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The Forgotten People
By Amoun Sleem
A band of itinerant musicians and dancers hired by a Persian king? A caste of entertainers, commissioned to defend their homeland against a Hunnish invasion in the 5th century? Or a number of tribes sent out to Persia to a Turko-Persian general, never to return again? How and when did the Gypsies begin their migration, and how did they end up in Jerusalem of all places? In the early 18th century, historians established that the Gypsy people originated as a caste of entertainers in India who called themselves Dom, which meant “man” in their common language. The Dom of Jerusalem are one of the many communities of Gypsies who have settled throughout the Middle East. Like the Roma and Lom, their European and Armenian counterparts, the Dom have a consciousness that is both uniquely Gypsy and heavily influenced by their host countries. Amidst the theories gleaned from historical records concerning the cause of their departure from India, the Dom of Jerusalem offer a legend which roots them firmly in the Middle East.
Long ago, two tribes led by two cousins resided in Syria. One cousin, upon killing the King, incited the wrath of his daughter. Seeking revenge, the grieving princess turned the two tribes against each other and instigated a war between them, resulting in the death of both cousins. The princess was not satisfied, however, and issued a decree forcing the tribes to wander through the wilderness during the hottest hours of the day, ride only donkeys, and earn their living solely through dancing and music making. From there, some Dom travelled to India, Iraq, and even back to Syria. By acknowledging Syria, not India, as their ancestral homeland, the Dom altered the nature of the “man” to which their name refers in favour of a Middle Eastern identity. Today, the Dom live in several countries throughout the Middle East, and their culture has melded with that of the surrounding Arab environment.
As did the Gypsies in other countries, the Jerusalem Dom accepted the language and religion of the places they lived in. They are Muslims and speak Arabic as well as Domari - their native language. Domari is distinct even among the other major Gypsy languages, Romany and Lom. Its close links to Punjabi were key determinants of the Gypsies’ distant Indian heritage, yet Arabic’s significant effect on the language speaks to the impact of the Dom’s latest homeland. Whatever their adaptations in religion, language, or otherwise, Gypsies all over the world maintain a principal character that is singularly their own, and the Dom are no exception.
The Gypsies of Jerusalem remain a community infused by musical rhythms and song in keeping with Gypsy tradition, but have abandoned their nomadic habits in favour of a more sedentary lifestyle. They have made their home in Jerusalem for over 400 years. Originally settling in an area outside the Old City called Wadi Al-Joz, the Dom later moved to a small neighbourhood called Burj Al-Laqlaq within the walls of the Old City. An ethnic minority, the Dom community has suffered in silence throughout the decades of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Their numbers dwindled significantly during the battles surrounding the foundation of the State of Israel. The greatest exodus occurred during the war of 1967, which caused nearly half of the Dom population to seek refuge in Syria, Lebanon, and even India.
Despite a deep-seated identification with Middle Eastern culture, the remaining two hundred families endure severe discrimination at the hands of Israelis and their Palestinian neighbours. Once lauded in Persian poetry as unparalleled entertainers, a series of cultural, political, and economic shifts have led the Dom to be regarded as despicable beggars. The shame of being a Gypsy is instilled at an early age when children enter school. Although the Dom consider themselves Palestinian, their non-Arab ethnicity elicits such intense abuse that nearly 60% of the Dom community has failed to complete elementary school. Unskilled and uneducated, the Dom are locked into a cycle of dire poverty and derision. The younger generation now prefers to assimilate fully into the surrounding Arab culture, spurning traditional dress, the Domari language, customs or anything else that might distinguish them as Gypsies.
The Domari Centre in East Jerusalem was established to stem the deterioration of this once vibrant community and to restore its pride. Founded in 1999, the organization provides the traditionally underserved, minority population with economic empowerment, child development, women’s support, and cultural preservation. Members of the community, primarily women and children, come for classes, training programmes, advice and assistance. The Domari Centre takes particular care to rebuild the self-esteem of its youngest members, offering a child literacy programme, Domari language and culture courses, and new school supplies. The hope is that their little hands will eventually lift the Gypsies of Jerusalem out of the “untouchable” status from which they suffer through education and self-respect.
Amoun Sleem is the founder and director of the Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem. As a gypsy, she has shared the difficulties and challenges of her community and is focused on helping her people succeed. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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