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Home > Life & Culture > Customs & Traditions
Dom: The Gypsy community in Jerusalem
This Week in Palestine, Feb 13, 2007

This article was originally published by This Week in Palestine and is republished with permission.

An old photo of Dom children from Jerusalem.
The origins of the Gypsy people in Palestine can be traced back to India in the 18th century. The Gypsies of India originally referred to themselves by the term "Dom," meaning "man" in their language. While in other Gypsy communities the word was transformed into "Rom" or "Lom," the term "Dom" is still used by the Gypsies of the Middle East and North Africa. Other names used to designate Gypsies in the Middle East are "Barake," "Kaloro," "Koli," "Kurbat," "Ghorbati," and "Zargari."

Today, there are Dom communities in such countries as Cyprus, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Turkey. The Gypsy people are thought to have left India in several migratory waves, beginning possibly as early as the third century and lasting until the tenth century.

There are several theories explaining the reason for the initial migration from India, although there is little definitive proof for each. One such explanation is put forward by the Persian poet Abdul Kasim Hasan Firdausi in his epic Shah-nama, in which he writes that the Shah of Persia had invited ten thousand musicians and dancers from the Luri tribe in India to work at his court. These people are believed to have belonged to a low caste of indigenous people (non-Indo-Aryans) who were known for their skills in music and dance.

Another explanation is that in the 11th century India came under attack from a Turko-Persian Muslim general whose aim was to push Islam into India. Indian troops were formed out of various non-Aryan Indian populations, consisting of the lower castes of society. These troops moved west through the mountain passes of India and into Persia as they battled the Muslim forces. It is very likely that Gypsy tribes such as the Luri formed a great percentage of these foot soldiers, and it would make sense that they decided to keep moving west instead of returning to India, where they had most likely suffered rampant discrimination.

The Gypsies remaind for a long period of time in Persia, eventually moving onwards to places such as Armenia and Greece. Some migrated through the Caucasus Mountains to Turkey and the Balkans, finally arriving in Europe, while others went to Syria and Egypt and finally to North Africa.

Near Jerusalem's Lion Gate, inside the ancient walls of the Old City, there is a neighbourhood which the Dom still make their home. Today the Gypsy community of Jerusalem consists of approximately one thousand people. Gypsies can be found throughout the rest of Palestine as well. Prior generations of Gypsies were usually blacksmiths, horse dealers, musicians, dancers, and animal healers; occupations remarkably representative of Gypsies worldwide. For more than one hundred years now the Jerusalem Gypsies have led a largely sedentary life. Originally settling in the Wadi Joz neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, the community later moved within the walls of the Old City to the Bab al-Huta neighbourhood where they still reside today. Like all Gypsies around the world, the Jerusalem Dom have accepted the language and religion of their surroundings. Today, one can find these Gypsies speaking both Domari and Arabic. There is no doubt that the Gypsy community has contributed to the rich fabric of society in the Old City.

Unfortunately, in recent times the size of the Dom community in Palestine has been greatly reduced. While some left or fled the country during the Nakba of 1948, the greatest migration occurred after the war of 1967. At that time, the Jerusalem Dom suffered greatly, hiding in the Church of St. Anne for the duration of the war. Those who fled from Palestine migrated to Jordan, Syria, and Egypt, returning only for short visits, if at all. From approximately 200 families before 1967, the Dom numbered around 70 families in the 1990s. Despite these many tribulations, the Dom have been able to preserve their culture. In this spirit, the Domari Society of Jerusalem was established in November 1999. Its goals are to protect the little-spoken language of the Gypsies from extinction, to educate the Domari children about their culture and heritage, to provide humanitarian assistance to the local Gypsy community, and to teach non-Gypsies about the community's traditions and its rich culture.

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