Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Keeping the ancestors’ tongue alive

Children at Prince Hamzah School perform at one of the celebrations held by the educational facility, the only school that teaches the Circassian language in the Middle East (Photo courtesy of PHS)


AMMAN - The Circassian community will play the host and organiser of the 1st International Circassian Language Conference, to start Wednesday.

Organisers say the first-of-kind gathering has one major mission: To make sure that this language will not die among its children in the Diaspora after generations since the first exodus from the Caucasus, when thousands fled the repression in 19th century Russia.

The effort is coordinated with the Russian Centre for Culture and Science.

“The idea of the conference is to investigate and evaluate the situation of the Circassian language in the Diaspora and the homeland, and arrive at ways and means to stop its extinction,” said Loai Hakouz from the Circassian Charity Society, which organises the event.

Hakouz added that the conference will discuss topics related to Circassian writing and its role in teaching the language, especially since Circassian is more spoken than written in the Circassian communities outside Circassian-speaking countries.

In addition, participants will discuss the role of Circassian families in maintaining and teaching the language to the younger generation, and exploring possibilities of establishing, among others, an international database of the Circassian language with all its varieties.

High-profile representatives from Kabardinia, Bulgaria, Adiga Republic, Turkey and Syria, in addition to Jordan, among others, are taking part in the assembly.

According to unofficial estimates, the number of the Circassian community in Jordan stands around 125,000, all of whom are Muslims, who came to Jordan around 130 years ago.

Atef Yakhoth, a Circassian language specialist and one of the event managers and panellists, said that the Caucasian language is the oldest in the world.

“There are over 50 languages in the Caucasus nowadays,” Yakhoth said.

The specialist said this enormous variation in the Caucasian languages in a limited area is due to the different nations migrating through the Caucasian mountains.

“In addition, the rough mountainous terrain of these countries makes it difficult for its inhabitants to communicate and stay in touch,” he added.

The expert said that the reason for choosing Jordan to host the first conference is because Circassians in the Kingdom are held in high esteem among their people in other parts of the world, and also because Jordan enjoys an excellent reputation internationally.

“The Caucasian language is divided into three groups: South Caucasian (Kartvelian), Northwest Caucasian (Abkhazo-Adyghian) and Northeast Caucasian (Nakho-Daghestanian),” the specialist said.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Abkhazo-Adyghian is spoken in Abkhazia, Georgia and the northwestern Caucasian region of Russia.

In Jordan those who speak, read and write the Circassian language are limited. “Not more than 15 per cent of the young generation,” the specialist said.

Prince Hamzah High School, established in 1974 in Amman, is the only school in the Middle East that teaches the Circassian language.

“Beside teaching the government-mandated curriculum, the school teaches the language from the kindergarten up till the 10th grade,” said the school principal Norma Batt.

Batt has 16 years of experience as an educator working at the ethnic school. She is married to a Circassian.

“All Circassian language teachers are originally from the Caucasus, living in Jordan and married to Circassians,” Batt added.

“Phonetically,” said Yakhoth, who is also a writer for different Circassian newsletters in the Middle East, “the Circassian language is the richest in consonant sounds”. He said it contains almost 70 distinctive consonant sounds.

With a lovely Qafa music (Circassian cultural song) as her mobile ring tone, Dana Bishmaf regrets that she doesn’t speak Circassian.

“I am convinced that not speaking the language is wrong, because the Circassian language is part of our identity,” the 23-year-old sports coach said.

She added that when they were young they used to speak and hear their parents speak Circassian at home, but “getting older, Arabic became easier to communicate with”.

On the other hand, Raad Libzo, 27, said that he was the first child in the family, so teaching him the language was his grandparents’ "pleasure and duty".

“I consider myself the luckiest among my siblings [one sister and two brothers]," he said.

“My parents communicate in Circassian at home. My brothers and sister understand it but don’t speak as fluently.”

Yakhoth, a father of eight, none of whom speak the ancestors’ language, described the task of keeping the language alive across generations as difficult.

"It wasn’t even easy for me personally to preserve the language that I learned from my parents and grandparents.” He added that it is his personal perseverance that enabled him to speak, read and write his mother tongue. Besides, influence of other more active languages is inevitable, he said.

But some young Circassians are aware of their responsibility towards their language and have mastered it.

“I learned to speak the language at home,” said Sari Nashawash, 23, who is pursuing his master’s degree at the University of Jordan. “We are five brothers and four sisters and we all speak Circassian at home.”

And the language grows and interacts with other tongues.

“When speaking the Circassian language nowadays, we tend to use other words, especially Arabised technological terminology like fax, mobile, radio… etc,” Hakouz said.

Agreeing with Hakouz, the specialist said that in the Caucasus, Russian “invaded” Caucasian. “About 30 per cent of the Caucasian dictionary is currently Russian.”

“The Circassian language today faces the competition of Arabic, English and French, the languages needed for work,” Yakhoth said.

Preserving Circassian customs and traditions helps preserve the language, he added.

“Traditions play a great role in protecting the language and preventing its extinction,” the specialist said.

“At social gatherings, we used to challenge each others by playing language games,” he said.

“Children as well as adults are given difficult sentences that are usually hard to pronounce and contesters have to repeat over and over till they perfect them.”

This is how they learn pronunciation, he added.

Participants in the two-day meeting will make sure that this learning process will keep the Circassian language, the incubator of a centuries-old heritage, alive.

Circassians in Jordan

The first wave of Circassian immigrants who were mainly of Shapsugh extraction, arrived in Jordan in 1878 and took refuge in the old ruins of Amman. These were followed by the Kabardians, who settled in Amman, Jerash (1885), Sweileh (1905) and Ruseifa (1909), and the Abzakh and Bzhedugh, who established settlements in Wadi Seer (1880) and Naur (1900).

All in all, about 3,500 people found a new homeland in the area.

The motive behind the Turkish move to settle Circassians in Jordan is still a subject of speculation. G.H. Wightman believes that this was done for strategic reasons and out of religious piety and charity.

The deployment of loyal subjects to turbulent regions of the empire is the most probable motive. Other scholars maintain that they were mobilised mainly for agricultural reasons after the loss of the Balkans, the breadbasket of the Ottoman Empire.

Life in Amman and its neighbouring villages was simple and slow-paced. The Circassians introduced settled agriculture into an area previously used for pasture. They applied their imported agrarian skills to establish large and well-kept farms. They used large-wheeled carts, another novel introduction, for transport and commerce. Though mainly farmers, there were many artisans among them, like carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, silversmiths, saddle makers, leather tanners, dagger and sword craftsmen and carriage makers. A high level of cooperation existed among them and a good standard of living was achieved. Community affairs were managed in the guesthouses of neighbourhood leaders. In addition, defence plans were devised and folk tales were recounted. Circassian was the principal language of communication and exogamous marriages were rare.

Due to their deeply entrenched traditions and the good neighbourly relations they maintained with other people, Circassian society was very stable and secure, despite the threat of raids posed by some bedouin tribes not in alliance with them. In fact, they succeeded in establishing a rudimentary administrative system and a gendarmerie. All these factors made their settlements quite attractive for other people, who started to flock to them in large numbers. Soon these became substantial social and commercial centres.

Source: The Circassians, a handbook by Amjad Jaimoukha, Curzon Press, London, 2002.

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