Jordan: Circassians Seeking Roots Beyond the Nation They Helped Establish

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Aug 10 13:14:19 UTC 2006

from the NYTimes, August 10, 2006
Amman Journal

Seeking Roots Beyond the Nation They Helped Establish

AMMAN, Jordan The search for personal identity can be a trap for people
like Yinal Thaghapsau, who lives in the no mans land between the only home
he knows and the land of his ancestors. Like many children of immigrants,
he has found that he does not fit perfectly in either place. His
great-great-grandfather fled the czars armies in the northern Caucasus in
the 1860s and settled in a small desert region that became the Hashemite
Kingdom of Jordan. Now, four generations later, he has one desire: to
return to the land of his ancestors.

'For me, my dream is to go back there,' he said, in accented English. 'It
is something that lives in me, whether I like it or not.' Mr. Thaghapsau
is Circassian, a member of a diaspora created when hundreds of thousands
were forced from their mountainous lands in what is now southern Russia,
just north of Azerbaijan and Georgia. Theirs is a quiet diaspora, one that
has not roused passions or militias but has quietly assimilated in places
like Jordan, Turkey, Syria and the United States. The Circassian
experience in Jordan is in many ways typical of the immigrant experience
for many around the world. It is about holding on and letting go. Blending
in and standing out. But in Jordan, a nation that has struggled since its
inception to define what it is to be Jordanian, the challenge of
fourth-generation Circassians has special resonance.

Jordanians who are not Circassian bristle at the very notion that some of
their neighbors feel like they do not fully connect. To suggest that is
perceived as an affront to a nation that tells the world it has, at last,
defined what it means to be Jordanian. There is no issue, no issue at all,
shot back Raouf Abu Jaber, a Jordanian businessman and historian, when
told that some Circassians said they were eager to return to the land of
their ancestors. I am personally surprised. Of course, not all of the
Circassians in Jordan, estimated to number as many as 100,000, want to go.
In all likelihood, only a minority would, judging from interviews with
more than a dozen people of different ages.  But that does not minimize
the struggle of identity for a group that has tried to meld with the Arab
landscape while holding onto a very different culture. It can be as simple
as men and women dancing together (which they still do) or as complicated
as passing on a language (most young people say that neither they nor
their friends speak the Circassian language).

Most of the young people here do not know anything about their history,
said Mr. Thaghapsau, who moved to the Caucasus for a year but returned to
Jordan after seeing how hard it would be to build a new life there. They
dont speak the language. But tell them they are not Circassian, and they
will kill you. Jordan is a small, dry patch of land carved out of the
Middle East by the British in the 1920s when it was called the Arab
Emirate of Transjordan.  When the first Hashemite king, Abdullah I, took
power, the Circassians were already longtime residents. They had been
successful farmers and wealthy landowners and worked closely with the new
king to forge their new nation. In 1946, Jordan got its independence, and
soon after took its current name.

But from the beginning Jordan was more a creation of history than a place
that passed through history. From its very inception, the concept of being
Jordanian was an abstraction. It was and remains an amalgam of people, a
Middle Eastern mosaic of nationalities, sects and religions: Palestinians,
Armenians, Syrians, Chechens, people from the Arabian Peninsula called
Hejazi, Druse and Christians. And Circassians. Outsiders told Jordanian
leaders that its very existence simply did not make sense. And from the
beginning, the Circassian minority, the people thrown off their own land,
helped try to prove those outsiders wrong.

King Abdullah was so grateful to the Circassians and so taken by their
loyalty and colorful traditions that he made them the private protocol
guard of the Royal Court. To this day, visitors to the kings offices are
greeted by steely looking men in uniforms that resemble old Cossack
costumes. Over the years, Circassians have held the highest positions in
the government, including prime minister and important posts in the
security services. But today many Circassians say they are feeling edged
out, all but excluded from important government positions. And they resent
all of the attention heaped on another important ethnic group, the
Palestinians, and their quest for an independent state. Jordan had annexed
the West Bank in 1950 but lost it in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

Ahmed Wumar, 26, a recent university graduate, said that the historical
slight against the Circassians was far worse. Palestinians, he said, at
least get to live in their own geographical neighborhood, surrounded by
people who share their language and customs. Our problem is hundreds of
years old, he said. We are here 143 years already in Jordan. Everybody
knows the Palestinians. No one knows us. Mr. Wumar also tried to move back
to his ancestral home, which is now in Russia, and stuck it out for two
years before returning to Jordan. I wanted to get a Russian passport, but
they would not give it to me, he said.

The Circassian cultural center is a nondescript building on a small street
in a middle-class neighborhood of Amman. Inside on a recent evening, young
men and women were finishing up dance practice. Unlike their Arab
neighbors, Circassian men and women dance together in an almost martial
choreography, with a lot of spinning and fist pumping for the men and
chest-thrust-forward preening for the women. I am Circassian, but my
nationality is Jordanian, said Shamil Shroukh, 16, who does not speak the
Circassian language, but has been dancing for 10 years.

Tamer Qunash, 21, said: All of us consider ourselves Jordanian. This is
our home. Their instructor is a hard-driving man with a clean-shaven head
named Yinal Hatyk. He is 32 years old and is the chief of staff to Prince
Ali bin al-Hussein, the brother of the current king, Abdullah II. He
pressed the dancers to get it right, to spin and preen with confidence and
perfection. We are truly Circassian and truly Jordanian, he said, after
giving the dancers a break. But, he said, a lot of Circassians want to go

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