About 20 kilometres west of Basra, on the outskirts of the southern Iraqi city of Basra, there is a slum where ramshackle houses are built out of wrecked, rusting cars, stones, clay and buildings destroyed in war. If the inhabitants of these homes are lucky, they might have some mattresses for furniture, a stove and on rare occasions, even a television.
Local woman Hijaz lives here with her four children; she is a Hawasem, or gypsy. Hawasem means “decisive” in Arabic and is the word that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein used to use to describe the war he said he would fight against the US military. Now it’s used in an ironic way, to describe the gypsies, their slums and a variety of other illegal acts.
Hijaz was one of the first people to leave the province of Diwaniya after 2003 and the US-led invasion that toppled the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. She left because religious militias began to deliberately target gypsies in this area. She and other gypsies gathered here in this haphazardly built neighbourhood, a fair distance from the centre of the comparatively prosperous city of Basra and far from the eyes of officialdom.
Hijaz’ day starts early. She leaves her house without bathing and she doesn’t prepare food for her husband, who is also unemployed. She prefers to wear old clothes so she looks poor and she often wears her abaya, a full length robe, covering them. She stops at one of the intersections in the Ashar district, in Basra’s centre, and dispatches her children to beg in the surrounding streets.
Hijaz says begging is the only way that the family can earn money. She gets a very small amount from the Iraqi government in the form of social welfare payments. But as Hijaz says, “the money isn’t enough to feed us for one week. I can’t read and I have no qualifications or experience that might allow me to get a job. Begging is the only thing that allows us to survive,” she told NIQASH. “And my children don’t go to school because I need their help to provide for our family.”
Hijaz’ husband, Hajam, says he doesn’t mind that his children beg in the streets. He too sees it as his family’s only option. “I don\'t work and the only thing I can do is sing and dance,” Hajam says. “That’s how we were born and raised. In the past we’ve been targeted by religious militias for doing this because they don’t understand what gypsies are.”
Hajam says that male gypsies often have to depend on their women and children for money but this is because they can’t get any other work.
Another younger gypsy male, Samir Hussein, says he doesn’t know who his parents are. “We have more problems than just poverty and discrimination,” Hussein says. “We often don’t know where we come from. That’s a big challenge for us.”
When he was younger, Hussein says, an older man used to take him to the street and he taught him how to beg and to play the tambourine. “We used to wander the streets in Diwaniya in the ‘90s. The old man had a monkey but when I was 18, the old man died and then his monkey did too. I was left alone.”
Hussein said he’d tried to find a job but that it was far from easy. “As soon as an employer finds out I am a gypsy, he fires me,” Hussein says. “Women are luckier. At least they can go beg on the streets, carrying babies who are given rosewater to sleep. It’s also easier for disabled gypsies to make a living begging. But when you’re healthy and young, nobody sympathizes and they don’t give you money.”
All the gypsies NIQASH spoke with in Basra say they’ve faced discrimination – everything from beatings to legal persecution by local authorities.
Although in the past Iraq’s gypsies were often admired for their role as entertainers and artists, now many Iraqis – especially the more conservative ones – see gypsies and their money-earning activities negatively. The local security committee in Zubair have asked the Basra authorities to clamp down on begging and prostitution carried out by gypsies.
“Dozens of gypsies live in the gypsy neighbourhoods, along with other displaced people and poor people. There are no ethical or security standards there,” says Mahdi Rikan, the head of Zubair’s security committee. “There are no building permits in these areas and there are two such neighbourhoods in Zubair, one near ancient monuments and the other in the Shuhada area, where there are at least 70 families living in appalling conditions.”
A community leader on the Ashar district’s local authority, Hussein al-Maya, believes the gypsies use begging as a cover for prostitution.
“They have occupied hotels and cheap motels in Ashar,” al-Maya says. “Male gypsies depend on their women,” he continues. “They wear the best clothes and they wear gold. And there is no way they buy those clothes and that gold from money made through begging,” al-Maya scoffs.
Due to the current state of affairs in the area, there seem to be more gypsies than ever coming to Basra. Salwa Aboud is one of these; she came to Iraq from Syria along with other gypsy families.
“I came with my husband and family to Baghdad but we eventually settled in Basra,” she explains. “It’s miserable here but at least we feel more secure here in Basra, than we did in Baghdad. At least here there are other gypsy families and we can live with them.”
In Syria, Aboud made her money by singing and dancing and working as a prostitute. She says she is now doing the same here in Zubair. “But I am careful not to let people know what I am doing,” she says.
“It is very difficult to solve the gypsy problem under current circumstances,” says local human rights activist Jawad al-Qatrani. “Gypsies pose these problems everywhere, not only in Iraq. They strongly believe in their customs – that they were born to sing and dance and live freely even in societies that do not accept these traditions. And they are isolated because they don’t see what they are doing as shameful or wrong in any way.”
Al-Qatrani believes that one solution would be to engage younger gypsies in the education system and slowly integrate them into ordinary Iraqi society. Gypsies, he says, could also be given special cultural status.