Decades of conflict have sliced this region down the middle. But Amoun Sleem is one of those whose identity cannot be carefully placed on either side of the Green Line.
“Palestinians feel different from me. But Israelis consider me Palestinian,” she explains. I am neither – but am stuck in the middle between the two!”
Sleem is a Domari, an ethnic group of Gypsies who arrived from India, via Persia, in the 6th century. About two million are scattered around the Middle East, with twenty thousand living in Israel and the West Bank.
And although most Domari have integrated into the local Palestinian society – most are Muslim and all speak Arabic – they still preserve their distinctive culture.
Older Domari, for example, speak their own language. They still make a unique kind of vibrant jewellery. Domari also have their own cuisine, which includes kishk, a type of fermented yoghurt found throughout central Asia, and have distinct surnames.
Sleem does much to protect this culture herself. In 1999, she founded the Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem, dedicated to spreading public awareness about the rich history of the Domari people. For her part, Sleem grew up huddled together with about seventy other Domari families in the shadow of the Al-Aqsa mosque, in the heart of Jerusalem’s old city.
But if preserving cultural heritage is an important part of Sleem’s work, it is secondary to the centre’s educational mission. “We face a lot of discrimination,” she explains. “The children feel different in schools from the other Palestinian students, and are even discriminated against by the teachers. So they run away and do not finish their education.”
This kind of discrimination is epitomised by the term nawar, the everyday Arabic word for the various itinerant groups that live around the Middle East. For most Arabs, nawar conjures images of banditry and immorality.
“This is very insulting to us,” says Sleem. “I have heard this word being used against me since I was born. But we are Domari, not nawar!” For their part, Israelis refer to the Domari as tso’anim ('wanderers’).
Given these problems, Sleem’s work is vital. “We help the children with the subjects they find difficult at school: English, Arabic.” And because many Domari adults also can’t read or write themselves, “we are here to take the place of the parents. To give the children the help they need to learn,” adds Sleem.
The Society also holds workshops for Domari women, where they learn useful crafts, including sewing. “We try and give Domari women different kinds of skills. Right now we’re running a catering course. This helps them be more independent,” Sleem says.
Still, despite the good work Sleem and her colleagues do, difficulties remain. Like all Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, the Domari are permanent residents and not citizens of Israel, and despite being entitled to social security, the community suffers from neglect when it comes to municipal and educational services.
A related issue is that some Domari are embarrassed to ask Sleem and her centre for help. “Many Domari, for example near Nablus and Ramallah, hide their identity,” Sleem explains, for fear of being discriminated against.
“The Domari have lived here for hundreds of years. We have history and roots in this country,” says Sleem.
“People should realise that our culture is very rich with many good things. We are the same as everybody else – and everyone is welcome to learn about our culture. We open our hands to neighbours, and to friends.”