Words: Elisa Spampinato, Equality in Tourism associate, Founder at Travel Storyteller
Amoun Steel is a proud gypsy woman of the Domari ethnic group and a charismatic leader. She is a self-empowered woman and a brave role model for the women of her community.
The Dom People
On 27 January I was invited by Marveh Farhoodi of Ethnomad and by Impact Travel Alliance to participate in an event that focused on the stories and experiences of the Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem, revealing a community within other communities in a divided and multi-layered city.
The online gathering shone a strong light through a small door left ajar on the history and traditions of another invisible ethnic group.
The Domari people, known also as Dom – ‘cousins’ of the Rom people, who established themselves in Romania and Eastern Europe – left India 800 years ago and, from the little we know, they apparently settled in the Middle East around 500 years ago.
The Dom community of Jerusalem, to which our protagonist belongs, is 200 years old.
Share your bread with your neighbours
Amoun’s stories engaged her audience with their rich detail, including descriptions of the great tradition of hospitality among her people.
Recalling her memories as a child, we accompanied little Amoun through the streets of the Bab al-Huta neighbourhood – around the Lion’s Gate – and we discovered that the saying ‘share your bread with your neighbour’ had a literal sense among her people.
We followed her as she took a basket full of freshly baked bread given by her granny, and we went with her door-to-door, distributing it to make sure that no one in the community went without food that day.
The pride in their ethnicity – too often condemned by the prejudice and irrational cultural fears of non-nomadic people – is pure and it has been corroborated by life. Today that pride does not allow Amoun to hide who she is and what she does, as she tells her stories like a full-time storyteller.
Her mission to use tourism to help preserve her cultural heritage and its arts and crafts speaks loudly and reaches the virtual public with the power of an untamed force in full colour. A wild, typically gypsy, combination of colour is found in every fabric – in the pillows and tablecloths, but also in the shining pigments on the elaborate embroidery so admired on the traditional dresses that women, nowadays, only wear for weddings. The colourful blend spreads also to their jewellery and food.
Moreover, the gypsy Amoun brings colour into people’s lives, with her voice and through her stories, but above all with her courage.
Kids and ‘Small Mothers’
Her wish to serve her community was born when she was about 20 years old, while watching young Domari children playing in the street instead of getting an education in the classroom. That was, and still is, a crucial social issue.
Children dropping out of school at an early age has always been a serious problem for the Dom community, discriminated against by the same schoolteachers that should provide them with an education and tools to build a better future for themselves.
Instead, both their skin, which is of a different and dark tone, as well as their distinct clothes, too often draw them apart from the other pupils, constantly making them feel unwanted and, regrettably, ashamed of themselves and their identity. For this reason, the majority don’t want to go back to those unwelcoming rooms, thus adding to their social and cultural discrimination and the consequent isolation they are condemned to as a result of their poor education and illiteracy.
She was one of those kids, unfairly a victim of a cruel prejudicial system. After being repeatedly burned with humiliation inside, she swore she wouldn’t go back to school anymore, and she never finished her studies.
She knows why the kids spend their days in the streets. She doesn’t blame them, but at the same time she foresees the consequences of a life lived at the margins of society and with no opportunities.
After ten years of providing education to such discriminated against children who were left on the streets, she decided to add a new focus to her work at the community centre and to address another potent issue.
There is no fear or anger in Amoun’s words today, but only the strength that has grown steadily through decades of hard work within the limits of a close and patriarchal society.
She told us that her idea to build the community centre had not only never received internal support, but was also laughed at from the very beginning and constantly ridiculed: within the men’s circles they even made bets on the certain failure of her project.
She opened the doors of the centre to the so-called ‘small mothers’, the young women that found themselves locked into arranged marriages by the age of 16. They are mainly illiterate and lacking professional skills, let alone the self-confidence to improve their conditions in a male dominated and controlling society.
An immense mountain to climb, scary and discouraging.
But somehow, she started to climb it.
With the help of many international volunteers and some trustworthy partners, today she continues the adventure with incredible resilience. The educational work and the capacity-building programmes that she makes available have freed many women’s lives from the mental slavery of hopelessness.
She told us that the community centre is a tiny space, but as we can see from the pictures shared, it is, as you would expect, cosy and filled with vibrantly colourful items. This the very epicentre of the new generation of female entrepreneurs and professionals that the community is nurturing in its womb.
When, during a separate interview, I asked Amoun to talk more about the success stories, she was concerned that if we emphasised those cases too much we would provide a distorted image of the reality. She worried because the cases were relatively few, and Amar, the 22-year-old first lawyer of the community, is a very exceptional case, she informed me. However, while talking to her, other women were mentioned in her story, and, like timid sprouts, they started rising from the soil of the Dom community of the Gypsies of Jerusalem.
Amoun’s sister was the first nurse that the community had produced; her niece is completing her fourth year of studying law at university, and other women that have undertaken professional and practise-oriented courses are now running their own businesses and have gained their independence and self-esteem.
Finally proud of their roots, they are happy to share them with the world, while they continue to receive follow-up from the centre so that their new journey is supported and strengthened by their peers through the ups and downs of the unpaved road they inaugurate.
Amoun hopes that as the Covid pandemic fades away there will once again be volunteers for the educational programmes, and new curious visitors that will help support the centre’s positive social, economic and cultural impacts by booking the grassroots experiences they offer. Tourism is a unique opportunity through which to get a glimpse of the community’s hidden and ancient culture, from the soil they travelled through, as well as from their art.
Visitors will be guided to understand this through tasting the spices and the herbs that enrich the community’s colourful dishes, and by learning how these are collected and used according to the season. They will learn about the artisan work that feeds their gypsy roots and makes them stronger and more alive, especially for the younger generations.
Finally, a glimpse through the festive atmosphere generated by the music that welcomes the visitors will show the connections that tie their artistic traditions to the stories of the gypsies’ nomadic journeys and their dwelling in fertile lands. Food is itself another strong element of the community’s ethnicity, rich in stories and traditions that trace back to their Indian origins, but also very modern and local, because it has adapted over the centuries to its new surroundings.
This is another chapter of the gypsies’ stories that needs to be explored and experienced first-hand and with a full mouth, in person and with plenty of time.
Today, as she has already been doing so brilliantly, Amoun carries on climbing the peaks and, importantly, continues to dream, hoping that her beloved idea of opening a ‘women’s restaurant’ will soon turn into a reality.
Whatever happens, despite the strong negative connotations that are too often attached to the word, she will always use the name ‘gypsy’ to talk about her roots.
This she will continue to do with inspiring pride.
Thanks, Amoun, for speaking up and sharing your stories!
Amoun has been featured in The Postcard Series by Traveller Storyteller.
Editor’s Note: Inspired by Amoun’s story? Read more story from women wordlwide in the tourism industry in the Women’s Stories section of our website.