Vol 1 No 4 Spring/Summer 2001
Stories from a Dom (Gypsy) Woman, Part 3 - The Family
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.)
It is really not easy to speak about my family and about my community because we have always had a very closed community. But I have to take this big step and speak openly about it because I want people to know what we are like. Any community has good and bad traditions and people. I'm sorry to say that our bad traditions and people seem to be more numerous than our good ones. Our bad habits are not easily changed and we still have some of them. These things grew with us from our childhood. But, I am also proud of my family. It gave me the chance to choose what I wanted. That is one reason I am able to write about my community.
The families of the Gypsy community are big. Each family has about 12 people including the mother and father. Gypsy women marry when they are about 15 or 16 years of age. This is the most common age for marriage. These women usually do not have any education, nor do the boys who they marry. So, they depend on their families to feed them and provide a living for them. They live with the parents of the boy even if they must all live in a one-room house. It is very difficult for such a large family to live, eat, clean, etc., in such a small place. This is one of the bad traditions in the community.
The young married women have to have children after one year of marriage. If she doesn't, the family starts to talk about her. They will take her to see a special doctor to make sure everything is okay for her to have children.
After one year of marriage some of the young women begin to see that their old lives were better. They may begin to feel sorry that they married and become depressed. They don't have happy lives and some of the young women get divorced only after 5 or 6 months of marriage. Since they have no education or anything else, the young women have to go begging in the streets. There is no choice in the matter since she must do something to support herself. Like the marriage, the life of begging isn't her choice. Other women will return to their families and the family will choose for her a new man to marry. They think that marriage is the best thing for a woman even if the man doesn't have any work or education. I thank God that I have a nice and good father. He gave my sisters and me a lot of freedom. We can choose to say no if a man comes and asks for one of our hands in marriage. Until now I haven't met the right person but I do have a choice. I do feel sorry that I haven't found the right person, but some day I will have what I want. This freedom has caused many problems in our community for my father. But he gives us the choice because he wants the best for his daughters. Since we try to find a good life and change some of the traditions some of the families in our community don't have a lot of contact with us. They feel that we have broken some important traditions. Some of my brothers married women from non-Gypsy communities and my people don't like it. I find that it is good for us to mix with other communities.
Another problem that we have as a community is the lack of education. I am very concerned about this and hope to do something soon to help with this problem. I think only 5 or 6 of our people have finished school. We went to the School of the Holy Community. Most of the children grow up in the streets. This is what their families choose for them. They think it is a better life for them because they aren't in school and can go to work sooner. If the children do bad things it is not a problem because "they are only children." The parents say, "they will learn from the streets. The street is a good school. You can learn a lot from the streets." This is one of the ways I want to change in our community.
When I was 12 years old I stopped being interested in playing children's games. On Sundays and Fridays we liked to go the Lion's Gate and Gethsemane to sell post cards. We tried to help people (tourists) do things so that we could earn some pocket money for the week. As many people know, the Gypsy people are poor. They work one day and spend the money the next day. This was the way of life, "easy come, easy go." I think that was a very bad way of life for our people. Anyway, we did this because we thought it was our way of life and our future. We were not welcomed anywhere we went. The tourists came from everywhere in the world. They seemed to like us and treated us kindly. They gave us sweets, money and even clothes. We really had fun. It made my life happier to meet people from all over the world. I liked it. The people and the neighborhood called us (and some still do) the "begging people." They never have forgotten when our people had to beg in the past. In this area there was a big man who everyone of us Gypsy girls was afraid of. When this man saw us he would hit us and take all the money we had collected that day. After a long day of working hard, he tied to catch me and take my money. I ran from him. In the end he caught me and tried to hurt me, but I pushed him. He fell down the steps and broke some of his teeth. Since I hit a man everyone was afraid. I didn't believe it myself. I was happy and afraid at the same time. I was afraid of what might happen later to my family or me. Already he had caused problems with the people in the neighborhood. I was really afraid to see my father's face. He gave me a look that frightened me and that I will never forget. I've never been afraid like that before, but in the eyes of the Gypsy girls I was a hero! I had done something that no one had dared to do before. In truth, inside me I felt like a fool and cried about what I had done. But, I knew that if I hadn't defended myself he would have hurt me. He would continue to do bad things to me and no one would stop him, especially since I was a Gypsy girl. Since my family was a Gypsy family there was nothing they could do either. After that day I became a leader for the girls. I looked after them and they listened to me. We cared about one another. Because of this we were able to establish our place in that area to sell post cards and meet the tourists. We still had our problems and people still treated us badly. We never really had any peace. We had to think carefully about everything we did for fear of people around us. We didn't have any way out of these problems and they grew every day even as we grew up.
These stories from my childhood show that change is needed for the children of our community. So far no one has really joined me to try to make this change. In some ways I think I am asking for something that is impossible. We need our leaders to help us make this change but so far they haven't. Sometimes Gypsies from other countries are brought here to beg in the streets. The people don't see the difference and think that they are Gypsies from the old city. This gives our community a bad name. All of these things are devastating to the Gypsies who want to make some changes in our community. Sometimes I ask God why I belong to this people and I feel ashamed because I am a part of these people. But I realize that if I say such things and other Gypsies say such things, who will bring about change? If I don't help and others do not help this community will be devastated. I know that we can bring about change and fix things, and make new lifestyles and traditions for this community. I'm sure it will not happen in one or two years, but it will come.
I will not say I have a perfect family. But, I have a very nice family which is growing in some good ways. My mother was from Egypt so we have a mixed face. Some of us look like my mother. She was a beautiful woman. Unfortunately we haven't had her for a long time. She died when I was 6 years old. At that time there were nine of us children and my family lived in one big room close to the wall of the Old City of Jerusalem. Sometimes I cry for her. I need my mother to help me even at the age of 23. My father is okay too. He has not remarried since my mother died. My community feels that men should be married, but he says no.
My grandmother helped my father with us, but only three years after my mother's death, my grandmother also died. My father had to care for this big family alone. My father had to work very hard. Finally he decided that my oldest sister who was fifteen at the time, must stop going to school and help in the house. She became a mother to the other children. She gave her life to the family. Even now she is not married and she continues to care for us all. My father worked at a part-time job every day until noon and then he came home to look after us. It wasn't an easy life for him. I remember one time we didn't have any water, like most of the people. So, we would have to buy water almost every day. We would do this job and other light things for my father to try to help. We had a very clean house. My sister gave me a shower almost four times a week. So, we really had a clean life. Most Gypsies at that time showered maybe only one time a week. My father was not a rich man but he always tried to give us a good life. I think he has done well even though he couldn't give us everything we might want. When we grew up we tried to help as soon as we could.
During my studies in college I also worked. It was a very important period of my life. It gave me a push in this world to grow up in nice and good ways. I think I like it better than the old ways. The past is good to remember, and also to keep in a special box! I like it sometime, but I hate it most of the time. My father always said, "the one who has no past will never have a future." He always pushed us to be proud and remember the nice and good times we had when we were children. I think if anyone was in my place they would have the same feelings I have.
One of my sisters studied nursing and she wants to study more. From my heart I wish she could make it. My other sister is very kind and I love her a lot. She studied hairdressing. I have really nice brothers also. They have changed their ways of thinking as well. Two of my brothers are married to girls from other communities-not Gypsy communities. These people like us and think that other people have the wrong ideas about Gypsies. They were glad to give some of their girls to my brothers. They live happily together but the Gypsy people don't like it. They talk about us and ask, "why didn't they take a wife from the community?" We don't mind. We are happy with our choice.
Other Gypsy men in our community have not been so fortunate. One of the most lovely and kind men in our community spoke of a non-Gypsy woman with whom he fell in love. Her family didn't know that he was a Gypsy and he felt it best not to tell them. The family approved of the marriage. He loved their daughter and she loved him. Everything seemed to be fine and he was as happy as he had ever been in his life. Two days before the wedding someone told the family that the man their daughter was about to marry is a Gypsy. On the day the wedding was to take place the family told him, "We have no daughter to give in marriage!" They returned the gold and other things he had given for the wedding. The saddest moment in his life came about simply because he is a Gypsy man. Today he has a good job and a nice life, but at 52 years of age he is still not married. The pain of that event is still with him. He said, "Even though it has caused me pain, I am still proud to be a Gypsy."
Additional stories/traditions of the Gypsies of Jerusalem are available in the DRC publication, The Dom of Jerusalem: A Gypsy Community Chronicle. For ordering information click on the title of the book.
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