Vol. 1 No. 1 January 2000

Article Contents: Introduction; History; Culture; Languages; Groups or Tribes; Countries; Endnotes


Dom of North Africa
An Overview

by C.F. Thomas

Introduction


During the last few decades interest has been high regarding the Gypsy or Romany people--especially those from Eastern Europe. Much has been written concerning their origins, language, culture and certainly their suffering during the holocaust in World War Two.

Little research has been done however and even less written dealing with those of this ethnic group who live in North Africa. This study is a first step in filling that gap. The geographical area covered herein includes the countries of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia. These are countries where Gypsy presence is either established, suspected or rumored.

The following is a preliminary study and is intended to be only that: an initial look at this topic. It is hoped that the circulation of this document will solicit additional information and corrections for enhancing and updating these findings. Later a more complete study will be done which will include field research from the countries involved.

One final introductory remark: For clarity sake and in an attempt to differentiate from other groups, the Gypsies of North Africa as well as those in the Middle East will be referred to generally as "Dom." This comes from the word in their language (Domari) which means "man" and is often used by them as a self-designation. Gypsies in Europe and elsewhere will be referred to as Rom and their language as Romani.

HISTORY

The English word "Gypsy" is believed by many to be a shortened form of the word "Egyptian." This idea connects with some accounts of early Romany migrations into Europe and their claim at the time to be from Egypt. There is almost no historical evidence to support such an idea though one group in Albania today is known as "Evgit" or Egyptian Gypsies.

Little is known about the specific origins of the Gypsy peoples of North Africa. It has been suggested that the Haleb and Nawar of Egypt probably migrated there from Syria. Both Ralph Turner and John Sampson, early Romani linguists, speak of basically three branches of Gypsy migration: the Lom into Western Asia, the Rom into Europe and the Dom into the Middle East.

Since one group, the Ghagar tribe, migrated back to Egypt from Europe others might have done the same. It is more likely however that the majority of the Dom in North Africa were an extension of the early migration of groups out of India and into the Middle East.

Scholars have cited numerous reasons for the migration of the Gypsies out of India but for these peripatetic groups, economic factors were likely the strongest. Some have also suggested the slave trade by Turks as a reason for the arrival of Gypsies in Africa. It is true that later European Rom were forcibly taken to other parts of Africa to work in the German and Portuguese colonies.

CULTURE

Many North African Dom live in the poorer districts of large cities or in modest conditions in rural areas. Others live in tents and have a lifestyle similar to the Bedu or Bedouin of the region. One interesting study on this subject was done by Nabil Sobhi Hanna and is entitled "Ghagar of Sett Guiranha: A Study of a Gypsy Community in Egypt."/1/ Therein the writer describes a group of Dom who live in a rural setting. As late as forty-five or fifty years ago, however, they still lived in tents and followed a more nomadic life style. Today their major occupations are entertaining, smithing, tinkering, trading and wool work. Other groups in North Africa are known to earn their living as day-laborers, watchmen and fortune tellers while some survive as beggars or thieves.

With regard to religion, it should be noted that many North African Gypsies or Dom are more than nominal Muslims. It is reported that some have even made the pilgrimage to Mecca, or Haj. No known groups of Dom Christians or churches have been found.

LANGUAGES

Traditional Gypsy languages are Indo-Aryan and have their origins in Sanskrit. The language of the Dom of North Africa is known as Domari. It was first recorded by Seezeen in 1806 and at that time it already contained many Arabic loan words. The grammar, however, remained essentially Indian.

Various sources have shown that the Dom of North Africa employ a large number of Arabic loan words when speaking Domari. The use of loan words is a common phenomenon in many languages and certainly the Romani speakers of Europe have borrowed words from the languages of their host countries.

Domari may further be broken down into a number of sub-groups or dialects. Two of these main dialects are Halebi and Nawari (or Nuri.)

GROUPS OR TRIBES

Afrikaya A group of Gypsies reported to be living in Algeria. These are possibly Manouche or French-speaking Gypsies originally from France.

Gaodari A group listed in Egypt and shown on a map entitled the "Probable Lines of the First Gypsy Immigrations" in Clebert's book./2/

Ghagar (or Nagar) Donald Kenrick mentions them as "a Gypsy tribe in Egypt who migrated back from Europe. The men are blacksmiths while the women work as rope-dancers, tattooists and singers. They live in the towns in the winter, and form a distinct group in Egypt."/3/

Ghawazee (or Ghawazi) are the well-known female dancers of Egypt. They are traditionally from the Quen area and are a subgroup of the Nawar.

Haleb (or Heleb) Kenrick says "the name comes perhaps from the town of Aleppo. They are considered to be a long-established group in Egypt and Libya. The men sell animals and act as vets and the women tell fortunes."/4/

Hanager (or Nagara) A field survey by the Dom Research Center found the term Hanager used as a designation for a sub-group of the Nawar in Egypt.

Nawar (or Nawwar, Nowar, Nuar, Nuwar) This group's name is an Arabic word meaning "blacksmith" or "fire-worshiper." Nawar are found in Egypt as well as in the Middle East.

Xoraxa (or Xorax, Xoraxane) These Dom are sometimes known as Muslim Gypsies and reported to be present in Algeria as well as in parts of the Balkans. They are also described as "Middle Eastern Roma," "Turkish Gypsies" and "Arabic Gypsies."

COUNTRIES

Algeria: It is reported that there are 2,500 Xoraxa (or, Xorax) in Algeria. Another source speaks of Afrikaya Gypsies in Algeria but nothing additional can be found concerning this group. Given the country's historical ties to France, it is wondered whether or not there might be Manouche or French Gypsies also located in Algeria.

An article in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society in 1952/5/ relates a story which places Gypsies in Algiers, Algeria in the early 1800s. Though they were identified as "Gitanos," there is no evidence that they were Romanies from Spain.

Chad: One source identifies Chad as having a Halebi population. No other source has been found to substantiate their presence there.

Egypt: The population of the Haleb or Nawar of Egypt is listed in the range of 864,000 to 1,067,000. Van de Pijpekamp adds Ghagar (or Nagara) to the list of Dom in Egypt.

According to the Ethnologue there are 1,080,000 Muslim Gypsies in Egypt, or 2% of the population, including 864,000 Halebi, 216,000 Ghagar (1993 Johnstone). The Ghagar live mainly in Dakahlia Governorate, north of Cairo.

Libya: After Egypt with more than one million, Libya is the country of North Africa with the largest Dom population. Most sources give a figure of approximately 33,000 Haleb or Nawar living in that country. Little is known about this group though one source says that they are Domari speaking but using a large number of Arabic loan words. Van de Pijpekamp also includes Libya as a place of Halebi and Ghagar (or Nagara) populations.

It is reported that many of these Haleb live in northwestern part of the country, thus giving rise to the idea that some might have migrated to Tunisia. A survey of this group and area is needed.

Morocco: Xoraxane or Muslim Gypsies have been reported in Morocco.

It is suspected that Kalo (or Calo) Gypsies from Spain have migrated to Morocco for business reasons. However no government statistics can substantiate this supposition. Similarly, it may be true that French speaking Gypsies or Manouche may have in the past or still today traveled and worked in Morocco but there is no evidence of this at the moment.

Sudan: An article from the Library of Congress in Washington DC identifies Halebi Gypsies as living in Sudan. They are described as "semi-nomads" and living near villages while they worked as smiths.

Examination of the Ethnologue (13th edition) database has revealed no population figures for Dom in the Sudan though Van de Pijpekamp speaks of the presence of Haleb there. A Dom Research Center field survey in Egypt also reported testimony of Haleb in Sudan.

Tunisia: Xoraxane or Muslim Gypsies have been reported in Morocco.

Due to a common border, it has been speculated that the Haleb of northwestern Libya may have migrated to Tunisia or at least travel and trade there. No hard evidence of this has as yet been uncovered. Also as for Algeria and Morocco, close proximity and linguistic (Francophone) ties to France created a climate favorable to Manouche immigration.

Note: According to information in the Ethnologue, Dom are also found in Afghanistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Syria, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

ENDNOTES

/1/ Hanna, Nabil Sobhi, Ghargar of Sett Guiranha: "A Study of a Gypsy Community in Egypt," The American University in Cairo: June 1982. (Back to Text)

/2/ Clebert, Jean-Paul, The Gypsies, London: Vista Books, 1963; pp. 196-197. (Back to Text)

/3/ Kenrick, "Romanies in the Middle East-3," op. cit. pp. 29-30. (Back to Text)

/4/ Ibid, p. 35. (Back to Text)

/5/ Winstedt, E.O., "An Algerian Gypsy Prophetess" from the "Notes and Queries" section, Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 1952, vol. 31, 77. (Article first written July 27, 1951.) Cited in this article is a book entitled Six Years' Residence In Algiers by a Mrs. Boughton, published in 1839. (Back to Text)


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