Thursday, November 22, 2007

Chechnya - part of my heart lies within you

We grew up with words such as "Charkas", "Chibsi basta", "Adiga" and Kafkasia. My grandmother is Circassian and as children we were constantly reminded of our Circassian roots with regular trips to visit my ninety year old grandfather in "Marj al Sultan" an area heavily populated by "Charakess" (Circassians). The Charkass are a strange people with an even stranger history mired with tragedy, as so many in our region do. I understand that in Jordan they form a vital part of the population and are particularly fine soldiers and protectors for the King of Jordan.

The Circassians are a people who inhabited the Caucasus mountains between Turkey and modern day Russia and were renowned horsemen, vigorous and noted for their long lives and sharp wits. They are also fiercely devoted to Islam and that area, along with most of central Asia, had it's cultural and political focus south towards Baghdad and the Middle East for a long time until the rise and expansion of Czarist Russia. It was the Czar's decision to expel whole Circassian communities which led my great, great grandfather to travel through Turkey with his sister. On the way, they were way-laid by bandits and his sister was kidnapped, lost forever somewhere in the north of Syria. His search for her was futile, so he continued on until reaching Damascus, where he settled, married and became a farmer. This was the late 19th century and this is how my grandmother told me about our past. A past mired with tragedy, politics and loss. The Circassians have never forgotten their roots and whilst they are now diluting in the melting pot of Syrian society, there is still a strong sense of identity amongst them. At the risk of stereotyping them, the men are not particularly religious however it is the women who instill Islam in their children from a young age. Circassian culture is deeply rooted in honour and tradition, their dances are vibrant and beautiful with the men taking pride in their legendary dance involving squatting and kicking alternately between both legs (requires thighs of steel!). The women dance gracefully and beautifully, breathtaking for me to see any time. The high morality of the Circassians is almost legendary in history, as is the beauty of the women.

Why am I rattling on about the Circassians now? Why, since I have hardly ever blogged about what is happening in Chechnya? It is I assure you not due to indifference and I follow the news there keenly. However, when I read articles like this, I feel enraged for that beautiful land, forgotten by Muslims in the Middle East, abandoned to the Russians for political pragmatism. Yet almost two hundred years of ethnic cleansing, war and cultural assimilation have made the Kafkas intensely attached to their faith and have had no effect on them.

The Guardian has recently published an article about the struggle for the "soul" of Chechnya. Apparently there too, there is an attempt to subvert Islamic beliefs through the supposedly "safe" channel of Sufism. Spearheading this effort is the noble President of Chechnya, the strongman selected by Russia (pictured above) Ramzan Kadyrov. A man who keeps a pet tiger and uses blowtorches on members of the political opposition just for kicks. A man whose father also worked for the Russians and was assassinated. Shamil Basayev, the legendary 19th century leader who had resisted the Russian invasion fiercely was also a Sufist, but this new attempt is nothing but an attempt to create an institutional, docile Islam that is subservient to the government.

The West forgets Chechnya, the Arabs forget it too. We only remember what is happening when the "militants" take over a theatre, or a school. The heavy handed brutality of the Russians is ignored, instead it is the militants who are condemned, yet the audacity of these actions used to strike a chord within me. The theatre seige was led by a charismatic, handsome young man who in any other country would have been more concerned with his studies or with his future but instead had devoted himself to something higher than selfish materialism or hollow nationalism. More than half the group in that standoff were women, with only their eyes showing. These "Black Widows" were the wives and daughters of Chechen men who had been killed by the Russian security services. I remembered seeing a photo of one of them slumped backwards, dead, at the end of the seige, devoted to her bloody cause to the very end.

I constrasted that with another image I had seen of one, her beautiful eyes the only thing visible. Seductive, deadly and sensual. She couldn't have been more than twenty years older. A chechen "Sana Mheidly" or Leila Khaled. The thought of her lying dead, lifeless, touched me with a sadness that I still remember. Who was she? What was her name? What was she like? Did she laugh much in better times? Did she even know better times? I guess the "masculine protectiveness" within me kicked in, seeing a female lying dead in that carnage, someone whom I had this historical, religious and cultural connection to. Yet why was she different from any of her male comrades? I have no right to feel that way for her. I imagine that was how she would have wanted to be remembered, an equal of her peers, martyred for her cause in her final Golgotha which was ignored by the world. Equality of the genders to the extreme.

The school seige too, triggered headlines, inwardly I prayed that all would go well, but also that the men would escape and no bloodshed would occur. Sadly, this did not happen. Instead, there was a bloody and ridiculous attempt to break the standoff. The newspapers were filled with lurid details of the deaths of children and civilians, as well as the death of most of the group in a desperate last ditch struggle. I heard sadly of the capture of a few of those men, realising that a fate worse than death awaited them now. We have never heard of these again and probably never will.

I don't know why I write of these things, I guess it is because a part of me will always be Circassian. Not many teenagers would have grown up hearing the name Dodayev, or have known that his death was a sad day for all Charkass. The world might have forgotten these people, but Islam and their own very real tenacity have given them the other worldly confidence of a people who have turned their backs to the world and those in it. It's only logical that their enemies would now try to undermine and subvert those beliefs. This is my tribute to them and their struggle.


Yazan said...

The story of the Circassians is a very intriguing one, for someone who is obsessed about the caucasus like me... [i am planning to spend a month in azerbaijan and georgia next march]:)

But I thought that many circassians came here as "sabaya" of the Ottoman sultans, because circassian women were known for their beauty.

Maysaloon said...

That is true to some extent, but large scale migration and most of the Circassians we meet today in fact were forced to migrate to the region by the Russians. Allegedly some of them were shipped off by boat to Turkey rather than overland and in many cases, the boats were overloaded and sank, meaning many also drowned on the way. Harsh times.

Rabi Tawil (AKA Abu Kareem) said...

You are absolutely right, the suffering of the people of the Caucasus at the hands of the Russians over the past 200 years is horrible and barely gets mentioned. Your family’s story reminds me of that of Ulfat Idlibi, the famous Damascene novelist whose maternal ancestry is Daghestani and migrated to Syria in 1825. Her novel from 1991, “Grandfather’s Tale” is a great story of the links between the Caucasus and the Middle East. It also gives you and idea of the pivotal geography of Damascus as the meeting point for the pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims from around the world. Many of those pilgrims would then set roots in Damascus and this I think accounts for some of Damascus’ wonderful mix of people. If you have not already done so, I recommend you read this book. An English translation published by Quartet books is available.

Maysaloon said...

Walaw ya Abu Kareem, why would I want an English translation? Thanks for the tip, I'd love to read that book.

Rabi Tawil (AKA Abu Kareem) said...

Forgive me ya Wassim, the English bit is meant for those who cannot read Arabic... I seek to educate and enlighten all who read this... :)

Maysaloon said...

Lak meet Mar7aba Abu Kareem. I know, I was just pulling your leg. :)

Fatemeh said...

The president of Chechnya recently called for all women to wear headscarves. Though his decree wasn't binding or official, many businesses and public places have made it official for him, putting up signs that forbid women without headscarves from entering.
I posted a link on my site.

Anonymous said...

What we see in Caucasus is such a silent conspiracy between the Russians and the rest of the world's major powers, the whole world turns a blind eye on what happens to these people , leaving them isolated and alone in the face of a great power trying to control their land and trying to deliver a message to the world that this land belongs to Russia.

The current reality is miserable, Georgians steal the heritage and culture and even our dances everyday, Russians Extend an invitation to the world to attend the Olympics in Sochi 2014 over the remains of thousands of Circassians. Millions of Circassians in the diaspora live happy and satisfied with the rights of citizenship in the countries which they live, dance qafa on painful memories of the past.

Let God be with this land.