Nizar Latif
Last updated: 23 January, 2013

The Gypsies of Iraq – meetings with a people in isolation

The village of Fuwwaar sits close to the city of Diwaniyah, 180 km south of Baghdad, but remains isolated from the outside world – partly because of its gypsy lifestyle, and partly because of the commanding militant presence, which monitors the traffic in and out.

Men with guns carefully watch people entering, looking for prostitutes and other forbidden pleasures. Strangers attempting to enter the village are killed by the militant groups simply on the basis of suspicion.

Fuwwaar resembles a deserted archaeological site; abandoned by its people with nothing but a few houses – destroyed or run-down buildings. Scraps and a few people left, ravaged by thousands of years of war. A family here and a family there. Houses whose walls are made of mud, and the few homes that have them, have roofs made of clay. The remaining homes are open to the sun and weather. The village lacks schools, medical centers, or drinkable water.

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Theirs is an ongoing struggle. They have been challenged and fought by everyone; the state, the government, the constitution, the law, religion, customs, traditions, and even society. The struggle shows on their faces and in their bodies. They have aged much faster than their counterparts in the more mainstream society.

They are alive but not living. Their only guilt is that they were born this way.

 Gypsies in Iraq in general, and in Diwaniyah specifically, face social confinement and lack of services. The head of Diwaniyah gypsies who for safety reasons asked to be called Abu Saleh, said, “We suffer from numerous problems and issues: most importantly, the non-existence of any services. There is no water, electricity, and other services, in addition to social confinement and the malevolent perception of gypsies by society. We suffer in summer badly from the heat in those modest houses where we lack electricity. Some of the children throw themselves in sewage water to cool off. Our only access to water is that coming from the contaminated not-for-human consumption city sewage.”

The entire region faces similar difficulties, Abu Saleh points out, especially after the armed attack on the village five years ago.

“But, we do not have any other choice,” he added. “Those who immigrated had financial means and were well-off families who had other means to earn a living. We do not have professions, nor jobs, nor salaries or any other source of income to earn a living.”

He says that prostitution and other forms of corruption were terminated five years ago, and that the families who had engaged in those activities have migrated. The families who live here now, he says, are extremely poor and have no jobs or any means for income.

“They beg to eat!” he says. “They are the same families that settled into the village in the seventies and remained here to this day.”

The problems facing the gypsies regarding employment go beyond lacking skills or contact with recruiters. They are refused work because of social stigmatization. Socially, they are despised and outsiders refuse to socialize with them. They are cornered socially, tribally, religiously, and governmentally, and are not allowed to run their own businesses. They have also been cut off from social security services, launched by the Iraqi government for the protection of the poor in the country.

Abu Aysir sits along the road running across the village, selling vegetables he has laid on the ground. He sells them to earn money to support his family of two women and four children. “Despite all the suffering, absence of services, unemployment, poverty, and all the harsh conditions experienced by the gypsies,” he says, “the truth is, we did not practice terrorism or acts against the security of the country.

“We never took any part in causing problems in the hardest circumstances, which makes us very patriotic,” he added, “as we have had martyrs of our own people, who lost their lives to acts of terrorism and violence. Not for a day have we ever thought of resorting to violence and terrorism, nor did we act upon it. And here today, we live in marginalization and total disregard of our basic demands of providing basic services and the slightest availability of jobs, so we can live. It is not fair for us to drink filthy creek water, and to live deprived of water, electricity, and other services.”

Gypsies were subjected to numerous brutal attacks by armed Shiite militants and al-Qaeda in cities across Iraq. These attacks have left thousands dead; women, children and men, without serious follow-up from the Iraqi government, which has been silent about the attacks.

Another young gypsy, twenty-eight-year-old Shakir, said, “Five years ago, armed fanatic Shia militias launched hundreds of attacks on our village and burned our houses. They brutally slaughtered our women, men and children with their swords. They dismembered the corpses and cut off the heads from their napes. In the social context of the Arab tribes, cutting off the back of the neck represents the lowest rank of the deceased and that they are worth nothing. It is a form of loathing and dehumanization to be killed brutally. These Shiite militants excelled at killing and torturing us.”

Shakir added that, “The Iraqi government and Iraqi officials turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the brutal crimes that took place five years ago. In my own opinion, I think they support such attacks since the majority of politicians are fanatical Shiites.” 

According to Shakir, dozens of gypsy families fled the village to resettle in safer cities, and many of the families who remained in the village had lost, at least, two or three of its members, killed by extremist Shia militias.

Abu Saleh’s family was one of them. He divided the rest of his clan into 22 small groups, and sent them to work as beggars, a profession which is harsh on them, but is the only solution that keeps them together.

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“I divided my clan into small groups, composed of one or two families, and sent them to various Iraqi provinces,” he explains. “It was the only way we could gain money without being recognized by the militias that are always trying to kill us, or by other people who might know us and refuse to give us anything. A gypsy is unable to obtain a job, as ordinary people feel disgraced and dishonored by him and refuse to offer him work. In addition, the Iraqi government has become dominated by fanatic Islamists and would not hire a gypsy. They would treat him like an animal.”

The groups would be away for a month or more. Upon their return to the village, they would share the money with other families lacking a reliable income. Before 2003, Fuwwaar was the home of more than 1,700 gypsies. Today, the number is less than 200.

“Isolation made me dream of the minute I will feel I belong to the rest of the human race and to humanity,” says twenty-two-year-old Sama. “The solitude of this lifeless place makes you live in a pain and grief that kills the human spirit. I go to the desert nearby in the evenings and think of what the future holds for us. The scene of miserable children and weary old women sitting in a circle in front of one of the houses in the village, reminiscing about life back in the day and now, and where the unknown is going to take us, among many other things, were the reasons that forced me to flee my bitter reality and look for self-solitude, only to find out that all of us are not responsible for the tragedy we are living.”

Why should they pay for mistakes they never made, she asks. But she also worries about leaving the community, because there would be no guarantee of success on the outside, either. Where is the hope? she wonders.

“Is it righteous to blame our ancestors?” asks one elderly gypsy, who, from a young age had to sell her body to make money. “No, we do not blame them. We are destined to be gypsies and we must live this way.”

Many of the women in the village are willing to do whatever they need to do, to provide for their families. Inside the village they can do their work and feel respected, away from the insult and humiliation they would face in the outside world. Um-Suhair, a dressmaker, says, “There are countless women in the village who excel at sewing and weaving, and are ready to work in any decent profession to earn a living and support their families. We suffer from the community perception of us since we are considered outside the framework of the state and that of humanity, plus we are not Iraqis. I work in the field of sewing and knitting, but business now is not like it used to be. The immigration of the people of the area, poverty, and the neediness which prevails in the village, turned every business and craft into a failure and non-profitable.”

They are also suffering from the roads leading to the village, she says, and the attacks of tribes surrounding them, which made entering and exiting the village dangerous. Many women in the village were raped or murdered.

Iraqi Gypsies, also known locally as Kaulia, have roots tracing back to India and Spain. These Gypsies form an ethnic minority numbered between 50,000 and 200,000 people, according to Iraq’s Ministry of Human Rights. They settle in villages and human gatherings usually secluded in the outskirts of cities and towns, and have residential gatherings in the provinces of Baghdad and AlBasra, Ninawa and Diyala, in addition to some villages in the southern plains, like Al-Muthanna and Diywaniyah.

They were nomad tribes until the seventies, and the state of Iraq granted them citizenship in the early eighties. They participated regularly within the Iraqi community, as they represented an important aspect of entertainment. The small communities exercise very different customs and traditions than those in the rest of the country.

But, despite the shunning of gypsies in Iraqi society, gypsy art captured the interest of Iraqis and found its way into their TV and radio stations due to its massive popularity, especially in rural Iraq. Before they appeared on TV broadcasts, Iraqis used to ask the gypsies to entertain their wedding parties and celebrations in open air, where gypsy women would dance and sing for money. Female gypsy artists became stars in the Iraqi art scene. Gypsy songs form a paramount constituent of Iraqi songs, and gypsy singers are synonymous with Iraqi country singers. Rarely does a party take place without a gypsy melody sung during it.

Genealogy expert and researcher Laith Abdul Latif says, “The term Al-Kaulia applies to Indian tribes who had some of their women earn money by performing adultery and dancing in religious services for clergymen, and others seeking pleasure. Others had been in the temple of the Kauli Indian King Kaul, and hence derived the name. The origin of Kauli Gypsies roots back to India.”

Despite the fact that they speak Arabic and that they are Muslims, as they state themselves, he says, their dark complexion and sharp features distinguish them from the rest of the population. Gypsies complain of racial discrimination due to the terminology, their prominent Indian features, and their practices of dance, prostitution, entertainment, and borrowing wives. 

Chairman of the Commission on Human Rights of the Diwaniyah Province Council Widad Hatem says, “From the rounds we took around the village of the gypsies, we discovered numerous issues that are exactly the same issues suffered by other residents in the region: absence of electricity and water for drinking, unemployment due to ethnic discrimination, and social contempt. In our role as officials, along with the Commission on Human Rights, we must provide relief to the region, as well as all necessary services, such as electricity, potable water and medical committees.”

Shifting attention of the concerned authorities and the Presidency of the Council towards the direction of taking interest in caring for this social group, that has been suffering both community contempt and severity of living is key, she adds.

“The area has been supplied with three potable water tanks installed in various locations within the village. Moreover, the Directorate of the Municipality set mechanisms to remove debris and to perform road maintenance. Our joint efforts with the authorities in question, combined with civil society organizations, seek to establish sewing and weaving facilities, workshops, a waste-recycling project or any other scheme in that area for them, away from having to interact with people and suffering society harassment or having to beg – a practice that jams the streets.”

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But she says the work of trying to improve their conditions has been made more difficult, because of the social stigma. She sees barriers not only politically, but also with civilians and tribal leaders. And she says that the work has become more challenging since the departure of the US organizations who had been helping before. She now faces the uphill battle of providing for a group who is so culturally marginalized, in a country with few resources to begin with.

“What also makes me sad,” she says, “is that when people talk about gypsies, they talk about them as though they are something dirty and filthy. We are all human and we should be treated equally. This is what Islam says.”