The Return to Circassia

A diaspora exiled from what is now Russia shows that when a people are forcibly displaced, the lure of the homeland endures across distance and time

The Return to Circassia
Members of the Federation of Caucasian Associations gather in Turkey in 2023 to mark the anniversary of the 1864 forced exile of Circassians from Russia. (Esra Hacioglu Karakaya/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Setting foot in a land you have learned about only from folk dances and grandparents’ tales can be intense. “It felt like I was there before,’’ Fadi Ishaqat remembers. “Like I’ve seen this place when I was a child, but when? Maybe in my imagination, or in my subconscious?”

As a Jordanian Circassian, Ishaqat had always longed to visit his ancestral land in what is now Russia. When the visit finally happened, it exceeded the entirety of the expectations he had gathered through the years. The transcendence he felt was proof that the Circassian in him was still intact even after the community’s 160 years of exile, that the “diaspora did not lose the ties to their land, that the spirit did not separate from the body.”

Ishaqat is separated by five generations from the Circassian genocide of the 19th century, when the Russian Empire occupied the community’s ancestral homeland, located in the strategic North Caucasus. The Russians killed or expelled at least three-fourths of the Circassian population, leading to around 1 million deaths. In 1864, survivors were expelled to the Ottoman Empire, initially to the Balkans and later to the Levant as a strategic move to safeguard the Hejaz railway.

Upon arriving, the story goes, the Circassians removed their shoes and kissed the ground — it was a sacred land tied to their faith in the Prophet Muhammad, for which they had suffered persecution. After all, the oppression they faced from the Russian Empire was, in part, a consequence of their conversion from Christianity. Other reasons included the empire’s expansionary vision and desire to control the northeastern Black Sea.

Fadi Ishaqat first experienced his ancestral land as a university student visiting from Jordan in 1999 but then decided to continue living there as an official “returnee.” He managed to obtain Russian citizenship and has been residing in Maykop for the past 24 years. As the capital city of the Adygea Republic, Maykop sits in one of the three self-governed republics in Russia that form historic Circassia. The two others are Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia.

Ishaqat sees himself as a link between the Circassian diaspora and those living in their ancestral land. He believes that “returning to the motherland is the only solution to keep Circassians alive,” and so he dedicates most of his time to persuading Circassians abroad to make the move. He realizes that it’s not an easy decision, to uproot one’s life and move to a completely new place where the language and people are unfamiliar. But it’s a risk, even a sacrifice, worth making for the survival of a group that runs the risk of erasure through dispersal and assimilation.

Among the 5 to 7 million Circassians living in the diaspora (there are large discrepancies in the estimates, but this figure is accepted by repatriation organizations), primarily in Turkey, Syria and Jordan, some, like Ishaqat, are ready to conjure the deep connection to the motherland no matter the cost. Others are more cautious and pragmatic in their pursuit; they visit regularly and contemplate returning but are held back by their established lives in their places of birth or are too wary of the political climate in Russia.

As for the Syrian Circassians, like any other Syrians, they didn’t really have much choice. They were bound to leave for wherever they could. For them, it was Russia. In an ironic twist of fate, they had to leave the country that was once considered a haven in order to return to a land their ancestors were violently expelled from.

On a crisp September night, Tambi Shafagoj sits in the backyard of the Circassian Charity Organization in Amman, the capital of Jordan, savoring a cup of tea. Nearby, the vibrant beats of Circassian music echo as a dance troupe rehearses, their rhythmic stomps filling the air with lively energy.

Shafagoj’s white skin and round face indicate that he probably isn’t Arab, but his fluent Jordanian accent and the ease with which he puffs on his hookah suggest otherwise.

“Cultural integration is great: You take the good from them, they take the good from you,” he explains. “But in our case, integration could lead to assimilation and eventually extinction, just like what happened to the Circassians in Egypt.”

Circassians in Jordan managed to build a reputable status over the years. Not only did they assist in urbanizing the country and establishing modern cities, primarily Amman, but they have also played an integral role in guarding the monarchy. In the 1920s, they safeguarded Jordan’s first monarch, King Abdullah, and today, while their role is largely ceremonial, their presence remains evident. Bodyguards wearing traditional Circassian dress have become a hallmark of Jordan’s official ceremonies.

“Jordan is also my country, I cannot say otherwise,” Shafagoj elaborates when asked about what the country means to him. “But it’s as if you have a mother and a grandma. Jordan is my mother, and the Caucasus is my grandma. I, as a person, lean more towards what’s older and more historic.”

Shafagoj, who is an active member of his community and the vice president of the Circassian club in Amman, hopes to return to his ancestral land but is waiting for the right time and means. If and when he returns, he would choose to settle in Kabardino-Balkaria, where his ancestors lived.

After consistently referring to the Caucasus as his home, Shafagoj’s slips of the tongue tell a more complex story. If he moves there, he says, he wouldn’t feel at home: “My people, my family are all here in Jordan. It’s not easy to leave everything and start a new life.” He catches his contradiction with an unapologetic smile. At its core, it’s really not a contradiction so much as a struggle of belonging to two places at once and to none at all.

Until his hoped-for return, Shafagoj has managed to make his visits to the Caucasus more regular and efficient. In 2018, he applied for Abkhazian citizenship, which allowed him to move more freely. Abkhazia is a partially recognized state in the Southern Caucasus, neighboring Russia and Georgia. Although the Abkhaz people are a different ethnic group from Circassians, citizenship has been extended to those of Circassian descent.

Shafagoj is eligible to apply for the Voluntary Resettlement Program offered by the Russian government but refuses to do so. The program, which Ishaqat has applied for and benefited from, assists the return of people who have historical and ethnocultural links to the country and its population. Since its establishment in 2006, about 900,000 people — some of whom are Circassians — have been able to move back to their historic homelands.

Shafagoj rejects the program because of its failure to acknowledge the genocide or provide any competitive advantage to Circassians. To him, Russia remains an occupier even after 160 years, which means that acquiring Russian citizenship without receiving official reparations is considered normalization with the oppressor and a setback for the Circassian cause.

“What is special about the Circassian people is that they don’t forget,” Shafagoj says. “It is impossible for them to forget, no matter where they are. They might act forgetful, but they don’t forget.”

Although Ishaqat agrees that Russia is an occupier, he believes that fighting for the Circassian cause needs to come from within. Otherwise, Circassians will cease to exist. An overseas opposition will not suffice, but how much can one achieve from inside Russia without risking one’s life?

Yousef Bardouka, a 27-year-old Jordanian Circassian, wishes to visit his native homeland but does not want to risk his safety. As a journalist working for an independent publication, he believes visiting Russia wouldn’t be the smartest decision.

Bardouka grew up in Jordan like any typical Circassian. He attended a Circassian school for 14 years, where he learned the language, enrolled in a dance troupe and was introduced to Khabze — the ancient Circassian moral code. As he grew older, however, he sought interest in understanding his ethnicity and engaging with his kin on a deeper level beyond folklore and culture. That’s when he decided to focus his journalistic work on the Caucasus, hoping to raise awareness of the Circassian struggle and the group’s painful history.

“The least we can do is tell others about what happened to our ancestors,” Bardouka elaborates. “The ethnic cleansing of our ancestors is what shaped us into who we are today.”

While Jordan was too far from the scene, Russia was too close. Freedom of the press was never Russia’s priority, but the situation worsened after the war on Ukraine began. In 2023, Russia ranked 164th among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index; during the past 23 years, 43 journalists and media workers have been killed in the country.

Eventually, Bardouka managed to find an alternative middle-ground solution: Georgia. He now works with OC Media, an independent news platform that covers news from the North and South Caucasus regions. With OC Media, he is physically much closer to his native homeland but far enough to stay true to his journalistic ethic and critical voice without risking his life.

While Circassians returning from Jordan generally have some flexibility in deciding whether to return, Syrian Circassians didn’t really have the luxury of choice. When they had to flee war, a distant memory of an ancestral land seemed to offer a dual solution — one that addressed an immediate crisis and another that put an end to a historic displacement that had lasted for far too long.

From their end, local Circassians in Russia coordinated with the state to offer assistance to those willing to make the move. They mobilized themselves and managed to bring over 3,000 people. Among them was Deeb Katt.

Almost a year after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Katt found himself landing in Adygea, his ancestral homeland. Katt, who is now 76, started to think of the possibility of returning early on, prior to the rising tensions. It was not because of his longing for Circassia as much as his disillusionment with Syria. After he spent 12 years in prison for being an opponent of the regime, it became clear to him that Syria was no longer a safe option for him or his family. Being a dissident defined Katt much more than being a Circassian, but he reached a point where he couldn’t afford to continue the fight for freedom. So when his fellow Circassians in the motherland extended a hand, he grasped it.

Relocating to Russia meant that Katt had to settle in a country that avidly supported a regime he opposed. Yet it was also the land of his ancestors, to which he felt he had a full right to return. In any case, living there wasn’t going to sway his political views.

“Even after I moved, I remained steadfast in my opposition,” he says. “I even publicly declared that it is in Russia’s best interest to stand with the Syrian people.”

During the Circassian genocide, Katt’s ancestors were expelled from Adygea to Bulgaria, where his grandfather was born. They were then transferred to Syria to settle in Beer Ajam, a Circassian village in the Golan Heights. In 1967, he and his family experienced displacement yet again after Israel occupied their village. Along with many Circassians, they left for Damascus. Katt, however, kept his ties to the village and eventually managed to go back several years later.

Katt, who speaks Circassian fluently, was not destined for a smooth start. His first month in Adygea was lost in translation. With only 20% of the republic’s population being Circassian, the dominant language is Russian. When he couldn’t find his way around, it took him 15 minutes to find someone who could understand him. Upon visiting Kabardino-Balkaria, however, where Circassians constitute almost 50% of the population, it was much easier to communicate with people, so he decided to settle there instead.

In 2015, he co-founded the Circassian Repatriation Organization to assist the return of the diaspora. Ten years ago, the process for Syrians was much easier, he explains. Today there are 800 Syrian families who wish to return but are unable to. It really depends on the governor and his priorities.

The fact that several families from Katt’s village in Syria have moved with him and now live nearby has made adapting to the place much easier. After all, regardless of how ancient and ancestral the place is, it remains new to Deeb and his wife. “My heart is in Syria,” he says. “My people are there. I am a foreigner here. But we are getting used to it.”

Katt’s longing for his birth town is also eased by the tiny parts of Syria the community has managed to carry with it, even if only in sentiment. Whenever his cousin, for example, visits Nalchik, the capital, he says, “I’m going to al-Sham (Damascus).” He also refers to his village as “Beer Ajam.”

Katt’s pride in being Circassian is easy to discern. On WhatsApp, he uses Circassian flag emojis and has chosen his family’s emblem as his display picture. He wears Circassian brooches and often shares pictures of historical Circassian documents and artifacts on Facebook.

However, his pride and will to return have not made him blind to the dangers of ethnonationalism, which he believes, if not controlled, could lead to racism and fanaticism. What drives Katt to defend the Circassians and their return is not a nationalistic urge, he says, but his strong belief that it is simply their right. It is more about righting a wrong that was done in the past than it is about immortalizing a group.

This thinking is not uncommon among nationalistic Circassians who are keen on preserving Circassian blood and genes, explains Katt. It is expected, for example, that Circassians marry from within the group. When his relative married a non-Circassian, her parents cut ties with her, which makes no sense to him. “All peoples are destined to mix with one another,” he argues. “Intermarriage is not the problem; the problem arises when a dominant group exterminates another or forces it to assimilate.” When Katt’s daughter decided to marry an Arab, he did not have a problem.

The notion of return works in peculiar ways. One would think it dilutes as it trickles down to younger generations, but it doesn’t always work this way. Ishaqat and Shafagoj both found themselves entertaining the idea much more than their parents did. And even among the same generation, the urge differs. The two men displayed much more affection towards the possibility than their siblings. It’s a matter of personality and interest, Shafagoj says.

The way Katt sees it, the desire for return ebbs and flows depending on many factors including the political and economic situation of the hosting country. It was only when Syria ceased to be a safe place that the idea of return intensified. Media and technology also played a huge role. Before the 1960s, Katt does not remember the idea of return being a central issue within the Circassian community. It was only afterward that it became a possibility, when Soviet-Arab ties deepened and when technology allowed for better communication between the diaspora and the local population. And while ease of travel and social media acted as crucial catalysts, immigration policies and repatriation programs allowed people to think of return as a practical step rather than an illusion.

​​No matter which paths different Circassians choose or are forced to take, what remains certain is that they prove yet again, like many before them, that when a people are forcibly displaced, the notion of return endures despite the passage of time and the widening of distances. The intensity and manifestation fluctuate from one generation to the next, but its shadow remains ever-present, whether in the form of physical return or a passing thought in a folktale’s interlude. And when they do return, if they ever do, they may not feel at home right away, but they manage to construct one anyway. After all, years of dispossession teach a thing or two about what a home really means, how to build one and, most importantly, how to rebuild it when it’s lost.

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