'We Will Never Break': In Iraq, A Yazidi Women's Choir Keeps Ancient Music Alive

Apr 4, 2021
Originally published on April 4, 2021 8:40 am

DOHUK, Iraq — With rows of white tents filling a windswept hillside, the Khanke camp in northern Iraq shelters about 14,000 men, women and children from the Yazidi religious minority. They have been stuck here since ISIS invaded their home villages in 2014.

With its dirt roads and drab dwellings, the camp can be a bleak place. But the beat of a daf, a drum sacred to Yazidis, throbs underneath loud, energetic singing, rising over shouts of children in a trash-strewn playground.

Inside a small building, a dozen young Yazidi women are rehearsing folk songs. They sing about the dawn, the harvest and the Sinjar mountain the Yazidis consider holy. Sometimes their voices harmonize gently, sometimes they rise almost to a shout as the women chant.

Rana Sulaiman Halo (center), performs with a traditional daf drum with the Ashti (Peace) Choir.
Emily Garthwaite/INSTITUTE for NPR

This is the Ashti (Peace) Choir, founded and led 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 them as heretics, shooting the men and raping and enslaving women and girls — she says it was difficult to sing "because of the news around us, someone being kidnapped, someone being killed." Her cousin is among thousands of Yazidis still missing. Thousands more were killed.

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

The choir has performed in the U.K. and provided music therapy to its members subjected to sexual violence by ISIS.

And it has become part of an effort to preserve a vital part of Yazidi culture, in which little is written down, and history and religion are contained within songs.

"This folk music, it's also a kind of affiliation of 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 sacred to Yazidis.
Emily Garthwaite/INSTITUTE for NPR

Some, he says, are sung during religious festivals at shrines. Other songs are secular, about nature or comedy, or recounting events that took place centuries ago.

As members of the tiny religion — just a few hundred thousand people — seek asylum in Europe, Othman says their oral culture is threatened as families and villages are split up by the asylum process.

Europe is "for the individual," he says, not for tribes or clans. And Yazidism is intimately connected with places in northern Iraq — Mount Sinjar and the holy site of Lalish, where priests also pass down religion and customs with songs.

"There is no community which connects to the land as the Yazidis do," he says. "And because they are leaving their land, their homeland, so they are going to lose their religious identities."

Top: Yazidi folk musicians practice a traditional song from Sinjar. Left: A Yazidi folk musician holds a traditional daf drum. Right: Close-up of dafs.
Emily Garthwaite/INSTITUTE for NPR

Still, some things make him hopeful. In the village of Bahzani, where religious music couldn't be performed after ISIS attacked, young people from the traditional Yazidi priestly families are learning it again.

AMAR has recorded some Yazidi folk songs and sacred music and given the recordings to the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library to archive. And young Yazidis, like the members of the Ashti choir, are enthusiastic about their heritage.

"They are so excited and interested in this kind of music, and this is something very nice that we are still holding our traditional music," says Vian Darwish, a Yazidi member of Iraq's parliament.

After the horror of 2014, she says, gatherings, festivities and singing were muted. But now, "they are trying to go on to heal, to have their normal life and not to be victimized. This is what I like about the Yazidi community in general, that they have that sense of the love of the life and they want to go on and love music, weddings, parties — having normal lives in spite of everything."

Laundry dries on a line in the Khanke camp.
Emily Garthwaite/INSTITUTE for NPR

For those staying in the Khanke camp, normal life is a distant prospect. Even though ISIS has lost almost all the territory it once held, and much of its power, Turkish forces and militias backed by Iran are among those now competing for the territory around Mount Sinjar. Conflict could flare again. It is not yet safe to go home.

And not everyone in this grief-stricken community feels like singing — or hearing music. After a recent rehearsal, the women from the choir sit on a wall and chat. Ghazal Dawoud Hussein, 21, says her family has no problem with her practicing. But another family nearby lost so many relatives, they don't like to hear her 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."

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The Ashti Choir performs with dafs at the Khanke camp.
Emily Garthwaite/INSTITUTE for NPR


In a camp for displaced Yazidis in Iraq, there is music. The women are survivors of ISIS, which attacked the towns and villages the ancient religious minority called home and killed or kidnapped thousands before it was pushed out. But NPR's Alice Fordham visited recently and reports that despite all they've lost, they are working to keep something precious.


ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Walking around this camp for displaced Yazidis in northern Iraq, I realize most of these children were probably born here.


FORDHAM: ISIS expelled the Yazidi minority from their traditional villages in 2014. And though they are defeated now, other conflicts are simmering in the area, so Yazidis are stuck in bleak camps like this one, where I walk through rows of identical white tents.


FORDHAM: But coming from one small building is a sound that's insistently alive and vibrant.


FORDHAM: Inside are about a dozen young women playing the drum known as a daf that is sacred to Yazidis and singing a traditional song.


FORDHAM: This well-rehearsed group is a choir called Ashti, or Peace.


FORDHAM: They meet several times a week to practice, as the choir leader, Rana Sulaiman, tells me.

RANA SULAIMAN HALO: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Yazidis are connected to their land," she says, to places like the mountain Sinjar. And when they are singing, they sing songs related to nature, to places or to the harvest. She's 22 now and came to this camp in 2014 when everyone who could fled ISIS.

HALO: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: She comes from a musical family but says, for the first year, it was difficult to sing because thousands of Yazidis have been killed and kidnapped. Her cousin is still missing. But in the second year here, she came back to music.


FORDHAM: Some of the choir members survived horrific sexual violence at the hands of the extremists. Rana Sulaiman says singing folk music is healing.


FORDHAM: For the last two years, this choir has been supported by the British charity AMAR, and it helps preserve something vital to this tiny religion. Mamou Othman is a professor at the nearby University of Dohuk, who works on music as psychotherapy.

MAMOU OTHMAN: This folk music, it's also a kind of affiliation of our religion. So how can you feel that you are Yazidi? When you understand such music and dance with it and be happy with it. So it's kind of our identity, also.

FORDHAM: He says most Yazidi culture is oral. There are few religious or historical texts. It's all taught through the songs.

OTHMAN: Some of them, they are about history, others about nature, others, comedy, others, tragedy. And some of them are about events that took place in the last 200, 300 years.

FORDHAM: He says these traditions are threatened as Yazidis claim asylum outside Iraq and communities splinter. But some things make him hopeful. The British charity recorded and archived a lot of music. A special school for religious musicians is up and running again, and there are active folk singers like the choir I met. Yazidi member of parliament, Vian Darwish, says lots of young Yazidis are enthusiastic about their traditions.

VIAN DARWISH: They are trying to go on, to heal, to have their normal life.

FORDHAM: These days, she goes to weddings again with traditional musicians and generations of Yazidis singing and dancing together.

DARWISH: They have that sense of the love of the life, and they want to go on. They love music, weddings, parties, having normal lives in spite of everything.


FORDHAM: In the camp, the Ashti choir sings a wedding song.

GHAZAL DAWOUD HUSSEIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: Choir member Ghazal Dawoud Hussein says many members of the choir here still have members held by ISIS, but their music is a message that the Yazidi people will never break. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHTI SINGING, DRUMMING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.