HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

February 4, 2008
Du’a Khalil Aswad Meets the Peacock Angel: A Love Story

John R. Guthrie


It was in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath that Mother Joad said, “Sometimes Lovin’ someone don’t turn out like you thought it would.”

This story involves Du'a Khalil Aswad, a 17-year-old Yezidi Kurdish girl of Northern Iraq. Could you see her, you couldn’t help but notice that she was a shapely young woman, dressed neatly in western style; dark skirt, red blouse. Her dark eyes are alight with life. Her long hair is as dark and shining as obsidian. And it wouldn’t surprise you a bit to learn that just last spring, Du’a fell in love--with a Muslim boy.

For Yezidi Kurds, marrying outside their sect is an offense under their religious law. But it was spring in Mosul, and she was a teenager and the boy seemed, well, really nice as only forbidden fruit can ever be. And anyway, soon after the elopement, Du’a’s family members came calling. They explained that she was forgiven, and welcomed her back home for a visit.

The video, now on the internet, consists of 6 clips. 

Clip 1: The jeers of the crowd reminds me of a cockfight once viewed in an open air market in South East Asia. The flurry of red is Du’a’s blouse as she is shoved and dragged before the crowd, then a flash of white legs, one bare foot, cries of terror as Du’a’s thin black skirt is ripped away and used as an impromptu hood. She is naked from the waist down except for a black bikini panty, the minimal thong favored by more than a few girls her age—the sight of it all the more pitiful for its strategically placed “V” of black fabric.

Stripping someone removes not only their garment, but whatever remnants of dignity they may have retained. Hooding them increases their vulnerability and terror, and it also makes them faceless, less human. These facts are now scribed into the American psyche as remnants of recent experience with our own prisoners.

Clip 2: The sharp smack of stones striking human flesh. Du'a cries out again for mercy. But there was to be no mercy that day in the town square, for they were involved in God’s work. Du’a’s long hair as she lies supine is a corona around her head, glossy black against the dull gray paving stones. Her legs flail again, her screams are as piercing and plaintive as the screams of pigs at slaughter. In their howling onslaught, the crowd is now a pack of wild dogs that have brought some small creature to ground and are tearing it to bits. 

Yezidis are not Muslims. All the Yezidis hold themselves to be descended through a peculiar genetic legerdemain from Adam. The rest of humanity is the offspring of Eve, her reproductive substances being held to be inferior to Adam’s. 

They share many of the traditions and mythology of all three of the Abrahamic traditions as well as a good dollop of Zoroasterism. Seven archangels, the Heptad, figure prominently in their worship. The chief of this band is Malek Ta’us, the “Peacock Angel.” The Peacock Angel created the world from an egg, or perhaps a pearl, which had been placed upon the back of a bird which was the cosmic spirit. Then again, perhaps the great bird was the Peacock Angel. Or perhaps it was the Divine Spirit, or God incarnate, depending on which account you believe. The accounts are inconsistent.

It was the Peacock Angel who created Adam. Proud of his work, he refused to bow to Adam when God so commanded. Thus he was banished; swept into darkness. There he wept for 4,000 years in contrition for his sin of disobedience, and that so copiously that his tears filled seven immense jars. The tears were then used, once again mercifully enough, to extinguish the fires of hell. Once fallen, though, in a nice touch, the Peacock Angel was redeemed by a forgiving God. He was then made by God to be the chief of the seven archangels.  Malek Ta’us continues in that role as the supreme archangel who stands between a remote God and the other archangels. 

The written record is scanty, in part due to repeated destructive onslaughts by Christians and Muslims through the millennia, those who wished to convert the Yezidis by force. It is well understood that Yezidis are given to mysticism. They live in a universe populated with demons, angels and spirits, one in which spells, portents, signs and miracles are the stuff of not only the cosmos, but of daily life here on earth.

If some of the mythology of Yezidism, is inconsistent, uncertain and improbable, still it also carries its own unique charm. What besides Mother Goose could be as endearing as a Peacock Angel to watch over and care for one while God is otherwise occupied? 

Clip 3: Du’a’s movements are less purposeful as she attempts to avoid the unseen missiles, to fend them off with bruised and bloodied hands and forearms. The armed police present are enthusiastic spectators.

Clip 4: Du’a, supine, still moves slightly. Her bare white legs are spread. Bruises and cuts are visible on her hips. The exposed lower part of her face is covered with blood. The hood which covers her upper face is now saturated.

For a moment I’m transported back to my medical school neuroanatomy class: The professor intones as follows: Deep within the brains of us all, there is an ancient and primitive brain that is quite analogous to the brains of our distant cousins, the crocodiles.  Within this crocodile brain is the limbic system. In its collections of nuclei and connecting tracts, intertwined in close proximity, are the areas responsible for both aggression and rage as well as sexual desire, arousal, and function….

This unfortunate proximity speaks poorly for Intelligent Design, incidentally.

In any number of species, sex has such violent overtones that the female is occasionally injured or killed. This includes mammals from tarsiers to elephant seals and, occasionally, humans. Which leads one to wonder what percentage of the men in attendance at Du’a's stoning are sexually aroused at the site of this young woman being methodically killed as she writhes and moans half naked before them?

Clip 5: Two men pick Du’a’s flaccid body up by her arms and drag her to a more propitious position in the street. Someone picks up a stone the size of her head, holds it high and crashes it with all his might into her face.

Clip 6: It is over. Du’a Khalil Aswad is now safe in the arms of the Peacock Angel. The crowd renders vigorous vocal affirmation. Her blood soaked corpse looks smaller in death.
Soon the Iraqi security forces, our surrogate army, actually, will come. They block off the area. But they are not there to apprehend anyone. In some things in Iraq and here, it is not the perpetrators that must be sequestered, but the images of the event that must be concealed.

Bloggers, blissfully innocent of the fact that Yezidis are in no way Muslim, often responded with an indignant moral one-upsmanship: “Those damned Muslims should be shot,” said one. Yet truly, this writer finds it difficult to find a great deal of moral superiority in any of the Abrahamic belief systems, all three of which have a great deal of blood on their hands: Consider Rachel Corrie, the young woman who died beneath the treads of an Israeli Defense Force bulldozer.  The lynchings of Blacks in the Southland of my youth were typically committed by Christians. And then there is the matter of how many young women have been atomized in Mosul and elsewhere in the Middle East by our own 2,000 pound bombs raining down on not quite the right spot.   

Though it is not currently fashionable to stone women for sexual transgressions in the United States, there are those in our midst who fervently wish to, notably within the ranks of Christian Dominionists, who call for a literal return to "Biblical law." This includes stoning for sexual transgressions, the approval of "Biblical slavery" and capital punishment for rebellious teenagers. One supposes Du’a would fall into this latter category.

So what’s to be done? Certainly we can support organizations such as Amnesty International that campaign against stoning. More importantly though, we as concerned individuals are uniquely positioned to contribute in some small way to advancing the standards of decency, to contributing to the moral progress not just of the Yezidi Kurds who slew Du’a Khalil Aswad, but as well of our society and humanity in general.


Dr. John R. Guthrie practiced family medicine in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia for years. As an adolescent he was a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman and later served as a physician in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Southern California and is a writer and social activist.


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