Vol 1 No 2 Spring/Summer 2000

Stories from a Dom (Gypsy) Woman -

The Dom Community of Jerusalem

by Ms Amoun Sleem

(Editor's Note: Articles such as this one are intended to give readers an opportunity to hear from the Dom of the Middle East & North Africa. Rather than non-Dom writing about Dom, the reader has the opportunity to hear from the Dom themselves.)

Our history says that the Gypsies came out of India a long time ago - more than 1,000 years ago. We call ourselves the Dom people. I belong to the Dom in the Old City of Jerusalem. From this group of Dom a quite big group moved and went to live in Egypt. Many people who try to collect information about the Dom in the Middle East mistakenly think that the Dom came out of Egypt.

Like any community in this world the Gypsies have their own special lifestyle which is different than other people. The Gypsies live "day-to-day" and don't really want to change this style of living. They like to live close to each other. They believe that this gives them power and they should stay together as one big family. So for many years the Gypsies lived close to one another. Due to this lifestyle the Dom have stayed in the same basic area for years. If you try to change this many Dom people will be sad and say, "you are trying to change your skin! This is the Dom way of life!"

The Dom people have lived in Israel a long time. They were here during the time that the Turkish people lived in Israel. Even with this long history in the land, many things have changed. The number of the Dom has changed. Most recently during the Israeli-Jordanian war many Dom left Israel and went to Jordan. Others went to various countries throughout the Middle East such as Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Turkey and Egypt. The Dom are a peace loving people. They never think about power and promoting themselves. Because of this they are not influential outside their community, they don't involve themselves in wars or political fighting. Even with their peaceful ways, every year their numbers dwindle. In and around Jerusalem there are about 1,200 Dom. That number includes Jerusalem and the West Bank. This is a small population compared with the number of Dom in the years gone by. In addition to people moving away from the area, there have been numerous deaths. The people believe that their lives are tied to living and dying in Jerusalem. At one time the people would run away from their homes if they feared political problems or wars. But now, they have begun to believe that they must stand up for their place and protect their homes. This is a change from the time when the people were nomadic and could move easily. Today many have settled into houses. But their problems are not over. Most Dom struggle to pay their rent and often have trouble with landlords who may put them out even if they do pay their rent. Since the Dom are passive people they are often the victims of such actions.

The years of my childhood were the best years of my life. Like many other Dom, I think the years gone by were the "Golden Years." My father told me about the different jobs my people had in the past. They earned their living by making many things with their hands such as weaving reed mats. Others were tinkers, played music, sang and danced. Also, the men were skilled makers of sieves, drums and birdcages. At times there were those who entertained using animals, especially horses. The Dom love animals and they supplied an important use for us. My father told me that the men treated the horses like children and took great care with them. My grandfather had a horse that he took with him everywhere he went. Before my grandfather ate he would put food out for his horse. Within two weeks of my grandfather's death the horse also died. I believe the horse must have missed him.

Over the past fifty years many things have changed. The role of the Dom women in the community has always been important. At one time the women helped in the fields, made clothes for the family, sheared sheep, spun wool and told fortunes. After giving up the nomadic life the women continue to work hard both in the home and outside. Many of them work for other people such as Jewish families doing cleaning or in their shops. None of them have their own businesses; instead, they continue to live day-to-day. They give money little thought-it's the last thing they think about. They still have not learned to save money for the future. Even if a Dom man had money and a house he would still spend it freely thinking only about living for the day. The women, however, would like to make the family's life better. They often go to work at young ages in order to help their families. Because of this many of the young girls don't go to school so their education level is very low. This in turn creates a situation in which they are unable to get jobs where advancement is possible. Their lives are very difficult and they feel powerless to choose what is good for them. In fact, the family promotes the idea that girls should get a job rather than going to school.

In some families this attitude toward the girls is changing. Step by step the life of the Dom woman is improving. They still do not have many of the advantages of other women in the world, but slowly the future is opening up for them. Some have begun going to school and making their own choices about the future they want. They are getting good jobs and gaining the respect of others. Some have professional jobs such as nurses. In Jerusalem there are three Dom nurses working in different hospitals. Others are models and seamstresses. This change is not easy in a community that largely holds to the belief that a woman's work is in the home. The Dom men must also respect the changing roles of women in the world so that their women can find their place in the world. We believe that one day this will happen, but for now the change is slow.

To Be Continued . . .

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