• January 28, 2023

In Iraq, A Yazidi Women’s Choir Keeps Ancient Music Alive : NPR

A Yazidi woman walks through the Khanke camp in northern Iraq in February. Emily Garthwaite / Hide caption for NPR

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Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR

A Yazidi woman walks through the Khanke camp in northern Iraq in February.

Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR

DOHUK, Iraq – With rows of white tents filling a windswept hill, the Khanke camp in northern Iraq is home to approximately 14,000 men, women and children of the Yazidi religious minority. They have been stuck here since ISIS invaded their home villages in 2014.

With its dirt roads and dreary apartments, the camp can be a desolate place. But the beat of a daf, a drum that is sacred to Yazidis, pounds under loud, energetic singing and rises above the screams of children in a littered playground.

A dozen young Yazidi women rehearse folk songs in a small building. They sing about dawn, the harvest and the Sinjar Mountain, which the Yazidis consider sacred. Sometimes their voices harmonize gently, sometimes they almost rise to a scream while the women sing.

Rana Sulaiman Halo (center) plays a traditional Daf drum with the Ashti (Peace) choir. Emily Garthwaite / Hide caption for NPR

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Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR

Rana Sulaiman Halo (center) plays a traditional Daf drum with the Ashti (Peace) choir.

Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR

This is the Ashti (Peace) Choir founded and directed by 22 year old Rana Sulaiman Halo. She has lived in the camp since 2014 and comes from a family of musicians.

For the first year after ISIS targeted Yazidis – condemning her as heretics, shooting the men, and raping and enslaving women and girls – she said it was difficult to sing “because of the news around us “someone who has been kidnapped, someone who has been killed”. Her cousin is among the thousands of Yazidis who are still missing. Thousands more were killed.

Rana Sulaiman Halo, 22, founded and leads the Ashti Choir with support from the AMAR Foundation, a UK charity. She has lived in the camp since 2014. Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR caption

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Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR

Rana Sulaiman Halo, 22, founded and leads the Ashti Choir with support from the AMAR Foundation, a UK charity. She has lived in the camp since 2014.

Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR

But in the second year she says: “We went back to music.” In 2019 she founded the choir, supported by the AMAR Foundation, a British charity. Several women in the choir were ISIS prisoners; others have lost many family members.

The choir has performed in the UK and provided music therapy to members who have been subjected to sexual violence by ISIS.

And it has become part of an effort to preserve an important part of Yazidi culture that has little written down and history and religion in songs.

“This folk music is also a kind of belonging to our religion,” says Mamou Othman, who studies music as psychotherapy at the University of Dohuk. “There are special songs that only the Yazidis sing.”

A Yazidi folk musician stands with a traditional daf, a drum that is sacred to Yazidis. Emily Garthwaite / Hide caption for NPR

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Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR

A Yazidi folk musician stands with a traditional daf, a drum that is sacred to Yazidis.

Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR

Some, he says, are sung in shrines during religious festivals. Other songs are secular, about nature or comedy, or tell of events that happened centuries ago.

As members of the tiny religion – only a few hundred thousand people – seek asylum in Europe, according to Othman, their oral culture is threatened as families and villages are divided up by the asylum process.

Europe is “for the individual,” he says, not for tribes or clans. And Yazidism is closely associated with places in northern Iraq – Mount Sinjar and the holy site of Lalish, where priests also pass on religion and customs with songs.

“There is no community that is connected to the land like the Yazidis,” he says. “And because they leave their country, their homeland, they will lose their religious identity.”

Above: Yazidi folk musicians practice a traditional Sinjar song. Left: A Yazidi folk musician is holding a traditional Daf drum. Right: close-up of dafs. Emily Garthwaite / Hide caption for NPR

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Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR

Above: Yazidi folk musicians practice a traditional Sinjar song. Left: A Yazidi folk musician is holding a traditional Daf drum. Right: close-up of dafs.

Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR

Even so, a few things make him hopeful. In the village of Bahzani, where no religious music could be performed after the IS attack, young people from traditional Yazidi priestly families are learning it again.

AMAR has recorded some Yazidi folk songs and sacred music and given the recordings to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library for archiving. And young Yazidis, like the members of the Ashti Choir, are enthusiastic about their legacy.

“They’re so excited and interested in this type of music, and it’s something very beautiful, that we still keep our traditional music,” says Vian Darwish, a Yazidi MP in the Iraqi parliament.

After the horror of 2014, she says, gatherings, parties and singing were muted. But now “they keep trying to heal, live their normal life and not become a victim. That’s what I like about the Yazidi community in general, that they feel the love of life and they want to move on and to love music, weddings, parties – to lead a normal life in spite of everything. “

Laundry dries on a line in the Khanke warehouse. Emily Garthwaite / Hide caption for NPR

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Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR

Laundry dries on a line in the Khanke warehouse.

Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR

For those living in Khanke camp, normal life is a distant prospect. Although ISIS has lost almost all of the territory it once owned and much of its power, the Iran-backed Turkish forces and militias are among those now fighting over the area around Mount Sinjar. The conflict could flare up again. It is not safe to go home yet.

And not everyone in this grieving community feels like singing – or listening to music. After a recent rehearsal, the women in the choir sit against a wall and talk. Ghazal Dawoud Hussein, 21, says her family has no problem with practicing. But another family nearby has lost so many relatives that they don’t like to hear them sing.

She treats singing as an act of resistance.

“We are here to send a message to ISIS,” she says, “that we will never break.”

The Ashti Choir performs with Dafs in the Khanke camp. Emily Garthwaite / Hide caption for NPR

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Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR

The Ashti Choir performs with Dafs in the Khanke camp.

Emily Garthwaite / INSTITUTE for NPR

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