Vol 1 No 8 Spring/Summer 2003
The Current Situation of the Dom in Jordan:
A DRC Update, 2003
by Allen Williams
One reason the Dom Research Center was established was to encourage Gypsy studies in the Middle East & North Africa. The region from eastern Iran to the Mediterranean Sea, as well as North Africa, receives attention in the theories about origins, but the contemporary history, language, cultural developments and current situation of the Dom have largely been neglected. A notable exception to this neglect is the work of Nabil Sobhi Hanna in Egypt/1/; however, prior to his death Nabil had turned his attention to other areas of research. Three other scholars have provided substantial contributions to Dom studies: Yaron Matras/2/ has contributed greatly to Domari linguistic studies in recent years, Bernhard Streck/3/ supplied an excellent resource for the study of the Dom in the Sudan and Frank Meyer/4/ has written about the Dom in Syria. In spite of these significant contributions we have relatively little data about the Dom, few activists focusing on Dom issues and even fewer Dom voices being heard from the region.
The intent for this paper is to offer a brief description of the current situation of the Gypsies in one Middle Eastern country, Jordan. Readers will note that the Dom interact on every level in Jordanian society; however, they are given recognition only on the lowest level. This Jordanian social perspective reinforces the racial prejudice from which the Dom suffer and encourages them to conceal their ethnic identity.
By means of interviews with Dom leaders throughout the country, the Dom Research Center is attempting to corroborate Fathey’s statistics. At least five Dom tribes live in Jordan. The Tamarzeh tribe is the largest, and they classify themselves as Jordanian Dom since they were already living in the land prior to the founding of the country. The other four tribes are the Ka’akov, the Ga’agreh, the Balahayeh and the Nawasfeh. Two other segments of the Gypsy population are discernable in these four tribes: the Palestinian Dom (those from the West Bank and Gaza) and a conglomeration of numerous other smaller families (primarily from Iraq and Syria) most of whom are still nomadic. The most recent large influx of Gypsies into Jordan took place just prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Segments of the Dom population in Jordan continue to be mobile. Some move only short distances staying within the country; i.e., living in the Jordan Valley during the winter and scattering throughout the country during the spring and summer. Other groups range much further. A Dom leader in northern Jordan said that although his family was settled, other members of the community regularly travel to such countries as Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Most of the nomadic or semi-nomadic families continue to live in tents with very primitive living conditions, such as no access to water or electricity. Cooking is done on open campfires, or the more fortunate may have a small gas stove. Straw mats that serve as floor coverings are cleaned utilizing water that gathers in puddles along the sides of the roadways during the rainy season. Water for cooking and drinking must be carried in large plastic containers and is secured from nearby construction sights, homes, petrol stations, etc. In the Middle East water is usually in short supply which means that securing water is a demanding task. The women are often preyed upon by men who offer them water in exchange for sexual favors./5/ The Dom generally adhere to strict community moral codes that forbid such promiscuity. Unfortunately, the fact that Arab men make such offers tends to taint the reputation of the Dom women rather than that of the men. Based upon personal observations and conversations in Jordan, this writer contends that the general public has greatest access to this vulnerable segment of the Dom population. The point of view the public has developed about the Dom is based primarily on this visible and vulnerable minority of the overall Gypsy population. Other segments of the Dom population realize the impact on their reputations as well, but feel helpless to correct these misconceptions. The negative images overshadow the numerous constructive contributions that Gypsies have made to Jordanian society. As a result, resentment and social barriers develop among the Dom.
The Dom people are perhaps the most despised people in the Arab world. They accommodate the Arab racism by hiding their ethnic identity, arguing that they are Jordanian, Bedouin, Turkman or more generally Arabs. Individuals who pursue this course of action to the extreme may reject their family and social interaction with other Dom in order to maintain the facade they have built. They suggest that only in this way will they have equal opportunity for advancement in the job market and in social relationships. A number of people who have taken this approach are now in high positions in the military, they have attained jobs in educational institutions, medical professions, journalism and many other skilled roles. In an unpublished interview with a Dom teacher, Dominique Alderweireldt listened as the teacher described the anguish of listening to the demeaning remarks other teachers casually make about “Nawar” (the demeaning Arab name for the Dom). She feared that her professional relationships would quickly deteriorate and her employment endangered if her Dom background were discovered. Additionally, the teacher believed that her students would not give her the respect needed in the classroom if they knew she was a Gypsy. While this teacher realized her community’s need for role models, to be known as a Dom would result in the loss of her job; thereby destroying the very reputation that would encourage younger generations. In another interview a Gypsy nurse described the dilemma to this writer saying, “if we hide our identity, we prove that a Dom cannot make it in life as a Dom; if we identify ourselves as Dom, we lose our jobs and prove that bettering oneself through education is helpful to everyone except a Dom.”
Social isolation is another dimension of the problems created for the Dom who insist on hiding their ethnic identity. This problem can be illustrated by the story of a well known, Dom, television personality. He refused to marry a Dom woman because the union would damage his career, yet because he was a Dom no Arab woman would marry him. As a result, he was forced to find a wife from another country and culture. While he found companionship, his sense of isolation from both his Dom heritage and the Arab social structures were exacerbated. Reflecting on his situation, he challenged other Dom saying, “Don’t care about others opinions. Instead, respect yourself as a human being and make your contribution. God called on all people to do good work. He didn’t say ‘be a Gypsy or be an American,’ but ‘be a good man.’” He continued, “The difference in people is what they do with their lives, not who you are ethnically. We need to change people’s mentality about the view of Gypsies by interacting with others and achieving through developing relationships.” This young man encouraged other Dom to recognize “the negative things that have defined us—let’s recognize how we have shown ourselves and change these.” His words of advice were not limited to his fellow Dom. He urged a realistic re-evaluation of attitudes toward Dom by non-Dom. “Aren’t their many things in all societies that are negative? Statistically there is no real difference between Gypsies and others. People have just focused on the negative with regard to Gypsies. Now that we all acknowledge our negatives, let’s also recognize all of our positive contributions.”
Some of the people who have turned away from their heritage are attempting to reclaim it. One Dom medical doctor decided to learn Domari as an exercise to reconnect with the Gypsy community out of which his parents had led the family. He has been successful in language acquisition, but the question remains regarding the degree to which the community will embrace him.
Dom children learn early in life to hide their identity. Gypsy children from tent villages will walk into nearby residential areas to catch the school bus in order to avoid being identified and ridiculed. Since psychological tests have not been done, we can only speculate about the impact on their emotional development.
The Dom feel that the Jordanian government has failed to adequately address the needs of their communities. For several years Fathey Abdu Musa has expressed interest in forming an organization that will serve as the voice of the Dom people. Additionally, it will initiate community development projects that will specifically address their needs. As with many Arab governments, Jordanian leaders are resistant to minority groups and their issues. However, in recent years the government has shown a willingness to listen and respond to concerns arising from the general population./6/
Even if the government is sympathetic to cause of the Dom minority, there are still other obstacles to the establishment of a Dom organization. The fragmented nature of the Dom population mandates that issues of authority be settled before there will be any hope of creating an inclusive organization that will have the strength of a collective voice. As previously stated, the three readily identifiable sectors of the population are fragmented. Ethnic commonality will not be sufficient to unite them, especially since their shared ethnicity is dividing them.
Currently, the Dom leaders (Mukhtar) are selected from within the individual communities to fill a permanent role. The Mukhtar often completes official documents for his community members, presents specific needs of the community to the appropriate government offices, mediates disputes within the community, and may serve as a liaison between the police and members of the community in those situations where his influence might bring a more peaceable resolution to a problem. Reportedly, more and more communities are neglecting to select a new leader when the role becomes vacant unless the local police specifically ask them to elect someone. Whether or not this is an example of the breakdown of Dom traditions and cultural identity, or merely a step in the natural evolution of the society’s authority structure is difficult to say. However, it is apparent that the impetus for election of leaders is in transition. The role, as described in numerous interviews, is changing from a community’s recognition of a person with skills to counsel the community with regard to cultural matters, to a government prompted role that will assist them with policing the Dom communities. The former is clearly being de-emphasized, while the later is gaining prominence. Studies are needed to determine if the policing of the communities through the leaders results in the isolate of leaders from their people, or if it is a healthy approach by the government to maintain a sense of autonomy and self-direction for a minority group. Prevailing social and economic conditions in a tribe have a bearing on this transition. Within the impoverished communities this social role is breaking down quickly, while in the more economically stable tribes the traditional cultural role is being maintained.
Kamel Moawwad evaluated the vitality of Domari (the Dom language) as it correlates to the social and economic status of the Dom in Jordan./7/ In his 1999 thesis, “The Linguistic Situation of Gypsies and Turkmans as Ethnic Minorities Living in Jordan: A Sociolinguistic Perspective,” he summarized his findings.
Moawwad noted an exception to this language loss saying,
Although Moawwad’s research was conducted with a relatively small group of informants, his conclusions appear to describe the norm for the general population. Through personal interviews the DRC has documented that numerous families are already two generations removed from the regular use of Domari in the home, and many of the second generation have never heard the language.
A detailed survey is needed regarding the educational status for Dom youth. Interviews with leaders and various families indicate that the young people generally tend to dropout of school between the ages of 14-16 years. At that time many of the boys go to work as carpenters’ apprentices, mechanics, and in the textile industry. This is true for the boys in affluent families as well as impoverished; however, the dropout age for boys in impoverished situations is even lower, i.e., 10-12 years of age. Girls marry young (approximately 15 years of age) seeing no hope of ever enjoying the more liberal Jordanian views regarding women.
The short-term solutions to economic needs hold sway in most Dom families. If a child or young teenager can earn money to meet their family’s immediate needs, the tendency is for them to pursue that employment rather than seeking to further their education. Yet, this also appears to be the tendency among those who are not faced with the pressure of providing for their families. Although funds are available for their education, the social stigma of being a Gypsy causes them to see little hope for betterment through education; as a result, they dropout and take whatever jobs are available to them.
/1/ Hanna, Nabil Sobhi. Ghagar of Sett Guiranha: A Study of a Gypsy Community in Egypt. A dissertation presented to The American Univerity of Cairo, June 1982. (Back to Text)
/2/ Matras, Yaron. "Two Domari Legends about the Origin of the Doms." Romani Studies, Series 5, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2000): 49-75. See also his article "The State of Present-Day Domari in Jerusalem" in Mediterranean Language Review, 11 (1999). (Back to Text)
/3/ Streck, Bernhard. Die Halab: Zigeuner am Nil. Edition Trickster im Peter Hammer Verlag, 1996. (Back to Text)
/4/ Meyer, Frank. "Dom und Turkman in Stadt und Land Damaskus." Erlanger Geographische Arbeiten. Erlangen, 1994. (Back to Text)
/5/ Substantiated through DRC interviews with Dom and by an interview with Fathey Abdu Musa in Sharkiat, “Nawar (Nomads) of Jordan.” (Back to Text)
/6/ Nanes, Stephanie Eileen. “Fighting Honor Crimes: Evidence of Civil Society in Jordan,” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 57, Number 1, Winter 2003. (Back to Text)
/7/ Moawwad, Kamel. "The Linguistic Situation of Gypsies and Turkmans as Ethnic Minorities Living in Jordan: A Sociolinguistic Perspective." Master's Thesis, Yarmouk University, January 1999. (Back to Text)
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