Understanding The Domari Gypsies
What is your background?
I am Gypsy of course, but originally I come from India like my parents. My great grandparents come from the north of India. Gypsies were in the Middle East for more than 500 years now and are spread out in most of the Arab countries. We come from the same one tribe called Dom people.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in the old city and I still live here in the Moslem quarter.
When did you start this organization?
In 2000. We have a board of seven people as well as some other women who are involved in the work. The board is a mix of Israelis, Christians and Arabs. Our belief is that we are not living alone in this world.
Why have the Dom people decided to live in East Jerusalem?
We didn’t decide— most of us were raised in this area. Gypsies were based in the old city all their lives. It’s the main place for business and is also the best area to be close to the walls of the old city and also outside the walls, where there was once a lot of open area and land for animals. The center is here because it is a neutral area where everyone can come, including those in the West Bank.
When did you stop being nomadic?
My family has lived in the same house for 200 years— we are one of the oldest families in the old city. There were always some who settled in houses, but for those who had animals or found that living here was difficult, they moved from place to place to sell. Gypsies work with metal and if they wanted to sell they had to move— so they stayed for a couple of weeks in Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Iran etc. Everyone knew they were coming to sell their metals and people who had old products, brought them to the Gypsies to renew.
What is unique about the Dom people?
Food for us is like fantasy. Hospitality is very important in the culture and tradition and Gypsies are always gathering together. Cooking is the main thing that we talk about. This trend has been passed on through the generations, which begins with the grandmothers because they have all the knowledge in the community.
What is the Domari language?
It is an old Indian dialect. It has no alphabet— it is only a spoken language, so we have no books. Only the Gypsies in the Middle East can understand it. The language of Gypsies in Europe is totally different.
What is your religion?
Most of us in the Middle East are Moslem. In Europe there are Christians and Catholics. We belong to the religion of our parents.
Tell me about education. Did you go to school?
Yes. I finished high school and a kind of college for business administration in private university at the Mount of Olives and I then continued for two years in Notre Dame. Kids go to regular schools, but there is still a dropout rate. We are a very small ethnic group and living as a minority inside a minority makes the Gypsies the most discriminated society— both from the Arabic side and the Jewish side. We have limited rights, even less than the Palestinians. The government does not provide a budget to assist us because they don’t see it as worthwhile.
Does the society do anything for the kids?
At the community center we don’t do that much because there is limited support and help that we get for the organization. The NGOs are like a river of income for the Palestinians, but we do not get that. We get a very small amount for some programs for children, and very little funding for women. We offer courses like catering, sewing, jewelry design etc. and we try to give the women an opportunity to make money.
Is there intermarriage in the community?
Marriage is inside the community and a little bit out— mostly to Moslems.
How many Gypsies are you?
We are approximately 2000 Gypsies in and around the old city. We are a few thousand in the West Bank and roughly 14,000-15,000 in the Gaza strip. The estimated number in all the Middle East (including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon) is approximately 2.5 million.
Are you in touch with other Gypsy communities?
With some communities, yes we try. We made contact with the community in Cairo once, which was very nice. With those in Gaza it’s not easy because of the situation with Hamas, and it is also difficult to get phones there because they are under watch.
Which passport do you have?
I used to have an Israeli travel document, but for two years I’ve been trying to get appointment with interior ministry to renew it. I had a Jordanian passport temporarily that cost 1000 NIS just to get it. It was a little bit complicated.
Can we talk about politics?
Honestly, Gypsies are a very peaceful society and we don’t get involved in these things. We are not raised with anything political, and even in school we don’t get involved. Maybe we aren’t popular because we don’t take sides.
What happened in 1948— were you punished for not taking a side?
We weren’t punished but many Gypsies escaped during that time because they were afraid they would be killed. Some came back and now live in the old city, but a few thousand moved away. At the time, they wanted my grandmother to move— but she refused— and that’s the reason we kept the house. It was a smart move by my grandmother— people would pay a lot of money today to have it.
Have the Dom people ever experienced an ethnic tragedy?
In the holocaust, they say that 5 million Gypsies were killed. Today there are crimes against Gypsies who are killed or treated badly.
What are the greatest challenges you face in your work?
Funding, and not getting a fair chance like other organizations. We feel rejected as a society and there is a lot of discrimination no matter where we are. For example in Europe the Europeans are just not interested and don’t want to help. We need to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to get the right attention from the people and to feel that there is hope for our future.
I saw that someone interviewed you a couple of years ago from an Israeli news outlet. Did that generate anything for you?
Nothing. We are having many articles written about us, but it’s like people don’t want to hear.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I see myself growing slowly. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting tired, but I enjoy seeing women succeed. To see the handicraft, and to see that we built an identity amongst society is very gratifying. Years ago we didn’t exist on the map, but now I see the growth and people know that we exist.
You talk a lot about the women and the crafts. What do you do with it?
We sell it. People who are interested in us, come to buy gifts. We dream to have a store in the old city one day. We can fill a store with jewelry and other items, but our big problem is money.
What are you dreams for the future?
It’s funny and sad to say it, but my dreams are for us to see some rights for the Gypsies of the Middle East. To see this community have nationality, a status, and register as one of the minorities— it doesn’t matter where it is— but to be recognized as a minority living in each country of the Middle East.
You don’t want your own country?
We need to live in the reality. We want to be registered, have rights, and be treated as a human, like any other person living in each country.
What are your dreams on a personal level?
I’m part of this society so I dream of the same things for myself as I do for the others. To be one of the local and ethnic communities and to be treated fairly like any other society.