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Dr. Donald Kenrick, Director, Institute of Contemporary
Romani Studies & Documentation, London



It is to be hoped that the Indian Institute of Romani Studies will, amongst other things, encourage scholars with a command of Arabic and Persian to have a new look for historical references to Gypsies of the Middle East as well as at their descendants today. It is perhaps the opportune time to look again at the published material on these matters and summarise what is already known. It will be necessary to distinguish between nomadic groups coming from India and other nomads, who of course abound in the area. It may well be that some of the nomadic groups of Indian origin may not be Romanies but until we have a description of the distinctive features of Romani, as opposed to other Indian languages, exact identification may not be possible. This is another matter to which perhaps Indian scholars might pay some attention.

The Historical Background

An article in the first issue of ROMA dealt with the Zotts who were brought from India in the eighth century and set up an independent state in Mesopotamia in the years 815-856 AD. A small number survived to become the Zutt (Nawar) of present-day Jordan, Syria and Israel.

I would however like to re-examine the oft-told story of the Luri whom Bahram Gaur imported into Iran around the year 480 AD. In the first place these people have been rather unjustly accused of laziness by many writers, including Firdausi, the Persian historian. I take the liberty of recalling the story and at the same time warning readers that the version in the English translation of Clebert's The Gypsies is inaccurate.

Firdausi relates that, in order to relieve the hard life of the peasants in Iran, the king Bahram Gaur asked his father-in-law to send from India 10,000 musicians. He then gave these musicians some wheat, an ox and an ass, so that they could support themselves by working on the land. Then they had to entertain the peasantry without payment with singing and dancing. Not surprisingly the musicians found that they did not have the time for these two jobs and ate the wheat and oxen, so that at the end of the first year, their land was still uncultivated. So the king told them to leave their land and travel around earning their living with music. Now Firdausi wrote (in 1011 AD) that these people, the Luri, were still nomadising in his day. And indeed they are still in Iran today, as any Iranian will inform you. They are also to be found in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the USSR. However, they are not Romanies, but low-caste Beluchi and speak the Beluchi language (as well as a jargon based on it, in Pakistan at any rate). In Iran they are considered a distinct people from the Koli who do speak a variety of Romani and are part of the later larger wave of emigration from India.
One wonders why book after book repeats the story that these Luri of Firdausi are Romanies. The blame must, I suppose, be laid at the feet of the English voyager Pottinger who wrote that "the Loories are a kind of vagabond people who have no fixed habitation and who present a striking affinity with the European Gypsies," as they probably did compared to the Pathan mountain tribes and Parsi merchants that he also met. However by now we should have abandoned the idea that any nomadic group with fortune-tellers and bear-leaders are necessarily Romanies for that reason alone. Further confusion was caused by the Arab historian Hamza who also told the story of the musicians brought to Iran, but called them Zott, after the nomads he knew.

Luri in the USSR

In 1882 Wilkins wrote of a nomadic group in what is now the USSR and we find further references up to the present day. They call themselves Luri, Beluchi or Hindustani and number perhaps 8,000. The local nomads (Mugat) call them by various names, some uncomplimentary, such as Kara-luli (black Luli), Industani-luli, Maimuni-luli (Monkey Luli) and Awgon (Afghan ?) luli. (Luli appears to be a variant of Luri).

A vocabulary of this group shows it to be as close to Beluchi as to Romani. Unfortunately we have no sentences to reveal the grammatical structure. A few examples will show the point about the vocabulary.

English Luri (USSR) Mid-est. Romani Beluchi
hand chatt hath, khast chatt (Saravan dial.)
nose nak nak, nank phonz
salt lun nul whadd
beard dari kutch (Hindi) darhi (Bel.) rish
father piu dadi, babo pith

'Ben' and 'phen' dialects of Romani

It was Sampson who coined the term 'ben' dialects to distinguish Middle-eastern Romani from the 'phen' dialects of Armenia and Europe, these being the respective words for 'sister' (Sanskrit bhangini). The 'ben' dialects differ from European Romani in phonology, morphology and lexicon. I will give here only short examples. The most striking phonological difference is that Mid-east dialects have initial voiced consonants in many places where European dialects have unvoiced aspirates:

English European dialects Mid-east dialects
sun kham gam
straw phus bus, bis

Some nomads in the Mid-east speak what might be called 'bhen' dialects, for they have voiced aspirates in the same words (e.g., sun-gharm). I suspect that their languages, like that of the Luri, might 'better be called dialects of Beluchi than of Romani.

As an example of morphology I take the ending of the second person singular of the verb in the present tense:

European Romani Mid-east Romani
-esa -eki

In the vocabulary we find a number of words which turn up regularly in Mid-east dialects but are rare or unknown in Europe:

English Mid-east Eur. Rom.
daughter lovki, lavtee rakli, chai

The phonological differences between European and Mid-east Romani have been attributed to the influence of Armenian phonology during the period the Romanies stayed in Armenian territory on their way from the Mid-east to Europe. It seems likely however that the first Gypsies to reach Greece were speakers of 'ben' dialects who came from Syria following the pilgrims' route to the Holy Land in reverse across the Eastern Mediterranean and did not pass through Armenian-speaking areas. Once in Europe however their tongue would have been swamped by the larger numbers speaking Armenian-influenced dialects. We may expect to find some of the morphological and lexical characteristics of the 'ben' dialects in isolated tribes in Greece and Yugoslavia.

The Romani Tribes of Mid-east

From the early numbers of the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society and other sources I have collected the following names of tribes. In some cases two separate names refer to one tribe.

Aptal, Awgon-luli, Barake, Beluchi, Bosha, Catchar, Djugi, Dummi (Deman), Goodari, Gaodari, Gurbat, Haddad, Helebi, Hindustani, Juki, Jat, Kabuli, Kara-luli, Karachi, Kasiba, Kersi, Krismal, Kurbat, Koudji, Koli, Lom, Luli, Luri, Mazang, Mugat, Multani, Mutriba, Nawar, Quenites, Suzmani, Tavoktarosh, Zangi, Zott.

In later articles I hope to look at them in detail and summarise what is known about them by the Western scholar, in particular from the linguistic viewpoint.

I have omitted from the list two tribes that came back from Europe to the Middle East and speak 'phen' dialects, namely the Ghagar of Egypt and the Zargar of Iran. In passing, I can put on record a piece of information that I have not seen in print before. In East Iran, at least, children have a form of slang, similar to English schoolboys 'egg-language' that they call Zargari, presumably because the Zargar (unlike the Luri and Koli) can be heard speaking an incomprehensible language among themselves (It has of course no connection with the Romani of the Zargar).

Persian beroth go!
child's 'Zargari' bezerezoh  

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Article reprinted on DRC web site with the permission of the author.


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