Gaping at Global Gypsy for Generations


Who of the present-day football fans doesn’t know A.C. Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic? And most of your elders must have loved the songs of Elvis Presley. But a fortunate few of you might have known about their ancestry, creed, cast and society. Undoubtedly these two sports and music stars represent around 12 million gypsies across the planet. Real nomadic life they lead in countries. They have no land or water of their own and even their professions vary. From country to country they are known in different names and certainly with cultures of their own. They are equally asymmetric in their religious beliefs. Some are Semites and some pagan. By diverse food and clothing these nomads can be distinguished. Don’t think all of them live in jungles and lands; some of them float in rivers all through life and even a few pass lives on boats in high seas. You might have considered them illiterate away from civilization, devoid of ethics and university educations but that is not always true. One gypsy was awarded Nobel Prize. Though the great prophet of Islam Muhammad (PBUH) was not born to a gypsy mother, he was brought up among them, herding cattle and playing with Bedouin boys and girls. Apart from grooming the music, sports and religious icons these gypsies over the history have greatly produced artists, writers, scientists, actors & actresses, singers, pioneers & adventurers, presidents of the republic, parliament members, preachers, war heroes, fashion designer and journalists.

Diverse gypsy groups

According to Oxford Advance Learner’s Dictionary gypsy is ‘a member of a race of people, originally from Asia, who travel around and traditionally live in caravans’. There dozens of gypsy groups living everywhere in the world. They are known in different names in countries. Many people prefer to use the name Romany. European gypsies, popularly known as Roma. In much of Europe the Roma are known as Tsigane (Czech: Cikáni; German: Zigeuner; Lithuanian: Čigonai; Russian: Цыгане; Hungarian: Cigány; Greek: Τσιγγάνοι; Italian: Zingari; Romanian: ţigani; Croatian: Cigani; Polish: Cyganie; Portuguese: Cigano; Spanish: Gitano). In Bangladesh gypsies are known as Bedey, in India as Lambani, Lambadi, or Rabari and in Turkey as Çingene in Iran as کولی Kowli and in Saudi Arabia as Bedouin. They have many other names in other countries. As per the living places gypsies can be classified into three categories. Some are nomads, living on land and some others live on boats as river gypsies while the rest— a small but distinctive group— lives in seas as sea gypsies.

Sea gypsies of Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo

You may be surprised if I claim that Tsunami did at least a good to the world. But its true. One of the smallest ethnic minorities in Asia, Sea Gypsies were virtually unknown by the outside world until the 2004 Tsunami ravaged South East Asia. One of the most amazing stories reported by the international press was that not one of the Sea Gypsies died. Having lived in close communion with the sea for centuries, the Sea gypsies knew well in advance, when the Tsunami would hit, and they all took refuge in the mountains. Soon after this story broke, international attention was focus on these fascinating people who would have preferred to remain anonymous. Aid began pouring in changing the economic dynamic, as well as the diet of the Mogen. The press came. The Tourists came. And soon, government regulations came, which altered their way of life, forever.

The Sea Gypsies are a nomadic people, who traditionally spend much or all of their lives living on their boats. They inhabit the waters off Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Borneo. Called Chao Lei (or sea people) by the Thais, the Sea Gypsies refer to themselves as the Mogen people. Since the Tsunami, there has been some movement, on the part of the Thai government, to issue Thai citizenship to the Mogen. As a result, the politically correct name for the Mogen has been changed to Thai Mai, or new Thai. Thailand’s Mogen population is centered round three settlements, near Phuket Island. The history of the Mogen people is a bit of a mystery. It is generally accepted that they came originally from Indonesia, although many scholars believe they came from India. They speak a unique language, which borrows heavily from Malay as well as Thai. They have no written language and no recorded history. The Mogen themselves, don’t know the story of their origin.

Bangladeshi Bedeys

River gypsies of Bangladesh go unhappy when climatologists predicted that the Bay of Bengal will devour the land upto the Dohar in Dhaka with lakhs of inhabitants being landless, shelterless and ultimately foodless. They could have been happy as more and more people will join them in boathouses in canals, rivers and seas, getting more and more neighbours. But prediction was bad tidings not only for the settlers but also for the gypsies.   Global warming is not only affecting those on land but those on the water. The Bedeys are a unique group of people who spend the majority of each year navigating houseboats on the country’s 700 rivers, estuaries and canals.

There are around 800,000 river gypsies in Bangladesh, and their numbers are dwindling. In the past decade 250,000 have abandoned their traditional way of life. River gypsies are abandoning their way of life as the water becomes more dangerous. Thousands of river gypsies that live on the waterways surrounding this island. Over the past decade, the rivers have become unpredictable. Erratic rivers and unpredictable monsoons have forced him to reconsider his nomadic lifestyle. More and more nomads particularly the snake charmers are concentrating in nearby towns. When male gypsies are engaged in selling their physical labour their female members are sometimes found begging with the snake in their box. Some of them are tinkers, singers and dancers. These vagabond people live by telling fortunes with tarot cards, tinkering with violins and panning for gold ornaments in the rivers or ponds.

Arab Bedouin, Ghorbati, Nawari and others

The Middle East gypsies are made up of two groups: the Ghorbati and the Nawari. Both groups speak a dialect of the Gypsy language called Romany, which is related to the North Indo-Aryan language of India. Their dialect, Domari, contains many Arabic words. The Middle East Gypsies live scattered throughout Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Turkey. Most of them are nomads, wandering from region to region, and they depend on the people for their livelihood. It is common for Gypsies to have two or more specialized occupations. This makes it easier for them to adapt to a changing society’s needs. When a region’s people no longer need a Gypsy’s particular skill, they move on to one that will.

Muslims all over the world must have known where their Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was brought up and taught standard Arabic language. It was none but Halima, a gypsy woman was chosen as the foster mother. She was a Bedouin with a son of Muhammad’s (PBUH) age. If you have ever read The Road to Mecca by Muhammad Asad you will come across the detailed description of gypsies of Saudi Arabia. Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) was raised in the Bedouin tribe. Therefore, Islam is embedded and deeply rooted in Bedouin culture. Although there are pockets of Christians in Bedouin tribes, by and large the word Bedouin is synonymous with being a follower of Islam.

Bedouin life is generally pastoral, herding camels, sheep, goats and cattle. They normally migrate seasonally, depending on grazing conditions. In winter, when there is some rain, they migrate deeper into the desert. In the hot, dry summer time, they camp around secure water sources. Bedouins define themselves as members of tribes and families. People are divided into social classes, depending on ancestry and profession. Passing from one class to another is relatively feasible, but marriage between a man and a woman of different classes is difficult.

Indo-Pak gypsies

In Rajasthan it is not uncommon to see people with green eyes. Among the lowest castes are the Bopa and Kalbeliya Gypsies. In spite of their low status, these beautiful people are proud of their roots. Both Kalbeliya and Bopa people make a living by performing songs and dances. In recent decades, the Maharajahs have gone and Indian and foreign tourists have replaced the royal audiences.

The Kuna are known for their fierce pride and serious composure but they have a warm sense of humor in relaxed situations. This young woman is amused at the attention she receives from visitors. Perhaps she smiles because she knows she is about to be paid. The Kuna know the value of their faces as subjects for photos and expect compensation for each shot.

The Bhils form an important group, which inhabits mainly the southern districts of Rajasthan and the surrounding regions of Udaipur and Chittaurgarh. The generic term, which describes their tribe apparently, derives its name from bil, meaning bow, which describes their original talent and strength.
The Bhils practice endogamy, marrying with a narrow kinship. Their Gods like Pantha and Vina, hold a special sway over their minds. Their other deities honor the primeval needs of the pastoral society. Nandevro is worshipped as the presiding deity of corn, while Gwali is the goddess of milk. The god of agriculture is Heer Kulyo.

Gypsies in Pakistan live on the fringes of society just like else where in the world. They are locally called ‘Khana Badosh’ which literally means ‘house on your shoulder’. Every three to four years communities of Khana Badosh migrate from one location to another depending upon the availability of work. Most live around major cities like Lahore in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Perhaps they are perceived to be a part of the landscape because few organizations seem to be helping them. Yet there is one that is.

European Roma

Most Roma, who recently faced expulsion from France, refer to them by one generic name, Rom. They have their own language, Romany. Analysis of Romany has shown that it is related to languages spoken in northern India and Pakistan, such as Hindi and Punjabi. This is regarded as strong evidence for locating the geographical origin of the Roma, particularly in light of the fact that loanwords in Romany make it possible to trace the pattern of their migration west. Body habitus and ABO blood group distribution is also consistent with northern Indian warrior classes. However it is an enigma that why Roma went to Europe.

Of the 10-12 million Roma living in Europe, Spain has the second biggest community, estimated at 970,000, or about 2% of the total population. When President Nicholas Sarkozy expels Roma from France, Spain spends almost €36 million annually bringing them into the fold. Only 5% of gypsies live in makeshift camps in Spain, and about half of Roma are homeowners. Just about all Gypsies in Spain have access to health care, and while no recent figures exist, at least 75% are believed to have some sort of steady income.

Clothing of Roma

Gypsy women are recognized by their unique dress. The traditional Gypsy costume is a long colorfully pleated skirt that uses several yard of material. These skirts are generally of bright colors, often consisting of many layers. Bright chiffon, calico, and metallic fabrics are preferred over colors that are muted and dull. White is a taboo color as it is a color associated with mourning and death. Puffed sleeve blouses with low necklines are popular. Apparently, this big skirt (which can weigh up to 13 kg!) came about in the 1950’s when Finnish Romanies started becoming more wealthy. The large skirt was a sign of wealth and has now become standard. It is adult dress and girls can choose whether to adopt this dress or not when they come to full age, at age 18. Most do take it out of solidarity for the culture. The option is to wear a long black skirt of your choice, but denim is considered inappropriate.

Except for color a woman does not have varied robes. If a woman is married she must display that fact by keeping her head covered by a diklo, or headscarf like those of the Bedouin women in the Middle East. This varies with each clan, and while some keep this custom others, those in hotter areas, have adopted other customs to suit there surroundings. Women usually allow their hair to grow long, as a child most keep it braided, but not all. Gypsy women wear jewelry not only for its beauty, but also for its intrinsic value. Traditionally, acquired wealth has been converted into jewelry or gold coins called galbi, the latter sometimes worn on clothing as adornments, or woven into the hair.

As for men, there is really no characteristic clothing. They show a preference for bright colors. Gypsy men tend toward vests with loose fitting poet shirts in bright colors. A brightly colored neck scarf may be worn on special occasions. Gypsy men tend to be stout in later years. It is considered a sign of prestige, of being healthy and “well-fed”. Like the women, they appreciate fine jewelry and bangles.

Food of Roma

Traditionally the eating habits of the Gypsy people have been conditioned by their nomadic way of life. Their diet consists of what is readily available. This includes fruits, berries, leafy plants, mollusks, and small mammals.

Coffee is drunk and is a staple of the Gypsy lifestyle. There is usually no lunch and dinner is served at sunset, or, since the food is generally cooking all afternoon, whenever anyone is hungry. The basic element of dinner is usually a thick vegetable stew. Sometimes meat is served generally broiled or cooked on a spit. Garlic is a very commonly used seasoning. Water is the most often served beverage during the course of a meal.

Ceremonial events such as christenings, marriages, and festivals are occasions for community activity and sharing. Enormous quantities of food and drink are consumed during these celebrations, and preparations are long and enthusiastic. On these special occasions beer, wine, and other spirits are substituted for water at the meal.

Marime taboos extend to animals as well, from the edibility of certain types of meat to pet ownership. Romaniya, gypsy law, prohibits cruelty to animals and they may only be killed for food. The eating of horse meat is a serious offense. According to customs of certain tribes, any Gypsy eating horse meat may be severely punished or banished from the tribe. The relationship of the horse to the Gypsy has historically been such a close one that it is unthinkable to eat this animal. Cats and dogs are also forbidden as foods. Dogs and cats are considered polluted because of their unclean living habits. Gypsies consider cats particularly unclean because they lick their paws after burying their waste.

European Muslim Roma

According to wikipedia, Muslim Roma is Romani people who adopted Islam. Romanies have usually adopted the predominant religion of the host country. Islam among Romanies is historically associated with life of Romanies within the Ottoman Empire. Correspondingly, significant cultural minorities of Muslim Roma are found in Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Egypt, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece (around half of the Greek Romani population), Bulgaria (by mid-1990s estimates, Muslim Roma in Bulgaria constituted about 40% of Roma in Bulgaria), Romania (a very small Muslim Romani group exist in the Dobruja region of Romania, comprising 1% of the countries Romani population) and Croatia (45% of the country’s Romani population). Because of the relative ease of migration in modern times, Muslim Roma may be found in other parts of the world as well.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the parts where Islam is no longer a dominant religion Muslim Roma have found themselves under double discrimination, both on ethnic (Antiziganism) and religious (Islamophobia) grounds. Muslim Roma throughout Southern Europe call themselves Horahane Roma (“Turkish Roma”, also spelled as Khorakhane, Xoraxane, Kharokane, Xoraxai, etc.) and are colloquially referred to as Turkish Roma or Turkish Gypsies in the host countries.

Roma and holocaust

Misfortune never ceases to follow the gypsies. They are misunderstood at many countries in the world including in Russia. The Romanis were not only in danger in Germany, but also faced peril in all other parts of Europe. Vichy France deported 30,000 Gypsies to Nazi concentration camps. The Croatian Ustasha movement killed tens of thousands of Gypsies, and Romanians deported thousands of Romani to Transnistria (Ukraine) where many died of hunger and disease. But in Germany they were most misunderstood and their misery climaxed when they became target of Nazi policy. There are no exact statistics on the number of European Gypsies exterminated during the Holocaust. Estimates place the number as high as between 500,000 and 600,000 people, with most of the deaths occurring at Auschwitz. Some estimates say that around 30,000 gypsies were killed while others deny all these estimations.

American Gypsies

In Brazil and Latin America the gypsies entered along with the first European migrants. In Spain the gypsies arrived a little earlier than 1450. Hardly had they entered Spain, they started creating problems for the Catholic sovereign rulers. They were not only a group of strangers but a group that could not be understood and above all a group that could not be controlled. They kept on moving from place to place. For the average people the gypsies were a group as strange as the Jews and the Muslims.

The Kings of Spain tried to get the gypsies to be settled down. In order to solve this problem and at the same time obtain the desired results there was an ordinance issued to expel all those who would not reside permanently in one particular place. But in reality this group of people did not get settled down, nor did they abandon Spain, in spite of being severely persecuted.

The Jews were expelled from Spain on 31st March 1492. The Muslims who did not embrace Christianity were expelled on 14th February 1502. The gypsies were willing to go to America but were simply forbidden to do so. The Muslims would have to return to Africa. The gypsies and the Jews searched for another place to reside. A few groups of gypsies finding unbearable the pressure brought about on them by Spain, went over to Portugal. From there eventually they migrated to Brazil.

Some of the gypsies came to Brazil as ordinary merchants, some others as people condemned for some crime or the other. They made use of the exile in order to escape from the penalty. There were some who enlisted themselves voluntarily to come to Brazil, and therefore they could not be rightly counted as slaves.

In Brazil, the first mention made of a gypsy is found in an order issued by King Sebastian, dated 1575. This order was a commutation into exile of a certain gypsy who was condemned to the gallows. It was the case of Joan Torres who came on board the ship with his wife and children. It is not true that this was the first gypsy to arrive in Brazil but he is the first one about whom there is an official record. Within a few years, some gypsy families from Brazil went over to the territories of Spanish domain. King Philip II on knowing about it, ordered that they be immediately imprisoned and deported to Spain. There they would be judged and further expelled. At the same time the King of Spain forbad by an express order any further migration of gypsies to America.

In short all these prohibition orders ended up with the gypsies remaining in Spanish controlled America and in Brazil, as well as in Spain and in Portugal. Finally in the 17th century many Gypsies arrived in Brazil getting themselves settled on the North Eastern part of the country. According to a witness of the time, the gypsies did not like very much to come closer to the Indians (natives). They preferred to remain close to the sea shore, as they were engaged in the horse trade as well as slave trade.

In the year 1710 the gypsies fell victims to a fierce persecution. When those in authority came to understood that the gypsies were a homogeneous group with a language, culture and customs of their own, and thus, they could be a threat and danger to the country and customs. Therefore in 1710 there was a law in Brazil forbidding the gypsies to teach to their children their own languages or even following the Gypsy customs.

As for the Spaniards, now wondering how to get rid of the gypsies from Spain in the 18th century, the period of enlightenment, they came up with the idea of sending the gypsies to colonize America and not just anybody. The reason for such a plan being to avoid the spiritual and material damage caused by the gypsies in these kingdoms. Thus, the Council of Castela proposed to the king to use some of them as laborers after an‑apprenticeship of two years; that they should be sent to the remotest areas of America and that there should be there among them honest and loyal Spaniards. Fortunately, the Minister for American Affairs, Jose de Galvez, in 1777 rejected this order and the plan of the Council of Castela did not come through. It was only twenty years later, around the year 1797, that many gypsies were sent to Amazones.

Many of the gypsy families that came in, got themselves settled and adjusted themselves to the new situation. Many of them excelled in dramatics, music, arts and crafts and commerce. In the last century at the marriage of King Pedro with the Queen Leopoldina strong signs of cultural assimilation could be seen when groups of gypsies were invited to take part in the festivities in the royal court.

Famous gypsies

As a process of integration in countries particularly in Brazil a president from gypsy origin went to power. It was none but Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira (31/1/1956-31/1/1961), for the Social Democratic Party. His grandfather was a Czech Rom, Jan Kubicek, born in Trebon, Bohemia.

Washington Luis Pereira de Souza, President of Brazil (15/11/1926-24/10/1930), was the last democratic president of the Old Republic. He belonged to a family of Calon Gypsies.

Almost every student of English Literature knows about John Bunyan who authored ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. He is widely considered by historians as a ‘Tinker’, a name given in Great Britain and Ireland not only to gypsies but also to other traveller groups. However, there is strong evidence that the Bunyans were Romanichals, whose traditional occupation is that of brazier.

It is not necessary to explain who Elvis Aaron Presley was. Perhaps what is less known of him is that his ancestors came from Germany in the early 18th century and their original surname was Pressler. They were part of Sinti people commonly known as “Black Dutch”, also called ‘Chicanere” or “Melungeons”. It is also likely that from his mother’s side, smith by surname, the family would have been of Romanichel origins, as it is common that Black Dutch and Romanichel intermarry, but keep separate from other groups.

Ali Krasnici belongs to Gurbet Roma and is one of the few authors who writes prose in Romany. He is among the most popular and awarded writers in ex-Yugoslavia, having published more than forty books and many other literary works in different genre: prose, poetry, drama and also books for children. He is the author of Romany dictionary which includes abstract terms not borrowed from other languages.

In fine the above-mentioned personalities are some of the great descendants of gypsies or nomadic people. Over the last millennium repeated changes in the history of human civilization, state system, population, delimitation, occupation and religious conversion and reversion have both settled and unsettled, lodged and dislodged thousands of people in the continents. With the rise and fall of diverse empires in the world from time immemorial many settlers were forced to lead gypsy life and many gypsies were integrated as settlers. As Spain integrates when France expells the gypsies. That’s the go of the history and you can blame time but that shouldn’t be because the creator himself is the time.

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