In memory of Majida Hilmi (1930-2017) (legacy.com/obituaries/nytimes/obituary.aspx?n=majida-mufti-hilmi&pid=185351159).
Staunton, May 12 – North Caucasians who come to Turkey “often identify themselves as ‘Circassians,’ even though in ethnic terms they are not,” Ramazan Alpaut says, a reflection of the size and importance of the Circassian diaspora in that country but something that gives new meaning to that ethnonym.
While visiting the Turkish province of Hatay on the border with Syria, the Radio Liberty journalist says, he met with “local Caucasian families among whom were Kabardins, Ossetians, Abkhazias and Kumyks, all of whom sought to speak with him in Circassian because they assume all North Caucasians know that language (kavkazr.com/a/tam-gde-vse-kavkaztsy-cherkesy/28480380.html).
Moreover, he continues, all of them assumed that ethnic divisions are “no more than intra-Circassian tribal groupings” and that except perhaps for the Chechens, all of the peoples in the North Caucasus are part of a greater Circassian community. Alpaut’s meetings with North Caucasians in other parts of Turkey shed more light on this.
One of his interlocutors, Unal Ozer from Sivas said that “the mukhajirs from the North Caucasus arrived her all together, established villages next to one another, and began to develop jointly. Thus, the name ‘Circassian’ became common for all those who came from this region” to Turkey.
This process was assisted, Ozer suggests, by the fact that “the Caucasus peoples have very similar cultures and culinary traditions and celebrate marriages in the same way, even when they speak various languages.” They see them as one of 10 or 11 parts of the Circassian nation, although in central Anatolia, they are more inclined to define this territorially than ethnically.
Indeed, he says, “we do not have such an ethnos as Circassian. This is [instead] our common symbolic designation.”
Kakhir Akleniz, a Chechen from Sivas, agrees. “Turkish Chechens like all Caucasians refer to themselves as Circassians.” In Turkey, the term Circassian is understand as a synonym for Caucasian, not so much ethnically as a marker of the region from which they came and view as their homeland.
An Ossetian woman from Ankara told Alpaut that the Turks now call all who come from the North Caucasus Circassians. “We ourselves identify that way to the Turks. But among ourselves we speak about our ethnic origin. For example, in a Caucasus milieu, I say that I am an Ossetian” even though Turks call us Circassians.
Gizantep Nurkhan, a refugee from Syria, says that “when someone asks [her] about her ethnic origin, [she] responds that [she] is a Kumyk from Dagehstan … Some ask if that means [she] is a representative of the Circassian people. But each time, [she says, she] gives a negative answer … That isn’t how things were in Syria.”
This post is my small way of remembering the great Majida Hilmi, whom I first met when I testified in Congress in 1995 on behalf of Chechnya’s fight for freedom against the Russian invasion. After I spoke, she passed me a note of thanks, signed simply as “a Kabardinka from New York.” Her note to me remains one of my most precious possessions to this day.