Yearning in Abkhazia
A Spiritual Tradition Helps Lift a Troubled Region
Listen to Alex Van Oss' report.
Listen to Loreena McKennitt's 'Night Ride Across the Caucasus'
Kebzeh elder Murat Yagan
Photo: Marz Attar
Some have called Abkhazia 'the original Eden.'
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Photo: Gleb Zverev
A map of Georgia, showing Abkhazia.
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July 6, 2002 -- Canadian folksinger Loreena McKennitt's 1997 song "Night Ride Across the Caucasus" was inspired by the life story of another Canadian, Murat Yagan, who was born in a land called Abkhazia. The region, tucked into a corner of Georgia on the shores of the Black Sea, is famous for its long-lived Circassian people, its traditions of honor, hospitality and chivalry, and for a philosophy called "Kebzeh."
Yagan, now 87, is working to preserve Kebzeh for future generations, and to help it spread beyond Abkhazia's borders.
As Alex Van Oss reports for Weekend Edition Saturday, Abkhazia -- about one-third the size of Maryland -- declared independence eight years ago, though no country recognizes it. Thanks to the region's awesome beauty, some have claimed that it is the original Garden of Eden. But it is far from being Eden today. Chechnya lies just to the northeast; Abkhazia is in constant contention with Georgia, and there are problems with unemployment and drug abuse.
Yagan, says Kebzeh could be of immense value to the world. The tradition stresses a rigorous program of character building. Yagan as a youth learned martial arts, horsemanship, and rules of civility, manners and etiquette.
"It is based on... universal values," says Vyacheslav Chirikhba, an Abkhazian diplomat. "The respect for elders, respect for women. A person is regarded as someone who is a member of society, rather than as a completely isolated individual."
Abkhazia had been the richest resort area of the Soviet Union. But now, Georgia tries to claim the territory for its own, and both Georgia and Russia blockade the land. The region is off-limits to foreigners.
Yagan, along with Chirikhba and other officials of the country, recently brought a group of Kebzeh students to Sochi in southern Russia, from where they hoped to cross the border into Abkhazia. After a flurry of phone calls, Yagan and several of the students slipped across the border. The others waited, and discussed Kebzeh's "pillars." One of them is "patience," or as one student says, "patience, patience and more patience."
Another is "abundance" -- which in this tradition means "a feeling of having enough no matter where you are."
The students waited three days for a car to take them across the border, but it was not to be. Yagan and his companions returned. Yagan was full of stories from the past and observations about life in Abkhazia -- one of which was his explanation of a third pillar of Kebzeh: "a tug at the heart" -- something that's common to many spiritual traditions. Yagan calls it "yearning."
"Yearning," he says, "is the only means to elevate human motivation from survival to ascension in the direction of an unknown better."
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