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Gypsies seen as outcasts in new, ultra-conservative Iraq

by Staff Writers
Al-Zuhoor, Iraq (AFP) Nov 25, 2009
Squeezed between a rubbish dump and a dry riverbed, Al-Zuhoor has no clean water or electricity and the gypsies who live here are at the margins of the new, ultra-conservative Iraq.

In smelly alleys bordered by brick hovels, without glass windows or doors, men wander without work, a young girl plays on a squeaky swing and women return from a day's begging in Diwaniyah, 180 kilometres (110 miles) south of Baghdad.

In the distance, smoke from burning rubbish blackens the sky and, when the wind turns, the nauseous odour is overwhelming.

Before 2003, under the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, the situation was much better. The dictator's iron fist did not weigh on the gypsies or Roma.

The men were professional singers or musicians and the women were invited to dance at feasts, weddings and parties in Iraq, having migrated to the Middle East from India centuries ago.

With the rise of radical Islamists in 2004 however, they were marginalised, attacked and robbed by the Mahdi army, a Shiite militia loyal to the radical, anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who regarded the gypsies as morally repugnant.

Today, with the war-torn country primarily run by religious leaders, as opposed to the mostly secular society that existed under Saddam, the Roma community feels ostracised.

Despite being Muslims, the "Kawliya" -- as the community is known in Iraq -- are seen as outcasts.

"We live worse than dogs," says Ragnab Hannumi Allawi, a villager, wearing a sombre, piercing black look, surrounded by a group of women and sitting on a dusty carpet.

She now refuses to go to Diwaniyah, capital of the eponymous province, to seek help. "The authorities say 'you are entitled to nothing' and throw us out. When we go into the city to buy food, they refuse us."

The only thing these women can do to beg a few dinars is to cover their face entirely to avoid being recognised.

"We leave at 5:00 am and we return around 3:00 pm, for two years they have been shutting all the doors on us and they kept us agonising," says Lamia Hallub, her face broken.

The men, meanwhile, remember with nostalgia the weddings and events where they played and sang at night for rich families.

Before 2003 "we could work in music and folk festivals," says Khalid Jassim, his head dressed in a red and white checked Keffiyeh.

"But since we have had nothing. Why? Because our traditions do not accord with Islamic values," the old man complains.

"They say to us that the artists have no place in Iraq. The art is finished, but what country is there without artists?" he says, his voice rising and mood becoming more animated.

"Give me any job -- military, police, security or worker."

In the face of regular attacks, police installed checkpoints at the village entrance, but despite this many gypsies left.

"In the village, the infrastructure was destroyed, including the water network and the electricity," explains Abbas al-Sidi, a member of the province's Human Rights Commission.

"The attacks, mostly by armed militias, forced the families to flee to other provinces. The number of families has fallen from 450 to 120. Those who remain are the poorest."

The number of Roma in Iraq, according to tribal chiefs, is estimated at 60,000. Their hopes of a better life in the country with a population of 30 million people appear slim.

"Islam considers them to be deviants," declares Hafiz Mutashar, a religious dignitary in Diwaniyah.

"They commit prostitution which is forbidden under Islam. It is normal that our community considers them inferior and insists that they be isolated."

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