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Iranian gypsies in southern Tehran's slums

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Thursday, 10 March 2005

The name ‘Qorbati’ is usually used for Iranian gypsies living in Tehran. The word has been derived from Arabic "qarib" which means stranger. In the north of Iran, gypsies are called Juki.

The word Koli also mainly refers to those who travel as craftsmen with nomadic Kurdish and Persian tribes in Iran. Koli appears to be a term Iranians use in a pejorative manner to cover a number of groups in Iran, rather like the use of the English word "Gypsy”. Gypsies in Iran are no different from other gypsy populations in other parts of the world. They are as deprived, isolated and hard to approach as the Zotts in India and the gypsies of Europe and the US.

In Iran, they are not included in any official statistics simply because they have no permanent place of residence. They are denied education because they have no identity card. They die in their single-room shabby houses- if they can be called houses- as a result of very simple diseases because they are deprived of healthcare facilities. Most of them have a chance to learn only one skill and that is how to beg people for money, food…, although I think theses days their old tricks no longer win the empathy of the passersby.

Most Iranian gypsies live in the slums of south Tehran in narrow, twisting alleys. Every morning they travel to the affluent districts of northern Tehran where they clean car windscreens, sell an assortment of junk and oddities: chewing gum, flowers, fortune poems and nylon socks or simply beg.

Polygamy is a common practice among Iranian gypsies. They don’t feel duty bound to common traditions and rules concerning marriage. Families decide about their children’s marriage, usually without consulting them. The two families exchange rings and the couple mostly in their teens start a marital life after a small party. And that’s all. Thus the marriage is not registered anywhere and the off springs of the marriage will have no identity card.

Keyvan is almost 14 years old. He has come to the NGO to invite his past teachers to his wedding ceremony. He used to attend some courses at the center before finding education too much of a luxury and returning to his own career as a porter. For his wedding, he is wearing a Spiderman t-shirt and he speaks so sweetly that I can’t help gazing at him absorbing every single gesture of his face. The bride is 19 years old and is his cousin.

“Don’t you think that it’s a bit too soon to get married, Keyvan?” “What do you expect me to do? It’s better than following after strange women and girls in the street. If I get married sooner, I can plan my future life more effectively.” “What about the bride? Does she love you?” “Why not? She couldn’t find anyone better”, Keyvan grins.

With no sign of adolescence in Keyvan’s childish face I wonder what plans he has in mind for the future and what he expects of a marriage when to him the only motive to get married seems to avoid disturbing women in the street!

Farshid is Keyvan’s cousin. He is 19 years old and has married twice. He is an addict and prefers sending his wives (yes WIVES) to the streets to beg instead of bothering himself to earn a living. He has 3 children all of them alongside their mothers begging.

Keyvan’s tribe – the best way to describe their family- live in a two-room house. He is the son of his father’s second wife. The two women have managed to compromise and live in peace in recent years; maybe they have finally understood that in a life defined in such simple terms as eating, sleeping and giving birth to children there is not much to fight for.

The tribe’s head, Keyvan’s father, is now in hospital, he has lost his memory and “does things in the street that make people laugh and it really embarrasses the whole family” according to his family.

“We took him to a private hospital. The state-run ones didn’t receive him, because we are not covered by insurance companies. They asked for 300,000 tomans for hospitalizing him.” Setareh, the first wife complains.

Gypsy women are particularly attractive in appearance. Slim, tall, dark skinned, dark eyes, shiny hair and long nails make them stand out from the usual beggars in the streets. The passing cars in the northern parts of Tehran bother to stop and brighten the day of the young gypsy girls with a few coins flavored with flirtatious comments, something not at all provoking to the husband of the young woman who is at best selling flowers or fortune poems in the nearby street and at worse using drugs in a grim room with a bunch of friends.

It’s totally a vicious cycle. Children follow in their parents’ footsteps the same way the parents did after the grandparents. This nasty cycle seems hard to get rid of when you find out that the measures the authorities are taking today to ‘improve your living conditions’ are as worn-out and ineffective as the policies adopted by officials in the past to ‘get rid of’ the gypsies, their grandparents. When you are separated from the rest of society in a fenced area (an initiative taken recently by the Municipality of Sari, northern Iran) you can’t be expected to respect the rules of the society which looks upon you as an alien. When the people of a society do not care about your needs, you feel no need to value theirs either.


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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