Translating Cherkess and Discovering a Diaspora

July 28, 2012 • Summer 2012 Blog, Summer Blogs • Views: 922

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.

Circassian Wedding Party (Mandeville/TYG)

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 allison.mandeville@yale.edu.

Tags: , , , ,

One Response to Translating Cherkess and Discovering a Diaspora

  1. Roger says:

    A couple of things that need correction with your article:

    Circassians are not from Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Those three nations are not even native to the Caucasus (their roots are Persian and Turkic), but Circassians (which are made up of Adyghes and Abkhaz) are. They are from the Northwest Caucasus and Crimea which is now a part of Russia and Ukraine.

    Circassians are quite passive when it comes to faith. You’ll find very devout people among them and atheists, pagans, traditionalists, and so on. In fact, the majority of them were forced to convert to Islam by Ottoman Turks as part of the expulsion and genocide campaign they suffered by the Russians. The Turks agreed to take the remaining survivors off Russia’s hands and then brought them to the Ottoman Empire. Needless to say, it was imperative for them to be Muslims in order to survive in this strange new land.

    From, a Circassian in Colorado, USA.