Abkhazian Wiseman from Vernon, by Viacheslav Chirikba
In Memory of Murat Yagan: 16 December 1915 - 19 December 2013
April 9, 2001 (Published in "Respublika Abkhazia", Sukhum, Abkhazia, 21-22 April 2001.)
We are approaching the house of Murat Yagan which is situated on a hill overlooking the Canadian town of Vernon. At the threshold of his home we are met by Gregor who is a student of the local college and a member of the Kebzeh community. He is addressing me with words in the Abkhazian language, “Bziala waabeyt!” meaning “Welcome!” I enter a spacious home which is full of guests who have come especially to meet me.
All of the guests are members of the Kebzeh community which was established in 1975 by Canadians and Americans with the goal of studying Ahmsta Kebzeh - the original philosophical teaching presented by Murat Yagan. I met Pamela Rose, Sharron Allen, Greg Kemp, Joan McIntyre, Ralph Maddess, the Leader of the community, Lisa Talesnik, who is the Kebzeh representative in Israel, and also with other members of the community. Right away they fell on me with many questions about Abkhazia: is the blockade still in force; are we under the threat of a new war; what is the economic situation there; is it possible to come to visit Abkhazia? The conversation continues for a long time. Finally, far into midnight, the people are ceremoniously saying goodbye and going home, leaving me alone with this remarkable family of Murat Yagan.
Who is Murat Yagan and what is the teaching of Ahmsta Kebzeh about? Why is he, an Abkhazian from the Turkish diaspora, living here in Canada, far from both Abkhazia and Turkey? All these questions interested me very much, that is why, with great pleasure, I accepted the invitation from the Kebzeh community to come to Vernon and be a guest in the house of Murat Yagan.
Many things here reminded me of the Caucasus, of Abkhazia: the view of the snow-covered mountains around Vernon (by the way, this place is a well-known mountain resort), the warmth and hospitality of people who live here, a close spiritual connection of the Kebzeh community with Abkhazia, and the frequent use of Abkhazian terminology, like Kebzeh, Aleishwe, and Amarja. But the greatest surprise for me was the evening at the Villa, when suddenly I heard the sound of Circassian melody and saw members of the Kebzeh community, moving gracefully in smooth Circassian dance. All of those Canadians and Americans were dancing so artfully that it could bring envy to many native Circassians. I should admit that I was envying them! I had a full sense of being at home, in Abkhazia, and not far away in Canada, close to the Pacific Ocean and by the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
Of all my impressions, the chief, the strongest, was from my communication with Murat Yagan. This charismatic man with a neat grey beard and piercing black eyes looks like an Abkhazian Elder-Nart, and like a Biblical prophet at the same time. He is stern but elegant in his dress, well-composed, unhurried in movements and deliberate in speech. A high forehead completes this noble look, and his eyes emanate wisdom and nobility of spirit. His quiet gaze suddenly sparkles with fire when the talk turns to Abkhazia, to the Caucasus. And his movements become Eagle-like when Murat, with youthful energy, jumps into a fiery Circassian dance together with his graceful wife Maisie.
Murat is 86 years old and his wife Maisie Gogua-pha, who is a native of an Abkhazian village near the Turkish town of Duzce, is 75 years of age. Despite her age, Maisie keeps a girlish gracefulness and marks of incredible beauty. Energetic and emotional, being like a nurturing mother to all members of the Kebzeh community, she reminds me of Satanay Guasha, the wise and beautiful mother of one hundred Narts.
Murat Yagan was born on December 16, 1915. His ancestors came out of the region of Ashkhara in the North Caucasus which Murat holds as a part of the historical greater Abkhazia. This is how Murat describes it in his famous autobiography I Come from Behind Kaf Mountain: “My family left the Caucasus because they were stupid like the rest of the Abkhazians… My grandfather, Sat, brought 15,000 people to Turkey... Sat had three younger brothers, Gut, Tat and Asher… Tat went to Egypt and settled in Cairo where he became known as Mithad Pasha. He had a wonderful son named Adley Pasha Yagan who received an excellent education and who became Prime Minister of Egypt in 1920 and again in 1926. When King Farouk was forced to abdicate, Adley Pasha's statue in the yard of the museum was left alone…. There is still Shar-i-Adley (Adley street) in Cairo.”
Murat’s father’s name in Abkhazian was Met and his clan Yagan is known to be a branch of the princely Maan family. Though Met occupied a ceremonial position within the court of the last Ottoman Sultan, he took the side of the Young Turks' movement under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk. After the proclamation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Murat’s father became a Deputy to the first Turkish Parliament from the province of Rumeli, though in 1926 he had to resign as a protest against the government’s policy of ignoring the cultural rights of ethnic minorities, in particular, the Caucasian minorities. He died in 1927 as a result of a mysterious attempt on his life. Although the government circles were suspected of being involved in organizing this attempt, the President Kemal Ataturk came to the funeral to pay homage to his former comrade. The mother of Met came out of the family of the famous Ubykh chieftain Haji-Berzek Kiarantukh. As is well known, this uncompromising Ubykh leader refused to accept the occupation of Ubykhia by the Russians and had led all of his people in the emigration to Turkey. Murat takes in his hands the portrait of Haji-Berzek, which he keeps in his study, gazes at it intently and then says with a heavy heart: “He destroyed his people.”
When a teenager, a great role in Murat’s physical and spiritual education was played by Abkhazian and Adyghe Elders who raised him in the spirit of the ancient Abkhazo-Adyghean knightly tradition. While he was a young man, Murat became an active participant in the North Caucasian cultural diaspora. His mentor and teacher was the famous poet and historian of the Abkhazian diaspora in Turkey, Omar Beygua, to whom Murat pays his deepest homage. Murat knew closely another Abkhazian educator, Mustafa Butba, the author of the Abkhazian alphabet published in Istanbul at the beginning of the last century. Murat was also acquainted with the famous French specialist in the Caucasus, George Dumézil, who was Murat's guest for three months and whom Murat accompanied to the Abkhazian, Ubykh and Adyghe villages in Anatolia.
Murat himself started to write quite early, when he was still a teenager. Unfortunately, almost nothing is left of this period of writing. With bitterness, Murat told me about his notebooks with early poems which he had left in Istanbul at his mother’s house and which were lost after her death. Only one poem dedicated to Abkhazia, which Murat wrote in his native language at the age of 14, remains in his memory.
Murat received excellent education at the colleges of Turkey and Paris. However, not science but sport (especially horse riding) became his true passion. He was a part of the Turkish National League and successfully participated in the horse sportive competitions in the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, as well as in other international competitions. But the greatest success was waiting for him in Vienna in 1937, when he became a world champion in high-jumping, coming ahead of Italian Castiliani. Though his performance brought him many medals and rewards, what bothered him was that in official reports he was called a Turkish horseman, whereas he regarded himself as an Abkhazian.
The Caucasus and Abkhazia always held a special place in his heart. “My heart was always there," Murat tells me. "All my life, I wanted one day to come back to Abkhazia. Nowhere, no matter where I lived, did I feel being truly at home.” He made several attempts to visit the Caucasus, hoping to have the opportunity to return for good to his home country. In the 1950s, in the time of Khrushchev, foreign tourists were allowed for the first time to visit the Soviet Union. Winged by hope, Murat applied for a visa at the Soviet consulate in Turkey. In answer to his request he was allowed to visit any region of the Soviet Union except the Caucasus. So this trip did not happen. Life in Turkey did not satisfy Murat, and in 1963, at the age of 48, together with his wife Maisie and four children, Murat moved to Canada. He chose to settle in the town of Vernon in British Columbia, which reminded him, with its mountainous landscape, of his native Caucasus. Until retiring on pension, Murat lived by building houses. With pride he showed me some really beautiful houses which he had built with his own hands
In the book I Come From Behind Kaf Mountain, which played and continues to play, an important role in the popularization of the teaching of Ahmsta Kebzeh, Murat describes his long life, full of dramatic events and conflicts. He tells about his meetings with interesting people: politicians (including Ataturk) and activists of the North Caucasus diaspora, sheikhs and businessmen. He tells us also about his first love trepidations. An important place in the book is devoted to his strenuous spiritual seeking, which brought him into the mystical Sufi orders and then into the camp of followers of the teaching of Christ. The most important result of his spiritual seeking was his realization of the great value of that spiritual heritage which was created and brought down through millennia by the peoples of the Abkhazo-Circassian cultural tradition and which was inculcated in him by his stern Abkhazian and Adyghe teachers when he was still a green youngster. His coming back to the philosophical roots of the Abkhazo-Adyghean cultural and esthetic tradition, which had been partially preserved in the form of paganism and in particular, a sophisticated etiquette of "Apsuara-Adyghagha", and which up to recent times was still kept alive amongst the mountaineers of the Western Caucasus, brought Murat to the formulation, or codification of this unique relic of a spiritual heritage. The result of long searching and happy revelations became the teaching of Ahmsta Kebzeh in the form developed by Murat Yagan.
The tradition of Ahmsta Kebzeh is an organic synthesis of elements of mystical Sufism and Christianity with the basis of this teaching – the ancient Abkhazo-Circassian system of ideas and concepts about the essence of the human existence, the place of a human being in the society and in the natural environment, about the relationship between the mystical and the reality, the spirit and the will. Both moral and mystical components play important role in the teaching of Ahmsta Kebzeh.
The teaching of Kebzeh contains three hierarchical levels - Aleishwe, Kebzeh and Ahmsta Kebzeh. The first level, Aleishwe, is the level of etiquette, regulating the social behaviour of human beings in the society, in every day life, in welcoming guests, in ceremonies related to weddings and funeral rituals, in visiting relatives, friends and so on. The second level, Kebzeh, regulates knowledge which is necessary in connection with Administration and Management. The third, the highest level - Ahmsta Kebzeh, is reached by way of a series of prolonged physical and intellectual exercises directed towards the maximum development of the human nervous system, which serves as the most perfect home for Mind. Reaching the level of Ahmsta Kebzeh depends on education, willpower, and perseverance, as well as on the natural capacity to develop in oneself the necessary qualities. The term Ahmsta, although it is translated as "aristocratic", in this particular teaching, it is void of social meaning. It is used to describe the physical and spiritual levels inherent in the intellectual, ethical elite, which can be reached as a result of a specific education and a combination of physical and mental exercises. This meaning of the term Ahmsta is reflected, for example, in the Abkhazian term “ahmistashwara”, which designates the knightly etiquette and psychological code which was inherent in the traditional communities of the mountaineers of the North-Western Caucasus - Abkhazians, Abazas, Adyghes and Ubykhs, whom Murat defines by a common term "Circassians".
As Murat writes in his Introduction to Ahmsta Kebzeh, he is often asked the question - is Ahmsta Kebzeh a religion? The answer to this question is: No, Ahmsta Kebzeh is not a religion and does not interfere with any existing religion, although religions could be made out of it. It is an Applied Science; it is the art of living as a human being fully exercising human faculties as applied to life. Kebzeh could also be called a mystical science. According to the teaching of Kebzeh, a human being is not a body which has a Spirit, but rather a Spirit which has a body serving as a vehicle, much as horse is used as a vehicle for its rider. The stronger and more perfect the physical body is from birth and from physical exercises, the more perfect it becomes as an instrument for carrying the Spirit. This is why physical and breathing exercises, as well as diet, are an organic part of Kebzeh. Not accidentally, Murat often calls this teaching "Caucasian Yoga".
Beginning in 1975, Murat started to transmit his teaching to a group of students, whose circle gradually increased. In 1992, they organized a Foundation, the goal of which is the preservation of this oral tradition of Kebzeh in the way it is presented by Murat, its popularization and its publication. At the Kebzeh office in Vernon there are thousands of taped conversations with Murat on many aspects of the teaching of Kebzeh. The Kebzeh students work very strenuously on transcribing, editing and publishing these transcripts. Yearly seminars, classes, and training in the form of conversations and discussions dedicated to different aspects of the teaching always attract many students. In the United States and Canada, the number of students of Kebzeh is over two hundred people, and they have small groups in Europe and Israel too. Incidentally, some of the members of Kebzeh came out of followers of the teaching of the famous Russian mystical philosopher George Gurdjieff, who had a great influence on many Western intellectuals.Murat thinks that the teaching of Gurdjieff is close to his own philosophical concepts, although he also points out the significant differences between them.The Kebzeh Foundation founded its own publishing house (Kebzeh Publications) which issued five books by Murat: I Come From Behind Kaf Mountain (went through two Canadian publications with a third being prepared in London); The Teachings of Kebzeh; The Abkhazian Book of Longevity and Well-Being, as well as Murat’s translation into English of the poetic creations of two great mediaeval Sufi poets, Gaibi (Gaibi - The Gathering) and Yunus Emre (I Wrapped Myself in Flesh and Bones I Appeared as Yunus). Also published were Murat's brochures An Introduction to Ahmsta Kebzeh - The Ancient Spiritual Teaching of Caucasus Mountains, How To Create a Kebzeh Community, and Morning Exercises - The System of Moving and Breathing Exercises. The Foundation issues a newsletter called The Kebzeh Review. Other works by Murat are also published such as Transformation and the Seven Ways of Knowledge and Psyche, Love and Will. Now Murat is working on his biggest work, The Book of Ahmsta Kebzeh, in which the teaching is expressed in its fullest and most complete form.
Murat's books can be found in the largest bookstores in Canada, United States and Europe. The magazine Book World of British Columbia lists his work I Come From Behind Kaf Mountain among the most important two hundred books of the 20th century published in British Columbia. The popular Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt in her album A Book of Secrets, calls one of her songs Night Ride Across the Caucasus, which she wrote from her impression of the book I Come From Behind Kaf Mountain. In her annotation to this song, the singer noted the similar roles which horse riding plays in spiritual edification in both the Celtic and Abkhazian traditions.
Murat lives with the cares and problems of Abkhazia; he is interested in everything connected with his homeland. During the recent war in Abkhazia, Murat and members of his community wrote numerous letters of protest to the United Nations and to the American, Canadian and European governments. Soon after the war ended, Murat and Maisie managed to visit Abkhazia. Murat admitted to me that what he saw there overcame his highest expectations despite all the destruction inflicted by the war - so beautiful was even the post-war Abkhazia, the land which he holds as his only Motherland. On Murat's table he has a picture of President Ardzinba with whom he met in Abkhazia and in New York. In his study there hangs an Abkhazian flag and the bookshelves contain many books on Abkhazia and the Caucasus. Murat was very excited to hear my story about the preservation in Abkhazia of the traditional religion, of the great homage people still pay to the shrine of Dydrypsh-Nykha, and of the fact that the custodian of this shrine was present, together with Christian and Muslim religious leaders, at the inauguration of Abkhazia's President. Murat is eager to visit Dydrypsh-Nykha and meet with its custodian, as well as with the Head of the Christian community in Abkhazia.
The same kind of attitude towards Abkhazia and her problems is shared by other members of the Kebzeh community. Many of them dream about going to Abkhazia and meeting her people. One of the most active members of the community, Pamela Rose, told me about the campaign in support of Abkhazia she and other co-members carried out during the Georgian-Abkhazian war. Joan McIntyre organized my lecture about Abkhazia in a regional university in Kelowna where she is teaching Literature. After my lecture, one of the professors came to me and wished Abkhazia success in gaining international recognition. I remember also my conversation with a young member of the Kebzeh community, Gregor, the one who welcomed me in the Abkhazian language. Murat’s children have grown up and moved to different places. He and Maisie call Gregor, who lives with them, grandson. Gregor calls Maisie 'Sandu', which means ‘Grandma’ in the Abkhazian language. Gregor told me about his plan, on finishing college and receiving his Manager's diploma, to go to Abkhazia and help local youth in organizing small businesses. He dances Circassian and Abkhazian dances beautifully and dreams of learning the Abkhazian language. For that purpose he wants to live in an Abkhazian village, in order not only to master the language, but also to learn the traditional Abkhazian etiquette "Apsuara", which forms an important part in the teaching of Ahmsta Kebzeh.
At the present time, the Kebzeh community, after a long period of recording the teaching of Kebzeh and accomplishing a number of organizational measures (buying a building, organizing seminars, establishing a publishing house), is now going through a kind of a second birth, getting out into the outer world. The situation became even more dynamic with the arrival to the organisation of Marz Attar, a businessman from the American State of West Virginia, who heads the Kebzeh US Foundation. The energetic and charming Sharron Allen, Murat’s Personal Assistant, also brought about a new dynamic. Under Murat’s initiative and with the support of the Kebzeh community, a new organization was officially registered in Washington DC, called 'Society of Friends of Abkhazia' (S.O.F.A.). They have already created an Internet site and plan to open an office in Washington. This organization is planning some humanitarian, cultural and economic projects in Abkhazia. Thus, at the present moment, the issue of creating a contemporary telecommunications network in Abkhazia, including the access to Internet, is being worked out.
A new activity started last autumn when Murat and a few activists of the community spent more than a month in the hospitable household of the American center of Kebzeh, situated in the mountains close to Washington, with Abkhazian, Circassian and American flags flying. I was also fortunate to be a guest in this center, led by Marz Attar, and to spend happy hours of communication with Murat, Maisie, Marz, his wife Carrie, Sharron and other members of the community. During this visit, my lecture about the situation in Abkhazia was organized at the Georgetown University in Washington. I also gave newspapers, television and radio interviews. I had a chance to meet with some congressmen, university rectors and workers at the Library of Congress, with leaders of different international organizations working on the Caucasus, with representatives of the North Caucasus Diaspora in Washington, and with businessman Krim Natirbov and his respected father, who is a retired member of the US State Department and a native of Adyghea. Other memorable meetings were with officials from the US State Department's Caucasus and Georgia Desks, and with the Director of the “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty”, a well-known Sovietologist and former high-ranking State Department official, Paul Goble. During our conversation with him, he expressed the opinion that not far in the future, they will host the official Ambassador of Abkhazia in America. I also had many other interesting meetings, all of whom were perfectly organized by the friends from the Kebzeh community, and especially with the dynamic cooperation of Marz Attar and Sharron Allen.
For a very long time Murat’s works were not known to the Abkhazian reader, although some information about him can be found in the book by Professor Inal-ipa Diaspora Abkhazians. The importance of Murat’s work and personality is still to be discovered and understood by his countrymen. It is necessary to translate Murat’s books into the Russian and Abkhazian languages so that we can introduce our society to this remarkable man, one of the most original thinkers coming from the land of the Caucasus, who in his 86th year is full of energy and intense intellectual creative activity, and whose main dream in life is to live to see the day when his native Abkhazia will become a truly independent and free country.
The time of saying goodbye to the members of the Kebzeh community who had become such close friends, and to the Elders Murat and Maisie, is approaching. I ask Murat if he has a message, something which he wants to say to the people of Abkhazia. This question excited Murat. He said, “I have so much to say, but if I start to speak, I will have to cry!” Tears appeared in his eyes, he lowered his white head and became silent. Then he continued, “I will say to you something which I never tire of saying: “Antswa Hapsuara iumyrdzyn!" ("May God Preserve Our Tradition of Apsuara!").
Viacheslav (Slava) Chirikba is a Doctor of Linguistics, Leiden University, Holland
April 9, 2001.
Published in "Respublika Abkhazia", Sukhum, Abkhazia, 21-22 April 2001.