Interview with Karlene Chachani
Interview conducted by Onnik Krikorian, June 1998

Dr. Karlene Chachani is a Yezidi living in Yerevan, Armenia. He is President of the Department of the Kurdish Writers of the Writers' Union of Armenia, and Chief Editor of "Friendship" - an Armenian-Kurdish political Journal.

OK: I would just like to say that the Yezidi community in Armenia is culturally fascinating, which is one of the areas I would like to focus on, but it was Jackie Abramian's essays on the Yezidi in Armenia that made me aware of what you consider an important issue - that is, the definition of Yezidi or Yezidi-Kurd. I would very much like your opinion on that, especially having already interviewed Garnik Asatrian yesterday, and having listened to his opinion that the Yezidi are in fact a separate nation.

KC: Garnik Asatrian is one of my best friends, and to celebrate his 45th birthday I published an article on his life and work in my journal ["Friendship"] but especially on Yezidi issues - on the ideology - and on many scientific issues we are in disagreement.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new Armenian Government, headed by the All-Armenian Movement Party, co-operated with other political forces to initiate a policy - a movement - to declare the existence of the Yezidi as a separate minority within Armenia. The movement included individuals such as Aziz Tamoyan and Sheik Hassan and others. They became "volunteer" leaders of this new movement; a movement which has no scientific basis, and which is fascilitated by anti-scientific ideas. They tried to prove that the Yezidi are a separate nationality.

As far as I am aware, Garnik Asatrian has changed his opinion on this matter. Now he has joined another Party - Dashnakutuune - and has been a member for two years already. Garnik Asatrian has opened a special group in Yerevan State University, Twenty to twenty-five young Armenian students are studying Kurdish language, Kurdish history and Kurdish issues. I welcome Garnik Asatrian's initiative. He also has plans to open a degree course - a Masters - in Kurdology. Garnik Asatrian speaks of the strategic and political development in the study of the Kurdish question in Armenia at a University level, but there is not even one word on Yezidi issues.

This is my personal opinion on this problem. The Kurds as an ethnic group have diversities in terms of worship. Some are Moslem, some are Zaza, and some are Yezidi. They are ethnically Kurdish, but have different worship groups. To make a worship group into a separate nation has no scientific basis. There is no "Yezdistan" as a country, no Yezdi language - there is "Kurdistan" and the Kurdish language with all of its dialects. The Kurds are fighting a national liberation struggle in Turkey, as you know, headed by Apo - Abdullah Ocalan [Chairman of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)]. All layers of Kurdish ethnic nationality are included, Yezidis as well. There is a Kurdish Parliament functioning outside of our geographical motherland that is considered to be the most democratic Parliament in the world. The members of the Parliament are all Kurds but belong to different worship groups. There are Yezidi parliamentarians.

OK: What do you feel is the motivation behind the promotion of a separate Yezidi identity?

KC: The collapse of the Soviet Union promoted revolution - this was a revolution. During all revolutions, people and interested groups are promoted that are trying to defend some causes for the sake of their own benefit, and for the sake of their own interests. In the words of an Armenian proverb, these people were "trying to catch fish in dirty water". This cause was created on a false basis, and the people interested in the promotion of the Yezidi issue were false nationalists. This was not done in the interests of Armenians, in the interests of Armenia, or in the interests of the Kurds. This was just a falsely created cause to create a so-called national minority issue in Armenia. I also think we can already see the involvement of external forces, mainly from Iraq and Turkey where Kurdish problems are very acute, in the interest of creating a Yezidi issue in Armenia to provoke two groups of the same ethnic nationality, Yezidi and Kurds, against each other.

To see the reason why some of those of Kurdish ethnicity declared themselves as a separate Yezidi ethnicity, we have to see the roots in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabagh. When the conflict started, refugees appeared - Azerbaijanis left from Armenia, and Armenians left from Azerbaijan as a result of inter-ethnic conflict. Azerbaijanis are Moslem, and amongst them there were mixed marriages with Moslem Kurds, actually who are Yezidi. These people left Armenia, not because of persecution from Armenians because they were Kurds, but because they were married to Azerbaijanis. Those that did not want to leave Armenia, but wanted to stay here, were afraid. They were fearful that Armenians might remember 1915 - the Armenian Genocide - when, together with the Turkish Army, Kurds participated in the genocide of Armenians, and that there might be attempts to take revenge on the Kurdish population here. Instead, many declared themselves a separate ethnic identity that had always had close ties with Armenians, and who always defended the Armenian cause, fighting besides Armenians for liberation.

During this revolutionary period, many representatives of Kurdish nationalities and many Armenian scientists spoke through the mass media, trying to show people that this was a falsely created problem, and trying to show people that they should not give way to fear, and that this was provoked by some interest groups. We managed to calm down people, and there are Moslem Kurds in Armenia who live in peace with the Armenians, and they are very happy with the conditions that the Armenian government has created here. There is no discrimination at all. They live better than in some layers within Armenian society.

OK: How many Moslem Kurds are left in Armenia?

KC: About 5,000.

OK: And what extent of Armenia's 50,000 Yezidi community consider themselves to be Kurdish, and what extent feel themselves to be a separate ethnic identity?

KC: I have said already that this is an artificial problem raised by some interest groups. However, this artificial movement has already received some followers. I am a scientist following this issue. I have a PhD degree, and based on scientific research I want to assert that in Armenia we do not have Yezidi as a separate nationality. We have Yezidi-Kurd.

OK: But I have spoken to one Yezidi family in Armenia who categorically state that they are in no way related to the Kurds, and actually - and they used the word - feel hatred towards the Kurds. They certainly considered themselves part of a separate Yezidi nationality.

KC: I want to assure you again and again that this is an artificial problem, Those people that assert that they are not Yezidi-Kurds, but are Yezidi as an ethnic group, are trying to dance under the pipe of some musician. You have a chance to visit eleven Yezidi villages in Alagatz, and you will see that everyone from a child to an elderly person will assert that they are Yezidi-Kurd.

OK: The Yezidi family I met that felt itself to be part of a separate Yezidi nation showed me the newspaper "Voice of Yezidi". In it there were photographs of Yezidi fedayi from Armenia that fought alongside Armenians in Karabagh, and I have heard that it was the Yezidi that were ferocious in the attempts to clear the Moslem Kurds from Kelbajar and Lachin during 1992-3.

KC: I do not reject what you say. It is true, but this side by side strugle in Karabagh was not undertaken by Yezidi as a separate nation, but by Armenians and Yezidi-Kurds. The struggle against Azerbaijan is a recent movement, but it also dates back many centuries. It goes back to many years ago when Armenians and Kurds initiated a sustainable movement against Turkey, and this movement has continued until today. It also culminated in the liberation of Kelbajar. Also, during the Armenian Genocide, many progressive-minded Kurds saved Armenians. About 60,000 Armenians were saved, and so there are many different movements if we uncover the pages of history. We see different liberation movements with Armenians and Kurds fighting side by side.

I am a Yezidi-Kurd, and all the intellectuals here are Yezidi-Kurd. When Lachin was liberated Yezidi-Kurds went to Lachin in twelve cars to celebrate the liberation of Lachin and Kelbajar. We went there with our pipes, with davul, and we celebrated with Armenians the liberation of Lachin. I am a writer, and at the same time a journalist, and I have published a number of articles on Armenian Kurdish relations and our friendship during the development of historical events. I have undertaken a lot of research, starting since the time I defended my thesis for my Bachelor degree and my Masters degree, and all the topics were on Armenian Kurdish relations.

OK: Last year a US State Department Report on the human rights situation in Armenia expressed concerns over cases of discrimination against the Yezidi in Armenia. Given that the debate over Yezidi and Yezidi-Kurdish identity is a political one, is there a danger that such cases of discrimination may increase, and may even be influenced by the issue of identity?

KC: This is a very good and reasonable question, but please accept my answer not as a journalist, but as a human being who has universally accepted moral principles and who bases his opinions on those moral principles. If you publish this interview you must print word for word my response. What I am about to say is very important.

The answer to this question will be very long. I have written a monograph of about 200 pages based on scientific research around this issue. For now though, I want to be brief. When Soviet power was established in Armenia there were 8,560 Yezidi Kurds in Armenia. At that same time the policy of the Communists was the same in Armenia as that in Azerbaijan and in Georgia. From official information, in Azerbaijan there were about 50,000 Kurds, but unofficially the numbers were betwen 200-300,000 Azeri Moslem Kurds.

After 1920 based upon population census figures the number of Kurds in Armenia [OK note: Azerbaijan?] increased up to 260,000. From 1979 census figures in Azerbaijan implied that there was not even one Kurd - all had been assimilated. In the 1930s Azerbaijan abolished the autonomous region of "Red Kurdistan" between Karabagh and Armenia. In terms of discrimination against the Yezidi in Armenia, calling them illiterate, this is true, but was true for the 1920's, and periodically the Armenian Government, the Central Communist Party, and the Ministry of Education, passed resolutions according to which a campaign was started to educate the Kurds. Kurdish schools were opened in order to raise the educational standard and literacy of the Kurds.

We should not try to deceive ourselves. The policy of the Communist Party was the same in all of the Caucasian republics, but the approaches and the results were different. In Armenia, the attitude towards the Kurds was based on the friendship between two nations, and the government had a great contribution in the development of the Kurds. Progressive minded Armenian intellectuals were fighting for the Kurdish cause. These progressive minded intellectuals tried to raise the status of the Kurds, and to bring a greater literacy.

Before 1930s there was not one Kurdish intellectual. Afterwards, we managed to develop a layer of Kurdish intellectuals, but only because of this involvement by Armenian intellectuals. Kurds as intellectuals appeared. "Riya Taza" was first published in the 1930s, A Kurdish transcaucasian college was opened in Yerevan, Kurdish schools were opened in all the villages, text books and literature were published in Kurdish. In 1934, a branch of Kurdish Writers was founded in the Writers Union of Armenia. I have been the head of this branch for 32 years. I think that in Armenia, Kurdish cultural autonomy exists already. Armenia is the only country in the world where Kurds can realise their intellectual, physical and cultural potential. We have a theatre, a radio programme, and indeed, every kind of cultural autonomy has been realised. Any problems that we have faced have been the same problems that Armenia as a whole has faced as a result of the economic collapse.