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"Where are they now?"
In the Jerusalem Post
Monday, November 23, 1998

By Bernard Wasserstein

Memo: Jews, who agonize so much about their own continuity, might spare the Nawar a thought. What has become of the Palestinian Gypsies? A century ago they were a readily identifiable group. Known as the Zutt or Nawar (a plural form of the Arabic Nuri), they dressed similarly to their fellow nomads, the Beduin, but they had their own language and distinct customs and social patterns.

In the mid-nineteenth century they were a common sight in towns and villages in the Holy Land; they proceeded through the countryside, sometimes with performing animals they would show off in public.

In the early years of this century, R. A. Stewart Macalister, professor of Celtic archeology at University College, Dublin, came across them in the course of his nine years of digs under the auspices of the Palestine Exploration Fund. He employed some on his excavation works. In conversation with his foreman, Yusif Khattar, he learned a smattering of their language. Fascinated by this dialect that even then was in the process of disappearing, he befriended another Gypsy, Shakir Mahsin.

"I paid Shakir Mahsin . . . too come and sit with me for several hours each day, telling . . . stories . . . and interpreting them in Arabic," he recorded. From this source, Macalister constructed a grammar and vocabulary of the language of the Nawar that was published in 1914 by Edinburgh University Press. The origin of the Palestinian Gypsy dialect is disputed among scholars. Macalister said it was quite unlike the language of European Turkish Gypsies.

Ya'acov Shimoni, in his Arviyei Eretz Yisrael, published in 1947, wrote that the Palestinian Gypsies "among themselves speak a special language called in Arabic aspur, that is, the sound or twitter of the sipor, i.e., bird."

Intrigued by this forgotten language, I consulted a leading expert on linguistics, Professor John A. C. Greppin, of Cleveland State University, who replied to me: "There is no doubt that the Nuri language is a Gypsy dialect and the review (of Macalister) by R. Pischel (who wrote a monumnetal work on the Prakrit dialects of old Indic) never questions it."

What sort of people were these Gypsies? Macalister calls them "nomad smiths" and took photographs of their tent encampment just north of the Damascus Gate. On his last day in Jerusalem he intended to take a photograph of Shakir. Unfortunately that "proved to be a day of such torrential rain that the photography was out of the question."

Later he wrote to a friend in Jerusalem and asked him to try to obtain a portrait "only to find that in the meantime poor Shakir had gone the way of all the earth."

He had to make do instead with a picture of Shakir's cousin, "who to some extent resembles him." Other photographers had greater luck with the weather. Y. Yaniv, in his booklet (in Hebrew), The Gypsies in Judea and Jerusalem, reproduces several early photographs of Palestinian Gypsies, sometimes with performing animals, including a bear and a monkey.

Shimoni, describing their situation in the mandatory period, wrote that the Nawar "have accepted the Moslem faith but . . . do not care much about religion."

Like Gypsies elsewhere, they were tinkers, coppersmiths and engravers. "But among the Arabs, they are regarded as thieves," Shimoni added. "Some are dancers and singers; and they give entertainments such as animal shows in the streets of towns . . . For the rest, many of them are beggars."

What became of these people?

Despised by Arabs and unrecognized by Jews, some left the country during the disturbances of 1936-1939. In 1953, a British officer, Major Lunt, met a band of Nawar in Jordan and wrote a report of the encounter in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society.

Following the 1967 war, Teddy Kollek, as mayor of Jerusalem, recognized the Gypsies as a distinct community and appointed on of them as a liaison with the municipality. In the late 1970's, Yaniv estimated that there were still 300 Gypsies living in east Jerusalem. By then they were mostly sedentary and seemed to be in an advanced stage of assimilation.

Today the language and customs of the Nawar have almost vanished, swallowed up by the surrounding Arab society.

Who will be next? The Beduin, in Israel as in every other country of the Middle East, face immense pressures to abandon their nomadic life and conform to the norms of civilized society. The Samaritans, the Circassians and the Karaites also find immense difficulty in sustaining their distinctiveness. The great steamroller of modernization is flattening away the collective identity of all these minorities.

Jews, who agonize so much about their own continuity, might spare them a thought. Israeli society, which devotes not inconsiderable resources to preserving in aspic the way of life of the haredi (sic) minority, should protect and nurture the survival of those other endangered groups - who are no less fellow-citizens.


The same article appeared in the Jerusalem Post/Edition Francaise Internationale in December 1998.

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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