Romany Holiday

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
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Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

The green iron gate is hidden from the view of passersby. You have to walk down the path to see the Hebrew words written on the modest sign: “Gypsy Community Center − Female Empowerment.” And next to the intercom button, in small, plain Latin letters − “Gypsy”: an ancient word that holds the power to charm as well as deter.

Two little children, a boy and a girl, race ahead of us up the steps to see who will get to open the door for the visitors. We pass through a small, pretty garden in the inner courtyard, where a trio of turtles chews intently on the leaves of spice plants, and enter the building.

What first catches the eye is the great variety of color: The entryway is adorned with embroidered wall tapestries, musical instruments, antique jewelry and portraits of gypsies taken by Armenian photographers in Jerusalem in the late 19th century. The shelves overflow with decorative objects and textiles made by the women of the community: beautiful sheer headscarves, embroidered pillow cases, necklaces, bracelets and earrings.

“The gypsies are people who lived for hundreds and thousands of years in open spaces,” says Amoun Sleem, the founder and director of the center, explaining why bold colors are so much a part of Gypsy tradition. “They are romantics at heart. They continue to sanctify the simple things in life, and bold splashes of color, like those created by nature, became second nature.”

The Gypsy community in and around Jerusalem numbers nearly 1,500. The Domari (in the Gypsy language, dom refers to a person and Domari to a group of people) is a small community of impoverished people who ended up in one of the world’s harshest regions and made it their home. When exactly this happened, no one can say. Some claim that waves of Gypsies arrived here with Saladin’s armies from the Levant; others say there were Gypsy communities that wandered throughout the Ottoman Empire before settling in Jerusalem during that period. The local Domari say their community has been here for centuries − at the very least − and recount an ancient legend about a curse placed on Gypsy chieftains, decreeing that they shall be eternal wanderers. To this day, there are small Gypsy communities living in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus and other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean lands.

The Jerusalem Gypsy community initially settled in the Wadi Joz area, and later moved to an area near Lion’s Gate. Many of its members still live in a neighborhood within the Old City walls. As in other parts of the world, the Domari have adopted the local language and religion. The Jerusalem Domari are Arabic-speaking Muslims; over the years, the number of those who still speak the Gypsy language has steadily declined.

“We are a minority living amid another minority,” says Sleem, who has black hair and a strong facial bone structure. “The Israelis and Jews look at us as Arabs and Muslims. The Arabs look at us as Gypsies. We get the best of both worlds,” she jokes with a mixture of resignation and resentment.

Members of the community, young and old, after suffering discrimination for years and struggling to find employment, have been abandoning the traditional dress and the ancient language, aiming to assimilate. Amoun, who founded the Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem in 1999, wants to preserve the ancient customs while simultaneously expanding opportunities for women beyond those of traditional Gypsy society. The center, located in Shuafat, serves as a second home for the community’s children and for the women, who can obtain professional training there in sewing, metalsmithing and cooking.

By reservation, the women of the center (three do most of the cooking, including one who specializes in the sweet desserts unique to Gypsy cuisine) will prepare meals for small groups of tourists and visitors, or for anyone wishing to learn about the local Gypsy culture, which is practically unknown outside the Old City.

One of the women, Bahra (“wisdom” in the Gypsy language), starts to prepare maqluba. After marinating chicken thighs in a blend of olive oil, lemon juice and salt, the thighs are dredged in a mixture of dried spices. The pale yellow powder that is ground especially for the maqluba is composed of 12 different seasonings and emits an unfamiliar yet marvelous aroma. As with the language and religion, the Gypsies adopted much of their cuisine from the local Arab culture, while still maintaining certain unique characteristics.

The spice mixture − and the use of spices other than those identified with Palestinian cuisine − is one typical feature of local Gypsy cooking. “We adopted many things from our neighbors,” says Sleem, “but we still use them in our way.” Curry leaves, perhaps a legacy of the first Gypsy tribes that migrated from India westward, are a common element. Dried mint, familiar from the Syria-Lebanon region, from where the local Gypsies may have migrated to the Jerusalem area, is also commonly used in cooked dishes and baked goods.

The festive maqluba is made of layers of cooked rice with shaariya − very thin noodles fried in olive oil and saturated with the wonderfully seasoned stock in which the chicken was cooked; slices of fried eggplant and cauliflower; and the chicken meat. When Bahra decides the moment has come to flip the dish over (maqluba means “turned upside down” in Arabic), she balances the pot on her head and then flips the contents on to a large metal platter. The aromatic vapors have yet to subside and Bahra is already busy making the danan al aut (“cat’s ears” in the Gypsy language), or shish barak in Arabic. The little dumplings, more delicate than the more familiar Palestinian version − are filled with meat that has been sauteed with onions and spices; then they are cooked in a mixture of yogurt and jamid (a dried goat cheese with a strong taste) that has a splendid consistency. When the dumplings have softened, fried garlic cloves are slowly added to the dish along with olive oil and dried homegrown mint.

Domari − The Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem; Shuafat Road, Jerusalem; 02-5325410.

Potato salad

16 medium potatoes

salted water

2 medium onions, finely chopped

1 cup parsley, finely chopped

1 tsp dried mint leaves, ground into a powder

salt and pepper

For the dressing:

2 garlic cloves

2 tsp salt

1 cup lemon juice

Coarsely ground fresh black pepper

Clean the potatoes well and boil them in their skins in salted water. Peel the potatoes and when they cool, cut them into 2-centimeter cubes. Place the potato cubes in a bowl together with the chopped onion and mint, and add salt and pepper to taste.

For the dressing, crush the garlic with the salt until you obtain a smooth paste. Add the remaining ingredients and beat with a fork. Pour over the potatoes, mix and serve at room temperature.

The Gypsy Cookbook

From the day I got hold of the local Gypsy community’s cookbook, a slender, spiral-bound volume, I wanted to sample the dishes and cook with the local Gypsy women. Amoun Sleem collected the recipes a decade ago following one of the professional cooking workshops held at the Domari center. The small, simple book, printed in English by a Cypriot publishing house of quite modest means (with support from the International Gypsy Center), has no title or adornment, nor any color pictures, and has not undergone any formal culinary editing, but it offers a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyle of the local Gypsy community. Moreover − like any book about the cuisine of a local Middle Eastern community − it can contribute to understanding the broader picture of the various culinary cultures that developed in this region.

Following a brief preface outlining Gypsy history in general, and that of the local community in particular, the book is divided into chapters devoted to different festive or solemn occasions in the life cycle. These − engagement ceremony, wedding, circumcision, funeral − allow for a temporary escape from life’s hardships and the usual everyday fare, and bring the family, the tribe and the community together. “Gypsies love their stomachs, just like the Jews, and there’s no such thing as a holiday or special occasion without lots of eating,” says Sleem. For the engagement feast, the women bake little pastries stuffed with cheese, spinach or dried fruit, and the main course is chicken or lamb − depending on the season and the budget − stuffed with rice and nuts. The chapter on weddings offers recipes for beef skewers, stuffed fish, baked fish with a tahini crust, saffron rice, and a whole array of desserts, including sesame cookies and sweet omelets called mtaba; for a brit milah, stuffed lamb neck is served (while the cooks conduct the traditional argument over who has worse luck − the Gypsies or the sheep that are led to slaughter).

The funeral customs, as well as the foods served during the mourning period, are the most fascinating of all. As among the Jews, the bereaved family prepares food for people from other families that come to their home to share meals and trade stories about the deceased. But this gathering is preceded by a mourning meal prepared by another family for all the relatives of the deceased and a three-week period in which members of the bereaved family go to the cemetery to praise him and eat special sweets by the graveside in tribute. Four weeks after the death, the entire community gathers for the final mourning feast. Among the recipes in this chapter are Gypsy-style mujadara (made with tiny baladi lentils); stuffed plums; almond and honey cake; and cheese-dough pastries filled with jam. The book’s final chapter is a glossary of herbs and spices, detailing their function in Gypsy cooking and their use in folk medicine. (R.V.)

The Domari Cookbook may be purchased for NIS 50 at the Domari Society. Jerusalem)

A platter of danan al aut, the delicate dumplings typical of local Gypsy cuisine.Credit: Dan Peretz
Amoun Sleem in the Domari Center in Jerusalem. Credit: Dan Peretz
Bahra in the Domari Center in Jerusalem. Credit: Dan Peretz