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The summer I turned thirteen, in the sticky humidity of a Circassian town in northern Turkey, I received two gifts. “Leave that book aside for a minute,” my grandfather said, walking into the living room with a leather case. I don’t remember what the book was, really. It could’ve been the fourth book in the Percy Jackson series, which was a favorite at the time, or it could have been Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment–I was ambitious that summer, determined to nose my way into the adults’ world of sophistication. I always wanted more words, more worlds, more stories. Nothing was ever enough.
The gifts were the following: my grandfather’s majestic old mizika, a Circassian accordion, and an accompanying book of Circassian melodies and lyrics. In our tribe, we call songs stories — or songs stories; really, what difference does it make when they are one and the same? What he was really handing me was a storybook and its instrument, its voice, its medium. Stories. More stories. Old ones, those that I already knew by heart, but also those I had never heard before, that spoke of ancient histories. I felt special — chosen to be a storyteller of the Circassian culture.
“Why?” I asked. Why the half-Turkish granddaughter, the elusive one living across the seas in America, a shapeshifter at a crossroads of cultures? “You love your books, those stories,” he responded. “These stories are for you, too.”
The first story Circassian children learn is that of the genocide. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about it — about Russia invading our indigenous homelands in the Caucasus, of my great-great-grandfather’s journey across the Black Sea, how they sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire. How can we not? Our communities are defined by the diaspora. Existence in diaspora, with the threat of assimilation and loss of language, has made the art of storytelling through music and dance even more important. We tell these stories when we play the mizika. We preserve the stories of our people.
(One hand on the keyboard, the other through the strap and on the buttons. Pull the bellows out, and it will sing.)
And so I too tell stories. The stories of my ancestors with the mizika at first, but later also with writing. I tell stories about myself, existing as a Muslim woman in the United States, and my cultures. I tell the stories of the diaspora, in Turkey and the United States. The storytelling taught to me through my Circassian identity allows me to create my own work and explore all facets of myself.
(One hand on the pen, the other splayed across the notebook. Spill into the pages, and it will sing.)
And so I also speak, empowered by the legacy of preservation and consciousness. To those inside and outside my community about the genocide and efforts for genocide recognition. I speak indigenous solidarity, the global push for recognition and rights. I speak the empowerment of Muslim women.
(One hand shaking those of others, the other idle. Open the mouth, and it will sing.)
My interactions with my Circassian heritage have made me into who I am today: a storyteller. A teller of the stories of the past, the personal, and the present world. I play, I write, I speak–that is to say, I sing.
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