Ethel S. Drower

Ethel Stefana Drower (1 December 1879 – 27 January 1972) was a British cultural anthropologist who studied the Middle East and its cultures. Her photos of Yezidis are published on the Yezidi Photo Archive with the kind permission of the Drower family, with special thanks to Laila Hackforth-Jones, the granddaughter of Lady Drower, and Christine Allison.


They are a pious people: the name of God is always on their lips and prayer and reverence to the shrines an essential part of their daily life.

In the village of Baashika there was no litter, no filth, no mess of discarded cans or scattered bottles. To be honest, I saw a few rusty tins, but these had been carefully collected, filled with water, and taken to a shrine, there to be left as offerings. Petroleum-tins are utilized to store precious home-pressed olive-oil, so that pitchers and jars are still employed for water-carrying. Paper is rarely used. What one buys in the bazaar is taken home in a kerchief or in a corner of the robe. There is no faint and revolting stench of human filth such as there is in most Arab villages in central and southern ‘Iraq, or on the outskirts of the larger towns, where any ditch or wall serves for a latrine. As a newspaper is a rarity, one sees no untidy mess of soiled paper. What they do with their dead animals I do not know, but I neither saw, nor smelt, a decaying corpse, whereas even in such a modern town as Baghdad, owing to the laziness of municipal cleaners who dump dead animals behind the city to save themselves the trouble of the incinerator, any walk outside the city area may mean breathing polluted air. 

To me this stay of a spring month with the Yezidis was a very lovely experience, and if I fail in transmitting its flavour and quality, it is that I am incompetent. To have escaped in the midst of a European war into places of absolute peace and beauty is an experience which one would gladly share with others.

It was April the seventeenth, the fourth of Nisan. Early as we rose, the Yezidi girls had been out on the hills before us to gather bunches of scarlet ranunculus, for no other flower is used for the feast. Above every Yezidi house-door in the village, three bunches of these vivid flowers had been plastered on with wet mud, heads downwards, one above the entrance and one on each doorpost. Into the clay which held the blossoms in position, fragments of coloured eggshell had been pressed, and some householders had besmeared the lintel and doorposts with blood from the sheep or lamb slaughtered on the previous evening.

Everyone was making and receiving gifts of hard-boiled coloured eggs. The favourite colour was orange, the bright vegetable dye which the women use for their hand-woven meyzârs, but we saw also purple, green, and a madder colour produced by binding onion skins round the eggs when boiling them. None was blue, for blue is a forbidden colour to Yezidis as it is to Mandaeans, and no Yezidi woman will wear a blue garment although she may wear a blue bead or button against the Evil Eye.

Rain had fallen overnight, and had left the world clean and fresh, and today the spirit of spring was upon us all. Everywhere, very young creatures were about us. Newly born donkeys — and what attractive creatures they can be with their blunt noses and hides as softly fluffy as powder-puffs! — kept close to staid grazing mothers. There were half a dozen of them on the grassy slopes below the qawwâl's house. Kids, lambs, calves, foolish and innocent, hens fussing over broods of yellow chicks, everywhere there was new life.

The next day we went to watch women making and baking the kleycha for the feast. These look and taste like mince pies. The filling is of dates, raisins, nuts, sugar, pepper, kebâba, cinnamon and cooking-butter. The pastry, which is heavy, is folded about this mixture, and the women dip their bare hands into a basin of egg set before them, and then rub the yolk on the pies to make the crust yellow: the egg also serves to glue the cakes to the hot wall of the oven. This is a large, concave earthen affair previously heated by burning straw mixed with dung. We looked into it and saw the half-baked kleycha adhering to the wall. 

While thus prying into household secrets we had consumed numerous glasses of sweet tea, eaten some bread dipped into sesame, and smoked cigarettes with our hostess, also bestowed Evil Eye beads and chocolates on the children. Now we went on our way, followed by cordial leave-takings and smiles.

Towards evening we wandered out towards the forbidden ground, the shrine of Shaikh Muhammad. The door stood open and the green courtyard and shrine behind it looked inviting. We lingered by the threshold and looked in. Men were ranged round the square courtyard, sitting with their backs to the wall, and seeing us at the door, they cried to us hospitably, "Enter, enter!" The aged kochek in his white robes came forward to greet us with the utmost courtesy, smiling benignly. He moved as the host about the place. Part of the courtyard was in shade, but evening sunshine bathed the part that adjoined the low wall separating the flags and lawn from the shrine garden, with its olive- and fig-trees in young leaf.

We were bidden sit, and took a place on a felt mat beside the mukhtâr, who with other Yezidi elders and notables, had gathered here for the night's vigil. One of the qawwâls brought us coffee, the usual bitter mouthful at the bottom of a handleless cup. In serving, the practice is to hold the cups packed one into the other in one hand and to hold the brass coffee-pot (della) in the other. 

We later began to wonder whether we should stay. We did not wish to impose ourselves, I told Rashid, and as the sun had now set, the ceremonies of the night would begin, therefore we excused ourselves and would leave.

He made a little speech to us, said so that all could hear. The devotions that went on this night, he said, were prayer and chanting, such as that we had just heard, and which no one not a Yezidi had ever been privileged to hear in this holy place.

Never before, he went on, had the Yezidis of Baashika admitted anyone to their shrine on this evening, and they would never do so again. They had invited us inside in order to show us especial honour, and to express to us their appreciation of our presence and friendship. This was their return. Had we been men, we could not have been admitted, but as women, and as their friends, we were welcome to stay. They begged us, however, not to tell others that we had been present, lest they claimed a right to enter on precedent.

We replied that we were deeply and truly touched by the honour shown to us, and would never forget it. Neither would we publish abroad the privilege we had received.

It may seem to those who read this, that this violates our promise, but I think that the promise extracted referred to the people of the neighbourhood, rather than to the world at large, and to these we said nothing. I write this, therefore, in the conviction that no one will ever force themselves uninvited upon these gentle and courteous people, or distress them by importuning them for privileges which they will only yield unasked. 


The third day of the feast, there was a prolonged shrill trilling from the women outside, on the roof, and around the building. Something was about to happen. We knew what to expect, for Jiddan had warned us; indeed, while wandering about outside the two masters of today's ceremonies had been pointed out to us as they moved about in the centre of a crowd, and soliciting gratuities from their admirers. These two were laymen, and their instruments were unlike those of the qawwâls. The drummer carried a large drum, the tabal: the piper a wide-mouthed wooden pipe called the zurnaya, or zurna.

The moment for their ceremonious entry had come, and the Yezidi villagers, with their baggy trousers, red turbans and fair, sunburnt faces, ranged themselves in ranks on the farther side of the small forecourt to the shrine, every inch of which was now thronged with onlookers, except the patch of sward and the paved way to the tomb, which bisected it. The cries increased in intensity, and in came the pair.

As soon as they had entered, they fell to their knees dramatically, looking at the tomb-shrine, and silence fell, except for the high-pitched fluttering cry from the women above. The piper raised his pipe to his lips and blew one piercing, continuous trill, the drummer sustained a long roll. As he knelt, his cheeks puffed out like Boreas, the piper swayed his body and pipe this way and that, as if in a supreme incantation. This lasted for a full ten minutes, a stirring, uncannily emotional ten minutes. 

At last the tense moments ended. The piper and drummer ceased, rose to their feet and, going to the shrine, kissed the outer walls, doorposts and threshold-stone before disappearing inside with the kochek.

As they emerged again, a circle of men with linked arms and hands formed in the courtyard. The honour of dancing in this debka, first of all the debkas danced in this month of spring, is auctioned and sold to the highest bidders.

The debka began. It is, perhaps, the most exciting of all folk-dances, certainly of those which I have seen. Its rhythm of stamping feet and bending bodies is irresistible. It starts staidly, with steps backwards and forwards and stamping here and there, but, as it continues, the leaping and swaying become more and more unrestrained. Up on the roof the women trilled incessantly, craning for ward to see, and thronging the steps. Round and round the men shuffled in the small space.

(Drower, E. S: Peacock Angel)