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West Bank

"Gypsy queen"
in, June 2003
By Aviva Lori

Amoun Sleem could no longer accept the humiliation and distress of the Gypsy community in Palestinian society. So she decided to get up and do something about it.

"They have a knife in their hand, and they're looking for trouble all the time," said the man standing in line in front of the Interior Ministry on Shaddad Street in East Jerusalem. "I wouldn't marry a Nawariyah. I want my children to study and get a good education, and with a Nawariyah, that can't happen." The man on line was a Palestinian, and by "Nawariyah" he was referring to a Gypsy woman, or more precisely, a dirty Gypsy. "Nawar" (Arabic for "black" or "uncivilized") is a derogatory term, one of the worst among the Palestinians, used to describe someone especially inferior and traditionally accompanied by spitting.

Amoun Sleem, who stood in line like everyone else under the burning-hot sun, in front of the iron door that guards the entrance to the Israeli Interior Ministry, only smiled. This was not the first time that she had heard these slanders of the Gypsy community. "It's ridiculous," she said afterward. "The Gypsies are the weakest people in Jerusalem, and they don't even know how to hold a knife in their hands and certainly not how to use one. They know it could cost them their lives or expulsion from the city."

Sleem, 30, is the proud leader of the Gypsy community in East Jerusalem. On June 23, she is due to travel to the United States to an international conference on issues concerning Gypsy society that will take place in Appleton, Wisconsin. The American consulate has issued her a visa, she has ordered airline tickets, all she is missing is a travel certificate (a substitute for a passport), because hers has expired. The certificate is renewed by the Israeli Interior Ministry, but in order to reach the proper clerk to get the right stamp, one needs strong elbows, patience, a lot of time, and preferably money to pay machers (people with connections). In this case, it's a man who comes to sleep on the sidewalk in front of the ministry, and the next day sells the place he saved to the highest bidder.

Sleem has strong elbows, but she is very short on time, and especially on money. A few weeks ago, between strikes, she went to the Interior Ministry, but didn't even manage to get near the door. Some days later, she tried again. She stood in the sun for four hours, and at one point even considered paying for a guaranteed place, but changed her mind at the last moment.

"One person wanted NIS 300 and said that he had a guaranteed place for today. I tried to buy it from him but afterward I was afraid - I thought he might take my money and not get me in at the end, and all the money would be wasted."

A day before Jerusalem Day, the gates of the Interior Ministry were closed at 12 noon, and the entire huge, perspiring and angry line, which snaked forward and backward, according to the pace that the iron door was opened, started to scatter. This time Sleem once again went away empty-handed. Without a travel certificate from the Interior Ministry, she won't be able to represent Jerusalem's Gypsies in Wisconsin.

The Inferior Status

The history of the Gypsies is not recorded in writing, and therefore it is not possible to know with certainty how many Gypsies there are in the world today. The common assumption is that the number is somewhere between eight and 14 million. The Gypsies originated in India, and they arrived in Europe and in the Middle East in several waves of migration. The first was apparently in the third century C.E. In the fifth century, Gypsies are recorded in Persia - Persian poet Firdausi told of 10,000 musicians and dancers from the Luri tribe who came from India to the Shah's court. It is believed that in the seventh or eighth centuries, at the latest, the Gypsies began to follow separate paths. Some went to Europe via Turkey and dispersed over the continent, mainly in the Balkans, and some went to Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa.

The European Gypsies call themselves "Rom" and their language "Romansch" or "Romany." The community of Gypsies who came to the Middle East remained faithful to their original Indian name, "Dom" (meaning "man"). Their language is called "Domari." The Gypsies apparently settled in Jerusalem in the 18th century, or at the beginning of the 19th century at the latest, as recorded in travel diaries by tourists to the city. Today most of them live between the walls of the Old City, in the area of the Lions' Gate. They are Muslims, and their language is Arabic.

The size of this Gypsy community is also not known with certainty mainly because many of its members are reluctant to openly identify themselves as Gypsies. The assumption is that there are from 2,000-3,000 people, and maybe even more. There are three known families of Gypsies - Nimar, Berani and Sleem - who hardly ever marry outside the community. In the statistics of the last census in East Jerusalem there is no mention of the them.

Amoun Sleem, one of nine brothers and sisters, was born on the Way of the Storks, a pastoral street that ascends and winds parallel to the wall of the Old City. Her father, until he retired, worked in the East Jerusalem branch of the Interior Ministry, the same branch on Shaddad Street that his daughter didn't succeed in entering. He was a guard and was in charge of various matters, she says. Her mother died when she was seven years old, and as is customary in the community, her father, out of respect for his late wife, didn't remarry.

When she was about six years old, Sleem, like the other Gypsy children, was sent to beg in the streets. But the little girl rebelled. Instead of begging she started to sell postcards to tourists.

"It's a tradition in the community: Every child who has grown up a little is sent to beg - they teach him to be independent," she says. "I didn't think it was a good idea. I thought that if you have brains, you can use them in other ways and earn money by working and not by begging."

Do six-year-old girls have the strength to oppose convention?

Sleem: "From the earliest age, I felt that I was different, that I was destined to do great things. I don't know how or why I thought so, but it was simply in my blood. I saw myself belonging to high society, someone who doesn't have to obey anyone. I was the leader of a group of girls who fought the boys who bothered us. We were six or seven girls from the neighborhood, and we didn't let the boys do whatever they wanted, and they were afraid of us. Since then I have felt that I have power and rights. Apparently something in my nature told me that I can build and create things in an honest and decent way."

Stubbornly, persistently and against all the odds, she graduated from high school. "It's not taken for granted for a Gypsy girl to study as I did. The school dropout rate in our community is very serious. The Palestinian teachers harass Gypsy children, and the parents don't encourage them to study. They prefer that they go to work at an early age. I don't know how I survived school. The teacher used to call me names, said that it was a waste of my time, because in any case I would be a prostitute and beg, like all the Gypsy women."

Sleem didn't give in to her teachers or to herself. Maybe thanks to her father, who encouraged her, and her older sister Zerifa, who studied before her at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, she went at the age of 17 to study business administration, and worked for a living at a Dutch pilgrims' hostel on the Mt. of Olives. She did cleaning and gardening, and worked in the kitchen. "At that age I earned NIS 700 a month, that was a lot of money for me, and I was very happy," she says.

Sleem worked at the hostel for 12 years. She became friendly with some of the regular guests, who came back every year, learned to speak fluent Dutch, and with their encouragement discovered the potential for developing self-awareness among the Gypsies. During that same period she started to hold meetings at her family's home and spoke about the need to organize. "That was a very important and significant step for the community. We also had visitors from Europe who took an interest and wanted to help, and that raised the awareness of people in the community of their terrible situation."

The economic and social situation of the Gypsies in Jerusalem is very difficult, says Sleem: "They are at the bottom of the social ladder, oppressed and humiliated. Their families are large and they suffer from terrible poverty. Palestinian society treats them as backward and retarded, and as a result that's what they tend to feel about themselves. The most common profession is sanitation workers in the Jerusalem municipality."

Why you of all people?

"It's hard to be a Gypsy. I learned from my grandmother that when your skin itches, you're the only one who can scratch yourself, because you're the only one who knows exactly where it itches. Nobody will help us if we don't help ourselves. For me to be a Gypsy, like any minority in a small society, means to be without rights, discriminated against in Palestinian society, which tries to label us with the most negative image possible. We have even fewer rights than the Bedouin. The Bedouin at least have sheep and goats, we have nothing. In the entire community, there are maybe five educated people."

Educating the Gypsies

Sleem took on the mission of improving the status of the community as a personal project. "There are so many things that have to be done," she says. "For example, we have to break the stereotypes of the Gypsies. They say we are a closed community that doesn't welcome strangers. That's not true: Gypsies will welcome anyone who comes to them and tries to help them, but until now nobody has come. People think that we are wanderers, and that's not true, either. The Gypsies are mainly looking for a way to make a living, they go to places where they can find work. Even our flag shows that; it's half blue like the sky, green like the earth and in the middle, the red wagon wheel symbolizes the wanderings."

From the discussions and meetings in her home she became aware that the deprivation and the low self-image can be repaired only by educating the younger generation. Perhaps in a few more years, in another generation or two, that will raise the self-esteem of the community. She also understood that such a project cannot be run underground. Four years ago, therefore, Sleem established Domari, the Society for Gypsies in Israel, and she has been running it ever since from her brother's home, where she was given a room that serves as an office. The premises also serve as a cultural and information center, and a private school. The budget of the society is extremely limited. It subsists mainly from occasional contributions and from the generosity of Allen Williams, head of the Dom Research Center in Larnaca, Cyprus. Williams is also a member of the board of directors of the society, and comes to all the board meetings. This year he contributed $7,000 to the society, which is supposed to cover all the activities.

At present 25 students aged six to 14 study at Sleem's school three times a week. The school dropout rate for Gypsies is very high, says Sleem: 60 percent of the boys are sent to work, and 30 percent of the girls. In her school they study English twice a week and Arabic once a week. English is taught mainly by American tourists, volunteers who come to Jerusalem especially for that purpose, for three months at a time. One of the American friends who visited her home and heard about the distress of the Gypsies referred her to a Jewish lawyer, Omri Kibiri of Jerusalem, who would be able to help.

"I came to him," recalls Sleem, "and he was surprised. He had no idea there were Gypsies in Israel. I told him about the community and I told him that we have no money, but he said: `It's all right, when you have, you'll pay me.' Since then we have paid him only once."

Attorney Kibiri, who has become the legal adviser of the Gypsy society, says that during his first meeting with Amoun and her brother he was surprised to discover that there are Gypsies in Israel. "They started to tell me all kinds of stories about the Gypsies," he said, "and I saw at once that Amoun has an unusual character. She's a courageous woman who dares, in a male society, to pull the wagon forward. She said `I'll pay you, but meanwhile I'll give you a gold necklace of mine.' That impressed me very much."

Kibiri didn't take the necklace, but began to investigate the situation of the Gypsies in Jerusalem. Since then he has been very involved in the life of the community, and tries to help as much as he can.

"They are people who are living on the margins of the margins, they are extremely poor, and they have serious problems of schooling and education. I go to their weddings and celebrations, and I am appalled by the wretchedness. I remember that I was at a wedding that they made at some school, and only the bride wore white, the guests and even the bridegroom, everyone, were wearing ragged clothes, and there were no refreshments, they gave drinks in disposable cups only to the honored guests. Amoun's unusual personality captivated me. I don't remember meeting another woman as dedicated and active, with such exceptional abilities. I've been captivated by her and by this lost population."

Kibiri is trying to get legal recognition for the Gypsy minority in Israel. Such recognition, if it is attained, will provide the community with budgets for education, and will allow them to preserve their culture and their language.

"The Domari language is similar to Indian," says Sleem. "I heard it when my father spoke to his mother, but since then I haven't heard this language much. Since we became part of Arab society, we speak Arabic and our language is getting lost."

Slander and gossip

The headquarters of the society is abuzz with activity in preparation for a bazaar planned for August, in which handicrafts made by Gypsy women will be sold. Two years ago, Sleem published a book in which she collected the written and oral history of the Gypsy community in Jerusalem. Allen Williams, from the center in Larnaca, edited the book with her. In the same way, this year she published a Gypsy cookbook containing traditional Gypsy recipes, arranged according to events: weddings, engagements, funerals and more. Sleem got the recipes from the elders of the community, tried them all out in her private kitchen and only afterward had them published. With the money made at the bazaar, the association will purchase 100 schoolbags with books, notebooks and all the equipment necessary for school, for the new school year.

The next project is placing trailers in Sleem's large courtyard, and turning the place into a center with an office, a classroom for children and a place for women to get together and hold regular consciousness-raising meetings.

"Amoun the dreamer" is what Anat Hoffman, a member of the board of directors of the society, calls Sleem: "Omri Kibiri turned to me when he was looking for volunteers for the society. I came, I listened to her and I was fascinated. There are about 400 nonprofit associations in Jerusalem, but this one is the most impressive, thanks to Amoun. She has entered deep into my heart. She inspires me with her optimism and with her leadership ability. She wants to establish an orchestra, a cultural center, to reconstruct the family tree of the community, to build a sports center that will restore the ancient sports of the Gypsies, to teach all the children the Dom language and Gypsy cuisine. I remember saying to her: `Let's take a Gypsy lawyer and a Gypsy accountant, and Gypsy society members, and we'll do it,' and she said: `There are four educated Gypsies in Israel and I'm the fifth, so forget it.'"

Not everyone in the community accepts Sleem's authority. She encounters quite a lot of hostility on the part of the men, and there is also an official mukhtar (community leader), a distant relative of hers, who was appointed to his position by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

"From a young age I believed that I was able to lead, that I had been chosen to lead the Gypsies, but it's still hard for our men to make the conceptual leap and to accept a woman as their leader. Behind my back they spread rumors that I receive millions for the society. I would be more than happy if that were true. And they also make accusations as though this money goes into my private pocket. It's lucky that my father is a respected and influential man in the community, so the men don't dare to oppose me openly."

And how are the women reacting?

"There are also women who are jealous of me and gossip about me. I'm lucky that my family supports me, otherwise it would be much more difficult for me to handle it. On the other hand, it's not so important what they say about me. What's important is the actual work I'm doing, because after all, I'm not doing it against anyone, not against the mukhtar or anyone else in the community. I'm trying to emphasize the positive in our culture - important work that nobody else has done before me."

It's no wonder that in the community they talk behind Sleem's back. A 30-year-old unmarried woman arouses a lot of questions. "Maybe the fact that I'm unmarried is really a part of the issue, although if I were to marry, I would separate my family life from my work, but if someone expects me to give up my activity and exchange it for a quiet family life, then they're mistaken."

Sleem talks about the common tragedy of the Gypsies and the Jewish people, about the blood connection that was born in the Holocaust. "At heart we are close to the Jewish people, because the Jews, exactly like us, were unwanted in the countries where they lived, and many of us, like the Jews, suffered from the Germans and were destroyed by the Germans, and we, like the Jews, have a rich culture, a special cuisine, and special musical instruments."

In East Jerusalem these ideas don't exactly raise the status of the Gypsies in the eyes of their Palestinian neighbors. On the contrary. Last October, Rifat Sleem, an eight-year-old Gypsy boy, Sleem's cousin and a student in her class, was murdered. The police arrested the murderer, a 28-year-old Palestinian, who confessed that someone had ordered him to kill a Gypsy boy.

"He literally slaughtered him," says Sleem, "cut his throat only because he's a Gypsy, because the blood of a Gypsy is worthless."


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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