Jordan’s Circassians mark ‘day of mourning’
Amman - Circassians each year mark the anniversary of the fall of their Caucasus homeland to Tsarist Russia on May 21st, 1864, with a day of mourning to commemorate the forced deportations and ethnic cleansing that befell their nation.
Many Circassians eventually settled in Jordan, then part of the Ottoman empire. Hundreds of Jordanians of Circassian descent gathered near the Russian embassy in Amman to protest the occupation of their land and demand its return. But permission to hold a peaceful protest outside the embassy was not granted, leaving protesters to mourn and grieve in silence elsewhere, including at a Circassian cultural club in Amman.
Each year, they rally, carrying Circassian flags and calling on the Russian government to recognise the displacement of Circassians, which took place at the end of the Caucasian war, as a genocide, a massacre that Russia denies.
“Even though we were not given the right to protest, we will not let the world forget the Circassia diaspora and the killing of our people,” Circassian-Jordanian Nart Shapsug said.
“We will hold silent protests to deliver our message to the world in a civilised manner.”
The conflict left more than 1.5 million either dead or displaced, according to historians, who say thousands were forced from their homeland. Their descendants are now spread across the globe, including Turkey, the United States, Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The Circassian community had protested against the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia because facilities for the Games were built over mass graves of Circassians killed during the ethnic cleansing in 1864.
“We need to tell Russia that it must recognise the genocide which the Russian empire committed against the Circassians. We remember our grandparents who fought for their land, honour and religion,” said writer Mohammad Hamzouq.
“We are also demanding the right of return and compensation for the horses that the Russians slaughtered during and after their vicious campaign to eradicate us from our beloved homeland,” he said softly.
Thousands of Circassians, an ethnic group from the North Caucasus, an area in south-western Russia between the Black and Caspian seas, died of starvation, diseases and mass killings in the course of decades of war between the Russian empire and the Circassians.
According to the Circassian Charity Association, there are more than 8 million Circassians worldwide. About 700,000 live in Russia.
In 2011, Georgia became the first country to recognise the Circassian deaths as genocide, straining Tbilisi’s troubled ties with Moscow.
“Russian President Vladimir Putin has angered the Circassian people because he doesn’t have the courage to acknowledge our historical presence or work out a permanent solution to our grievances,” said Shapsug.
Amman was resettled by Circassians of the Shapsug tribe in 1878, after being resettled by the Ottoman empire. Similar waves of immigration continued until 1906, according to local Circassian historians.
Since then, Circassians have had a major role in the development of Jordan, holding top positions in the Jordanian government, armed forces and police.
“From an initial 3,500 people who found a new homeland in what is today the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Circassian community numbers more than 100,000 today,” said Amjad Jaimoukha, an author and historian.
“The Circassians played a major and positive role in the kingdom’s history, integrating well into the society, but we paid a steep price as our languages and culture suffered immensely. The languages are irrevocably lost and our traditions have largely been discarded,” he lamented.
He said the new generation’s character must be in harmony with the past and in line with the present in order for the Circassian people to keep their identity.
To reward them for their loyalty, Circassians were entrusted in 1921 to be the personal royal guards of King Abdullah I, the great-grandfather of the current monarch. Since then, Circassians have served all four Jordanian kings.
Circassians also hold top posts in Jordan’s feared intelligence service, the army and police. Circassian- Jordanians are often recognised by their light skin, blond hair and green eyes.
“We have to give back to the country and land that gave us a second chance but we also have to be true to ourselves,” said Khalid Shikem.
In 1932, the Circassian Charity Association was established, making it the second oldest charity in Jordan.
“In order to integrate and at the same time have our own place, the Al-Ahli Club, a Circassian sports club, was founded in 1944 in Amman,” Shikem said.
Being one of the elders, Shikem is an authority on Circassian matters.
To preserve Circassian identity and traditions Al-Jeel Al-Jadeed Club opened in 1950 and the Circassian Culture Academy was founded in 2009, to help preserve the Circassian language “before it’s too late”, said Shikem.
“We have lost a lot of our identity, traditions and customs. The Circassian customs and social norms are enshrined in a strict code called Adige Xabze — ‘Circassian Etiquette’ and we are slowly losing it,” he added.
“We cannot lose our homeland and ourselves!” Shikem said.