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world wide wednesdays :: the complexities of being caucasian

some really gorgeous caucasians in georgia
why do we insist on confusing things by using the same word to describe different things? is there some reason why we have to terrify people by assigning the word "lead" multiple meanings? is there not one other combination of letters that we could have used? [there are lots. umbry isn't in use, for instance and it looks like a perfectly adequate word.] so who decided to take the term "caucasian" which originally referred to the people living in the caucasus mountain region, and use it to refer to white/ beige people everywhere?

in truth, it was a guy named christoph meiners, a german philosopher of sorts who liked to come up with high-sounding arguments for some pretty racist things like "white people are the only pretty people" and "black people can't feel pain". people like that have no business screwing up words for the rest of us. [although it should be pointed out that he screwed it up only in german. the "rest of us" just followed his example like vaguely racist sheep. -ed.]

what's truly unfair is that properly caucasian people- the ones who come from the caucasus mountains- really don't need anything confusing their identity, because they already come from one of the most confusing areas on the planet. wedged between europe and asia, caucasian peoples are the inhabitants of a geographical area and a linguistic group and those things overlap, but are distinctly different entities.

linguistic map by jackson pollock
for reasons that aren't entirely clear, the caucasus have always been a region of staggering cultural and linguistic diversity. more than fifty ethnic groups speak almost forty distinct languages in an area about the same size as spain. and for reasons that aren't entirely clear, it seems to have more or less always been that way; herodotus marveled at its tremendous diversity in the fifth century bce. there are some reasonable-sounding theories, of course: the area is located on the fringes of a number of historical empires and thus may well have served as a haven for those fleeing invaders; the topography means that individual tribes and villages are easily isolated, so that even those who arrived speaking the same language would develop their own distinct dialect; it sits in proximity to a number of different ethnic groups and is accessible to all of them. the bottom line is that the caucasus has been an extraordinarily diverse place for as long as people have written about it.

the drawback  of being diverse is that the area has been rife with ethnic tensions through much of its history. and sadly, when there has been relative peace, it's been because the territory has been under the [often repressive] control of a foreign empire. most recently, that meant the russians and what little we hear about the caucasus region now tends to be tales of ongoing hostilities, insurrections and terrorism that has flared up to fill the vacuum left by the soviet disintegration.

the caucasus region is generally subdivided into northern and southern sectors. in the south, you have the former soviet republics of georgia, armenia and azerbaijan. in the north, you have a handful of republics, which are [for now] part of the post-soviet russian federation. republics within the russian federation are home to regional non-russian majorities have a greater level of autonomy than provinces. there are twenty-two republics all over russia and about a third of those are in the tiny caucasus region.

grozny, chechnya, 1996
the best known of the russian-based caucasian republics to most westerners is chechnya. an almost nightly fixture on news reports from the mid-nineties to the early part of this century, the chechen wars remained little understood in the western world and the western media, who seemed to show a reflexive mistrust both of the russians and the predominantly muslim chechens. [side note: because of the increasingly militant religious tone of the chechen separatist movement and the association of the boston marathon bombers with the neighbouring republic of dagestan, the media has created an impression that the caucasus region is largely islamic. but like all things in the caucasus, it's much more complicated than that. georgia and armenia are predominantly christian, while the republic of kalmykia in the northeast boasts the world's only buddhist government. muslim areas of the caucasus historically followed a more liberal branch of islam. fundamentalism in the region is more of a modern phenomenon, a result of and not a cause of the wars with russia.]

so who are the "real" caucasians then?

tblisi, georgia
well, if you want to be really specific, there's only one nation that could plausibly refer to itself as caucasian and that's georgia. how so? because georgia is the only nation in the world that is geographically and linguistically caucasian. the caucasian group contains about forty languages, but only about a dozen have actually been written down and only georgian was transcribed prior to the twentieth century. [side note: way prior. the current georgian alphabet is almost a thousand years old and prior to that, the there was an ecclesiastical script.] in fact, georgian is spoken by more people than the rest of the caucasian languages put together [about four million of the world's seven million caucasian speakers]. although armenia and azerbaijan are in the caucasus, but their languages are indo-european and turkic, respectively. almost all of the other caucasian languages are spoken in the russian north caucasus. so when you talk about real caucasians, you're talking about georgians. thank goodness the name "georgia" couldn't possibly be misunderstood. [side note: ironically for the racialist theories of meiners and others, georgian is not related to the indo-european languages that most white people speak. what's even stranger? georgian isn't actually related to other major caucasian languages, either. the caucasian linguistic family is actually two unrelated siblings adopted by the same geographical parent.]

caspian sea, azerbaijan
i can't imagine that this post has left you anything but confused. it's been confusing to write and unbelievably confusing to research. my brain is sweating as it tries to understand it all and i swear, we're just scratching the surface here. on the other hand, it's also possible to just sit back and marvel that such a splendidly complex area can even exist. indeed, the antithesis of western,  suburban, white-bread cultural hegemony would seem to be caucasians.


p.s.: whoops! i did have every intention of publishing this on wednesday, but i'm afraid that things didn't work out. but you already knew that.

p.p.s.: just because you don't hear about conflicts on cnn [who have recently converted to an all-ebola format] doesn't mean that the conflicts you've heard about previously have gone away. it's been years since we've heard about the conflict between armenia and azerbaijan over the border territory of ngorno-karabakh, but it's still a hot enough issue that in the qualifying tournament for the uefa euro cup, the armenian and azerbaijani teams had to be placed in separate groups to ensure that they could not end up playing each other. considering what teams who are willing to play each other have done, i can't even imagine what  would happen at such an encounter.

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