Circassians strive to preserve their culture

11/03/2013

After being displaced from Russia in the 19th century, Circassians have largely assimilated into Balkan nations.

By Muhamet Brajshori for Southeast European Times in Pristina -- 11/03/13

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Circassians were scattered from Russia to several nations in the 19th century, with the largest population living in Turkey. [Ankara Circassians Association]

More than 150 years after being scattered across the Balkans from Russia, the Circassians have assimilated into several nations and fear they are in danger of losing their language and culture.

Though there are no official records, an estimated 3 to 5 million Circassians live in Turkey, with populations in Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia. The Circassians, who are predominantly Sunni Muslim, were displaced from their territory along the Black Sea after a war with Russia in the mid-19th century.

During the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, some Circassian families returned to Russia through a repatriation programme by the Russian government. Today there are an estimated 2,000 Circassians in Kosovo, who have integrated into the local Albanian population.

"The problem is that I don't speak so much Circassian, while my children, except some words, are not able to get ideas how our language was," Sadije Shyqa, 51, a teacher from Pristina told SETimes. "My father and grandfather talked to me a lot about how we came to Kosovo and our tradition, but while the older generations kept it, we have begun to lose it, and the best would be if we could have some education in our native language or something which would protect or culture and language."

There have been few efforts in Kosovo to preserve the Circassian culture and language. Shyqa, whose husband is Albanian, said she has not had difficulty assimilating.

"I always felt part of the Albanian community, as my family did as well. We grew up with Albanian traditions as well, and this did not present a problem," Shyqa said.

Abdulla Korra, 69, a pensioner who lives near Tirana, said he is aware of his origin but said other Circassians living in Albania have been assimilated with local population. He added that among the cultural elements being lost is horse breeding. Prior to being displaced from Russia, Circassians bred Kabarda horses, known for their endurance and ability to adapt to rugged environments.

"Our ancestors have told us we descend from the Caucasus. …We have inherited the horse breeding tradition. We breed horses but the young generation is not doing this anymore because they don't make money with this work," Korra told SETimes.

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Circassians have formed numerous civil society organisations in Turkey. [Ankara Circassians Association]

Korra said his family practices Islam, but could not preserve the language.

Biljana Sikimic, senior research fellow at the Institute for Balkan Studies of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, told SETimes that historic perceptions of Circassians as "ruffians, cruel, not adapted," completely disappeared from the collective memory of Kosovo Serbs and Albanians.

Sikimic said Circassians are today viewed as "very fine people, skillful artisans." She added that there were no mixed marriages between Circassians and Serbs and that neither Serbs nor Albanians speak the Circassian language.

In Turkey, Circassians founded dozens of civil society organisations to carry on their culture and hold events and conferences. Still, many don't define themselves as Circassians.

There is a movement in Turkey to create a legal and practical environment to preserve their cultural assets and become more visible in society. The community also expects Turkey's new constitution will ensure the right to self-expression for all cultural groups.

"The broadcasting in Circassian language programmes on state-run radio and television TRT is very insufficient. Each week there is only a programme for half an hour, and in recent times they started to broadcast the same programme over and over again," Erdogan Boz, from the Ankara Circassian Association, told SETimes.

Circassian has been approved as an optional course in Turkey's public school system, but schools must have at least 10 interested students to open such a course.

"Our language, as an important element of our culture, requires a conservation status," Boz said. "As long as people cannot speak their native tongue in schools, our language will be endangered. For every word we lose in Circassian, we lose a significant part of the cultural heritage."

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In Turkey, only 30,000 people speak Circassian as their primary language, while only 300,000 know the language, Boz said.

Circassians in Turkey maintain their native last names in order to not lose their contacts with people of Circassian origin living abroad.

"In villages and smaller cities of Turkey the community was living much more closely. But once the majority of the community immigrated to the big cities, they started to be assimilated into the greater society, losing their origins in a very short timeframe," Boz said.

Correspondents Menekse Tokyay in Istanbul, Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade and Erl Murati in Tirana contributed to this report.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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