Everyone should be part of the travel entourage of a famous guru at least once in their life. The experience could transform believers into followers, agnostics into atheists, and unbelievers into lunatics as they struggle to stay skeptical amid acolytes.
Followers frequently suggest you join the movement, learn to breathe, experience the fullness of life, be the best you can possibly be. But you’re too busy wondering why the streets of Erbil in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan — Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whom you’re trailing, is the guest of honour at a peace conference organised by its parliament — are deserted, and why the gleaming towers and new palaces all seem eerily empty.
“This place looks like Delhi on a Sunday, every day,” mutters a TV journalist intent on extracting “some good bites” from Sri Sri on everything from Baba Rampal to the Yezidi question. As anyone who is plugged in to Indian social networks knows, there is much sympathy for the Yezidi community in the country especially from the Hindu right wing that sees, in its tragic fate, a mirroring of the wrongs perpetrated on Hindus in India by Islamic rule.
That the Yezidis are followers of an ancient religion that incorporates elements of nature worship, and that their temples are architecturally similar to Hindu ones has deepened that sense of identification. Hindu NRIs in the US have even reached out to Yezidis with practical support.
“We have created a group called the Hindu-Yezidi Coalition. It’s a multireligious group. We are slowly getting other groups who feel sympathetic to the Yezidis to also be part of it,” says Addoul Khalaf, a Yezidi activist, who lives in the US.
The story of the Yezidis is not a happy one. In August this year, ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) wreaked the Sinjar massacre killing many and forcing the populace of the town in Nineveh in northern Iraq to flee.Horrific accounts of the treatment of the women — of selling them like cattle in bazaars, and compelling them to be sex slaves — have emerged.
Mirza Ismail, Chairman of the Yezidi Human Rights Organization-International speaks of the girl who was forced to wash her face in gasoline every day because she refused to marry ISIS militia, of the deaf mute 10-year-old who died of thirst while walking to freedom in August, and shows pictures of children charred to death, groups trudging wearily through the inhospitable mountains, women who’ve watched their menfolk being killed and somehow escaped to safety with children on their hips, of refugee camps ankle deep in dirty water even as winter sets in.
The camps to which Sri Sri’s group is led by Kurdish government representatives are more photogenic. At Baharka, which has a mix of Yezidis, Shabaks, Kaka’is, Arabs and Sunnis, the guru, resplendent in white robes edged with a strip of brocade, handed out sweets to excited children; at Kawergosk he visited a camp school and spoke to a few nonplussed young men, among them Syrian Kurdish Sipon Hassan Mustafa (22), a psychology student, who was told to apply for a job as a counsellor with the International Association of Human Values (IAHV), the practical wing of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation. The IAHV has been counselling women in camps and teaching them tailoring and computers.
“Now that guruji has visited this camp good things will happen to these people,” a follower beams. Good things are what Amina Fizalli (25), a mother of four, yearns for as she washes vessels at a community tap in Baharka. Her family left Hamdania, a town near Mosul in panic after the arrival of ISIS.
“We don’t have the money to buy things and we left everything we had back home,” she says. Ameera Khalil (19), who also fled Hamdania, says she and her husband, a construction worker, are “waiting for God to do something.”
Back in his suite at the 5 Star Erbil Rotana, Sri Sri talks of the IAHV’s humanitarian effort: “To gather 110 tonnes of food in this desert is not a normal thing. Even big agencies are not able to manage it. Ishwar ki kuchh hai jo kaam dete hi ekdum saphalta milta hai,” he says as he checks Twitter on his iPhone.
You have always been cynical about gurus and your initial reaction to Sri Sri is no different. You are also discomfited by the difference in the registers of the guru and his hosts. At a meeting, Sri Sri asks about establishing contact with ISIS and the speaker of the parliament says there’s no way at all to reach them. A question about the Indians trapped in Iraq is met with blank looks. Sri Sri’s exhortation to “start afresh… and not look to history all the time” elicits a pat response about the peaceable nature of Kurds.
They might as well be talking in different languages, which, incidentally, they were. That sense of absurdityseems exemplified in the unusually lush park visible from your hotel window. A former Peshmerga fighter, now a Sri Sri follower, says the Sami Abdul-Rahman park commemorates the numerous murdered Kurds whose bodies were dumped in unmarked graves in the area by Saddam Hussein’s forces.
Suddenly, life in India seems almost benign and you start to think that perhaps it’s better to attempt something, anything, as the guru is doing by conducting AoL courses in areas that have experienced strife. Indeed, his local fans include the 35-member Kurdish parliament and individuals like Jian Tolheldan, a YPG (the national army of Syrian Kurdistan) woman soldier currently stationed in Kobane in Syria, where she’s part of the force fighting ISIS.
You wonder, though, if Riana (name changed), 16, who escaped her ISIS tormentors in the town of Jalol and spoke about being routinely raped by more than 20 men a day, men who drew lots for the captive Yazidi girls, would benefit from deep breathing techniques. Or if Zaid Khalaf Ali (19) from Sinjar (also known as Shengal) now living at the Sheikhan refugee camp, whom you met at the Yazidi temple in Lalish — one of the religion’s holiest spots —would even want to draw succour from yoga.
“After ISIS came, my family ran away and lived in the mountains. For 30 days we lived on bread and water,” he says as he cradles his infant niece named Shengal, after the family’s lost home. In the face of all this monumental suffering, the Foundation’s efforts seem akin to pasting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound; just as the ‘Protecting Women and Bringing Peace and Stability Conference’ at Erbil feels like a forum for the spouting of platitudes.
“Every time we have these conferences, we talk and draw up a plan of action but nothing happens. The money spent on this conference could have been used to save some Yazidi women,” says Vian Dakhil, the only Yezidi in the Iraqi parliament.
The statement leads on to a debate on the trade in Yezidi women and on the suicides of those unable to cope with the shame of rape. The sole Islamist on the panel, a minister from Baghdad, then condemns suicide. And so it goes on endlessly skirting the real issue — the protection of persecuted communities.
“You come from India and think this conference to rescue these women is a good step but you don’t know there have been more than four or five conferences before and that nothing has been done,” says Mirza Ismail hinting at a profitable racket on an international scale. And then, there’s the money and resources that never seem to reach refugees, some of whom make do with a single meal of bread and yogurt a day.
You come away from Erbil emotionally weary. The complexities of the place, the column of smoke, which you thought was a fire but turned out to be a female suicide bomber, the camps, and the nervousness of the men who ferried the delegation make you think of the rough streets of Delhi with fondness.
You even contemplate enrolling for a spot of Sudarshan Kriya. Iraq can do that to anyone.
The writer was hosted by The Art of Living Foundation