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"Very Strange Gypsies"
in the Hebrew weekly Davar HaShavua, 1993
By Shafi Gabai

(Translated by David and Jose Patterson)

A Gypsy Muslim Tribe lives in its own neighbourhood - the Migdal Ha Chasidah - within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. The members of this tribe are currently undergoing a social and cultural change. They have decided to break with ancient traditions in order to integrate into the neighbouring Arab community.

The young men of the Tribe do not wish to be concerned with their roots and have even vowed not to teach the next generation of their children the special gypsy language in which they are fluent, in order to bury, in their way of thinking, the last shred of their particular identity.

Their Fathers do not object, and even reveal a surprising understanding: "There is no argument between them and us in this matter" says the Mukhtar of the tribe, Muhamed Dib, a man in his forties who received this title from his Father. "Thus far we were a self-contained tribe, but if my daughter wishes to marry an Arab, I would not stand in the way, even though our ancient tradition obligates us to preserve the unity of the tribe."

The old men of the tribe who surrounded us in the narrow alley paved and cobbled with Jerusalem stone confirmed the Mukhtar's words. The Arab nickname for Muslim Gypsy "Al Navar" is a derogatory term which conveys failure, poverty and dirt. When two Arabs are quarrelling it is customary to hurl abuse - "Al Navar" at each other.

The status of Muslim Gypsies in Jerusalem is low. Gypsies have large families - 10 or more children according to ancient practice so as not to undermine the continuity of the tribe. Where there are many children, it is difficult to find money for higher education. At all periods the men have worked in menial occupations particularly as cleaners and servants. Even today the adults work in municipal cleansing services. The men still forbid their wives and daughters from going out to work. "But we are about to break with this tradition too," the Mukhtar's daughter affirms. The youngsters say that their fathers will be the last generation of cleaners in Jerusalem. "Today we study at various schools including High Schools, and soon we shall have the first Gypsy nurses and a teacher in Jerusalem," the young girl told me.

It seems that the members of the tribe find difficulty in severing their identity altogether. It is clear that the outside world has become interested in their way of life. A delegation of Gypsies from France and Germany which had come on a pilgrimage the previous month to the Christian Holy Sites in Jerusalem spent a great deal of time with them. The members of the delegation spoke with their Muslim conterparts in a Gypsy language and discovered that they had identical words in common. The Mukhtar Dib even declared that "their language is close to ours." But the faces of the Jerusalem Gypsies do not resemble those of their European guests. They are brown and inclined to paleness a little like Mongols. They are all dressed like Arab Fellahin, and their language, outside the house - is Arabic with a Palestinian accent. Amongst themselves they speak their own Gypsy language which resembles one of the Indian languages. "We think that the origin of our language is from North India," says the Mukhtar.

The Jerusalem Gypsies possess no script, and no member of the tribe knows whether there were ever characters. When they want to write a confidential letter to a member of the tribe, they use Arabic letters.

Nor is the origin of the Muslim Gypsies clearly known, even to the most elderly members of the tribe. The point of departure for their dispersal throughout the Arab world was thought to be near the city of Eden in the Yemen. "We are not one tribe but a number of tribes of Muslim Gypsies, which were scattered in ancient times over the Arab world," the old Iman relates. They vigorously deny any suggestion of Bedouin origin.

"We dwelt in the mountains round Eden and from there, for some reason, we wandered to Saudi Arabia. But our ancestors continued their wanderings, this time in two branches - one went to Syria and the other to Palestine." These are the memories which are passed orally from father to son, and it may be that their origin is in the seventh century. The elders relate that until the "Six Day War" in 1967 the Jerusalem tribe comprised more than two hundred families, but the larger part fled to Jordan when the battles were at their height, and have not returned except for short family visits. At the present time the tribe numbers 70 families, more than 700 people. "We do not know our origin and we thought that the King of the Gypsies in Belgium could investigate and help us. He came to Jerusalem 12 years ago and stayed with us a long time, chatted at length with each of us and confirmed that we are indeed Gypsies, and that he was ready to take us under his protection. But even he did not know our wanderings had ended here. He regarded us as Gypsies, but very strange ones," they say. There are Muslim Gypsies in Jordan, Syria, Iraq and even Egypt.

"The Muslim Gypsies dwelt as a nomadic tribe in Jerusalem until the sixties in miserable huts on the far side of the Eastern Wall, from which the large Muslim cemtary stretches. Prior to that, we lived in tents made of camel hair, but gradually we penetrated into this district, many of whose former inhabitants did not like living near the cemetary," they reflected. In the beginning one family rented a house in the maze of alleys, and then another family, until all the families moved from a nomadic to a settled life. "We all live in rented accommodation, four and five families to a house. We are all friends or relatives."

The Gypsies preserve their traditional garments in the receses of their wardrobes. The women used to wear dresses embroidered with bright coloured threads. The men wore cloaks similar to those of Bedouin. This traditional dress still exists among Gypsy men and women in Jordan. They come to visit their families in their traditional garb and stroll about the narrow alleyways, to the chagrin of the young Gypsies who live in Jerusalem. "Now that we have managed to change our image a little, we no longer wear the clothes which remind our neighbours of our roots," they say.

Until recently the Gypsies married among themselves. But the young refused to continue this tradition, and the elders now have to acede to the young. "They tell us that the girls fall in love and get married to Arabs, while the Gypsy men take Arab wives. Today we have seven mixed marriages, and we will continue thus," the young men and women insist.

The Jerusalem Gypsies have not preserved their traditional music, songs and dances, or so, at any rate, they contend. Perhaps they shrink from them in view of the revolution which is taking place in their lives. They stated that they neither sing nor dance. However, the Gypsy visitors from Jordan smile and say that they do have their own folk songs, their own instruments, and their own special dances which are performed during ceremonies and at celebrations. The Jerusalemites say that the Gypsies were once famous for their thoroughbred horses which they kept tethered next to their tents and huts. They had no choice but to sell them when they took to a settled life.

Like Gypsies everywhere they are devoted to astrology, which is an important livelihood for many of them, the women in particular. Most of the astrologers are now to be found in the refugee camps in Rabat Aman.

The Gypsies of Jerusalem have decided to forget their past traditions, without regret. They even want to leave their present quarter for other districts in Jerusalem in order to break the tradition of the ghetto. They think that only in this way will they merge into the wider Arab society and escape the curiosity which has dogged them for generations.


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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