kurdish people - it is wrong, quite wrong. It was only developed in the political circles of Germany and England. For example the Kurmanji of Western Armenia, or as they say, Turkish Kurdistan, are Kurmanjis - they have not a genuine Kurdish identity. When you visit a Kurdish village in say, Erzerum, and you ask if they are Kurd, they answer with a tribal identity, not a national identity. OK: There is a tribal identity, I agree, but I travelled in south east Turkey last year, around Diyarbakir, Elazig and Bingol, and there did seem to be a splintering of the Kurdish groups. However, they all considered themselves to be Kurdish. Even those that were pro-Turkish said that they spoke Kurdish, not Kurmanji. I know it is the same language, but they used the term "Kurdish", and as an Iranian Armenian you will have an opposing opinion on this, but they all considered Newroz to be a Kurdish festival, whether they supported the Kurdish movement or not. GA: Of course, it was an exaggeration, but through the radio, the mass media, they can now identify themselves as Kurds. The question of national identity is dependent on future national development, and this also applies to the Yezidi. Some Yezidi consider themselves Kurdish exclusively because of the fact that to belong to a nation fighting for its independence is more attractive. That is why some Yezidi intellectuals consider themselves Kurds. You can not talk about a unified Kurdish nation, but you can at least talk about Kurdish people. You can not consider the Kurds of Iran and compare them with the Kurmanjis. They are quite a different people - they can not even understand each other. They have quite a different confessional attitude. Ethnically and linguistically they are quite different although they are also called Kurd. Yezidis are a small ethno-confessional group, Kurdish speaking. "Ethno-confessional group" - this is the right term for applying to the Yezidis. But you are going to publish this? OK: I have been commissioned to write a report on the situation of minorites within the Republic of Armenia, with a focus on the largest minority - the Yezidi. As part of this I have to examine and investigate accusations and allegations of human rights violations, although as I have stated the best report I could hope to write is that there are no human rights violations at all. GA: You are not a "fact-finding" person? OK: I am not a "fact-finding" person, although facts are very important. Without facts you can not substantiate, and at the same time another journalist is in Azerbaijan undertaking similar research to see if the governments of the caucasus region are living up to their international treaty obligations. GA: In Azerbaijan you can find lots of facts. OK: So, "fact-finding" is okay in Azerbaijan? GA: Nothing is okay, but you will find lots of facts. For example, in Azerbaijan in the first decades of Soviet power there were 45,000 Kurds, but now you can not find any Kurds in Azerbaijan. This is the great fact. The Azerbaijani Government does not count its minorities - everyone is considered Azerbaijani. OK: One problem that all of the Yezidi on both sides have pointed out is that they do not have any representation in Parliament. GA: Since the formation of the new Armenian Government I have written articles insisting that every minority has representatives in the Armenian Parliament relative to their population. We are passing a new law concerning parliamentary elections, and in our projects that we have, all minorities in Armenia will have a representative in the Armenian Parliament. It will be wonderful, and it is so far the greatest shortcoming that we have with regards to the national minorities in Armenia. I agree with you, it is important, and I think we will overcome this difficulty. OK: Kocharian has already placed great importance on the situation of minorities within Armenia, and I presume from what you have said so far that there are no problems whatsoever. GA: Of course, it is not true to categorically state that there are no problems concerning minorities.There are some local incidents in villages, in mixed-populations, but they do not have national connotations. The first problem is that of representation in Parliament, and the regime of Ter Petrossian was a criminal regime. It was based upon banditry and acquiring money. I am not speaking as a Dashnak, I am speaking as an Armenian. The next problem concerns schools, but it is very difficult because the Yezidi language is not a language of literature. It is technically impossible to teach all disciplines in the Yezidi language, in Kurmanji. Even in Persian it is very difficult, because these languages do not have a long-standing academic tradition. If the Yezidi or the Kurds make their country they can achieve this step by step, maybe in fifty years, but probably it will take a century until Yezidi schools and universities can teach all disciplines in their own language. OK: Am I right in thinking that individuals such as Aziz Tamoyan has initiated the re-adoption of a unique Yezidi alphabet? GA: During the first years of Soviet power, the Yezidi used the Armenian alphabet, but then adopted cyrillic, until even now. Some Yezidi claim that there is an ancient Yezidi alphabet, but it is an ambitious statement. They had cryptograms for Yezidi sacred books. © Copyright 1998 Onnik Krikorian. All rights reserved. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited. -- Onnik Krikorian is a photojournalist, journalist and communications consultant in London. He has travelled to Turkey to cover stories on media censorship and human rights abuses for 'The Scotsman on Saturday', "New Internationalist', and 'The Journalist' magazines. He may be contacted at email@example.com. His Photographs of the Kurds and Yezidi in Turkey and Armenia are available directly, or through the London-based Panos Pictures photo agency.
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