An interview with Zêdan Xalaf: translator, researcher, and project manager of the Shingal Lives project at the Kashkul Center for Arts and Culture at American University of Iraq Sulaimani (AUIS).
Zêdan Xalaf is a Translation Studies graduate from the University of Duhok and currently an MA student in Creative Writing at the University of San Francisco. He is originally from Shingal (also known as Sinjar) in northwestern Iraq, and a survivor of the 2014 Yezidi genocide perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State (IS). Besides his work with the Shingal Lives project and as a translator and researcher, Zêdan also writes poetry and has released a book of poems translated from Arabic to English titled “Barcode Scanner.”
Shingal Lives is a one-year project implemented by Kashkul in partnership with UK-based Exeter University. Zêdan currently manages a team of eight oral translators who are collecting oral histories from Yezidi elders, storytellers, and others. The oral histories are uploaded onto YouTube and made available for young Yezidis and others to listen to and remember the history and culture of the community.
Zêdan spoke to AUIS Journalism student Ghazala Jango about the Shingal Lives project.
Ghazala Jango: Zêdan, can you tell us about Shingal Lives and its objective?
Zêdan Xalaf : The Shingal Lives project is a one-year project that aims to record stories from the older generation of Yezidis, plus singers and storytellers to preserve their oral history and culture. This project is being done in partnership with the University of Exeter and Kashkul at AUIS. We are now in the stage of collecting stories and songs, and the personal histories of the singers, storytellers, and others in the community. Eight oral historians are working on the collection of these stories and documenting them either by audio or video recording. This project will end in February 2022, and we want to expand the project because I believe that one year is not enough to preserve the entire body of work in oral tradition.
GJ: I know you have been interested in the oral history of the Yezidi people for a long time. How did you come up with the idea for this project?
ZX: This project is an extension of a personal project of mine. Back in 2017, I was at the University of Duhok, and I didn’t have much to do during my summer vacation. At the same time, I couldn’t get a job because I was a student—no one hires students for just three months. So, that summer I was missing my grandmother's stories, and because she had died, she was not around to tell me her stories anymore. I went to my aunt, who was raised by my grandmother, since she knows so many of my grandmother’s stories.
When I went to my aunt, she also didn’t remember all the stories, so she referred me to another person and said, “This person knows the stories better than me and can tell you more.” I went to that person and transcribed everything he told me. I bought a voice recorder with the help of a friend, and after that I started to ask a lot of people to tell me stories. Each person referred me to someone else more knowledgeable about our oral traditions.
This is how I collected around 40 hours of songs, or what we call stran, over two years. I translate them as epic poems because I regard them as poetry.
Then in 2018, along with a group of friends, I was invited to a poetry reading at AUIS. After the event, Marie Labrosse, who was the director of Kashkul at that time, asked me about Yezidi poets and classical poetry as she had studied classic Kurdish poetry and she was interested in my ideas about poetry and classic Yezidi poetry. She asked me if I knew any classic Yezidi poets whose work I could translate. I told her that we are a community that practices oral tradition to preserve our history and culture.
We have never had the means to institutionalize our language and literature, or to study it in school. We have never written anything down in our own language in at least the last 500 years. Under Ottoman rule we were not allowed to because they were in power, and we as the Yezidi community were demonized by then. We didn’t have written tradition because writing comes from authority, I believe. I told [Labrosse], if we ever had any written poetry, we probably lost it because the Ottomans also burnt everything that belonged to the Yezidis and launched genocidal campaigns. But who knows what happened exactly? Thus, the Yezidis kept their oral tradition because they survived by it.
GJ: Do you think part of the reason why Yezidis have practiced oral tradition is because they wanted to be distinct from other communities? Was that a way to preserve their identity and their history from the repeated genocide campaigns?
ZX: Yes, definitely. Basically, you need to tell stories to survive, you need to make sense of your existence. You need to make sense of why you are distinct and why you don’t want to be a carbon copy of the other. The Muslims wanted us to be Muslims, and they wanted the Yezidis to convert to Islam, but the Yezidis had a reason not to convert. They had an entire body of oral history and traditions. We have qawel, bait, stran, pasta, etc. We have an entire body of generosity in oral tradition.
I remember Marie asked me about tangible and intangible archives. The archive that we have in the Yezidi community is intangible; it’s just in our memory. Our archive is our memory because you can destroy a physical or a tangible archive in a minute. But not for a vulnerable community, like the Yezidis, that went through genocidal campaigns by the Ottoman Empire, Muslim rulers, etc. This is how they kept their history, through oral tradition, and how we still manage to keep our tradition alive. They can’t destroy it because it is in our minds. If you survive, those stories will survive with you, if you don’t, then nothing survives. That was the way they thought it to be.
GJ: What was your main aim in developing this specific project?
ZX: I thought we were losing our traditions and stories because they aren’t being not told as before due to Arabization, which is still going on. The Yezidi community is 60 percent Arabized, I would say. If you look at what people listen to, they listen to Kadim Al-Sahir [a popular modern Arabic singer] more than Qasimi Mairy [a classical Yezidi singer]. If you say Qasimi Mairy, the newer generation would say, “Who is that?” Everyone knows who Kadim Al-Sahir is, but no one knows who Qasimi Mairy is, which is a part of that Arabization.
If you think about our epic poems, they last for one to two hours, but songs in other languages last for only five minutes—this is the way they influenced Yezidi minds. For example, before 1995, people sang those long songs, not to gain money, but because they inherited from their fathers and families. We had families of singers (stran bezh) like Qasimi Mairy’s family, Pir Gro’s family, etc. Who is now considered a master of the Yezidis; long traditional songs?
What we wanted to do through this project is to revive these epic songs and stories and give access to Yezidis to their own oral stories that they no longer listen to because of their phones. We want to use this opportunity to put those stories on YouTube for them to have the stories on their phones. In the end, we can’t ask people to leave their phones and go to listen to their grandparents who want to tell a story, but we thought we could do something else; we could record their grandparents telling a story and put it on YouTube. We wanted to target people who would want to listen to their ancestors’ stories and not have to leave their phones at the same time.
GJ: So, you are working on the oral tradition and oral history of Yezidis, I wonder what kind of methods you use to collect information and data?
ZX: We have developed a protocol, it’s quite long, about 11 pages. We have our list of questions regarding the life of Yezidi singers and storytellers, and the singing tradition in the Yezidi community before and after the establishment of the mujamaat [urbanized areas]. We go to people and interview them. We interview singers (stran bezh), storytellers (cherok bezh), listeners, and audiences (gohdar). We interview all these people to get a sense of the storytelling oral tradition.
GJ: The oral tradition to some extent has preserved the Yezidi culture and identity, but don’t you think that it also has made Yezidis lose some of their history and identity?
ZX: Of course. I would say if it weren’t for that oral tradition, we would not have remained as a community, and we would not have survived. However, in the oral tradition, of course you lose something. Let’s say we are five in a room and I tell you something, and it goes from one person to another, eventually it will change and you will have a completely different story as it reaches the last person. I would also say that with the death of every person, a story dies. Now especially, it is more endangered than any other time. Each day, our oral tradition becomes more endangered than the day before because those who tell stories are the older people and their memories have been affected by the most recent genocide. If I ask who is most vulnerable to COVID-19, it’s the older people who are telling these stories, so each time a person died in recent years, a story died.
GJ: Why are Yezidis becoming more aware of preserving their oral history and culture after the recent genocide of 2014? Was the genocide a point that raised awareness in this regard?
ZX: It’s because Yezidis opened up to the world. We were not in dialogue with non-Yezidi communities before the genocide, and we were unknown in the world and did not have access to the world. The internet provided us that chance. The Ba’ath regime did not allow us to have access to the world. If I ask how many libraries we had in Shingal, of course, there were none; and how many books we had—also none; and how many universities we had—also none. And the schools we had only taught in Arabic, and were of the worst quality, and only taught Islamic ideology. Our madrasa (schools) came from the Islamic system, which is based on rote memorization methods for the Quran.
GJ: What future plans do you have for this kind of project? And what are you planning to do by the end of this project?
ZX: I compare the issue of our oral tradition to the environmental crisis and climate change issues in the world. These are our last five years to do something and save and preserve our oral history in sustainable ways, otherwise, we will lose them forever. We are attempting to extend the project and receive more funds so that we can keep what we have and let it survive. A project like this will not preserve everything, it is only an attempt to tell people that this tradition is endangered and that’s disappointing. If something dies, it’s gone forever, you can’t restore it because it was a memory. It’s not something physical that you can pull out after 100 years like in libraries. People agree on its value. If people agree on the value of something, it will survive, and the opposite is also correct. Anyways, one year is not enough and one project is not enough, and ten people are not enough to record everything.
Our plan for the end of the project in February 2022 is to have a festival, and we hope that we can do it in Lalish [a holy site for Yezidis], but we are not yet sure if we can do it there. My idea for the festival is not to have a stage-focused festival, but rather have storytellers perform while sitting on carpets. Every storyteller will sit somewhere in Lalish, in those places that people gather, and I want to revive the storytelling tradition in Lalish through this festival. Basically, you will be able to go to the storyteller and ask them to tell you a story. In this way, they will tell stories that some people are interested in listening to. We are planning to invite up to 20 storytellers and singers, give them a spot in Lalish and ask people to go and listen to them.
What is interesting about this kind of project is that this is the first project of this kind that focuses on recording and documenting the oral history of the Yezidis, who have faced 74 genocidal campaigns that burnt and destroyed all the history they had. Yezidis switched to oral tradition to make their history and culture survive with them as they passed it to each other by storytelling in the evenings when gathering. Their children memorized those stories. However, with the development of the internet and technology, not so many people are interested in telling those stories anymore as people are not interested in learning them. So year by year, this oral history is becoming more endangered and the new generation of Yezidis will not know anything of their history.