Vol 2 No 2 Spring/Summer 2005

The Iraqi Gypsies After the Collapse of Hussein's Regime

by Yasunori Kawakami

America's Iraq war in the spring of 2003 drove away a minority race called "Gajar" in Arabic from their dwellings and forced them to live in a ruined and barren land. Presumably the same root as the Romany, there were nearly 10,000 of them in the capital before the war. The expulsion of Gajars that exploded after the fall of Hussein who controlled Iraq with dictatorship symbolizes the difficulty of the Iraqi post-war situation.

Gajars live in various districts of the Middle East and have their own language instead of Arabic. The Islamic society sees Gajars as those who "drink alchohol," "practice prostitution," and "have no religious faith." Strong discrimination is widely recognized due to repellence and prejudice. There has been no census of the population of the Gajars in Iraq, and there are no statistics to make an estimation of its population. There are probably 50,000 of them. About 500 families used to live in eastern Baghdad, Qamaliya and western Baghdad, Abu Ghraib and made their living as entertainers that provide music and songs, such as female belly dancers in wedding parties.

It was around November 2003 when I first came across the Gajars in Iraq. I visited Bakhuba in northeastern Baghdad to inquire out the antiAmerican army and heard about a Gajar family nearby. The place was the remains of the traffic police station along the highway that became like ruins by being plundered after the war and the collapse of the regime that followed. Curtains like cloth were hung across the pillar gate in the entrance and about 20 men and women of all ages were living inside. When I visited them, no only men but also women come out, which is unusual in Iraq. The oldest of them all, a man around 60, told me this story.

The man's name is Mohsen Hindy (64), he used to live in an area of Qamaliya in Eastern Baghdad where many Gajar lived together. Right after the fall of Baghdad, rioters attacked public agencies and facilities, Baath party and army related facilities, and shops. Areas populated by Gajars were also victims of the plunder. Mohsen's house was broken in by rioters who moved out his household before his eyes. He said that men took his daughter, Maison (22) by her arms and were about to take her away but the family pulled her back. The men said "Get out of here before the dawn" and left. About 150 households of Gajars lived there, but all fled.

Another area in Baghdad apart from Qamaliya where Gajar lived together was in Abu Ghraib, famous for the jail in which America's cruelty came to light. This area used to be populated by about 150 households of Gajars but when I visited there, the whole place of about the radius of 500 m was ruined. It was attacked by rioters after the fall of Baghdad and their houses were completely broken with bulldozers and the place was turned into a heap of rubble. The Gajar district in Abu Ghraib was a "gift" especially presented to them when Saddam Hussein became president. The surrounding inhabitants claimed that "this place has a terrible reputation because the Gajars were living nearby" and impassively said "now that Saddam Hussein's time is over, Gajar's time is also up."

Since my first encounter with the Gajar family, I visited Qamaliya, Abu Ghraib and other former Gajar districts in Baghdad to search for the Gajars that used to live there and I also visited the ruins of an Iraqi military base. In Iraq, the discrimination against Gajar is formidable; if the Gajars try to settle, the surrounding inhabitants who heard the news would attack and drive them away, forcing the Gajars to wander from place to place.

In Iraq, non-Arabic tribes such as Kurds, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Turkmans have their own society but Gajar is not recognized as a race. For most Iraqis, it is inconceivable that Gajars have their own language. When I asked Hindy "Who are you people?" he answered "We are Gajars." Then, when I asked him "How do you call yourselves in your language?" He answered "Tiduha." A man is "Tiduwa," a woman is "Tiduwiya" and the plural is "Tiduha." On the other hand, they call the Arab people "Keji." Mohsen said that "when an Arab is nearby and we want to talk by ourselves, we use our own language."

My Iraqi assistant who was listening to our conversation was dazed of utter amazement. I told him, "they say they have their own language that is different from Arabic." The assistant asked, "isn't it the secret signs or dialect that Gajars use?" I told him that "it is not secret signs nor is it a dialect but a language that is different from Arabic." But he said, "I have never heard of such a thing."

These are some Gajar words that Mohsen taught me. 1 = yek, 2 = di, 3 = seate, 4 = charta, 5 = dess. Hand is "dess," the same as the number five. Foot = paha, face = sircly, head = sal, eyes = tiha, mouth = dorfoon, nose = poojy, rice = sarl, meat = gorshtdhar, tea = sehy, sugar = nemake, bread = naanha.

The word "naanha" is similar to the Indian word "naan" so I was reminded of the relationships between the theory that their origin is of India. The words above are only what I wrote down from what I heard so there may be some mishearing. I found a research that collected the words of the Syrian gypsies on the internet site of the Dom research office. I couldn't find any nouns in common but when I looked up the numbers it was 1 yek, 2 di, 3 tirin, 4 ishtar, 5 pench. At least 1 and 2 were the same.

Gajars used to be a wandering tribe living in tents. According to Mohsen, they lived in tents and visited the head of the powerful tribe in every district of Iraq and with his permission they stayed in that land for a few months and went out to weddings and boy's circumcision to perform dance and songs to make their livings in the meantime. When the time came, they would move to another place. It was the former president Hussein that changed this style of wandering life. Just after he was inaugurated president in 1979, he gave citizenship to Gajars and approved of their right to possess a house. In 1981, the government gave Gajars the land in Abu Ghraib. In the former regime, everything that was given to the people was "a gift from the president." Therefore, the Gajar district in Abu Ghraib was also recognized as a gift to the Gajars from president Hussein; that was perceived by the people and the Gajars themselves.

The regime imposed conscription on the Gajars in exchange for the citizenship they gave them. It was the method of Hussein's regime to hold together the diverse nation with strong state power, but to the people of Iraq, it seemed that the Gajars were being protected by the government. Mohsen's daughter, Maison who was with him and said that "under the control of president Hussein, the police would not let us be attacked. Were were approved of our rights as human."

Even though they were approved of equal rights by the government, discrimination was widely recognized by the people. Although they had the right to be given an education, general schools did not accept Gajar childen. Socially, Gajars were completely isolated and their only means of living was the "party." They were invited to various parties and the Gajar women performed dance and songs while the men played musical instruments. Strong discrimination prohibited them from finding any other jobs. A Gajar girl starts dancing in front of other people at the age of 12. It was the same for Maison too. Opportunities for appearing on television show programs and acting as extras in dramas and movies increased, and there were Gajars that became actors. "Now, all we can do is beg" said Maison deprecatingly.

The common knowledge amongst Gajars is that even if the man works in a band, he can only earn a tenth of the woman's earnings. In Egypt, they also invite belly dancers in grand weddings but they are not Gajars. The most common case in Egypt is that girls from rural districts in the Delta and the southern area emigrate to Cairo and become dancers. I have heard a story about a woman from Cairo who became a dancer. She said, "I was disinherited by all the family members and relatives except for my little sister." Dancers who emigrated from the rural areas keep it a secret to their family. In Egypt, the society is hard on belly dancers but in Iraq it is impossible for normal girls to become belly dancers. Therefore, it is institutional that the dancers in wedding parties are Gajar girls. It can be said that the Gajars are unique tribes that depend on belly dancing in celebrations. The Arabs do not see Gajars as a tribe that has its own culture like Kurds and Assyrians, but actually they are. The peculiar point is that they are accepted in the society only as entertainers limited to celebrations.

Under the Hussein regime, even the Assyrians were not given the status of tribe but just the religious status of Christians. The unification of the nation through Arab socialism, the ideology of the Baath was promoted on top of this. The Assyrians that demanded their right as a tribe was regarded as an enemy by the government and and organized anti-establishment movement. On the other hand, Gajar who were not allowed to own land or a house or identified as citizens were admitted to citizenship by president Hussein and given rights. This is the meaning behind the words that Mohsen's daughter, Maison said, "president Hussein treated us like humans." She must have been called into national festivals such as the president's birthday and played an active role in the despotic structure by performing dance to praise the president in front of the camera.

Iraqi Gajar family living in ruined police station
I asked Mohsen and took a photograph of the family. About 20 of them settled in front of the digital camera with both joy and perplexity. However, Maison who has been answering the interview beside her father would not be in the photograph even when I called for her. After I took the photograph, Maison said, "Do you want to see my photograph?" She might have been worried about refusing my offer to be in the photograph. "Here," she said, and showed me an identification card after a while. Looking at her picture in the identification card I realized the reason for her refusal. It was a small photograph but she was standing just like an actress with full make up and dressed hair. In this family she was the breadwinner as a dancer and that is to say, she was the star. She has been dancing since she was 12, which means she has 10 years of experience. It must have been a flamboyant prime of youth. The picture in the identification card was obviously taken when she was fully dressed up from top to bottom. Before the war, Iraq's "oil for food" policy with the United Nations led to the recovery of the economy, which resulted in grand weddings to which the Gajar were invited. It must have been unbearable for her to see a picture of herself fallen low, sheltered in the ruined police station.

After the encounter with the Mohsen family, I was inquiring about the Gajars who had been driven away after the collapse of the establishment, when I heard about an area at the outskirts of Baghdad where a Gajar family is living, and I visited them. It was a place where nomadic Bedouins were living. The Gajar family was said to have moved into the open flat land just where the row of houses ended. When I went there, they were already gone. The surrounding inhabitants said that the Bedouins turned them out. Bedouins keep sheep and wander from place to place for grassland. Bedouins are distinguished from permanent residents such as farmers who own land, but even Bedouins have a land that they are given the right to control. They can move any strangers who intrude without permission. Gajars are complete strangers; they are not accepted in any relationships in the daily life of Iraq's land or the society.

Gajars have no land on which they can assert their rights in any way. Therefore, until president Hussein gave them citizenship, the Gajars received permission from the head of the powerful family to be under their protection for a certain time. The former president Hussein may have recognized those heads of the powerful families who gave the Gajars permission for protection. What was different was that the president gave them citizenship and the right to own land and houses. Although the strong discrimination amongst the people did not change and the society did not accept them, their living as entertainers in parties was protected by the state. Mohsen said, "I want to go back to the president Hussein's times," but that must be from his heart. It was not only the Gajars that the severe dictator was kind. He was assured security to those who accepted his dictatorship; on the other hand, he was harsh to those who resisted.

Iraqi Gajar family
Where did the Gajars go after being turned away by the Bedouins? The person in the neighborhood who thought sympathetically of the Gajars and was giving food to them said, "there is still a family nearby." I went there to find nothing but barren land and a small tent. A husband and wife of around 20 with two babies, one year old and two years old, were living with their uncle who was around the age of 50. During the war they fled from Abu Ghraib to their relative's house in northern Baghdad, but found their house gone when they came back after the war. They have been living in the tent since then. The two year old baby was slumped down in the father's hand which seemed very painful. He said that the baby was sick.

I wondered how a family can live by themselves in such a place. "We beg in the neighborhood," said the husband shamelessly. There was nothing around. "Doesn't anyone tell you to get out of here?" I asked. "No, this place is okay" said the man. I left some money to buy the child some medicine, and I left the tent. While I was going back to my car my Iraqi assistant said "Iraqi people do not live under high-voltage cables." I was astonished and looked back. Hanging just about the tent were about 20 high-voltage cables. Not under the cables or the Hussein regime...will there ever be a time when Gajars can be promised their security?

(Translated by Tamami Kawakami)

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