Vol 2 No 3 Fall/Winter 2005

Dom Ethnic Identity

by Allen Williams

An abbreviated presentation of the following paper was given on June 13, 2005 at the International Romany Studies Conference held at the Swedish Research Institute, Istanbul, Turkey.

In an earlier lecture Adrian Marsh has outlined for us what he and other scholars feel to be the two separate migrations of the “Gypsy people”: Dom (early 8th century AD) and Roma (between 977-1030 AD), both from India. These migrations were separated by as much as 300 years. So the Dom and the Roma must be considered as two separate people groups whose modern similarities arise from their common geographic point of origin and similar linguistic elements—as a result we can call them only “Gypsy-like people”. Contemporarily these groups have little or no contact, but they both are faced with a similar social stigmatization that was generated early in their histories. Even if one continues to accept the older view that both the Dom and the Roma people groups evolved out of a single migration, for years they have been and continue to be basically isolated from one another. For example, the Roma history includes the holocaust of the 1940’s, which is an event that in no way impacted the Dom. I mention this example of their isolation because there are individuals who have tried to use the holocaust as a point of solidarity between the Dom and the Jews. It would be helpful to investigate the relationship between the Dom and the Rom in Turkey where they are in close proximity to one another—the question being, do they share a sense of common identity? In Iran and Israel where there are both Dom and Roma communities, they are isolated from one another economically and socially. Thus, when considering the present-day ethnic identity of the Dom, we are at liberty to consider the Dom independently of the Roma. To say it in another way, if you talk to Dom individuals they will probably not describe their sense of an ethnic identity in the same way as the Roma.

During this course we have said that ethnicity must be viewed contextually; thus, to evaluate the Dom ethnic identity we have to take into account the social context in which they have lived for hundreds of years—the Arab world. In my experience, the Dom will designate themselves as Arabs first. The question is “in what sense are they Arabs and in what sense are they ‘other than’ Arabs?” While saying that they are Arabs, eventually they may also say they are Dom. Once we have reached this level of trust and conversation, I have asked them what are the particular elements of your Dom identity. Very few Dom have been able to give me any specifics, even among those who are trying to present a positive Dom image through Dom organizations. I have concluded that the Dom as individuals and as a group are continually negotiating their Gypsy identity both consciously and unconsciously. We have also seen that there are a variety of markers for ethnic identity such as common sense of history, a shared language, common religious affinity, an agreed upon system of social regulation, traditional vocations, etc. I want to briefly review some of these to share my personal observations regarding the development of a Dom ethnic identity in the Arab lands.

Social Organization/Regulation

Friday we talked about how the Roma groups govern themselves; i.e., the kris. This seems to be a unique factor that Roma point to as a part of their sense of a collective identity, especially since it normally would not involve the Gadjo. The Dom, however, do not have such a recognized judicial system. Instead, Dom communities are organized in a fashion similar to the Arab tribal system. In general, each family or group of families has a leader called by the Arab title, Mukhtar. I say group of families because it is not unusual for smaller families living in close proximity to larger ones to voluntarily associate themselves with that leader. Recognition of a common leader is a marker for ethnic identity. I point this out because for a Dom to say that he or she is Arab and yet to voluntarily associate with a recognized Dom leader as opposed to an Arab political leader or community leaders says something about identity; that is, this is a unique feature of Dom identity.

The leader is chosen by the community as opposed to being passed from father to son—although this often happens. The association with a leader is not something that is arbitrarily changed as one might think of changing their political affiliation. I interviewed one Dom family living in Jordan who had left the West Bank 40 years prior, who continue to identify with the Dom community and leader on the West Bank as opposed to one of the leaders in Jordan.

The role of Mukhtar is not well defined. Each leader is free to fashion the position according to his interests and skills. Today, we can generalize somewhat about the responsibilities of these leaders and say that he is responsible for dealing with community matters that arise in relation to non-Dom. They are often mediators between the local police or government and the community. If the police need to arrest someone, they will approach the Mukhtar first to secure his assistance in hopes of staving off negative community reaction. The government recognizes and pays Arab tribal leaders for this service, and the fact that they treat the Dom in the same way suggests that they recognize the Dom as a distinct group separate from the easily identifiable Arab tribes. The Dom are “other” in this case, which means that social distinctions are clearly being made—even though the authorities are dealing with the Dom in Arab ways. In this case, the distinctions are benign, but they are indicative of recognition of social segments. There are communities that have not elected a new Mukhtar when the position is vacated. In that case, the local police or government might ask them to elect someone if they feel it would be helpful in their policing of the community.

The Mukhtar also has responsibilities within the community. I have observed one Mukhtar who prepares coffee for the men of the community each morning in his home. He selects men to assist him. One to grind the coffee beans, another to roast them, and perhaps still another to prepare and serve the coffee. These responsibilities are carried out by people the leader wants to honor. These morning conversations over coffee are an important time for the establishment, revision or reinforcement of community norms that the men will individually enforce within their families. Again, these are informal meetings that translate into a shared sense of norms for the regulation of the community.

Within the groups of families there are people who are valued for the counsel they give. Young people will seek them out for advice about marriage, or they may be sought out as mediators to help solve disputes between Dom individuals. Although this is an informal system, the community subtly exerts pressure on individuals to conform to the reasonable advice of the community leaders. If they do not respond, the community will isolate them socially or even spatially if necessary.

About one year ago a Dom boy was murdered by an Arab man. When the man was apprehended by the Israeli police, he sought to set aside the matter by saying, “he was just a Nawar.” In Arab practice the tribe is justified in seeking vengeance against this man. They could burn his home, etc. Some men in the Dom community began to call for such measures and were ready to carry them out. An older leader of the community counseled them that such actions are “Arab ways and not our ways.” He urged them to let the Israeli judicial system handle the situation. This leader was making some important distinctions between the ways of the Dom and others, which served to calm the people. One must acknowledge some sense of identity among the Dom that supercedes an Arab identity in this case.

This strategy for community regulation indicates that the Dom have a distinct sense of identity that is not adequately captured in the designation of them as Arabs. These markers are operative in the community even if the Dom people themselves are unable to articulate their uniqueness. There are a few other markers that I would like to briefly examine that point to the on-going negotiation of the Dom ethnic identity—that is, an identity that is never fixed but is always in conversation, or evolving.

Shared History/Common Descent

A common sense of history is another element of ethnicity that we have discussed in this course. In the absence of a clearly defined and broadly accepted history, the Dom have adopted the Arab tribal history as their own. When asked about their history, the Dom often recite events from Arab tribal history which they revise to take into account what they have heard from outside sources. Thus, the leader of the Dom community in Jerusalem recounts a story from Arab tribal history to which is added the curse on the Bani Murra tribe to become wanders who support themselves by singing and dancing. He goes on to say that this tribe traveled from Syria to northern India where they learned the Indian language. Afterward, some of them left India moving back into Syria, Iraq and Palestine (see The Dom of Jerusalem: A Gypsy Community Chronicle for this and other examples).

One can see the attempt by the Dom to establish themselves as Arabs through the adoption of the Arab historical narratives. But the inclusion of historical data about the Dom Indic origin indicates a great interest in a uniquely Dom historical narrative. This accommodation to the Arab history is an indication of the Dom negotiation of their social status.

Language & Religion

The displacement of the tribal religions of the desert nomads and as well as the various languages of the Middle Eastern people by Islam and Arabic respectively, are two powerfully unifying factors in the development of Arab ethnic identity. Domari (or Domi) has suffered a similar fate as other languages in the Middle East with Arabic becoming the official language of both the dominant religion and in the regional economic sphere. Many minority languages have fallen into disuse contributing significantly to the further development of the pan-Arab identity and the dissolution of the minority identities. We can see the de-evolution of Domari as more and more Arab words displace Domari words in the vocabulary of those who still speak the language. That the language is dissipating is also evident in the decline of the number of speakers among adolescents and young adults. Today, with some exceptions, Arabic is the language used by the Dom in both their homes and in the marketplace. One exception is in communities that are segregated from the larger Arab society—such as tent villages. Use of a language other than Arabic is an indicator of otherness in the Middle East and the negative attitude toward non-Arabic languages is indicative of the demand for assimilation on their terms (that is, limited assimilation).

In the literature about the Dom they have been described as having no religious persuasion, or that they have accepted Islam to some degree in order to avoid being seen and treated as “other” in the Muslim world. In fairness, religious assimilation is not unique to the Dom, so we should be careful how we use this to build our understanding of the Dom identity. There are many devote Muslims among the Dom, as well as numerous people holding to Christianity, but I have noted on a very limited basis, some religious particularities distinguishable from both Islam and Christianity. (1) A particular name for the diety (Quiyah; although Allah is often used as well); (2) A concept of sin related to ethical and moral interaction with others—particularly other Dom; (3) A temporal concept of judgment for violations; and (4) no belief in an afterlife. These observations do have some similarities with certain manifestations of Judaism.

The Dom have asked me why they are hated by others. Their Islamic identity would dictate that their situation in life has been dictated by the will of Allah. As a part of the divinely appointed order, the Arab people have justification for keeping the Dom in their place rather than allowing them a more secure place in society. When religion is taken into account as a marker of ethnic identity, the acceptance of Islam would appear to reinforce their subservience and oppose efforts to address issues of disadvantaged minority groups. While Christianity has been viewed as an oppressor of the Roma, Islam could be equally viewed as establishing a worldview that is oppressive to the Dom. Given this religious dynamic one can see why the Dom might hold to a religious system that emphasizes moral and ethical treatment of others.

Economic & Vocational Factors

In an economically depressed situation where jobs are limited, a means for determining who has access to limited resources and jobs will become operational. Often those means are determined according to ones ethnicity. We have observed in several Middle Eastern countries that those who are recognized as a part of the majority get the jobs. The Dom often hold day labor jobs, but when the economy turns bad, they lose those jobs to members of the majority group, which means that distinctions are being made and the Dom are deemed to be “the less worthy other.”

Even the Dom use economic and vocational standards to differentiate themselves from other Dom groups, or to deny Dom identity. In Syria the Ghagar have citizenship, are wealthy and travel widely (even to France) to make dentures and caps for teeth. They suggest that they are the true Dom, but the poorer Nawar are merely drummers and not Dom at all. The Nawar on the other hand, say they are Dom like the Ghagar.

Those Dom who hide their identities in order to advance socially and economically contribute to the disappearance of the Dom into the larger Arab world. Three examples of this phenomena come to mind. Each of these should be explored indepth, but they will only be mentioned here to demonstrate how the Dom are negotiating their identity, and the impact it is having. First, in the recent past there was a Dom who read the news on Jordanian television. He suppressed his identity in order to achieve social and economic status that is generally out of the reach of the Dom. I have also interviewed Dom teachers and nurses who have hidden their identity for vocational reasons. Although they recognize the need for role models within the Dom communities, they also know the negative impact of being known as a Dom in the Arab world; thus, they chose to associate with the Arab majority and disassociate from their Dom heritage. There are also those families that have married into Arab families or Arab individuals have married into their families. One such family determined to emphasize their majority connection, even to the point of mandating that their children marry only Arabs. Following this conscious strategy of social assimilation for several generations has resulted in economic opportunities, but it has also caused the disappearance of another segment of Dom society.


The Dom are constantly negotiating their social identity in various settings. While they want the social and economic benefits of being recognized as Arabs—an identity to which they have a rightful claim with regard to the contemporary definition of Arab—the degree to which they might participate in the larger social arena is limited by those who see them as “other.”

Dom who are willing to promote themselves as Dom and call for more inclusive social and political standards are seen as “troublemakers” both by the larger Arab society and within their own Dom communities. Hopefully enough Dom who are dissatisfied with their situation will discover positive ways to give voice to their concerns and bring about change. There is much to be written about the approach that is needed to bring about this change, but the Dom must first come to terms with their ethnic identity and find positive ways to express their narratives. The celebration of the ethnic identity through recognizable figures is a possible first step to help others find their voices and call for change. There are many such Dom role models to which one can point. Jordanian national music (including their national anthem) and national radio were pioneered by two Dom men, Abdu Musa and Jamel Al Ass. The fact that these people have made positive contributions to the larger Arab culture does not have to be a threat to Arab ethnic identity since it is a Dom contribution rather than a Dom challenge to such an identity.

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