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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Seeking Roots in North Caucasus

AMMAN, Jordan -- The search for personal identity can be a trap for people like Yinal T'haghapsau, who lives in the no man's land between the only home he knows and the land of his ancestors.

Like many children of immigrants, he has found that he does not fit perfectly in either place.

His great-great-grandfather fled the tsar's armies in the North Caucasus in the 1860s and settled in a small desert region that became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Now, four generations later, he has one desire: to return to the land of his ancestors.

"For me, my dream is to go back there," he said in accented English. "It is something that lives in me, whether I like it or not."

T'haghapsau is Circassian, a member of a diaspora created when hundreds of thousands were forced from their mountainous lands in what is now southern Russia, just north of Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Theirs is a quiet diaspora, one that has not roused passions or militias, but has quietly assimilated in places like Jordan, Turkey, Syria and the United States.

The Circassian experience in Jordan is in many ways typical of the immigrant experience for many around the world. It is about holding on and letting go. Blending in and standing out.

But in Jordan, a nation that has struggled since its inception to define what it is to be Jordanian, the challenge of fourth-generation Circassians has special resonance.

Jordanians who are not Circassian bristle at the very notion that some of their neighbors feel like they do not fully connect.

Such a suggestion is perceived as an affront to a nation that tells the world it has, at last, defined what it means to be Jordanian.

"There is no issue, no issue at all," shot back Raouf Abu Jaber, a Jordanian businessman and historian, when told that some Circassians said they were eager to return to the land of their ancestors. "I am personally surprised."

Of course, not all of the Circassians in Jordan, estimated to number as many as 100,000, want to go.

In all likelihood, only a minority would like to leave Jordan, judging from interviews with more than a dozen people of different ages.

But that does not minimize the struggle of identity for a group that has tried to meld with the Arab landscape while holding onto a very different culture.

It can be as simple as men and women dancing together (which they still do) or as complicated as passing on a language (most young people say that neither they nor their friends speak the Circassian language).

"Most of the young people here do not know anything about their history," said T'haghapsau, who moved to the North Caucasus for a year but returned to Jordan after seeing how hard it would be to build a new life there.

"They don't speak the language. But tell them they are not Circassian, and they will kill you," T'haghapsau said.

Jordan is a small, dry patch of land carved out of the Middle East by the British in the 1920s when it was called the Arab Emirate of Transjordan. When the first Hashemite king, Abdullah I, took power, the Circassians were already longtime residents.

They had been successful farmers and wealthy landowners and worked closely with the new king to forge their new nation.

In 1946, Jordan got its independence, and soon after took its current name.

But from the beginning, Jordan was more a creation of history than a place that passed through history.

From its very inception, the concept of being Jordanian was an abstraction. It was and remains an amalgam of people, a Middle Eastern mosaic of nationalities, sects and religions: Palestinians, Armenians, Chechens, Syrians, people from the Arabian Peninsula called Hejazi, Druse and Christians. And Circassians.

Outsiders told Jordanian leaders that its very existence simply did not make sense.

And from the beginning, the Circassian minority, the people who had been thrown off their own land, helped try to prove those outsiders wrong.

King Abdullah was so grateful to the Circassians and so taken by their loyalty and colorful traditions that he made them the private protocol guard of the Royal Court.

To this day, visitors to the king's offices are greeted by steely looking men in uniforms that resemble old Cossack costumes.

Over the years, Circassians have held the highest positions in the government, including the office of prime minister and important posts in the security services.

But today, many Circassians say they are feeling edged out, all but excluded from important government positions.

And they resent all of the attention heaped on another important ethnic group, the Palestinians, and their quest for an independent state.

Jordan had annexed the West Bank in 1950 but lost it in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

Ahmed Wumar, 26, a recent university graduate, said the historical slight against the Circassians was far worse.

Palestinians, he said, at least get to live in their own geographical neighborhood, surrounded by people who share their language and customs.

"Our problem is hundreds of years old," he said.

"We are here 143 years already in Jordan. Everybody knows the Palestinians. No one knows us."

Wumar also tried to move back to his ancestral home in Russia, and stuck it out for two years before returning to Jordan.

"I wanted to get a Russian passport, but they would not give it to me," he said.

The Circassian cultural center is a nondescript building on a small street in a middle-class neighborhood of Amman.

On a recent evening, young men and women were finishing up dance practice inside the center.

Unlike their Arab neighbors, Circassian men and women dance together in an almost martial choreography, with the men taking part in a lot of spinning and fist pumping and the women engaging in chest-thrust-forward preening.

"I am Circassian, but my nationality is Jordanian," said Shamil Shroukh, 16, who does not speak the Circassian language but has been dancing for 10 years.

Tamer Qunash, 21, said: "All of us consider ourselves Jordanian. This is our home."

Their instructor is a hard-driving man with a clean-shaven head named Yinal Hatyk.

He is 32 years old and is the chief of staff to Jordanian Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, the brother of the current king, Abdullah II.

He pressed the dancers to get it right, to spin and preen with confidence and perfection.

"We are truly Circassian and truly Jordanian," he said, after giving the dancers a break.

But, he said, "a lot of Circassians want to go back.