by Allie Mandeville
Throughout my first week in Jordan, one Arabic word in particular befuddled me repeatedly. My neighborhood, my host family, the social club near our apartment, my host siblings’ school – all of these, my host mom explained over and over again, were “Cherkess.” “Cherkess,” she told me in Arabic, and then, embedded in a tentative English sentence, “Cherkess” once more. I checked my dictionary, the renowned Hans Wehr, but remained stumped, mainly due to the fact that there is no letter in the Arabic alphabet that exactly expresses the “ch” sound.
Finally, after a week of bewilderment, a family friend remembered the precious English translation. “Cherkess,” in fact, means Circassian. (I have also since learned that the term “Cherkess” may be used in English as well.)
To be honest, this didn’t clarify the situation very much at first. Over the last few weeks, however, between conversations with my host mom and assorted research, I have been able to piece together an understanding of the Circassian community, both in Jordan and throughout the region.
The Circassians are an ethnic group whose origins lie in the Caucasus. The majority of the Circassian community is Muslim and was driven out of the Caucasus by Russian cavalry groups in the mid to late 1800s. They scattered southward, forming communities in several Middle Eastern countries, including modern day Lebanon, Israel, Syria, and, as I have witnessed firsthand, Jordan. In fact, the Circassians were among the first people to settle in Amman after several centuries of the city’s abandonment, and for a time shared the area only with the semi-nomadic Bedouins who have since moved further out from the city’s expanding urban sprawl.
Today in Amman, the Cherkess maintain two very active social clubs, complete with cultural dance groups, swimming pools, televised soccer matches, sports teams, summer camps, and cafes. From what I have seen, the community remains committed to maintaining their culture, despite their longstanding condition of diaspora. My host siblings attend a Circassian school where they study the language and culture of their ancestors, and at this point they speak more Circassian than my host mom does.
Another interesting phenomenon amongst Circassian communities is their typical proximity to the monarchy and military in any country in which they settle. In Jordan, for example, the king’s personal guard is comprised of Circassians, and Circassian leaders have been named honorary princes. (On several occasions, my host mom has shown me YouTube videos of Prince Ali performing traditional Circassian dances.) In Israel, Circassians participate actively in the Israeli security forces, and in Syria, the continuing crackdown by the Assad regime has left many Circassians scrambling to determine where they should place their loyalties after a long history of loyalty to the military establishment.
As these sorts of questions and tensions become increasingly common in the wake of the Arab Spring, the issue of the Circassian diaspora is certainly one to keep an eye on. A recent conversation with my host mom revealed that many Circassians are leaving the Middle East, resettling in villages and small cities in southern Russia, where other Circassians have set up programs to assist in the move and adjustment. While I don’t yet know what path my host family will choose, I can say with certainty that they are not the only Circassians struggling to find their place in a changing Middle East.
Allie Mandeville ’15 is in Jonathan Edwards College. This summer, she is blogging from Amman, Jordan. Contact her at email@example.com.