Vol 2 No 3 Fall/Winter 2005
The Zagar of Iran
DRC Interview with Alireza Zagar
The following interview was conducted at the International Romany Conference in Istanbul, Turkey, Bilgi University, June 8-14, 2005. During the conference Alireza Zagar and other Rom from Iran presented a paper about the discovery of their origins, as well as sharing some of their music. A DVD including these presentations is currently being edited and will be made available through the Dom Research Center early in 2006.
Alireza: Our people, as an old nomad, we are living in Iran, we didn’t know our origin before. This was a question for all of us. We wanted to know where we are from. We wanted to know what is our origin. I used to go to my grandparents and ask them, “where are we from? What is this language we are speaking?” They said, “We are from Shiraz.” And I said, “No, before that.” My grandfather said that before Shiraz we came from somewhere around Damascus, Syria. And sometimes the older people who didn’t know what our real origin is, they said, “Maybe we are from Romania because we speak Romani. Or maybe, because we call ourselves Rom we are from Italy.” I was doing this research and going to all these books and talking with scholars and going to our universities to find out who we really are. One day a university teacher in Tehran, who was an uncle of one of my friends who was working with me, he told me, “Alireza, why don’t you check Gypsies.” This was an accident, because he said “there are so many Gypsies in Romania. Maybe this has something to do with Gypsies.” Then I went home and I had this monthly magazine from UNICEF. I remembered that they had something about the Gypsies in one edition that was especially about the Gypsies. My sister was a subscriber to this magazine. I went home and found this magazine. The first thing this magazine said was that the Gypsies call themselves Rom and their language is Romani. This is how I found answers to our questions. But we didn’t know we had Gypsy origins, so I first told this to my younger brother and then to my cousin Yose, “I have found out that we are from the Gypsy origin and this is what Rom are and what the Romani language is.” They were surprised also. From that time we tried to see the other Rom and get into contact with them. But there is something I should tell you. Before I got to this point, I always wondered why the Gypsies are in all different countries and in each of their languages you have something equivalent to Gypsy like Koli in Farsi, and in the other languages they have different words for Gypsy. This was a question for me. Then when I found out that we are from Gypsy origin I tried to find out more about the Rom. Now I know many things about the Rom and Dom, and other communities of Gypsies.
DRC: How do the Iranian people in general view the Zagar?
Alireza: In Iran our language is called Zagari. And since in old times they didn’t understand the words we say, they created a fake language called Zagari also. In the fake Zagari language they take the Farsi words and they put “z” between the other letters. So they created a fake language because they couldn’t understand our language. Now if you talk to people in Iran they say that Zagari is a fake language. Most of the people don’t know about our language and its origin. But, we are like any other people in Iran—no difference.
DRC: Is there any prejudice against the Zagar in Iran?
Alireza: No prejudice. But there are many other communities of Gypsies in Iran that I know of, like the Fiuji in the central area, the Juki in the north, and the Karachi in Azerbaijan, and I have met some Dom. Maybe people have the stereotype looking at Gypsies of these other communities, but for us, no.
DRC: Would the Zagar intermarry with these other groups?
Alireza: Before we had intermarriages among the Zagar. Nowdays some of the younger people do marry the outsiders. But before, everybody was supposed to marry Zagar. This may be the reason we still have the language.
DRC: So the language is one of the unique features of the Zagar. Are there other unique features of the culture?
Alireza: We have special music called Zagari music, like some melodies are especially from the Zagars. When they play the music in central parts of Iran, Zagari has its own music for dance and for playing with chagur, which is an instrument played by nomads—peole who live in tents and migrate. They don’t know musical notes. It is just learned from father to son. They also play it with other particular musical instruments [such as a flute] in the ceremonies and people dance to it—the men will dance together.
DRC: Are there Zagar musical groups that play for the Iranian people?
Alireza: Yes, among the Turk tribes and the Auzari community (people speaking Auzari Turkish) there are Aushakes. Special musicians are called Aushak. They go to ceremonies and play music.
DRC: Are the Aushak actually Zagar?
Alireza: No, they are not specifically Gypsy groups. Anyone could be an Aushak. But the Zagar have their own music. Our people really like music and used to play for themselves, not just to make money out of it. They played just because of their love for music. Many people played instruments in our tribe.
DRC: Do they sing in the Gypsy language?
Alireza: Yes, they sing and they play instruments. But most of the songs are in Turkish because we have lived among the Turkish nomads and know Turkish. The majority of tribes we were dealing with were Turks. So we speak Romani and Turkish.
DRC: Are their any unique clothing that the people of your group wear?
Alireza: Yes, there was. They had special clothes for women especially, but not any more. Now most of the people wear the same modern clothes as anyone else. But in the old times they had special clothing for women.
DRC: In some of the tribes in Iran I’ve seen them with tattoos—especially the women. Is there anything like this in your group?
Alireza: I have seen the tattoos among the Dom in Iran, but I haven’t seen tattoos among our people.
DRC: How do you as Zagar view other Gypsy groups? What are your feelings toward them and your impressions about them?
Alireza: We love our people and are very united among the Zagars. When something happens to a Zagar, everyone is concerned. We stick together, this is a fact. Since the time that I found out about our origin, I have met some Dom. My brother found out about the Dom and brought some of them to us. We found that we are similar—we have the same words, etc. They said the same thing about us. “We don’t look at you like Gadjo.” They had a special word for Gadjo, but I don’t remember it. We say “Gadjo” for the strangers, non-Roms. They said “you are like us, like Dom. You are not an outsider; you are an insider.” That is the feeling they said they had about us and we had the same feeling also.
DRC: When they look at you, perhaps your situation might be better than theirs.
Alireza: Yes, it is because our situation is better. In the past the Zagar were nomadic. They were strong and proud nomads. Still there are some Zagar living the nomadic life in southern regions of Iran, like Fars; in Shiraz near the Qaishqai tribe. I have seen those Zagars and they are very strong, proud people.
DRC: You are planning an organization that will help present your culture to the world. What are some of the organization’s plans?
Alireza: First, we want to have a place, a building. We are making it now. I can show you the pictures. Then, we are going to try to preserve the language. Many of the people my age know the language, but the younger people don’t know it so well. We don’t want this language to be forgotten, so we are going to have a place where we can teach the children Romani, have a library, and do cultural events. We also want to have contact with Rom and Rom or Dom organizations outside Iran.
DRC: So, is this more of a renewal of the culture before it gets away from you, or is it bringing something from the past into the present?
Alireza: We already have this culture, but we want to keep what we already have and pass it to the younger ones. We already have the language and culture. The music and the language are the best identity. Some people in Iran are called Zagari, like we are, but they are not Rom. If they know the language they are like us. Perhaps someone’s name is like ours, Zagar, which means goldsmith in Farsi. Perhaps that is what they did in the past. This will help us to know if they are Rom or not. We live in a place called Zagar Rishnau, 55 kilometers west of Tehran. The name of this place means “winter pasture” in Turkish. It was the winter pasture of our tribe. When they settled down we stayed here. There is another community of Zagar about two hours from us. In their community even the children speak Romani. This is the first language they learn followed by Turkish and Farsi. There are also Zagars in Shiraz, Kerman and also in Azerbaijan.
DRC: Will these different groups participate in the organization you are establishing?
Alireza: Yes, we are trying to involve them. We have representatives from each community and whenever we have a meeting and are deciding to do something, we try to bring representatives from other communities—to do something together.
DRC: You mentioned that the Dom have said there are some connections. “You are like us,” they said. Is there a plan to include other “Gypsy-like” groups in this organization?
Alireza: Yes, I think so. In the future we should do something like this, because we should help them also. They are like us. If we do something for our people we have to do it for all. For sure, we will do this.
DRC: Do you feel that when a group like yours does something to present itself and its own separate history and culture from the Iranian people; what kind of reaction do you feel there will be?
Alireza: In Iran people are so open minded. They have a very ancient culture and they are open minded. [For example,] in Iran it doesn’t matter which religion you have. Everybody is free to have their own religion, and they like cultural things—to have cultural activities. I think the people will support this.
DRC: You mentioned religion. I know there is some Zoroastrian influence, and of course the Islamic faith in Iran. Is there any diversity in religion among the Zagar?
Alireza: No, all of our people are Shia’ Muslims. All the Zagars are Shia’ Muslims.
DRC: So there is no religious element that you feel may have come from India or back from Europe?
Alireza: Maybe in the future we should do more research on this, but for now I see them as good Muslims.
DRC: Is there anything else that you might like to say about the Zagar?
Alireza: I am trying to publish a book telling about our history—when we came to Iran. I believe that we went to Europe and then made it back to Iran. I’m going to have a book published telling about what I have found about our history and our people so that everyone can use it. And we would be happy to help people who work on this matter.
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