Some Circassians have had enough discrimination
and returned to their homeland in the Caucasus
By Eli Ashkenazi
The Circassians, whose forefathers were brought to Israel in the 19th
century, tend to preserve their heritage. After bringing a teacher of the
Circassian language, they rebuilt an old house in their village, Kama in
Galilee, to make it into an academic and cultural center for Circassians all
over the world. At the same time, they face the same problems as all Arab
villages: injustice in state budget allocations, water cut-offs in the
village, and severe unemployment.
In Beit Shami in Kama, the Circassians are proud of their most recent
accomplishment: the reconstruction of one of the most remarkable buildings
in their village, which had been deserted for decades. Beit Shami was built
at the end of the 19th century by an affluent family in Kama, located to the
east of Nazareth near the village of Tabor.
“Reality dictates how we act. There is a severe economic crisis that obliges
us to open up,” says the head of the City Council, Jalal Nafso. “I know that
some village residents are not excited about it. One person asked me whether
they will transform the village into a zoo. Lots of people want to maintain
their privacy, but when there is no other option, there is no other option.”
The Circassians are a small minority that has never integrated. While they
are Muslims, they study in Jewish schools and serve in the army. They have
their own language, which they preserve, and they feel connected to other
Circassians in the world and maintain relations with them. They first meet
Jews in high school, much earlier than the Druze, for example. This
encounter continues in the army or police, where many serve.
However, this contact declines markedly when they return to Kama in the
Lower Galilee, with a population of 2,600 persons, or Rayhaniya in the Upper
Galilee, with a population of 110.
Many Israelis know nothing about this small community, brought here, as well
as other places, by the Turks from the Caucuses to defend the borders of the
Ottoman Empire. The Circassians adopted Islam with the beginning of Turkish
occupation of the Caucuses in the 17th century.
They are spread all over the Middle East. Today there are 25,000 Circassians
in Syria, 10,000 in Iraq, and 20,000 in Jordan. In Jordan, they enjoy high
status, and one finds many of them among senior army officers.
Personal search at the airport
The Circassian community clings tightly to its heritage, culture, and
language. A few years ago, someone was brought from the Caucuses to teach
the Circassian language in the elementary school in Kama.
Shalmon believes that the decision to link the destiny of the Circassian
community to that of Israel, and their participation in the educational
system and the army, is precisely what has led to discord among them, on
questions of culture, language, and identity. The head of City Council,
Jalal Nafso, agrees. He says that when he went back to the village after
spending years in IDF, he felt abandoned.
He adds, “I went back to the village and ran for head of the City Council.
Only then did I realize that I didn't know the truth of our situation. I ask
young people why they don't join the army. They see others who went to study
instead of joining the army, and their situation has improved. On the other
hand, they see soldiers and officers who have been discharged, and what is
waiting for them? Do they get appointed to government jobs? No. Why? Because
their names are Jalal.”
The sense of being ignored by the state deepens their tendency to isolation,
he says. “I was in the 890 Paratroopers Brigade. I was injured in the
Chinese farms and in Lebanon. I reached the rank of colonel in Border Patrol—so
give me my rights. We only want what we deserve.”
David Nafso, 23 years old, was discharged from the Israeli army a year and a
half ago, and he has had difficulties finding a job since then. “I took part-time
jobs, including gardening. I tried to get a job in several security
companies, but I failed,” he says. “Now they summon me for reserve duty to
stand guard. I won't work as a reservist in this state. Am I suitable as a
guard in the reserves but not as a civilian?” He says he only realized his
true status in the state after he was subjected to a humiliating personal
search in the airport, when he asked to travel to Europe after being
discharged from the army. “They treated me as if I were a terrorist,” he
says. “The hardest problem is unemployment. I constantly scan ads for job
vacancies but I can't find a job. My mother prays everyday for me to get a
job. I'm sinking in debt. I was supposed to marry this year but I'll
postpone it. I'm depressed and I feel that I wasted three years in the army.
I tried to join the Prison Authority, but with no success. I know other
young people in the same condition. They can't find jobs. Here, three young
people left Israel for the Caucuses. Maybe in the future others will do the
same. I can live like a millionaire there with only $100 a month. I'm
thinking of traveling there.”
Jalal Nafso said that in recent years -- since the fall of the Soviet empire
-- many young people have been traveling in search of their Caucasian roots.
Nostalgia for their homeland is not the only thing driving them though.
“Some young people have left Israel to build a new life in Caucuses,” he
says. “An officer who was discharged from the army went to the Caucuses. At
least there he feels that it is his land. During the war in Bosnia,
Circassians abroad helped an entire Circassian village there move back to
the Caucuses. Do you want this to happen here, too?”
Nafso says, “Several young people are thinking of selling their homes and
land these days in preparation for their departure.”
…Nafso says, “The minute they leave the borders of Kama, you'll never hear
any complaint from them. But when they cut off our water from noon until the
next morning, it harms us. It is collective punishment, and it has happened
more than once. For a whole month they cut off our water for long hours.”
He adds, “Water in the Circassian language means soul, so when you cut off
my water, it's like killing me. We've become like the Southern Lebanese Army.”
The City Council in heavily indebted—about NIS8 million. The new head of the
council will be forced to implement a reform plan and dismiss ten of the
council's 50 employees, which will only further aggravate unemployment.
Haaretz.co.il / 08/02/2004
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