Egypt’s Gypsies: An (In)visible, Orientalized Other

In this short piece, Alexandra Parrs succinctly writes about Gypsies in Egypt. She starts off with an etymological detail: the word ‘Gypsy’ originates from ‘Egyptian’ due to a “medieval misconception” that linked the diverse groups of Eastern travelers to Egypt. However, this association becomes ironic when one notes how Gypsies in Egypt are nonexistent, or so it would appear. As Parrs notes,

Eastern Gypsies are called Dom; different sub-groups are identified in Syria, Turkey, Israel and Egypt. However, whereas Doms and the Roma people have been dramatically stigmatized in most of Europe and some Middle Eastern countries, Doms in Egypt are not officially recognized, in part because religion is the main identifier in Egypt. The Egyptian national identity card, which identifies the religion of its holder, offers a choice between three religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Up until very recently, people who were of a different religion than the official ones were simply denied access to a national identity card. Since religion is the official marker, other markers, such as ethnicity, are not used; groups whose identity would be defined in ethnic terms – the Bedouin, the Nubians, and, of course, the Doms – are socially ignored.

Among other things, this bureaucratic invisibility and marginalization entails the absence of official statistics on the size of Egypt’s Dom population, a gap which has been filled by evangelical organizations. The marginalization also includes societal discrimination, hostility, and harassment:

Doms in Egypt are divided into different sub-groups or tribes, a concept which is also more meaningful in a Middle Eastern context. Among the tribes names are the Ghagar, the Nawar, the Halebi – words which are also insults in Arabic. Evangelical organizations suggest that Ghagar, which means “vagrant,” may be the largest group of Egyptian Doms.

Yet, being officially and bureaucratically nonexistent, this might perhaps afford some leeway:

Since the Doms do not exist officially, there has been no attempt to either eradicate or assimilate them. In Europe, forced integration and marginalization seem to be the only two possible outcomes for the Roma groups, whose nomadism has often been perceived as defiance, or affinity with adverse allegiances. In Egypt, by contrast, nomadism has been historically an integrated aspect of the Egyptian society, even if [it has] . . . been throughout the twentieth century regarded as anachronistic

Interestingly enough, there seems to be tension between the presence and absence, silencing and acknowledgment, fascination with and revulsion from Egypt’s Gypsies, for “[a]lthough Doms are not fully identified, they seem to exist at the margins of people’s subconscious, and can easily materialize in specific contexts and by fragments.”

They take part in (and shape) the political economy and social fabric of Egypt, working in trades such as horse and donkey dealers, iron workers, metal workers, blacksmiths, “tinkers,” wool traders, shearers, saddlers, musicians and dancers (Ghawazee), fortune-tellers, or small traders such as peddlers, and inhabiting the spaces of the countryside, villages, and Cairo (specifically downtown Cairo, Sayida Zeinab, and the infamous City of the Dead). They can also resort to begging “like many poor urban dwellers.” In this manner,

While the vast majority of Doms are in fact sedentary, their contemporary activities are still linked to short-term spatial mobility: they work at short-term jobs, they occupy rented houses, they may move from place to place within a neighborhood. They still seem to exist on the margins of Egyptian society.

 

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