Plants and foods as identity markers: an ethnographic analysis on the case of the (Y)Ezidis from Batman (Turkey)
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Located in the geographical region called Upper Mesopotamia, Batman has a wide cultural diversity. One of the Kurdish (Kurmancî)-speaking ethno-religious communities of Batman is the (Y)Ezidis which have been subjected to several persecutions due to their syncretic belief and practices. The resistance of the Ezidis against imperial powers could be read from governmental manuscripts kept in the archives. The number of field researches conducted in the area of Ezidis in Turkey is quite low. These studies are also concentrated in Viransehir (Urfa) region in which the Ezidi population is more intense. This study, on the other hand, is uncovering the traditional plants which are being used for food and nutrition as well as healing and ritualistic practices by the Ezidis of Batman which has never been subjected in a research in anthropology. Nutrition as one of the necessities that must be met in order to maintain biological existence is also a cultural phenomenon. Food as a part of culture is a configuration of identity and self-expression. The aim of this study is uncovering the traditional plants which are being used for food and nutrition as well as healing and ritualistic practices by the Ezidis of Batman which has never been subjected in a research in anthropology. The primary data of this study was collected during an ethnographic fieldwork in between April 2013 and June 2015 in Ezidi villages of Batman. It was observed that Ezidis unite with the other communities of the region with nutritional methods based on animal products which are common in daily life, while they differ in the use of plants and cereals which are operated in ritual practices. The ritualistic uses of plants and foods and the relations of the Ezidis between the others over food are proposed in this study as the basic patterns of behavior that distinguish Ezidi community from others, define belonging, and mark ethnic identity.
KeywordsEthnobotany Identity Ezidi Batman (Turkey) Darê kenêre Pelor Gûriz Rêvaz Sîrim Xerdel
Historically, due to their syncretic belief and practices, Ezidis have been subjected to several persecutions, which they called ferman. For instance, the resistance of the Ezidis against Ottoman power could be seen from many sources like Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatname or other governmental manuscripts kept in the archives. More recently, in 2014, hundreds of Ezidis were killed and forced to flee to the holy Mount Sinjar and neighboring countries or faced to conversion or slaughtered by the Islamic State (Daesh/Isis). By the way, most of the Ezidis fled European countries via Turkey after the IS massacre. This memory of persecutions plays a unifying-associating role against an external threat and makes them emphasize their identity as a reaction. Besides, the religious doctrines which determine social belonging such as faith in being chosen and the lineage that does not allow exogamy, penetrate into all spheres of the culture. Therefore, Ezidism requires to be defined as an ethno-religion and ethno-culture.
It should be stated that since not only the most important figure of the religion, Peacock Angel (Tawusî Melek), is recognized as a representation of Satan by the Abrahamic religions so they gained notoriety as the Devil worshippers but also the commonly known name Yezidi/Yazidi evokes the Islamic caliphate Yazid bin Muawiyah; its members in Batman province show an insistence about naming themselves as Ezidis. Furthermore, the word Ezidi is written as Êzîdî in Kurdish (Kurmancî), and the initial vowel is pronounced like /i/. In this context, it is going to be mentioned as Ezidis in this article.
Culture has a unifying and binding structure both in social and temporal dimensions. It connects the people who construct society by providing the opportunity for trust and support with its unifying and binding power via the symbolic world of meaning consisting of spaces of common experience, expectation, and action . It is this state of cultural continuity known as tradition which provides political imagery (identity) on the other side. Food as a part of culture is a configuration of identity and self-expression. This study aims to compile the traditional knowledge based on the foods and plants used by the Ezidis of Batman and to analyze the relationship between nutrition and identity of an ethnic group.
Materials and method
Audio-visual instruments were used in this study, only with the consent of the informants, in order to support the researcher’s memory. For the sake of security, the names of the informants were systematically encoded, in which the initials of the informants are utilized with the initial of social castes [20, 21] (sed û had) which are M for murid, P for pîr and S for şȇx. In other words, the characters before the initials represent the social caste which the informant belongs. Unfortunately, neither feqîr nor qewwal exists in Batman.
According to the approaches to human nutrition as a biological action, human metabolism refers to the process of meeting the nutrient and energy needs. However, the provision of nutrients necessary for the supply of energy, making it suitable for human consumption, and the process of consumption behaviors not only make nutrition a biological activity, but also transform it into a cultural phenomenon . That is in fact what makes food to be also defined as “embodied material culture” . Food, as a part of cultural practices which equips the individual with a social environment, is a significant indicator of the identity of individuals. Food not only nourishes but also signifies the social forces that the individuals are constructed by. As Fischler pointed out , human beings mark their membership of a culture or a group by asserting the specificity of what they eat or more precisely by defining the otherness, the difference of others.
Ethnographic method, which is a term that expresses writing about people and culture, has an important role in cultural anthropology. This importance stems from the idea that understanding the perspective of the researched community can only be achieved through participation . Participating observation may vary from regular commuting to the community where the researcher examines from his or her living space to being fully involved in community life . The researcher, who has been involved in the daily life of the community for a long time, observes, asks questions, and experiences being a member of the community. Participant observation is the main method of understanding the perspective of the native. Data obtained through first-hand observations are described and carefully recorded. In this respect, ethnographic activity constitutes a large repository of information on culture.
On the other hand, it is necessary to go beyond description and to interpret the data collected from the field and other sources of information. According to the hermeneutic approach, which is a concept proposed by the humanities as an alternative for the positivist approach, human existence is determined by culture, which is the network of meaning surrounding it . Revealing this network of meaning that determines human actions is only possible with an insight view. In other words, the way to obtain accurate information about the society is to be one of those by experiencing and observing.
Anderson  mentions that food is used to mark and symbolize matters of communion and theology. He argues that religious foodways are not blind immemorial tradition but pragmatic adaptations to community life and so could be explained on the basis of religious and ritual logic as well as ecological sense. In this context, this study regards nutrition practices as a cultural phenomenon. The provision, production, and consumption processes were observed by participation and discussed under an Anthropological point of view. Cultural, religious, and sociological connections were hypothesized. Overall, the study gave a contribution for both cultural and botanical studies in terms of revealing the connections between nutrition and culture by recording the data about the healing practices of plants and traditional foods and analyzing the effects of religious identity and discourse over food.
Most of the studies on Ezidis and Ezidism have been carried out among Ezidis living in Armenia, Iraq, and Syria and in European countries. The number of field researches conducted in the area of Ezidis in Turkey is quite low. These studies are also concentrated in Viransehir (Urfa) region in which the Ezidi population is more intense. The aim of this study is uncovering the traditional plants which are being used for food and nutrition as well as healing and ritualistic practices by the Ezidis of Batman which has never been subjected in a research in anthropology. By the way, it has to be kept in mind that the local names of the plants should be considered since this study stems basically on ethnographic method although the names in Latin are mostly stated via referring the related literature. It has to be indicated that botanical studies need to be held in this field.
Another issue to be clarified is the names of the villages. Settlement names were changed by the commissions established under the Ministry of Interior in the Republican period because they were not Turkish; however, the old names of the settlements  remained in social memory as in the case of Batman. In this study, local names that are still in use are given in parenthesis along with the official names.
Results and discussion
Cultivation of cereals such as wheat, barley, lentils and corn constitutes the primary occupation for family needs of Ezidis in Batman whereas sheep breeding still remains as highly demanded. As a result of a common belief among the Kurdish Muslims on eating animal meat (goşt) breeded by the Ezidis would be haram (forbidden for the ones who are Muslim), Kurdish (Muslim) shepherds are employed by Ezidi families. Even so, a significant majority of Kurdish Muslims could be observed refusing to eat in Ezidi houses.
It should be pointed out that there are various conceptions in relation with Ezidis and food which could also be followed via the literature on Ezidis. The travel literature for example, written in the early modern period is full of many examples that point to the fact that food is a powerful marker of culture used both to define and differentiate . Evliya Çelebi, for instance, tells in his work Seyahatname that “when the Satan set foot on the earth from heaven, garlic (sîr) appeared from his left foot, onion (pîvaz) appeared from his right foot. Therefore the Ezidis always carry onion and garlic in their pockets. The one shows the courage to mash the onion will immediately be killed by the Ezidis” .
Furthermore, there are significant taboos on eating several plants especially on cabbage (lehane), lettuce (xas), and sea fish (masî). As most of the scholars mentioned before, the taboo on cabbages and lettuce are told to come from an oral tradition about the Ezidi prophets, Sheikh Adi and Sheikh Hasan [20, 21]. According to this tradition, a cabbage drew aside from the prophet and did not let him hide. Another tradition signifying the lettuce and cabbage had been thrown to Sheikh Hasan, an Ezidi sacred man, has been seen as the possible the reason of the taboo. It was also told by the Ezidis of Batman that eating sea fish is also forbidden because prophet Yunus had been ingested by a fish.1 Neither cabbage nor lettuce was observed to be eaten; however, I was informed that the taboo on these plants was not widespread since it is only for religious castes such as pîr and şȇx, but freshwater fish occurred to be prepared as dinner during the research. Yet the implementation of taboos seems to be varying according to the region .
Although the aim of this study is not completely providing information about the Ezidi religion, some doctrines which directly determine the culture of food will be adverted. The sacred earth-sky pair, depicted as the wife and husband of each other, is one of the prominent elements in Ezidism as in various mythologies. The earth and the sky are considered as the sister and brother in sacred hymns, emphasizing that the sky gives life to the earth with rainfall. The sky sows its seeds with water which is the predecessor of each form, to the ground. On the other hand, the faith of the earth is to give birth. In the context of fertility, earth gains value especially in the agricultural cycle . The God’s (Xwedȇ or Ezda) transcendence and creative power are revealed with rain by the sky; blessings are distributed to the earth by rain.
As it was tried to be demonstrated in this study, food is directly related with Ezidi culture, lifestyle, and religious identity. Volition in the means of self-representation and identification and differentiation with the other communities in the social context becomes clear over food. Ezidism, by codifying foods in a cultural way, attributes sacredness by shaping the food culture of individuals through these meanings. In addition, it makes individuals’ food preferences a part of their belief system with the symbolic meanings that are imposed on foods. In this context, some plants and foods are marked as anomalous by the religion depending on the social organization whereas some become more prominent in terms of ritualistic practices concerning distribution of food and fertility.
As to sum up, it could be suggested that Ezidis unite with the other communities of the region with nutritional methods based on animal products which are common in daily life while they differ in the use of plants and cereals which are operated in ritual practices. As a society where oral communication is still dominant, Ezidis transmit the religious discourse and practices to the next generations via oral traditions. Due to their disparate beliefs and traditions Ezidis are being excluded and marginalized by other societies they live together with. It could be claimed that this dissimilarity uniting Ezidi society in a common sense is also visible through food which is one of the cultural configuration ways of self-expression in Ezidism. The ritualistic uses of plants and foods and the relations of the Ezidis between the others over food are proposed in this study as the basic patterns of identity and behavior that distinguish Ezidi community from others.
Information provided by MS, in Kumgeçit (Bazîvan) on July 19, 2014.
This information was provided by MK in Onbaşı (Şahsim) on August 1, 2013.
Information derived from MF on February 1, 2014, in Kumgeçit (Bazîvan) and MS on September 29, 2013, in Oğuz (Şimsȇ).
Information provided by PS on 18 February in Üçkuyular (Feqîra), 2013, and MN on 19 February 2014 in Onbaşı (Şahsim).
The author would like to thank the honest and generous Ezidi informants who opened the doors of their houses in the villages during the fieldwork, whose hearts are in fact not closed to anybody.
The author conceived, wrote, and revised the study, and read and approved the final manuscript.
Consent for publication
The author declares that she has no competing interests.
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