A Jew and a Gypsy in Jerusalem

An encounter between a Jewish tour guide and a once nomadic people, now living in poverty in the east part of the city, changed the lives of both.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The story the Gypsies of Jerusalem tell about themselves begins with a camel. Many years ago, according to the mythology of the community, a powerful tribe called Bnei Mora lived in the Arab Peninsula. The tribe was known for its tough and fearful fighters. One day someone from another tribe, named Koleib bin Rabia, killed the valuable camel of Albasus, one of the well-connected girls of the Bnei Mora.

The murder of the camel caused a bloody war between the Bnei Mora and all the surrounding tribes. "The war lasted four years," says the present mukhtar of the community, Abed Salim. "All the men died and the members of the tribe scattered all over the world and became Gypsies."

Gypsies in Jerusalem, 1914. Today the community comprises about 2,000 individuals or 150 families. Credit: Ecole Biblique (EBAF)

Years later, continues Salim, the members of the tribe arrived in Jerusalem, as fighters in the army of Saladdin who was, according to the Gypsies, a member of the tribe - to conquer the city from the Crusaders in the late 12th century. Saladdin, according to this tradition, gave the common Arabic name to the Gypsies of Jerusalem "Al Nawar," meaning light. Over the years, say the Gypsies, the original intention was distorted and the name became a derogatory one meaning "dirt."

"From the time we were with Saladdin we became accustomed to being people who are helped rather than people who help themselves or rely on themselves," says Salim. "That's why a large percentage of the Gypsies preferred to go to the unemployment office and to receive income supplements instead of working."

The tradition of dependence on the surroundings and the government has been undergoing a dramatic change in recent years, according to mukhtar Salim. The change began in 2006 with the death of the previous mukhtar, Salim's father, and was accelerated with the entry of one woman, a Jewish Israeli, into the lives of the small community. This process was also documented in the first anthropological study of its kind about the community.

According to the predominant version of events, the Gypsies were originally groups who wandered during the Middle Ages from northern India and split: Some came to Europe and some to the Middle East. The Jerusalem group has lived in the city for hundreds of years. Here they engaged in livelihoods identified with Gypsies elsewhere: fortune telling, entertainment, dancing and training bears, and less prominent trades such as raising sheep and agriculture.

During the British Mandate period the Gypsies began to abandon the nomadic life and settled in the Old City. Gradually they also abandoned their traditional occupations. The last band of Gypsies that wandered around the country was apparently a band that emerged from a small Gypsy group that lived in Gaza and went on a performance tour after the Six-Day War.

The Gypsy community in East Jerusalem today numbers about 150 families or 2,000 individuals. Most live in the Old City, not far from the Lion's Gate. A smaller group lives in the village of Anata in northern Jerusalem. The community has lost many of its cultural symbols and it is difficult today to distinguish between the Gypsies and their Palestinian neighbors. Salim estimates that only about 200 adults still speak the Gypsy language (a dialect of the European Gypsy language ), and there are even fewer people who are familiar with the traditional music and dress.

In recent decades the most prominent characteristics of the members of the community are egregious poverty, very crowded living conditions, wholesale dropping out from the school system at an early age, and addiction to drugs at a later age.

Into this world came Ofra Regev, a tour guide specializing in Jerusalem, "a sabra and the child of sabras, members of Hashomer Hatzair (the leftwing Zionist youth movement ), fighters of 1948," as she puts it. In one of her wanderings in the Old City she came to the small Gypsy community. This encounter apparently changed her life and that of the community. "I arrived very soon after the death of the previous mukhtar. The result was two sleepless nights. I felt that I couldn't continue to live with the fact that here, in the city I love so much, people are living like this," says Regev.

For example, Salim's son, Mohammed, lives in a small room, about 10 square meters in size, with his wife and his five children. A room with a pile of mattresses in the corner is apparently the clearest trademark of the Jerusalem Gypsies.

Regev decided to turn to the establishment for assistance, rather than relying on third-sector non-profit associations. After running after and pestering many people she succeeded in harnessing municipal and government bodies to the project to return the Gypsy children to school. Salim says that "in 2006 an angel came down to us from heaven. I don't know how God sent her. I asked her to help. We went from house to house in the community. Until then there weren't even three children in the community who attended school. They all sat at home. The young people didn't know how to read and write."

The project initiated by the mukhtar and Regev, with the cooperation of the Jerusalem Municipality, the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services and the police, succeeded in putting dozens of children in school and fostering communication between the welfare authorities and the Gypsy families. Recently a special social worker was appointed to the community. The project was successful. Today, says Regev, not a single child is known to be outside an educational framework.

Aside from returning children to school, the biggest change, says Regev, is "that the Gypsies have learned to ask for help and to cooperate with whoever comes to help them. We have a decision that if a family stretches out a hand, we will pull it as hard as possible." Salim is optimistic about the future of the community. He trusts the municipality and the government." "We're Gypsies who belong to the country," he says.

Three and a half years ago Noga Buber-Ben David, a young researcher from the sociology department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, entered the picture. Regev introduced her to the members of the community and she began field work and observations of the community, investigated its self identification and how the community is seen by others. The members of the community opened their homes and Buber-Ben David was like a family member for almost two years.

In her study she diagnoses the situation of the community as "multidimensional marginality" - both in Palestinian society, which considers Gypsies foreigners and even objectionable; and as part of Palestinian society, which is also deprived and excluded by Israeli society. Salim is now trying to extricate his community from this deep pit of discrimination and exclusion.

The study reveals the racism and suspicion of Palestinian society towards the Gypsies. "You know that you're going to hell, be careful," said a resident of the Muslim Quarter, who is quoted in the study, to a Gypsy woman. The poverty and hardship are also reflected in the study.

"The entire household activity took place in the small house," wrote Buber-Ben David in her field notebook. "In the morning the mattresses on which they slept are piled up in the corner, and the room becomes a living room. The kitchen is very small, and contains piles of utensils, like the piles of mattresses. The walls of the house, which are full of pictures of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and close relatives, are peeling, the dampness can be seen everywhere, and the cold of February penetrates your bones."

Buber-Ben David analyzes the dilemma of the Gypsies, who on the one hand want to become part of the Arab surroundings, and on the other hand to preserve the vestiges of their ethnic and cultural identity and to receive recognition as a separate group in need of assistance. "It's a double-edged sword. The community wants to get out of its present situation and understands that the way is to be differentiated, so that the institutions will recognize it as a separate community; but that also separates it from the surroundings," she says. Intermarriages between Gypsies and Palestinian take place but are not common.

Buber-Ben David expresses cautious optimism about the future. She says that thanks to the activity of Salim and Regev the community is beginning to develop an awareness of status. "I observed a process that is taking place in a place where there is hope," she says. "A place that you can aspire to and not only on the level of daily survival. There is hope not for a major revolution, but for an internal revolution, in your community and the people alongside you. A revolution in the ability to live with dignity and to give the children an education."



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