Vol 1 No 3 Fall/Winter 2000
Stories from a Dom (Gypsy) Woman, Part 2 -
Settlement in Jerusalem and the Surrounding Area
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.)
I am filled with joy as I write about the settlement of the Dom in Jerusalem. The interviews have been an exploration of my roots and a discovery of how my people have lived here all these years. Talking with my people and hearing their stories has been nice, but not all of the stories have been good. Some of the people were crying as they spoke about their past, about their families, and about their fathers and mothers. The past was not an easy part of their lives. But, I love to hear the stories and I am so proud of my people.
My people had to fight for their lives, not with armies, but with their love for the land that they had come to settle. All the people I interviewed said the Dom have lived in or around Jerusalem for more than 100 years. I spoke with Mr. Shahada who now lives in Amman, Jordan. He made a visit to Jerusalem and we had a nice conversation. He was proud to talk about his past. His family settled in Jerusalem about 100 years ago according to his father. Unfortunately, he could not remember his grandfather. But he believed that his family settled in Jerusalem more than 100 years ago. He belonged to the Nawasrah family. This family is a part of the very old roots of the Dom. He lived in "Malhah" in new Jerusalem now close to the Jerusalem Zoo. Many Dom lived there at that time. Before the Turkish armies were in Jerusalem the Dom lived there and had a comfortable way of life and they came into contact with many other groups of people. When the English were here some of the Dom had English passports. Even today some of the Dom living in Amman still have these passports. Mr. Shahada said that he wishes that old life would return. At that time they lived in old houses made from big stones and tents they made by hand. They made their food, their clothes, etc., themselves. When he started to talk about the problematic times I could feel the sadness inside him. He said when Israel was coming into the land they were very afraid. They all began to think about moving as soon as possible to Amman and about taking their children and families. Many Dom from the Nawasrah family went to Amman. But others of the Dom stayed and are still living in the same places today. A lot of them said that if they were going to die it would be better to all die together. The Dom people were worried that any problems between the countries would be especially difficult for them since they didn't have any influence politically. Because of this many of the families didn't see one another for many years being divided by political boundaries. They were afraid to come back to Jerusalem even for a visit since they were enjoying the "arms of Amman." Since they didn't know what might happen to them if they returned to Jerusalem, they were afraid to return for a visit with their families who stayed. But now there is peace between Amman and Israel which means the time of worry is over and we can visit our family again.
I also interviewed a ninty (90) year old Dom woman named Asesah. She spoken a lot about her present problems and the troubles in her family. But, she also spoke about the old days when she had a good husband and she was happy. Her husband was a good man who she had never met until the night of their wedding. In that time, it was the custom that women could not see the man she would marry until the wedding night. Once my grandmother told me something I will never forget. "My young lady, you are very lucky that you were born in this time. You can say 'no' to a man and you can choose what you like. But in my time we didn't have any choice." But to go back to Asesah, it was funny and nice what she had to say. Asesah is one of the women who has lived in many different circumstances. She said that she grew up with her father and mother within the walls of the old city of Jerusalem. For about 35 years she lived in the Berge lack Lack (area) where her father had a three-room home that he opened to guests, both Dom and other people. They lived there until she married and moved in with her husband. She married at a very, very young age. Before the war between Amman and Israel she had four children. The time during the war was very difficult. All they could think about was saving themselves and their children. Because the times were so difficult about half of her family fled to Jordan. "It was a long time after they left before we found out if they were alive or had been killed." Those who stayed in the city have faced many trying times. Because of this they will probably stay here until they die. Many Dom still think of the Holy Land of Jerusalem as their home. Even with the bad times they dream about this place as their land.
Times were very hard for my people during the six day war./1/ Near where they lived there was a church, the Church of St. Anne. It is located just inside the Lion's Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. When the war started my family, and many other Gypsies as well, ran to the church and remained there throughout the war. They described those days as days they will never forget--days of worry and days of sadness as people were being killed, seemingly without regard for children or adults, men or women. For the Gypsies the war was like "days in hell." As I heard the stories I felt a sadness for the suffering my people experienced during that time.
My grandmother was a very brave woman. One day she jumped from the wall of St. Anne's Church and ran to my house to get some food and flour to make bread for the Gypsies inside the church. While she was away a missle fell on the church, but thank God no one was killed. My grandmother didn't know if her family was safe and she started to cry and sob very loudly. One of my uncles saw her and said, "don't worry, we are all okay. Hurry, come inside." Everyday she made her way to our house to make sure that no one broke in and robbed us as happened to many people's houses. During the war many poor people had no food and no way to get any. At night there was the sound of shooting and fighting. Because of this no one was allowed out on the streets. The church and the sisters there gave the people a place to stay and food. The church provided dried milk for the children. This was very important since my father had six very young children. The sisters shared their love with the people and helped them forget their problems. The Gypsies were also fortunate to have such a strong person like my grandmother to help them through these difficult times. Those six days were like six years for my community during the war. It was not a nice time for the Dom.
As everyone knows the most important things for a Gypsy are to eat well, dress well and to have a good place to live. Many years ago the Dom lived in a good place. They lived in the Wadi Goss in Jerusalem. At that time the area belonged to an Arab man. When he decided to leave and sell his land he asked my grandfather to buy the land, but my grandfather had some people living with him and felt that the money he had was needed to care for the guests. So, he couldn't buy the land. That was very sad for me to hear. Perhaps if he had been able to buy the land many things would be different for the Gypsies today. This land is some of the richest land around Jerusalem. So, the Gypsies have lived in some nice places during their years here. My family has some documents that show that they were here at least since 1920. There are other documents that the leader of the Dom has which show our presence here many years ago. Keeping and writing papers is one of the jobs of the Gypsy leader. He must write different papers such as wedding papers and birth papers. He has many such documents that show we are among the oldest people who now live in Jerusalem.
To Be Continued . . .
/1/ Editor's note: The war to which Ms Sleem refers is the Arab-Israeli War, June 5-10, 1967. Often called the June 1967 War or the Six Day War. (Back to the Text)
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