Dancing with Monogamy

What Circassians know about flirtation

| November / December 2004

A few years ago, our friend Marz invited Eric and me to join him on a visit with Murat and Maisie Yagan, elders from the Caucasus region of southern Russia who now live in British Columbia. When Marz met us at the airport, with him, much to our surprise, was Murat, erect and vibrant in his 80's. First, he greeted Eric by saying, 'I hadn't expected you to be so tall and handsome.' Then he turned and, gazing directly into my eyes, said, 'He is lucky he found you before I did.' I was instantly smitten.

Murat is a prince of the Circassians, the proud and fiercely independent mountain people of the Caucasus. His family fled to Turkey shortly after his birth, but he was trained in the ways of Ahmsta Kebzeh -- the region's traditional body of cultural, health, and spiritual practices -- as well as in the martial arts. Today he and Maisie receive visitors, teach students, and commit to paper their spiritual and cultural traditions. He emanates the power, humor, and wisdom acquired during a lifetime studying spiritual traditions, including Sufism and Christianity.

When we arrived at the Yagans' home, we were warmly greeted by Maisie and several members of the Kebzeh Community, a group of students that has formed around them. And that was just the beginning of an unparalleled experience of hospitality -- an essential Circassian value.

During our stay we got a glimpse of a living tradition that has traveled through centuries. Ahmsta Kebzeh is considered a science of living rather than a religion. At its core is the belief that God is sexual energy and that the well-lived life is an effort to honor the sexual polarity and harness that energy in a disciplined way. In the Kebzeh Community, as in the Caucasus, relations between the sexes -- indeed, most human interactions -- include lots of teasing and flirting. The traditional dances we saw are a sort of choreographed flirting, and the atmosphere at all gatherings was full of gallantry -- along with elaborate toasting and soul-stirring recitations of Sufi poetry.

When I asked about the flirting I saw all around me, Maisie confirmed that the deliberate cultivation of sexual energy is central to Circassian vitality and longevity. As for Murat's flirtations with other women, she said that she considered it an honor that other women admired her husband. It is seen as perfectly normal and honorable for a husband to have sex with other women, as long as he doesn't neglect his wife's well-being -- including her sexual well-being.

Do women who have sex with other women's husbands pay a penalty? I asked. No, she said, a little vaguely, and then went on to explain that there are usually circumstances that make such liaisons legitimate, like widowhood or marriage to a much older man. Then, recognizing that there was something of a double standard in what she was saying, she told me that she could only recount the experiences of the culture she knew, a culture whose traditions had created generations of peace, health, and well-being. 'You live in a different world,' she concluded, 'and you will have to take from this what makes sense for you now.'

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