Accepting Diaspora: From The Caucasus to Australia
I learned about it the summer after I turned 16. The fan above was blowing hot air onto my head. Miscellaneous birds made their Australiana noises outside. The room was taking on that depressing blue tint that comes right before night fully settles in. The laptop screen was brighter in the dark, and the blank space under GOOGLE was waiting for me to type something in.
What happened to the Circassians?
I realised I had never used or even heard the c-word in English except for when it slipped from Mum’s lips when she, somewhat shyly, would explain where we came from to anyone who asked about her strange accent.
“Do you know the… ah… Circassians? Group of people that lived in the Caucasus. In Russia.”
When I asked, Dad said that my great-grandfathers travelled to Jordan on foot after the genocide. He said the older one carried the younger one on his shoulders, that the sun burned their skin and rendered them parched. The recount seems like a kind of twisted fairytale to me to this day – even as I type this, I’m not sure if it was a tidbit I made up, or that my father made up from his own father.
Before we touch down at Queen Alia Airport in Jordan, I like to imagine two dots representing the figures of my grandfathers in the plains that appear before Amman rapidly comes into view. How it would feel to, for example, walk from Sydney to Amman instead of fly, just to create a tangible link to my ancestral history that doesn’t feel like folklore or hearsay.
When we land, we make the yearly pilgrimage to the fated line for Jordanian passport holders. We stand out in the line with our western features – hardly enough to justify the double takes people give us. There, I suddenly feel an urge to speak back in Arabic to Mum, and I’m not sure if it’s to assume a new identity that is inherently fascinating to the other Jordanians in the line (wow, a white person speaking fluent Arabic!) or to avoid speaking English – a language that signifies how we supposedly don’t belong in the line.
Airport officers always seem to have unkind eyes unless they’re young. They slowly slide my passport towards themselves, eyebrows twitching. They use my name with Arabic pronunciation, and hesitantly greet me back into the country, somewhat surprised when I reply in the same language.
We go through the processes that lead us to the arrivals zone. Mum thanks a grinning officer (“Welcome to Amman,” he says, in accented English) in Arabic, angrily cursing him out under her breath – even though she hates the country, she hates the idea of being treated like a tourist in it even more.
The time I’ve spent in Jordan, and the recent maturing that I’ve done, reveal to me that it’s not only my Mum and I who seem to operate on this kind of cognitive dissonance. It’s also the entirety of the Circassian community in Jordan. Circassians tend to distinguish themselves from the large Arab population in Jordan, yet, can also be the most patriotic towards the country.
We have our own festivals and halls where we congregate and drink tea and eat haliva; neighbourhoods where we like to live; small restaurants and doctor’s offices which are known to be run by Circassians and therefore trusted by Circassians. Tattoos of the Circassian flag, necklaces, wall decor, stickers that we like to put on the backs of our cars. Circassian friends, Circassian families, Circassian spouses, Circassian recitals, Circassian schools.
Despite our cliquish tendencies, we remain favoured by the Jordanian monarchy, a fleet of Circassian men — in traditional garb, no less — working directly with and protecting the King. The same Circassian elders who denounce the idea of their grandchildren marrying Arabs refuse to leave their Jordan, calling it their one and only home.
It’s easy to dismiss these behaviours as plain racism (which it very well may be, considering that Circassians had special names for Arabs – one of which directly translates to the shoeless, sourcing from when Circassians first encountered Bedouin tribes). But I believe these are also the complex symptoms of mass diaspora – in particular, the refusal of the fact that we have no real home and no real culture: what we have is Jordan and a hybrid of multiple Arab cultures with accents of assorted Circassian foods, music and dance.
At Circassian weddings, couples rarely wear Circassian garb. We do our traditional dances right before we end the night with popular Arabic songs. Next to haliva and the ships and pasta on the buffet table, there masses of Arab staple foods, spreads of hummus and mansaf and magloubeh. More often than not, the bride or the groom is Arab, trailed with gossip and unspoken tension. I can’t help but linger on the Circassian grandparents, wearing their papakhas, hands resting on walking sticks, their faces expressionless. They’re still amongst the conversing and dancing bodies, despite the pumping Arabic tunes and the colourful flashing lights. What are they thinking?
Generally, people my age do not speak Circassian. Our parents understand it, and our grandparents speak it. When I ask my parents why they never taught us how to speak it, they say their parents didn’t teach them. They sigh and return to their favourite conclusion on Circassians: that we’re masakeen – pathetic or poor. In those moments, the collective self-importance that veils our self-pity and desperation to keep Circassian-ness is destroyed.
Mum likes to joke that my less favourable traits come from my Bedouin great grandmother, but then maintains, proudly, that I’m 99 percent Circassian. I like to see my DNA as the beginnings of a potential acceptance of the future. Maybe, Circassians will soon cease to exist. Maybe not. Maybe, my children won’t marry Circassians or even care about their heritage.
I’ve done my mourning and my research. I’ve learned random facts about how my ancestors used to play games involving bread hanging from the ceiling. I’ve discovered strange marriage customs: that waist belts, for women had to be the same length as the circumference of the head. I’ve watched shaky 380p footage of Circassian dances, of closeups of girls with faces that somehow remind me of mine, made identical and doll-like in their heavy stage makeup and their dresses.
I’ve dedicated most of my art practice on my life-long farewell – the harrowing historical journals I’ve read of washed up Circassian bodies and infants on beach shores will taint my brain for a long time. I hope that eventually, I can stomach the idea of the loss of Circassianism, since it has been lost for a long time. ‘Till then, I’ll absorb sterile Circassian information from history books, reading them like whimsical fairytales, far-fetched and with debatable validity.
As far as I’m concerned, there is no piece of information, no country, no culture that I feel that I belong to. When people ask where I’m from, I feel a bit lost. Depending on the day, I’ll just say I’m Australian. Given the national and cultural vacuity that makes Australia, I feel that fits my cultural dilemma very well.
Cover art by the author