Jordan’s ‘invisible community’ speaks out

[10-05-2010 01:29 PM]

Ammon News - By Taylor Luck

AMMAN - When 14-year-old karate champ Abdalrahman Al Masatfeh enters the ring, he often feels the weight of an entire community on his shoulders.

Masatfeh, who has won numerous medals in international competitions in Istanbul and Tel Aviv, said he feels far from a winner back home in Jordan.

“The referees say I am a winner, but here all I am is a nawari (gypsy),” he said.

The teenager is one of Jordan’s “forgotten community”, the Bani Murra, who despite being one of the earliest residents of the Kingdom, have remained on the outskirts of society for nearly half a century.

Among the first Jordanians

The Bani Murra, or Dom, are an Arabic-speaking minority with various origin stories; some say the community may have come from India, through Iran and the Gulf, while others hold that tribal clashes in Syria led to their dispersal across the Middle East.

The Dom have a clear history in the region dating back to over a millennia and have resided in the Kingdom for several hundred years according to various historical records and anthropological studies.

Bani Murra citizens stress that they are Muslim and Arab, with little distinguishing them from other bedouin tribes other than their dialect, which is considered an endangered language by UNESCO.

Mustafa Wahbi Tal, Jordan’s national poet, immortalised the romantic free life of the Dom in the early 20th century in a series of poems and became a close friend of the Bani Murra - a mutual friendship that would endure throughout his life.

Known as skilled metallurgists and ironsmiths, the Bani Murra crafted knives, swords and other tools for the Kingdom’s major tribes in the 19th and early 20th centuries and were among the first residents of modern Amman, according to various historical and oral records.

Known for their musical talent, the community yielded Abdo Mousa, one of the Kingdom’s most revered musical figures, who immortalised bedouin folklore and songs and gave the community a new standing.

His Majesty the late King Hussein had Abdo Mousa play for countless dignitaries, and, as legend has it, summoned the musician at the last minute when former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had a two-hour layover in Amman, according to Sheikh Fathi Mousa, the musician’s son and advocate for the community.

Despite the strong cultural presence, members of the 50,000-strong community say they have yet to realise their full rights as Jordanians, held back by their “gypsy” status.

People without a land

The last unifying leader of the 63 Bani Murra tribes was Saeed Mousa Pasha, who was among the first tribal leaders assembled by King Abdullah I, then emir, following the Great Arab Revolt and served as an advocate for the community during the reigns of King Talal and King Hussein.

According to Rashid Ben Saeed Pasha and other Bani Murra elders, King Hussein offered the Pasha 1,000 dunums in an area outside of Um Al Jimal, near Mafraq in 1960.

As the land at the time was arid desert with little infrastructure, Saeed Basha was reluctant to transfer his people there.

Over the past four decades, however, the Bani Murra’s standing in the community plummeted as the Dom became scattered across the country, some maintaining their traditional nomadic lifestyle while others struggling day-to-day to live with the “gypsy” stigma.

“If we had moved to Um Al Jimal then we would at least would have a land to call our own. Today people see us only as gypsy,” Fathi Mousa said.

According to various unofficial and academic surveys, over 90 per cent of Bani Murra live in apartment buildings in Amman, Zarqa, Irbid and elsewhere, some even living in grand villas in upscale neighbourhoods.

Even the lives of those who reside in tents do not differ from average Jordanians. Abu Salem, whose family moved back to the Kingdom in the first Gulf War in 1991, has been living in a tent in Qweismeh for nearly two decades and said he enjoys all the amenities he needs.

Although Abu Salem’s home may seem like a makeshift shack from the outside - it is fully furnished with satellite television, an extensive heating system, cabinets and even windows.

His son Fares hangs out in Internet cafés, plays football with friends, and is currently preparing to get engaged. Like most Jordanian families, mansaf is the main dish at wedding parties where young men dance the debkeh.

“We pray at the mosque, we hold Jordanian citizenship, why are we so different?” Fares remarked.

The term “nawar”, synonymous to vulgar in slang Jordanian dialect, is often used to describe the Bani Murra and has become a verbal barrier preventing them from fully participating in daily life. This barrier is no more clearer than in education, as many Dom children fail to complete their studies due to economic pressures and bullying in school, tribe members said.

Karate champion Masatfeh, who despite racking up accolades in the classroom and the gymnasium, at times cannot bear to go to school.

“When you are a gypsy, no one believes in your success and everyone is waiting for you to fail,” he said.

Contrary to the stereotypes, many in the Bani Murra community have achieved positions in Jordanian society, they stressed.

“We are doctors, we are lawyers, we are engineers, we are teachers and we are soldiers. But most importantly, we are Jordanians loyal to the Hashemite Kingdom and we deserve our equal rights,” Mousa told The Jordan Times.

Awareness gap

International and local media have been no friend to Bani Murra.

Rather than highlighting their successes, reporters focus on the few thousand that live in tents, telling tales of fortune-tellers, beggars, homeless nomads and victims, reinforcing long-held stereotypes of the Bani Murra, they said.

Even worse, they say, are journalists who photograph those living in tents depicting them in “embarrassing” conditions.

“Unfortunately, it seems that many members of the press let their imagination run wild when they hear of gypsies,” said Dr Bassem Mousa, a urologist at Al Bashir Hospital.

The greatest challenge to the Dom is a lack of awareness that has led to racism that even prevails at official levels, with the subject of the Bani Murra’s very existence considered a taboo.

In an interview with The Jordan Times late last year, a mayor denied the existence of the Bani Murra in his city, despite the presence of a visible Dom camp less than one kilometre away from his office.

“We are only respectable people in this city. There are no nawar here,” he said.

The son of the late Saeed Pasha said that without a political representative, the Dom will remain “third-class citizens”.

He said the highest public post a member of the community has reached is mukhtar, an unpaid community leadership position affiliated to the Interior Ministry, in the predominantly Dom neighbourhood of Hay Al Dabaibeh in Amman.

Voting for change

Many Jordanian Dom believe that the answer to their plight may lie in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Fathi Mousa, the figurehead of the most prominent Bani Murra tribe, aims to become a candidate for the Lower House.

During a monthly tribal meeting to gather support for Mousa’s election push last week, elder members deemed electing an MP “essential” for saving the community.

“It is as if we have been asleep while the rest of the country moved on. We have become invisible people, and this has to end,” Hassan Adnan said.

Fathi Mousa attempted to run in the 2003 polls, but due to the Bani Murra being spread across governorates and electoral districts, the community lacked a concentrated number to vault a candidate to Parliament.

Mousa called for the Kingdom’s new elections law to include a seat allocated for the Dom community, or to allow members of the Bani Murra to elect a candidate across electoral districts, to ensure political representation.

No matter the outcome of the next parliamentary elections, the Dom of Jordan say they are a community that the country can no longer afford to ignore.

“I am tired of competing only for the Bani Murra. I want everyone to know I compete for Jordan,” Masatfeh said.

(By Taylor Luck/ The Jordan Times)

** Members of the Bani Murra tribe, considered ‘Jordan’s gypsies’, at a tribal meeting last week. The almost 50,000-strong community is looking to parliamentary elections as a way to overcome stereotypes (Photo by Taylor Luck)

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