Dancing with Monogamy

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.’

I can’t say I left with any particular insight, but there was
something in the harmony and joy I experienced in the Kebzeh
Community that planted some seeds. Our visit stimulated lots of
conversations over the ensuing years about relationships and
intimacy and the practices that foster them

I have come to see that our contemporary American ideal —
courtship leading to the monogamous, isolated nuclear family — is
just one option. And that in trying to hold onto this as the one
and only way, we disregard all the evidence of dating disasters,
unhappy marriages, and train-wreck divorces. We could be asking how
we can find intimacy in new forms that are based on truth and
integrity — and that truly promote happiness and well-being.

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