Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Gypsies Seek Government Protection

Community faces persecution for earning a living through prostitution, music and dancing.
By Hussein Ali

Sagban greets visitors amid the looted buildings of what used to be Iraq's National Security College, his home ever since irate neighbors ran him and his gypsy relatives out of their previous village.

A "bamb" or pimp for this encampment west of Baghdad, Sagban – like many Iraqi gypsies – makes a living through prostitution as well as supplying music and dancers for celebrations and parties.

But he and his relatives have found it difficult to support themselves through their traditional occupations since being expelled from their former village.

"We're living in terrible conditions," said Sagban, a thickset man with a drooping moustache, dressed in traditional tribal headdress and dishdasha robe. "Our clients can no longer find us.… Our source of sustenance has been cut."

Under the Baath regime – many of whose leaders were famously fond of the “kawliya” music and dancing of the gypsies – Sagban's village enjoyed police protection as well as special visits from health officials.

A high fence set the village apart from others in the conservative tribal region of Abu Ghraib.

Mouayad Salim, 35, a police officer working at Abu Ghraib’s police station, recalled how he was instructed by the former regime to turn a blind eye to lawbreaking by gypsies, ranging from prostitution to evasion of military service.

"Even the [interior] minister could not abuse or insult them," said Mouayad.

But soon after the collapse of the old regime, residents ran the gypsies out of the village.

"We decided to get rid of them because we are Muslims, and we refuse to let them live close to our families," recalled one local taxi driver. "We destroyed their houses with bulldozers. When some of them resisted, we killed them."

The gypsies said six of their neighbours were killed in the attack.

The persecution has not ended, even in their new neighbourhood.

"The gypsies annoy us – especially at night when drunks come for entertainment," grumbled Zaid Tawfiq, 40, a day labourer also squatting in the college buildings.

Abu Ghraib's gypsies want the government to resume its protection and find them a home where they can live without fear of their neighbours.

"We ask the state to give us support," said Sagban. "We want a special place to live."

The gypsy community at Abu Ghraib was not the only one to be attacked.

In February, followers of radical Shia preacher Muqtada al-Sadr assaulted the gypsy settlement of Fawar near the southern town of Diwaniya, accusing its inhabitants of kidnapping a local girl.

The gypsies fled after fighting in which several of them were injured and a Sadrist reportedly killed. The village was ransacked.

The gypsies eventually returned, and their cluster of brick buildings now receives a steady stream of visitors.

Normally, the clients drink beer before being ushered by a pimp and a madam into houses to select a prostitute, priced according to their age and appearance. While the pimp's job is to prevent disputes with clients, the madam takes care of the money.

"We harm no one. This is our means of making a living. We cannot change it, and we've lived here for dozens of years," said Ghanem, one of Fawar's pimps.

Ghanem said some of the prostitutes come from surrounding villages, and settle here by choice as a way of avoiding so-called “honour killings” by their male relatives.

Twenty-seven year old Suad is one of those. "I left my family seven years ago after having sex with my neighbour. I came here out of fear that my family would kill me," she said.

She now lives with one of the gypsy families. "They treat me as their daughter," she said.

But not all gypsies are happy with their traditional occupation.

"Why am I here?" asked Nur, a prostitute in her mid-twenties from a gypsy settlement near the eastern Iraqi town of Showmely.

Nur earns 3,000 dinars, around two US dollars, for sex with a client, while younger women may receive as much as 10,000 dinars – still only seven dollars.

"Why are we condemned to such a humiliating occupation?" she asked. "We live primitive lives and don't go to school. All we do is to satisfy others sexually, without any sense of passion."

Hussein Ali is an IWPR trainee.

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