Caught in the middle: Gypsies in Jerusalem marginalized in conflict-laden city

JERUSALEM — While it is a community that has lived in the city for centuries, not many have heard of the Dom in Jerusalem.

“Few people know there is a community called Dom and that we are the Gypsies of the Middle East,” says Amoun Sleem, director of the Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem.

The cultural center she runs was founded as an NGO in 1999 and is located in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shu’fat, on the road to Ramallah.

With straight black hair and dark eyes, Sleem’s origins are based in India.

“The Gypsy communities migrated from India in the seventh century. They consequently separated into two migration waves. One resulted in the Dom, which settled in the Middle East; the other is the Rom community, known to most people as the Gypsies of Eastern Europe,” she says.

Today, struggling to survive in the shadow of the political tensions of the region, both the Gypsy cultural heritage and the Dom identity are threatened. The Dom people are non-Arabs, mostly Muslims, living in predominantly Arab communities.

“The word ‘dom’ means ‘man’ in Domari, the language of the Gypsies of this area,” explains Sleem.

Contrary to mainstream belief, not all Gypsy communities are nomadic. A sedentary lifestyle has characterized the life of the Dom for many centuries. The Gypsies of Jerusalem make a living working as drivers, nurses, street cleaners and cooks, and are employed in the textile industry as workers.

Despite counting few members, the Gypsies of Jerusalem are an integral part of the city’s heritage; no less than Muslim, Jewish or Christian people.

“The Dom people who settled in Jerusalem have been residing in the Old City for over 400 years,” Sleem points out.

Other Gypsy communities can be found in the Palestinian refugee camps of Jordan, in the Kurdish region of Turkey, in Syria, Iraq and Daqahlia in Egypt. The Dom communities residing in these countries have more members than the ones found in Palestine.

The Dom community of Jerusalem finds itself caught in the crossfire of the Arab-Israeli conflict, partaking with neither side but being influenced by both.

Khamis, a man in his mid-40s, supports a family of seven children; both he and his wife are of Dom origin. He explains how the conflict and political tensions affect his daily life.

“There is no justice for non-Jewish communities. Discrimination at work is directed toward all Arabs, and the Dom, even if ethnically different, are considered part of them,” he says.

Khamis points out that the awareness of being a Dom is not so important for him.

“What matters are the values you follow, not where they come from. We merge with the Arab community so we don’t stand out and spark hatred. We keep a low profile,” he explains.

The situation of the Dom people worsened after Israel’s construction of the separation barrier. Many families found themselves living “on the other side of the wall,” without being able to reach family members. They cannot move freely to seek work.

Making a living became more and more difficult, creating a new obstacle in the struggle of the Dom people.

“The conflict became intricate. Inflation is very high, and we must rely on our own resources and motivation to preserve our heritage and survive,” says Sleem, raising a worrisome smile.

She is aware of the importance of the cultural center she runs and the responsibility she bears.

“When we receive donations of clothes and food, we sometimes cross the checkpoints to bring them to the isolated Dom communities in the West Bank,” Sleem says.

The Gypsies who reside in Jerusalem are educated in the system of the municipality under Israeli administration. At Khamis’ home in the Palestinian refugee camp of Shu’fat, located behind the wall in East Jerusalem, no one speaks Domari. The Domari language is of Indo-Aryan origin, it is not written and it is threatened with extinction. Dom children study Hebrew and Arabic starting in primary school, a useful tool to compete in the challenging job market.

Poverty and marginalization often lead to a very high school dropout rate. The Domari Center offers educational support to children and adults, especially women.

Sleem prepares sage tea. The color of the leaves is light green; the taste is strong and penetrating. Its perfume inebriates the environment and is soaked into the fabrics of the Gypsy-style embroidered bags sold at the Domari Center.

“Women come here four times a week and sit in front of their sewing machines to create handmade items. They can bring their children with them, and this is very helpful. Our women feel very fulfilled when visitors come to the center and buy their handicrafts,” Sleem says.

The economic and social benefit these projects bring to the Dom families made handicraft and teaching a priority.

The presence of the Dom Gypsies in Jerusalem is unknown to most people. They seem to merge with local communities, embracing their cultural features but remaining detached.

“I have never heard of the Gypsies of Jerusalem. Are there Gypsies here?” asks a shopkeeper whose business is located just opposite the Domari Center.

This is the predominant reaction of the local population when asked about the Dom people.

“Gypsies of Jerusalem? Ah, you mean the nawar! No one knows where they came from; some say they are from the south,” a bakery owner says. Nawar is a word used in Palestinian Arabic to describe someone who is not too brilliant and, also, to define the Gypsies.

“I never tell people I am Gypsy. Palestinians don’t know what it means and I don’t want to always explain it,” confesses Heba, one of the students at the Domari Center.

Tensions in the region and divisions rooted in decades of conflict have not spared the Dom community. Corruption and power struggles led to hostilities between Gypsy families, pushing them to abandon the core of Dom life, based on their common ethnic background, to seek integration elsewhere.

Under Sleem’s management, the Domari Center aims to rebuild the sense of belonging. This is being recreated through education, as well as sharing knowledge and experiences.

“We believe in fate. It is all maktoub, written in the traces of history left by our predecessors. We will survive and teach our descendents about our heritage,” Sleem says.

Outside, in the courtyard, young girls and boys paint colorful Gypsy dancers. Here they learn to be proud of their identity as part of a city full of challenges, which Jerusalem has always been.

The children who come to the center do not yet know they are considered different or what is so special about their culture. All they are aware of is that here at the center, they can learn many skills — they feel empowered.

The Dom have strong feelings of belonging to Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is my home, I want to stay here. Where can I go? I like it here, all my family photographs have been taken here,” Heba explains.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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