Religion as Identity in Iskander's Abxazija

Erika Haber, Syracuse University

A strong and clearly identifiable belief system is an essential element in building an indigenous culture's sense of identity, especially when it is contrasted with that of the majority power as in magical realism. Iskander's Chegemians accept—or more accurately tolerate—aspects of Islam and Christianity, but not without a great deal of skepticism. The real source of Abxazian morality, however, may be found in the complex system of traditional customs and rituals that shape their daily behavior, their landmark events, and indeed their entire lives. Consequently, their belief system becomes inextricably linked to their very sense of what it means to be Abxazian. In creating this Abxazian belief system in his Uncle Sandro stories, Iskander captures enough authentic detail to preserve a genuine flavor, but adds healthy doses of exaggeration and satire.

Using magical realism as a post-colonial discourse (Slemon, Hutcheon, Alexis), this paper will examine how Iskander's Abxazians develop their own largely pagan belief system as a defense against the religions and ideologies of would-be colonizers. This is a central characteristic of magical realism since it allows the non-dominant culture to acknowledge its ancient roots, celebrate its longevity, and take pride in the enduring power of its own traditions. In this way, religion creates a strong bond between members of the community and allows Abxazian culture to remain vital despite the influences imposed on it from outside.