Vol 1 No 4 Spring/Summer 2001

The Gypsies of Syria:

A DRC Update, May 2001

by Allen Williams


In 1890 Francis Hindes Groome wrote, "So little is known of non-European Gypsies that no excuse is needed for reprinting the following passages from Sir William Ouseley's Travels in Various Countries of the East; more particularly Persia."/1/ Finding little fresh information, Groome proceeded to quote the sixty-seven year old publication. In fact, in the previous year (1889) A. Elysseeff traveled in the region and reported, "I met no Gypsies in Syria and Palestine, nor in the Sinaitic peninsula, although I not infrequently encountered Gypsy bands when in Egypt."/2/ In 1908 Albert Thomas Sinclair wrote an article in which he detailed some of his own investigation of the Gypsies in the Middle East./3/ Forty years later E. O. Winstedt decried the continued dirge of information about the Gypsies of Syria and contented himself with reciting some of the descriptions collected from Arab sources by H. Schmidt./4/ The availability of information regarding the Gypsies of Syria has changed very little over the last fifty years. A period of political instability until 1971 and then the closed-door policy of the socialist government have hindered the gathering of ethnographic and linguistic information. The following article is a presentation of general observations by the writer, comments gathered from Syrians and brief explanations given by Gypsies living inside and outside Syria. Throughout this article the terms Dom and Gypsy will be used interchangeably.

The history of the Dom migration(s) to various countries in the Middle East and North Africa is sketchy. It appears that with each political upheaval the Dom scattered into neighboring countries as opposed to a limited number of large migrations. The periodic dispersal may be compared to the relatively modern movement resulting from the 1967 war in Palestine. Feeling the mounting tensions, Dom groups moved in every conceivable direction away from Jerusalem. Jordan to the east and Egypt to the southwest were the recipients of the largest groups. Otherwise, the Dom have moved into other countries as service nomads. Wherever their skills were needed they migrated to that area. Regardless of the push and pull factors that instigated their movement in the region, is there a time and place from which we can say they began this spasmodic dispersal? Perhaps the role of Syria in the migration of the Gypsies should be reopened. After all, the path from Baghdad to Antioch on the Mediterranean leads through Syria. It may play more of a part in the migration of this people than has been noted to date. If not important for more ancient history, perhaps the importance of Aleppo as a "hub" from which the more modern migrations have originated should be investigated. The writer met several Gypsies in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan who said that their families were originally from Aleppo. The Haleb Gypsies of Egypt acquired their group name from that Syrian city (whether or not it was given to them or it became a self-designation is open to debate). Also, the writer interviewed Syrian Gypsies in the Bekaa Valley who suggested that their people move along trade routes extending out in every direction from Syria. Of course this is modern, but trade routes generally have long lives for nomadic people.

Like Gypsies throughout the Middle East, the Gypsies of Syria do not appear to know the details of their origins. One Dom man told the writer that his people have been in Syria for about 200 years. He went on to share a vague legend about their origin. He remembered his grandfather telling him about the "Mountain of the Kurbat." This legendary homeland was located somewhere in Europe. According to the tale the Dom went from Kurbat Mountain in Europe, then to India and finally to Syria where they have been for approximately 200 years. He also said, "During the last 25 years we have begun asking 'who are we?'" Judging from the legend, it appears that they have had some outside source of information about their origins that have been mixed together with some general tales from their ancestors. The story about the mountain might be influenced by reports of a mountain pass in Iran called "Koli-Killer Pass" located near the city of Shiraz. The European location for their homeland may arise from bits of information from European Gypsies. In fact, many of the Syrian Gypsies have contact with European Gypsies and recognized the distinctions between their languages. Some of the Gypsies believed that they had originally come from Bulgaria. Another man volunteered that the older people say their origins were in the time of the Mongols, which would be around 1260 AD.

In literature describing Syria and its inhabitants, many different names have been used for the Gypsies. Implicit to most of these names is a stinging accusation against their character. Apparently the majority of the terms used for this group of people are terms applied to them by others. At times the designations refer to a place of origin or an occupation. At other times the word is a liable slur. The following are some of the more common words that one might hear in Syria or read in the literature about Gypsies.

Dummi, also been recorded as Demmi, Deman and Duman, is the term is used in Iran, Iraq and Syria. The presence of Kurdish words in the Syrian vocabulary suggest they came from Iran and may be related to the Suzmani./5/ The Suzmani are in Kurdistan. They live in the village of Kuchlag near Senna./6/

Nawar is the common, pejorative Arabic designation. It is not a technical term to define a specific ethno-linguistic group. If someone is known as Nawar in Syria they will view him as backward, uncivilized, not able to change his life or adapt; he is a simpleton. One should not use this term when talking with a Dom unless the intent is to insult.

Kurbat is one of the most often heard designations in Syria. Donald Kenrick believes that they should be distinguished from the Ghorbat of Iran. The Kurbat are known for their skills in dentistry, particularly for making false teeth. Some of the Kurbat will tattoo themselves. The men tattoo their arms, but generally the women don't tattoo their faces as do the Bedouin women. In the past 25 years their Syrian citizenship status has improved along with their economic level. While some of the Gypsy groups in Syria are known for dancing and fortune telling, the Kurbat generally do not engage in those activities.

Guaidiyah is a term that Father Anastas used for a particular group of Gypsies in part of Syria and Mesopotamia./7/ He described them as musicians, dancers and people following a lifestyle of "freedom and looseness."/8/

Zott (or Zutt) is an Arabicized form of the Indian Jat and is still used today in Syria.

Mutribiyah is an Arabic word meaning "musician." This term can be applied to any number of Gypsy groups who are involved in the musical entertainment industry.

The Taut (or Tat) are entertainers and flea market traders. Their language is different than Kurbat, being closer to the Turkish and Kurdish language. As with the European Gypsies, the Taut have a purity council and assist with the spiritual interests of the people.

Ghajar (in Egypt this name is Ghagar) seems to be used interchangeably with Catchar (or Ketchay) - Their language is also called Ketchay. The language is completely different than the other Gypsy languages. These people are very cautious in their relationships. They still maintain very closed communities. In Egypt the Catchar are called people from Halab or Halebi. They are Aleppo Nawar living in Egypt. In Syria this group will not identify themselves as Gypsies. Catchar are not as rejected as some other Gypsy groups. They can be identified from their clothing easily, both men and women. Men wear the baggy Druze type pants and their shoes are often pointed. The shirt will contrast the color of the pants. They will also wear a hat. They may wear a vest as well. The women wear long dresses and do not veil. They do needle work on their dresses (distinct from Bedouin). The writer was told that the Catchar don't have a reputation for the negative lifestyles as do some of the other Gypsy groups. Instead, the Catchar, like the Taut, practice fortune telling and entertaining.

The name Koli is known to the Gypsies in Syria, but those interviewed did not know of any Gypsy groups in Syria who went by that designation. Instead, the Koli live in Iraq and Iran.

Syria's population is approaching 17 million, and its annual growth rate of 3.4% is way out of proportion with its economic growth. In fact, the 3.4% rate is one of the highest in the world. Census information about the Dom minority group is not available. In 1999 a Syrian Gypsy reported to the Dom Research Center that there were approximately 250,000 Gypsies in the country. In 1902 Father Anastas said that he had no information about the number of Gypsies in Syria. He did have some information about isolated groups in the country and surrounding areas.

The number of the Karbat in the neighbourhood of Aleppo as-Sahba, according to what I have heard from a friend, reaches the amount of 120 tents. The number of Karatch comes to 150 tents, spending the summer in the mountains of Zuzan; these mountains extend in length from Su'rat to Lake Van, and in breadth form the Euphrates to Persia (so I was told; but I would like to see written authority to confirm this curious name), and they spend the winter on El-Dast, and encamp in five villages of these lands. The number of the Mutriba reaches 200 tents; they are in the neighbourhood of six villages of the mountains of Zuzan in summer and of El-Dast in winter.
The number of the Gu'aidiyah reaches 80 tents; they are in Mesopotamia and some villages of Syria. The number of the Ganganah in the vilayet of Mosul is 60 tents, no more. The number of the Kauliyah in the country of the Bedawin, 'Irak, Mesopotamia, and the desert of Syria, is 1,500 tents, as one of them told me. He did not know the ground for this statement correctly, but I do not consider it strange that they should in reality be numerous in these Arab provinces. The present number of the Zutt in the neighbourhood of Bosra does not amount to 70 tents. The number of the Sahsawan in the north of Persia is 320 tents; the Fuyug reach 45 dwellings, the Tat 500 tents, and the Kufs 280. The number of the Kantchu or Posha amounts to 170 tents. Naturally, all these numbers are not definitely accurate; for those from whom I asked for details about the number of these people are friends of mine scattered in these countries, and they do not come in contact with the Gypsies except from a distance./9/

During the past year several Gypsies within Syria estimated their numbers to be approximately one million strong. They generally agreed that perhaps as many as a fifth of them travel outside the country. Syrian Gypsies living or traveling outside of Syria gave the writer similar population estimates. If these statistics can be verified, Syria would have the single largest Dom population of any Middle Eastern country. At this point, 250,000 to 300,000 is the best Gypsy population estimate for Syria.

Living conditions and employment vary widely. There are those who are still mobile living in tents, but their numbers are dwindling. The semi-nomadic groups live in "permanent tent villages." The inhabitants may remain in these villages for years relocating only when forced to do so. The term "forced" is not used to suggest some type of official action that unsettles them. Instead, factors such as an unusual death or wide-spread sickness may prompt the community to move if they feel the area has become tainted in some way. Many of these villages can be seen along the coastline. As their economic position improves, more and more of the Gypsies are settling into apartments. Those who continue to be nomadic often follow the crops, but increasingly they are getting professional jobs. Contact with Europe is a major factor influencing the desire for knowledge and education. The contact with Europe is not surprising given the 1908 report that "Arab Gypsies from Syria and Egypt are frequently seen all over Europe. They are easily recognised by their shows, music, tattoo-marks, etc."/10/

One must be careful with terminology when trying to identify the various minority groups in Syria. One group in particular calls themselves "Arab Nawar." Nawar being a common designation for Gypsies throughout the Middle East. In this case, however, the Arab Nawar are not Gypsies at all. Their language is reportedly closer to a Bedouin language. They are a migrant group living in tents and following the agricultural cycle, as well as tending sheep. Another group of people is known as the "Hadgiat." They speak Arabic, are known for drug trafficking and prostitution. They may be called Nawar as a term of derision but they are not ethnic Gypsies.

NOTES

/1/ Francis Hindes Groome, "Persian and Syrian Gypsies," Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society 1, II (1890/91): 21-27. In this article Groome included what he called a Syriac-Gypsy vocabulary list dating from 1881. (Back to text)

/2/ A. Elysseeff, "The Gypsies of Asia Minor," Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society Vol. 1, No. 5 (July 1889): 249-250. (Back to text)

/3/ Albert Thomas Sinclair, "The Oriental Gypsies," Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society (New Series) Vol. I, No. 3 (January 1908): 197-211. (Back to text)

/4/ E. O. Winstedt, "Syrian Gypsies," Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society 3rd series, Vol. XXX (1951): 78-79. (Back to text)

/5/ Dr. Donald Kenrick, "Romanies in the Middle East-3," Roma Vol. 3, No. 1 (January 1977): 29. (Back to text)

/6/ Ibid, 36. (Back to text)

/7/ Father Anastas, "The Nawar or Gypsies of the East," trans. Alexander Russell Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society New series, Vol. VII, No. 4 (1914-15): 305. (Back to text)

/8/ Ibid. (Back to text)

/9/ Father Anastas, "The Nawar or Gypsies of the East," trans. Alexander Russell Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society New series, Vol. VIII, No. 2 (1914-15): 150-151. (Back to text)

/10/ Sinclair, 200. (Back to text)

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