Linguistic Embers of a Colorful Past

Each morning, Rashid Nimer, 78, slowly descends the narrow steps from the Bab al-Hutta Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City to the Lions Gate. His vision is blurred by a cataract, but his hands remember every crevice in the ancient walls and his feet are familiar with each paving stone.Nimer was born in this neighborhood in the northern part of the Old City and, except for one trip, as a child, to the beach in Jaffa, and another as an adolescent to Haifa - he has never left the limits of its walls.

"What can I still do at my age?" he asks as he walks, aided by a cane, to the suq in the heart of the Muslim Quarter.

Every day he passes among the hawkers there, has coffee with them and looks for tourists who might want to converse with him. "You can hardly find anybody to talk in Domari with," he says, referring to a regional, spoken Gypsy language. "The old Gypsies prefer to stay home, and go out only to pray in the mosques, but there we do not speak in Domari, only in Arabic."

Nevertheless, Nimer does note that a few weeks earlier, he had had a conversation in Domari with a visitor from Turkey: "I was really surprised to meet up with someone like him here. Just like our youngsters, he did not understand everything and had difficulties expressing himself, but he was happy to meet me and to speak in Domari. And for me, it was an opportunity to have a little workout in the language."

Only vague external hints, such as subtle differences in skin color or facial features, attest to the fact that Nimer and many other residents of Bab al-Hutta belong to Jerusalem's community of Domari Gypsies. In a chance encounter in the street they will not willingly identify themselves as such and will not volunteer information about other members of their community who live nearby. They have a suspicion of strangers, and fears of rejection and sometimes even persecution. Nimer explains that at his age he is no longer afraid, but notes that, "there were times when it was very dangerous for a Gypsy to move about alone in the Old City."

This community was conspicuous for hundreds of years because of its members' colorful clothes and special language. According to the elders, up to as recently as a few decades ago, the Gypsies accounted for 45 percent of the Muslim Quarter's population. Nimer says they were considered "the best horse trainers in the whole of Palestine" and many excelled as "belt makers and tattoo artists, singers and street musicians, silversmiths and blacksmiths who specialized in making cooking utensils." The Gypsy women, he adds, "were highly acclaimed as singers and dancers." But Nimer does not take the trouble to relate that some of their children became infamous, among pilgrims of all religions, as expert pickpockets and fearless beggars.

Migrant tribes

According to most researchers, the Gypsies are the offspring of migrant tribes originating in northern India. They are usually divided into two main groups: the Roma, who reside in Europe, and the Dom or Domari, from the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula. Experts are divided on whether these are two separate ethnic groups who migrated at different times, or one group that split over the years. The current widespread assumption, based on genetic findings and an analysis of the two groups' languages, is that the Roma arrived in Europe in the early 11th century, while the Dom moved to the Middle East in the sixth century. Apparently both populations left the same area in northwestern India and for a while dwelled in Persia.

Today, there is an estimated population of 2.2 million Dom people, found in almost all the countries of the region, principally Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Their numbers in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority are estimated at some 10,000 while the small Jerusalemite community comprises only 200 families.

Christian pilgrims' testimonies from the time indicate that even during the 18th century, many Dom lived in tin shacks and tent encampments near the Old City's gates. During the past 100 years many settled in the part of the Muslim Quarter between the Lions and Herod's Gates.

Jerusalem's Dom community dwindled significantly during the 1948 War of Independence and once again following the 1967 Six-Day War. Some of its members moved to the Anata refugee camp outside the city, while many others moved to Jabalya camp in the northern Gaza Strip as well as to refugee camps in surrounding Arab states. However, the community's biggest uninterrupted presence has remained in Jerusalem.

Like the common languages of all other ethnic groups known as Gypsies, Domari is not written. That is why research about it is limited; only common phrases can be analyzed or examined, although these, too, have been influenced by other languages and by changes that over the years have affected the original language. Its speakers called it Dom or Domari, but there is also a derogatory Arabic name for it - Asfour, which means "bird," because it sometimes sounds like a bird's chirp.

Like other Gypsy tongues, Domari belongs to the Indo-Iranian group of languages that originated in India. Some 500 languages and dialects have been documented as belonging to that group, which apparently is derived from ancient Sanskrit. Domari may even be closer to the original than other languages because it still contains many words that sound similar to Sanskrit.

The language closest to Domari is that of the Roma, Rom, which is spoken by European Gypsies, but it also has many similarities to other Gypsy languages from Asia and the Balkans.

A few dozen Domari speakers remain in Jerusalem, all of them elderly members of the community. And although Domari is their mother tongue, most of them do not use it in their day-to-day lives, so that it is heard only infrequently. Members of the younger generations understand only a few words in Domari, and cannot even compose full, proper sentences in the language. Furthermore, today, much of its vocabulary has been adopted from Arabic; the context in which it is used is primarily domestic.Not only is the language in a sad state, so is the community itself, with many of its members poor and unemployed. Many children drop out of the school system when they are still very young; quite a few are involved in criminal activities.

In many respects, the Gypsies are outcasts in Arab society, with little intermarriage taking place between the communities. The term used for them in Arabic, Nawari, is insulting (it means "dirty"), although surprisingly there are those among the Dom, who - because they have become used to it or resigned to it - present themselves as Nawaris.

The Jerusalem community is headed today by mukhtar Abed Sleem. He inherited the position from his father three years ago, although he claims that his appointment, which did not involve an election, was completely democratic. Sleem says he is the most educated individual in the community, and he eagerly boasts about titles and praises he received from various authorities, including an official document from the municipality recognizing him as mukhtar - village headman.

Sleem disputes researchers who claim to have identified the Gypsies' and Dom's common origins. He declares they came from Saudi Arabia, in several waves, during the sixth century. He maintains that according to his people?s unwritten history, as related by his father and other elders, their forefathers were brave fighters who sometimes controlled large areas in the Arabian Peninsula. He rejects, outright, claims of a similarity between Dom and Sanskrit, and maintains there is a closer similarity between Dom and other ancient Arab languages.

Sleem says that at present, his community comprises four clans that were not always on good terms with one another. Only in recent years, he says, under his leadership, did they begin to cooperate with the authorities. He maintains that many plans designed to improve the community's situation are about to be implemented, with the help of the police and the municipality. In the meantime, he conducts occasional tours for visitors around Bab al-Hutta, and for a few shekels displays their poverty and backwardness.

Sleem speaks only a bit of Domari and regrets the fact that more efforts were not made to save the language and document it, and that he himself did not teach it to his nine children. He hopes that in the future they will be better absorbed into Israeli society.

Preserving the culture

One person who is not waiting for the implementation of municipal assistance or for the Domari language to disappear completely is Amoun Sleem, an energetic and dedicated woman in her 30s. Her mother died when she was a little girl and her father, who was one of the community's dignitaries, raised her and her eight brothers and sisters. Like most Domari children, when she was young she, too, sold souvenirs to tourists in the city's alleys. That is where she picked up her English, which is fluent, as well as the belief that she can escape her community's vicious cycle of poverty.

Twelve years ago, after completing her studies in administration and tourism at Jerusalem's Notre Dame College, she established an association designed to advance the Dom's status. As part of those efforts, she established a community center in East Jerusalem's Shoafat neighborhood, the first of its kind in the Domari world. In the well-maintained center, which focuses on continuing education for students and handicraft courses for women, she tries to preserve the disappearing culture. She documents old verses, and collects ornamented garments and handicrafts whose style is unique to that community. She also collected recipes for traditional dishes and published them in a book.

Sleem also has extensive contacts with other Domari communities in the Middle East and gets help from the Roma in more affluent communities in Europe, who send volunteers to work in Jerusalem.

"If I hadn't done this, nobody would have," she says, explaining her challenge to the community's traditional, male leadership. "Obviously not everybody loves this. It was clear that in a patriarchal and traditional society many would oppose my activities but I felt I had no choice. I had to do it for myself as a woman and for my culture, which is disappearing."

She notes it was "a very rich culture that greatly influenced the entire Middle Eastern and Arab cultures. To this day, many of the Arab world's outstanding singers are Gypsies, and so are musicians and artists in other fields."

There is a good deal of distrust and tension between these two leading community figures. They have failed to overcome their differences and to cooperate and there is little communication between the two of them. The community's members, too, disagree over the steps they ought to take and the future they wish for themselves. They are afraid that Amoun Sleem's efforts to preserve the Domari language and culture will perpetuate their position at the bottom of the Middle East's "pecking order."

On the other hand, their people have failed to assimilate into the local Arab community, and have certainly not integrated into the city's Jewish population. Nonetheless, they continue in their efforts to integrate into other societies, while leaving behind or concealing traditions, a culture and a language that are hundreds of years old.