Abkhaz has never experienced interfaith intolerance; however, now they may be seeing the first signs of it" />

Op-Ed: “My great grandfather, Selyku Khashig, was a Muslim” – the story of a religious oasis in Abkhazia

Abkhaz has never experienced interfaith intolerance; however, now they may be seeing the first signs of it

–photo: Dmitry Stateynov, JAMnews

When you look at the things now happening in Myanmar, where one group of believers has been purposefully killing off another, you understand the world has gone nuts – it’s as if it has shifted into reverse and is speeding back towards a new, technologically more sophisticated version of the Middle Ages.

Hotspots of religious hatred pepper the world map. Some of them have, like the one in what used to be called Burma, already turned into a raging fire, while others are smoldering, ready to burst into flames at any instant – no lit matches needed.

Against this backdrop of all-out inter-religious strife, Abkhazia looks like an oasis in the wilderness. Most of us, the Abkhaz, do believe [in God], but there’s no fanaticism to how we do it. And, by God, this is how it should be.

My great grandfather, Selyku Khashig, was a Muslim. At someone’s wedding in the 1880s, a girl caught his eye. He invited her to dance, and afterwards he gave her a gold coin.

This was a telling gesture. Creating a family was a simple matter in those days – no muss, no fuss. The Abkhaz wouldn’t woo and beat around the bush, and spend years ‘getting to know each other better’ only to end up breaking up because ‘oh, we were too different’.

One dance or even a glance could be all it took one to make the decision and even to obtain the other party’s reciprocity for it, and then to marry and, in most cases, to live happily ever after.

And so, Selyku made up his mind. That very same evening, through a common acquaintance who willingly took upon herself the mission of being his messenger and matchmaker, he made his marital intentions known to the girl in question.

Yesma Papba, my great grandmother, was not one to marry a guy she’d just met without a second thought. The lady had a mind of her own, as well as good looks.

She had known her suitor before, though not personally. And she was well aware that he was a Muslim. Yesma herself was a Christian, and quite a pious, churchgoer type at that.

“I will marry him if he allows me to keep my faith,” was the message she relayed to him via their common acquaintance.

“No problem,” Selyku replied, and several weeks later Yesma became his wife.

If what our family legend says is true (and I tend to believe it is at least very close to the real story), theirs was a long and happy marriage. They had eight children together – four sons and four daughters. Selyku kept his word, meaning his wife kept her faith. Moreover, he allowed for some of their children to be baptized.

The house my great ancestor built for his family – a huge thing with walls one metre thick – still stands strong in the village of Khuap. For us, his descendants, it is The Big House.

For over a hundred years, Khuap has been a rallying point for the Khashig clan, a place we unfailingly converge on to jointly celebrate the Easter and Assumption of the Virgin Mary. None of those who became the ‘keepers of the hearth’ of the Big House after Selyko was a Christian. However, the feasts we hold in Selyku’s house to honour the memory of our Christian great grandmother has become a tradition as strong as concrete.

In the same all-hands-on-deck manner, our family celebrates Islamic holidays and Abkhaz pagan festivals. It is not uncommon for an Abkhaz family clan to feature several faiths getting along peacefully. This is how most of us have always lived. This is how I hope we will continue to live. So far, the official calendar of state holidays of Abkhazia is considerate towards all – the Christians, Muslims and pagans alike.

Alas, some people have found it annoying. So, the date of the Islamic holiday of Kurban Bayram has been declared a day off in Abkhazia, but this year it coincided with the traditional Knowledge Day [celebrated on much of the post-Soviet space on 1 September, when schools reopen after the summer break]. This triggered a small war of words on social media, as some users wrote that education in Abkhazia had been effectively offered up for slaughter alongside all the sacrificial lambs.

Now, of course, Abkhazia is a far cry from Myanmar. However, in our age of lightning-quick mass communications, distances are nothing when it comes to people’s minds. You just give it a go-ahead, and the machine of interfaith intolerance will spring into irreversible motion, and Myanmar, now as far as far can be, will be standing on your threshold tomorrow.

There are many things we may lack or feel lacking in our lives – lands, water, education, a place in the sun. But God, surely there is enough of God for everybody. My best wishes to all of you for all the holidays, past and future!

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