Vol 1 No 6 Spring/Summer 2002
The Dom of Egypt: A DRC Update, May 2002
by Kevin Holmes
Over the last several centuries very few adventurers traveling through North Africa have documented their experiences in visiting with Gypsy tribes in Egypt. Nonetheless it is to these few that we owe our appreciation for the information that we do have. To highlight some of these contributors we can begin with perhaps the earliest indication of the Dom in Egypt. According to Prof. Paul E. Kahle, a probable reference to Gypsies in Egypt was made in the thirteenth century through the context of a ‘shadow play’ composed by Muhammed Daniyal. /1/ Much later in 1565, another account of a meeting with Gypsies arose as the scholarly soldier, Christoph Furer von Haimendorff, reported visiting with Gypsies near Rosetta in the Nile Delta area of Egypt. /2/ Nearly three hundred years later, in 1856, Captain Newbold wrote extensively of his visit with Gypsies in concentrated settlements such as ‘Hosh el Ghagar’ and ‘Masr el Atikeh’ in Cairo. /3/ In 1862, an Austrian Consul in Cairo, A. Von Kremer, added to our knowledge about the Dom through his contribution, entitled Die Zigeuner in Aegypten. As we look to more recent times, the research compiled by the late Nabil Sobhi Hanna has shed light on the current situation of the Dom in Egypt. /4/ The following article is based on observations made by the writer during recent visits with Dom individuals and families in Egypt.
Even prior to September 11th, Egypt had been experiencing the impact of today’s political climate. To their credit, the government has for some time been seeking proactively to attract greater foreign investment and increased tourism. The creation of green space, renovation of older areas, road improvements and the construction of elevated roads throughout Cairo have increased the ascetic beauty and the efficiency of transportation throughout the city. In an effort to beautify its capital, the government has erected large structures that merge the modern with the Pharonic; however, in the process many older structures have been demolished and countless communities have been moved. In this manner many of the Dom have been dispersed throughout the city of Cairo. Canal areas once dotted with Gypsy huts or tents now have been cleared and allocated for agricultural use. Many of the larger Dom communities that were documented in the past have now disappeared, being replaced by smaller communities that are more integrated within the Egyptian society. Governmental progress is not the only factor affecting the lives of the Dom; progress itself has changed their lives. Streets once brimming with Dom blacksmiths and tinkers have slowly disappeared as the need for their services has diminished. Once inhabitants of specific areas of Cairo, the Dom can now be found throughout most parts of the city. Most of those that remember the old Gypsy settlements do not know to where these communities have disappeared, and according to one Egyptian man, “No one really cares either.”
Primarily found living in communities of unfinished brick and mud brick buildings in the poorer areas, the Dom of Egypt quietly maintain a sense of community among themselves. In some areas their neighborhoods are interspersed with the homes of the many “fellaheen” (poor farmers) while in other neighborhoods they are in the majority. A vast necropolis in Cairo, popularly known as the City of the Dead, is home to a large Dom population. Following a Pharonic tradition, small buildings are erected over the graves of loved ones. Designed to accommodate overnight guests at the gravesite, the structures in this cemetery have become home for thousands of Cairo’s homeless people including the Dom. So populated has this cemetery become that the municipality has provided running water, gas and electricity for the inhabitants. Dom communities can also be found in close proximity to their employment such as near the pyramids in Giza. Outside of Cairo there have been several confirmed reports of Dom living in the Nile Delta and throughout Upper Egypt. According to one knowledgeable Egyptian man who had lived among the Dom, “They are so great in number and they are all over the place from the South of Egypt all the way to the North.”
Virtually indistinguishable to the casual observer, the Dom are not conspicuous in Egypt. When questioned, most Dom will persistently deny their heritage and claim to be Egyptian or Arab. Several of the Dom families in one northern town tenaciously hide their Dom ethnicity and only refer to themselves as Palestinian. It appears that due to all the changes in Palestine during 1948, many Dom families chose to immigrate to Egypt. Documents held by the Dom display that the Egyptian government officially recognizes their Palestinian status. When asked further about the secrecy of their identity, indication was given that among themselves they are called Nawar; but given the derogatory definition of this word, it is easier to be known as Palestinian. In contrast, the Cairene neighbors of one Dom family knew the ethnicity of this family and attempted to dissuade our visit frequently using the word Nawar in a derogatory manner. It is common for the local neighbors of the Dom to recognize them as different, but most Egyptians are unaware of the Gypsy presence in the ethnic mosaic within their cities. When enlightened as to the number of Gypsies within their country, most Egyptians are absolutely astonished.
The Dom of Egypt with their lifestyle, physical characteristics and dress fit very well into their Egyptian communities. Dom women, traditionally recognized by their colorful dress, long earrings, tattooed faces and arms easily blend with many of the similarly dressed women from Upper Egypt. The male Dom, wearing the conventional galebaya, are dressed in the same way as the local Egyptian men. The distinguishing differences are found in the face. The face of the Dom is typically darker and thinner than the Egyptian face. The features are sharper and, according to one Egyptian man, many Egyptians would consider the women to be more handsome or attractive than the Egyptian women. This, of course, is a generalization as many of the facial features of the Gypsy are very similar to the Egyptian’s. I was told that just as it would be difficult for an American to pinpoint a European in America, so it is with recognizing a Gypsy in Egypt. Whereas a group of Europeans would be easier to distinguish in America, so would it be with a group of Gypsies in Egypt.
Concurring with statements from the past, modern Egyptians believe that the greatest difference between the Egyptian and the Dom is found in their cultures. Much has been written about the Arabic worldview and its concept of shame. /5/ The Arabic word for the concept of shame is ‘eeb (the ‘ represents the Arabic letter ayn). The dictionary translates it "shame, disgrace" or as "a defect or shortcoming". /6/ An Egyptian will say that the Gypsy does not understand `eeb. Habits or mannerisms that do not reflect this worldview distinguish the Dom from the Egyptian population. This was illustrated while driving through an integrated Dom and Egyptian community. We observed a woman riding down a road on a donkey loaded with green plants. Our knowledgeable guide confirmed her identity as a Gypsy given that she was unveiled and unescorted. This worldview difference helps to explain why Dom and Egyptian families, although living next to each other, will not formally visit each other. When a conflict arises between children or young adults within an Egyptian neighborhood, the parents are able to communicate and resolve the difficulty based on their culture and concept of shame. However, if an incident involving Gypsy children occurs, the parents would not be able to solve the problem between the families because they do not understand the same sense of shame. Therefore, it was explained to me, Egyptian children do not play with Gypsy children.
Much intrigue has been instigated through the centuries concerning the languages of the Dom in Egypt. It was reported in 1856 that scholars had recognized distinct languages among the different Dom groups. Their findings indicated that the Ghagar (Ghajar) language contained Indian words, yet it differed from the language of the Haleb of Egypt and the Kurbat of Syria. A report cited in 1928 stated that the Ghagar of Cairo spoke of having brothers in Hungary, and that they had better preserved their language. /7/ In this same report, Samson determined that the Ghagar dialect, unlike the Haleb, Nawar and Kurbat dialects, was a Western form, not an Eastern form of the Gypsy language. Although it had absorbed into some of the nearby Dom dialects, it was European in nature. /8/ It is thought that because of the European slant to the Ghagar language, they differ from the Haleb and Nawar, in that they came to Egypt at a later date, perhaps from Moldavia. There have also been reports of Gypsies speaking Sim, an Arabic code language that allows secrecy when speaking in the presence of non-Gypsies. In the early 1980’s Dr. Nabil Sobhi Hanna reported that the Ghagar spoke their Gypsy language in addition to Arabic, but the younger generation was not learning the Dom language. /9/ During our most recent visit, with the exception of one Haleb fortune-tellers, the Dom we met were from Palestine and referred to themselves as Nawar. Several from the older generation were able to effectively communicate in the Gypsy language with our two Dom traveling companions. It was often indicated that only the older generation still spoke the language. Another Dom women, the Haleb fortuneteller, and her husband guardedly spoke their language in front of an Egyptian friend who was with me. Although neither of us was able to understand their conversation, my friend assured me that it was more than an Arabic code language, but rather a distinct, non-Arabic language. Our observation was that the Dom are extremely reluctant to speak their language openly, likely due to the prejudiced opinions of others from which they suffer.
The occupations of the Dom of Egypt have evolved somewhat over time; nonetheless, they are still involved in metalwork by way of fixing of old stoves, fabricating metal products, cleaning heavy brass utensils among numerous other examples. Ambling through the back streets of Khana Khalili, a popular tourist area in Cairo, one is able to view the production of numerous ornamental metal objects by the Dom. Exposed to the intense Egyptian sun and the heat of their fires, the complexion of these men has been darkened by their trade. As I watched them work using the tools their fathers would have used, I could easily envision this scene as being untouched by the centuries of time. In another area of the city, one entrepreneurial Dom has diversified within the metalwork tradition by operating his key making business from a small wooden stand in the street. In this non-Dom community, he has found a marketplace for his skills. In this way some of the Dom have left their old way of living and have successfully settled in Egyptian communities.
During the last visit to Egypt we traveled out of the city for the opportunity to meet with a Dom blacksmith family in the Nile delta. To visit their rough brick home, we entered through a small entrance that first passed through the father’s metalwork business. In the darkened room we observed the prerequisite hammer, anvil and a small fire. In a modern twist, rather than being fed by bellows the fire was encouraged by air blown from a hose connected to an electrical fan. Sitting cross-legged and barefooted in his small, hot work area, the Dom man wielded the hammer in a manner that revealed his years of experience. Once the metal had been heated and beaten into the correct shape, the sparks flew as he sharpened it with an electric grindstone. After observing his work, we were invited into his home through the back door of his work area. We crouched as we exited his workshop through a small opening in the wall that served as the door. As we entered an inner courtyard we came upon a twelve-foot tower of miscellaneous scrap metal pieces. Beyond the courtyard was the house where we were invited to a meal. We were informed that the wives of the Dom men traditionally do not work outside the home except to help in their husbands’ businesses. According to our host, all of the Dom in his community work in the metal business.
As has been repeated for many years, the Dom of Egypt are often involved in the entertainment industry. Following the moulids (religious festivals) around the country, the Dom of Egypt are frequently found working the swings, running the aiming games, and performing in many other forms of entertainment. Some of the Dom are more reliant on tourism for their livelihood. Many of the camel and horse drivers around the Giza pyramids are Dom. While the men peddle rides to the visiting tourists next to the pyramids, many of the Dom children can be found selling trinkets down near the Sphinx. Additionally, we were told that in the rural areas of Egypt the Ghawazi still perform. (see "The Ghawazee Tradition" or "Ghawazi Dance in Egypt"). As it has been documented for centuries, the Dom women perform fortune telling through palm reading and speaking with seashells. Although we were informed by a rural Dom family that entertainment is an occupation of the Ghajar, the men of one urban Nawar family were musicians and the young women were dancers. While in the company of this Cairene family we were treated to a short concert in which two men played the lute and sang. The family told us that we could view Gypsy dancers by attending many of the hotels found along Pyramid Street in Giza.
A casualty of technology and a disappearing tradition, the epic poet is rarely seen entertaining audiences at weddings or the local coffeehouse in recent times. He has largely been replaced by the television and by the amplified music systems commonly found throughout the Arabic world. In his book, Heroic Poets, Poetic Heroes, Dwight Reynolds tells of his experiences living in an Egyptian village during the mid to late 1980s. /10/ Due to Reynolds’ interest in the poetry tradition, the Gypsy poets of a small delta village shared with him their lives and their insights into this extraordinary occupation. Derogatorily called Ghagar by the non-Dom village inhabitants, the Gypsy poets of this village preferred to call themselves Haleb. Prior to the invasion of technology, these Dom men were frequently hired to recite the traditional poems of Arab heroes and to play the rababa during the celebration of weddings or other such events. The talented poet would perform late into the night, delighting the imagination of his audience with tales of battles won and heroes triumphing. With clever usage of the Arabic language the Gypsy poet would mystically transcend his social level through the performance, and rise above the Egyptian men of his audience into the celebrated status of the hero within his poem. The social irony displayed in the mystical transition of the Gypsy poet is well captured in Reynolds’ description.
By tradition the Dom do not participate in large-scale agriculture. However they are frequently involved in small-scale operations such as the herding of goats and sheep and perhaps caring for a small garden or grazing area for the goats. One Dom woman claimed that they own water buffalos and make their own cheese and milk. The ownership of a water buffalo indicates a sedentary lifestyle confirming her claims that although they used to live in goat-hair tents, they no longer do. In contrast to the rural wives previously mentioned, one can frequently observe the Dom women working outside the home selling fruits and vegetables on the streets of Cairo. Some women will travel good distances to find a profitable location to set up their fruit and vegetable stands. According to one group of Dom women, their home community was over thirty minutes away by taxi. Begging is another occupation practiced by the Dom women and children. Desperately clutching their malnourished children, the women hold out their chubby cheeked baby in front of pedestrians on the streets claiming that the child needs food. Egypt has a large number of beggars on its streets, and it is uncertain as to what percentage of these are Dom.
Although education is free in Egypt, it appears that many of the Dom children are not enrolled in school. Ironically, the rural Dom families who are hiding within the Egyptian culture are benefiting. In an effort to live as their neighbors live, the Nawar children regularly attend school. We were told that some Dom in this community have gone on into further education and have become teachers. Some have even left Egypt in search of teaching positions with better salaries in places such as Libya.
The tradition of marriage within the Dom culture has frequently been reported as being endogamous. In Hanna’s study among the Ghagar of Egypt, he states that “endogamy is considered a very strict rule among the Ghagar”, yet he reports of several Ghagar-Khashana (non-Ghagar) unions. /11/ We also observed similar contradictions within the Nawar group. In speaking with the Egyptian man who had lived among a Dom community, he stated that although the Dom have begun to integrate more deeply into the Egyptian culture, they do not intermarry with the Egyptian people. According to him this was because the Egyptians would not marry a Gypsy. Furthermore, the Nawar family in rural Egypt informed us, that not only, do they not intermarry with Egyptians; they do not even intermarry with other groups of Dom such as the Ghajar. However, in visiting with an urban Nawar family in Cairo, the family openly shared with us that two of the three wives sitting in the room were Egyptian. To the outside observer, these two Egyptian women appear to have blended well with this Dom family.
Many studies of both the Roma and the Dom report that in an effort to fit into a community, the Gypsy will outwardly accept the host country’s religion. Considering the lengths at which the Dom in Egypt attempt to hide their ethnicity, one should not be surprised to discover that the Dom, at least outwardly, practice Islam. However, the Egyptian people speak poorly when commenting on the Gypsies’ commitments to Islam. One local man told us that he did not think they were very strong Muslims or that they cared about religion. It was our experience that his opinion is widely held by the local people. Despite this, during one visit I observed that the father of one Dom family possessed a large prayer bruise on his forehead. Many Muslim men throughout Egypt wear the bruise with pride.
Our local guide expressed the popular opinions that display the prejudice prevalent toward the Gypsy community within the Egyptian society. From the social perspective, the religious and the cultural viewpoint, the Dom of Egypt are seen as inferior. It is easy to see why the Dom of Egypt go to such great lengths to hide their ethnicity from their surrounding communities.
/1/ See Paul E. Kahle, “A Gypsy Women in Egypt in the Thirteenth Century AD,” Journal of Gypsy Lore
Society, 3rd series, vol. XXIX (1950): 11-15. (Back to Text)
/2/ See H. Gordon Ward, “Gypsies on the Nile in the Sixteenth Century,” Journal of Gypsy Lore Society, 3rd series, vol. XIII, no.1 (1934): 55 -56 (Back to Text)
/3/ See John Sampson, “The Ghagar of Egypt: A Chapter in the History of Gypsy Migration,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 3rd series, vol VII, no.2 (1928)(Back to Text)
/4/ Nabil Sobhi Hanna, Ghagar of Sett Guiranha: A Study of a Gypsy Community in Egypt, vol. 5, Monograph One, The Cairo Papers (The American University in Cairo, June 1982).(Back to Text)
/5/ Margaret Nydell, Understanding the Arabs, (Interculteral Press, 1996). (Back to Text)
/6/ Hans Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic,ed. J. Milton Cowan (London: MacDonald & Evans Ltd., 1980). (Back to Text)
/7/ See John Sampson, “The Ghagar of Egypt: A Chapter in the History of Gypsy Migration,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 3rd series, vol VII, no.2 (1928): 80 (Back to Text)
/8/ Ibid, 85 (Back to Text)
/9/ Hanna, 94 - 96 (Back to Text)
/10/ Dwight Reynolds, Heroic Poets, Poetic Heroes: The Ethnography of Performance in an Arabic Oral Epic Tradition, Myth and Poetics Series, ed. Gregory Nagy. (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995). (Back to Text)
/11/ Hanna, 46 (Back to Text)
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