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"In the Torment of the Intifada, the Gypsies of Gaza are Losing Their Identity"

By Calin Neacsu

JABALIYA, March 1, 2002 - Trapped by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sharing the fate of the Palestinians, the Gypsies of the Gaza Strip are gradually losing their language, their traditions, and their identity.

"We became refugees here at the same time as the Palestinians during the 1948 war between Arabs and Israelis after the formation of the State of Israel," explains Choukri Anwar, the mukhtar of the strong gypsy comunity of around a thousand people, according to him. Since then, the Nawar have not stopped melting into the Palestinian society with the goal, he says, "of integration." "Our language is very different from Arabic but frankly, I don't know what to call it. And it's spoken less and less," he explains, with an air of resignation, this slightly built old man, who receives people into his house in the poor suburb of Jabaliya (north of the Gaza Strip). While in certain European countries the Gypsy communities have set up some schools that teach in their language, the Nawar of the Gaza Strip say they are totally unaware of the existence of their own alphabet. "Our children go to Palestinian public schools, at home they prefer to speak Arabic and are thus gradually forgetting our language," adds Loubna, the wife of Choukri.

Famous musicians and well-known belly dancers, the Nawar men and women say they have ceased these professions since the beginning of the Intifada in September 2000. "I was the star of the Gaza Strip," Chadia al-Mograbi, a former dancer who has lived since then in a wretched state, recounts with feeling. This woman of about 40 whose artisitc reputation still lives on in the dreams of many Palestinians, lives today in a shack set up in a Muslim cemetery of the Askula district. The roof of her house is covered with a plastic tarp anchored by some worn out tires. On a string the clothes dry in the sun above some graves. Not far off, one hears the twittering of Gypsy children who are playing in the dust near a donkey decorated with red ribbons.

"The Gypsy ladies no longer dance. This would be a sacrilege to have a celebration while the Palestinians are being killed by the Israeli army," explains Chadia, dressed in a long black dress that contrasts with the dancing costume that she wore in the past. And if the Gypsies portray themselves as wholly Palestinians, soldiers in the Intifada, and members of Palestinian parties, in the Gaza Strip, as they do in certain European countries of the East, they are considered as outcasts. "They are mafia, they take drugs and when they aren't stealing they beg," sums up Mahmoud, a young Palestinian student from Gaza. An opinion shared by many Palestinians.

Within the scattered Gypsy community, more or less in the Gaza Strip, some young people manage to undertake university studies and to get employment in Palestinian businesses. However, this success pushes them even more to reject their identity, following the example of this mother who refuses to reveal the name of her journalist daughter. "I prefer to keep secret her name, it is best this way," she says while looking with pride at her daughter's diploma displayed in the living room of the house.
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