Vol 3, article posted December 27, 2015

From the Occupation of Iraq to "The Arab Spring": Gypsies in the Middle East

by Kemal Vural Tarlan

Kemal Vural Tarlan is a Social Documentary Photographer, Blogger, and Author. See his website http://www.middleeastgypies.com.

Other Refugees

Although our history as Gadjos (meaning one who is not Gypsy; a foreigner, a stranger; used by Gypsies to describe people who are not part of the community) have been written by war and heroism, there is no place for war and heroes in Gypsy history, a history that is unwritten and remains confined to the magic of the spoken word. This community stays away from this Gadjo madness as much as possible and mostly remains neutral in wars. For them, the state has no meaning except to make their lives miserable with police forces and prohibitions. Furthermore, the notion of Nation also has no meaning for them except tribe. Borders are rings hung about the necks of the people and the land. In other words, these concepts, sacred to the Gadjo and for which the Gadjo die and kill, have always brought the Gypsies death, famine, pain and poverty.

In these chaotic times, this community has always been the one that suffered most, confronting famine, poverty and all kinds of violence. These people, who were discriminated against and othered even in the years of Sulhun (Peace), do not benefit from basic rights like health, education and shelter, and have been intensely affected by conflicts in spite of their neutrality. These people, who try to live at the "ground zero" of life, have been obliged to leave their ramshackle houses and take to the road. Such conditions, combined with the destructive and violent environment of war, appears to have aggravated their living problems, from social security and shelter to nutrition and health.

This people, whose roots trace back to India, have been living in a balance between nomadism and semi-nomadism for hundreds of years; today, however, they find themselves at the lowest place within the social order of the countries where they live. As a consequence of the minority politics implemented by these countries, the problems that Gypsies are facing are not limited to cultural and historical demands but also include subhuman experiences of poverty, prejudice, discrimination and violence.

Where did the thousands of present Lom come from? While the Lom and their culture continues to be much more than “a historical trace,” tracing their history is not as easy as a YouTube search. They have been in historic Armenia at least since the seventh century (Fraser, 1995:41-42). Historic Armenia reached beyond the current Republic of Armenia and included a good deal of eastern Turkey (Anatolia). As is the case with the related Rom, a study of their language aids in deducing more of their past.

According to historical data, Gypies dispersed around the world from their homeland in India due to war as well. Looking at the previous century, it is clear that millions of Gypsies have had to change their migration routes and traverse different geographies during the period from the Balkan wars to the First and Second World Wars and beyond. Hundreds of thousands of Gypsies were massacred by fascism during the Second World War and the survivors have been scattered to the four winds of Europe ever since. The Gypsies thought they had found freedom in the eastern bloc countries after those countries started to splinter in the early 1990s. However, as these countries fell apart and chauvinism began to spread, Gypsies were the first to be targeted by racist attacks and xenophobia. Although they stayed neutral in the civil wars of Central and Eastern European countries, Gypsies were again subject to massacres. During the civil war in countries like Bosnia and Kosovo, hundreds of thousands of Gypsies were obliged to leave their homes and countries. Thousands were killed and tens of thousands were injured and mutilated during the war. Their houses were destroyed and their lands were dispossessed. In Kosovo, for example, where there had been hundreds of thousands of Gypsies before the civil war, there were only eight thousand Gypsy families left after the war.

Gypsies in the Middle East from the Occupation of Iraq to "The Arab Spring"

Gypsies, an ancient people that resides in almost every country of the Middle East--especially Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon--and whose population is over 5 million, have fallen on dark times as the result of civil war and conflict. The majority of Gypsies who live in the Middle East are Doms, one of three primary groups of Gypsies. In the languages of the Middle East, much like in other languages, all words signifying and meaning "Gypsy" (such as Dom, Dummi, Nawar, Kurbet, Barake, Abdal, Helebi, Koli, Ghorbati, Jat/Zott and Zargar) connote an insult and are used in this way.

The experiences of the "Gajar" Gypsy community in Baghdad after the United States occupied Iraq in 2003 is only a small example of what they have suffered and can shed light upon those times. The members of this community, with a population of approximately fifty thousand, were trying to make a living during the era of Saddam by providing music and dancing at weddings and celebrations in their own languages outside Arabic (see "The Iraqi Gypsies After the Collapse of Hussein's Regime," by Yasunori Kawakami in the Kuri Journal. https://www.domresearchcenter.com/journal/22/index.html, Accessed: 18 January 2015). After Americans occupied and overturned the regime, public and private institutions were looted by rebels.

The houses, workplaces and holy places of regime supporters as well as ethnic and religious minorities were destroyed; Gajars were also seriously affected by this destruction. Districts where Gajars lived were totally destroyed and their homes were burned down. All Gajars, including women and children, were subject to indiscriminate violence, and women suffered from every kind of violence, particularly sexual violence. Near the district of Abu Ghraib, well known with its torture houses during the American occupation, there was a very famous Gajar district. Like Gypsy districts in other cities, it was totally destroyed and people's homes were leveled by bulldozers, forcing many to migrate. After the occupation, Gypsies were exposed to a great number of barbarian attacks by radical groups such as Al Qaeda and Shia militants in cities all across Iraq. As a consequence of these attacks, thousands of women, children and men lost their lives while the central Iraqi government remained silent about these attacks. These attacks became so brutal that a great number of Gypsies were beheaded from the back of the neck, a type of execution that according to Arab tradition is reserved for victims who are worthless and from the lowest groups of society.

Because the central Iraqi government closed its eyes to these massacres, thousands of Gypsy families left their villages and towns and took shelter in the crowds of big cities. They got caught up in illegal work such as begging, robbery and prostitution. A majority of them had to resort to nomadism as a consequence of the discrimination they were exposed to in each place they went. Many groups took shelter outside of the country, in places like Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. The leaders of the new regime would say, "there's no place for alcohol sellers and prostitutes in an Islamic country." As one Gypsy told a journalist, "Iraqi people became Muslims after occupation and that's when living here became difficult for me" ("The Gypsies of Iraq - meetings with a people in isolation", http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/features/the-gypsies-of-iraq-meetings-with-a-people-in-isolation_12455, (Accessed: 18 January 2015). Today, radical Shia leaders are continuously warning Gypsies to behave in accordance with morality and to maintain Islamic lifestyles and living conditions. They are provoking society against Gypsies by claiming that Gypsy women wander around naked, dance, and sell and consume alcohol and drugs. Nowadays, Gypsy communities in Iraq are trying to survive without basic living needs such as drinking water, electricity and healthcare ("Gypsies and Society in Iraq: Between Marginality, Folklore and Romanticism," Ronen Zeidel http://www.tandfonline.com/…/a…/10.1080/00263206.2013.849696, Accessed: 18 January 2015; see also "The Iraqi gypsies living on the fringes of society," http://observers.france24.com/content/20150304-iraq-gypsiesvillages-minorities-diwaniya, Accessed: 4 March 2015).

As a result of the systematic attacks by Radical groups, tens of thousands of Iraqi Gypsies were forced to migrate to the province of Kurdistan. Given that their population has increased in cities such as Duhok, they are now demanding political representation in the government of Iraqi Kurdistan ("No More Singing and Dancing: Iraq`s Gypsies Want to Vote," A.-K. Dosky, http://www.niqash.org/articles/?id=3062, Accessed: 18 January 2015).

A street peddler and university graduate in Tunisia initiated the process of civil rebellions known as the “Arab Spring” by setting his body on fire on the December 17th, 2010. The voices that rose in the streets of Arab countries quickly spread across the Middle East and the dictatorial regimes that had been ruling for almost half a century were toppled one by one. All these rebellions altered the religious and ethnic balance of many societies in the Middle East, and produced a chaotic environment in which scenarios for establishing a new Middle East intersected with interventions in economic and political interests. The dynamic state of the Arab streets along with international balances and interests are perpetuating this chaotic atmosphere.

This ongoing situation is a source of anxiety for ethnic and religious minority groups, and in conjunction with the gains being made by radical Islamic groups like the Salafis, it is causing these ancient communities of the Middle East to experiment with new routes to get to Europe and other countries as immigrants and refugees.

The revolution has come, but what then?

While an old Gypsy women was sitting and drinking at Nile riverside, a reporter asked her the question: “Let’s say the revolution has come, but what then?” The woman answered: “I hadn’t hoped for it for more than ten years but now at least I have hope. Regardless of what happens now, it can’t be as bad as what we’ve gone through over the last few years." ( Devrimin ardından Mısır http://www.ntvmsnbc.com/id/25226886/ Accessed: 18 January 2015).

It is estimated that there are nearly two and half million Gypsies living in Egypt now (M. Paul Lewis, ed., ―Domari, in Ethnologue : Languages of the World (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2009) http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=rmt, Accessed: 18 January 2015). The state has particularly avoided keeping records on this community, most of whom do not have identification papers. They have no official birth registrations or identity cards and they are socially isolated and forced to live in the impoverished regions of Egypt. They live in extremely bad conditions in homes around dirty water channels in the Nile Valley, and they generally work as metal workers, dancers, fortunetellers, or in other day-to-day labor ("Gypsies inside the Egyptian circle" http://www.domresearchcenter.com/news/egypt/egypt1circle.html, Accessed 18 January 2015). After Mubarak was toppled in 2011, many Gypsies living on the shores of the Nile, like the woman above, tied their hopes to the revolution; but it soon became clear that the Islamists, who were gaining strength and were worse than what we’d had before, did not see ethnic and religious minorities as equal to themselves. With the last coup, uncertainty about their future has risen exponentially. Recently, there have reportedly been attacks on Dom groups, particularly in Sinai and Alexandria. Gypsies, whom Egyptians call “Ghagar” (meaning “rambler”), continue to be the invisible people of Egypt ("Egypt's Invisible Gypsies," Alexandra Parrs (http://isa-global-dialogue.net/egypts-invisible-gypsies/). Accessed: 18 January 2015).

The Gypsies: Other Refugees of Syria

When the civil rebellions in the Middle East that toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya reached Syria in March 2011, it was expected that the Ba’athist regime would also be toppled. Contrary to expectations, however, the regime remains in power, owing in part to the ethnic and religious structure of Syria as well as its geographic location, the hierarchical and differential power relations articulated by the Ba’athist regime, and the international balance of power. As a consequence of the war, which has entered into its fourth year, millions of people from all ethnic groups have been forcibly displaced from their homelands. While some have migrated to cities that experience fewer conflicts and therefore have comparatively higher security, almost six million Syrian people have fled their country and taken refuge in neighbouring countries (http://www.cnnturk.com/haber/turkiye/turkiyede-suriyeli-multeci-sayisi-1-9-milyon. Accessed: 18 January 2015).

Today, the Gypsies are trying to survive in the extraordinarily difficult conditions of the camps and homes in the countries where they have taken refuge. According to recent statistics, as of November 2014, 1,645,000 Syrians have been taken under temporary protection in Turkey (Suriyeli Sığınmacıların Türkiye’ye Etkileri raporu; http://www.tesev.org.tr/suriyeli-siginmacilarin-turkiye’yeetkileri/Icerik/1757.html Accessed: 18 January 2015). This number is estimated to have reached 2 million, including undocumented refugees, in the first month of 2015.

If we consider the fact that all these people from Syria who are taking shelter in Turkey may belong themselves to ethnic and religious minorities, we will realize just how little information we have regarding what these groups experience within the refugee population itself.

According to reports from both national and international media and officials, Christian communities and the Armenians are becoming more nervous day by day; immigration to Europe and Armenia has started; and people who stayed within the country have also sought refuge in lower-conflict cities. Since the days when the Kurdish rebellions started, the Kurds have created secure regions that are managed by their own security forces own safety regions and provided their security. We know also that religious and ethnic minority groups, including Assyrians, Armenians, and Ezidis have been living in relative safety within these regions.

Before 2011 over five hundred thousand settled and semi-nomadic Gypsies were spread across Syria and known variously as Dom, Dummi, Nawar, Kurvet, Abdal, Helebi, and Zott peoples. These communities, originally composed of craftsmen who worked in ironsmithing, tinsmithing, sieve-making, dentistry, circumcision, and music, have become increasingly unable to do this work due to the industrialization and modernization of production as well as legal prohibitions. Only musicians were able to keep making a living by performing at weddings and celebrations. In recent years, however, these communities have been doing temporary jobs such as collecting scrap metal and paper and working for very low wages as seasonal agricultural workers. These restricted working opportunities have largely disappeared due to the environment of ongoing conflict and the virtual collapse of Syrian production.

According to the Gypsies who took refuge from Syria in Turkey, they were forced to migrate by both regime and its opponents in spite of staying neutral in conflicts between the warring groups, and their houses and properties have been destroyed and plundered as a result of the war and the conflict situation that have been going on for four years. As a consequence of air strikes on Aleppo, neighborhoods like Haydariye that were mostly populated by Gypsies have suffered many mortal attacks; these neighborhoods have been almost completely vacated. Gypsies are subject to violence especially in regions that are under the control of radical Islamist groups that have recently gained strength. These radical groups have also seized Gypsy properties and subject them to mortal violence under the justification that they are not “Muslim enough.” These groups, which are perpetuating conflict in the name of sectarian and religious motives, are committing more and more violence against different religious groups day by day. Because of the the oppression by radical Islamist groups, Gypsy communities such as the Abdals, who believe in the Alewi-Bektashi faith, have been forced to leave their homes in cities such as Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, and Manbij and to live in regions under control of regime or to seek refuge in neighboring countries. According to many witnesses, there have been deaths and severe injuries as a result of these attacks; some childrens’ hands were cut off on the grounds that they stole; and many women have been kidnapped and afflicted by sexual violence.

Syrian Gypsies who have taken refuge in Turkey say that the Gypsies who remain in Syria have had to migrate either to provinces farther west such as Latakia and Damascus where there have been fewer air attacks, or to cantons under the control of the Kurds, such as Afrin, Kobanê, Qamishli. Because of the violent conflicts in cities, inadequate healthcare and the scarcity of food, many of these communities have begun quickly migrating to neighbouring countries. Today, tens of thousands of Gypsies are struggling against hunger and poverty to survive as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

The Invisible Refugees of Turkey

Like all peoples in Middle East, the Gypsies were also divided by artificial boundaries. Although though they may have lived in different countries, they nonetheless remained in contact with their relatives. In their words, they were “intermarrying.” With the beginning of the wave of migration, when these groups began to be subject to discrimination by other peoples, they tried to reach the cities where their relatives had been living. Although they had been living in different countries, in fact, all Gypsies shared the same fate. Districts once known as a city’s suburbs and where Gypsies had lived for hundreds of years have been destroyed in the name of “urban transformation” in order to generate profits. This phenomenon forces these people, who are already struggling economically, to become homeless and therefore to migrate. Racist and nationalist groups attack and burn down the homes of anyone who tries to resist this oppression.

This people, who have suffered every kind of discimination and have been expelled from society even in times of peace, are struggling to survive in the incredibly difficult conditions of the places where they live today. Although those who manage to take shelter in refugee camps in neighbouring countries may try to disguise themselves as Kurds, Turkmen, or Arabs according to the languages they know, they are nonetheless marginalized by the Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen residents of camps. Exposed to the same prejudiced attitudes in the camps, even by the camp management, they are quickly recognized, excluded, and eventually unable to take shelter in the camps. Many of them have begun to return to nomadic life in order to keep out of those wire fence prisons and to avoid the contempt of the Gadjos.

The Gypsies from Syria who are refugees in Turkey are living in cities such as Antakya, Kilis, Osmaniye, Mersin, Gaziantep, Maras, Urfa, Adıyaman, Mardin, Batman, Diyarbekir, and Izmir. Most of them are trying to survive in hovels and sheds in the poor districts of these cities. Though they may not have any bread to share, their relatives have set up tents outside the walls of their homes and go out to collect scrap metal, paper and a piece of bread. In the summer months, they are a cheap labor force going to the Mediterranean and Central Anatolia regions as seasonal workers. They take shelter in the derelict buildings destroyed by urban transformation in Fikirtepe in Istanbul, in Dikmen Deresi in Ankara, and in Kadifekale in Izmir, with the hope of becoming lost in the crowd and finding a job. However, the majority of them part of them are still trying to live along the border, from Mardin to Antakya, in ramshackle tents around cities, towns and villages. They still hope that the war will finish one day, and that they will return home.

Local governments in particular do not give them permission to reside in tents on the grounds that they cause visual pollution and cause local people to complain, based on their prejudices. As the people’s complaints increase, their tents are taken down and set on fire (http://www.radikal.com.tr/turkiye/suriyelilerin_cadirlari_sokulup_yakildi-1125685 Accessed: 18 January 2015).

The Ministry of the Interior has recently published a memorandum about “Gathering up the Syrian refugees who try to live by panhandling in streets” (http://t24.com.tr/haber/81-ilin-valiliklerine-suriyeli-dilencileri-kamplara-toplayin-talimati,266309 Accessed: 18 January 2015). This memorandum was sent to the governships of every province. Police forces have presented all Syrian refugees who are living in streets or in tents they own with two options: they forced them to settle, either in empty camps or by renting houses. If they don’t comply with the first two options, they were verbally instructed to return to Syria. This memorandum was actually targeted specifically against this community. Many governors have rigidly implemented this memorandum and given police forces a mandate to carry it out. In some provinces and cities, they have started a virtual cattle drive. Children begging for helps on streets have been sent to camps without providing any notice to their families. People and groups that do not want to go camps under the control of AFAD (The Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey) are displaced and then forced to return to Syria, into the midst of the war. People living in old, derelict buildings in places like Gaziantep were taken personally by police forces and sent across the border. On this matter, the pro-government media attempted to redirect the increasing antiSyrian sentiment in Turkish society towards Gypsies and beggars. They interviewed the leaders of the Syrian opposition, who made statements like “these are Gypsies, they were begging in Syria, we don’t want them either, they’re not Arabs.” Such statements provoked society and the police forces against this community.

Approximately thirty to forty thousand Gypsies who have fled Syrian and sought shelter in Turkey are trying to survive in these difficult conditions. They represent a very small fraction of the Syrian refugee population whose number has reached nearly two million. This community doesn’t want to live in camps for various reasons. On the one hand, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens living in the camps discriminate against them and the management of camps also don’t want them there. On the other hand, this community doesn’t want to live in camps surrounded by wire fences, guarded by the gendarme, and closed off from the outside world. Furthermore, Abdals of the Alewi faith are afraid of living in camps with Sunnis. And, these communities are still in contact with their Turkish relatives, and therefore want to live in the same districts and cities with their relatives.

Recently, “the fear of being forcefully resettled in camps” has been disturbing Syrian Gypsy refugees and they have started to change the places where they settle. This kind of dual state of “escaping and migrating” (“kaç-göç”) carries a significant risk to health and life, particularly for women and children.

To conclude, Gypsies have always been the victims of “civil wars” between peoples and ethnic/religious groups among whom they have been living for centuries. Over the past four years, during the course of the popular uprisings in the Middle East, just as in the past, the Gypsy groups of the Middle East have been caught in the middle of warring factions. In their collective memories, they carry the centuries of massacre and pain that they experienced during wars and civil wars, transmitting those “difficult times” to future generations through the magic of the spoken word. These painful days have been again engraved into t he hearts of the “free spirits of world.” But hard times await those “others” with whom the Gypsies have lived together for centuries in Middle East.

What do the new governments in countries altered by the uprisings have in store for the future of religious and ethnic minorities, including Gypsies? There have been no concrete steps taken to address this question except some half-hearted promises. As long as politicians’ declamations on this subject do not find their counterpart in the law, as long as these people’s right to live humanely in “peace and equality” is not guaranteed by the law, the multicultural structure of the Middle East will become even more distorted.


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