Vol 1 No 5 Fall/Winter 2001

The Forgotten Gypsies

by Andrew Ryder

As we entered the camp its inhabitants cautiously left their shanty dwellings and stared steadily at us, trying no doubt to evaluate the purpose of our visit. Few outsiders visit this camp, when they do, they usually come with the intention of inflicting harm.

This camp is occupied by Gypsies living in Jordan, the camp lies just outside the suburbs of a dormitory town near Amman, the capital of Jordan. Within the camp there were about ten shanties, homes constructed mainly from wood and cardboard, in the dry dusty compound the huts were surrounded by numerous piles of debris and rubble. It seemed a strange place to make a home.

Gypsies have lived in the Middle East for centuries, it would appear that after the Gypsy migrations from India some headed into Europe whilst others migrated into Turkey and the Middle East. With regards to the Gypsies I met whilst in the region none knew or acknowledged the fact that they were descended originally from India. Furthermore, the Romani that I met were largely Muslim in faith. Under the Ottoman Empire, which controlled most of the Middle East until 1918, the treatment of the Gypsies by the authorities was benign. There is no evidence of hostile decrees being issued aimed at discriminating against the Gypsies, this was of course in marked contrast to Europe where the arrival of the Gypsies was met with xenophobic decrees that tried to expel and deter Gypsy settlers.

Such tolerance in the Middle East does not appear to be the norm today, for in present day states in the region, Gypsies share many of the negative experiences that their contemporaries in Europe suffer from. Here Gypsies live a marginalised existence, deprived of full access to educational and employment opportunities, shunned and reviled by the majority.

As we left the car the camp community began to relax, as we were accompanied by Walid, one of the few Arabs who has a positive relationship with the camp, he acts as a middle man helping them to sell the wares produced in the camp. We were taken to the house of the camp leader, Malik. Inside the single room shanty sat Malik and his wife and mother-in-law. We were invited to join them. Inside the construction it was evident that there was no electricity or running water, the only luxury appeared to be an old and battered portable TV, which ran off a car battery. Slowly but surely other members of the camp came to the entrance of the shanty so that by the end there was a considerable crowd monitoring the interview.

I was informed that the camp derives its income from selling products such as clothing and housing utensils. Such trading involves frequent travelling from town to town and occasionally further afield into countries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This economic activity is hard and fraught with problems. The Gypsies usually trade their goods on the street but this is illegal under Jordanian law. Hence the police sometimes arrest Gypsy traders who can face a two-week jail sentence if they do not pay a fine of 100 to 150 Jordanian Dinars (1 JOD = 0.6 US dollars). Such imprisonment can cause sever hardship for the family deprived of the male breadwinner. In one case Sahab a twelve year old boy was trading in the street, when he was grabbed from behind, a hand was placed over his mouth and he was bundled into a car. At first he did not know he was being arrested and his initial fear was that he was being abducted. Sahab was detained in a cell in a detention centre for juvenile offenders for three days.

The Gypsies that I spoke to expressed their desire to have employment in shops and factories, but they said that such employment was impossible for them as no employer would tolerate the employment of a Gypsy. Some of the Gypsies believed that market trading was better as it allowed them to quickly return to the camp on the occasions when the authorities came to visit.

Such visits by the authorities are prompted by a desire to evict them from the land. Many Gypsy camps settle on stretches of barren, dry desert on the outskirts of towns. This land is of no use to anyone but the inhabitants of towns I was informed become fearful when a Gypsy settlement establishes itself. Local opinion places pressure on the police who in turn put pressure on the Gypsies to move on. Some of the Gypsies complained that in some cases the authorities were rude and aggressive in their treatment of the camp dwellers.

On occasion the owners of the land take the law into their own hands. At one camp the owner gave permission to a construction company to dump piles of debris around the camp. Rats and snakes cluster around these piles of earth and pose a serious threat to the camp, this I was informed is the intention of the landowner. Whilst we were visiting the camp, a truck dumped earth. The truck deposited its contents next to the hut of an elderly and sick woman with no thought of her condition or the danger that it posed. Amongst the Gypsies that I met there was a continual demand for permanent sites, this was seen as the cure for many of their other problems.

Because the Gypsies are forced to move from one site to another or from town to town, the children are unable to attend school. One father said though that if they had a permanent site then the children could go to school and he would be happy for them to do so. None of the camps that I visited sent their children to school and none of the local authorities had organised the provision of a camp teacher to visit the camp and educate the children. I asked if the authorities gave any assistance at all to the Gypsy community, the answer was no, the exception being a vaccination programme which ensured that the children received injections to prevent various diseases. I was informed that I was the first person to visit the camp and express any interest in their condition. The lack of interest expressed by the authorities is no doubt a reflection of the contempt the Arab society has for Gypsies, who are referred to by society as the Nawar. Arabs use this as a term of insult and it implies that a person is low born and uncivilised. The Gypsies themselves prefer to be known as the Dom which like the European Gypsies preferred name Rom, means people.

I visited several Gypsy camps whilst in Jordan and the situation was equally distressing. One reason for this grave situation is that the Gypsy camps are not organised into a national organisation that could lobby for reform. Organisation instead is centred solely on the extended family. In Israel however, the Gypsies under the leadership of Amoun Sleem have organised a society that aims to increase the level of inclusion for Gypsies especially in education.

After my visits to camps in Jordan I read a Reuters newspaper report in the Jordan Times about Amoun Sleem and resolved to go to Jerusalem to interview her. Amoun met me at the Lion’s Gate in the Gypsy quarter of Jerusalem.

My trip was made in July 2000, the peace accord between the Palestinians and Israelites was already beginning to unravel. The tension between the two groups was most noticeable when the Jews passed through the Arab quarter to get to the wailing wall, both sides traded looks of hostility and defiance with each other. Amoun informed me that behind this polarisation was the story of the Gypsies who were excluded by both the Arabs and the Jews.

At school Gypsy children are ostracised by their Arab peers and treated harshly by their teachers. As a result many Gypsies perform badly at home, this in turn creates high levels of unemployment and consigns the Gypsies to an existence of severe poverty.

No area of life for the Gypsies was left undisturbed by the authorities. In the past Gypsies had lived in camps outside the city walls. However, the authorities began to discourage such a nomadic lifestyle and the Gypsies subsequently sought refuge within the city walls and with time had built themselves homes. These homes are now under threat as the authorities have declared that they were built without planning permission and are illegal. Hence some of the Gypsies of Jerusalem are engaged in a struggle to protect their very homes.

The Gypsies’ degree of marginalisation is such that many are even deprived of citizenship, as the Israeli authorities refuse to issue many of them with passports. Amoun like many others is denied the right to hold a passport. Instead, she has to apply for a special certificate to travel, but the process is long and bureaucratic and sometimes this wait denies her the chance to attend international conferences where she can represent the Gypsy community of Jerusalem.

I have worked with Gypsy groups in Hungary and Portugal and have often been greatly saddened by the things that I have witnessed. However, these experiences did not prepare me for the sorrow I felt by being introduced to the plight of the Gypsies in Israel and Jordan. Growing interest is beginning to emerge regarding the situation of Gypsies, but much of this welcome concern is focused on Europe. Few are aware of the existence of Gypsies or their severe level of deprivation in the Middle East. That is why the Gypsy Association which Amoun Sleem represents is so important. Hopefully, this society will inspire other groups of Gypsies in the Middle East to take similar action to that now being started in Jerusalem and will raise international awareness.

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