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“We as a people are quiet and shy, in the positive sense of the word. A Circassian won’t elbow out a rival who is vying for the same position. Sometimes if you don’t do that, you stay in the same place. That’s how it works in the Middle East.”
Nonetheless, in recent years the community has been making its mark far beyond the defense arena. Today 80% of Circassian youth complete a postsecondary degree. Circassians are even making waves in international soccer: Kfar Kama’s Bibras Natcho is a midfielder on Israel’s national team. After four seasons with Hapoel Tel Aviv, he now plies his trade for Russia’s Rubin Kazan team.
Five years ago, Druze and Circassian authorities launched an ongoing marketing initiative to encourage Israelis to visit its communities’ bed-and-breakfasts, tour its landscapes and enjoy its culture.
The Circassians have prospered in the Jewish state. Still, for many, their first loyalty remains to their scattered, beleaguered nation, and some espouse an ideology that Israelis will find familiar: the aspiration for a national home in the land from which they were forcibly banished.
“We need to gather all the Circassians in the same place; whether it’s autonomy, a republic within Russia or a proper state, it’s a bit early to say,” Thawcho said. “But it has to be in Circassia — not Uganda or anywhere else.”
The bulk of historical Circassia lies in what are today the southern Russian republics of Adygea, Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, and the prospect of Russia allowing the return of millions of exiles to Circassia seems far-fetched: Moscow keeps a tight grip on its Caucasian republics, and in recent years has suppressed resurgent nationalism in nearby Chechnya and Dagestan.
Still, Thawcho remains undeterred.
“We’re a nation, with all that implies: We have our own language, customs, clothing, music, food and — at one time — a single geographic location,” he said. “It might not be in my lifetime, but there will be a Circassian state. As someone once said, ‘If you will it, it is no dream.”
Oren Kessler, a writer based in Tel Aviv, is the former Middle East affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.