The Disappearing “Gypsies” of Benghazi
Personal Diary Entries and Comments
by Tamim H. Fannoush
About the Author: Tamim H. Fannoush is a 25 year old Libyan medical student. He said of himself, “I try to learn what I can from all that is around me, and enjoy satisfying my curiosity. I hope that my whimsical observations will one day be of some use to someone. To name just a few of my interests (of which I have humble knowledge): nature, zoology, palaeontology, and anthropology, which is the subject of these notes.”
First I would like to thank the people in the Dom Research Center for all their helpful feedback and patient answering of my questions, and Mr. Allen Williams for asking me to share my notes on a mysterious population of migrating nomads I suspect to be Dom Gypsies. These people first grabbed my attention in our local flea market in Benghazi, Libya, which is named “the Friday market” for reasons I don't need to explain. The market is huge, and in it nearly everything is sold, from animals to used car parts. As all popular markets, it provides the opportunity for poor people to buy what would be unavailable otherwise, such as second – or even third – hand clothes. It is in the area where these clothes are sold, I first saw the people in question. Their appearance was striking, in the middle of the familiar tan faces of my fellow Libyans and Egyptians selling and buying merchandise, there was a group of white dirty faces, coarse chestnut hair, and in the case of one woman red hair, add that to the strange language, and the odd apparel of the women, it made them stand out so that I can't ignore them very easily. The following are three entries from my diary.
16th of November 2007
“The last couple of days I have taken a huge interest in so called gypsies. I have encountered, or rather I saw, some strange people in my visit to our flea market. Their appearance is not remarkable; the men especially look and even sound Syrian, with light, weather-beaten skins, hair slicked back, and greyish eyes. Their women are slightly different from any I've seen. One I've seen has small squinty dark eyes, long coarse hair, prominent cheek bones, a nose I can only draw, and was wearing an orange dress that reminds me of Indian clothes. It may be inaccurate, but that was my first impression. What led me to believe that these are gypsies, or some other exotic populous that leads a nomadic life, is their extreme poverty, and the language they use [to speak] amongst themselves, despite the fact that they speak fluent Arabic. There were two families in the market. I was so intrigued, and yet I hadn't the courage to ask them who they were, somehow it seemed rude. However, I did some research, and concluded that these people are one of two things:
[Tamim’s later reflections:] “That was the first time I ever saw them. I said in my entry that there were two families, but I described only one. It is noteworthy that the second one is fairly different with dark skin and black hair. The group is heterogeneous.”
23rd November 2007
"Alas! my trip to the market yielded scanty results, after stalking a family I finally mustered the courage to ask a man what was the language he was speaking—after explaining that I made a hobby out of meeting different people and learning to speak languages. He answered [that] it was Turkmani although he didn't sound certain. I asked him to count from 1 to 10, and what he said was nothing like the Dom [numerals], but I'm not certain that they're Turkish. I asked him about the Dom [numerals], he answered that those were other people while looking away, a strong body language indicator of deceit. Seeing that I was making the man uncomfortable with my questions I bid him farewell. However I distinctly heard one of his children state ‘ama bokal’, and judging by the age of the child and the time of day and general circumstances, he was definitely telling his father that he was hungry. I still tried again with a boy selling jackets. I started by asking if bokal meant hungry, and he answered positively. Again I asked about ‘zaro’, which he also answered positively. The word for girl was not ‘Lafti’, and I can't remember it. I wonder if he was just being agreeable or if I really found a Domari speaker. The man's Turkmani numerals could have been something to mislead me, or this dialect uses Turkish. I used a few Sim words but they were not recognized. Finally the word for dog when I asked the boy about it sounded suspiciously like ‘yegr’ the word for horse. Could he have misunderstood? At least I made a positive contact with this boy, and I will meet him in the future and answer more questions.”
Sadly, that was the last i saw of ‘Redah’, my informant with an Arabic name. After weeks of visiting the market and finding no sign of them, I decided that they probably migrated somewhere else. * Nods * yes, that must be the case ...”
[Tamim’s later reflections:] “They disappeared till this January when I found a similar group. The first time I found mostly women, who characteristically had the white skin, squinty eyes, prominent cheekbones, and colorful clothes. This time they were more heavily dressed, since it was colder.”
2nd of January 2009
“Friday. Again in the Friday market of Benghazi I found some nomadic gypsies and my curiosity is aroused once more. This time it was a group of women, middle aged to old with some young children. They were in their usual spot in the market buying 3rd hand clothes. No males were encountered except for tiny tots. I will postpone my trip home till next Friday afternoon just to find out more on this subject.”
[Tamim’s later reflections:] “I was luckier the next Friday in finding some men to talk to. Unfortunately it went very badly, since the poor young man I was planning to ask got scared of me. For some reason he was under the impression that I was going to stab him, and nearly fainted when I reached for my inner jacket pocket to get some money. Still, I asked where they were from, and he said they were from Palestine, and when I asked about Dom/Dommi, he said he never heard of them. Feeling a bit embarrassed, I let him go at that. I noticed a couple of things though. One of them is the tattooing the men had on their hands and fingers. Also, a little girl had some tattoos – three dots I think – on her cheek. This is all that I have observed so far. I am hoping that by sharing this information someone might notice something that would confirm that these people are indeed Dom, or maybe something else.”
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