His Royal Highness Prince Ali Ben Hussein set out on horseback on September 9 with a team of 14 Circassian riders on a journey which was to take them from Jordan to the Caucasus region of Russia.
Below, in an interview by Maher Attoum of Sigma News Agency and was published in the Jordan Times Newspaper on Tuesday November 3rd 1998, the Prince explains the motives behind the trip, his interest in the Circassian culture - a culture that he is keen to preserve - and provides some insight into his relationship with his father, His Majesty King Hussein.
Question: Your Royal Highness, today you are defending the cultural rights of the Circassian mountaineers. Could you tell us who the Circassians are and why are you interested in this issue?
Answer: According to legend, when God was creating the earth He carried all the mountains in a bag in order to distribute them across the land. The devil seeing his chance slit a hole in the bottom of the bag and all the mountains fell in one area between the Black Sea and the Caspian. So God made that land the one place in the world where the devil would not be able to penetrate and make its people evil, since life would be hard enough for them as it is.
The North Caucasuses is described by many visitors as Eden itself, with warm rich lowlands followed by majestic forests and alpine pastures, abandoned rivers and lakes, superimposed by eternally snow-capped peaks. These are the Frosty Caucasus of which Shakespeare sang, and which dwarf the Alps. Mount Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Europe, where legend has it, between its two peaks the Ark rested on its way to Ararat. Kazbek, where Prometheus was chained, known in ancient Greek legend as the Land Of The Golden Fleece, the land of fables and dreams, from which Tolstoy, Lermontov and Pushkin drew their inspiration.
The Circassians are an ancient race, composed of twelve tribes, who have been dwelling in the mountains of the North Caucasus and along the Black Sea coast since time immemorial. Many would-be invaders had found them a terrible foe, Roman Legions, Attila, Gengis Khan, Arabs, Temirlane and the Persians, who called the Caucasus `Sedi Iskender,' or the barrier of Alexander. The mighty conqueror had set out to possess the world and met his first check here. Having never been conquered, the Circassians have managed to preserve their ancient culture without outside influences up until the time of the Russian invasion, that began in the late 18th century and which flamed into a terrible war, which lasted over a hundred years.
The Circassians, freedom-loving and bold, fought desperately and fiercely, earning themselves legendary status and respect throughout Europe and the Middle East. For one hundred years they held all the might of the Czar's armies at bay, preventing them from colonial expansion and the long-cherished Russian dream of an over-land route to India. It was said that one Circassian is worth ten of anyone else, and their struggle is best described by the great Russian poet Mikhail Lermonotov, who wrote in the times of the Russo-Caucasus wars: “Circassian treasure rueful dreams, Circassian hearth is their supreme, but freedom, freedom for the man is more than peace and motherland.”
The war lasted until 1864 resulting in the death of over half of the entire Circassian population, and the two great powers of the time, Russia and Turkey, collaborated to cause the forced migration of over half the entire remaining population to the Ottoman Empire. Russia wanted the Circassian land for its emancipated peasants, and Turkey needed fresh blood for its armies in the Balkans. The Circassian expulsion was the largest mass exodus in modern times and another third of them perished along the way from disease and starvation.
It is estimated that if not for the war, Circassians today would number over 25 millions or more, instead of less than six millions spread out in countries all over the world.
Yet, wherever the Circassians went they contributed tremendously to the countries that they now live in. They were the first people to settle in revived modern Amman. When Prince, later King Abdullah, arrived in Trans-Jordan, they welcomed him, and during a rebellion in the early days of the Emirate they camped around his palace to protect him and were then given the honour of being the King's personal guards. Nowadays, they can still be seen guarding the palaces and the Royal Court in their fabulous and romantic costumes. The Circassians have served in every government and military office, and are well-known for their honesty and loyalty. Today there are roughly one hundred thousand Circassians in Jordan, five million in Turkey, 700 hundred thousand in the Caucasus and smaller communities in Israel, Syria, and U.S. and Western Europe.
The Circassians practised civilised behaviour at a time when Europeans were still cave-dwellers. Their culture is extremely rich in poetry, myth, legend, song, dance and music. Their social structure is governed by the “Adygha Khabza,” or Circassian etiquette, a set of unwritten rules which emphasise perfect manners, hospitality, honesty, chivalry and respect for elders. They esteem their women and grant them full public freedom and they never practice polygamy or marry anyone even distantly related to them, as all Circassian relatives and neighbours are considered brothers and sisters. Indeed the Circassian's greatest achievement has been the perfection of their own culture.
Nevertheless, due to the fact that they have been separated for nearly one hundred and thirty years, Circassians are finding it increasingly difficult to preserve their language, cultural heritage and are at risk of large scale assimilation, that threatens their very existence as a people.
My interest, therefore, comes from a want to reverse this process and give the Circassians the basic human rights, granted to all peoples of the world; to live together in peace and happiness, practising their own culture, speaking their own language and respected and known by the rest of the world we live in.
Q: What are you expecting from your campaign?
A: This campaign is a symbolic beginning of the work to come. The horse-ride is in essence a reverse of the mass exodus that brought the Circassians to Jordan and the diaspora. Circassians of the Caucasus and the diaspora are part of a single ethnic and cultural entity, and uniting these parts is a naturalhuman right. My goals are, therefore, to open the door for any Circassians wishing to return to their homeland, to be able to do so freely, without the complications and problems that they are presently facing due to lack of organisation and barriers posed by people who wish to prevent the spiritual and physical unity of the Circassian nation. In addition, I hope to bring the Circassian issue to the world's attention, so that they can no longer be used as pawns in a chess game, and future bloodshed in the Caucasus, caused by ignorance and neglect, can be avoided.
Q: Are you involved in charity and social work for the Circassian issue?
A: I am president of the Jeel Club for Circassian Culture and Folklore in Jordan, and I am in the process of setting up a Circassian Culture Fund with branches in Israel, Turkey, the United States and the Caucasus, in order to work on and achieve international recognition for Circassians as displaced people and to implement their rights under international law to automatic citizenship in their homeland, as well as the preservation and revival of the Circassian language and to research and write the common and entire history of the Circassian nation.
I also hope to live in the Caucasus for a year, beginning in January to further study the languages and cultures of the Caucasus and to see that our goals are implemented in the homeland.
Q: How was the reaction of the Circassian mountaineers when you were crossing their villages on horseback with the traditional costumes?
A: It was immensely spiritual and emotional, and their reaction seemed mostly to be of shock and disbelief especially among the elder people, with tears in their eyes as they never dreamt that such a thing could really happen. There was always tremendous joy and pride among the younger generation and the children and much celebration. All of it was immensely satisfying and gave me a sense of euphoria and inner peace. What was really most touching was when members of our team met their relatives and families, whom they had never seen or knew existed, in villages and cities along the way.
Q: Were there any complications or problems building up to the horse-ride or along the route itself?
A: For two years myself and the horse group, who are all Circassian volunteers from Jordan, had been ready to make the journey, but we were faced with continual barriers and obstacles set up by people both in Russia and in Jordan, who did not want the ride and tried their hardest not to make it happen. In fact, we were not granted a visa to enter Russia up until we reached Samsun on the Black Sea coast. There was also security concerns: nearing the time of our departure across the Black Sea, we started receiving calls from people telling us that something bad was going to happen and that there would be an attempt on my life. There is also a lot of people who try to portray the Circassians as dangerous people or bandits, something which I know is not true. They are a wonderful hospitable people. Of course I always bear in mind the fact that someone may try an attempt on my life in order to blame it on the Circassians. In any case, we took all the precautions we could and the rest we left up to God and in the end we triumphed, and made the journey the way we wanted, regardless of the people who tried to stop us; that in itself is satisfaction enough. I sincerely believe that when you stand on the side of right and your intentions are good, no one can stop you.
Q: How is your relationship with your father, His Majesty King Hussein? Did he give you any advice, and what was his impression about this trip?
A: If there is such a thing as a Saint in this day and age we live in, it would be my father. He is the wisest, bravest, kindest and most intelligent leader in the world today. But most of all he is the greatest father. He has taken so much care of his children and has tried to give us all that he didn't have in his childhood. But what I cherish most in my life is his advise and his wishes. My father has always encouraged his children to go out, see the world and work on something that we believe in, not to simply be reliant on him, but to try and make something for ourselves, and I am trying to do just that through my work for the Circassians.
During the trip, when I encountered problems I turned to my father for advice, and he has kept a close eye on everything even while he was undergoing treatment. My loyalty in life is solely to my father and none other, and in the future I will always serve him to the utmost of my ability in whatever form it may be. But till then, he has given me the freedom and the encouragement to make my own mark and follow my own path, and in the end, God willing, I hope to repay my father with the greatest gift I can offer, pride in his son.
Q: How close are you to your sister Princess Haya? Are you a family person?
A: My sister Haya is my pride and joy. She is a living memory of my late mother Queen Alia, through her actions, her character and her beauty. Haya is also someone I admire, for her unfathomable courage, willpower, and desire to realise her dream in the field of show jumping.
Every person has faults and mine are that I'm secretive, not very good at expressing my emotions, and I can never ask for help, so I'm not the best family person. In the past few years, I haven't seen my brothers and sisters, all of whom I love, as much as I would have liked, but they are always in my dreams and prayers, and I constantly look forward to the moments when we are together.
Q: How do you see your future as a king's son and do you feel any responsibility?
A: There are no certainties in life, and fate often has its wicked way with us, but I continue to follow the signs and paths that will eventually lead me to my final destiny whatever it may be. The hardest path is always to follow one's dreams and try to realise them, but at the same time it is the only way to live without regret and at peace with oneself. I'm not a conformist, and I never do what I'm expected to do, rather I always do what I feel is the right thing, to the despair of many.
I feel tremendous responsibility in bearing the Hashemite name, but at the same time I know that it is not the name that makes a person but rather ones work and ones actions.
In Jordan I keep a low profile, and I have tried to stay away from appearing too much in front of cameras, unless it has to do with work, because I believe the average person cares more about feeding his or her family than the fact that prince or princess so and so went here, or opened this or did that. I'm a dreamer, and I have principles that I won't break for anyone. I've found a path to work on for the near future. I have a dream, and I pray to God to give me the courage and perseverance to realise my goal so that I may prove that I am worthy of bearing the title, prince.
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