The Forgotten People of the Middle East

by Dr Jehad Al-Omari



Whenever you mention Gypsies in the Arab world the images that spring to mind are of music and dancing, fortune tellers and beggars, and travellers in their multicoloured tents and old cars. Although the Arab world is generally not heavily stratified, Gypsies are seen as third-class citizens. There is a stigma associated with being a Gypsy as there are with the Roma in Europe and the Romany in the UK, who, I know, were historically called Gypsies but regard the term as derogatory. To add to the confusion most of the peoples we call Gypsies in the Arab World are only distantly connected with the Roma/Romany.


The word Gypsy has many connotations, not least being disorganized or promiscuous. These are the stereotypes that seem to tail Gypsies wherever they go. For many, the world of Gypsies is still shrouded in mystery. Although they are present in most major cities and in all walks of life, their historical and traditional reluctance or inability to fully integrate into the societies in which they live add to this mystery. For some people Gypsies are associated with vibrant and tantalizing images that seem to have stuck with them for centuries. For others, they are almost untouchable and can easily be ignored and forgotten.


Browsing social media as I do, I find myself gravitating to minority groups’ pages and discussions. In a region that has seen many civilizations, cultures and races come and go, with relatively new statehoods across the region, sometimes with arbitrarily-drawn borders, there are inevitably losers and disgruntled minorities. I often find myself stressing the multi-cultural and multi-religious nature of the region, though the Arab culture is the predominant one and the main cause of discontent. Within the Levant region the Kurds and the Assyrians are the most outspoken social groups. Following the atrocities of ISIS in Iraq we also now hear of the plight of the Yazidis. In North Africa the Amazighs (or Berbers) tell their own stories of Arab hegemony and 7th century Arab occupation. On a lesser scale we also have the Nubians of southern Egypt and north Sudan who are ethnically not Arabs but are surrounded by them. In all these cases, there are demands for the right to retain their cultural values and to teaching their own languages, all the way to full cessation from what is known as the Arab World. Among all these active pressure groups and lobbying the Gypsies of the region are completely left out.


The biggest concentration of Gypsies in the Arab world is in the Levant, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt, although there are some in the rest of North Africa, in Kuwait and in Saudi Arabia. Judging from their population in Jordan alone they must number hundreds of thousands. But there are no official statistics about them and very few have taken the initiative to study them. Across the region they have many exonyms: Ghajar in Egypt, Nawar in Jordan, Kawliyya in Iraq, Qurbat, Matarbah and Nawar again in Syria. Nawar is said to come from the root word Nour, meaning light and denoting the beauty of their women. Matarbah comes from the root word Tarab, denoting singing and music, and so referring to their most famous profession. The derivation of Ghajar could be the Indian state of Gujarat from where it is suggested that they came from.


Indeed, whether we are talking about the Gypsies of the Arab World or the Roma of Europe and beyond, there appears to be some consensus that they are an Indo-European race coming from northern India around the 10th century CE, taking many routes to reach the Arab world and Europe. According to Wikipedia the English term gypsy originates from the Middle English egypcian, indicating that they were thought to come from Egypt. The Spanish term gitano and French gitan have similar etymologies.


My interest in Gypsies dates back to my childhood in Irbid in Jordan. Right into my adolescence I was fascinated by our next-door neighbours, the family of Said Pasha Al Nouri, the chief of all of Jordan’s Gypsies.


The title Pasha is a Turkic title and the highest that the monarch could bestow on a citizen. For me as a child, it was contradiction in terms: how could a Gypsy be well off and have such a grand title? There are a number of stories as to how he obtained this title, but the fact remains that he was an influential and rich person. Like children the world over, being told not to do something, in this case not to play with the Gypsy kids, made us all the more determined to do so. However, the stigma was there. As we grew up, it stood as a barrier from firming up long-lasting relationships with the young Gypsies of our age.


I remember one day when about 14 years old being asked by our Gypsy neighbours to help them in preparing for a wedding. As I climbed the stairs to the large balcony that opened on to the rest of their second-floor apartment, I was expecting to see unspeakable things only to be surprised to discover that it was like every Jordanian house in the area. To be fair, I do not recall a single incident in which the neighbourhood fell out with or ganged up against our local Gypsies.


My interest in Gypsies was further piqued when I started reading the poems of Jordan’s most important poet, Mustafa Wahbi Al Tel (1899-1949), otherwise known as Arar.

He is to Jordanians what Robert Burns is to the Scots. Today and over seventy years after his death, it is rare not to find an educated Jordanian who cannot quote an Arar poem, especially one criticizing social and political conditions. A true Bohemian to his final days, Arar often addressed his Gypsy mate Al Habar in many of his most laceratingly critical poems. Arar made no secret that he enjoyed the Gypsy lifestyle and their love of music and dancing. In return they enjoyed his protection as a public figure. It is said that they sometimes followed him when he moved from one city to another. Today, Jordanian Gypsies credit Arar for championing their cause and being largely responsible for ensuring that they are granted Jordanian citizenship ahead of all neighbouring Arab countries.


Historically Gypsies were associated with many crafts, with each Gypsy tribe linked to a particular profession that it adopted to earn a living - singers and music-makers, fortune tellers, craftsmen of agricultural implements, makers and repairers of household items such as coffee pots and of musical instruments, tattooists, sellers of gold teeth, beggars and hawkers. Nowadays, many gypsies have lost their traditional sources of living simply because their expertise is no longer needed. Moreover, in countries like Jordan where singing and playing music was almost their monopoly up until the Sixties of the last century, the fading away of social taboos around music and arts has made it more acceptable for non-Gypsies to enter such fields and compete with them. So, today you will find Gypsies selling a wide range of cheap items such as chewing gum, sunglasses, children’s toys and flowers. They have gone into the recycling business, collecting plastic bottles, aluminium cans, car parts and anything reusable to be found in streets and garbage bins.


Although there is no official figure of the number of Gypsies in Jordan some informed estimates suggest that there are between 70,000 and 80,000 distributed over several cities. The bulk are in Amman (the capital), the rest in Irbid, Zarqa, Madaba, Mafrak and Aqaba. They break down into 8 different tribes within which there are approximately 60 extended families. I have been fortunate to get to know Sheikh Fathi Abdu Musa, the nephew of my childhood neighbour Said Pasha and now the head of Jordan’s Gypsies. A highly-educated and well-spoken university graduate, Sheikh Fathi is the son of the late Abdu Musa, pictured here playing the Rababa, a one-stringed Bedouin musical instrument.


Abdu Musa was one of Jordan’s most important musicians and singers, who was responsible for preserving much of Jordan’s traditional music, as well as adding his own songs to Jordan’s musical memory. Sheikh Fathi was proud to point out to me that 22 children and grandchildren of his father are University graduates. Most Jordanians will be stunned by this number and the emphasis on education by a society that is perceived as being impoverished and disorganized.


Jordanian Gypsies totally reject the idea that their forefathers came from India. They insist that they are from the Arab tribe of Bani Murrah who were defeated in the famous Arab battle of Al Bassous in the fifth century CE and have since then suffered eternal punishment and a life of destitution. They are not the first “outsiders” to come to the Arab world who, after a considerable period of time, claim Arab roots. I for one believe that if it helps make them less stigmatized that is all for the good.


Sheikh Fathi is, by no means, the first educated Gypsy I have encountered. He represents a movement away from the Gypsies’ traditional nomadic way of life into a more settled one that some say goes back as far as the Sixties of the last century, possibly as a result of them receiving citizenship so early in the Kingdom’s history. He also impressed upon me that the Gypsies of Jordan reflect Jordanian society with its strongly rooted Bedouin traditions, Islamic values and striving for education. Their long presence in Jordan, which he dates at least to the mid-19th century, made a big impact on their value system. I suspect that Jordanian Gypsies may have migrated from Iraq, a view which Sheikh Fathi cautiously supports. However, we do not know enough about Jordanian society before the 19th century to make more than an educated guess.


So far I have been talking about the indigenous Jordanian Gypsies, an increasing number of whom live in “brick and mortar” houses in the major cities. But there are also the still nomadic Turkoman Gypsies who arrived much later in Jordan and are of Turkish origin. The Gypsy encampment one comes across by the roadside is more likely to be a Turkoman one than one occupied by indigenous Gypsies.


The Turkoman Gypsies emphasize their Turkish origins but at the same time highlight their Jordanian citizenship and the fact that they have been in Jordan for as many as several decades. However, from the many videos I have watched, the Turkomans’ Arabic is, at best, very accented and their music and mother tongue remains Turkish. Marrying outsiders is frowned upon. On the other hand, not all are happy with the nomadic life or at least claim that they would prefer a settled life if only the government would give them land. Listening to some mothers talking of their lives, it’s heartening to note that a good education is something they sorely wish for their children. The indigenous Gypsies are generally more religious that the Turkoman ones, especially in their attitudes and the dress code of the womenfolk.


Both indigenous and Turkoman gypsies fiercely deny that they beg in the streets. This is hard to accept. Street begging is a major problem in Jordanian cities and although it is true that not all beggars are Gypsies a great many are. One can easily recognize them from their typical dress. Even if they do beg, they insist that they are law-abiding citizens with almost non-existent crime records. They are a proud people but have a genuine desire that the world around them better understands their plight and will somehow extend a helping hand to lift them out of the vicious circle of poverty, destitution and illiteracy.


While we can congratulate ourselves that there are a growing number of university graduates amongst indigenous Jordanian Gypsies who go on to become doctors, pharmacists, businessmen and government employees, it has not been a bed of roses for them. Indigenous Jordanian Gypsies are better off comparatively to those in neighbouring countries. Intermarriage between indigenous Gypsies and Jordanians is becoming more common. But the fact remains that old stereotypes and habits still prevail. These Gypsies have got a higher education despite the system, not because of it. Centuries of stereotypes are not easily forgotten. In an effort to integrate into society, many Gypsies will choose to deny their roots. Poverty, enforced mobility for many and illiteracy are still their biggest enemies. For some, begging in the streets is far more profitable than investing in an education. It is a battle that educated Gypsies are fighting alone and not winning as rapidly as they would like to. Maybe today’s Gypsies need another Arar to champion their cause. But maybe this time he comes from within, not from without.


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