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Gypsies inside the Egyptian circle

The Community Times, www.community-times.com

2005

What do the gypsies look like? Inspired by movies, gypsies are criminals and thieves who wear tattoos; golden jewellry, alcoholics and have rotten teeth. Gypsy women are stereotyped as passionate musicians, fortune tellers, etc who are exotic and wild.

In real life, that is not the case especially in Egypt.

Gypsies in Egypt
There are 3-5 million gypsies in the Middle East, where one million of them reside in Egypt. Unfortunately, in Egypt, gypsies are socially isolated because they are forced to migrate to the outskirts of the country. However, recently, the Ghagar communities of Southern Egypt have seen increasing large numbers of gypsies migrate to Cairo due to economic opportunities offered, especially as metal workers, dancers and fortune-tellers,” says Professor Adrian March, Istanbul Bilgi University. Most of the gypsies living in Cairo live in extremely poor quality accommodation along the polluted water canals; they are found in the Zabaleen area near Mokattam, City of the Dead and Sakkara. Most of them are Orthodox Copts.
The total numbers of gypsies in Egypt are currently being assessed by various evangelical organisations at work in the region, one of which suggests that there are some 1,006,900 Egyptian-speaking Ghagar in Egypt (Joshua project 2000:1).

Doms and Domari
Gypsies residing in the Middle East and North Africa are called the Dom gypsies. The language of the Dom gypsies is called Domari, which is very particular to that group, and unfortunately, is gradually disappearing; it is a non-written language, which has been passed on from one generation to the other verbally. Even though, different subgroups within gypsy communities worldwide, possess their own and different language, there is a common lexicon, where certain words, most derived from the Indian language, are shared amongst all gypsies. The three major linguistic groups are the: Dom who speak Domari, Rom who speak Romani (this group is the most popular) and Lom who speak Lomavern.

What they do
Many gypsies beg to survive, in Cairo, and they work hard to make ends meet. They are primarily metal-workers and they are entirely sedentary. Due to limited employment opportunities, they engage in hardworking and unpopular tasks such as: “street-sweeping”, where they collect and separate garbage. Recycling half of the daily solid waste produced by Caireans; raising and selling pigs; and finally, smithing, which is the most common family occupation, where husbands and wives work together to make a living. In the context of urban Cairo, it is very likely to spot gypsies in a Mouled where they work as entertainers speaking their own Dom language.

Their Culture
The tradition of the gypsy artist has flourished for the past several hundred years. Throughout history, many ancient visitors to the Middle East have documented themselves as a witness of gypsy involvement in the musical arts. Their ongoing tradition and love for the arts has reigned strong throughout time until today and has affected different aspects of Egyptian culture. For example, Egyptian folk music stemmed out of the gypsy music, which is the music of travelling people (you can find a couple of CDs at Diwan for Gypsy ghawazy). Also, Ghazeya (female dancer) is a very common gypsy designation for women in Egypt.

Storytelling
Gypsies in Upper Egypt use the “Rababa,” a common musical instrument, to play background ethnic music while storytelling. Music is usually played in a mid tempo tune that tells a melancholic story through mentally skillful constructed lyrics.
The whole setting in which storytelling takes place is very evocative and emotional, where the narrator takes the audience to a world in which senses are awakened and pains are dulled. For a short period the storyteller becomes the master of the game, where he manages to capture and controls the audience with his words.

Ghagar: A Negative Stereotype
It is clear-cut and proven that gypsies worldwide are discriminated against. The word “gypsy” in itself portrays a very negative connotation. For example, in Egypt when you want to describe someone as being loud or vulgar you call him/her a gypsy “ghagar”. Sadly enough, most of the gypsies are designated as members of special groups and not as individuals. The ghagar as well as other gypsies worldwide have problems of social integration. They are deprived from economic, and political rights and are viewed as a threat to the community by most governments.
Many of them do not enjoy proper citizenship rights because governments do not recognise them. A large number of them are born into families that have been stateless for generations. As a result, they face difficulties with citizenship or effective nationality, which is a fundamental human right. They are stateless and officially have no country to call home. They are unstable, mobile and marginalised. Many gypsies might not be able to attend public schools or state universities.

Avoiding Prejudice
Gypsies deny their origin to avoid prejudice. In many cases, they are categorised as a group of people who share bizarre and awkward practices, beliefs, culture and political principles. As a result, gypsies are often faced with shifting their identities as they move from one place to the other for means of survival. And in Egypt, most of them claim to be Palestinian to justify their acquired Egyptian accent to help them secure a smooth social integration among their communities. Most Egyptian gypsies are so ashamed of their identity, they actually try to avert speaking in their own language in front of their kids so as to avoid their children questioning them about their weird tongue.
The Ghagar (gypsy) community in Egypt has been hardly recognised. The little and scarce information about Egyptian gypsies, has led most people to be unaware of their existence. However, one of the most highly acclaimed mainstream efforts to research and closely examine the lives of those neglected communities are those of Dr. Nabil Sobhy Hanna.
Along with Dr. Hanna’s studies, The Dom Research Centre is the only NGO that works with the gypsies in the Middle East (for further information, check: www.domresearchcenter.com)
Ola El Soueni

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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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