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Gypsies of Jerusalem: history

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 01.12.2009:

From the new Domari website

The origin of the Gypsy can be traced back to 18th century India, where links between the dialects of Romany and Punjabi have been discovered. The Gypsies of India originally referred to themselves by the term Dom, meaning man. While many Gypsy communities began referring to themselves as Rom or Lom, particularly in Europe and North America, the word Dom is still used by the Gypsy populations of the Middle East and North Africa. Because of the diversity of location and cultural integration, over the years the Gypsies have taken on many other names, including Barake, Nawar, Kaloro, Koli, Kurbat, Ghorbati, Zott, and Zargari, for tribal references and derogatory usage. Today, Dom communities reside in Cyprus, Iran, Iraq/Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/West Bank/Gaza, and Turkey.

Since the Dom language is not a written one, pinpointing when and where the Dom came from is problematic, with little definitive proof. It is largely believed that the Doms left India in several migratory waves, beginning in the 3rd century and lasting until the 10th century. A popular story that explains their movement is accounted in the epic Shah-Name by the Persian poet Firdousi. He tells the tale of the Shah of Persia inviting ten thousand musicians and dancers of the Luri tribe in India to work in his court. It is believed that these people belonged to a low caste of indigenous people (non Indo-Aryans) who were known for their skills in music and dance.

Another argument put forward is in the 11th century, India was attacked by a Turko-Persian Muslim general, whose aim was to push Islam into India. To counteract the attack, Indian troops were formed out of the various non-Aryan Indian populations, which were often the lower castes of society, including the Luri as foot soldiers. At one point, the Indian troops headed West into Persia, and stayed there at the end of the hostilities, rather than return to the discrimination that faced them in India. While they stayed in PersiaArmenia and Greece. While some arrive in Europe, others went to Syria, Egypt, and North Africa. Click here for the map of the first Gypsy immigrations. for a long period of time, much of the population continued moving as far west as

One legend among the Dom of Jerusalem explains their origin, stating they had resided in Syria as early as the Jahiliyya period, before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century. In the legend, there was once two tribes living in Syria, led by two cousins. One cousin, upon killing the King of Syria, aroused the wrath of the Kings daughter. By way of revenge, the Kings daughter turned the two tribes against each other, eventually causing a war between the tribes and the death of both cousins. When the fighting ended, a decree was passed against the tribes: they must always wander in the wilderness during the hottest hours of the day, ride only donkeys, and live only off of singing and dance. From there some Dom travelled to India, while others travelled to Iraq and even back to Syria.

There is very literature directly about the Gypsies, while they can be found in references throughout various documents. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there are many documents by travellers and pilgrims that reference the presence of Gypsies in the Middle East, for example. This document contains evidence that the Gypsies lived in Jerusalem in the beginning of the 19th century.

Modern History

Today, the Dom of Jerusalem still reside near the Lions Gate, behind the ancient walls of the Old City. This community consists of approximately 1,000 people, while larger pop0ulations live in Judea, Samarea, Gaza, and the West Bank.

While prior generations of Dom were nomadic, holding occupations such as blacksmiths, horse dealers, musicians, dancers, and animal healers, for over one hundred years the Jerusalem Gypsies have been living a sedentary lifestyle. While they originally settled in the Wadi Joz neighborhood of East Jerusalem, they later moved into the Old City and Migdal Ha Chasidah neighborhood. Typical of Gypsy populations, they accepted the local language and religion, in this case, Arabic and Islam.

The Dom of Jerusalem have not been immune from the turmultous history of this region, and their populations within the city have greatly reduced over the years. The greatest immigrations occurred after the 6 Days War of 1967, after hiding in the ChurchSt. Anne, within the walls of the Old City for the duration of the conflict. Those who fled now reside in Syria, Egypt, and Jordon, reducing the population from 200 families to less than 70 in the 1990s. During this time, the younger generation have become less interested in the ancient traditions and culture, preferring to assimilate into the neighboring Arab communities. Because of this, the Dom language is rarely used in everyday speech, and the traditional dress and other customs have largely been abandoned. This self-afflicted and imposed assimilation is contributed to the discrimination and marginalization the Gypsies face from both the Jewish and Arab population, and as a result the economic and social limitations that come from being identified and recognizable as Gypsy. These problems are perpetuated by a high drop-out rate, leading to high illiteracy. of

In order to raise pride and cultural awareness within the Dom community as well as internationally, in October, 1999 Amoun Sleem established The Domari Society of Gypsies of Jerusalem, a non-profit aimed at combating the major issues facing the community. This was an event of historical importance, as the first time the Dom community has organized itself as an entity.

The organization continues its work today, focusing on womens empowerment and providing opportunity for the next generation. By encouraging cultural pride and educational advancement, the Gypsies now have an opportunity to effectively contest discrimination and poverty through self-empowerment and achievement.

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