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"Out of Obscurity"
In the Jerusalem Post Magazine
September 1, 2000, pages 18-20

By Eetta Prince-Gibson

The Organization for the Advancement of Gypsies
aims to further the cause of an unknown underclass.

Amoun Sleem is a 28 year-old Gypsy born in Jerusalem. She walks along the steep alleyways that lead from the Lion's Gate to her home in Bab al-Hutta, an impoverished collection of houses tucked within a sharp turn in the Old City walls.

Sleem is one of the nearly 1,000 Gypsies living in Jerusalem. Few know of their existence. Socially marginalized and politically invisible, most of them live in abject poverty and deep despair. "To the Arabs, we are nuwari, which means 'dirty Gypsies,'" says Sleem, in Arabic-accented English. "But the Jews and the authorities consider us Arabs. We lose on both sides."

The Gypsy community in Israel is dying out. Their numbers are dwindling, and their culture and language are disappearing. Gypsies are looked down on by both Palestinians and Jews, and many of the younger generation prefer, if they are able, to hide their identity.

Sleem intends to change that. Last December, she established the Organization for the Advancement of Gypsies in Israel. It is the first organization of its kind in the Middle East, dedicated to advancing the political, social, cultural, health needs of the community.

She passes through the alleyways, past the children selling trinkets and cheap copies of trade-name perfumes and sports shoes by the Lion's Gate, or offering to guide wandering tourists for a few agorot. She says that she too, had to peddle when she was a child.

There is a gruff, sometimes harsh edge to Sleem's voice. Her life has been difficult, leaving her sensitive to the suffering of her people and also assertively, almost aggressively, proud. Her beautiful black eyes show determination.

Sleem remembers the humiliation and pain of her own childhood. "The other children knew we were Gypsies. They could tell by the color of our skin, by the names our parents gave us. And they could tell because we were so poor. They knew we didn't have enough money for clothes or books, so they teased us all the time."

Her mother died in childbirth when Sleem was six, leaving her father to raise her with her eight brothers and sisters. Even as a child, she somehow knew that education was her only ticket out.

But she also knew that her father, no matter how much he loved her, could not possibly provide her with the books and school equipment she would need. So she sold trinkets and postcards, like the children she passes now, 16 years later.

She is most angry at the teachers. They should have known better, she says. But the teachers hated the Gypsies, too.

She remembers being 12 years old. "There were two or three Gypsy children in the class," she recalls. "The teacher would call us to the front of the class, and, in front of everyone, check if we had lice in our hair, or dirt under our fingernails. And she would laugh, and call us nuwari, in front of everyone."

If Sleem flinched, or if the public inspection was not up to par, the teacher would rap her palms with a wooden ruler and make her stand with her face to the wall. Sleem still remembers the stinging pain.

She left school for a year. No one from social services came to see why the beautiful, dark child, so bright and motivated to learn, did not come to school. No truancy officers came to investigate, and no school psychologists offered any support. "Those kinds of services didn't exist for Gypsies," Sleem says. "They still don't."

But after a year, she returned to school, determined to succeed. She completed secondary school and earned an associate degree in business administration. "I was lucky," she says. "At every step, God blessed me and gave me the strength to continue on the next step. And so I was able to break out of the vicious circles that have entrapped most Gypsies." She hopes to pursue an MBA.

Returning from her work as a manager in the Dutch Guest House on the Mount of Olives, Sleem is dressed in a tailored, crisp, white skirt and fashionable linen skirt. A pearl choker-necklace and a simple bangle bracelet are bright against her dark skin. She looks strikingly exotic and briskly professional.

But as she passes, a teenage girl spits out, "nuwari." Sleem's education, profession, her modern dress, the travel abroad-none of these seems to make a difference. "That's why we need an organization," she mutters.

Throughout modern history, the Gypsy, like so many racial stereotypes, has been viewed as both exotic and threatening. Today, most associate them with images such as Carmen in Bizet's opera or Esmerelda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or the lyrical musical tones of composers such as Liszt.

The Gypsy woman has been seen as sensual and passionate, dirty yet decorated with gold. She is thought to be passionate and willful, dark and lustful. She is the cunning fortuneteller, the eternal temptress whose music and dance entrap the hapless (Western) man in the web of burning sexuality and mysterious beauty.

The Gypsy man is seen as a thieving musician, sexual and cruel, bound by a secret code. He is thought to be a drunken forager, living in filthy encampments on the outside of cities, preferring his subsistent existence to productive involvement in society.

Like all stereotypes, they blind us to seeing real people.

According to most historians, the Gypsies originated in India. By the 14th century, they had reached Iran, and by the early 15th, they arrived in Hungary, Serbia, and other Balkan countries. They continued to spread into Poland and Russia, and by the 16th century, they got as far as Sweden and England. Throughout Europe, they came to refer to themselves as Rom.

Traditionally, Gypsies pursued occupations that allowed them to maintain an itinerant life on the perimeters of settled society: livestock traders, animal trainers and exhibitors, tinkers and utensil repairmen, musicians, the women told fortunes, sold potions, begged, and worked as entertainers.

They spoke, and some still speak, Romany, a language closely related to the modern Indo-European languages of northern India. Romany has no written tradition or form: some historians believe the language survived because it was useful as a secret language, not understood by the host societies.

There are many similarities between the history of the Jews and the Gypsies in Europe. Both remained the quintessential other, an unsettled people, the brunt of scapegoating and persecution.

Also like the Jews, the Gypsies maintained internal codes of personal and collective laws, in an uneasy balance with the surrounding sovereign regimes.

They developed cultural survival strategies for life with the gadje-the Romi word for the non-Gypsy, which carries with it many of the same ambivalent connotations that "goy" carries for the Jews.

Jews and Gypsy have shared the destinies of discrimination, persecution and pogroms, restriction to ghettos and closed areas, with limited opportunities for livelihood.

And ultimately, the Gypsies and the Jews were both victimized by the Final Solution. It is estimated that at least 400,000 Gypsies were murdered in the death camps, particularly Auschwitz and Birkenau.

After World War II, the remaining Gypsies were found mostly in the Communist bloc, where Soviet ideology attempted to force them to abandon their history and customs and blend into a unified socialist society.

Gypsies have lived in the Middle East for several hundred years, arriving during the Middle Ages as part of their widespread migration. Here, they are called Domi or Domari.

During the British Mandate, they lived in tents in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Gaza. Over the years, they established permanent house in the Old City and other Arab neighborhoods outside the walls. In 1948, most of them fled to various Arab states.

Today, over one thousand Domi live in Jerusalem, primarily in Bab el-Hutta, Kalandia, Eizariya, Ras el-Amud, Wadi Joz, and other small communities. Several thousand live in Gaza.

Apart from their physical characteristics, little would reveal to the outsider who is or is not a Domi. Like Gypsies everywhere in the Middle East they have taken on the prevailing religion, so most are Moslem, although, according to Sleem, most are not devout or religiously observant.

Only a few residual traditions remain. According to Sleem, the Domi in Jerusalem do not dance, sing, play musical instruments, or tell fortunes for a living, although some in Gaza still do. In Jerusalem the few old women that still remember the ancient songs sing for the bride at weddings.

And the Jerusalem custom of giving children what Sleem calls "ugly names," such as shahada (which means begging), to ward off the evil eye, has persisted.

"I was lucky," Sleem says. "My parents didn't follow that custom, and they gave all of us pretty names. My name, Amoun, means trust."

Their traditional language is Domari, which is similar to Romany. There are no written traditions, although a rich oral tradition does exist. But today only a few older people remember Domari, and no one teaches the young about their historic language and customs.

The Interior Ministry, like other governmental and quasi-governmental agencies, does not recognize the Domi as a separate cultural or religious group, and so they are listed as Arabs. One of Sleem's first goals for her organization is to conduct a census to determine the size and needs of the community in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority.

But even without the census the poverty is obvious. The dirty, poorly dressed children wandering aimlessly and unsupervised along the garbage-strewn streets tell what a census could only barely reveal.

"Most Domi are so poor," says Sleem. "They have nothing. They live in rental houses, often 20 or 30 to a two-room stone hovel, for which the landlord charges unreasonable rent. Our neighborhoods don't receive any municipal services-we don't have garbage removal, or regular electricity, or schools, or playgrounds.

As she walks along, Sleem shoos the children away, knowing they will return the second she moves away. "I hate seeing the children on the streets," Sleem says. "It's dangerous for them. They have no framework, nothing to do. And it reinforces the stereotype of the 'dirty Gypsy.'"

But she knows they have little choice.

The Gypsies, like Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem, are legally considered residents of Jerusalem. Most rely on the National Insurance Institute for their sole source of income, but have no health insurance or other benefits.

Many children drop out of school, doomed to continued poverty and marginality.

And so Sleem's story of poverty and humiliation are typical, but her determined perseverance is unusual. She says that her older sister, Zarifa, 36, was her model and guide.

"I remember watching Zarifa studying at night, huddled over the droppings of a candle that she had collected and put together." Zarifa became the first Domi woman to complete post-secondary school studies. Today, she is a nurse.

Sleem lives with her family in the home where they have resided for 75 years. The rooms are simple, with few amenities. Dried flowers and plastic pictures brighten the clean walls.

Thanks to her education and her role as a spokeswoman for her community, Sleem recognizes that she has begun to build a position of authority and respect among the Domi. She holds a job with responsibility and opportunity for growth, and she has money for clothes and some entertainment. She speaks both English and Arabic fluently, and has traveled to Europe and the US. Since founding her organization she has been invited to represent her community at international conventions and conferences.

But she has paid a personal price, she says. Like her sisters, she was unwilling to marry within the Gypsy community. "I didn't want to marry a Gypsy man, who would expect me to serve him and to have children before I was 20," she says. "And because we are Gypsies, no Arab man would marry me. So, I have never been married." None of her four sisters has married either.

"Our father gave his life to raise us after our mother died. He gave respect and love to the sons and daughters alike. None of my sisters will settle for less, and I won't either. I don't mind not being married, but I do wish I had children."

At age 28, she already believes that both marriage and motherhood are no longer real options for her. "I'm old for a Gypsy woman," she says.

She has decided to dedicate her life to improving the lot of her people. She is practical and efficient, with a sharp awareness of political realities.

Deftly, she avoids taking a stand on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Gypsies, she explains, do not think in territorial terms, and they do not seek a homeland. "We Gypsies do not care who our sovereign is. As long as we are allowed to survive, as long as we can teach our culture and improve the lot of our children, we will be happy with any government."

Sleem dreams about establishing youth centers and senior citizens' social centers. She wants cultural centers that will teach the children about their language and history. In Europe, a written form of Romany has been successfully developed; she would like to do the same for Domari in the Middle East. She is trying to raise money, aided by Jerusalem Councilwoman Anat Hoffman (Meretz). Says Hoffman: "The Domi are at the very bottom of the political pecking order, and receive almost nothing in terms of public services of benefits. The Gypsies and the Jews share a common destiny, forged in the Nazi death camps. As a Jew it is an honor to try to help the Domi people to take their proud place among the Jerusalem's many different cultural communities."

As Sleem holds her month-old niece, her voice softens. In her dreams, she says, she sees the young child attending kindergarten. She will be part of a proud community, and will attend a school that will teach her about her ancient language and culture, as well as provide her with computer and hi-tech skills. The baby will become a modern woman, with both a career and children.

Sleem is trying to raise donations for the organization, to make the dreams happen. This week, she has been collecting donations for textbooks and schoolbags, T-shirts, and shoes.

"Maybe if the children have the equipment they need, at least some of them won't drop out of school," she says. "Adults seem to forget how hard it is to be a child who is ashamed, to be hungry without enough money for schoolbooks or shoes. I remember."

Global Discrimination

The newly formed Organization for the Advancement of Gypsies in Israel can be seen as a part of a worldwide movement for recognition and rights for the Romi. According to the International Romani Union, between 12 million and 15 million romis live in Europe, and several million more are dispersed throughout the world. Most suffer from abject poverty, social marginalization, and state policies that include segregation, exclusion from schools, and state-sanctioned forced labor, so that the Gypsies will remain ineligible for social-welfare benefits.

They also suffer from racism. Skinheads and neo-Nazis regularly attack individual Romi; dozens of Romi have been murdered in the Czech Republic alone in the past decade, according to the IRU.

The union was established in 1971, but has escalated its efforts substantially in the past decade. Centered in the US, the IRU has begun to lobby governments and the UN to demand improved living conditions, defense of human and civil rights, recognition of cultural minority status, and recognition of their suffering in the Holocaust, including demands for reparations and compensation.


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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