‘Homeless, but at home’: Egyptian Domari Ghagar

‘Homeless, but at home’: Egyptian Domari Ghagar

The Egyptian Ghawazi people sing and dance as children observe and begin to learn artistic traditions | Photograph by Denis Mercier; excerpt from the film Latcho Drom by Tony Gatlif.

“There are no people so dispersed on earth as the gypsies”, wrote anthropologist Alfred von Kremer. “Homeless, but everywhere at home.”

It is a romantic vision of an unromantic reality. For many, “gypsies” are fascinating mystics; they are colorful characters hosted in the works of Victor Hugo and the tirades of xenophobic and religiously zealous groups. They embody an “Other” so deeply rejected and misunderstood that he is only allowed to exist on the margins of society.

Synonymous with taboo and disreputable, many are surprised to discover that the term “Gypsy” is appropriate Egyptian, and owes its reputation to oriental travelers crossing the threshold of medieval Europe. Although used in academia, the word “Gypsy” is today seen as a derogatory oversimplification of their cultures, and even an insult in social contexts.

In Arabic, these are ghagar: pariahs associated with psychic and malevolent powers often attributed to the Romani (Roma) of Europe. Also known as Domari (Dom), this subset of eastern nomads are wanderers scattered across Syria, Turkey, Palestine and Egypt. There is a shared and inherited stigma between Roma and Doms: for centuries they lived socially crucified across the Middle East and Europe.

Socially crucified, or totally unrecognized.

The Children of Domari Linger in the City of the Dead in Egypt | Photo credit: AUC Press

The Domari are not officially recognized in Egypt, like most places, and this is largely due to Egypt’s reliance on religion as a social identifier; When applying for a national identity card, the holder must subscribe to one of the three religions: Islam, Christianity or Judaism. Until recently, those outside the Abrahamic slice were denied access to a national identity card and, by extension, denied access to local affordances.

Ethnicity and other such markers were not used. The groups whoseidentity would be defined in ethnic terms», such as the Bedouins, Nubians and Domari, are institutionally and socially ignored. Their absence from academia also contributes to Domari’s erasure; while Roma saturates Gypsy literature, Dom presents more questions than answers, with relevant research grounded in the backbone of the hypothesis.

Even so, the available literature on Roma and Doms works more for upset than explaining the intricacies of an opaque culture; it should be taken with a grain of salt.

For many residents, the ghagar are to be feared first – and to be studied, ever.

Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem
The Domari people seen in Jerusalem, Palestine | Photo credit: Domari Company

Diaspora in brief

Ghagar is a collective term for all gypsies in Egypt. Despite this distilled identification, there are countless diverse tribes across the region, with many describing himself as “real Arabs [largely] proud of their pure Arab origin.

Yet the question of “who are the ghagar‘ persists with no defined origin or response. Some scholars dispute the Arab argument, insisting that the Doms are a “traveling community of service” with roots in South Asia, mainly in India. Without a definite and tangible place of origin, the Domari depend on their individual history for the formation of their identity.

Egyptians associated local domari with exotic and dangerous entertainment; they travel the land as snake-eating dervishes and monkey-showers, fortune-tellers, dancers, and prostitutes dabbling in the occult. Despite their status as instruments of local fear, the Dom are quite heavily involved in the rural horse trade, earning a reputation as inventive merchants.

However, their notoriety as elusive and dangerous performers is certainly overwhelming. With many Dom communities participating in local festivities and mulidae (carnival-like Islamic ceremonies), their public image is closely linked to themes of anarchy, license and rejection of sexual segregation and sexual taboo. It seems that wherever the Dom go in Egypt, their standard is seen as a “general hysteria” associated to “immoral arts.”

In more urban settings, they are considered beggars—recognized by their bleached yellow hair and tattered appearance. Of all the poor people in Egypt, the Dom are significantly marginalized, even within these communities.

Domari Group | Photo credit: Domari Company

Ethnographer Alexandra Parrs recalls an incident where she was turned away from a Dom down the street; the woman was dressed in a abaya, selling what appeared to be paper towels. At first glance, Parrs did not differentiate her from any other impoverished street vendor. It was an Egyptian acquaintance who took Parrs by the elbow and charged her with a warning: “Watch out, this is a ghagar — she’s a thief.

The assumption that all Doms are entertainers and prostitutes, or beggars and thieves lives without credibility; it’s more of a banal stereotype than the truth. Not only does this contribute to endemic otherness, but it serves a largely archaic and sectarian paradigm: Orientalism.

World-renowned researcher Edward Said has suggested that the otherness of Roma and Doms is the result of their exoticism in European contexts and, by extension, their Eastern origin. Ironically, the Dom have been orientalized even within the so-called Orient itself.

The Egyptians attribute to Dom the same “trichotomy dangers, repulsion and attraction which [is] associated with Arab men (dangerous fanatics, etc.) or women (sensual creatures of the harem, etc.). Male Doms are considered untrustworthy, while their female counterparts are seen as spellcasters and seductresses.

This is all the more reason to consume academic literature on the Domari and Romani populations with a little skepticism. With von Kremer quick to use language such as “thief” and “repugnantto describe the Egyptian Dom, it would be a mistake to assume that all literature is credible or unbiased. This unprecedented need to construct a hostile narrative is not unique to von Kremer either, but rather European Stock Exchange as a whole seems to extend its disservice to Roma to Egyptian Domari without much thought.

Caution is key, and avoiding harsh grammar and von Kremer’s strange aversion to the unorthodox is key to uncovering an unbiased understanding of Domari’s existence.

Domari children | Photo credit: Domari Company

Nomads without a state certificate

Frankly, the Doms do not exist in the eyes of the state – there has been no real effort to eradicate or assimilate their. While Europe’s Roma were subject to forced integration or permanent marginalization, ghagar Egyptian populations face different challenges. Nomadism in Egypt is not a form of challenge, but rather a historically integrated aspect of Egyptianism; thus, Doms easily fall under the radar as they move from place to place within the state.

At Nabil Sobhi Hanna ethnographic study, made almost five decades ago, painted a story of semi-nomadic Dom who inhabited the outlying villages of the Nile Delta. Without mysticism, they were recognized; they were ironworkers and merchants, woolen merchants and blacksmiths, individuals who raised their skills independently of recognition.

More recently, the Dom have intermingled with downtown Cairene, settling in neighborhoods such as al-Sayida Zeinab or el-Zabaleen (City of Garbage) – expanded to include the City of the Dead. They are there “handymen [and] garbage collectors, shearers, saddlers, musicians and dancers”, a plethoric display of contemporary activity. Hanna’s study observes that, although most Egyptian Doms are sedentary, they are mobile within their neighborhood and depend on short-term spatial mobility.

They rent their homes, take short-term jobs, and move places within their communities.

What is the difference between Domari and North African Amazigh?  -Quora
Domari children and wife | Photo credit: Walter Smyth via Quora

Despite their salient presence, however, they still exist in Egypt’s footnotes rather than its opening pages; most Egyptiansare not aware of the presence of gypsies”, and it is only by pushing it further that they realize how much the Doms are really present. Just as they exist on the margins of the Egyptian community, they also seem to exist on the “margins of people’s subconscious, and can easily materialize” when invited.

The Domari, it seems, are a fragment of the Egyptian population that stands between the unknown and the indefinable, between the loved and the feared, the mystical and the impious.

Just watch.

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About Wesley V. Finley

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