Vol 1 No 2 Spring/Summer 2000
The Gypsies of Lebanon:
Update, April 2000
by Dr. G. A. Williams
Cultural and religious pluralism contribute to the mystery and richness of Lebanon. At times this pluralism is
explosive. For 15 years, from 1975 to 1990, Lebanon was plunged into a civil war that violently divided the country
into regions controlled by religious and ethnic factions, including Sunni, Shiite and Druse Muslims and Maronite
Christians. The diverse interests of the Lebanese, Palestinians, Israelis and Syrians fueled the war even as they
each constitute an ingredient to the country's make-up. Seventeen religious communities inform the people's religious
consciousness. Social discontinuity is also a major factor in Lebanon's pluralism pitching the poor (Christians
and Muslims) against the rich (Christians and Muslims). On the fringes of this diverse, even fragmented social
order stand the Dom (Gypsy) communities.
Although the Dom of the Middle East and North Africa have a common ancestry they are not a homogenous group. The
communities in Lebanon display varying outlooks on life as well as variance in language and living conditions.
Dom are found in small pockets throughout Lebanon yielding a conservative estimate of 8,000 people. Dom families
typically have seven or eight children. One man near Beirut spoke proudly of his 24 children all of whom were born
to one woman. Several clusters of Dom can be found in and around Beirut, Jubayl, Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley.
Many more single-family units are scattered throughout the country.
The region of modern Lebanon and Syria is historically a center point or cross roads for migration. Even today
Gypsies can be found moving back and forth from eastern countries such as Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
One interviewee spoke of the modern day, nomadic Gypsies who still travel these "trade routes" with no
regard for national borders.
In the Bekaa Valley they live in tents and in the huts of migrant workers, but in Beirut they
live in shantytowns. The shantytowns have grown up in areas that were devastated during the recent war. Water,
sewage and electricity are not generally available; thus the unsanitary conditions breed their own problems. The
Lebanese government has scheduled the shantytowns for reconstruction. When the reconstruction begins the Dom will
Within the shantytowns the Dom live in close proximity to other ethnic groups (such as Palestinian refugees and
poor Lebanese) yet they maintain their own closely guarded identity. The casual observer may not realize this since
they identify themselves to strangers as Bedouin, Turkmen, Syrian or Lebanese when possible preferring to keep
their actual identity a secret. Around Beirut the Dom like to be known as Turkmen or Bedouin primarily as an alternative
to being known by the derogatory Arabic term "Nawar."
Few Dom in the cities have steady jobs. They can be seen begging in the streets; playing drums, flutes or other
instruments at weddings and parties; fortune telling; as well as working as day laborers. Dom children sell candy,
nuts, gum, etc. in the streets rather than attending school. One Lebanese reported that in the past the government
placed a band on Gypsies to keep them out of the cities, especially the larger cities. Today their presence seems
to be tolerated but they move from area to area to make enforcement of regulations difficult. Late in 1999 a police
"sweep" was made to pick up the various groups of people who work the streets of Beirut; the Gypsy children
were also picked up in this operation. The parents mistakenly thought their children were being stolen or taken
from them. They were later released to their parents along with a warning of arrest for the parents if the children
were caught on the streets again. According to those interviewed, "the government had hoped to put these people
in training programs, etc., but the idea was ill conceived and failed."
A shantytown in Beirut
One newspaper report about a Dom family in the village of Qasr vividly depicts the situation
that exists for some of the settled Dom in Lebanon. "The scarcity and expense of health services have had
an immediate effect on the family. Four of the children, two boys and two girls, are disabled due, Fawzieh said
rather vaguely, to 'a terrible fever' during infancy. She said they had not been immunized. The boys, both of whom
are unable to walk, have been in a hospital in Beirut for the last couple of years. The girls, Fatimeh, 14, and
Samaher, 6, are both deaf. Abbas and Adnan, ten and nine respectively, are proud to be the only two of the children
ever to have had any schooling. Both in first grade, they wrote their names on a piece of paper as the whole family
looked on. They will remain in school until the generosity of a local benefactress wears out, said Fawzieh. And
if they have to stop going to school? 'They'll have to work as labourers like I have,' Mohammed said with regret."/2/
Attitudes toward the Dom in the Lebanese society at large are negative./3/
As in other countries in the Middle East, the Dom are called "Nawar" by the Lebanese. Arab people often
use this term in jest with one another, but when used in reference to the Dom it is a strong expression of contempt
revealing a deep seeded bias against this group of people. The poorest Lebanese feels that he is superior to the
Dom. One individual said, "to be born a Gypsy is to be born under a curse." Not only do poor Lebanese
distinguish themselves from the Dom, but the Dom also make distinctions between the various Dom families. Unacceptable
work ethics, cleanliness, and adherence to Gypsy traditions are a part of the criteria of association between the
Not all of the Dom are destitute. Some of the men make a single stringed musical instrument called a Rababa. The
instrument is not unique to the Dom culture, but is one of the primary products these Gypsy merchants offer. They
also make a heavy, wooden container that is used to crush coffee beans. The manipulation of the wooden rod as the
beans are crushed makes a musical sound and is used much like a drum. One woman danced for us while the men played
the instruments and the grandmother "sang." Some of the men have turned this craft into a profitable
business. They make and sell these items in the markets of almost all the towns in the Bekaa Valley. Some of them
travel as far as Saudi Arabia for business purposes.
Until recently the Dom of Lebanon were a nomadic people. The children were educated by means
of story telling and watching the adults do the daily tasks of life. Learning by example was the most obvious method
and practical means of preparation for life-particularly a life that a Gypsy could expect to attain. Today this
attitude prevails in the shantytowns. Children are not encouraged to go to school. The benefits of formal education
are not seen as important for the Gypsy way of life-that is, day-to-day existence. Humanitarian agencies have begun
to take interest in the Dom. One organization operates an Arabic literacy training school in one of the shantytowns.
This school welcomes students of varying ethnic backgrounds. The program focuses on children 10-13 years of age.
The school also provides basic health and childcare training for women. Some of the Dom children and adults are
now involved in the program./4/
The Dom in the Bekaa Valley demonstrate a more "enlightened" point of view towards formal education.
During a brief visit with one family they proudly pointed out one young boy who was studying French. This family
is a part of a community that encourages their children to go to the Arab schools.
The language of the Dom is Domari; however, there are many dialects of this language. The Arabic term for their
language is Nawari. A Dom from Syria living in Lebanon said that the difficulty of learning the language stems
from the Persian (Farsi) influence. While Persian influence may be observed, Arabic has contributed significantly
to the language's development.
By and large, Domari is perpetuated orally being passed from parents to their children through the natural enculturation
process of the family. One Dom living in the Bekaa Valley said that they don't actively teach their language to
the children, but that the children pick up the language naturally. Instead of encouraging them to learn Domari,
the parents encourage them to learn Arabic knowing that their interaction with the social order around them mandates
knowledge of Arabic.
No books or other published materials are available in Domari; however, some of the Dom said that they use the
Arabic script to write (transliterate) their language. No official documents or books have appeared in this way,
but it serves the purpose of communication by letter. This means of written communication was reported only among
the Dom in the Bekaa Valley. This is probably due to a higher literacy rate among this group as opposed to those
in the shantytowns.
The Dom are a religious people. Some of them are Muslims while a few of them adhere to Christianity. They show
a high tolerance for others' opinions about religious matters, thus conflict over religion seldom occurs. One man,
however, expressed concern that many Dom give no thought at all to religious matters. Even among those who hold
to neither Islamic nor Christian teachings there is a general acknowledgment of the existence of a higher power
that finds expression in terms of folk religion, superstition and fortune telling.
Very little information about the Dom of Lebanon is available in print. The people of Lebanon know of them, but
few people have come to know them beyond the reputation they have in the streets. While everyone recognizes the
multi-cultural dimensions of Lebanon they have failed to appreciate yet another facet of their ethnic and cultural
make-up that can be found in the Dom people.
/1/ For more information about the shantytowns in Beirut see Peter Theroux, "Beirut Rising" in National
Geographic Vol. 192, No. 3, September 1997. (Back to Text)
/2/ For the complete article see Nada Al-Awar and Morshed Dandash (Daily Star staff)
"They come in their big cars and make promises they never keep"
in The Beirut Daily Star, June 13, 1998. (Back to Text)
/3/ A modern example of attitudes toward Gypsies in Lebanon can be found in "Real Arabs still feel second-class,"
in The Beirut Daily Star, Tuesday, November 10, 1998. (Back to Text)
/4/ To read more about this program see Julie Hannouche, "Schooling
the Chiclet Children" in The Beirut Daily Star, August 19, 1999. (Back to Text)
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