The other day, I was in the waiting room of a doctor’s office in Haifa, when three people walked in and sat behind me. Two were men dressed in Western clothes, one looking to be in his 30s and the other in his 50s or 60s; the third was a woman in her 20s of extremely fair complexion, wearing a black chador and a white headscarf that crossed her forehead in a horizontal line just above her eyebrows.
I took them to be Israeli Arabs — a wife, her husband and her father — most likely Druze, to judge from the headscarf. Yet when they began to speak in low voices, they quite clearly weren’t speaking Arabic. In fact, they weren’t speaking any language I had ever heard. It wasn’t Persian, or Turkish, or anything I could connect to an obviously Muslim woman in a chador. I sat and thought. In the end, both the husband and I rose to stretch our legs. “Excuse me for asking,” I said to him, “but were you speaking Circassian?”
He nodded without asking me how I knew, we both returned to our seats, and that was the sum of our interchange. It left me, though, with a small measure of satisfaction, the way one feels when successfully solving an unusual, if not particularly difficult, puzzle.
The Circassians, 3,000 of whom live in the two villages of Kfar Kama and Rihaniya in the Galilee, are Israel’s smallest indigenous non-Jewish population, so small that most Israelis have never met even one of them, and many don’t know of their existence. Called tsherkesim in Hebrew, their ancestral roots are in the Caucasus, which they left for Palestine in the 1870s. They were part of an emigration — mass flight might be more accurate — of more than 1 million of their people, which took place after the Russian conquest of their homeland from the Turks in the 1860s and the brutal anti-Muslim ethnic cleansing that followed. A majority resettled in Turkey; some wandered farther. Today, an estimated 130,000 live in Jordan with another 100,000 in Syria (at least prior to the current hostilities there), and some 35,000 in Iraq. In all these countries they have undergone linguistic assimilation, but Circassian continues to be spoken by some of them, including those who live in Israel.