On Circassian Language and Culture
Nadia Biesch'a and Amjad Jaimoukha


  It is the purpose of this document to outline the difficulties and pressures that are affecting Circassian language and culture globally, with special emphasis on the situation in Jordan. Also some suggestions and guidelines to preserve them are proposed .

  The Circassian nation has not really recovered from the crippling blows that it has suffered at the hands of the Russians. The long Russo-Circassian war, the occupation and mass expulsion, and the subsequent relocation and Russification have taken a heavy toll on all aspects of Circassian life. Language and culture have been under great pressure and the results of their erosion are now being fully unfolded.

  Prior to the start of the Russian incursions into the North Caucasus, the Circassians, together with the Abaza, Abkhaz  and Ubykh, made up the largest national group in the Caucasus. It is noteworthy that it was the Abkhaz Parliament after the War of Liberation of 1991-1992 that gave an unequivocal statement of the responsibility of Russia  with regard to  the decimation  of the North Caucasian Nations in general. It is most essential that the Circassians understand the roots of the problems that are besetting them.

  In this regard it is also crucial to realize that Circassian language and culture are under tremendous pressure even in the Caucasus, though this has eased somewhat after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Due to inertia and the unwillingness of the Circassian political leaders to jeopardize their positions or to antagonize the Russians, no serious work has been undertaken since 1991 to restore native language and culture to pre-eminence. The following may serve as a telling anecdote. At a  recent celebration in Nalchik of the Day of Mourning on 21st of May, which commemorates the destruction and the mass expulsion of the Circassians, government officials gave their speeches in Russian! One of those attending the solemn anniversary voiced his protest at the use of the Russian language, and asked that Circassian be used instead. He was rudely ordered by a security officer sent by the President of the Republic to shut his face. The preservation of language and culture must be accompanied by a political will to legislate the necessary laws and to see them carried through. The Circassian psyche in the Caucasus has been distorted by 75 years of communist ideology that relegated native culture to a secondary status. Russian culture, in the guise of  Soviet culture, had been reigning supreme. Also, the Circassians in the Caucasus do not have at present the facilities, infrastructure, nor the know-how to effect a cultural renaissance. The legacies of Russian imperialism and Soviet stagnation have to be obliterated, and new thinking introduced.

  The Circassians in the diaspora, having been divorced from their original culture for more than a century, have undergone tremendous linguistic and cultural assimilation in their adoptive societies. They look upon the Caucasus for cultural guidance and sustenance. But no tangible assistance has been forthcoming due to the grave difficulties, outlined above, which are facing the Mother Culture. It is therefore incumbent upon them to play a more active role in preserving their heritage. Ultimately cultural revival can only be effected through hard work and co-operation between all the Circassian communities. Circassians everywhere must start to talk to one another in a serious manner. This has become easier than ever before, thanks to the  INTERNET. The help of the International Community is also very crucial. However, the problem must be clearly stated so that those who want to contribute may be well informed to make their own judgements. Circassian Culture should be presented to them coherently and rationally. They must be convinced that it has a lot to offer to Human Culture. The task is immense. This site is a most humble contribution towards this aim.

  In order to focus attention on the task at hand and try to find effective solutions, the problems that stand in the way of language and culture preservation must be clearly and consensually stated. In fact a prior step would be the admittance of the existence of difficulties. Since statistics indicate that only a tiny proportion of  Circassian youth in Jordan are adequately familiar with their mother tongue (~ 17%), and since Circassian has to a large extent ceased  to be the language of communication among Circassians, it is safe to assume that, unless drastic measures are taken, it would become practically extinct in Jordan within the next 20 years.

  The Circassian organizations and clubs have grappled  with this problem for many years, but, despite many valiant, and mainly individual, efforts, have largely been unable to stem the tide of assimilation. In fact Al-Jeel Club which was set up for the specific mission of  preserving language and culture has become dysfunctional in these regards. You hardly hear any exchange conducted in Circassian  on its campus. In fact, we would go so far as to claim that this aim has effectively dropped from its agenda.

  In order to find effective solutions, other avenues must be explored. It has to be re-emphasized that any theorizing will be ineffectual, unless it is wedded to a will to implement the solutions and to practical nous.

  What follows are our personal ideas culled  from practical experience. They are presented as suggestions that we think would help stop the rot, as it were. Counter suggestions are most welcome as these, in general, enrich the argument and shed light on angles left unexplored by this work.

  Our main argument in this treatise is that the institution to target for reform is the nuclear family itself. Recent linguistic research indicates that the  first three years of a child's life  are the crucial years for language acquisition. What is more, an infant during this period may acquire more than one language as a mother tongue. For example, he may be taught Arabic, Circassian and English with ease and with no fear of confusing these languages. A polyglot  infant switches from one language to the other correctly and with ease. After the third year of a child's life, language acquisition is possible but the language acquired will not become a mother tongue. Therefore, if Circassian families are made to be aware of this fact, then some of them might opt to teach their off-spring their mother language besides Arabic. Many parents are reluctant to teach their children Circassian because they think this might hamper their academic progress or that it would be utterly useless  because the child could get along without the language. It might be argued that since an infant could learn an indefinite number of languages at an early age, then language preservation, which is a noble cause by all standards, requires no herculean effort neither on the part of the parents nor the children.

  In this regard, the task would entail publishing a booklet that would describe and explain the processes involved in language acquisition and development in infants, and state the role of multi-language acquisition in broadening  the infant's linguistic and cultural horizon. The parents must be convinced that it would be to their progeny's advantage to learn Circassian. Also advice on practical steps to facilitate language acquisition must be included. For example, both parents may not be conversant with Circassian, in which case the responsibility may be shouldered by the grandparents or some other relatives or friends.

  It is of the utmost importance that a research centre be established to study these problems. It should be mandated to carry out research, collect data, and it must have the resources to implement solutions that it would come up with. This centre should be independent of the already established organizations because their systems have so far proved not to work. It must by necessity be equipped with multi-media facilities.

  The centre must co-ordinate its activities with other research centres in the world especially in the Caucasus and Western Europe. It must also monitor documents that are published concerning the Caucasus. Connection to the INTERNET is a must. The NET has become a huge depository of information on the North Caucasus. This information should be made available to as many people as possible in order to heighten their awareness  of  Circassian matters in general.

  A data base should be created in which all relevant information on the Caucasus be accumulated. A properly archived library must also be included which should be accessible to both the researchers and the public at large.

  The INTERNET is fast becoming the most powerful medium of communication. It is possible to design sites on the NET to teach Circassian. The advantages of this method is that Circassian would be associated with modernity, and the younger generation would be intrigued to learn their mother language. Web sites have become easy to design, and the task of setting one up for this purpose is straight-forward. Of course, attractive features have to be incorporated in the design in order to pull in as many viewers as possible. In fact, one could envision a situation in which interactive teaching is possible. Tutorials would be set on the web site, and students would send their work via e-mail to be evaluated.

  Audio and video  files could be used to illustrate written material. For example, a student might be asked to read a passage by himself, then he could invoke the audio file to check his reading. There would be neither a teacher nor other students to be embarrassed in front of. Video files could be used as visual aids to learning. Puzzles could be set to challenge the reader. One could think of an interactive (on-line) crossword puzzle that is renewed every week. In fact, the possibilities are almost endless.

  This would be similar to the language site except that it would deal with cultural issues. Again it should be wrapped up in an attractive package and should target the younger generation. Interactive facilities have to be included and queries will have to be answered if they arise. There is an increasing number of Circassian sites emerging on the WEB, but they mainly deal with folkloric issues. A cultural site must be definitely published by an institution with considerable resources. The Circassian Charity Association in Jordan has the financial muscle to sponsor such a site but not the vision to initiate it.

  A well-equipped language laboratory is very important in order to qualify teachers of Circassian. A team of linguistic experts from the Caucasus might be invited  to give specialized courses  to a number of prospective teachers. Also teaching materials  have to be imported and adapted to the specific needs of Circassians of Jordan. The present teachers at Prince Hamza School would definitely benefit from such courses. In fact these experts might also be called upon to revise the curricula of the school  in order to optimize student benefit.

  One of the yardsticks used to gauge the importance of a particular language is  the extent of its use in the mass media. According to this scale, and from the perspective of a Jordanian Circassian, Arabic and English vie for first place, French comes a distant third, whereas Circassian scores zero. The point here is that Circassians in general do not perceive their mother tongue as of great importance. Its scope of use is very limited and is readily associated by the young with the older generation, therefore, it ainít hip to be seen anywhere near the lingo.

  This tarnished image of the language could be be retouched by making use of the mass media to "legitimize" it. We reckon that the status of Circassian in Jordan would sky-rocket should TV programmes be aired using it as the medium of communication. If this step obtains, then there would be no limit to what could be achieved.

  It goes without saying that Circassian TV programmes, which would be intended for minority viewers, would be aired in non-prime time slots. One would envision an initial 30 minute weekly programme being upgraded and expanded gradually as it becomes more popular. In fact it would be a splendid opportunity to portray Circassian culture as it really is to a mass audience that readily associates this culture only with dancing and war-like characteristics. Again media experts might be invited from the Caucasus to train a specialist cadre for the job.

  Also in this regard, a monthly news-letter in both Arabic and Circassian may be issued and distributed for a small charge. In fact, at present the Circassian Charity Association is issuing a news-letter in Arabic with a mass circulation of more than a thousand. The added effort to include a Circassian version, We think, would be minimal. This might be further upgraded to become a full-fledged  newspaper. This would have a tremendous effect on the  Circassian society in Jordan and abroad. We would be able to make a positive contribution to Circassian culture on a global scale, and that is no mean feat. 

  The University of  Nalchik offers Jordanian Circassians about 15 scholarships every year to study a wide range of  disciplines, among which is Circassian language. It is markworthy that no student has so far chosen to specialize  in Circassian. This is quite unfortunate, but rather understandable, because the graduate would definitely be unable to make use of his degree. However, if a number of students are to be sent to study Circassian and are guaranteed employment after graduation, say in the school or the research centre, should it ever come to life, they would play a positive role in diffusing the language and culture.

  Although the Jordanian Circassians enjoy unparalleled freedom of cultural expression envied by the Circassians  world wide and are considered as one of the richest sub societies in Jordan, they have failed ignominiously in establishing viable cultural institutions. Our own interpretation is that as a group the Circassians do not have a clear image of their identity, a definite vision of their culture, nor the technical know-how to effect linguistic and cultural revival. They are beset by paradoxes and differences that prevent them from seeing the tree for  the forest. Language and culture loss could only be stopped and reversed by first articulating the will to action and then devising plans to undo the damage.

 The Circassians in Jordan
(includes a bibliography).
Amjad Jaimoukha's Main Page

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