Circassians : Fighting to keep old heritage alive

The storied history of Jordan’s Circassians, as well as their future aspirations and worries, deserves to be discussed (Photo: Shutterstock)
Circassians are the inhabitants of a large chunk of the Western Caucasus, stretching from what is now Russia’s border with Georgia to the frontier with Crimea, a region with majestic mountains and scenic Black Sea coastline. This geographical positioning has brought the 12 Circassian tribes, characterized by love for liberty, great commitment to the nation, and a warrior spirit, into conflict with many of history’s great empires.اضافة اعلان

They fought the last of these empires, the Czarist Russia, for 100 years before most were ultimately massacred and expelled from their homes in modern history’s first genocide. The survivors headed for the Ottoman Empire, and a few settled in Jordan. In the new country, Circassians engaged in every field. They even produced a prime minister, Said Al-Mufti, and Amman’s first mayor, Ismail Babouk. Jordanian Circassians are a fine example of a well-adjusted community.

Their exile from the Caucasus meant that the preservation of their culture has been in jeopardy. Despite efforts, including Circassian associations and even a school, only a fifth of Jordanian Circassians speak their language, perhaps an inevitability of integration.

The storied history of Jordan’s Circassians, as well as their future aspirations and worries, deserves to be discussed, and the perfect person to speak to is Radi Alkhas-Hatogh, the current head of Jordan Media City.

Alkhas’ family, who are of the Bzedugh tribe, had a great role in the building of Jordan. He recounts that his family came to Jordan around 1893 after spending some time in Turkey. When his father, Abdulkarim Alkhas Hatogh, was a child, his family was the first to permanently settle the Naur district.

As with the vast majority of Circassians, they came to Jordan because of persecution. In Abdulkarim Alkhas’ case, this harsh experience pushed him to join the Ottoman army, where he became an officer. At the start of the Great Arab Revolt, he joined King Abdullah I, helping him to establish Jordan. He became the seventh officer to join the Arab Army and served from 1921-1940 as an officer and commander in Salt, Irbid and Maan.

Radi Alkhas grew up in Irbid and attended Secondary School in Ramallah. He spent two years at the American University of Beirut, followed by a move to London University, from where he graduated in 1965 as an electrical/telecommunications engineer. Back to Jordan, he became an officer in the Electrical/Mechanical Engineer Corps that same year.

(Photo: Shutterstock) 

“Back then, almost every Circassian was a government official or an army officer, and there were no other viable opportunities,” he said.

“In the 60s, there was one Circassian merchant, I think he sold cutlery, but that was the only one,” he said.

At the end of 1967, the trajectory of his career changed. He started working with Jordan Radio and Television, where he stayed for 27 years, becoming director-general in the last five. In 1994, he joined Arab Radio and Television. During his time there, he established Jordan Media City, the first of its kind in the Arab world. A key figure in the development of media in Jordan, he has made his mark on the country’s history.

Alkhas sees no contradiction between being a Circassian and a loyal Jordanian citizen. While he considers himself a Jordanian first and foremost, he is heavily involved in Circassian charities, clubs and media outlets.

He believes the noble traits of most Circassians make them excellent Jordanians.

“The number one trait of Circassians is honesty, they tell you things straightforwardly and they never lie,” he said.

It seems like a biased assessment, but it has credibility. Circassian politicians in Jordan tend to have a clean track record, and the community has produced some of Jordan’s greatest war heroes, a fact that Alkhas once more attributes to the Caucasian warrior spirit and to their khabze, the Circassian moral code.

One would expect Circassians to choose between engaging in Jordanian society and preserving their unique culture. Alkhas, and most other Circassians in Jordan, say that this is not the case. This generation of Circassians is conscious of its obligation to both. Take the issue of language, mentioned above. Typically, diaspora communities lose command of the native tongue by the third generation, and other cultural traits. But as Alkhas proudly observed, the opposite is the case among Jordan’s Adigexer (Circassians).

(Photo: Shutterstock) 

“The first generation was deeply in touch, but the second generation had got more involved in Arab society and became disconnected. I do not know Circassian very well myself,” he said, adding that “this generation does an excellent job at keeping the culture. They do it inherently”, an impressive feat considering that this is the most integrated Circassian generation.

Clearly, one must draw the line between that and being assimilated. Every aspect of Circassian culture is represented in Jordan; numerous Circassian dance troupes keep the ancient art form alive, and a Circassian restaurant by the name of Sawamer exists (a special mention for Amman’s foodies).

When asked where he sees the Circassian community in 50, maybe 100 years, Alkhas said he expected the trend of job diversification amongst Circassians to continue. In recent decades, Circassians have been transitioning from just officers and officials to businessmen and technology specialists. Although it is a trend that Alkhas welcomes, he concedes that “Circassians are naturally public servants”, so why not continue down that path?

Aside from modernization and upper-middle class status presenting new opportunities to Circassians, some feel that they have been pushed out of old ones. In recent years, Circassians complained that candidates from Arab tribal backgrounds are preferred in military positions. The leaders of the Circassian community have lambasted this closing of a door that has always been open.

Alkhas does not feel this is the case, believing, instead, that the future of that system will determine the fate of Jordan’s Circassian community.

“Circassian identity and culture might stay, but if the tribal system disappears, so will the Circassian community.”

Obviously, the Circassians themselves will remain, but their tightknit social circle may wither away as the country’s judicial system expands. In the current climate, Circassians feel compelled to help their own out when it comes to matters of law and compensation. They have their own diwan and all of Jordan’s Circassians, no matter their tribe, function as one social unit, ready to assist their kinfolk at any given moment.

All in all, Jordan’s Circassians form an integral part of our country, and their contribution far exceeds their numbers. They are a nation who have known hardship all too well, but this has taught them to weather storms better than most.

Circassians carry ancient values of loyalty, bravery, and honesty into the modern age, which makes them and their culture valuable to any state they reside in. Their war with the Russians has ended, but they fight a new battle to keep their heritage of millennia alive.

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