Searching for the Roma in Bam
by Ana Oprisan
At my arrival in Teheran on the 15th of January 2004, for the future departure to Bam earthquake area, where I coordinate now the IBC (International Blue Crescent Relief and Development Foundation) field operation, I had a very touching welcoming by the Zargars Roma in Teheran. They took me to their locality, near Teheran, in Quelash, where the number of the Zargars is of 1,000 people. The community leader, Nusret Aga is one of the proudest Roma persons I ever met because of his identity. Nusret Aga, besides speaking Turkish and Persian, is fluent in Romanes (a dialect very similar to Kalderash), and he passed the commitment to the mother tongue to all the other members of the family. Nusret Aga proudly showed me around what the Roma in his community were doing. He took me to the family’s bread factory, where he wrote on the window and he expressly wanted me to photograph him next to this inscription: “Maru Romany” (Roma Bread). They are also in the process of building a Cultural Center which is going to be headed by a famous member of the family, Dr. Zargar, the doctor of president Imam Khomeini. They say that, two years ago, before managing to get in touch with other Roma outside Iran, they really thought that they “were the only Roma in the world”, as Javad, the English speaker of the family and son of Nusret Aga said between smiles.
After getting in contact with the Roma International Congress this year, for the first time, a Roma leader from the Middle East, Nusret Aga, was invited to attend the 2004 Roma Congress.
Besides the Zargars in Teheran, it is said that in the Qazvin area there are Roma who speak Romanes mixed with Turkish. Also, there is information on the fact that there are also Roma living in the towns of Seravan and Zahedan. In the town of Sirdjan (near Kerman) there is also a big family called Zargar and some people say that they do speak also another language than Persian, but due to the fact that the Zargars in Teheran have no relation with the other Roma groups in other parts of Iran, they cannot say if that particular language is Romanes or not. In Shiraz (located in Fars province, in the South of Iran) can be encountered families that are group related with the Zargars (“zargar” in Persian means “goldsmith”) from Teheran, called “Kizilbash”—a well known specific religious group in Turkey (for the impossibility of using diacritics, both the “i” letters in this word must be read as the letter used in the Turkish word “kirmizi” or as in Romanian “cintec”). Also, as a religious identification, the Zargars are Muslim Shia (believers in the Prophet Ali).
During the assessment work done in a neighborhood (Zeid, in Razmandegan zone of Bam) where IBC intends to build a health center, there was someone saying that in that particular area lived also the Gypsies… Therefore, when Nusret Aga’s son Javad came to Bam, he joined me in searching for the Roma in the mentioned neighborhood. Walking around on Buali street and trying to encounter somebody, we met some members of a minority group in Bam, called Siyahune, having as obvious trace a very dark skin and a limited relation with the majority. Unfortunately, because of their skin and the closed lifestyle, some people in the area considered them as being Gypsy. It is also said that this group came a long time ago in to the area from Africa and Pakistan and that they have different names than the locals. When we asked what kind of names, we could understand that many of them were actually originating from Turkish (like Elmas). Also one partition of their group is named “siyah” which means “black” both in Turkish and Persian. Besides the Siyahune people, there were other “not wanted” different people who used to live in the area before the earthquake and who moved and installed their tents separately in another part of the town. Those were the “Lurestani”. They have their origins in the Lurestan and Shiraz areas (this last one with an appreciable Roma community) from the center of Fars province of Iran. They were nomads at origin, and because of their original occupation they are still called “gavbaz” or “dambaz” (people dealing with cows and also with some kind of wild buffalos). Here Javad says that his grand father also was a very well known “gavbaz” and that he was also famous for his talent as a matador. We set and talked for a while in one of the tents of the Lori people and at Javad’s language oral questionnaire they had the following answers: puni = water, muni = bread, haki = eye, change = arm, kol = leg, haltup = stand-up, namita = hot, didi = cigarette, qlurik = black, sefid = white.
One of Javad’s dilemma was why was I insisting on finding the “Gypsies also”…, as in his opinion the Gypsies are the ones traveling around and not having a settled life and they are something else than the Roma (especially different than the Zargars). Besides separating the “Roma” from the “Gypsies” as groups, he also says that they do not consider as being Roma those people who do not speak Romani language. I must say that this differentiation between “Roma” and “Gypsy”, whatever this could be judged as (difference of status, lifestyle, etc.), can be easily encountered at some communities of the Roma in Turkey who differentiate the “Romanlar” (Roma) from the “Cingeneler” (Gypsies). In this case, most of the time, the “Roma” are the ones settled, who achieved or aim to achieve a certain status in the society, and the “Gypsies” are the nomads (or only sometimes the Christian Roma).