Sacred sounds of the tanbour, an ancient Persian lute, send goosebumps through my soul. Hair tucked away behind a scarf tied like a bandana, my head can’t help but bow to the vibrations of invocations passing through the tanbour player. I sway without realizing. I am being carried into the sound sphere where all spirits dance as equals. Maybe this is what Madeleine L’Engle means when she writes of the “ancient harmonies” in A Swiftly Tilting Planet…
If your ears are craving, take a tour into the tanbour here.
One year ago, to the date, I participated in a spiritual ceremony of an Ahl-e Haqq community in a mountain town in Northern Iran. This minority faith tradition is also known as Yarsanism, with followers identifying as Yarsani, Ahl-e Haqq , Ali-Allahi or Kaka’i in Iraq. The estimated 5 million followers primarily reside in Western Iran, Eastern Iraq, and Southeastern Turkey. However, my Ahl-e Haqq ancestors come from Northern Iran. We are Kurds who migrated from Sahneh, a city now known for its old-growth trees having identification certificates to ensure their protection.
My paternal ancestors have identified under the term of Ahl-e Haqq, which loosely translates to- People of Truth. Yarsanism is a syncretic, or blended religion, sharing some threads with Zoroastrianism, Sufism, Shi’a and Sunni Islam. However, Yarsanis believe in reincarnation or transmigration of the soul, known as dunaduni. God is viewed as the ultimate source of energy, and does not take on any specific form. Rather, all forms of life are seen as holding portions of this divine energy. The Yarsani faith encourages embodiment of core values and does not require adherent to strict religious practices as in Islam. An individual’s behavior throughout life is a testament to their faith.
My ancestors migrated to Kelardast in Northern Iran, known as behesht gomshodeh, or the lost paradise, because of its breathtaking nature. These Kurds have since mixed with a few other local tribes, forming a hybrid dialect that my father’s family continues to breathe life into by speaking it at home.
My paternal grandfather was a pivotal figure in the village since he was the only doctor who practiced both traditional and Western medicine. Orphaned at a young age, my grandfather was self-taught, with an impeccably disciplined work ethic guided by service to the community. He devoted the last 10 years of his life to writing a book about our ancestry and the history of this faith tradition. He held his Kurdish identify close to his heart, proudly donning a moustache, which is a key identifier of people following Yarsanism. Men are encouraged to maintain their moustaches, which symbolizes modesty and enables in-group recognition.
My late paternal grandparents outside their home in Kelardasht, Iran
The ceremony I participated in was held in the home of my late grandparents, which has since been converted into a jaam khane, or a gathering house. Jaam khanes are used as meeting places for ceremonial gatherings where groups make offerings and pray/meditate together. For Yarsanis, prayer is embodied. How one approaches their everyday life is just as important as how one approaches a spiritual gathering. Faith is lived and breathed through the enactment of four pillars.
- Paki = Purity (internal and external)
- Rasti = Truthfulness or rectitude
- Nisti = Self-effacement or humility
- Rada= Service to humanity
To begin to understand the spiritual tradition of the Yarsanis, we must first unpack the concept of yar. Yar loosely translates as beloved. This is a word used for God, close friends, and lovers alike. God is both your beloved and you are the beloved of God. Weaving together one’s God and one’s lover was popularized by the 13th century mystic Sufi poet, Rumi.
Rather than viewing God as an embodied figure in a human-like form, Yarsanis believe that each being on earth holds one drop of God, regardless of their faith, class, race, etc… When gathered together, our portions of divinity co-create a more palpable experience of this higher power, or the source. To receive a taste of this energetic field, Yarsanis hold spiritual gatherings in jaam khanes, which can happen anywhere there is room for circular seating.
Once the ceremony begins, all are encouraged to tune into the energetic sphere. Time is allotted for individuals to voice aloud specific intentions or prayers they would like the group to work with together. If their intention is pure, it is believed that the energy generated from the group will be directed toward the fulfillment of that wish. Prayers can also be held in the silence of one’s heart.
Men and women are commonly separated during most rituals, to avoid distraction or the essence of temptation. However, some attribute this to the spread of Islam rather than being inherent in the religion itself. Elders in my family have recounted drawings of historical gatherings where women sat in the same room as men, just around the outer circle. During the ritual, men will sit do zano, or on their knees, with an erect spine. Not only does this allow for optimum breath flow, but it also imbues one with dignity and politeness.
When entering the room, one brings forth the spirit of connection. Men greet each other by locking palms and kissing one another’s hands. As a sign of respect, heads are covered with a simple hat and a thin cloth is tied as a waistband. The main “activity” happens in the men’s room. Certain individuals are selected to portion and distribute the vowed food at the end of the ceremony. The tanbour, sacred lute, is played by anyone with a devoted practice. Mystical poems are sung as invocations to navigate the group through their co-created transcendental experience.
My aunt and her late husband who is holding the sacred tanbour used during ceremonies
While the men play active roles during the ceremony, the women are responsible for the preparation of the nazri, or vowed food. This can take any edible form. Common for larger groups, a local animal will be sacrificed. Historically, this was one of the few times meat was consumed. Families in need will bring pots with them to gatherings to take extra portions of the vowed food home. In this light, the gatherings act as a platform for a community to share wealth, especially important through the difficult winter months.
Lifestyles have changed drastically in the town my father grew up in. Many have moved away from subsistence farming and animal husbandry. One can easily sift through and find those who still do appreciate the value of an animal’s presence. In small communities like this one, the sheep to be sacrificed is bought locally or donated by a neighbor. The animal is killed early in the morning with the men butchering the large parts. The women then wash the meat. Iranians traditionally make use of all parts of the animal, cooking stews with the brain and intestines, using the skin for culturing yogurt, even grilling the organs on kabob skewers. I can assure you… it’s surprisingly tasty… and this is coming from someone who spent 7 years of her life as a devout vegetarian.
Washing the skin of the sacrificed sheep- A resident of the town of Kelardasht where the spiritual gathering was held
For the gathering I participated in, I was involved in preparation of the vowed food. While cooking, we cover our heads and waists and are encouraged to remain in a state of light-heartedness and energetic receptivity. Late autumns are brisk in this Northern mountain town. Snow drapes over the land. A makeshift kitchen is created outdoors using a metal platform and fire. I am amazed by the skill of these female elders. I struggle to prepare a perfect pot of rice for a dinner party of 10. Yet these women manage to cook enough rice for 200 people without hesitation. Drawing on inter-generational wisdom, they carefully inspect the intensity of the fire, saltiness of the boiling rice, and tenderness of the meat.
Preparations of the vowed food for the spiritual gathering held on the 30th of November 2016.
All the while, we are reminded of ancient Yarsani prayers. While taking a turn to pour in par-boiled rice for its final steaming,
I recite the common phrase, aval o akhar yar – first and last, the beloved.
Food plays a vital role in cultural traditions across the globe. It is our connection to the earth. Harvest reveals the reality of a mother’s unconditional, abundant love. When we prepare food for one another, we have an opportunity to offer a visceral, tangible testimony of our affection. And when we sit down to eat a meal, we again have a choice in how we digest and receive these gifts.
Thank you for taking the time to explore the faith tradition of my paternal ancestors with me. What I have presented here is only one interpretation…one oversimplified slice of a complex, multi-dimensional pie of meaning. By diving deep into one ritual, we realize that each one has its own unique beauty. Simultaneously, we remember that each culture shares this uniqueness. And that uniqueness is what makes us similar.
It is up to us to decide what we do with this knowledge of ancient tradition and ritual. How do we re-interpret the past with the lens of the present, knowing there is an unknown future? What do we choose to be conservative about and what do we choose to be liberal about? Can we re-invent and blend together nuanced cultural practices through a shared appreciation for experiential wisdom?
As we continue to celebrate our various traditions welcoming this winter in…
May we grin in gratitude for what is abundant in our lives
May we nourish ourselves through devotional cooking and eating
May we breathe with the knowing of our interconnected nature