Vol 1 No 2 Spring/Summer 2000

The Gypsies of Cyprus:

A DRC Update, March 2000

by Dr. G. A. Williams


Various groups of Gypsies have lived in Cyprus for over 500 years./1/ During that time their nomadic lifestyle changed little; that is, until the partitioning of the island in 1974. The occupation of the northern part of the island by the Turks marked a change from the nomadic life to a more settled existence.

The larger groups of Gypsies are now settled in the towns of Morphou and Famagusta, both cities in the occupied, northern sector. Approximately six hundred Gypsies were settled in these two cities. Current total population estimates for the entire island range between one and two thousand Gypsy people. That the Gypsies were Muslims with more affinity to the Turkish people is the generally accepted rational for their moving to the northern area in 1974. In fact, their affinity is more closely tied to the Turkish language than it is to a religious persuasion.

The Gypsies of Cyprus are more closely related to the Gypsies of Europe, particularly Greece and Turkey, than they are to the Gypsies of the Middle East and North Africa. The Gypsies of Europe are more appropriately called Rroma while most of those in the Middle East and North Africa are called Dom. Although they have close ties historically, both their migrations from the homeland of India and their languages are different.

In addition to the settled Turkish speaking Rroma of the northern region, small groups of Greek speaking Rroma from Greece often visit the island to sell their goods. They rent hotel rooms or apartments for several months at a time in the port city of Limassol and go out into the villages selling hand made items. They usually do little more than pay their expenses for the trip and are gone./2/

Most recently a small group of Turkish speaking Rroma crossed from the occupied area to the Greek Cypriot side of the island citing poor job opportunities and discrimination as their reasons for leaving. Approximately twenty families crossed the "green line" in October of 1999 and were settled by the government in the Turkish area of Limassol near the old port. Three to five families have been settled in the city of Paphos on the western end of Cyprus. The Cypriot authorities have no reason to believe that there is an impending, extensive migration of Rroma southward. Over the past 25 years a rumor has spread among the Greek Cypriots that the Turkish government relocated Gypsies from the Turkish mainland to the northern occupied area of Cyprus. This rumor has not been substantiated. In fact, because the Rroma have Cypriot birth certificates or can in some way prove they are Cypriots, the national welfare authorities have provided basic housing and a small monthly stipend for them. The officials insist that they will care for the Rroma who are Cypriots, but the people must prove their nationality. A cursory look at the families shows that they do receive sufficient assistance to provide their basic needs.

Although their status allows them to seek employment, they largely remain jobless after six months of residence. They are also entitled to the same amenities afforded Cypriot citizens, such as national medical care and schooling for the children. Whether or not the language barrier is the only reason that the men remain unemployed and the children are not in school, their exclusive use of Turkish is a major hindrance to their enculturation. Illiteracy adds another complication to the situation. Prior to 1974 the Rroma mingled with Greek Cypriot population on a day-to-day basis while at the same time maintaining their tight knit communities and culture. The Turkish/Greek language barrier of today is a major obstacle that must be overcome if closer relationships are to become the norm once again. Until then, suspicion and fear will keep the communities divided and further promote the Rroma mystic--a mystic that is actually a detriment to the development of the community. During an interview a Greek Cypriot reminisced about the "old days" when the "Tsigani" roamed the island. "They were a real problem. One of them would knock on the front door and distract you by offering to read your palm while his companion would slip in the back door to rob you." He quickly added, "they would also steal babies!" While there is no evidence to support these panicked stories, they do demonstrate the mystic that must be overcome.

The Greek Cypriots use the terms Tsiganos, Yiftos and Kouloufos to refer to all Rroma. The Rroma accept these designations from outsiders, but when asked what they call themselves they responded, "Kurbet" and their language "Kurbetcha." Turkish has basically displaced Kurbetcha. This group is composed of younger people who grew up under the influence of the national language (Turkish) more so than the ethnic language. Some of them said they understood a few words of Kurbetcha, but they did not speak it. In fact, their knowledge of the language was so limited that they did not realize there is a distinct numeric system. Only one "older" woman who was approximately forty-five years of age knew some of the numbers--at least the first three numbers. She counted, "yek, tudo, sise." Even these numbers appear to be a confused attempt to count in the language with only yek being recognizable. They generally agreed that only the older people who are still in the occupied area know the language well. Everyone else has adopted Turkish.


  Throughout the world Rroma are known for fortune telling. In the small community in Limassol one of the women willingly demonstrated her gift of reading palms. Of course no one believes what a fortune-teller says, but after having ones palm read there is always that measure of curiosity to see if the prediction will come true.

Notes:

/1/ Donald Kenrick and Gillian Taylor said, "Although there are no official records confirming the arrival of Gypsies in Cyprus, it has been estimated by historical calculation that the first immigrants came between 1322 and 1400, when Cyprus was under the rule of the Lusignan (Crusader) kings. These Gypsies were part of a general movement from Asia Minor to Europe. Those who landed on Cyprus probably came across from the Crusader colonies on the eastern Mediterranean coast (present day Lebanon and Israel)." See "Gypsies in Cyprus" in Roma, No. 24, 1986. (Back to the Text)

/2/For additional information on the Greek Gypsies in Cyprus see the following article (this is a Greek language publication), Marias Frankou, "What Happened to the 'Koullouphoi' of Cyprus," Selides 324 (February 6, 1998):90-92. (Back to the Text)

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