NOTES ON ALBU MUTAYWIT: PART I

Those who have followed the situation in Sinjar since the horrific onslaught of IS and genocide of Ezidis last summer have likely heard of the key role of local Sunnis—mainly Arabs, but also some Kurds—in facilitating and even actively participating in the terror. With a sweeping offensive launched last month by various Kurdish/Ezidi forces having already pushed IS from Balad Sinjar into the countryside south of the mountain, questions of what inter-communal relations might look like after this begin to take on increased relevance. While some Ezidis maintain that their traditions do not permit acts of violent retribution, others don’t feel that they have any obligations to be quite so charitable: They destroyed our houses so we want theirs to be destroyed too. Indeed, charges of “ethnic cleansing” and the like have already been levelled against Ezidi armed groups in the past months for reprisal actions taken against Sunni villages accused of collaboration.

Setting aside for the moment any ethical quandaries posed by this state of affairs, it is worth trying to understand who exactly these people are—not just superficially recognising them for their actions in the genocide of summer 2014 alone, but also following the strands of history which led them up to that point. Towards this end, I wish to bring forth an examination of one of the groups commonly implicated by genocide survivors—the Sunni Arab tribe of Albu Mutaywit.

The following is derived mainly from passing mentions of the clan that I’ve encountered in scholarly publications during the course of other research, combined with some additional insight garnered from scraping online fora and social media sites, and should as such be treated as cursory at best. Still, even this woefully incomplete sketch should at least modestly counteract the dearth of accessible information regarding both this particular tribe and the local history of the area.

A FEW BASIC FACTS

Albu Mutaywit (transliterations vary, Kurdish sources most often use “Mitewta” or “Mitweta”) supposedly derive their name from an ancestor called Muhammad al-Issa al-Hassan, who was called “Mutaywit” due to a speech impediment. They constitute a distinct tribe (‘ashirah) within the Juhaysh confederacy (qabilah),{1} in turn part of the broader (if rather loose) Zubayd confederacy. Either a formal offshoot from the al-‘Issa lineage or perhaps an independent tribe which had moved into political alliance with the Juhaysh,{2} Albu Mutaywit may be further subdivided into up to seven clans (afkhadh), per ‘Abbas al-‘Azzawi: Albu Khalifah, al-Mari‘i, Albu Mazidah, Albu ‘Aliwi, al-Dukhiyah, Albu Sabih (also apparently “shared” with the broader Juhaysh), and al-Hayjil.{3} Their current leader is said to be one Shaykh Jarallah Muhammad Jarallah al-‘Issa of the family (bayt) Jarallah within the clan of Albu Khalifah.

Traditionally farmers and localized sheep and cattle herders by occupation, Albu Mutaywit numbered around 500-600 households in the mid-20th century;{4} this number may well have doubled since then. The tribe’s main heartland (see Map 1) encompasses a swathe of rural villages situated in the fertile plains south and southeast of Balad Sinjar ranging towards Tal ‘Afar, centred on the sprawling village of Bulayj (also known as Qayrawan); substantial numbers also live in Balad Sinjar and the Domiz Sinjar housing complex just southwest, as well as in the Zummar district and in the provincial capital of Mosul (particularly the western districts).{5}

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[MAP 1: South Sinjar countryside and Albu Mutaywit tribal area (full size). For further description and sources, see here.]

This area—indeed, the region of Sinjar in general—has long been ethnically, religiously, and tribally heterogeneous, characterised by frequently shifting population geographies. In the first half of the 20th century,{6} the nearby neighbours of Albu Mutaywit included the mixed Ezidi-Muslim Mandikan in the area of ‘Ayn Ghazal.{7} Semi-nomadic in background, the Mandikan had in the early 19th century moved from the northwestern and southwestern slopes to take control over Balad from the Ezidi Haskani tribe before being themselves displaced to the plains by and made tributary to the Ezidi-led Habbabat tribe.{8} Other groups nearby included other elements of the Juhaysh and the large Kurdish Babawat tribe,{9} also aligned with the Habbabat and composed primarily of mostly-Ezidified Ali-Ilahi Shia Kurds.{10} The powerful Shammar Bedouin confederation, which first migrated to the Sinjar area in the first years of the 19th century,{11} wandered (and would gradually begin to be sedentarised in) the surrounding steppeland to the south and east.

SURMOUNTING SERVITUDE — OTTOMAN, MANDATORY, & INDEPENDENT IRAQ

The earliest fragments of Albu Mutaywit history that I’ve encountered come from an online forum for the Jibbur tribe, referencing an undated battle at Zanawur near Nusaybin against the nomadic Kurdish Kocher tribe, and another undated battle at Qurn Shar against an unnamed foe. The battle of al-Tulayl/al-Mazari’ (east of the village of Abu Mariya on the Tal ‘Afar–Mosul road) in 1834 against the Shammar is the first event with a clear date. According to an account of the battle posted on the same forum, well-entrenched Albu Mutaywit tribesmen managed to hold off a large raiding force under Hajir al-Jarba{12} for three days and nights until Ottoman gendarmerie arrived on the scene to decisively repulse the Shammar. After this, Albu Mutaywit are said to have won some arms guarantees of protection from Ottoman authorities before migrating to Sinjar, where they would live among (or, rather, under) the Mihirkan, a predominantly Ezidi tribe settled around the eastern part of the mountain.

According to a history published on a Syrian Juhaysh Facebook page, Albu Mutaywit arrived in the vicinity of Sinjar around the year 1888. It appears that Albu Mutaywit quickly were shuffled towards the bottom of the social hierarchies of steppe and mountain alike. British surveys of military strength among the tribes of the Sinjar area in the aftermath of WWI indicate that Albu Mutaywit benefitted least from the arms bonanza resulting from the collapse and withdrawal of the Ottoman military from Mesopotamia: the tribe had only 250 rifles among them, amounting to barely over 10% of the combined Ezidi arsenal and utterly dwarfed by the 6000 held by the skilled and mobile Shammar confederacy even when combined with the 380 held by the rest of the Juhaysh.{13} In line with this disparity, the tribe appears to have been often at the mercy of its larger and better-armed neighbours.

The Fuqaraa, a tribe of Ezidi clerics which arrived to the mountain in the latter part of the 19th century, are the first such dominant group to clearly appear in the sources I have examined. Under the aegis of the ambitious and vigorously anti-Ottoman Hamo Shiro (d. 1933), this ecclesiastical clique greatly expanded their influence over the other Ezidi tribes of the mountain (particularly in the west), and began to try to extend their territorial and social control over nearby groups as well.{14} When the British arrived on the scene, Hamo soon moved to align himself with them in the hopes of further solidifying his position against his opponents.{15}

British authorities noted that Albu Mutaywit were the only Arab group who were under the direct control of Ezidis after WWI, working as sharecroppers to Fuqaraa landlords.{16} In contrast to the Khawatinah tribe,{17} which in the course of post-war struggles with resurgent Ezidi power ended up having to leave two recently-settled villages in western Sinjar, Albu Mutaywit had been permitted to stay in their existing lands in exchange for entering into a coercive tributary arrangement with Hamo Shiro.{18}

This state of affairs, though entirely in tune with the traditional political economy of the broader region, was evidently (and understandably) not particularly enjoyable for the tribe. Their Juhaysh kin, aligning themselves with the Ottoman garrison in nearby Tal ‘Afar,{19} bore particular ill will towards Hamo, and would at times seek to “emancipat[e] [Albu Mutaywit] from their servile status”.{20} The Shammar reportedly would also intervene, although their motives likely had less to do with “emancipation” and more to do with acquiring tributary subjects of their own.

Intra-Ezidi rivalries occasionally provided ways for Albu Mutawit to at least diversify their portfolio of extractors. The sedentary lay aghas of eastern Sinjar, whose tribes included substantial Muslim minorities,{21} sought to bolster their established prestige and check the power of the ambitious faqir newcomers led by Hamo. Dawud al-Dawud of the Mihirkan created one such power bloc by rallying behind him his old rivals in the Musqurah and the Haskan to the west, together with the Mandikan and Albu Mutaywit.{22}

This alignment appears to have been rather loose, at least as far as Albu Mutaywit were concerned, as they seem to have been the only Sinjari tribe to have actively participated in the June 1920 anti-British uprising in Tal ‘Afar, joining their fellow Juhaysh as well as the Shammar, Jibbur, and Jirjiriyah{23} tribes and many ‘Afari locals. Dawud al-Dawud of the Mihirkan remained on the sidelines, and Hamo Shiro soon declared his willingness to assist the British in suppressing the revolt.{24} But as Fuccaro notes:

[H]e only took up arms against the Albu Mutaywid whose villages were burnt down, their grazing grounds destroyed and whose tribesmen were compelled to swear an oath of allegiance to the Yazidi chief{25}

The Tal ‘Afar uprising was soon crushed—but although Albu Mutaywit appear to have taken outsize punishment for their role, they do not appear to have been utterly broken, instead continuing to look for patrons who would (better) defend their interests and offer them a chance to move out of servitude.

In the spring of 1926, amidst increasingly chaotic developments in the Bedouin political scene, Albu Mutaywit and the Juhaysh joined together with none other than their Fuqaraa overlords in seeking protection from the raiding activity of the ambitious Daham al-Hadi, maverick leader of the Khursah branch of the Shammar.{26} Daham reportedly had been carrying out raids in the plains south of Sinjar, in part to appease the desires of recently-won allies in the Jibbur tribe (who had apparently had a “long standing feud” with these tribes), and also to jockey for better political position against ‘Ajil al-Yawar, his cousin and primary rival in the contest for paramount leadership over the Shammar. The Fuqaraa, Juhaysh, and Albu Mutaywit asked the assistance of ‘Ajil, whose ties with the British had recently improved, and in a large battle near al-Badi’ in the steppe west of al-Ba’aj, Daham and his supporters were thrashed by ‘Ajil, thoroughly hobbling the former’s raiding activities against the southern Sinjari tribes.{27}

The example set by al-Badi’, where British airpower had given a decisive edge to the supporters of ‘Ajil, seems to have haunted the other tribal leaders of the area. After many sheep belonging to the Haskan and Albu Mutaywit were stolen in raids by Tayy tribesmen that same year, administrative threats of aerial force seem to have been a key factor in convincing the Tayy to “partially” comply with restitution demands.{28}

Although Albu Mutaywit did at times actively resist the British colonial regime, as at Tal ‘Afar, it is also clear that they did benefit quite substantially from its effects. Indeed, although the process was far from peaceable or uncontested, the colonial-mandatory British authorities (and their Iraqi successors) more or less succeeded in completing two endeavours which the previous Ottoman rulers had struggled to do: to end the previous de facto autonomy of the Sinjari Ezidis and bring them under central control, and (similarly) to decisively curb the power of Bedouin tribes across Jazira—foremost among them the Shammar. Against this backdrop of the erosion of the two major local poles of power (i.e., Mount Sinjar and the badiyah), Albu Mutaywit appear to have been at last able to vigorously resist the traditional local hierarchies to which they had heretofore been bound.

Following not long after clashes near Bulayj in 1944, rising tensions between Albu Mutaywit and Shammar tribesmen came to a head in August 1946 after the former, together with their fellow Juhaysh, “refused to pay the previously agreed upon crop rent” owed to the sons of ‘Ajil al-Yawar for working lands officially ‘owned’ by them.{29} When initial legal recourse to Iraqi authorities failed, the Shammar attempted in the traditional feudal fashion to extract their tribute by force, but found themselves sucked into a bloodier battle than they had bargained for. Tribes from across Jazira were quickly drawn into the fray, and government forces only managed to restore order after around two hundred tribesmen had been killed.{30} It seems that Albu Mutaywit and their allies stood their ground quite successfully, obtaining government-ordered compensation from the Shammar and—perhaps more importantly—enshrining in their history a resounding victory against one of their former masters.{31}

Part II, tracing the history of Albu Mutaywit through the Ba’ath era, US invasion/occupation, and current conflict, will be released in (hopefully) no longer than two weeks… when it’s ready to be released

NOTES AND REFERENCES

{1} Fuccaro, Aspects, 151.

{2} al-‘Azzawi, ‘Asha’ir, 299.

{3} al-‘Azzawi, ‘Asha’ir, 299-300. Oddly, Albu Mazidah, Albu Sabih, and al-Hayjil are not included in a more recent description of Albu Mutaywit’s structure; it’s unclear whether this was simply an oversight or indicative of political shifts in the tribe’s composition since al-‘Azzawi’s time.

{4} al-‘Azzawi, ‘Asha’ir, 299-300.

{5} Interestingly, a fraction of the al-Mari’i clan apparently found its way into Syria’s Idlib Province.

{6} As I have not yet come into adequately detailed information regarding the dramatic effects of Saddam’s “Arabisation” campaign on the social geography of the area, the following information appears to be accurate based on Nelida Fuccaro’s analyses of French, British, and Iraqi sources dating from the early 1920s to late 1940s.

{7} Fuccaro, Aspects, 22. According to legend, the Mandikan were once a purely Muslim Kurdish tribe which arrived to Sinjar before the Ezidis (Aspects, 114-115); in the 1930s the clan comprised 220 Ezidi families and 87 Sunni Kurd families (62).

{8} Fuccaro, Aspects, 72.

{9} Fuccaro, Conscription, 580n67.

{10} Fuccaro, Aspects, 64.

{11} Williamson, Shammar Jarba, 33.

{12} An uncle of the legendary Shammar leader Sufuq ibn Faris (Williamson, Shammar Jarba, 72).

{13} Fuccaro, Aspects, 169n16.

{14} Hamo had unilaterally proclaimed himself the paramount ruler of Sinjar in the early 1890s following the death of his predecessor Sufuq, a lay agha of the Ezidi Musqurah tribe who had been appointed such by Ottoman authorities in the hopes of increasing their limited control over the area (Fuccaro, Aspects, 136-8).

{15} The boundary between active political ambition and desire to stave off religiously-targeted persecution is perhaps blurry here.

{16} Fuccaro, Aspects, 46.

{17} An Arab group traditionally centred around nearby Lake Khatuniyah, whose members have—perhaps not coincidentally—also been implicated in the 2014 genocide (see the forthcoming Part II).

{18} Fuccaro, Aspects, 117.

{19} This garrison was established in the aftermath of an 1837 Ottoman assault on Sinjar, and turned the formerly friendly and similarly autonomous town into a bitter adversary of the Ezidis of Sinjar (Fuccaro, Aspects, 149-150).

{20} Fuccaro, Aspects, 151.

{21} Fuccaro, Aspects, 117.

{22} Fuccaro, Aspects, 143. Fuccaro does not give a date for the formation of this alliance, and I do not as of yet have access to the sources she cites, but it does seem to generally align with the above forum-page reference to how Albu Mutaywit settled in among the Mihirkan sometime after the battle of al-Tulayl.

{23} A semi-nomadic tribe of ultimateEzidi/Kurdish origin which had long since effectively become assimilated into the surrounding Muslim Arab/Bedouin tribal milieu (Fuccaro, Aspects, 145).

{24} Fuccaro, Aspects, 171-172.

{25} Fuccaro, Aspects, 172.

{26} And, as it would happen, the father of one of the current co-governors of Jazira Canton, Humaidi Daham.

{27} Fuccaro, Aspects, 221-222.

{28} Fuccaro, Aspects, 217.

{29} If I had to warrant a guess, this ‘ownership’ may well have originated with ‘Ajil establishing dominion over south Sinjar as a result of the aforementioned victory over Daham al-Hadi at al-Badi’, legally justified by official recognition from his mandatory patrons.

{30} Williamson, Shammar Jarba, 187-188.

{31} A much more detailed account of this battle, which took place a few kilometres north of Bulayj around the village of al-Khunaysi, can be found in Arabic at this Iraq-focussed online forum.

PRINT SOURCES

al-‘Azzawi, ‘Abbas. ‘Asha’ir al-‘Iraq. Baghdad, 1957.

Fuccaro, Nelida. Aspects of the social and political history of the Yazidi enclave of Jabal Sinjar (Iraq) under the British mandate, 1919-1932 (Ph.D. thesis). Durham University, 1994.

Fuccaro, Nelida. “Ethnicity, state formation, and conscription in post-colonial Iraq: The case of the Yazidi Kurds of Jabal Sinjar.” Int. J. Middle East Stud., 29 (1997): 559–580.

Williamson, John Frederick. A political history of the Shammar Jarba tribe of al-Jazīrah (Ph.D. thesis). Indiana University, 1975.

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