“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she.
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
- Excerpt from 'The New Colossus' (1883), by Emma Lazarus (American poet, 1849-1887)
As a tourist I was often reminded by my guidebooks about the Christian holy sites in Jordan: there is the river where Jesus was baptised; or the hill where God showed Moses the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’. Jordan itself formed part of the Biblical Promised Land. But in modern times, Jordan seemed more like the place where they banished those forsaken by God. In our own time, we have heard about the plights of the Syrians and Iraqis, who make up for at least 30% of Jordan’s population today.
By the turn of the 20th century it was the Promised Land of yet another people: the Armenians who faced a genocide went on their ‘death march’ to here, and perhaps the least remembered were the North Caucasians who were facing a genocide a thousand miles away. Back then the poor arable land in today’s southern Syria and northern Jordan was the least populated areas within the country, making it an ideal place for the Ottomans to implant the unwanted people who would help to develop this stretch of empire backwater.
I had taken the bus to Zarqa, 15 miles northeast of the capital Amman. The uninspiring industrial town is today slowly becoming part of the sprawling capital. There is not much that catches the eye here. The only local inhabitant who had ever made it to international spotlight was reportedly a quiet but uncompromising young man here. Later in his life, this high school dropout, and later petty criminal would form a militant group called Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. This would gradually evolve into the ISIS as we know it.
But I didn’t come here to follow the story of a world renowned terrorist. I have come to find a people who are now part of Jordan’s fascinating multi-ethnic population, a people whose homeland in the snowy mountains I have visited – but yet I would never thought about meeting again in the semi-desert towns of Jordan.
If Jordan’s creation was one unexpected in modern history, Amman’s destiny to be a capital seemed to have mirrored that. When Jordan was created in 1921, Amman was merely a tiny semi-desert town. Much of early modern Amman was shaped by a people who were not the local Arabs, but a pale-skinned European looking people from afar. It was so remote then that they were credited for reintroducing the wheels back to Jordan, and they were involved in the building of the Hejaz Railway, a modern wonder which stretched across 1,300 km of desert landscape between Damascus and Medina.
Between the 1860s and the 1900s, the Circassians were expelled en masse in the Caucasus by the invading Imperial Russian army. Shores on the Black Sea were once littered with the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Circassians, either dying or dead from drowning, hunger, disease or exhaustion. It was to be the first modern genocide on European soil. Those lucky enough to be alive were sold as slaves or sold into the harem. Today there are more Circassians living outside of the historical Circassia itself. Adnan is one of them.
Adnan is an amateur archivist and museum curator. He had warmly invited me to his home which he had essentially transformed into a lovely small museum, celebrating the rich culture of the Circassian people.
He was once suggested to put his collection into a ‘proper’ museum, which he described would be like ‘having your son being taken away’. But to me the museum's attraction was not in the extensive archive nor the relics: it was Adnan himself.
In the midst of the Cold War, smuggling materials relating to Circassian culture back home was becoming increasingly difficult. In the 70s, Circassians in Jordan were travelling to their homeland to acquire books relating to Circassia. Adnan described how they would wrapped up Circassian books around their waists and under their clothes in order to smuggle them through the security of the airports. These books were banned in their Circassian homeland, then in the Soviet Union. So the printers had to devise a way to fool the system: the books’ front page would always be decorated with the portrait of Lenin in order to disguise them as communist reading materials.
But the trouble only came when the books reached Jordan and being distributed amongst Circassian schools in Amman. Someone soon reported that there had been communist books being circulated in a school, and this worried the Jordanian government which was concerned about the spread of Communism at home.
With the tip-off from a Circassian serving in the Jordanian police, Adnan and his counterparts smuggled into the school one night, ripping off the portraits of Lenin on every Circassian book and burnt them on site. The next morning, when the secret police visited the school and apparently finding no evidence of any communism materials being circulated left them in peace.
When the USSR collapsed in the 1990s and a number of Caucasian states declared independence, there was a teeming euphoria in the Caucasus. The same sense of excitement was felt by those abroad but still see the Caucasus as their ancestral homeland. But they must deal with the agony first: brutal wars were breaking out throughout the Caucasus. Some went to fight in the homeland they had never seen.
But he admitted that there are huge differences between the Circassians residing in different parts of the world. He complained that the Circassians back in Circassia drinks too much; and after years of Soviet occupation they knew little about their own history and culture. It doesn’t only end there: the Circassians’ reputation of loyalty and martial ability meant they were often conscripted into the armies of the different countries they now called home. Just as many Circassians in Jordan are now recruited into the Jordanian army, the Israeli Circassians had joined the Israeli armed forces too. Brothers at times found themselves fighting on the opposite side of the trench. Such is perhaps the biggest tragedy befell on an exiled people.
On the way out, Adnan pointed at the windows and front door of his house, all thoroughly decorated with the colourful Circassian flag. He once joked with the Circassian representatives, ‘Why didn’t we design a simpler flag? It’s a pain to maintain them at my home!’ With twelve stars representing the twelve Circassian tribes and three arrows representing peace, his family has to painstakingly clean each detail of the window frames every time.
I stayed silent, perhaps too ashamed to admit that it was one of my countrymen, a British diplomat named David Uruqart who had a hand in the designing. After all, where do you begin when it comes to historical British wrongdoings in the Middle East?
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I like to travel, and I like to find out about things so I have created this blog to share what I saw on my journeys.
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