History & Origins
Roma are also known as Gypsies, Rom, Rroma, Romani, etc.
History & Origins of the Gypsy Peoples
The Roma people originally lived in north west India in what is now southeastern Pakistan. They migrated to Persia between 224 and 642 CE. They lived under Arab rule in the Middle East from 642 to 900 CE, and eventually arrived in Constantinople. 1 Some authorities believe that there may have been additional migrations at a later date. The first exodus was spurred by a ruler of Afghanistan, Mahmud of Ghanzi, who invaded the Sind area in A.D. 1001-1027. The second exodus arose out of attacks upon northwest India by Mahmud of Gorh (A.D. 1191-1192), and then the empire expansion of Genghis Khan (A.D. 1215-1227). The third took place during the reign of the khan Tamerlane in the late 1300’s and early 1400’s, when he attempted to repeat Genghis Khan’s exploits.
The cultural group that would later become the Gypsies led a semi-nomadic life in India, and has been tentatively identified as the Dom, which has been recorded as far back as the sixth century. The Dom performed various specialized jobs such as basket-making, scavenging, metal-working and entertainment, traveling a circuit through several small villages each year. This is not a unique phenomenon; the Irish Travellers, although completely unrelated genetically to the Gypsies, fulfill the same functions. Indian caste beliefs of the time may have been the original model for the strict purity and pollution ideology of the present Gypsies, modified over time through contact with other cultures. This semi-nomadic life allowed the Dom the opportunity to easily flee when battles threatened the area in which they lived, and apparently did so three times during the Middle Ages.
The European Gypsies are perhaps the original refugees from Mahmud of Ghanzi’s wars, for all sixty Romani dialects contain Armenian words, suggesting that they passed through Armenia in the early 11th century on the way into the Byzantine Empire. The impetus to continue on and enter Byzantine Anatolia was most likely provided by the Seljuk Turks attacked Armenia during the 11th century and spurred the Gypsies onward.
The earliest currently known reference to Gypsies is in a Life of St. George composed in the monastery of Iberon on Mt. Athos in Greece in 1068. It relates events in Constantinople in 1050, when wild animals plagued an imperial park. The Emperor Constantine Monomachus commissioned the help of “a Samaritan people, descendants of Simon the Magician, who were called Adsincani, and notorious for soothsaying and sorcery,” who killed the beasts with charmed pieces of meat. (I wonder if the concept of “poison” never occurred to these people?) “Atzinganoi,” the Byzantine term for Gypsies, is reflected in several other languages: the German “Zigeuner,” the French “Tsiganes,” the Italian “Zingari,” and the Hungarian “Cziganyok.”
By the 14th and 15th centuries CE, some had drifted into western Europe where they call themselves Sinti (a.k.a. Zigeuner in Germany, Gypsies in the UK, and Zingari in Italy). 2 Some emigrated from Europe to the US and Canada in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Following World War II, and lately the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, there has been an additional westward migration.
Most Roma settle down in a single location. Only about 5% of European Roma are believed to be nomads.
Tracing the history of a non-literate culture
Linguists compare Gypsy languages to historical languages; they look at words borrowed from other languages and when and where those words originally existed. It is possible to trace Gypsies back to their origin: the Sind area of India (today south central Pakistan — the mouth of the Indus). Three separate emigrations occurred over the course of about four hundred years, traceable today in three identifiable linguistic populations: the Eastern Gypsy (Domari) in Egypt and the Middle East, the Central Gypsy (Lomavren) in Armenia and eastern Turkey, and the Western Gypsy (Romani) (Romany refers to the people, Romani refers to the language, Rom refers to a man or the people as a whole. Confused yet?) in Europe. This last group is the population most widely dealt with in reference works and literature, and therefore most of the information here pertains to them.
The first exodus was spurred by a ruler of Afghanistan, Mahmud of Ghanzi, who invaded the Sind area in A.D. 1001-1027. The second exodus arose out of attacks upon northwest India by Mahmud of Gorh (A.D. 1191-1192), and then the empire expansion of Genghis Khan (A.D. 1215-1227). The third took place during the reign of the khan Tamerlane in the late 1300’s and early 1400’s, when he attempted to repeat Genghis Khan’s exploits.
From an anthropological point of view, I would say that this transient, fully nomadic lifestyle developed in response to the constant fighting pushing them west. Originally refugees from India, they may have thought they would return to their homeland as soon as Mahmoud of Ghanzi’s fighting stopped. Refugees quite often stay ready to return to their point of origin for many years once pushed out of their native lands. (A modern example: some Cuban refugees still keep bags packed in anticipation of returning at any time.)
When the Dom people left the Sind, they probably planned to live on the road for a few years and then return to their home territory. Normally, the second generation would have settled down in this “temporary” new area, but they were semi-nomadic to begin with, and then the Seljuk Turks invaded and pushed them farther west. After that the Mongolian expansion kept pushing them, and eventually the idea that there was a “back home” was lost. They retained their original semi-nomadic lifestyle in the midst of sedentary cultures, keeping their language and strict pollution ideology in order to maintain their unity as a people as well as clinging to something familiar in the midst of strange new cultures. They were mostly successful until the nations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries grew powerful enough to force the majority to settle. Their identity as a separate people is still strong enough for them to remain the brunt of prejudice and hatred, a fact hammered home by the killing of half a million Gypsies by the Nazis during World War II. Now, it may only be a few generations until any idea of nomad-ism is leached out of almost all Gypsies.
|the Domariin the Middle East and Eastern Europe,During the next 200 years, the Gypsies slowly advanced southwest into Arabia, Egypt and North Africa, northwest into the Byzantine Empire and established themselves in the southern Balkan countries (Serbia, Moldavia, Bulgaria, Hungary and the surrounding area) before 1300. It seems likely to me that this movement was slow due to the westward pressure of the Mongolian Empire; all of Eastern Europe’s population was in turmoil and Russian refugees were fleeing west at the time. Once Khubilai Khan died in 1294, the Mongolian Empire began its decline and the borders crept back east, easing pressure on Europe and allowing the Gypsies to expand more rapidly than the previous two centuries. They entered Dubrovnik (modern-day Yugoslavia) before 1362, and had blanketed the Balkans by 1400.The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries came as close to a Gypsy Golden Age as there had ever been. Gypsies covered Thrace, Macedonia, Greece, Yugoslavia and Rumania long before the Ottoman Turks conquered those lands. There was a large population at the seaport of Modon in the 1300’s, on the most popular route to the Holy Land, settled in the Gypsy Quarter, a tent-city just outside the city walls sometimes called Little Egypt. This exposure to pilgrims and the attitudes and privileges accorded to them may have led the Gypsies to adopt pilgrim persona once they spread into Western Europe.The Gypsies seemed to prefer Venetian territories such as Crete and Corfu, perhaps because those lands were relatively safe from the constant Turkish incursions. The population, and therefore their annual dues, in Corfu increased enough to form an independent fief conferred in 1470 onto the baron Michael de Hugot, which lasted until the nineteenth century. In the town of Nauplion, in the eastern Peloponnese, the Gypsies apparently formed an organized group under a military leader, one Johannes Cinganus (John the Gypsy). The Venetians expected to be given military aid in the case of increasing Turkish raids, and may have hoped the Gypsies would cultivate depopulated land.Gypsies a little farther north, in the Balkans, were not quite as lucky. They certainly had economic importance, valued as artisans practicing such trades as blacksmithing, locksmithing and tinsmithing, and also filled the niche between peasant and master, but to prevent escape the government declared them slaves of the boyars. They could be sold, exchanged or given away, and any Rumanian man or woman who married a Gypsy became a slave also. Liberty was not fully restored to them in Moldo-Wallachia until the nineteenth century.During the fifteenth century, the nature of the Gypsies’ hesitant travels into Western Europe changed. Before that time, they were quiet, unobtrusive and loosely organized, but afterwards they moved in a purposeful way, courting attention, claiming to be pilgrims and demanding subsidies and letters of dispensation. During the two decades after 1417, there are some interesting observations to make. The Gypsy bands seemed to have some unity of action and connection with each other, telling the same tales and displaying similar supporting documents (papal letters and such). A surprising fact is that well into the sixteenth century there is no mention made of Gypsies having their own language, and no apparent difficulty in communicating with the inhabitants of countries they were visiting for the first time. These groups were organized under leaders with noble names and titles, sometimes exchanged with other chiefs. This is unusual in that many of the countries of central and eastern Europe made sure that Gypsies did not rule Gypsies.What was behind this curious behavior? It may have been the Turkish invasion of the Balkans in the early 1400’s; Wallachia capitulated to Turkish rule in 1415, two years before the first Gypsy bands were recorded in Western Europe. The Gypsies themselves would probably not have been affected in the long run under Turkish rule (ignoring the immediate fires, sacking and battles), due to the Turkish habit of leaving civilian populations free as long as they paid taxes to their conquerors, not an unfamiliar state of affairs for Gypsies. Many people stayed and embraced Islam, but there are records of other refugees including nobles wandering west in groups and subsisting on charity. One traveler who visited Modon attributed the Gypsy migration to lords and counts who would not serve under the Turks. It seems that the self-interest of barons of Gypsy fiefs who stood to lose quite a bit under Turkish rule was the impulse behind the organized incursions into Western Europe, and at least during the first few years the men who claimed to be barons, counts and dukes were telling the truth.Whatever the impetus, the Gypsies exploded into central Europe. The usual scam involved a group claiming to be from Egypt or Little Egypt (perhaps referring to Modon?) showing up in a city and informing city officials that they were Christians doomed to wander for a period of years to fulfill a penance imposed upon them for the sin of neglecting their religion. They would collect food, money and letters of protection from the city and then continue to the next town. By 1417, Gypsies were recorded in Germanic cities. In 1418, several thousand Gypsies under a leader called Count Michael showed up in Strassbourg. Gypsies were entering Brussels and Holland by 1420, Bologna in 1422, and showing up in Rome in July of that same year. They travelled into Spain by 1425 and Paris by 1427. By the middle of the century, rulers and town governments started banning Gypsies, usually citing theft, fortunetelling, begging and sometimes espionage as the reasons. Europeans also recognized as lies the Gypsies’ claims to be pilgrims in exile from Egypt, but there are a few instances of alms being given into the sixteenth century, apparently by slow learners.At this point their meteoric expansion westward stopped for almost a century. Groups traveled east from the Balkans into Russia, establishing themselves in Siberia by the early sixteenth century but they did not enter Great Britain until 1514, probably because a completely separate ethnic group, the Tinkers, already occupied Britain and performed the same roles Gypsies did in other countries: nomadic entertainers, knife-grinders, pot-menders, woodworkers, transient field employees and so forth. The impetus to enter the British Isles was probably given by late fifteenth century Spanish policies ruling against and banishing Gypsies. With nowhere else to go, they entered Britain, then finally Norway in 1544 and Finland in 1597.
The Last Migration? Jerusalem’s Gypsy Community
By Jennifer Peterson
The English term “Gypsy” is derived from the word “Egypt,” based on a misassumption that the Gypsies’ origin is found in this corner of North Africa. There are Gypsies in Egypt, but they migrated from Palestine, and originally came from India.
The Gypsies of Palestine call themselves Dom, which means “man” in their native Domari language. In Arabic, also a native language for this community, they are called Nawar, which derives from the word for fire. They may have been called this because many of them worked as blacksmiths in the past.
Today, Dom Gypsy communities live in many of the towns, villages and refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Although the estimates vary depending on who is doing the guesswork, there may be roughly 1,000 Gypsies living throughout the West Bank (not including Jerusalem) and as many as three times that number in the Gaza Strip.
There are also an estimated 1,000 Gypsies living in Jerusalem’s Old City, Ras al-Amud, Silwan and other neighbourhoods. Suffering the fate of other Palestinians, many more live as refugees in neighbouring countries, particularly Jordan. A people within a people, these Gypsy communities share a unique heritage that connects them to a global Gypsy Diaspora, even as they identify with the more contemporary history and culture of being Palestinian.
Origin of Man
Muhammad Deeb Sleem,1 the mukhtar, or head of the Jerusalem Gypsy community, tells mythical tales of the community’s origin and migration from India to Palestine. An avid reader of epic sagas about Arab folk heroes, Sleem aspires to pen a collection of stories about the Dom’s history and culture.2 Like all good legends, Sleem’s stories are larger than life. And yet, certain elements of his stories do correspond with what historians and linguists generally believe to be the Gypsies’ origin and migratory path. Details, however, are still under intense debate, and it remains unclear why the Gypsies began to move in the first place. Some believe the communities were persecuted within the Indian caste system, while others suggest that it was a simple case of economic incentive. One scholar believes that the Gypsies may have first travelled to Persia after a northern section of India was conquered in 227 AD, to meet the need for labourers.3 Many more scholars concur that Gypsy communities moved to Persia during the reign of Bahram Gur to work as musicians and dancers. The migration of northern Indian populations to the Persian Gulf area during this period is well documented by Byzantine historians.4 The Gypsies’ path from Persia westward is less well understood. It is believed that by the fourteenth century, a branch of the Gypsies arrived in the Balkans, from where they eventually migrated throughout Europe.
Another branch of the Gypsies slowly made their way through the Middle East, eventually reaching as far as Morocco. It is said that the region’s leaders forcibly relocated groups of Gypsies several times, settling them in Antioch and Baghdad.5
Sleem tells one Dom Gypsy origin tale that is based on some of these historical accounts.6 It describes the transfer of Gypsies from India to Persia, and then their eventual movement to the Levant. This particular legend has a well-established oral and written tradition, being recorded first by the tenth century Persian historian Hamza Isfahani. The Persian poet Firdusi wrote a version of the legend in his eleventh century Shahname, or Book of Kings.7
The King of Iran, Bahram Gur,8 heard about the Gypsies who were in northern India. He heard about their customs and so on, and he wanted to see for himself. And so he sent a letter to the ruler of northern India, and asked him to send a few families of Gypsies – those Gypsies he had heard about, who dance and sing.
The ruler in northern India sent him about 400 families. He put them in boats and sent them to Iran. When they reached the Iranian border, people informed the King that the families had arrived in boats. The King greeted them and gave them land to live on, and tents, and gave each house a sack of wheat, and some calves. He asked them to change their customs – instead of singing and dancing and so on, to farm, raise livestock and learn how to cultivate.
He left them for a week, and then came back, incognito; he wasn’t wearing his royal robes. He found that in every house there was dancing and singing and so on. He went around all the tents, and then he gathered them together. He said, “Look, I gave you sacks of wheat, and told you to leave your customs, all this dancing and singing and so on, and become peasant farmers. Why haven’t you done what I told you?” They said, “Master, nothing comes from our hands, not farming or anything else. This is our custom; this is what we’re used to.”
The King grew angry with them, and threw them out of Iran. They went to Mosul and Kirkuk and Suleimaniyya and spread around and settled there.
With time, their population grew. And when [Kurdish conqueror] Salah Al Din Al Ayyoubi appeared, and occupied the Arabian Peninsula, and encroached upon Iraq and Mosul and Kirkuk, and began to move towards Syria and Lebanon, he took some of the Gypsy families who were in Mosul as prisoners to fight with him.
Then Salah Al Din came to Jordan and Syria and Lebanon, and he came to Palestine, here. And then the Gypsies he had taken as prisoners dispersed. Some of them settled in Jordan, others in Palestine, some in Syria and Lebanon. Some went to the border of Turkey.
Sleem also tells another origin legend that describes the Dom as Arabs who fled to India in the wake of a blood feud between the two Dom tribes. This story then merges with the above legend, when Sleem says the Gypsies later returned to Arab lands with Salah Al Din’s army. While there seems to be very little historical truth to this tale, the story indicates a need to reconcile the Indian origin of the Gypsies with their long-established Arab identity. This legend, recorded by Sleem in a short handwritten manuscript, opens with a prayer upon the Prophet Muhammad, followed by an introduction, common in classical Arabic literature, of the writer and his qualifications to record the tale.
According to Sleem’s account, the Dom Gypsy tribes descend from the Bedouin Bani Murra tribe, which once lived on the outskirts of Damascus and was led by Jassas. Not far away lived their “cousins”, the Bani Qees tribe,9 whose leader was Kleeb. He had killed Emir Hassan Al Tab’i,10 before taking control of the region himself.11 This event was the catalyst for a series of power contests between Kleeb and Jassas that eventually led to the Gypsies’ migration to India. Sleem narrates:12
Then the sister of Hassan Al Tab’i came from Yemen with her servant and mangy camel,13 to take revenge for the murder of her brother. This old woman was called Suad, and she settled near Jassas. After a few days, she asked her servant to take her mangy camel to one of Emir Kleeb’s gardens to graze. The servant took the camel to a vast garden, where it ate from its fruits and grasses and picked from the branches of its trees.
When the garden’s guards saw the mangy camel eating from the fruit-filled tree branches, they killed it and carried it to the street. The old lady’s servant cut off its head and took it to her, and she started screaming and crying. Jassas, who lived next to her, came [to investigate] upon hearing her screams.
She asked him to take revenge from Kleeb for the killing of her camel. Jassas wanted to honour her by presenting her with 100 camels, but she rejected this offering. She demanded one of three forms of compensation: bringing her camel back to life, filling her lap with stars from the sky, or killing his cousin, Kleeb.
Jassas agreed to kill his cousin to avenge the murder of her camel, and invited Kleeb to compete with him in a fencing match. When Kleeb won, Jassas challenged him to a horse race. When Kleeb beat him again, Jassas stabbed Kleeb in the back with a lance and he fell to the ground in a pool of blood. Revenge taken, Suad’s servant cut off his head, placed it in a sack, and together they fled back to Yemen.
Before he died however, Kleeb had scrawled a message of his murder with his own blood. When his tribesmen arrived on the scene the following day, they learnt of their relatives’ treachery. Sleem writes:
And so a war took place between the two tribes for seven years. In the end, Kleeb’s brother, Abu Laila, also known as Salem Al Zir, killed Jassas and a great number of the Bani Murra tribe. He disarmed them and ordered them to leave the country and live in the desert. He demanded that they not ride horses, but only donkeys.14
And so the Bani Murra tribe headed to the desert. They separated, with some going to the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, and others requesting to settle in northern India and European cities.
One scholar characterizes these legends as archetypal “ancestral guilt” stories common to peripatetic groups in an attempt to explain their origin and particular position in society. And yet certain elements of Sleem’s origin myths do match up with historical accounts of the Gypsies’ origins. While there is no evidence that the Gypsies were Arabs who migrated to India, there is much historical and linguistic evidence of their Indian roots and movement to Persia, as well as later relocations to and within Europe and the Middle East. What remains unclear is exactly when or why they moved.
The Gypsies of Palestine
Modern accounts of Gypsies in the Levant are largely found in linguistic studies and ethnographic descriptions written by Western scholars and Gypsylorists.16 Word lists and grammatical sketches of Domari were first collected by a German scholar from Gypsies in the vicinity of Nablus in the early nineteenth century.17 Professor of Celtic archaeology R.A. Stewart Macalister later produced a comprehensive study of Jerusalem Domari in 1914.18 He had spent nine years digging in the area under the auspices of the Palestine Exploration Fund, and learned some Domari from his foreman, Yusif Khattat. The data for his study was compiled from one local informant, Shakir Masin, and included stories Masin had told him. Macalister also photographed gypsy tent encampments located just north of Damascus Gate at that time.19
An early German description of Palestine’s Gypsies portrays them as itinerant craftsmen, which, alongside entertainment, is often described as the archetypal profession of Gypsies, whether in India or throughout the Gypsy Diaspora. This historical reference also attempts to count the Gypsy population in Palestine, but census formats have often proven problematic due to their wording and purpose, as well as the sometimes ambiguous profession of identity on the part of Gypsy communities.
In 1931, when a census was taken, Western Palestine20 contained nearly a million settled inhabitants, 66,337 Bedouin Arabs, and 216 Gypsies, but whether even that small number are still there or have suffered the fate of most of the Arabs one cannot tell. They wandered, stopping near towns and earning a living as smiths and sievemakers; and they were necessary for the making of ploughshares and fitting them with new points when worn. Though there were other makers in Jerusalem, most of the big grain sieves were made by the Nawar of horsehair. 21
In 1947, Jacob Schimoni published a booklet on the Gypsies of Palestine, including photographs of Gypsies, sometimes with performing animals such as bears or monkeys.22 He provided a rough – albeit condescending – description of the local Gypsy language and culture.
Of the Gypsy people who roam all over the world, some are also found in Erets Yisrael [sic], a few of whom wander in this land only, while others travel in various Arab countries as well as Israel. Their centre seems to be in the Jaulan [Golan Heights]. They have accepted the Moslem faith, but it is asserted that they do not understand it, as they are on a very low cultural level and do not care much about religion. Among themselves they speak a special language called in Arabic “aspur,” that is the sound or twitter of the sipor, i.e. “bird.” But the majority know Arabic, which they use in their relations with the natives. They dress like the Arabs of the villages, and the Bedouin, but their wives wear even more jewels and ornaments than the Arabian women. In their trades, which are of various kinds, they are akin to their brethren in other countries: e.g. tinkers, coppersmiths, engravers. But amongst the Arabs they are regarded as thieves. Some are dancers and singers; they give entertainments such as animal shows in the streets of towns and in the vicinity of villages, particularly during such festivities as wedding celebrations and other occasions of “fantasia.” For the rest, many of them are beggars who go around from door to door. Their tents are poor and miserable.23
Sleem says that after coming to Palestine, the Gypsies worked as blacksmiths, merchants and horse dealers. During his father’s generation, the Gypsies lived in tents where the Saad wa Said Mosque stands today on Nablus Road in Jerusalem, and moved between summer and winter shelters. During cold weather, they occupied stone houses further along Nablus road, but otherwise preferred their tents. By the time Sleem was born in 1933, many of the Gypsies had moved into wooden shacks along the eastern wall of the Old City.
Sleem remembers that when the Arab population was resisting British administration in the late thirties, resistance fighters would hide in these Gypsy shacks after attacking British soldiers. The British military administration also suspected the Palestinian resistance of hiding weapons in the Gypsy camps.24 The Gypsies did not actually fight the British themselves; they were too frightened, Sleem relates. After searching for resistance activity in Gypsy homes, the British ordered the Gypsies to leave the area in 1939. Most of them eventually settled within the Old City, in the Bab Al Hutta area near Lion’s Gate.
When the state of Israel was officially established in 1948, large numbers of the Gypsy population fled along with Arab Palestinians. Many of them settled in Amman, where there is still a sizeable Gypsy community in Hayy Al Muhajirin, Jebal Al Nadhif, Al Hashimi Al Shamali and other neighbourhoods. Palestinian Gypsies also live in the refugee camps of Jordan, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip to this day.
Most of Jerusalem’s Gypsies were still living in wooden shacks in the Old City’s Bab Hutta neighbourhood when Israel occupied the city during the Six Day War in June1967. The Gypsies left their shacks and hid nearby in Saint Anne’s Church, where nuns offered them shelter. Many left for Jordan, upwards of 400 families, Sleem estimates.
Shehdeh Issa was one of these Gypsy migrants. After the war he spent two days working for the “Israeli municipality” collecting dead bodies from the streets, and then walked from Jerusalem to Amman in search of his wife, who had fled in fear with other members of her family. It took Issa several days to locate her once he arrived in Amman, and then was unable to convince her to return. He and his now large family still live on Amman’s Al Muhajirin Street, “the street of immigrants.”
Another Jerusalem Gypsy migrant, Abu Muhammad,25 remembers leaving in Israeli buses for the Jordanian border. Like Issa, he thought that he would sit out the war in Amman and return to Jerusalem when the situation stabilized. But his three attempts to return all failed – whether crossing the bridge or wading through shallow sections of the Jordan River, Israeli soldiers turned him back. Today, he still lives in the Hashimi Al Shamali neighbourhood of Amman, a quarter of tightly packed houses reached via long stairwells, which houses many Gypsy refugees from Palestine.
Historical linguistics and dialectology have long been the focus of Gypsy studies, as scholars attempt to retrace the migrations of Gypsy communities and the history of their dispersion to their place of origin.26 Just as historical accounts tell of a split among the Gypsies, between the Roma who migrated to Europe and the Dom who ended up in the Middle East, the native tongues of these two major communities are significantly different today. While a speaker of Romani, a European Gypsy language, can understand approximately 50 percent of the speech of a fluent Domari speaker,27 the two remain highly distinct dialects. Domari draws heavily on Arabic for syntactic restructuring, as well as for its phonological shifts.28 Today Domari is known to be spoken in Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Although both Romani and Domari have clear Indic roots, scholars are still debating exactly when and where they split from each other. One linguist contends that there is little evidence for a shared development of Domari and Romani outside of India, and that they may even have shared a period of contiguous existence within India.29 Some scholars believe that there were two distinct Gypsy migrations, and that the Dom and Roma left India at different times.30
Today in Jerusalem, the use of Domari is on the wane. It was estimated in 1999 that only 20 percent of adult Dom, in what was taken to be a population of roughly 700, used Domari as the language of daily interaction in their homes.31 Most young Gypsies only understand a corpus of commonly used words, and are unable to speak with any level of fluency. In addition to a collection of Gypsy legends, Sleem is intent on compiling a dictionary of his native tongue before it dies out.
But language is not the only aspect of local Gypsy culture that is disappearing. “Gypsies used to have different customs, but now they are like the Arabs,” says Sleem.32 He tells of distinctly Gypsy traditions that are now fading out of practice.
When someone died, the first day, before the body is taken from the house, they’d slaughter a sheep…After they’d buried the body and come back from the graveyard, all the people who were at the cemetery would go to the house of the deceased’s family and eat a hot meal. When a week passed, on Thursday, they’d go to every house with trays of baklava or kunafa or gharibeh. They’d carry the trays of sweets on their heads and go to the cemetery and pass them around to everyone. On the fortieth day, or the day before, they would get three or four sheep, and rice, and cook a hot meal, and distribute it among the houses.
While there are photos of Gypsy performers in Jerusalem in the early twentieth century, today this stereotypical Gypsy profession has all but died out. In Gaza, too, Gypsy entertainment has apparently ground to a halt. “The Gypsy ladies no longer dance. [It] would be a sacrilege to have a celebration while the Palestinians are being killed by the Israeli army,” one ex-dancer told a reporter.33
The increasing isolation of Gypsy communities in Palestine may play some role in the decline of uniquely Gypsy culture. Due to the restrictions on movement imposed by the Israeli occupation and the economic hardships brought with the Intifada, Gypsy communities in the West Bank and Gaza are gradually falling out of touch with each other.
A People Within a People
“We are a people inseparable from the [Palestinian] people. We’ve been here for hundreds of years. [But] it’s a very lost community, it’s very forgotten,” says Amoun Sleem, a Gypsy woman living in Jerusalem’s Old City.34 She speaks not only of a slowly disappearing cultural heritage, but of the struggle to remain a thriving minority in a region with a complex history of national conflict.
Amoun is the founder and director of the Domari Gypsy Society of Israel. Controversial within the local Gypsy community and finding no support from wider Palestinian society, the organization has largely turned to outside assistance from Jewish and Christian organizations (as is indicated by the organization’s chosen name, which identifies with Israel rather than Palestine).35 The involvement of foreign missionary volunteers bearing humanitarian assistance raises concerns that some seek to convert the Muslim Gypsy community.36
The organization’s website has been instrumental in making Jerusalem’s community known to Gypsies in the greater global Diaspora .37 Today, some Gypsies from Europe and the United States who are interested in making contact with Gypsies in other countries travel to Jerusalem to meet the community. Muhammad Sleem shows photos of visiting foreign Gypsies dressed up in traditional Palestinian costume by their hosts.
These factors cause some to describe Palestine’s Gypsies as “caught between societies.” Subject to a certain degree of prejudice within Palestinian society (where the Arabic word for Gypsy, nawari, often has a pejorative meaning), and treated by the Israeli government like all other Palestinians, Gypsies sometimes get the worst of both worlds. However, Muhammad Sleem proudly tells of meeting with a high-ranking police chief in Ramallah when the Palestinian Authority was established in 1993. “He welcomed me and respected me. He welcomed me as the mukhtar, and as a citizen of Jerusalem, of the Old City. He wanted to meet me, you see,” Sleem explained.
In fact, Sleem and his forefathers, all mukhtars of the Jerusalem Gypsy community, have been officially recognized by a succession of ruling powers as the representatives of their people. His grandfather was appointed mukhtar of the Gypsies by the Ottomans, and his father was granted that same recognition by the British Mandate Administration in 1928, and then later by the Jordanian government in 1956. After his father’s death, Sleem was officially appointed mukhtar by the Jordanians, and then by the state of Israel in 1968 after it occupied East Jerusalem.
But perhaps due to their complex political and social environment, Jerusalem’s Gypsies try to stay out of politics as much as possible. This is a survival mechanism common to Gypsies around the world, says Kati Katz, a professor of Social Work at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.38 “Not getting in the conflict, claiming neutrality, and trying to survive,” is how she says Gypsies manage to stay afloat as minorities in whatever country they are in. Amoun agrees. “We aren’t taking a particular position on the conflict, but just like the Palestinian people, we are affected by the situation,” she says. Muhammad Sleem says that the Gypsies are scared of getting involved in political or military skirmishes.
But the Israeli occupation and the Aqsa Intifada affect Palestine’s Gypsies regardless. Unemployment, restrictions on movement and military attacks do not differentiate between non-Gypsy and Gypsy. Amoun tells how young Gypsy men are rounded up and jailed with other Palestinians in Israeli arrest campaigns.39 “The Intifada has really upset people; it’s strangling them,” she says.
Yet despite the myriad of political and cultural challenges facing Palestine’s Gypsies, they continue to firmly identify with both their Palestinian and Gypsy identities. And despite connections with the global Gypsy Diaspora and awareness of their Indian origins, Palestine remains their motherland. Abu Muhammad, living in Amman since 1967, says he still does not like the city and dreams of returning to his Jerusalem home.
Issa, also in Amman since 1967, proudly rolls up his sleeve to show a tattoo of the Dome of the Rock on his upper arm. In 1972, he finagled a permit for a few days’ visit to Palestine, and one exuberant drunken evening, had his arms tattooed up and down with his name, a mermaid, Saint George and other drawings. He chose the Dome of the Rock first, because it is part of his homeland, he says. Issa also visited Jaffa during that trip. “My mother bathed me in the Mediterranean Sea when I was a small child, and I had to see where my roots are,” he remembers.40
The Gypsies of Jerusalem say they have lived in the city for hundreds of years, and are as intent as other Palestinian Jerusalemites in holding on to their coveted residency status. Despite the hardships of living under Israeli military occupation, they have no intention of leaving. Like many Gypsies around the world, they consider their days of wandering long past, and are firmly settled in their communities. Should fate decree that the refugee Gypsies in neighbouring countries migrate once again, the only destination they would choose is certainly home – Palestine.
Jennifer Peterson is managing editor of the Palestine Report.
1 The name “Sleem” is a variation of the Arabic name “Salim”.
Fictional representations of Romani people
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Gypsy Fortune Teller by Taras Shevchenko.
Many fictional depictions of the Romani in literature and art present Romanticized narratives of their supposed mystical powers of fortune telling, and their supposed irascible or passionate temper paired with an indomitable love of freedom and a habit of criminality.
Particularly notable are classics like Carmen by Prosper Mérimée and adapted by Georges Bizet, Victor Hugo‘s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Miguel de Cervantes‘ La Gitanilla. The Romani were also heavily romanticized in the Soviet Union, a classic example being the 1975 Tabor ukhodit v Nebo. A more realistic depiction of contemporary Romani in the Balkans, featuring Romani lay actors speaking in their native dialects, although still playing with established clichés of a Romani penchant for both magic and crime, was presented by Emir Kusturica in his Time of the Gypsies (1988) and Black Cat, White Cat (1998). Another realistic depiction of Romanies in Yugoslavia is I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1967).
|the Lomarvren in Central Europe,|
|the Romani of Western Europe.|
Within these groups, the Roma are organized into 4 main and about 10 smaller tribes or nations.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Donald Kenrick, “Gypsies: from the Ganges to the Thames. (Interface Collection, Volume 3),” University of Hertfordshire Press, (2004).
- Ian Hancoc, “Roma: Genocide of [sic] in the Holocaust“. A brief excerpt appears in: http://www.geocities.com/Paris/5121/genocide.htm
- Antonio Gomez Alfaro, “The Great Gypsy Roundup. (Interface Collection, Volume 2),” See: http://www.herts.ac.uk/