In the Galilee, a tiny Circassian community perpetuates its heritage

Hani Madaji says he dreams in Circassian, prays in Arabic, learns in Hebrew and travels in English.

As a Circassian, Madaji, 50, is proud of his people. After retiring as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, he decided to devote himself to teaching Israelis about Circassians, “because nobody knows anything about us.”

“People always ask, ‘Are you Druze?’ ‘Are you Christian?’ ‘What exactly are you?’ and I always want to explain the history of my people,” Madaji said.

Every day, tourists come to Kfar Kama, one of the two Circassian villages in Israel, to visit the Circassian Heritage Center. In the other Circassian village, Rihaniya, tourists visit the Circassian Museum located in the Restaurant Nalchik.

Yosara Madaji, Hani Madaji’s mother, in her restaurant, Nalchik, where she cooks Circassian dishes. Photo by Diana Bletter.

Forced to fight

Madaji, a resident of Rihaniya, stands next to life-size mannequins in traditional costume as well as antique furniture and household items as he tells the story of the Circassians.

The Caucasus Mountains have always been considered the natural border between Europe and Asia, where east meets west. The Circassians were originally pagans who converted to Christianity and then, in the 15th century, to Islam. Madaji said people are often surprised to learn that they are Sunni Muslims.

Hani Madaji at the Circassian Heritage Museum. Photo by Diana Bletter.

Living between Turkey and Russia, the Black Sea to the east and the Caspian Sea to the west, the Circassians faced many invaders, including the Mongols and the Ottomans, for centuries.

“We have always been good fighters,” Madaji said. “We had to be.”

“The boys only lived with their families until they were six years old,” Madaji explained. “Then they were sent to live with another family, where they learned not to be spoiled and to fight. They were given horses for training. In our language, Adyghe, the word for horse and brother is the same: ‘see-shu.’ That’s how bonded each fighter was to his horse.

For a century, the Circassians fought the Russian invaders who wanted to colonize the Caucasus region, in a war that ended in 1864. In recent years, the Russians have killed more than a million Circassians and burned villages. The survivors fled, crossing the Ottoman Empire and settling in Turkey, Jordan and Israel in 1878.

Photo courtesy of the Circassian Heritage Center in Kfar Kama, Israel.

Today, about 5,000 Circassians live in Israel. Since the War of Independence in 1948, Circassian men have fought in the Israeli army, and there is a mandatory draft for Circassian men to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

“We are Israelis in everything,” he said.

Preserving their culture

“We are a very tight-knit community,” Madaji said. “We don’t have spiritual leaders, so the question is always, how can we preserve our culture? Thanks to what we call Adyghe Xabze, a code of conduct that determines our behavior, that maintains our tradition and our culture.

Hani Madaji under the arch leading to the old village of Rihaniya Photo by Diana Bletter.

“We don’t marry anyone else, only other Circassians. When young men and women meet and start dating, they must stay two meters apart until they are married. And then, if a young woman decides to cancel the wedding, even an hour before, she can. It preserves the honor of women,” he explained.

Since the pool of eligible singles in Israel is so small, the communities sponsor what Madaji calls a “summer camp”, where several hundred young Circassians from Jordan, Turkey and Holland come to Israel to learn how to to know. Madaji and other local families welcome young adults.

“Thanks to the internet, we now know that there are Circassians in Dubai,” Madaji said. “Before, we didn’t know our community elsewhere.”

The town of Rihaniya, in the hills of the Upper Galilee, is quiet and orderly. Leading a tour group from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology through the city to the mosque in the center of the old village, Madaji said, “The Circassians here clean the streets in front of their houses. Being cared for is part of our culture.

View of the Circassian village of Rehaniya under Mount Hermon in northern Israel. Photo by Yaakov Lederman/Flash90.

Madaji explained that in 1880, when 66 families came to Rihaniya, they built it with stone walls about six meters thick for defensive purposes.

“As a little boy, I used to play in this area with the other children,” he recalled as he stopped at the mosque, which looks like a house of prayer in the Caucasus Range.

The hope of return

Right in front of the mosque is a new bomb shelter for the villagers. Above is a permanent exhibition to commemorate the genocide of the Circassians, with photographs, maps and explanations.

Every May 21, Circassians around the world celebrate their Day of Mourning, when they commemorate the genocide of their people by the Russians and their exile from their homeland.

Madaji said the majority of Circassians still held out hope of returning to their land. The Circassian green flag with its 12 stars is displayed throughout the city.

The Rihaniya Mosque, built as prayer houses in the Caucasus Mountains. Photo by Hani Madaji.

“Like the Jews, we also have 12 tribes,” he explained. “And there are three arrows. Why three? Because if we went to war, we would have a lot of arrows. Three is a symbol that we come in peace. Three is also a number of balance – a three-legged chair does not fall.

The Circassians managed to preserve the Adyghe language, which “is unlike anything else”, Madaji said. “Previously it was written with special numbers which today are only used to mark the different tribes.”

Standing in front of a sign in front of the driveway leading to the mosque, Madaji pointed to some of the symbols. “Each tribe has its own sign, much like a logo,” he said.

The only Sunni Muslims who study Hebrew

While the Circassian language uses the Cyrillic alphabet, it differs from Russian, Madaji explained.

The children attend the local school until grade 10, where they learn Hebrew, English, Arabic and Circassian, then attend Hebrew-speaking high schools in the area, “which makes us the only Muslims Sunnis in the world to study Hebrew,” he said. .

Parents speak Circassian to their children. Madaji says this practice is not forced “but very natural”.

Proof of this statement was found shortly afterwards near the schoolyard in the center of Rihaniya. How many places in the world can you hear boys and girls playing basketball, shouting and clapping, in Circassian?

Information about visiting Rihaniya can be found here.

Information about visiting Kfar Kama can be found here.

In Kfar Kama, the Circassian Heritage Center will hold its annual Circassian Festival on July 22-23 with tours and traditional dance performances.

This article was first published by Israel21c.

About Michael C. Lovelace

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