Vol 1 No 6 Spring/Summer 2002

The Dom of Gaza: A DRC Update, June 2002

by Allen Williams

In 1350 Ludolphus von Sudheim noted the presence of Gypsies (“Egyptian of the tribe of the Pharaoh”) in the area of Palestine. Today, more than a thousand Dom live in the area known as the Gaza Strip. The current residents are not the descendants of those espied by von Sudheim some 650 years ago. The many changes in governance for the region, the variations in demographics resulting from the influx of refugees and the nomadic nature of the Gypsies make the possibility of continual residence for them over such a lengthy period of time extremely remote. A recent article appearing on a French news service raised questions about the situation of the Dom in the Gaza Strip. /1/ The present article follows up on the AFP piece to summarize the current situation of the Dom in the Gaza Strip, their interaction with the Palestinians, and their relationship with other Dom groups.

The initial statement in the AFP article is, "Trapped by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sharing the fate of the Palestinians, the Gypsies of the Gaza Strip are gradually losing their language, their traditions, and their identity." A word of caution is in order here. A quick reading of this statement might suggest that the Gyspy traditions are one of the casualties of the current Intifada. In fact, no correlation between the conflict and the loss of traditions has been substantiated. The Gypsy community there, like so many others in the Middle East, is losing its distinctiveness; but, the reasons for that loss lie elsewhere.

Living Conditions

The majority of the Dom of modern Gaza is settled in the Jabaliya refugee camp near Gaza City. Some of the older members of the community remember when their families traveled throughout Sinai and the Negev. Those nomadic days ceased for them approximately 30 years ago. Other Gypsies living in Jabaliya came there more recently as refugees from other coastal areas such as the city of Jaffa. /2/ These modern residents live in refugee housing apartments and makeshift dwellings. What was envisioned as temporary housing has become for all practical purposes permanent settlements. The AFP article depicted the abject living conditions of one woman: “(she) lives in a shack set up in a Muslim cemetery of the Askula district. The roof of her house is covered with a plastic tarp anchored by some worn out tires. On a string, the clothes dry in the sun above some graves.” /3/ The economic situation of this woman, as with other Dom, has deteriorated in proportion to the deterioration of the political state of affairs in the region. Similarly, as employment opportunities have decreased, despondency, hunger and malnutrition have increased.

Education & Occupations

A small number of Gypsy youth have secured higher education and professional level jobs, but these are exceptions to the general rule. The Gypsy children have the opportunity to attend public schools, but where their Gypsy identity is known they must endure ridicule from the other children. The government’s policy exonerates it from any accusations of educational discrimination against the Dom, but the verbal abuse the Dom receive otherwise is a strong social deterrent that is difficult for children to ignore and overcome. Social obstacles to achieving basic and/or higher education are universal phenomena confronting Gypsies as opposed to being isolated Palestinian issues. Sympathetic teachers and administrators are needed to bring about changes that would ensure a positive educational environment for all minority groups. Unfortunately, the unrest in the Gaza Strip results in the closure of the basic schools and universities on a regular basis. Dealing with these disruptions dominates the time and attention of those who might give positive and productive thought to the further development of the educational system. Apart from educational and social reform, the Dom will continue to yield their potential for advancement in the broader public arena to pursue their traditional occupations. Pursuit of these long-established occupations is not a negative matter in every situation; however, it can create a dilemma in which negative stereotypes are reinforced and the attendant bigotry bolstered.

Employment in the entertainment industry such as dancing and singing is waning, but begging and fortune telling are on the rise particularly among the women. The women and young children travel to other countries to beg in the streets of the larger cities. This activity is a part of the conflict of views held by the Gaza group as opposed to those held by the Dom communities in those cities to which they go to beg. For example, the more progressive Gypsies of Jerusalem discourage begging by their community members and resent the negative reflection on them when the Gaza women and children come to Jerusalem to beg. The tourists and Israelis do not know to make the distinction between the two groups. The dancing and singing skills of the Gypsies is still very much in demand in Gaza, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the Middle East. Many people both Dom and Palestinian look forward to more carefree days in which they can enjoy once again the noisy, joyful dancing and singing—a hallmark of the romanticized Gypsy lifestyle.

Relationships with Other Groups

Although the AFP report mentions only one mukhtar, interviews with other Gypsies in the area revealed that there are 3 or 4 different groups in Gaza each with its own leader. /4/ A strong centralized leadership is not apparent. The lack of a single recognized leader may contribute to the muting of the Dom voice and weaken any hope of gaining a hearing in the larger Palestinian community. Family or tribal leadership is common in the Arab world and may serve the Dom better in a tense political climate where strong centralized leadership runs the risk of being viewed as a potential threat.

Two common designations are used by the Dom to differentiate between groups. /5/ A Dom man who designated himself as Nawar made a distinction between his group and the Ghagar suggesting that the Ghagar are involved in non-respectable and even illegal ventures. In Egypt the Ghajar hold the same opinion of the Nawar. These antithetical points of view demonstrate the social stratification of the Dom population in the Middle East. The divergence of opinion regarding ethical behavior would mitigate any concept of a unified ethical norm shared among the Dom groups.

The Dom of Gaza are more closely associated with Dom groups living in Egypt as well as Amman, Jordan than they are to those living on the West Bank. The West Bank Dom speak of the Gaza group as “The Nawar of Gaza.” In this case the appellation is a somewhat negative social distinction that serves to put distance between the two groups. Much disdain is directed toward the Gypsies of Gaza because of what is perceived to be widespread unacceptable behavior such as begging, drug abuse, etc. An appreciation of their dancing skills is tempered only by unease with the extent to which it has become a commercial asset as opposed to a distinctive, positive cultural expression.

While the Dom prefer to give their daughters in marriage to other Dom, the young men from the Gaza communities are not an option they ever choose. The Gypsy women of Gaza also present themselves in a more public role than in other Dom communities; that is, the women have more of a leadership role within the family and the Muslim tradition of women covering their heads is generally not observed. For more traditional Dom these are not positive attributes in the women. Of course, this may be due to the influence of the Muslim environment in which they live as opposed to a strictly Dom predisposition.

Social interaction with the Palestinians is largely limited to entertainment services that the Dom provide. In deference to the political and economic hardships the Palestinians currently face, the Dom feel that joyful dancing and singing is not appropriate. A common saying among the Dom (perhaps also among the Arabs) encourages sensitivity to others, “You’re not living in a jungle!” The Dom also say, “Paradise without people is not paradise.” These are the sentiments of the Dom that few people recognize. Even the Palestinians fail to recognize the sympathetic outlook of the Dom for their situation. Recent visitors among the Dom of the Gaza Strip discovered that although the Gypsies there participate in the current Intifada in support of the Palestinians, the Palestinians maintain their distrust and disgust for the Gypsies. Gypsy participation in the military represents a radical departure from the practices of the Dom of the West Bank. There the Dom largely maintain a neutral position recognizing the concerns of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Although this sounds isolationist on the surface, the sensitivity of the Dom to the situation of their neighbors suggests that they deal with broader issues on a personal basis as opposed to taking it to the political activist level. One might read this situation as suggestive of a greater degree of social assimilation on the part of the Dom of Gaza as opposed to the Dom on the West Bank. In spite of efforts to assimilate, the attitudinal disposition of the Palestinians demands conformity on the part of the Gypsies without granting community membership; particularly equal membership.

NOTES

/1/ A private English translation of this March 1, 2002 article is available in the “News Clippings” section of the DRC website. Click here to read "In the Torment of the Intifada, the Gypsies of Gaza are Losing Their Identity." (Back to Text)
/2/ This historical information was collected by a French couple Marion & Michael Suwwan during a visit to Gaza in June 2002. The Suwwans are members of SEPIA, a student association based in Paris, France. (Back to Text)
/3/ See AFP article. (Back to Text)
/4/ DRC private interview April 2002. (Back to Text)
/5/ The use of the Arabic term “Nawar” continues to be very fluid. At least three uses should be mentioned: (1) A derisive term used by Arabs as a stereotypical designation for the Gypsy people or for anyone they want to insult. (2) A general term that the Dom have accepted from outside sources to use for themselves without the negative connotations. (3) A term that can be applied by Dom to other Dom groups to show a distinction. The distinction demonstrates a negative social attitude toward the other group. (Back to Text)


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