Chechen Is Difficult

(Noxchi Mott Xal Bu)

Anita Shishani

May 2019

I was quite possibly involved in a drug smuggling operation from Dubai to Moscow. In my defense, they spoke Chechen. As I was waiting to board the plane to visit my aunt, I heard the familiar meandering pitch, the “hā-ha” which wasn’t a laugh, but the word for no, and that unique sound expressed by the number “1” in “yes”: “ha1.”

I turned to find a family of four to whom I, bewildered, asked “shu Noxchi duy?”— “Are you Chechen?” I had grown up only speaking Chechen to family. This characteristic somehow translated into the belief that it also worked the other way around, and that, if anybody spoke Chechen, she automatically became family. I accepted when, mid-flight, the woman asked me if I could carry some medicine for her. After we landed, my aunt watched in shock, as I took out box after box of drugs and handed them to a stranger. I was fourteen years old, yet I made such a naive mistake.

My ideas about the unquestionable virtues of all Chechens were shaped through my mother-tongue, that my father forced his children to speak.

Sometimes, I hated him for it.

My father grew up where speaking noxchi was the ticket into a different world within Jordan: the Chechen diaspora. Jordanian Chechens were raised hearing stories about how the word Noxchi meant the Prophet Nuh’s (Noah) people—the holy people. They longed for the glorified homeland they could not return to: the Chechnya of today is no holy land.

I was fourteen years old, yet I made such a naive mistake.

In 1999, the Russian government finally annexed Chechnya after centuries of unnecessarily ugly and shameless attempts, which includes burning alive 700 Chechens that resisted deportation in a barn—an act praised by the Soviet secret services. Not even our museums and libraries escaped the violence. Few books exist. All that remains of our past are the stories from our grandparents. The Chechen language remains riddled with bullet holes. 

Every generation speaks less Chechen than the last, filling it in with “gap words” that have been integrated from other languages. I used to think there were two Chechen words for kitchen: mutbakh, Arabic from my dad, and kuxnya, Russian from my Grozny-born mother. The original word, ghagho, was one of many casualties. Noxchi has been beaten from a fully-fledged language and one of the oldest on Earth, to a patois that renders it impossible to discuss abstract ideas or use specific terms. 

In Grozny, schoolchildren take Chechen classes—if they can be called that. One textbook exercise asked to “tsa1 predlojenee yazde”, or “write one sentence” except the word “predlojenee” is Russian. The writers ignored the original word for it. In the book, at least a third of the words were in Russian—like Russia invaded our home, they forced their way into our mouths, too.

It is difficult expressing to my father my hopes and dreams in a Frankenstein’s monster of a language—different tongues crudely stitched together. It is worse trying to argue; I cannot find the words and instead stand there like a stuttering fool, echoed in the tense silence.

Knowing my language, however, lets me understand my culture and history.  I feel a duty to constantly broadcast the horrors that my people have bravely faced, because if I don’t, who will? It is important to remember them. I cannot live in a world where my ancestors lack a eulogy.

Recent studies indicate that trauma is passed down through generations. I can feel the deportation ordered by Stalin, where the old and sick were left to freeze to death while the rest were packed into trains like cattle, and the subsequent thirteen years in exile.

I can feel the Samashky massacre, where 300 civilians were killed. Many had been buried alive and the earth was damp with blood, as though our land wept for them; one of the survivors, a boy with a trembling upper lip, clutched onto a small pink purse. The child’s little sister was dead – it was her purse, for when she played dress-up. He could be heard saying “sa yish, sa yish”—my sister, she is dead. His words were not a prayer, or a promise; they were a shocked emptiness. 

“Sa yish.” 

He was in the background of the camera shot, without the English subtitles, which is symbolic for why the rest of the world rarely hears what is actually happening in Chechnya, and another reason I feel the pressures and the power of my voice.

 “Sa yish.”

 I can feel the words on my heart. So can noxchi all over the world.

I have 300 years of these experiences, somewhere in my DNA. I have 300 years of bloody resistance in my bones. 300 years, where our collective spirit, of the “free people,” has been gradually whittled down to the state it is in today. 

But it is a hidden history that comes without subtitles, and to truly know it we need noxchi.

It is difficult expressing to my father my hopes and dreams in a Frankenstein’s monster of a language—different tongues crudely stitched together.

It is disheartening, however, when my father cuts me off mid-sentence to order me to speak “noxchi mott”. I used to feel as though my thoughts mattered less to him than how they were packaged. Part of me is resentful for his insistence to speak a semi-language that I could never know suitably. 

As I mature, I realise the value of his insistence. Some relatives give me blank looks if I say a simple “How are you?” in Chechen. A friend whose parents spoke to her in English instead feels cheated out of her mother tongue. Their silence feels like a betrayal, although our hand was forced. We had no control over Russia’s destruction of our land and language. Some are exhausted from resisting, and let go of any hope for a future where speaking Chechen would be of benefit. 

My dad has never lost faith and along with the language, he has passed that faith along to me. 

A Japanese practice called kintsugi fills the cracks in broken items with gold. Chechen is filled instead with the dust of bombarded buildings, the confusion of diasporas and the hopes of the youngest generation. The struggle to maintain the language accompanies that of remembering a difficult history; we have a responsibility, however, to our ancestors, our descendants and ourselves to hold onto it. As my father has convinced me, after years of trying, knowing Chechen comes with a beauty and liberation of its own, too. 

Wherever I go, I find Chechens because they make it feel like home, through the food, music, dancing, and traditions, and the common thread of noxchi mott. Often, I find myself encouraging them to switch to Chechen, or take lessons, or expressing my desire to write a doshum (dictionary), and I recognise my father in my voice. 

And I’m glad.


A recently converted writer-against-adverb who is passionate about sharing Chechen identity and history, Anita Shishani is a second-year student NYU Abu Dhabi, majoring in Art History.


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