by Arpan Roy
Romani people in Jordan, by some estimates, are as numerous as 70,000. Present in the Arab region in some capacity since the 8th century, Romani characters appear recurrently in literary works by luminous authors from the early centuries of Islam and into the medieval period, including al-Jahiz, al-Harriri, Ibn al-Muqaffa’, and Ibn Daniyal. Romanies appear prominently in Orientalist travelogues in the early part of the 20th century, as well as in works by Arab authors. For Mahmoud Darwish, often considered to be the greatest modern Arab poet, the figure of the landless, wandering Romani became a metaphor by which to romanticize the Palestinian refugee crisis. He wrote in a famous poem, “Violins weep with Romanies going to Andalusia / Violins weep for Arabs leaving Andalusia.”
In Jordan, Romanies were a favorite theme of Mustafa Wahbi Al-Tal (also known by his pen name, “Arar”), the early 20th-century poet and one of the architects of Jordanian identity. Prone to raucous depictions of revelry evoking the medieval Sufi poets (but without their spiritual double entendres), Arar would often write of his benders in Romani tent encampments around his home city of Irbid which was then a small town. Like his Andalusian contemporary Federico García Lorca, Arar found in Romani people a romanticized purity: a discursive site from which to critique modernity and what he thought to be its hypocrisies. Arar’s son, Wasfi Al-Tal, who became a prominent Jordanian political figure, was also an early patron of Abdo Musa, a Romani rabab master and singer who was arguably the first authentically Jordanian musical voice. In the 1980s, the Romani bouzouk player Jamil Al-Aas, along with his wife, Salwa Haddad, popularized what is today one of the most widely loved folk songs in Arabic: “Wen a’ Ramallah.” The song is Palestinian and its performers Palestinian/Jordanian, but what is not popularly known is that it is most likely of Romani origins, as Romanies themselves attest; it is an invocation of a bygone era of Romani wandering through Palestine and the Levantine region.
Yet, in spite of this continuity of an over a millennia-long presence and cultural contributions, Romanies remain strangers to mainstream Jordanian consciousness. I have made theoretical arguments elsewhere on possible reasons for such an omission, so I will not repeat these arguments here. Rather, for the remainder of this essay, I will offer a basic ethnological sketch of the various Romani groups in Jordan.
For a start, the ethnonym “Romani” is a polite umbrella term for referring to an array of groups that are related by language, history, or sometimes mere affinity (more on this shortly). In English, the better-known term is “Gypsy;” but that is an uncomfortable lexical choice that carries with it centuries of racism and abuse. In Arabic, the literary term is al-ghajar, but the more colloquial ethnonym in the Levantine region is al-nawar; a situation that corresponds to the Romani/Gypsy divide in English. Because of how and what demographic data are collected in Jordan, it is impossible to have a detailed quantitative discussion of Romani life in the country. The population estimate of 70,000 cited earlier was reported to me by one Fateh Abdo Musa, a Romani politician (and son of musician Abdo Musa) who has for many years attempted to form a unified Romani political bloc and who has run unsuccessfully for a seat in the Jordanian parliament several times. In reality, the total number of Romanies in Jordan is unknown; it could be possibly lower, or quite plausibly much higher.
Even less known are the population dynamics of Romani sub-groups, clans, and tribes. This is, again, mostly because of the reluctance of the Jordanian government to collect ethnicized data. But there is another problem here. Romanies in Jordan are indicative of a much wider tendency in Arab/Islamic society that historically feigned ambiguity in various areas of life that later underwent examinations of scientific exactitude in the 20th century. Some such areas, argues the Arabist Thomas Bauer, included sexuality, Qur’anic interpretation, linguistics, religious skepticism, and more. The move away from ambiguity and toward standardized categories (and consequent intolerances), argues the Bauer, has largely been a result of the interventions of European powers that were for centuries engulfed by the Catholic dogma of un roi, une loi, une foi. I argue in my upcoming book on Romani kinship in Palestine that ethnic groups and boundaries were also historically ambiguous in the region and that presently ambiguous Romani formations are a relic of this premodern past. This being said, the two main Romani groups in Jordan are Doms and Turkmen, although each one is then subdivided into various groups, some of which often overlap with non-Romani lineages.
Doms are the largest Romani group in the Middle East (Fig. 1). Dom is a cognate term with rom; both terms for “man” in Domari and Romani languages, respectively—the former being the language of Doms, and the latter the language family of European Roma. Thus, there is a clear linguistic connection between Doms and Romani peoples of Europe. Domari is largely no longer spoken in Jordan, with the exception of the Daqdaqa tribe of Doms (Fig. 2). The name of this Dom tribe most likely refers to the Arabic daq “tattoo,” a prominent feature in the culture of this group. Most Doms in Jordan are refugees from Palestine, although very few use such language themselves to describe their fortunes. Having arrived in the thousands with the Palestinian exoduses of 1948 and 1967, Doms, in this sense, constitute an integral part of the Palestinian story in Jordan.
A second Romani group that is prominent in Jordan is the Turkmen, a Turkish-speaking group with likely neither linguistic nor ethnic ties to other Romani peoples (Fig. 3). However, the consensus in the scholarly field of Romani studies is that Romani identity is bound not only by shared ethnicity but also by affinity, and the situation in Jordan shows that Turkmen and Daqdaqa Doms settle in the same neighborhoods whenever possible. Although sometimes professing their distinction from one another, the two also cooperate on practical matters: conflict resolution, wedding celebrations, and political life. That is to say, Doms are always invited to Turkmen weddings and vice versa, members of one group will turn to the other group’s sheikhs when there is a conflict in the community, and both are represented in Jordanian politics by Fateh Abdo Musa.Most importantly, perhaps, both Doms and Turkmen (with the exception of Doms from Gaza) are Jordanian citizens, meaning that these populous communities with a historic continuity in the region constitute part of the Jordanian political body and are also part and parcel of the human index of what we call varyingly and at various strata as the bilad al-sham or the Levant, the Arab world, and the Middle East.
Arpan Roy was the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) fellow at the American Center of Research for 2022–2023. He is an incoming Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Humanities at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain. He earned his PhD in anthropology from Johns Hopkins University in 2021. His book manuscript, tentatively titled Relative Strangers: Romani Kinship and Palestinian Difference, is currently under review with the University of Toronto Press. He is also co-editing the first book project of Insaniyyat, the society of Palestinian anthropologists. He has published articles in Anthropological Theory, CITY, Social Anthropology, and Jerusalem Quarterly.