In the Beginning, God Made Me Circassian.
Circassians arrived in Amman, Jordan over 150 years ago fleeing genocide and war in the North Caucasus. I sat down with a prominent leader from the community to learn more about the current status of their identity, culture, and language.
Modern-day Amman is a limestone urban sprawl that has outgrown its seven jebels (Arabic for hills) located at its dense city center. This Jordanian city encompasses a metropolitan area that numbers over 4 million and has evolved immensely from the quaint village that was resettled at the end of the 19th century by Circassians. In its early days, Amman was simply a dormant area that was brought back to life by relocated Circassians fleeing war in the North Caucasus. Today, Amman is a melting pot that has sustained a climate of coexistence and cosmopolitanism for many decades.
So how did this come to be? How did a displaced Sunni Muslim people come from their homeland in the Caucasus more than 2,000 kilometers away to establish a settlement that would eventually evolve into the grand city of Amman?
After attempting to harpoon an Uber driver in Amman for over 45 minutes, I finally arrived at a coffee shop in a western suburb of the city. I was supposed to meet Yenal, a prominent leader in the Circassian community of Jordan. A mutual friend introduced me to several contacts in Jordan that would later lead the way to meeting Yenal. After many Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp introductions, we could now play six degrees of separation and I would tell you that my network is two degrees away from the royal family of Jordan…thanks to Yenal. But that’s beside the point.
I approached Yenal at the corner of the coffee shop and I saw someone that was oddly reminiscent of one of my uncles in Greece — more specifically, any of my Pontian Greek uncles who have roots that hail from the same region as Yenal: the Caucasus. Albeit some Levantine people share common phenotypic features to those in the Balkans, Yenal clearly portrayed Black Sea features. The air around us was consumed by cigarette smoke and fresh coffee and I knew I would be in good company.
Yenal is the Adviser to Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein and serves the Jordanian government and Circassian community as a liaison between the two. He works hard to keep the Circassian culture and identity alive despite the power of assimilation and comfort in an accepting society like Jordan. During his free time, Yenal leads a traditional Circassian dance troupe where Circassians of all ages can partake.
“In the beginning, God made me Circassian no matter what my passport says. I have a responsibility with what God gave me. What does it mean to be Circassian? Be the best that you can be at what God gives you. That’s what it means to be Circassian.”
My meeting with Yenal entailed a Circassian-Jordanian history lesson and information on the community’s current status. This minority group has managed to maintain a strong identity since their arrival to the region in 1878 from the Caucasus.
HISTORY & BACKGROUND
Like the Balkans, the Caucasus is a heavily diverse region that straddles East and West. Because of its strategic location, empires and governments have conquered and asserted their dominance in the region (and continue to do so). The confluence of cultures and histories in the Caucasus has created a beautiful tapestry of different nations and languages. While there are unique communities and nations of different sizes, there are slight undertows and historical residues from cultural giants: Turkish, Russian, and Persian.
The struggle for dominance between the Russians and Ottoman Turks in the Caucasus in the late 19th Century caused much loss and destruction for the indigenous populations of the region, especially the Circassians. The war resulted in the Circassian genocide, forcing 90% of Circassians to flee their homeland in the Caucasus to different regions within the Ottoman Empire: the Balkans, Anatolia, and the Levant.
The Ottoman Turks strategically settled Circassians in the area of present-day Amman for various reasons. In the eyes of the Ottomans, Muslim loyalty and control in certain regions that contained a Christian majority were key for sustained dominance. During that time, the northwestern region of present-day Jordan was heavily populated by Christian communities, much like other micro-regions in the Levant and Anatolia. Known for their warrior-like characteristics, strong work ethic, and loyalty, settling Circassians there was their solution. The newcomers to the region established seven villages around Amman. “When they (the Circassians) came, Al-Salt was the largest settlement in the region before Amman grew,” explained Yenal. Al Salt was, and still is to this day, a settlement in northwest Jordan with a significant Christian population. It is located only 30 kilometers away from Amman.
Another factor that played an important role in their settlement of northwest Jordan was to serve as added protection to the Ottoman-constructed Hejaz Railway. This railway was part of a system that was intended to connect northern regions of the Ottoman Empire to Mecca, located in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. “Protecting the train line from Istanbul to Hejaz from attacks was one of the reasons the Ottomans forced us to live in Amman and nearby settlements,” explained Yenal. They had purpose and intentionality with the Ottomans, and that in turn gave them favor as a community.
The region experienced changes and shifts in power since its Ottoman days as it transitioned into an emirate (Trans-Jordan), and then finally into the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan that it is today. Throughout these phases of Jordanian history, the Circassian people have been able to sustain their culture, identity, and language while first living under Ottoman Turkish domination and then eventually thriving within a Jordanian Arab context. A common factor that has given the community longevity has been consistent government support. Because of their intentional placement in Jordan, the Circassians have always been viewed as a valuable community and have experienced favor in the eyes of those in power. This favor has greatly helped sustain their identity, culture, and language through time.
Belonging to the Northwest Caucasian language family, the Circassian language contains several dialects, two of which are spoken amongst the Circassians in Jordan: Karbadian and Bzhedug. Yenal is fluent in five Circassian dialects: Shapsug, Bzhedug, Abkhaz, Karbadian (homeland dialect), and Karbadian (diaspora dialect).
CURRENT STATUS OF THE COMMUNITY
While government support and protection may seem to be the best ingredients for a community’s identity and language to thrive, the inverse seems to be taking place in Jordan.
“Circassians are spoiled because of the language freedom. There is no persecution and no need to hold onto the language,” explained Yenal.
His body language and tone seemed annoyed but stoic. Perhaps because the challenges are overwhelming. According to Yenal, about 70% of Circassian-Jordanian youth don’t speak Circassian. “There’s no necessity and they are too comfortable.” There are various numbers floating around on the estimated population of the community in Jordan, but according to Yenal, there are no official estimates conducted by the Jordanian government. “The exact number of Circassians in Jordan is unknown. It is forbidden by the government.”
Is this an effort by the Jordanian government to guarantee unity in a nation that has a layered demographic history? Some say that half of the Arab population in Jordan are second and third generation Palestinian refugees. I even recognized an apparent tension between the stronger Bedouin identity in the southern countryside and the more cosmopolitan northwest. Maybe the government uses this tactic to eliminate any potential ethnic division and bring unity to a Jordanian identity.
Unofficial population estimates that are floating around the internet number the Circassian community between 40,000 and 100,000. The community does continue to thrive in many ways in the Amman area with several clubs and schools scattered throughout the city.
When asking Yenal questions concerning politics and religion and the Circassian people, he addressed the topics with interesting insight.
“Yes, all Circassians in Jordan are Sunni…but there is no political background to their Islam. The Circassians are not a political people. We don’t really know how to present ourselves politically.”
This may have influenced their historic prominence within the Jordanian government and military. Since religious sects and politics are so heavily intertwined in the region and the greater Middle East, it seems that the Circassians’ reputation for consistency and political neutrality have worked in their favor. Their adherence to Sunni Islam is also important to take note of when considering their favor within Jordan.
To this day, the royal guard to the Jordanian royal family is made up of Circassian guards. “Circassian guards, who have served Jordan’s kings since the founding of the monarchy, still adhere to their ancient traditions, such as donning an incongruous cold weather uniform of black wool hats, red capes and leather boots in this desert climate.”
FACTS ON THE CIRCASSIAN COMMUNITY IN JORDAN:
Language: Circassian — Karbadian & Bzhedug Dialects
Unofficial Population Estimates: 40,000–100,000
Religion: Sunni Islam
Primary Location: Amman Metropolitan Area & NW Jordan
Intermarriage with Jordanian Arabs: Rare/Uncommon
CONNECTION TO THE HOMELAND
Many changes have taken place during the 140-year separation from the homeland. Communism was ushered into power in the Caucasus in the early 20th century as a result of Soviet domination, and that shifted many dynamics between the diaspora community and the homeland. Naturally, communism limited communication and access. When the Soviet Union ceased to exist in the early 1990s, borders and communication were open again. I asked Yenal if Circassians in Jordan ever considered wanting to return to the homeland in the Caucasus. He replied,
“Communism made the dream of going back difficult. A lot of people tried to go back after the Soviet government collapsed, but eventually came back due to the economy.”
Decades of communism had deep economic and cultural effects all over the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc.
My assumptions were wrong thinking that Circassians would desire to flock to the homeland once the opportunity was given. I grew up going to Greece visiting family and we always heard stories of Pontian Greek families returning to the “homeland” of Greece after decades of being entrapped in Soviet states in the Black Sea region (Georgia, Armenia, Circassia, Russia, etc.). But the common factor provoking these communities to stay or flee was the economy. Pontian Greeks did leave the former Soviet Union for Greece for cultural reasons, but the main draw was the promising economic climate of a non-Soviet nation. As Circassians looked to return to the homeland, the depressed economic situation in Circassia was what ultimately kept many of them in their 140-year-old home. Opportunity was king. Jordan was the better option.
As new threats and opportunities have risen to the surface in the Levant and Middle East in the 21st century, so have new frustrations amongst the Circassians in Jordan. “There is a big frustration now about the current situation in the region due to regimes, Islamists, and the economy,” explained Yenal. The world has witnessed ethnic cleansing and radicalism come in its darkest forms as ISIS left a painful mark in neighboring Syria and Iraq. The economy in Jordan has also had its share of struggles recently with rising unemployment, rapid population growth, and growing public debt. This has put a strain on all Jordanians, including the Circassian community, forcing some to consider migrating to Europe and the Americas.
Yenal’s knowledge and fluency of five Circassian dialects is a bit of an anomaly. He is a walking encyclopedia of not just Circassian-Jordanian culture and history, but of all things Circassian. From the ancient roots of his people, to the diaspora that spans many nations, there is a sense that he carries this weight and responsibility for his people; for their painful past.
Yenal is currently working on a project on Circassian family histories and symbols. Using the ancient Circassian alphabet (once used prior to the arrival of Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets), Yenal is collecting family names from all over the Circassian community in Jordan in order to revive the use of Circassian-style family crests. So far, he has collected 600 family names.
The Yenals of this world are very important. They hold open doors even when others don’t realize doors need to be opened. Sometimes the Yenals of this world don’t get to see all the fruit of their labor, but they are perfectly okay with that. They know themselves, they know where they come from, and they lack the need for recognition. They seem to have peace despite their situation and what their community has dealt with over time. Towards the end of my meeting with Yenal, I asked him what he wanted the world to know.
“We deserve our role in history. In each country we lived in, we worked, helped, and protected. I wish people knew what happened to us.”
The cigarette smoke still engulfed the air of our conversations, still so very reminiscent of my moments with Pontian Greek family members. Once again I found myself encountering a minority community that has the education, self-awareness, and support to thrive. In some sense, the Circassians of Jordan are thriving. They know who they are and where they came from. The cultural institutions and the lack of intermarriage are there to prove it. But why is the language not exactly thriving? The community must look within itself. And perhaps it starts at home. Recognizing the threat of comfort on one’s culture and language is important. If the Circassians don’t see a need to speak their mother tongue, then they will naturally turn to Arabic or whichever language is spoken in the country they live in. Much like immigrant communities around the world, it takes work and intentionality to keep multiple cultures and languages alive.