Vol 1 No 3 Fall/Winter 2000

Gypsies and non-Gypsies in Egypt:

the Zabaleen and Ghagar Communities of Cairo

by Adrian Marsh

This paper is very much a work in progress and is largely made up of a synthesis of what little information is available in English about these two groups, together with some observations derived from a recent trip to the city, to which I have added some conjectural thoughts about the process of the formation of ethnic identities in the context of economic and social marginalization in both modern and early modern societies. It is the nature of such things that the scope of the subject will far exceed the coverage I can bring to bear upon them; I hope that what I may provide is the possibility of developing some of my own ideas relating to these groups in particular and the question of the construction of ethnic identity in general, whilst providing the opportunity for those with a much more profound knowledge of both to comment upon my reflections and widen the knowledge available about those groups of people in the world whom one could broadly identify as being members of marginal or "pariah" communities.

It will be of help I think, to define the kinds of terms I will be using that may be more or less familiar to some or all of the readers, as well as to contextualize the paper I am presenting both historiographically and sociologically. I will use the term "Gypsy" frequently throughout; this is a conscious use of an ambiguous ethnonym and I hope will not prove confusing in the context of a discussion about Egyptian "Gypsies". It is an exercize in reclamation and establishes a clear political position in relation to the discourse of 'naming', particularly as a self-ascription. The term "Dom" will also be used and this requires a more comprehensive explanation./1/ The historical process of emigration from north-western India from the 7th centuries CE saw three major linguistic groups, and two ethnic identities (currently) emerging from the mosaic of peoples escaping Muslim incursion and invasion. The earliest of these was the group who, it has been suggested can be labelled as the Dom./2/ The others were the Lom and the Rom, terms based upon the linguistic differences that arose from the koine that was Romani and its transformation through geographical distance from the point of origin and linguistic accumulation, through contact with Armenian, Greek, Turkish and other languages to give rise to Romani, Lomari and Domari (all drawn from the word for man, Rom, Lom, Dom). The migration of the Dom brought them through medieval Armenia (Cilicia), Syria, Palestine, Sinai and Egypt (their presence in Anatolia and south-eastern Europe is almost impossible to trace, as the later Romani identity has subsumed the earlier Domari). This group now resides throughout the Middle East and North Africa and is made up of a number of sub-groups, or distinct identities: Ghagar, Halebi, Ghorbati, Nawar, Arhagar and Roma./3/ The overall population of Dom may be between three and five million people; however, it is difficult to establish with certainty as many Dom remain hidden due to prejudice towards them./4/ The final term I shall be using is that to describe the people of Cairo (and formerly Upper Egypt), the Zabaleen. The word derives from the Arabic term for refuse collectors and stands, in a similar way to terms associated with the occupations of particular groups of Gypsies in the Balkans (Lovari, Ursari, Kalderash), as both an economic and social designation, in many ways it is the description of an identity.

The notion of the "pariah syndrome" was first effectively coined, in the context of the discussion of studies about Gypsies, by Ian Hancock in his eponymous book of 1987. His account of Gypsy slavery and persecution was one that, as Thomas Acton described does not "...concentrate on the "problems of the present, and either ignore history or present a stylized and inaccurate account of it."/5/ Hancock's contention is that the nature of non-Gypsy (gadjo/ gadze) society is such that an outsider group is necessary to serve as objects of fantastical and oftimes romantic projection, "...or else to serve as scapegoats, or to help maintain the boundaries of their own [gadjo] cultural perception."/6/ It is in this sense that pariah status is most clearly applied to Gypsies (although all pariah groups are not Gypsy). Others such as Oakley have offered similar perspectives with regard to the question of cultural boundaries, when she argues that it is code of pollution taboos "...which both express and reinforce an ethnic boundary"/7/, a notion derived from Fredrik Barth's conception of ascribed boundaries/8/ and the work of Mary Douglas on American Rom./9/ Despite Acton's criticism of this model as an exclusively semiotic one, and his point that these codes have a "hygienic function,"/10/ it is still essential to see these as mechanisms that separate Gypsy communities from non-Gypsy, and provides what Acton suggests is "...a commitment to a culture which will remain Gypsy..."./11/ It is also the case that, following Barth and others these rituals (if such a term can be used without exoticizing such practices) are a substantial part of what constitutes Romani identity. To be able to define what is mochadi, or polluted within the overall system of marime allows (like all cultural markers), a member of one group to identify other members, to separate those outside from those within the boundaries and respond accordingly.

Further to the question of identity, it is often suggested that a defining characteristic is language. To speak a particular "mother tongue" is to be part of the "imagined community, as Anderson has called it./12/ This notion has been the basis of much of the nation-state formation in the previous three centuries, where a so-called people can be identified on the basis of a shared language, and located firmly within a territorially discreet locality. A shared language is usually taken to inform a concept of a particular culture relating to it, unique and unrepeatable elsewhere. The combination of these elements (crudely) forms the basis for claims of nationhood, as the notion includes the myth of a origin expressed by the shared language and common culture. The accretion of further myths or mythologized historical "moments" further serve to re-inforce this identity as it is "forged", to use Hobsbawm's term./13/ There are numerous examples of varying degrees of sophistication to illustrate this model which render it unnecessary to go into in detail here. Its importance is as an ideological trope, for what becomes a metaphor of "the nation" or "the people", homogenized, culturally discreet, often superior and self-evident.

This all-too simple and brief look at the process of nation-building does allow us to see two aspects important to this discussion: the disparity between the national project and reality, and the dominance of this as a discourse in the context of discussion about the formation of any identity, in the sense that all identities must correspond to this 'check-list' before qualifying for the status of 'nation', for example a press release encouraging Serbs and ethnic Albanian Kosovars to "contribute to the creation of a democratic, multi-ethnic Kosovo"/14/ clearly illustrates how this group did not meet the criteria (which one could contrast with the recognition of the Croatian state by Germany in October 1991). The acceptance of identities is a process contingent upon both the 'nation' and other 'nations', and how this may serve a variety of interests. The increasing fracturation of nation-states as the contradictions between this ideology and the actuality of diverse populations and linguistic groups within particular territorial borders (to say nothing of competing irredentist claims from external populations upon those internal groups whom they identify as "belonging"), illustrate this clearly. The forging of an national identity does, as Hancock suggested earlier, require an 'Other', groups beyond the boundaries, what Sibley calls "outsiders in urban societies"./15/ These are most likely to be groups of dispossessed and refugee, marginalized and pariah peoples. In this sense, these groups are the nation-states "worst nightmare", they challenge both the reality of the nationalist ideologue and the everyday perceptions of the citizen, emphasizing the disparities that exist, and undermining the notions of homogeneity and the assimilative power of nationalist semiotics and the hegememonic hold of the elites in any society. It is in this context that I wish to discuss the Zabaleen and Gypsies of Cairo.

The Ghagar community of Egypt has been little researched or written about./16/ Primarily metal-workers, the Ghagar have been peripatetic, but are now almost entirely sedentary, plying their traditional trades in villages close to their own in the Sett Guiranha district. As blacksmiths, "tinkers", wool-traders, shearers, saddlers, musicians and dancers the Ghagar Nawar and Halebi Dom occupy a position in Middle Eastern society analogous to that of Roma and Gypsy communities in Turkey, the Balkans and Europe./17/ Marginalized and exploiting what small economic niches exist, the Ghagar have been subject to the same substantial changes to Egyptian society that other groups have experienced; namely increasing urbanization of the rural population. The corollary to this has been, like many rural migrants the growth of large areas of poor housing both around and within the city; the Dom live in extremely poor quality accomodation along the polluted water canals./18/ The Ghagar communities of southern Egypt have seen increasing migration to Cairo in relatively large numbers, drawn by the economic opportunities offered, especially as metal workers, dancers and fortune-tellers,/19/ and these can find accomodation in small apartments in outlying districts./20/ However, the major area of settlement for the Dom is on the south-eastern extremity of the city in the old cemeteries among the tombs and mausolea, and the question of accommodation and housing for the enormous numbers of rural migrants and refugees that arrive in Cairo every month is a complete subject in itself. Here I can only suggest that the problem is almost chronic and not likely to improve. I have no figures (as yet) for the numbers of Ghagar, as well as Halebi and some Nawar who live in this area;/21/ one other area where I came across Ghagar metal-workers was in the old quarter of the city, in the streets running down from the Ottoman citadel westwards towards the centre of Cairo. Here, aluminum ducting, rotisseries, railings and stoves are made and repaired by Ghagar metal-workers. These are known as "tinkers" both by non-Ghagar or khashar and Ghagar alike; metal-workers in the rural environment are known as blacksmiths, with some social distinction being encompassed by this differentiation./22/ Ghagar blacksmiths, like their European Roma counterparts are involved in making agricultural implements and horse-ware (one of the other traditional occupations amongst the Ghagar being as saddle-makers;/23/). Smithing is seen as a family occupation, with husbands and wives working together, tinkering involves only the men, whose wives are not involved in the trade but engaged in other occupations. In the context of urban Cairo, this is likely to be as entertainers, peddlers of haberdashery in the major markets in the city and, increasingly begging. In the past this has been seen as a clear last resort when times have been difficult (as during the winter months for the tinkers who repair stoves and heaters/24/), but the increasingly urban population of Ghagar (and Halebi and to a lesser extent Nawar) have, like many of Cairo's poorer residents resorted to begging in order to survive. The combination of tourism and urbanization has resulted in a powerful motivation for many Ghagar dancers and musicians, drawing them to Cairo and concentrating them in particular areas of the older city. The increase in tourism has off-set the decline in this occupation due to a revival in religious observance amongst both Muslims and Copts since the late 1960's./25/ Importantly, the Ghagar dancers, singers and musicians are socially differentiated from both other Ghagar and khashar alike./26/ Similar in their dependence now upon tourism are the monkey-trainers; like the Ursari of Anatolia and the Balkans, they train animals (not always monkeys) to perform tricks. Other Gypsy entertainers are the acrobats and jugglers, many of whom are Nawar rather than Ghagar, but who perform in poorer areas of the city, as well as in the tourist zones./27/ However, the Dom of Cairo are not limited by their more traditional occupations; as Gypsies have always done, they are utilizing their particular gift in exploiting every available economic niche in the city.

The Zabaleen of Cairo live in the south-eastern Manshiet Nasr district of the city, close by the cemeteries. The community of about 25-27,000 Zabaleen are cramped into a thin sliver of land between the eastern autostrada and the Muqattam hills, which they have occupied for just over thirty years. As squatters with no legal claim to the land on which their domiciles are built, their position looks further undermined by the presence of the Egyptian military on the crest of the Muqattam ridge, who occasionally take to detonating dynamite during religious festivals and whose extensive and sophisticated surveillance equipment, whether trained upon the Zabaleen or not, is a constant reminder that this is a community under threat. Not only are the Zabaleen squatters, engaged in the task of "street-sweeping" (collecting refuse being a government monopoly/28/), recycling up to half of the daily 6,000 tons of solid waste produced by Cairenes every day,/29/ they are also Orthodox Copts.

The communities resources have been mobilized over the past thirty years in the construction of some of the most impressive and, at times almost Disney-like sanctuaries I have seen. The struggle for individual daily existence has been recently compounded by government fiats designed to move the Zabaleen from this district to the outlying region of Torah, allegedly for environmental reasons. Both the Ministry for the Environment and the Cairo governorate have brought legal and fiscal pressure to bear upon the Zabaleen in connection with their raising of pigs, at one time of which there were 40,000 consuming the organic waste the Zabaleen brought back from the city./30/ The waste produced by the pigs was used to create composting, exported to desert regions for the purposes of land reclamation,/31/ recycled thanks to a plant set up by the Zabaleen NGO, the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE). In the recent past, this has been moved, with the compliance of the APE and the "...feudal lords of the Zabaleen..." the wahis, who own and control the large dustcarts that move rubbish from the city to Manshiet Nasr who have themselves begun to relocate their recycling operations to Torah./32/ The return of the donkey-drawn carts which collect the garbage in the streets of Cairo is apparently a recent phenomena, and may be as a result of both increasing costs to the Zabaleen (the wahis charge E£1,000 for removing garbage to Muqattam) and this attempt to enforce the change in location of the community. At this level, the underlying resistance of poor communities facing dislocation in Cairo, usually due to so-called "development" is reflected in the Zabaleen's determination to stay in Muqattam; "With such a decision [to move the Zabaleen] our livelihoods are being destroyed... we have lived all out lives in Muqattam and are not prepared to move to Torah..."./33/ The expansion of the city has led to this confrontation between the Zabaleen and the authorities; thirty years ago the community was very much on the outskirts of the city. Their place as Copts in a predominantly Muslim society, despite claims that their position is not one of a minority group,/34/ is nevertheless defined by the sharia, the Muslim religious legal code which designates Christians and Jews as dhimmi. This is a protected, but unequal status to that of Muslims, demonstrated most clearly in the context of the Coptic Zabaleen by the necessity of the community to build (or rather excavate) its churches from the base of the Muqattam hills as the Ottoman law forbidding the construction of new churches, if not the repair of the old, has never been repealed. Likewise, the penalties for apostasy, including death remain on the statutes; something which the converts at the services of the charismatic Father Sammaan seem oblivious to. The community's religious leader, and something of the guiding force behind the APE, seems to have a complex relationship with the Cairene authorities; despite his proselytizing and the 'miracles' of conversion, he is reported to be encouraging the Zabaleen to accept the move to Torah,/35/ a decision which seems at odds with the enormous efforts and resources that have gone into the construction of the sanctuary at Muqattam. With the community 29 kilometres away in Torah, who will the Father primarily serve? The opportunity to see the sanctuary in detail with an associate of Father Sammaan leading us, was one of the most extraordinary points of my visit to Cairo.

The Zabaleen are, in many ways a community in transition. Not only is this a geographical movement, it is a coalescence of an identity. The experience of the 1980's, when a series of high-profile projects designed to improve the daily lives and conditions of the Zabaleen launched them into international prominence, especially the Zabaleen NGO./36/ The name of the community is now capitalized, and is being used in ways similar to both the notions of an ethnic designation and to that of the progress of "Gypsy" as an ethnonym. The demand by Gypsy politicians and activists for the capitalization and consistent spelling (as opposed to gipsie; gypsy), has led to the growing acceptance of Gypsy as an ethnonym. The use of "Zabaleen" by both the community and the media is indicative of this change in awareness; the experience of resistance may also have the effect of re-enforcing both an image of a pariah group and a distinct identity. As a group whose identity is defined both by their occupation and their marginalized status, who also experience dislocation on a generational basis the Zabaleen are very similar to the Ghagar and other Gypsy groups. The emergence of a distinct identity with an occupational basis, supported by endogamous marriage practices, distinct cultural boundaries separating the Zabaleen from the wider society point to, I would suggest the foundation for a future Gypsy-like group in Egypt. In the context of the ethnogensis of Romani identity in the early modern world, the transition that seems to be taking place in Manshiet Nasr is one that could enhance and broaden our understanding of Gypsy identity and the processes of its formation. It would be interesting indeed if the groups who provide most light upon the origins of Gypsies as an ethnic identity are indeed "genuine Egyptians"./37/


/1/ CBF Texas "The Gypsy People of Egypt" Romany People News, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas, www.cbftexas.org/romany/articles/profilegypt.htm (Back to text)

/2/ Fraser, Angus The Gypsies, Blackwell, Oxford (1992), chap.1 (Back to text)

/3/ For population estimates of these groups see Bethany Statistics: Gypsies of the Middle East, The Unreached Peoples Prayer Profiles, www.bethany-wpc.org/profiles/clusters/8010a.html (Back to text)

/4/ (CBFTexas 2000a) (Back to text)

/5/ (Acton 1987: x-xi in Hancock 1987: introduction) (Back to text)

/6/ (Hancock 1987: 129) (Back to text)

/7/ Okely, Judtih The Traveller-Gypsies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1983: 77) (Back to text)

/8/ (see Barth 1969) (Back to text)

/9/ (see Douglas 1966) (Back to text)

/10/ (Acton 1971: 120) (Back to text)

/11/ (Acton 1971: 109) (Back to text)

/12/ Anderson, Benedict Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalisms, Verso, London (1991) (Back to text)

/13/ Hobsbawm, Eric The Invention of Tradition, [ed.] Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger, Cambridge, Cambidge University Press (1992): intro. (Back to text)

/14/ G8 "Why Kosovo? Why NATO? Why Now?", G8 Statement on Regional Issues (June 20, 1999) www..g8cologne.de/03/00150/index.htm (Back to text)

/15/ (see Sibley 1981) (Back to text)

/16/ Hanna, Nabil Sobhi Ghagar of Sett Guiranhana study of a Gypsy community in Egypt, Cairo Papers in Social Science, vol.5/1 (June 1982) (Back to text)

/17/ (CBFTexas 2000b; Hanna 1982: 25) (Back to text)

/18/ (CBFTexas 2000b) (Back to text)

/19/ (Hanna 1983: 24-38) (Back to text)

/20/ (CBFTexas 2000b) (Back to text)

/21/ (the total numbers of Dom in Egypt are currently being assessed by various evangelical organizations at work in the region, one of which suggests that there are some 1,006,900 Masri-speaking Halebi and 251,700 Romani/Domari-speaking Ghagar in Egypt; see Joshua Project, Pwww.ad2000.org/profiles/gypsy3.htm 2000: 1) (Back to text)

/22/ (Hanna 1982: 25) (Back to text)

/23/ see Hanna ibid. (Back to text)

/24/ see Hanna 1982: 25 (Back to text)

/25/ (Hanna 1982: 33) (Back to text)

/26/ (Hanna 1982: 31) (Back to text)

/27/ Dom Research Center, www.domresearchcenter.com/Photos%20Egypt.htm(see also DRC 2000: 1-3) (Back to text)

/28/ Warren, David "With Christ in Egypt: a spiritual journey amongst the Copts" The Ottawa Citizen (Sunday 11 January, 1998) (Back to text)

/29/ VSO Orbit www.vso.org.uk/pubs/orbit/70/finders.htm (Back to text)

/30/ (VSO Orbit 70 2000) (Back to text)

/31/ Meyhar, Rasha "Ministry attempts to dispose of Zabbaleen community", Middle East Times (metimes.com/issue99-51/commu/ministry_attempts_to.htm) (Back to text)

/32/ (ibid.) (Back to text)

/33/ (Meyhar 2000) (Back to text)

/34/ (Warren 1998) (Back to text)

/35/ (Meyhar 2000) (Back to text)

/36/ (Meyhar 2000) (Back to text)

/37/ (Fraser 1992: chap.3) (Back to text)

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