“Where are you from?” is a rather simple question for most people. “The place we call home” seems like the clear-cut answer. Sometimes it’s the place we used to call home, with the environment that helped shape who we are as people. Sometimes it is where our loved ones are, the place we feel “at home.”
For the 3,300 Circassians living in Kfar Kama in northern Israel, that question is a bit more complicated.
I stroll through the sights of sharp-edged coal black basalt stones that were used to build the traditional homes and mosque, narrowly spaced along the old village’s streets, the only streets in the country that have Hebrew, English, and Circassian spellings of their names written on the street signs. The smell of traditional, homemade smoked cheese permeates my nostrils. The cleanliness rivals no other place in Israel, which makes strolling in the village feel akin to walking down historical streets in Mediterranean Europe.
A traditional Circassian dance performed by volunteers, which has long been a symbol of social standing and a key part in courtship between couples, is hosted in the local heritage center run by Circassian historian Aibek Napso. All of these qualities form an integral persona of the experience of Kfar Kama, Israel’s only village – besides Rehaniya, also in the Galilee, and a third community that was abandoned – that houses the exiled Circassian people.
Its tightly woven and coherent experience is perhaps one of the reasons that Kfar Kama was listed in 2022 among 32 other villages by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) as one of the “32 best tourism villages” in the world. Two other nominations from Israel, which didn’t make the list, were Kibbutz Neot Smadar and Zippori.
The UNWTO’s program’s goal is “to promote and enhance the role of tourism in safeguarding rural villages (up to 15,000 residents), along with their landscapes, natural and cultural diversity, knowledge systems, and local values and activities,” according to Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, by increasing communication and recognition regarding a sustainable way to “do tourism right,” says Nira Fisher, director of international relations at the Ministry of Tourism.
Despite the childlike wonder of discovering a completely new piece of the world, I felt a slight uneasiness for some reason. How does this place actually exist? How does it function as a discrete pocket of Israeli society while also maintaining nearly complete cultural autonomy? And what does this have to do with grasping the struggles of the Adyghe people’s displacement, whose national – and in its quest to survive – turned-individual identity is entangled in the violent uprooting of its people from their homeland, the Caucasus Mountains, like broken beads, creating incohesion with their origin, frantically trying to hold the pieces together?
Answering the many questions about the Circassians in Israel
Long ago, in the Caucasus Mountains, where goddesses, demons, spirits, heroes, storytellers, poets and dancers lived, there were the Narts. They were deeply connected to their gods. The goddess Lady Tree rooted them into the life that springs from the earth, her branches reaching far and communicating with the heavens. The goddess, Lady Setenaya, was their leader and mother, and Lady Nart fought next to them as a brave woman warrior. The Narts sat around them to share stories and raise a toast during the goddesses’ favorite time of day, sunset. The Narts were visited by a swallow. “Do you want to be few and live a short life but have great fame and have your courage be an example for others forevermore?” asked the swallow. “Or would you prefer that there will be many of you, that your numbers will be great, that you will have whatever you wish to eat and drink, and that you will all live long lives but without ever knowing battle or glory?”
The Narts quickly chanted:
If our lives are to be short,
Then let our fame be great!
Let us not depart from truth!
Let fairness be our path!
Let us not know grief!
Let us live in freedom!
That is one of the legends explaining the Circassians’ status as warriors that were passed down generations in Circassia’s 12 tribes’ pagan history, in folklore titled the Nart Saga. Tales of heroes and gods, akin to Greek mythology in some of its stories, heavily connected to their motherland and its naturalistic properties, and a crucial part to Khabzeism, Circassian paganism, a monastic belief in one God, Tha, and the deities below him, resulting in many animistic traditions and prayers using materials such as water and fire, offerings and rituals. Shaped around these tales, the system of Xabze was formed. Roughly translated to “The language of the universe,” it was the absolute moral code and the be-all and end-all of an individual in Circassian society, as the punishments for those who acted against it included not attending their wedding/funeral, and disowning them. The code entails every aspect of life, including morals such as a higher pedestal for women and elders; standing up for the weak and degraded; and traditions like only wedding other Circassians, and choosing one’s personal Kabardian horse. It has an important emphasis on the many interwoven threads between the past and the present, and nature and humanities. The goal of following the Xabze is to live as honorably as possible, originally believing that to be the way to achieving the soul’s perfection, making way for it to join its ancestors’ souls with a clear conscience.
The code has not been preserved very well through their tumultuous journey. The swallow came back after a few years, bringing with it the Russian Empire, which turned Lady Tree’s luscious green forest into a barren, bloody wasteland, killing 2,000,000 Circassians in its scorching 101-year history in places including what is now Sochi, the celebrated home of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
In fact, the lands of the Adyghe were always subject to invasions by foreigners due to their isolated terrain and geographical strategic value, falling under the control of the Romans, Scythians, Sarmatians, Khazars, and the Ottoman Empire. They generally maintained autonomy, and because of the constant threat, a huge part of Circassian culture had developed in the direction of teaching a warrior’s values, with Circassians learning how to fight from a young age, and starting from the Ottoman Empire, reaching high positions in armies and royal defense forces wherever they had settled.
The Frederick Gleason pictorial journal stated in 1854: “The Circassians have a striking feature: they never lived in submission to external domination. The Circassians were defeated, they were forced out into the mountains, suppressed by superior force. But never, even for a short time, did they obey anyone but their own laws.”
Even the name “Circassians” was argued to have come from the word jerkes, meaning “the one who blocks a road.” If history has shown anything, it is that Circassians were never a people that bowed down.
There was a certain dissonance created by the ever-changing nature of the Circassians’ situation, falling into pits of syncretism with their original beliefs, having periods of assimilation into every major religion, even Judaism in the 8th century. Christianity also found its place in their history thanks to the Byzantines and Greeks, and Catholicism through the fourth Crusade. Though none have found their way to seep into history like Islam has, with conversions starting under the order of Murad IV of the Ottoman Empire. Today, Circassians in Israel are mostly Muslim.
This dissonance, already creating such a rift in the question “What does it means to be Circassian?” was so badly exacerbated by the Russian genocide and exile, that it had become an empty husk in the shadow of what Circassians used to represent before the war. It is especially present in the tiny communities still left needing to force themselves in a chokehold between assimilation in the completely foreign country they’ve ended up in and maintaining their ethnocultural identity.
“Despite the years passing by, we have succeeded in maintaining our language, culture and food. That is what makes us different from the others who were banished. We make a lot of effort to preserve our traditions.”Zakaria Napso
Israel’s case is a bit unique in that Kfar Kama has become a hub for Circassians all over the world, which is fulfilling the task of being a modern and sustainable place to live, while also being an ideal for not letting the culture die out. Mayor Zakaria Napso, Kfar Kama’s local council head, says: “Despite the years passing by, we have succeeded in maintaining our language, culture and food. That is what makes us different from the others who were banished. We make a lot of effort to preserve our traditions.”
“Kfar Kama today is the lighthouse of Circassians all over the world,” says Aibek Napso. “Like Jews wanting to go to the Western Wall or Muslims wanting to go to Mecca, Circassians say they want to visit Kfar Kama one day. The Israeli government supports us. We can educate children and preserve our identity through cultural events and teaching, with no one interfering.”
“Kfar Kama today is the lighthouse of Circassians all over the world. Like Jews wanting to go to the Western Wall or Muslims wanting to go to Mecca, Circassians say they want to visit Kfar Kama one day. The Israeli government supports us. We can educate children and preserve our identity through cultural events and teaching, with no one interfering.”Aibek Napso
Napso tells The Jerusalem Report: “We can see similar things that happened to Jews in the Diaspora and us. But the main difference is that Jews had Judaism as a religion, so it was much easier to preserve one’s ethnic identity through that. Jews were constantly persecuted; there is no anti-Circassianism in the world right now, so there was no concept like Zionism to hold them together. We’re very comfortable right now. So there’s not much of an incentive to get together and struggle for our homeland.”
It’s a place where few leave and few come in. “Maybe one or two people have left in the span of 20 years.”
It’s a place where few leave and few come in. “Maybe one or two people have left in the span of 20 years,” he adds.
To the naked eye, Kfar Kama might seem like self-induced segregation, and in a way it is. However, Circassian children are integrated into Israeli society like anyone else, going to study in the regional Kadoorie High School, having mandatory enlistment to the IDF, and entering the Israeli workforce when they’re older. How does one maintain such a delicate balance?
“We feel very welcome. As different as we are, we feel as Israeli as everybody else. We’re Circassian, we’re Muslim, and we’re Israeli. I live all three lives together,” explains Nafna Napso, a 19-year-old volunteer in the Circassian dance troupe who, right before this, weaved her traditional silk garb in a meticulously and majestically choreographed way like it was nothing, performing a wedding dance, its intricacies far too advanced for our untrained eyes. “Dancing is almost like a way to speak to other Circassians around the world that don’t know the language.”
The intense outcry of Circassian nationalism in response to all the hurt, pain, and mainly confusion, is especially impactful on an individual level. A child raised on the outpouring of his ethnic values and the importance of keeping them alive might have a weaker self-identity. Where is the room for an individual to live authentically as one when such societal pressure is applied on them to represent Circassians as a whole? When their ethnic identity, already muddled in its origin, precedes their self-identity? When unassuming bystanders possibly romanticize them being Circassian?”
In humankind’s endless futile journey of constantly satiating our intrinsic need to affirm the origin of any and everything that exists, whether it’s arguing over who inhabited the Land of Israel first, indulging in Darwinism or getting caught up in a “chicken or the egg” debate, we can sometimes lose sight of the present or the future.
Today, there are merely 800,000 people living in just remnants of what could be considered the Circassians’ true homeland, with nothing but its location linking it back to its origin. No document, no constitution, no acknowledgment of a connection to the land in which goddesses frolicked, heroes fought, storytellers congregated, and stories were created. What remains are those stories, and the dignity of being a Circassian, longing for homecoming, to return to Circassia.
“Once you’re not in your homeland, you have to believe in a Circassian society. The UN’s atlas of ancient languages was sure that in this century, only elders above the age of 60 would be able to speak the Circassian language. And now they believe that at the end of the century, there will be no Circassians living on this planet. For that reason, we have mass international activity, and we ask that every country recognize the Circassian genocide and declare that the Circassians need a state in the Caucasus Mountains. It will be a home for all of us around the globe, to make sure that everyone on this planet will have the right to return to it and to represent the entire Circassian community all over the world,” says Aibek.
Until that point, with eyes looking toward the future, perhaps when asked the question, “Where are you from?” the people I’ve met on this journey will simply be able to answer, “Kfar Kama.” ■