Jordan’s neglected gypsies
Amman - Not many Jordanians know much about the country’s gypsy community of 80,000 people other than the widely used derogatory term to describe them: nawar, Arabic for “tramps”.
Gypsies are seen begging at traffic lights and street corners in Amman. Many live in tents, leading a semi-nomadic life on the edge of neighbourhoods in the Jordanian capital. Their interaction with the rest of the society is minimal.
“Gypsies are street beggars who give Amman a bad image,” merchant Anas Rabie, 30, said. “We don’t know much about them because they keep to themselves.”
There are contradictory reports on the origins of Jordan’s gypsies. Some suggest they come from India; others say they were nomadic Bedouins. They are Sunni Muslims, who speak Arabic in the Jordanian dialect and enjoy full citizenship rights in the kingdom.
Fortune telling and belly dancing are among renowned skills of gypsy women, seen with multi-coloured, long, loose dresses and abundant silver jewellery.
The men are seen near trash bins collecting aluminium cans or plastic bottles for recycling to make money. In the early 1920s, when Jordan’s founder, King Abdullah I, the great-grandfather of King Abdullah II, sought to build a state, known at the time as the Emirate of Transjordan, gypsies were recruited into the army. Abdullah I treated their leader, Saeed Basha, as a respected tribesman.
In literature, gypsies were often depicted by one of the Arab world’s greatest poets Mustafa Wahbi al-Tal, known to the literary world as Arar. He wrote extensively about the romantic lifestyle of the gypsies.
In the industrial district of Bayader Wadi Seer in Amman’s south-west, Noor, 14, went through a trash bin as she spoke to The Arab Weekly.
“We are Turkmen, not gypsies,” she insisted when asked about her origin.
“We live here in tents and move around the city but here we find many things, which people dispose of, that we sell,” added the girl, draped in flashy green trousers and headscarf and covered by a dark blue robe.
“We’re not different from you but we keep to ourselves because people generally treat us badly,” she grumbled. Noor pointed to young Jordanian men harassing her, her sisters and girlfriends “thinking we’re easy targets”.
“But we shout at them and, sometimes, we throw things at them,” she said. Noor’s father is unemployed but his wife and seven other children work as street beggars.
“This is who we are. We are gypsies. We live alone and die alone. We cannot say that we’re proud of what we do but this is our destiny since the first gypsy was born,” said Abu Mohammed, 62, as he asked to be called.
“We have everything here: Mattresses to sleep on, food and water and my family is here with me. I don’t need anything else. People don’t mingle with us and so [we don’t mingle with them],” Abu Mohammed said, recalling times when the community travelled freely to neighbouring states as border security was lax.
“I’m the son of the wind and the sun and I go where they take me.”
He admitted that “things are not the same for us anymore” since the community was forced to settle down, with its children enrolling in schools and men and women finding jobs in the private and public sectors.
“I have a cousin who works at a private company but he’s scared to say that he’s a gypsy so as not to be fired,” Abu Mohammed said.
The largest concentration of gypsies has settled in a scruffy slum called the Gypsy’s Bridge in the low-income Marka district in eastern Amman. Khaled, 22, who works for the Greater Amman Municipality, was hesitant to speak about his origin but he was motivated to do so when asked about the community’s rich history.
“It’s a fact that we helped in establishing Jordan,” he said. “We did our part but people now don’t think gypsies are good. They even call us ‘nawar’ in a bad context. That’s why we like to remain as a closed community, where we find respect.”
Of the many obstacles facing gypsies, Khaled said winter was the worst for his community, especially for those living in tents. “They sit inside around a bonfire to keep warm,” he said. Osama Derani, 35, a shop owner near Bayader Wadi Seer has compassion for the gypsies.
“Just because their history and traditions did not allow them to receive good education, it does not mean they are bad.” Derani said.
Mohammad Tarawneh, chairman of the College of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Yarmouk University, said Jordanian gypsies are known for their nomadic and enigmatic lifestyle.
“The word ghajjar, or ‘gypsies’, or Dom meaning ’gypsy man’ and the name given to the Indo-Aryan ethnic group is associated with Jordan’s gypsies.” Tarawneh said.
He said there were many stories regarding their origin.
“They travel a lot and they move from Amman during winter and go to Jordan valley as it is warmer there,” Tarawneh said. “They are not welcomed by most members of the society and that is why they feel like outcasts, although some are respected members of the community with good public sector jobs.”