Vol 2 No 5 Fall/Winter 2006

The Domari Society of Jerusalem
Part I

by Ariela Marshall

When most people are asked what they think about Gypsies, a variety of terms are expressed that generally have to do with transience, music, and begging or stealing. These stereotypes underpin a widespread belief that Gypsies ‘don’t do much’. While this may be true of some groups and individuals, there are emerging examples of communities and visionaries who have worked hard to rebuke negative attitudes about Gypsies and to rejuvenate positive Gypsy attitudes about themselves. There is an important distinction, however, between social change driven by non-Gypsies, mobilizing either within or for Gypsy rights and recognition, and the social changes driven by members belonging to Gypsy communities. Often there is an interchange between the two, an interfacing of ideas between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ that can be mutually constructive. This relationship is often delicate, precarious and initially cautious. Historical experiences have not encouraged Gypsies to trust or have confidence in those outside their own communities. Their harboring of cynicism is unfortunately based on the norm rather than the exception of abusive marginalization of Gypsy communities throughout the world. However, the tentative tenacity of growing communications between Gypsies and non-Gypsies has the potential to create dialogue and inspiration with the aim of dispelling mutual mistrust based on mutual misunderstanding. In March, 2006, I went to Jerusalem to volunteer at the Domari Gypsy Community Center there. As an undergraduate student in Political Science at the University of Hawaii, Gypsy culture was not in any way directly linked to my academic studies. I created the link because passion and fascination for Gypsy culture has been a consistent theme in my life. My internship was a formal façade for what I hoped would be a far more profound experience of cross-cultural dynamics. I couldn’t have been less-prepared or more rewarded for that time spent with the Domari than any expectations might have predicted. In all truth, there is no way I could have been prepared, short of showing up with an open mind, as I did. And now, writing this in retrospect, the challenge is to convey not my own experience, per se, but how the simplest and most genuine of human acts, the act of friendship, informed an entirely unique perception of this Gypsy culture. I was not there as an anthropologist, or a journalist, or a PhD student looking for writing material, I was there solely to get to know these people. The person with whom I made the strongest connection was also the person who held open the only ‘door’ of access into the Domari lifestyle. Though it was opened for me slowly and sporadically, once inside I found myself surrounded by the warmth and welcoming of a people so genuine that I now call them family. Being an ‘outsider’, I would have been lucky to gain even the tolerant acceptance of being involved in the issues and events of the Gypsy Community Center. It was only on the basis of this friendship, this human-to-human process of reaching out, stumbling over cultural differences and beyond those finding commonalities, testing the limits and consequences of honesty and criticism and learning to trust against a backdrop of divisive circumstances, that I had the honor of being allowed ‘inside’ the Gypsy Community. This article tells the story of my friendship with Amoun Sleem, my Gypsy ‘sister’, and how her life and my life became linked. This is also an account of what one particular Gypsy individual is doing to ‘rebuke and rejuvenate’ attitudes about Gypsies and attitudes from within her own community.

Amoun Sleem has many scars. Some she carries on her body, but most are internal. Amoun has spent thirty-something years in struggle (and sometimes outright fighting) against disadvantage, prejudice and oppression of Domari Gypsies in Jerusalem. As a child she begged on the tourist-thronged stone-streets of Jeruslem’s Old City. In her own words, (from her journal, handwritten at age twenty); “I grow up with my brothers and sisters in one big room, with five brothers and three sisters and my father and grandparents. My mother died since I was six…Anyway, my life started when I was a child going every day for new day, looking for something for living. I never did something bad. I was very strong, looking for my rights in this life with all the eyes around me looking to me as Gypsy child. My child period was sad and happy in the same time… (At school) they always look to me as very bad child from bad community. Until now I never forget the face of this teacher, she was head of the school, how she look to me and the girls in my community…only looking to us in very bad face. One day this teacher said to me something I will never forget in all my life. ‘You are like a flea in this world and it must be decimate’ (sic). After that day my life started to change upside-down. She hit my feeling in big way. And I start to ask myself, why the people hate each other that way?’ ‘What did I do for this woman to treat me so bad?’ I changed and did not want to go to school to study. I afraid from this teacher. My marks at school change too. I failed two years in the school. No power to study. I lost two years from my life because that teacher. After that time of crying and thinking long time I remember my mother, what she said to me, ‘always I want you to be a good girl and a nice girl’. I think a lot about my mother and go back to normal life. I said to myself if I finished my school (primary) I will move to other school (high school) and my problems will be stop. I was wrong. The same thing happen in my high school. I think it written on our faces; ‘we are Gypsies, watch out!’ But I have nice friends in my school and they like me and I like them. So I keep smile always beside all these problems. I have them every day. I want to keep (going to) my school and reaching the point I was looking for to have good education.”

Amoun’s sharing of her story with me unraveled little by little, beginning with the act of eating together. During courses held at the Community Center, the women attending always made a meal for the group and we all ate together, including the teachers. I did not need extra encouragement to enjoy their home-cooked dishes; spicy meats with warm flat bread and olive oil, zattar (ground thyme with toasted sesame seeds), fresh soft cheese and sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. These healthy delicacies were laid on the table in small dishes and everyone pulled up close, children on laps, to rip apart bread and dip into each dish. Eating with the hands is done with fluid, tidy motions that I could only aspire to and generally fail at; I was teased good-naturedly for being messy. Arms criss-crossed the table constantly in casual ease, simultaneously eating and animating colorful Arabic conversation. I enjoyed these times so much it seemed only natural to help when I could (being in the way more often than not) and cleaning up after eating. Having sat at countless meals with no sense of self-consciousness left, I was told off-handedly by Amoun that, “eating food with people always brings you close to them. Believe me, they like to know that you are like them… and like the things they like”. She added later, in comment to my enthusiasm for gardening, and grinning at my dirt-covered hands, ‘You are dirty like a Gypsy, you really are like one of us’. The gentle teasing continued, always peppered with endearments, ranging from ‘you crazy Gypsy’, ‘silly girl’, ‘habibti’ (Arabic equivalent to English ‘sweetheart’, literally meaning ‘my love’) and ‘stupid’. At first I was a little hurt by the ‘stupid’ added to ‘girl’ or ‘Gypsy’ but when I said something to Amoun about it she was quick to assure me, ‘no, no, it’s a good thing, it’s how I talk to my own sisters and nieces. It means you’re one of the family now.’ I had to just laugh at the irony and consider myself lucky.

The children of Amoun’s family, her nieces and nephews, were my greatest joy. Their initial wariness was demonstrated by staring at me, not shy and not quite surly, but testing me with steady, unblinking-black-eyed reserve, to see how I would act. They were not unaccustomed to strangers, having a steady stream of visitors to the Center, but their interactions were guarded and not readily forthcoming. I confess that winning their confidence included some measures that might be considered juvenile (but then that’s probably why they grew to like me). One girl, Doha (age four), stuck her tongue out at me when no one else was looking. I stuck out my tongue back at her. She erupted in giggles. Then she made funny noises and I copied her, noise for noise. Our game spread to the other children who were endlessly amused with this ‘big kid’. From that point on I was their friend, their jungle-gym, their proxy-mom/doctor/conflict-counselor and ice-cream currier while their mothers attended the courses. I loved every laughing and crying minute spent with them. Batul, Doha, Yasir, Amar, Laila, Heba, Sadin and Yumna became like extensions of my own arms and eyes, trailing and clamoring beside me in every task at the Gypsy Center. They copied me in answering the phone, using the computer, cleaning and tidying, painting crafts and portraits, taking photos and short videos with my digital camera and singing my Spanish music. To all these tasks they threw themselves with enthusiasm, even fighting between each other for first-try rights. Before long I didn’t need to supervise them (every other minute) because they had not just acquired new skills but were making new innovations with them, creating their own styles and techniques. I think in the end I learned more from them than they did from me.

Amoun was somewhat of an oddity by being a Middle Eastern woman with her own car. She drove confidently and fast. Very fast. She brought me with her often to do errands and my involuntary shrieks at her bold and sometimes risky driving maneuvers made us both laugh constantly. She always put on the music of the Gypsy Kings, (I had given her a CD of the Spanish Gypsy-style flamenco and she listened to it so often she could sing along). Our ‘business’ errands began to look consistently like this; two women driving fast, singing loudly and laughing hysterically. One day she told me we needed to drive to the town of Jericho to deliver some donations for a few families living there. We both forgot that I needed official ID to cross the border into the Palestinian Territory. At the border crossing the armed Israeli soldier told us if he let us in to Jericho without identification he could not guarantee us permission to re-enter the jurisdiction of Jerusalem. I looked to Amoun for guidance, who looked at the soldier, smiled, and stepped hard on the gas pedal. All she said in way of explanation to me was, ‘there’s no law inside Jericho’, and proceeded to break what would have been a speed limit in any other country; (I must add, in defense of Amoun’s driving skills, that she is an extremely competent and actually very careful driver, even at high speeds). We had lunch in the old city at her friend’s restaurant with the requisite camel in front for the tourists. Over an exquisite meal we discussed projects for fundraising. One idea was to start making some kind of art or craft product affiliated with Gypsy culture to sell in support of the Community Center. On our way out of Jericho we stopped at a plant- nursery that sold plain, unpainted pottery. Watching Amoun bargain was an impressive show and in the end we left with the trunk and back seat of her car filled with more than fifty pieces of pottery, several rose bushes and some other plants for the Center’s outdoor garden. Nearing the border-crossing I started to feel a little nervous. I asked Amoun what we would do if they did not let us pass. She said simply, ‘just smile’. Then she turned the music to mid-level, started singing and tapping in rhythm on the steering wheel. The same soldier who had let us in was standing there. He bent down to look in the window; we smiled, he smiled, there was a long suspended pause of silence and then he gave us an amused ‘go ahead’ hand gesture. Though I’m sure Amoun’s stunning good looks would have been enough to get us through, I think her sheer humanizing of the situation, with humor, audacity and simple communication, actually aided us most. This was a phenomenon I noticed in all Amoun’s interactions. Her charisma comes from a place that is both scarred by overwhelming disappointments and frustrations but more emphatically, by compassion. She sees the potential good in every person, every situation, to a point that wavers between idealism and being taken advantage of. Her approach to people and circumstances that seem beyond negotiation or unreasonable to the point of unjust, is to find the most humanizing aspect and communicate to that. From this place of seemingly inexhaustible compassion Amoun seems to draw both the stubbornness that holds her to her principles (and always gets her a good bargain) as well as the determination to follow through with her vision of a better Gypsy Community,even when her hope is faltering. I tried to regularly make a point of reminding Amoun that her hope had gotten her such a long ways that it shouldn’t fail her now (in whatever the challenge of any given situation) and sometimes, with her characteristic straightforwardness, she would respond, ‘ I don’t know if I have any more hope, just faith. I have that still.’ She doesn’t elaborate on what inspires that faith but it is evident that it sustains her because the perseverance and conviction she carries continue to inspire.

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