From the Caucusus to the Galilee

Kafr Kama is home to most of Israel's 3,000 Circassians.

Kafr Kama 88 248 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
Kafr Kama 88 248
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
Although only a small community in two villages quite a distance apart, the country's Circassians have succeeded, against heavy odds, in maintaining their language and culture as a minuscule group within the Sunni majority of Israel's Muslim community. Nowadays, the Circassians in Israel number around 3,000 - two thirds live in Kafr Kama near Mount Tabor and the rest in Reihaniya, in the shadows of the Lebanese border where they share their village with Arab Muslims and Druse. In the 1950s, the Circassians - like the Druse - began to be drafted into the IDF, which did not sit well with their fellow Muslims. Those in Syria (70,000) and Jordan (55,000) also joined the armed forces in those countries. Unlike the other Sunnis, Circassians are not Arabs and have had to struggle to keep up their distinct ethnic identity and culture, of which they are fiercely proud. Former teacher and headmaster Adnan Gerchad of Kafr Kama has been researching his people since his retirement some years ago, and for a time turned his home's ground floor into a mini-museum of Circassian history. Circassians conduct their daily lives in their eponymous language, which is also used for tuition in the local junior school, although the pupils also learn Hebrew, Arabic and English. Gerchad has become an expert on the somewhat complicated tongue. Gerchad's serious hobby of delving into Circassian history led to the opening two years ago of a fascinating museum-cum-visitors center in a renovated building in the old, revamped part of Kafr Kama. On exhibit are photographs, documents, artifacts, clothing, furniture and weapons. Local guides, of whom Gerchad is one, explain Circassian history and customs to visitors from Israel and abroad. He began researching Circassian history some 20 years ago, after an IAF officer approached him with a question about the Circassians. Only after he agreed to talk to the soldiers did the educator realize he didn't know so much about his own folk. He began a journey into his people's past through reading and eventually setting off on a roots mission to Russia and Turkey. The day Metro visited Kafr Kama, a young guide was leading a group of Israeli students through the narrow alleyways of the original village, which dates back to the 1880s. The village is absolutely spotless and at noon on a weekday, its young children are in the village school while their older siblings attend the nearby Kadoori High School. The silence was almost deafening. "We like to lead a quiet life," explains Zohir. "And great emphasis is put on cleanliness and aesthetic appearance, both in and outside one's home and surroundings." He spots a couple of students lighting cigarettes. "You will, of course, notice how clean the streets are. Even though a high percentage of villagers smoke, you won't see any cigarette butts on the ground," he explains - rather pointedly - to the group in general and the puffers on the pavement in particular. Reaching the museum, Zohir dons a traditional black tunic, wide leather belt with a large, ominous-looking silver dagger dangling from the side. With a large round fur hat firmly on his head, he looks as if he has just jumped out of one of the black-and-white photographs hanging on the wall behind him. A fifth-generation Israeli Circassian, the young man walks the students through his people's history. He speaks quickly, in more than fluent Hebrew, and when it is pointed out that he is speaking perhaps a bit too fast for everybody to absorb everything, he grins. "I have to get in so much in so little time," he says before adding, "and there is another group coming shortly." Originating from the Caucasus mountain region, the Circassians have inherited a rich history, culture, language and traditions. Other Circassian communities, large and small, can be found in Syria and Jordan. Known for their bravery, the Circassians comprise two distinct groups - the Abedzah, who live in Reihaniya, and the Shapsig of Kafr Kama. With employment opportunities scarce in and around their communities, some Circassians have moved to Israeli towns, but will always remain firmly rooted to their Galilean villages as well as to the Old Country, far away in the former Soviet Union. Wars, expulsions, migration and a fight to maintain links to their past while swearing allegiance to whatever rule they live under has made for whomever rules where they have eventually ended up is a truly long, painful and fascinating story. After years of resistance to Russian domination and with a loss of over 400,000 of their people the Circassians went into exile, the majority ending up in Turkey. The forefathers of those to be found today in Israel came to Ottoman Palestine from the Balkans in the late 1800s. Most Circassians pray five times a day and make the haj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. The village's older ladies are dressed traditionally, while the younger generation is modern to the point of being Yuppified. The Circassians differ markedly from their Arab co-religionists in that dating is strongly encouraged and they can see a number of people at the same time, so long as doing so does not endanger anyone's marriage prospects. In the old days a young man would ride to the home of the young lady he had set his heart on and kidnap her. Being strongly traditional, modern Circassians still adhere to a ritual "kidnapping," but one that has the approval of all the parties. Zohir explains another bygone custom. Pointing to a wooden rocking crib in the museum, he tells of how, even when he was still a baby, newborns were placed in such a crib - which has a hole cut in its bottom. The babies' arms were bound to their sides and they were laid to sleep, their lower bodies unclothed so that, in the pre-diaper era, what came naturally fell into a vessel placed underneath. "Babies slept peacefully for much longer periods than these days," the guide tells the visitors. And it would seem their arms grew stronger and longer through being held straight against their bodies. This he proves by holding his arms at his sides and pointing out that he can touch his knees without bending. Although some of the original buildings in the old section of Kafr Kama are still awaiting professional renovation to be restored to their former glory, most - built from black basalt - are complete. A walk through the village's alleyways and inner courtyards proves a powerful and peaceful experience. In the center of old Kafr Kama stands an extremely attractive, eye-catching Mameluk-style mosque. Built from basalt rock and white stone, the structure is highly decorative and appealing. The onion-shaped room atop the minaret makes it not only architecturally unique, but also visible for kilometers.