Vol 1 No 8 Spring/Summer 2003

"...spies, deserters and undesirable persons...", the Gypsies of Cyprus, 1322-2003

by Adrian Marsh and Elin Strand


In this article we outline the preliminary findings from our recent research trip to Cyprus, the aims and objectives. We will particularly describe the three groups of Gypsies present on the island, the Ghurbeti or Turkish-speaking Muslim Gypsies, the Mandi or Greek-speaking Christian Gypsies and the Romanlar, Turkish-speaking Gypsies from Anatolia. All of these groups also speak dialects of “Ghurbetcha” (Khurbetçı), “Romançe” (Romani) to a greater or lesser extent. The terms “Ghurbeti” and “Mandi” are self-appellations, others like “Kilinjiri”, “Yiftos”, “Tsiganos”, “Khoulliphoi” and even “Atsingani” being ascribed, pejorative terms applied by the surrounding Turkish and Greek-Cypriot communities. We have avoided the use of the ethnonym “Roma” or “Rroma”, as the Cypriot Gypsies that we met did not use it. Such terminology would obscure their complex notion of origins. We retain the use of the term “Gypsies”, as a conscious reclamation of this description, following wider political usage for Romany, Sinti, Dom, Lom, Travellers, Bhurukamin, Yenische, Zabaleen and other peoples who may be identified by aspects of a “Gypsy-like” life-style and culture. We also refer to groups such as Tahtacz and Abdallar, both in fact Alawite groups, but differing in their social relationship to each other and the wider society. The contentious debate about Alevi identities and Gypsy identity will be discussed in so far as it is illuminated by particular evidence from Cyprus. We refer to scholars and researchers working in Cyprus, including the major centre for research into the Middle Eastern Dom Gypsies, the DRC. The previous and scanty research about the Gypsies of Cyprus has been either embedded in the colonialist discourse of scientific racism or hampered by the romanticism of Gypsylorism, almost without exception. The newspaper coverage has in the main, produced a deeply unsympathetic and misinformed picture of the difficulties for Cypriot Gypsies, reminiscent of wider European reportage and we refer to these articles throughout. The official view from the Greek-Cypriot government is most widely represented through the Cypriot press; that of the Turkish-Cypriot administration is more ambiguous and less well reported.

The wider debate about Cyprus is also discussed in the context of alternative identities competing for recognition in the dominant Turkish/Greek-Cypriot discourse. We have outlined the unusual political situation as we experienced it over the period of our visit, and the problems it created for our research. We provide as accurate view as possible (given the competing narratives of Cypriot Greeks and Turks), of the historical and current situation of the Gypsies and outline the possibilities for future research amongst these communities.

An initial aim of our visit was to meet with the members of the Dom Research Centre (DRC) in Greek-Cypriot Larnaca. The purpose of visiting the DRC was to learn more about their work amongst the Middle Eastern Domari communities, to examine their resource base and to observe their working practices, as a model for the development of research about the Gypsies of Turkey and the region. Their orientation towards the communities in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Israel (in other words, the quondam Ottoman Arab lands) provides an alternative focus to the more highly publicised work of the majority of Roma NGO’s in Europe. The question for the future Romanlar NGO’s based in Istanbul is one that demands a different solution than those suggested by such organisations; namely that the historical position of Istanbul as the cultural entrepôt with a mélange of differing peoples, religions and histories should be reflected, in this instance. This heritage of pluralism and tolerance is still present to some degree in the Republic, as what one journalist has called “an Ottoman Empire of the mind” (Pope, 2001).

The DRC has been for some time exterior to the concerns of the mainstream Romani movement, as they are both mistakenly perceived to be an organisation only partially concerned with political, social and human rights issues and as representing a very individual perspective on working with this particular group of Gypsy peoples, who themselves remain the most marginalised, under-represented and under-researched of all groups. The DRC has followed the path of developing independent research in the region, and now represents the most effective network for studies of Middle Eastern Gypsies. Whilst the DRC is the most important Gypsy organisation on the island, there are other resources (Milli Arsivi, Girne), and a few individual scholars engaged in Romani research.

The impact of the post-1974 “settlement” upon the “Ghurbeti” and “Mandi” communities, with the ensuing population transfers between north and south was something that was of primary interest to us as researchers. The “make-up” of the Gypsy communities, in terms of their varying ethnic and national components and their relationship to each other was another area of research that we wanted to undertake. Gathering examples of the Romani language as spoken by the Ghurbeti and Mandi groups was an additional concern. The previous research had presented information about Cypriot Gypsies based upon interviews with individuals in London. We wanted to assess the accuracy and relevance of this research in Cyprus itself, amongst the Cypriot Gypsies after a period of nearly twenty years (Kenrick & Taylor, 1986).

The plan for our visit to northern Cyprus was based on the best information we could glean from our sources in Istanbul (our starting point). All suggested that the Green (“Attila”) Line was “open” and that it would be possible to cross to the Greek Republic from the Turkish-administered region. However, due to the day-to-day alteration of the political situation, this proved not to be the case by the time we arrived (although it had been previously). It was not even possible to contact the DRC via telephone, as the telecommunications networks has never been connected (although this has now been addressed), and the only cross-border communication was via the UN’s “123” line, almost constantly busy at this extraordinary time. It became a salutary experience for us to come to terms with the continuing existence of these ethnic and political boundaries, and a small reminder of the experience for Cypriots for the past 30 years. Subsequently, our visit to Larnaca and the planned meeting with the DRC was not possible. Despite this set back, we continued with our own archival and field research.

We were present in Cyprus at what was a historic time. Almost everybody that we made contact with, from Turkish-Cypriot hotel owners, British ex-patriot servicemen and women, Ghurbeti Gypsies and Greek-Cypriot NGO activists had opinions and positions on the political situation and potential for resolving the issues. Discussion was frequently fervent, often revealing and sometimes disturbing as the wellspring of bitterness, fear and prejudice is especially deep in Cyprus. The arrival in Girne (Kyrenia) of Prime Minister Erdogan for a meeting with President Denktash was a focal point for the many expectations of change and a resolution to the continuing impasse of the EU accession discussions. We were also witness to a number of emotional episodes where the returning Greeks were distressed at the changes to their past “homes” and properties. Little media attention was devoted to the similar issues for Turkish-Cypriots. The issue of restoration and recompense is one that will require a particularly sophisticated political solution.

Ali Dulumpznar
Ali Dumlupznar, a Ghurbeti living in Güzelyürt provided us with a great deal of information when we visited the community. A knowledgeable and reflective man, he described for us the history and current situation of the Gypsies of Cyprus and shared his thoughts on the origins of his people. The centre of the Güzelyürt community is the khavesi owned by Mito Oglu in Büyük Ada Sokak. Mito Bey, Ali Bey and many of the men we met with had children residing in London. Discussions with all of them about culture and language added invaluable data to our research.

The Ghurbeti of Güzelyürt told us that there have been Gypsies on Cyprus since 500AD, when they arrived from Anatolia (although “scholars claim an Indian origin”, we were told). This early date cannot be supported by the historical and linguistic evidence from Byzantine times, but is important to recognise it as an element of modern Ghurbeti “Gypsy” identity. An alternative suggestion from some authorities is that Gypsies arrived between 1322 and 1400, as a result of Indian migration (Kambas, 2001; Willimas, 2000; Kenrick & Taylor, 1986). The notion is that arrival dates for other islands in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean provide us with an “estimate derived by historical calculation” (Kenrick & Taylor, 1986; 1323 in Candia, Crete; prior to 1386 on Corfu; 1384 in Modon; during the governorship of Ottaviano Bono’ of Nauplion 1397-1404, see Fraser, 1992:50-52). The continuing success of the Khaldji general, Malik Kafur in the Deccan conquests of 1304-1311 may have provided the impetus for such (EI2, 1986:270-271), whilst the suppression of the major rebellions in the Deccan, Bengal and most importantly, Multan by the Tughlukid Sultan of Dihli, Ghazi Muhammad (1324-51) may also have been an important factor in driving emigrants west. His successful campaigns against the Mongols in the Peshawar region and his reduction of Rajputana to a very much smaller Hindu territory by 1335, additionally contributed to the general dislocation of population in this area. This must be balanced by the success of the Tughlukid dynasty in securing broad-based support, especially from the Panjab, and the recorded generosity of Muhammad in particular towards foreign immigrants (EI2, 1986:591-595). The ravages of bubonic plague in Anatolia and the Byzantine Empire during the mid-14th century are also possible explanations for migration (Kenrick & Taylor, 1986). The impact of the late fourteenth-century Timurid invasions has often been cited as a “push factor” in discussions of Romany origins (Fraser, 1992:81, 196), although the most recent linguistic arguments from Hancock suggests that even a date of “exodus” for proto-Romani “Rajputic” peoples following the Muhammad Ghur invasions of 1191 may be “too late” (2003:9).

Given the evidence above, this last would seem to be an statement overly reliant upon the linguistic model. Whilst Hancock’s argument (2003:3-6) that the development of the Romani language took place after the shift from Middle Indo-Aryan to New Indo-Aryan (c.1000AD) must be accepted, the history of population migrations suggests that these are processes over long periods of time. “New” communities of Multan, Rajputana and Panjab origin, arriving in Cyprus are likely to have chosen to become allied to, and eventually assimilated by a pre-existent Indic community already present on the island. Similarly, those Gypsies from Anatolia and the adjacent Islamic lands may also have found refuge amongst the established groups, whether Christian or Muslim. There are many precedents for this process and such evidence is often found in shifts in cultural developments (changes in burial customs, craft and artisan production and technological innovations), as amongst the Avars in 7th century Central Europe for example (Lipták, 1983:159-61). It must be remembered that the debate has traditionally focussed upon the notions of “common origins” and a singular migration, although this has been challenged from the 1930’s onwards (Hancock, 2002:3). There have been significant developments in serious research regarding Dom, Lom and Rom origins through more recent linguistic, Ottoman and Middle Eastern scholarship (IRSC, 2003). Ultimately, a much more complex picture of both origins and migrations are bound to emerge as a result.

The problem is that although the numbers of “push” factors are more than sufficient to support the proposition that there was a Gypsy presence upon Cyprus from 1322, there is no evidence to support this from Lusignan or Venetian sources. Fraser suggests that, “…they [Gypsies] showed a decided preference for settling in Venetian territories, both in the Peleponnese and in the neighbouring islands, no doubt because the colonies held by Venice… enjoyed relative stability and security, whereas the other areas suffered greatly from constant Turkish incursions.” (1992:50) Yet there is no documentary evidence of such a community in Cyprus. There is even confusion in modern scholarship about the earliest reliable report of Romany peoples on the island of Cyprus. This dates from the end of the Crusader period (1191-1489), when Cyprus shifted from being an important staging post to “Outremer” or the Crusader kingdoms from the Templar-controlled port of Bari, to become a refuge after the fall of Acre to Salah al-Din (1291). Kenrick & Taylor cite the following, “Only in 1468 is there any written record of Gypsies in Cyprus. In the Chronicle of Cyprus compiled by Florio Bustron, the 'Cingani' are said to have paid tax to the royal treasury, at that time King James II…” (1986) This is itself drawn from the work of the French scholar, François de Vaux de Foletier (1971:39). It seems to be a clear-cut reference to a group of Gypsies paying tax to the last of the effective Lusignan kings, Jacques II (James II, 1460-1473; his posthumous infant son died in 1474 and Venice gained control of the island through Caterina Cornaro). The confusion lies in the fact that the Comentarii di Cipro, was written in 1340 and is concerned, amongst other things with the trial of the Knights Templars (Forgione & Garufi, 2003; Frale, 2001:159). The later …Chronicle of Cyprus beginning with the year 1456 after Christ, by Giorgios Voustronios (Dawkins, 1964), may provide the solution to this confusion. Hatay cites a similar reference to a group recorded as ‘Cingani’ in the taxation records of 1486, as part of the grant of a fief to a certain “Turcopole” of this community (2003). The name tells us that this is the record of a military man, a non-European serving with the Lusignan army and most probably of Middle Eastern origin, as the designation turcopole was usually given to Christianised Arabs in Outremer and surrounding territories who were members of the military orders, the Knights Templar and Hospitallar. These Christian Arabs were the ancestors of the Maronite community on the island (http://www.cypnet.co.uk/ncyprus/people/cypmaronites/index.html). It is quite likely that this is one of the earliest references to Dom Gypsies in European history and suggests a continuing role in the military resistance to Islam for some Gypsy groups. The role of Gypsies in the military forces of early Islamic sultanates is almost entirely unacknowledged in Romani Studies, but their presence as “Sindhi” and “Rajput” warriors in the armies of Mahmud of Ghazni is attested to by al-Utbi and other Arabic historians of the period (EI2, 1986), whilst other sources suggest that they may have been a consistent component of these forces throughout. As any military force was made up of largely non-combatants and families of the soldiers, these forces would have been what Hale has described as “…societies on the move…” (Hale, 1983:57). What this reference implies is that Cyprus was the point of contact for the Rom and Dom populations, something that the modern Ghurbetis asserted in their descriptions of the community’s complex origins.

The Venetian period has thus far produced little documentation to suggest that Gypsies remained on the island at any time between 1489-1571, despite evidence from other Venetian possessions in the earlier fifteenth century (Fraser, 1992:50-53). Whether “Turcopole” or his descendants continued to hold the ‘Cingani’ fief, as in the similar case of Johannes Cinganus, in Nauplion in 1444 (Fraser, 1992:51), is not known. The Venetian governor of Nauplion had removed “John the Gypsy” from his office of drungarius acinganorum sometime before this, “…contrary to the privileges granted to the predecessors and progenitors of said John both by our government…” and the previous governor of the city (Fraser, 1992:51). The change in governance of the island may have been coterminous with a shift in the opinions of the ruling elites and increasing intolerance towards the non-Catholic populations of their territories by the Venetians after the defeat at Varna in 1444. Various decrees issued by the Doge and the Senate of the Serene Republic in this period clearly state that the Venetian authorities regarded Gypsies as spies and allies of the Ottomans, to be ejected from the Republic’s territories whenever encountered. If there is little evidence of Romany or Dom peoples in Cyprus at this time, it is not surprising. Further investigation of the Venetian chancery records would perhaps better illuminate this period.

The majority of the Gypsy population was probably brought to the island during and shortly after the Osmanlı conquest. The Ottoman forces that invaded Cyprus in 1571 contained Yanbolu Tatars, led by Subası Mehmed and contingents of Gypsies assigned to his command (Hatay, 2003). These provided arms and munitions to the expedition during the period 1571-1574. Many of these were “conscripted” as a result of orders from the Ottoman Porte in 1572, December 1573, January 1574 and in 1576 to transport from several districts of Anatolia those “of bad conduct, undesirable persons, smiths, coppersmiths, tanners, basket-makers… and those cultivating the lands for a wage…” (Papadopoulos, 1965:20-22) Not all of those conscripted were Gypsies, and it could not be argued that this represents a specifically ‘ethnic’ measure on the part of the Ottomans. The taxation defters for 1572 show 207 Gypsies liable for ispence (taxes) (Hatay, 2003). Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Gypsy population of Cyprus engaged in the trading of horses from the Arab lands to Istanbul. The guild of horse-traders was at one point during the seventeenth century one of the wealthiest in the Empire and, Lewis points out, entirely in the hands of the Gypsies (1971:62). The extent of the trade through Cyprus, as a staging post, has yet to be evaluated, but again it would have been the point of exchange for Dom and Romanlar horse-dealers. Interestingly, the grooms and trainers remained Berbers (Lewis, 1971:62).

In the eighteenth century there were numbers of “Mandi” or Greek Orthodox Gypsies living amongst the “Ghurbeti” Muslim Gypsies (Çevikel, quoted in Hatay, 2003.). The earliest mention of this community is from a Cologne pilgrim in the Morea in 1340. He noted the presence of a group of “Mandopoli” that spoke a language unintelligible to anyone else. A decade later, the pilgrim Ludolfus de Suthiam described a similar group in the Peloponnesus he called “Mandopolini” (Marushiakova & Popov, 2001:16). As unwise as it may be to engage in positing etymologies without being linguistics scholars, a number of interesting suggestions do arise with regard to this term. In Hindi, the term “mandi” means “…commodity market, a wholesale market where buyers & sellers meet and transact business.” (http://www.infobanc.com/mandi.htm) In Greek, “manteia” (manteia) refers to “soothsaying, foretelling”,
Gypsy bullock cart drivers
whilst the term for casting iron is “mantemi” (mantemi). In Turkish, the word for water buffalo is “manda”. As Thomson’s 1878 photograph shows, the connection between these beasts and Gypsies was still present in the 19th century. The relationship of Gypsies to these other “occupations” is almost synonymous. The Mandi are claimed to have been assimilated by the majority Greek population in a later period, although this would seem to be contradicted by the fact that there are still Mandi living in the southern part of the island near Larnaca, and as many as 400-500 who remain peripatetic, we were told.

Together with the presence of Orthodox Greek and Muslim Gypsies, we have evidence for a number of other consistent Rom and Dom populations on the island. In her descriptions of Cyprus in the middle of the nineteenth century, Mrs Scott-Stevenson noted in a highly negative comparison that suggests familiarity with British Romanies,

“…one often meets gipsies [sic] in Cyprus, to which they come from all parts, Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria. They bear, I regret to say no better character than our own…” (1880:253)

Other populations, for example the Tahtacz of Cyprus were also defined as “Gypsy” during the Ottoman period. There is evidence that this was not merely ignorance or bureaucratic convenience on the part of Ottoman census enumerators. Many Tahtacz described themselves as “Kipti” to avoid conscription with Sunni Muslims into the modernised army and navy of the late imperial period, until the reforms of 1878 that made Ottoman Muslim Gypsies liable for military service (Paspatis, 1881:4). It is not clear if other Alevi groups also have chosen this route to avoid military service, but throughout the nineteenth-century this identification of Tahtacz and Abdallar as “Gypsy” was a consistent feature of Ottoman censuses. Given that numbers of “Alawites” were banished from regions of Anatolia to Cyprus in 1712, the likelihood exists that they might also choose to define themselves in this way. Gypsies did serve with Ottoman forces in all periods of the Empire’s existence, but usually as separate or auxiliary units commanded by Tatars. Alevi practices are likely to have gone unnoticed amongst people who were not expected to behave as orthodox Muslims.

Cyprian Dom Maid
The advent of British rule brought a new kind of recording to the island with the photographic depiction of Cyprus. The work of John Thomson is especially important, as he seems to have captured images of Cypriote Gypsies almost unwittingly (1879). In the British surveys during their administration of the island there are references to Gypsies amongst the censuses; in 1881 there were 15 Gypsies in a total population of 185,630 or 0.008%. There were also 166 “Egyptians” noted by the enumerators. Twenty years later the records show only nine Gypsy inhabitants; however, they also record one fortune-teller, 713 carters and wagon drivers, 157 tinsmiths, two horse-dealers, eighty-one horse-breeders, nineteen coppersmiths, four water-carriers and ten prostitutes on the island in various cities. All of these occupations have been closely identified with Gypsies in the late Ottoman Empire and its successors, and again it is likely that the figure for the “Gypsy” population in 1901 is much higher than that enumerated. In 1911, 152 Gypsies are recorded, but again there are 600 blacksmiths amongst other likely occupations that might reveal a significant under-counting of the population. The census of 1921 shows a similar picture with 121 recorded Gypsies and many “hidden” in the lists of occupations. By 1946, the British administrator had recognised the insufficiency of the records regarding the Gypsy populations when he noted the presence

“…in Cyprus [of]… a small but long-established group of nomads known as gypsies (“Tsigane”) of whose numbers, origin and present customs remarkably little is known.” (Hart-Davis, 1949:7)

Ghurbeti Beggars
The events of the 1960’s and early 1970’s had a very significant impact upon the Gypsies of Cyprus. In the increasing tensions and terrorism that marked the end of British rule, the establishment of the Republic and the collapse of the fragile constitutional arrangement, the Gypsies’ nomadism became more and more circumscribed as they themselves once again became identified as “undesirable persons”. The eventual situation of many meant that they chose to live in the Turkish enclaves during the most disruptive and insecure period, as the Ghurbetis identified the Turks as their “natural” allies (although, as Williams points out, this is more of a linguistic affinity than religious; Williams, 2000) and suspicion turned to outright hostility from the Greek-Cypriots. The notion (still very prevalent) of Muslim Gypsies being “spies” (Zenon, 2001:1) and “deserters” from the Turkish community (Kambas, 2001:2) was revived. The participation of Ghurbetis as combatants against the EOKA insurgents was reflected in the post-“intervention” or “invasion” period and exchanges of population. Many Muslim Gypsies were prisoners of war from Larnaca for some months before being expelled to the Turkish Republic, or “occupied territories” as they are defined in the Republic of Cyprus (Mito Bey showed us his tattoo, done during his incarceration). Orthodox Christian Gypsies were also forcibly moved by the Turkish-Cypriot “government” from the area around Iskele to form a new community in Yeni Iskele or Skala. The settlement of Cypriot Gypsy populations in housing abandoned by Greeks or Turks became a factor in the creation of new communities on either side of the Green (Attila) Line. Whilst in the northern Republic little antagonism arose from the local population, in the south significant hostility to the settlement of Gypsies was apparent from early on, despite financial aid and provision by the Greek-Cypriot government.

Romanlar Musicians
Romanlar Musician from Istanbul
playing in Kyrenia
At present there are estimated to be some 2,000-3,000 Gypsies on Cyprus, the fluctuation resulting from the annual influx of Anatolian Romanlar as musicians, basket-traders, fortune-tellers and taking up other “traditional” occupations during the summer months, and smaller groups of Greek Rom selling hand-made goods in the villages around Limassol (Williams, 2000). In the Turkish administered area, only very few of the Ghurbeti are still mobile, four or five families according to the community in Güzelyürt. These are seasonally peripatetic, moving in a fixed cycle through the territory for mainly recreational reasons. In the Greek Republic, there may be as many as 400-500 nomadic Gypsies in and around Paphos, Larnaca, Nicosia and Skale, in Tuzla. The Ghurbeti describe themselves as having very mixed origins; Egyptian, Bulgarian, Anatolian and Indian, although Williams suggests that the Cypriote Gypsies “are more closely related to the Gypsies of Europe, particularly Greece and Turkey, than they are to the Gypsies of the Middle East and North Africa” (2000). Mr Ali Dumlumpınar argued that the Gypsies from both Christian and Muslim communities had the same origin, but had been separated at some point by religion, probably as a result of the 1960-1974 situation. The answer to the question of “origins” would seem to be a synthesis of both perspectives; culturally and linguistically Williams assertion is correct but historically, as we have argued above, the community “memory” is also ‘true’. The strong links between Christian and Muslim Gypsies in former times had not entirely withered and died. Other members of the Güzelyürt Ghurbeti described how their sons and daughters who had migrated to London had been helped “…to get on their feet” by Mandi Gypsies, suggesting that this notion of common origin has a significant place in the discourse of identity for both groups.

Linguistically, the Ghurbeti and Mandi speak a form of Romany, called Khurbetçı that has much in common with other creoles such as English Romani or ‘poggadi chib’. The similarity of words such as “çukkel” and “jukkel”, meaning “dog” are obvious, where there are close relations between terms can also be seen in words for “horse” for example (“gıras” and “grai”). The extent to which there are common terms can be seen in a small sample can be shown with words for five “panç”, knife “çuri” and good “laçi”, all of Indic origin. Others clearly reflect the impact of Turkish and the Romani spoken by the Ghurbeti is firmly ensconced in Turkish syntax and grammar. We have included a short table below of some terms, recorded originally by Mete Hatay from conversations with Mito Bey’s mother. Ali Bey told us that his parents had spoken another language which he had not understood, but recognised when working in Lebanon in the late 1960’s, which suggests that some of the community may have been Arabic–speakers. Mito Bey’s great-grandparents had come from Bulgaria, but had not taught his father Bulgarian subsequently. The linguistic diversity that once marked out the community would no longer seem to be the case.


Mete Hatay
GoodLaçi ‘Bu çay çok laçidir’
Do you eat?Kayma kayan?
To hideGaravlaylım
To laughKetlenmek

Many younger Ghurbeti Gypsies have moved to London in the hope of improving their living standards.
Men of Güzelyürt
A frequent assumption amongst Gypsies elsewhere is that education may undermine their own traditional values and culture. The Ghurbeti Gypsies however, emphasise the importance of education and claim that the younger, educated generation are not denying their ethnicity, but are proud to be Ghurbeti, as “Cyprus is a small community, [and]…there is no point in hiding it”. There seems to be a tension between what they see as a necessary and important social step forward (education and finding “decent jobs”), and the regret that the children are moving further away from “the Gypsy tradition”. Older members of the community described their sadness that their children had moved to London, married British partners and now claimed to be “Turkish-Cypriot”, rather than Ghurbeti. Linguistically, this younger group has almost entirely “lost” Khurbetçı with few recognising any words (Williams, 2000). The situation of the national languages coming to replace the community “mother-tongue” is an aspect of the wider issues surrounding Cypriot identity discussed below.

The Gypsies have been remarkably consistent in occupational patterns since their first detailed records during Ottoman times. The British censuses illustrate the continuity of employment; horse breading & trading, copper work, knife makers, beggars, agricultural labours, gunsmiths and fortunetellers. There are still some “indigenous” Gypsy musicians in Cyprus; one particular ensemble is particularly well known for their interpretation of standard Turkish music, the Kursuniler group. Many of these occupations are still carried out by the older generation (most of the orange sellers are in fact Ghurbeti Gypsies). Until the 1960’s it was still common for the Gypsies to travel with horse and carts, but today only a few are commercial nomads. We were told that some of the older Gypsies continue this pattern but only in summer time when the climate is conducive. Whilst it is true that there is a high level of illiteracy and unemployment amongst the Ghurbeti Gypsies, the trend is slowly changing and today the children go to school with an increasing number of the younger people being educated. This has led to new sources of income and employment, and we were given some examples such as working for the police service, the electricity and insurance companies. As relatively few of the older Ghurbeti have been working in any other than “casual labour” employment, most of the Ghurbeti Gypsies have to survive on a small stipends or pensions from the government.

The official Turkish position has been questioned, despite the administration’s claims that Gypsies are “well integrated”, with many holding senior administrative offices, and supported by reports of the British High Commission (FCO, 1995). The Immigration & Nationality Directorate also stated that “…[t]hey are not, and have never been subject to economic or social discrimination” would appear to be disingenuous (Version 4:§6.10). Charges brought against the Turkish régime by the Cypriot administration in 1994, suggesting arbitrary treatment, arrest without cause and demolishing Gypsy settlements to the European Court of Human Rights were found to have occurred, without judicial remedy (ECHR 2001:§54). The question of social security is one that the some Turkish-Cypriots focus upon, usually expressing quite stereotypical prejudices. We were told in what were remarkably similar terms to the “bogus asylum-seeker” discourse in Europe, that Ghurbeti Gypsies are now migrating south to claim unemployment benefits for a few months, returning to live on the proceeds until they run out of money and migrate again. The issue for the Greek-Cypriot administration is also one that receives much media attention; in recent reports, the government of the Greek Republic has stated that Gypsies will “…no longer get government handouts or state-sponsored housing…” (Hellicar, 2001). One particular minister echoed fifteenth-century Venetian descriptions when accusing Turkish-Cypriot Gypsies of sheltering “…occupation regime spies hiding amongst the gypsies[sic]…” who are widely perceived to be “…scroungers and undesirables” by the Greek-Cypriot population at large (Hellicar, 2001). The reality of their situation is far grimmer, with male longer-term unemployment and widespread illiteracy through non-attendance at school being the communal norm (Williams, 2000).

The opening of the border and EU accession may increase this tendency to identify the Gypsies of the northern Republic as “economic migrants”, particularly if the island does not become an EU member as a unit. The ways in which the Turkish-Cypriot Gypsies are represented in the Greek-Cypriot media bears close resemblance to the tabloid press in Western Europe portraying the arrival of Eastern European asylum-seekers from the early 1990’s. The discourse is permeated with analogies of uncontrollability, chaos and disorder:

“This spring the Cyprus government has been confronted with one of the largest tides of Turkish-Cypriot Roma flooding from the Turkish occupied north…” (Hellicar, 2001:1)
The reference to the “flood” of Turkish-Cypriot Roma is in fact overstated; 150 Gypsies crossed the Green Line during a period of two months in 2001. Hellicar goes on to elaborate “…it’s impossible to disguise the fact that Greek-Cypriots dislike an influx of Gypsies, be they Turkish-Cypriot or not…” (2001:1). Not only the media, but government ministers feed - and respond to - existing public prejudice against Gypsies. The Interior Minister has in his “tough talk” declared “…Gypsies arriving from the north can no longer expect to be treated as tourists” (Hellicar, 2001:2). These statements reveal a dismissal of the Gypsies’ legitimate rights as Cypriot citizens, to free movement. The impact upon outward migration of Ghurbeti and Mandi Gypsies to the UK may also be significantly altered, as was illustrated by the case in the of the ECHR judgement against Turkey where it was found that air lines had refused to carry Turkish-Cypriot Gypsies without a visa (ECHR, 2001§54).

A few younger Ghurbetis have sought asylum in the United Kingdom, claiming persecution as a minority at the hands of the Turkish administration in the north. The issue had been one that became the focus for attention by the Republic of Turkey’s government (as the Turkish régime is a technically illegal and internationally unrecognised regime, and therefore cannot be held responsible for human rights abuses), and was briefly investigated by them. A lack of support from some key members of the community meant the investigation ceased and no specific case was made on behalf of the Ghurbetis; however, those who had gone to London were granted leave to remain in the UK. The ECHR 2001 judgement had demonstrated that there was discrimination against Turkish-Cypriot Gypsies and that the administration had fostered this. The reported cases of mistreatment of Gypsies by the Greek-Cypriots were highlighted by an incident in 2001 when a group of Ghurbetis were beaten by police officers after crossing into southern Cyprus from the Famagusta region (http://www.tcn-cy.freeuk.com/brutal.htm). Allegations of mistreatment by the Greek-Cypriot government, such as the “housing” of Gypsies in Nicosia’s central prisons and the allocation of tents as “temporary accommodation” for Turkish-Cypriot Gypsies continue to be reported (Zenon, 2001; Hadjicostia, 2001). Discrimination would appear to have been consistent and embedded in the actions of the two “states”, contradicting the assertions of some scholars that the “…small population of Gypsies live fortunately in harmony with the majority populations” (Kenrick & Taylor, 1986:3).

There is then, an ambivalence on behalf of the Ghurbeti, expressed as both a suggestion that the community is faced with little discrimination in the present (as opposed to the past situation, when the term “Gypsy” was recorded by the British authorities on identity papers), and conversely that they are second-class citizens with little access to good-quality housing, skilled employment and welfare services. Little information given in interviews suggested the extent of this discrimination and maltreatment. The suggestion in some earlier research that

“…most Gypsies lead a relaxed and unrestricted way of life… [where}… the standard of living is low but adequate and there is no evidence of poverty…”
is patently incorrect, though only through testing the veracity of such statements from informants would this be apparent. The notion, mentioned previously of inter-communal harmony is again an unfounded assertion and ignores the reality of both the Ghurbeti and the Mandi communities’ experiences of disadvantage in a variety of ways.

In terms of accommodation, the standard of such is low for the majority of the Ghurbeti community. As mentioned previously, the position of Mandi Gypsies is equally difficult; housing in Larnaca was not taken up because of hostility from the local Greek population and not because of a desire to remain nomadic, as suggested elsewhere (Kenrick & Taylor, 1986:2). There are often two or three families sharing a small house that is inadequately heated during winter. The situation of the Ghurbeti communities in Güzelyürt was on the periphery of the town, close to the rubbish-dumps, historically a very typical location for Gypsy communities the world over. When young couples are married their house is provided by the groom’s father whilst the contents is supplied by the bride’s family, in common with the general practice amongst the Turkish-Cypriot community. The practice of arranged marriages is, incidentally changing rapidly, as it has amongst the Turkish community.

Culturally, Ghurbeti see themselves largely as secularised Muslims, again a very general feature of Turkish-Cypriot society. We were there in the period when most Anatolian and Balkan Gypsies and Alevis would celebrate Hirdrellez (Erdelezi). Yet despite the fact that the Gypsies of Cyprus contain a wide range of ethnic elements, this festival passed unnoticed and we were told had never been celebrated by the Ghurbeti or Mandi communities. In all other practices the Ghurbeti follow very much the Turkish-Cypriot norm. It was not possible to talk with the Mandi about their religious practices. Although like the Ghurbetis they are less religiously active, unlike the relationship between the former and the Turkish-Cypriots the Mandi stand in stark contrast to the surrounding Greek-Cypriot population. For the latter Greek Orthodoxy is not merely a matter of religious belief but an essential component of a nationalist identity. It was described to us that the Mandi in Paphos experienced intense hostility from the clergy of the local Greek Orthodox Church, by definition excluding them from the “national” culture.

A cultural feature shared between Ghurbeti Gypsies in northern Cyprus and many other Gypsy groups is the tradition of cockfighting. We were told that in England, Ghurbetis and Romanichals (English Gypsies) meet and engage in this together. Whilst gambling is endemic in the economy of the northern régime and attracts thousands of “tourists” from neighbouring Middle East countries every year, the practice of cockfighting remains as far as we understand, entirely illegal. Although music remains part of the culture of the Ghurbeti, almost none of it is Romani music. This pertains to the Romanlar from Anatolia, who do play Romani songs in addition to the popular Turkish melodies they perform. The tradition of dance prevalent amongst the Romanlar of Sulukule or the Dom of Cairo is not represented either. This might suggest that the usual interstices where elements of “Gypsy cultures” can be located are not present in the Cypriot context. Without further research it is not possible to say if this is the case with other minority ethnic groups such as the Laz, Kurds, Alevis, Arabs, Armenians and the small Jewish community. It is apparent that the small Maronite communities in the villages of Kormacitte, Aye Marina, and Karpasa in the Kormacitte peninsula and the Baha’is of northern Cyprus are less “quiescent” and do not face the same prospect of an erosion of their distinct cultural profile in the contested question of Cypriot identities.

We would suggest that there exists an important dynamic of what might be described as “victim hood”. The defensiveness of both communities stems from the complex historical context of the colonial and post-colonial period, when the competing aspirations for enosis on the part of the Greeks and taksim from the Turks undermined any possibility of developing both a “Cypriot” identity and a unified, independent state. This claim to a deeper and more comprehensive “suffering” at the hands of the “other” colours the perceptions of relationships with the minority ethnic communities in Cyprus. The position of the Ghurbeti and Mandi, the Maronites, the contemporary Kurdish community, Turkomans, Alevis and Lazians are all affected by this primary dynamic of claim and counter-claim in the “forging” of the two dominant ethnicities. In a highly divided society, to recognise the legitimacy of alternative identities has not been possible within the almost impermeable discourse of bi-partite Cypriot identity.

In many ways, it is clear that the Ghurbeti Gypsies have become “Turkicised” and to a large extent share the culture, language and economic position of many of the Turkish-Cypriot population. There is a notion of an “island” identity, defined in opposition or contradistinction to “Anatolian” or “Greek”. Interestingly, the term used by Turkish-Cypriots about “settlers” from mainland Turkey is a Romani one, “gadjo”. This is a shared idea of the “outsider” from beyond the “boundary” implicitly expressed here. Socially however, there is a distinction ascribed to the Ghurbeti by the wider society and resonant of the kind of “Gypsy” stereotyping seen in mainland Turkey and elsewhere in the region. There are also a series of additional and what might be described as “harder” boundaries that separate the Ghurbeti and Mandi from Cypriot society in general. The Ghurbeti clearly see themselves as a distinct group from Anatolian Romanlar or Balkan Gypsies. They are ‘bounded’ culturally, geographically and politically from the Mandi of the Greek Republic on the other side of the Green Line and the Romanlar on the other side of the Mediterranean. They would also appear to be almost “unconnected” with their historical roots; no substantial contacts exist between the Ghurbeti and Dom in Syria, Israel or Egypt in the present. Nor does the influx of Bulgarian Roma in the late 1980’s seem to have encouraged any identification with this group. The heritage from the British colonial period is most apparent in the strong association with London and the UK, for both the Ghurbeti and Mandi. This may also be true for the wider Turkish-Cypriot and Greek-Cypriot communities to a high degree, but the overall situation is strikingly similar to that of another ex-colonial island people, the Afro-Caribbean communities of the West Indies. The co-operation between Mandi and Ghurbeti in London shares features of that pattern of subsuming individual island identities (St Lucian, Jamaican, etc.) in the face of dealing with common economic and social problems. In an even stronger sense, the separation of the Ghurbeti from Greek-Cypriots is stark indeed; not only are they Gypsies, but they are also poor, Turkish by dint of their perceived alliances and however nominally, Muslims.

The Turkish-Cypriot “island” identity contrasts with a Greek-Cypriot identity that is much more closely linked to the Greek mainland and its traditions, values, religion and culture. We would suggest that the explicit association and desire for enosis with Greece has had a strong influence on the Mandi Gypsy community who reflect the position of mainland Gypsy organisations by claiming a primarily “Greek” identity, to which the “Gypsy” is apparently secondary. The choices for this group in Cyprus are less flexible than those open to the Ghurbeti across the border; namely to be part of the Greek-Cypriot nationalist project or to be assimilated by it. Unlike the case of the Greek Gypsies, there are no representative Romany organisations, nor any active Roma NGO’s at work on the island. In this sense, the focus upon the apparently implacable hostility of the two dominant communities has further marginalised and isolated the Cypriot Gypsies. Previous scholarship has contributed to this, as officials can and do point to the uncritical conclusions of earlier studies to defend their positions. The existing ethnic divide is heightened by the incorporation of what might be described as “European” attitudes to Ghurbeti as migrants to the southern part of the island and the intolerance directed at the Mandi; they have become part of the “Gypsy” discourse and suffer the consequences of European anti-Gypsyism. It remains to be seen if the continuing process of EU accession will exacerbate these tensions and trends, or whether the “minority rights” agenda will substantially improve the situation of Cyprus’ Gypsy communities.


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