Caught by the River

The Kebabs of the Peacock Angel

Michael Smith | 15th May 2020

This is an extract from the new book I’ve been working on, set in a pub in a pretty, shabby, post-apocalyptic seaside town, about a bloke having a midlife crisis while late capitalism has its own spectacular crisis all around him, asking himself what the fuck (if anything) it all means…I’m going to keep posting bits, in no particular order, bits that seem relevant to the strange times we suddenly find ourselves living in…this piece is dedicated to my mate the writer Gareth Rees, and the afternoons we’d spend talking about such things over said kebabs in me & my missus’ pub.

Michael Smith, St Leonards-on-Sea

When we left London, one of the things I missed most was a proper Kingsland Road kebab. For 20 years, for richer or for poorer, I think that spongy oily flatbread soaking up all the fatty juices of the meat on the skewers sweating and flaming on the ocakbaşi grill must’ve saved my life. As a skint, skinny kid at the turn of the millenium, I’d wander from Hoxditch up the Kingsland Waste in the violet hour, into London’s Turkish quarter, a shabby stretch concealing an embarrassment of riches, a mysterious, charcoal-grilled alchemy, manna from heaven that peppered the desert the inner city still was in those days … I’d buy my chicken shish in its flatbread wrap and wander home through the inner east with my favourite food as darkness fell, past roofless tumbledown warehouses yet to be converted, and old men with mediterranean moustaches sat on threadbare reclaimed office chairs, playing dominoes in the streets as the lights of the City skyline began twinkling in the distance.

When we moved to the beach, I was so happy to discover a proper Kurdish kebab house a stone’s throw from the bar we’d opened. I quickly became one of their best customers. Week after week, my friend Ramzi brings my chicken shishes over to the bar in a flatbread wrap, but occasionally, if I get the time, I’ll pop over to his place and sit down to eat, with the bread on the side, the chicken skewers displayed in all their glory next to the rice, caçik, tabbuleh and chillis, washed down and warmed by generous glasses of heady Turkish red, and enjoy his hospitality and conversation. 

The inheritor of an ancient civilisation with a more refined palate than ours, his restaurant is covered in its symbols. He’s got a big carving of a peacock spreading its feathers over the ocakbaşi grill that always caught my eye, and when I quizzed him about it one day, he kind of blew my mind. He told me it was Melek Tawus, the Peacock Angel, an ancient character embedded deep in the Kurdish psyche, a bit like Santa Claus for us, a half-forgotten ancestral memory of their ancient folk religion, a survival from more shamanic, magical times, way before the arrival of Muslim civilisation. 

I had no idea Melek Tawus still played a part in the pyschic life of the Kurds, and still guarded Kurdish hearths. I’d read a bit about him, but had only imagined him in the abstract, an ancient occult diety, all but extinct, still worshipped in the remote and inaccessible mountain regions between Turkey and Syria, where the few remaining Yezidi tribes still practice his primordial religion. 

One of the strangest survivals in the whole of human culture, the Yezidis’ faith was so disturbing to their neighbours, there have been 73 attempted genocides of these “devil worshippers” since the arrival of Islam in the region. This is because the Yezidis believe they are the chosen people of the Peacock Angel, who also goes by the name of Shaitan, or Satan. He’s been their guardian angel ever since he gave them the gift of knowledge in the Garden of Eden at the dawn of history.

Maybe through necessity, the Yezidi have always been a closed and secretive people. “Those Outside” can’t convert. They consider themselves to be oldest nation on earth, a nation forged in that first pact with Shaitan in the garden; no one knows for sure how old their religion is, but we do know it’s one of the oldest in the world, much older than Judiasm, for example. 

“I allow everyone to follow the dictates of his own nature, but he that opposes me will regret it sorely,” says Shaitan in one of the Yezidi’s revealed Holy Books. His symbol is fire, fire that can illuminate as well as burn; he’s responsible for giving mankind knowledge and free will, and in an intriguing twist on the familiar Garden of Eden story, he initiates Adam with a different forbidden fruit: “God commanded Gabriel to escort Adam into Paradise, and to tell him that he could eat from all the trees, but not of wheat. Here Adam remained for a hundred years … Melek Tawus visited Adam and said, ‘Have you eaten of the grain?’ He answered, ‘No, God forbade me.’ Melek Taus replied and said, ‘Eat of the grain and all shall go better with thee.’”

Every wheat species domesticated in ancient European and Asian agriculture descended from a common ancestor, “einkorn” wheat, which is indigenous to the ancestral Yezidi heartlands, which puts the small detail of Shaitan giving Adam knowledge by introducing him to grain rather than apples in an intriguing light – could it be an ancestral memory of the time when humans first started farming?

Not only are the Yezidi heartlands the home of wheat, in the part of the world where agriculture began, they’re also in the part of the Middle East where the myth of the Garden of Eden most likely comes from. Here too, the world’s oldest temple by many thousands of years was recently discovered: Gobekli Tepe, a complex of stone circles that had been deliberately buried under an artificial hill for some unknown reason 12,000 years ago. 12,000 years! Just imagine it – that’s three times further back in time from Stonehenge than Stonehenge is from us. This temple is so old, its builders didn’t have metal or writing, or farming. They were still nomadic hunter-gatherers. It is covered with carvings of snakes and bird-gods.

… so the Yazidis are descended from the original inhabitants of the garden of Eden and worship a bird-god called Satan, who brought mankind out of the Stone Age with the forbidden fruit of agriculture … I wonder about this impossible story, stranded in my flat with all this time on my hands, wonder about this Peacock Angel whose symbol is fire that can illuminate as well as burn, and I wish I could leave the flat and go to Ramzi’s kebab house, sit by the flames of the ocakbaşi grill as the smoke and heat keeps the moustachioed chefs sweating over skewers of quail and sweetmeats, raising a dew on my forehead as I look on, watching the sweltering spectacle while I wait for my food … the charcoal-blackened edges of the meat with that burned carbon taste that carries over into the sweet, singed onions, into the thick, spongey bread that heats on top of it all as it cooks, absorbing all that smoke, soaking up the exquisite fatty juices of the sweating flesh.

From where I’m sitting, staring out the window, craving one of Ramzi’s chicken shishes, with Melek Tawus guarding the hearth of the kebab house in this beach resort at the end of late capitalism, we’re all under the sign of the Peacock Angel, he’s been watching over Man since his Fall, a slow motion Fall over the last 12,000 years, ever since we domesticated wheat in Stone Age times, the Original Sin, the beginning of the end … from that day all the way down to this one, this pandemic caused by industrial food production passing pathogens from bats to pangolins to humans, the ball has been rolling towards us becoming the planet’s Sixth Great Extinction, the next asteroid to hit the Earth, ever since Shaitan gave us wheat and started civilisation in the process, the Fall of Man.