Woven into the rich tapestry of religions and cultures that make up the old city of occupied Jerusalem is the colourful Gypsy community or the Dom people, who came here more than 400 years ago and have since made their home within its walls, and in the small neighbourhood of “Burj Al Laqlaq”.
Today, they number about a thousand as many have long migrated to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. From being a nomadic people working as blacksmiths, horse dealers, musicians, dancers and animal healers, they have now adopted a more sedentary lifestyle.
The Gypsies have accepted the local language and religion. They speak Arabic as well as some Domari (their own language), and they are mostly Muslims.
However, more than half the Dom community left occupied Jerusalem after the war of 1967, when they had to hide in the Church of St Anne in the Old City for the entire duration of the war. Then an exodus followed — to Jordan, Syria and Egypt — and out of about 200 families who were residing here before 1967, there are only 70 left.
The younger generation is less interested in ancient traditions and culture, and has opted to integrate totally into Palestinian society. They don’t speak Domari as much as their parents, and don’t follow the traditional dress code and customs that made them stand out in the past.
Lack of opportunities due to illiteracy, which was a given in Gypsy lifestyle, have now put the community at a disadvantage.
Amoun Sleem, whose family has lived in the same house in the Old City for more than 200 years and constantly borne the wrath of the Israelis who seek to forcibly take over their home, says, “My grandmother has stood firm and we continue to live there.”
Sleem founded a non-profit organisation, Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem, in 1999, but it became operational only in 2005. She says, “Our roots are in India, the lower caste of non-Indo Aryans who were skilled in dance and music, as you can clearly see from the colour of my complexion. One group moved to Europe and the second to the Middle East.
“We came to [occupied] Jerusalem via Syria. Today, Gypsies live mainly in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, and here we still live in the Old City of [occupied] Jerusalem, but many have moved to the West Bank and Gaza.
“Our lifestyle and roots distinguishes us, though we don’t separate ourselves because as a group we are part of Palestinian society”, Sleem adds, providing a rough translation of an Arabic quote: “One who doesn’t have roots, has to pay for one’s own funeral cloth.”
She says, “Why should we be ashamed of our roots? We accept that we are part of the Palestinian people but, at the same time, we are not!”
Sleem then describes their struggle against being stigmatised, despised, and discriminated, and now yearning to be accepted: “Palestinians still view us as Gypsies and our identity will continue to be used to discriminate against us. This does not faze us; we see it as the reality, as Dom people everywhere in the Middle East suffer the same fate.”
Most Palestinians perceive Gypsies as beggars. But then, Sleem asks, “Why have Palestinians accepted Armenians, who live in the Old City, into their society? Is it because they are rich? We may not be rich, but we bring a rich culture to Palestinian society.”
However, Sleem points out, “In the past ten years, there has been some intermarriage with Arab Palestinians, which was strictly forbidden for them in the past, as we were perceived as the low rung in society.”
The occupation has also had an impact on the Gypsies, as Sleem explains, “Those living and trapped behind the wall have much difficulty coming to [occupied] Jerusalem, so we as a community are divided. Those living in the Gaza Strip have been separated from us for ever.”
Palestinian Gypsy men do not own any businesses; instead they continue to live day to day, mostly working as farmers, metal workers, drivers and artisans, whereas the women struggle between housekeeping duties and occasional work. Gypsies, in general, still yearn for a better life.
The Domari Community Centre seeks to play a role in addressing some of the pressing needs of Gypsy women, beginning with education for them and their children — literacy courses and school supplies for the poor, as well as after-school tuitions.
The centre has also created a space for Gypsy women to continue their age-old tradition of making handicrafts, and selling their products to provide families with an independent income. Sleem says, “We are preserving our culture by focusing on typical Gypsy handicrafts as well as the Domari language, and fostering cultural pride in the community.”
The centre is also a place where Gypsy women from the West Bank send their crafts to be sold. Sleem explains, “It is a struggle for us to obtain a place, as renting space in [occupied] Jerusalem is extremely difficult, and we would like to be where tourists shop, so that we can market our handicrafts.”
A small group of people operates the centre with the assistance of volunteers. “Donors seem to have forgotten about us as they focus on the plight of Palestinians, and we have to struggle for attention and assistance,” Sleem says. “Our Centre needs a chance, as we love the holy land, and we are here to stay.
“We are presently working on a Domari language brochure, a design and sewing workshop for the production of traditional gypsy clothes, and increasing space for after-school tuitions for both mums and children.”
Sleem has also put together a “Domari Cookbook”, which shows the merging of the Domari and Palestinian recipes. She has also written a memoir about her life as a gypsy in occupied Jerusalem, which, she says, “an American publisher shall be launching in the spring.”
The Gypsies of occupied Jerusalem do maintain contact with fellow Doma around the world. “This morning we had 15 people from Norway visiting us, and I shall be travelling to Sweden and Norway in November as one of the speakers for an international Gypsy festival,” Sleem says.
The Gypsies of the Old City of occupied Jerusalem remain largely marginalised, recognised neither by the Israelis nor by the Palestinian public. They continue to fight it out on their own — in silence.
Rafique Gangat, author of “Ye Shall Bowl on Grass”, is based in occupied Jerusalem.