DRC Reprint Series


"Gypsies" in Guests of the Sheik

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea


Gypsies! I had heard the word several times in the houses of the women recently. "Do they dance?" I asked. "Tell fortunes?"

"Of course," said the women. "They are gypsies."

"Have you ever seen them? I asked. They looked at me.

"No," they said.

Bob reported that a troupe of traveling gypsy entertainers was camped somewhere in Diwaniya provice and, one sunny winter day, out for a drive with Jabbar and Khadija, we saw them on the move, thirty people or more in a caravan of donkeys and camels.

They were unmistakable, distinguished from all other nomads on the road, not only by their bright clothing and gaily saddled animals but by the arrangment of the caravan. The men were in front, as is usually the case, but these men were on foot rather than on horseback, and instead of kaffiyehs and abas and heavy rifles, they wore tight black trousers and gaudy silk shirts and carried drums and pipes and batons. Next came the younger women on donkeys, but again there was a difference. The gypsy girls rode astride and their abayahs were tucked artfully around them to good effect, showing here a decollete flowered dress, there a printed silk petticoat or a gold-braceleted ankle. On the camels at the end of the procession rode the old women and men and children. The pots and pans and striped blankets were tied to the camel saddles. But even the children were different, the boys in tight pants and silk shirts like their fathers, the little girls in shiny silky flowered dresses.

Almost as soon as we saw them, the caravan moved over to the side of the road and stopped. The young men turned to prance toward us and two children jumped down from the camels and proceeded to turn somersaults and cartwheels on the road, directly in front of our oncoming car.

"Stop, Jabbar, please," said Khadija, "so Beeja and I can see," and when Jabbar put on his brakes, the men snapped into formation. The children wove, tumbling, among the oud players, the drummers, the men with pipes and nose flutes, occasionally even upstaging the leader, who had produced a handful of small balls from his pocket and was now twirling and tossing his baton and juggling the balls, all at the same time. The camels stayed by the side of the road, but the girls brought the donkeys round to serve as a backdrop for the performers and musicians, and, like bareback riders in a circus, reined in the beasts with one hand and gestured coquettishly toward us with the other. They shouted and called to us, but we could not understand what they were saying.

Slowly the little tableau moved toward us on the empty road, until the gypsies were so close we could see the flashing gold teeth of the men, their embroidered skullcaps and the single gold earrings in their ears, the gold pendants about the slender necks of the children. Smiling and calling to us still, the girls turned the donkeys slowly around, jingling their gold bracelets and switching their black abayahs like the trains of ball dresses. I had already begun to think of the abayah as a sheltering cloak, a symbol of modesty. It was a shock to see it used in this way, at one moment framing the girls' pointed faces and tightly laced bosoms, and then flipped toward us provocatively as they turned in time to the music.

Now the music increased its tempo, the children twisted their narrow bodies in a frenzy of backbends and somersaults, and to the accompaniment of a long roll on the skin drums, the leader flung his baton high into the desert air. While it twisted and turned in a dazzling series of circumlocutions, he deftly juggled the balls, caught the baton, then the balls, tossed his black head triumphantly and sank to his knees in a sweeping bow. He landed almost directly beneath the car window, and while we clapped, Jabbar produced some coins, and the leader, with a brilliant smile, peered into the car where Khadija and I sat, in our abayahs, in the back seat.

Would we like one of the girls to dance? he asked.

"Oh yes," said Khadija, who had stared fixedly at the gypsy girls during the entire act.

"Not today," said Jabbar. "That's enough."

He waved off the leader and we drove on, while Khadija sank back against the seat and proceeded to sulk.

"See, Khadija, they are still waving after us," I said, looking myself at the group which receded quickly into the distance until finally only a few tiny sticklike figures and animals stood on the empty road under the wide blue sky. Khadija did not turn her head, and though even Jabbar tried to tease her, she did not respond. We rode home in silence and spoke no more about the caravan.

A few days later Bob reported that the gypsies had camped again, this time near El Nahra and we had been invited to visit them by Abdul Razzak, a friend of Jabbar's who was irrigation engineer in a neighboring village. Abdul Razzak was going to take presents to one of the dancing girls, who, Jabbar claimed, was Abdul Razzak's mistress and very beautiful.

Khadija did not go with us, for reasons which remained unexplained, and I was alone with the three men. It was a cold day, the sun darkened by a thick cloud which looked ominously like an impending sandstorm. As we left El Nahra, the wind whipped up the silt in clouds around us.

The dust was worse farther out, blowing so hard that we almost passed the gypsy camp before seeing it. I had looked forward to entering a low black camel-hair tent, like those the Bedouin pitch on the plains in their seasonal wanderings through the Euphrates Valley. But I was disappointed, for these were old army tents, tattered and faded and stained, arranged in a small semicircle around a larger central tent with a cross of wood at its peak.

"Does the cross mean the gypsies are Christians?" asked Bob.

Abdul Razzak said no. "I think it is just their radio aerial."

Even before we stopped, the watchdogs had set up a fierce barking; they jumped on the car with teeth bared, scratching and growling. It was hardly an auspicious welcome, and we decided to stay where we were until someone came to greet us. At least five minutes went by, with the dogs snarling and jumping at the windows; finally a man, wrapped in an aba against the cold and wearing only a skullcap on his head, looked out of the central tent. Through the fog of dust he recognized Abdul Razzak and called off the dogs. He was full of apologies for not coming sonner; he had been asleep, he said. They had entertained all of the provincial police officers the night before, and everyone was very tired. Abdul Razzak said we would come another time, but the man brushed aside this suggestion. He ushered us into a side tent, which was higher than it looked from the outside, but was dark and cold. No one was up and about, but at a sharp word from our host, two women in abayahs arose from mats and padded silently out in bare feet to prepare our tea. We were seated on boxes covered with old blankets and rugs; Abdul Razzak offered cigarettes and the host made an effort at polite conversation, but he looked exhausted and even talking seemed a strain.

I looked around me in the gloom. From the entrance flap, which had been staked back, a thin stream of light illuminated the bare earth in the center of the tent. This was empty. But the edges and corners of the tent, shrouded in darkness, seemed full of bundles and boxes, and people lying on pallets. When one of the bundles moved and a child emerged, I began to wonder how many men and women lay around us in the darkness, too weary and cold to bother about visitors.

Only the women who had been summoned by our host were moving about. One placed a small charcoal brazier at our feet and sat down beside it to warm herself; the other was making tea near the entrance. The child who had awakened wandered over, tousle-haried and dirty and thin, and crouched near the brazier. The rest of the company slept.

"I am sorry," said the man. "Everyone is tired and it is so cold."

Abdul Razzak tried to be gay and Jabbar laughed helpfully at his jokes. Bob joined in the conversation occasionally, but I sat in silence clutching my abayah under my chin. Finally Abdul Razzak could not stand it any longer. "Where is Fatima?" he asked. "I have brought her some presents." The man called out and one of the bundles answered back; in a few minutes a girl came over, yawning and smoothing her hair down under her abayah. Even in the gloom of that miserable tent she moved beautifully, drawing her abayah about her with ease and grace. Without a glance at us, she bent over Abdul Razzak's hand, kissed it perfunctorily and sat down at his feet, one arm resting on his knee. He produced the presents, a bottle of perfume, a scarf, and some English biscuits in a painted tin box. She thanked him, not very graciously, and muttered something at which both Jabbar and Abdul Razzak guffawed. Jabbar translated into English. "She is asking Abdul Razzak why he didn't bring her some hashish so she can forget her troubles," he said, and proceeded to stare at her admiringly.

Fatima sank back into a crossed-legged position and asked for a cigarette. While she smoked she looked us over, apparently decided that we were not worth her while, and looked away. She was young, with enormous black eyes and fine high cheekbones, but her face was wasted and pinched by illness. Her eyes were dull and had dark circles beneath them, her skin was yellowed like the skin of malaria patients, and she was sp weary she seemed to have difficulty even stubbing out her cigarette. Abdul Razzak was teasing her; she responded with a faint smile, rested her elbow on one knee and began to pick her teeth. The host spoke sharply to her, but she continued to pick her teeth. "You must forgive her, Abdul Razzak," said the host. "You know how sick she is, and she was such a success last night the officers didn't let her stop dancing until nearly five o'clock this morning."

Another girl had joined our circle; she looked much like Fatima, and Abdul Razzak said she was her older sister. The sister nodded at Jabbar and Abdul Razzak and Bob, and jerked here head in my direction. "Who is that?" she asked. Jabbar explained. She stared, came over and sat down nearer to me, and stared harder, then stared at Bob. Then she laughed, a short dry laugh and whispered something to Fatima. Fatima repeated this to Abdul Razzak, who looked slightly embarrassed.

"What does she want?" I could not help inquiring.

"Nothing, nothing," said Abdul Razzak, but I insisted.

"She says she will dance for you if you like, but it will be very expensive since she does not usually dance for women."

"Tell her I didn't come to see her dance, just to visit," I said. The sister stared at me again, a shrewd hard glance, then looked away indifferently. Fatima was seized by a fit of coughing, and when she had finished, she rested her head in her hands. Her shoulders were trembling.

The tea, in a china teapot with a bit of aluminum wound around its broken spout, had been brewing in the charcoal at our feet. Now the older woman poured it out into glasses, served it, and sat down, looking at us with her one good eye; the other was whitened and sightless with trachoma. After we had drunk tea, the girls had some, and Abdul Razzak passed around cigarettes again. Fatima declined, punched Abdul Razzak playfully on the knee and asked for something else. He smiled, produced another cigarette and gave it to her. "Hashish," explained Jabbar, laughing. "She will become more jolly after she has smoked it."

Gradually, as the clink of tea glasses signaled refreshments and warmth, more and more people had risen and come over to join the group. Men, women, children, they were all thin, and after glancing at us fleetingly, they would turn to conversing with each other in low-pitched tones. The one object in the room that seemed to interest them was a child of about two. She was very plump, fatter than anyone else in the tent, with the deceptive milk fat which is the ominous and ironic sign of serious malnutrition and almost certain death. Her hair was matted around crusted sores, which covered her head and face and disappeared down into the neck of her filthy shift.

"See how lovely and fat she is," the older woman said proudly, and picked her up so I could see her better.

I nodded politely.

Fatima and her sister, who had indeed become more lively since the tea and cigarettes, were chattering volubly with Abdul Razzak. As the child was being exhibited, they looked at me in an almost friendly fashion and spoke to Abdul Razzak.

"The girls asked if you have any children and I said no, and they said they think there aren't many children as fat and healthy as this one. They are all very proud of the baby, so you must praise her." I did as I was told and Abdul Razzak translated my remarks.

All the women looked pleased, and the one who was holding the baby at the moment got up and brought the child over to me, trying to get her to sit on my lap. The child did not realize what was required of her, but obediently held out her arms. I took her and everyone murmured with delight.

I looked at the child in my lap, the deceptive fat hanging in gray rolls about her neck, wrists, and ankles. She smiled, but through the layers of filth, the unhealthy flab, the scabs and the oozing of the open sores on her face, it was a grotesque gesture, hardly human. I was suddenly violently revolted and found myself, to my horror, utterly unable to lean down and kiss the small face turned up to me. The women pushed her at me; I simply could not. I smiled wanly, patted the child's matted head, and handed her back.

Apparently the women had not noticed my distaste, for the child tottered off, and they laughed at its uncertainty on the flabby legs. I tried to think of a pleasantry to offer in the conversation, but none came. Our host had lapsed into silence, but Fatima was sitting on the box beside Abdul Razzak, talking to him in a low, urgent voice. Her sister smoked, resting her elbows on her bent knees and staring straight ahead at nothing. Some of the women had gone off, and Jabbar said he thought we should leave.

He nudged Abdul Razzak who was nodding absentmindedly to Fatima as he rose. She continued her plea, whatever it was. The host rose with us, but the women stayed where they were and the girls huddled together, lighting still another cigarette in the dying embers of the charcoal fire. The child had disappeared.

At the tent flap the man bade us goodbye, and we walked in silence to the car, followed by a hound sniffing hungrily at our heels. I looked back at the tents, which were almost the same shade as the dun-colored earth, at the shivering man wrapped in his aba, his hand raised in a gesture of farewell as the dust swirled around him. And I remembered the proud, gay procession we had seen along the road, the drums, the pipes, the flashing eyes of the women as they jingled their bracelets and swished their bright-colored petticoats. I was glad Khadija had not come with us.

Article reprinted on DRC website with the permission of Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and the Watkins/Loomis Agency.

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