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The Dom of Eastern Turkey:
Researching amongst the Gypsies of eastern Turkey

By Adrian Marsh
April 30, 2007

The Domari communities of eastern Turkey, like those elsewhere in the region, are one of the least known of all the Gypsy communities in the world. Largely absent from research carried out amongst Gypsy groups in the field of Romani Studies, the Dom of eastern Turkey have remained "hidden" from the view of the scholars and academics in the West since the letters of American missionaries in the late nineteenth century described in brief details their presence in these lands. Little more has been recorded about them since this, with only the barest of details in modern scholarship, such as Ana Oprisan's reference to them in her article of 2006, yet the community not only persists but is resilient enough to exhibit a strong self-identity, maintain its own language and culture, and confessional identity. Yet this community, or series of linked communities are a vaguely perceived and misunderstood entity to those whom they live amongst, subject to many of the same prejudices that are associated with Gypsies elsewhere in the country and in the wider world. Labelled as untrustworthy, venal, ignorant and feckless, their quarters are viewed as dangerous places where it is certainly unsafe for any non-Gypsy to be, and these prejudices persist in isolating, marginalising and excluding the vast majority of Dom who remain limited by their economic and social circumstances in ways that are both similar to, and distinct from other groups in Turkey such as poor or migrant peoples, often displaced by insecurity or economic collapse. The Dom in eastern Turkey are by definition, the most marginal and excluded, the group whom all others can discriminate against with impunity and with almost universal acceptance. Denial of basic services and provision is frequent, whether in education, health or employment, and cases of arbitrary treatment at the hands of law enforcement officers and government officials almost commonplace. Local authority officers often deny their existence and there is a widespread conviction that the Dom represent merely a criminal underclass in Turkish society in the region.

What lies behind these prejudices and stereotypes is a lack of understanding and knowledge about the Dom, about their history as a people, shared yet in many ways distinct from the surrounding populations, their origins, similar in process to the Romani peoples of the world, their language and their culture. This lack of knowledge effectively condemns the Dom to a position outside of Turkish society, only allowing the exploitation of very limited economic and social niches by the Dom and perpetuating their social exclusion. The marginalised position that the Dom occupy is one that inhibits contact with the growing Romani awareness in the country as a whole, and atomises the various elements of Domari society into disparate groups, often competing for the same limited resources or opportunities for work (such as agricultural labour, or providing music for other communities such as the Kurds), both with these and between groups of Dom. Local knowledge about the Dom within the midst of villages or towns, in many ways sympathetic to the plight of the Gypsies, itself competes with the dominant and ultimately more monolithic discourse of negative images and ?truths? about Gypsies in Turkish media and the popular consciousness. There are no Dom music festivals, or recognised groups such as the Romanlar have in Turkey, no popularised versions of Domari songs and tunes. In brief, the Dom of eastern Turkey are the most invisible of all the Gypsy groups.

Yet in the old city of Diyarbakir, there are 14,000 at least of these Gypsy people, most of them speakers of Domari. There are substantial communities in other towns and villages, many of them living in very bad conditions. There is a significant level of persecution, abuse and even murder of Dom people taking place in the region; for example Dom children engaged as shepherds have been killed in the days before they were due to be paid by the villagers, or Dom women who marry Kurdish villagers and are subsequently killed when their identity is discovered. Prejudice from the Kurdish community is especially virulent in this region, and of course the changes in traditions mean that the occupation of most of the Dom as musicians is being eroded by the aspirations to reinforce Kurdish culture. The zurna (a kind of eastern oboe) and the davut (the big double-headed drums used by Gypsies everywhere in Turkey) are being replaced at the wedding ceremonies by the saz and the songs of Ahmed Kaya. The Gypsy wedding musicians are fast becoming a thing of the past in eastern Turkey. Impoverished, under-educated and despised the Dom are just beginning to establish contacts with Gypsies in other parts of Turkey, but remain largely outside the current of rising Romani consciousness both here and in the rest of Europe. Most Roma do not even know who the Dom are, let alone that thousands of them live in fear and poverty in parts of Turkey, speaking a parallel language that maintains a structure predating Romanes and the descendants of Hindu populations forced to leave India two hundred years before the later ancestors of the Rom. Its time that the rest of Romanipen acknowledged this Gypsy population, older and in many ways, more threatened than any other in the world.

Originally published in Swedish in Romani Glinda, February 2007.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of each individual author. The views and opinions do not represent those held by the Dom Research Center.

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