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November 16, 2006

Jihate on Nawar

Filed under: Uncategorized — limewoody @ 8:25 am

GAZA CITY (AFP) – Seated on her doorstep in a neighborhood in Gaza City, Narem puffs discontentedly on her cigarette, then sighs: “We used to be dancers and singers. Now we are nothing.”

In Europe, they are called Gypsies or Roma. In Gaza, they are called the Nawar, a people with an ancestral tradition of song and dance who have been scattered for centuries throughout the Middle East.

But here, the rise of Islamist doctrine that accompanied the start of the second Palestinian uprising six years ago has sounded the death knoll for the Nawar way of life, pushed them into begging, and rendered them second-class citizens in a society regulated more and more by rigid rules.

“Our life was among the best. We wore the most beautiful dresses, we ate the best dishes. We sang Um Kalsum, Abdel Halim Hafez during marriages and celebrations. We were free,” says Narem, 35, quickly throwing a scarf to cover her dark, flowing hair whenever a car passes.

“We didn’t learn in schools, but in the home. With us, you begin to sing and dance while still a child,” she says. “My mother danced, my grandmother before her, and my great-grandmother also.”

For decades, the Nawar wandered from city to town in the  Gaza Strip and the wider Middle East, showing off their singing and dancing.

Fatima, 49, was a singer.

“We went from city to city, to Rafah, Khan Yunis, Jabaliya. We would set up tents and would play the oud and the drums. Some of us wandered as far as Egypt, Syria and Jordan,” Fatima sighs.

“Life was as sweet as honey,” she whispers, raising her eyes toward the sky.

The establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, following the Oslo peace accords between the Israelis and Palestinians, made it even sweeter.

Buoyed by the belief that they would soon get their own state, the Palestinians were in the mood for celebrating.

“With the arrival of the Palestinian Authority, clubs were constructed on the sea shore. There was the Sunset, the Baida,” says Sheikh Abu Mohammed, the patriarch of Gaza’s Nawar quarter.

But the eruption of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000 led by the Islamist Hamas movement — changed all that.

“The extremists burned and closed all the clubs. They said it was ‘haram,’ ‘forbidden’ that girls dance and sing,” Abu Mohammed says, dressed in his worn, faded long robe.

“Our ancient life has vanished into thin air and it will not come back,” he adds.

After the start of the second intifada, cinemas in Gaza were shut or burnt down, sale of alcohol banned, bathing suits on the beaches replaced by long-sleeved shirts and pants, and Nawar performances no longer welcomed.

“What can we do now, fly away? No, so we beg in the bazaars,” says Narem, saddened by the happy memories.

Despite the difficulties, the Nawar do not want to leave. They have been on this land for centuries and consider it their home.

“They have a very long history in the Middle East,” says Allen Williams, director of the Dom Research Center Middle East and North Africa Gypsy Studies, a rights group based in Cyprus.

“In every society, Christian or Muslim, the gypsies have gone through the same difficulties,” Williams says. “They don’t have a voice in the Middle East.

“For hundreds of years, to be singers and dancers was their traditional role in the society. It’s the only thing left to them.

“When you have isolation, no possibilities to go to school, singing and dancing is one of the last traditional skills they can learn from their parents and pass on” to their children.

Today the Nawar in Gaza live under the eye of a society that despises them at a time when violence and death have replaced celebrations.

The misery that accompanied the freeze of Western aid after Hamas formed a government in March has been exacerbated by      Israel‘s four-month offensive in Gaza after militants seized an Israeli soldier in late June.

“The outlook of the people here has changed,” Narem says. “When you sing in front of people, they look at you in a certain way. When you beg at a market, they look at you with disdain.”

“People here think that we are prostitutes and think that all of our young people are thieves,” says Hayat, Fatima’s daughter.

“In Egypt and in Jordan, there is respect for artists, but here they don’t know what the word ‘art’ means.”

Agitated, she adds defiantly: “But we are also children of the Palestinian people and we have the right to be respected and to live like everyone else.”

Today, to preserve their traditions, the Nawar hide.

“We organize family celebrations and not a single stranger can come. We sing and dance for ourselves. It’s better this way,” Hayat says.

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