In now-religious Iraq, no tolerance for Gypsies

Posted: June 06, 2005

BAGHDAD — Kamalia used to be whispered about as a place of sin, part of the decadence of Saddam Hussein's rule.

The houses in this former red-light district once bore carvings of the deposed dictator with dancing girls - the Gypsy courtesans he had installed here. Now, the walls are papered with images of another Hussein, the son of the prophet Muhammad and the most revered Shiite saint.

Today, the Gypsies are gone, and the neighborhood's name has been changed. It is called Hay al-Zahra, after the Muslim prophet's daughter.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED JUNE 7, 2005, FOLLOWS: An article in yesterday's Inquirer erred in describing the relationship of Hussein, who died in the year 680 and is revered by Shiite Muslims, to the prophet Muhammad. Hussein was Muhammad's grandson.

Most of Iraq's Gypsies, a tiny ethnic minority with roots here hundreds of years deep, have been driven out of the country since the U.S. invasion in March 2003. They came under assault as darlings of the old regime. And, as reputed alcohol sellers and prostitutes, they were told there was no place for them in an Islamic country.

Iraq was one of the most secular countries in the Middle East, but the holy warriors who have flooded it since the war and the new power of religious parties in politics have transformed it. Women who never covered themselves now don hijabs, the head scarves dictated by Islamists. Liquor shops and churches have been bombed, as have barbershops that cut hair in ways the Koran forbids.

"Now, Iraqis have become Muslims," said Akeel Hamid, 34, a former Kamalia resident and a remnant of a community of Iraqi Gypsies that once numbered 50,000. "So it's become harder for us to be here."

Hamid is now a squatter on the grounds of an air force officers' club reduced by bombs and looting during the fall of Baghdad. He lives with dozens of other Gypsies in tents improvised from dried date palm leaves, bamboo, and cardboard. The children have scabs on their feet, and barbed wire with trash in its coils litters the camp.

"We used to have very nice houses," Nadia Ali Mehsin said, crouching in her hut. "Saddam gave us the right. . . . No one could harass or annoy us."

Mehsin, 35, once owned a two-bedroom concrete house in Kamalia. It had a guest room, a spacious kitchen, a telephone, even a garage and garden. But a month after the U.S. invasion, men carrying grenades and rifles evicted them in the middle of the night, she said.

"They pushed doors in," she recalled. "They told us: 'Now we are the government. The government doesn't exist anymore and we can do whatever we want.' They told us to get out."

Mehsin said she did not know the men. But followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose army of black-clad enforcers police some sections of the country, claim responsibility for emptying Kamalia and other enclaves of Gypsies.

"They did bad things for society," said Sheikh Ahmed al-Amshani, the head of Sadr's office in Kamalia. "The girls would sit in the street wearing naked clothes. They would dance. They would sing loudly. They would try to tempt young men."

Gypsies trace their origins to India a thousand years ago. In their trek west over generations, one group branched off to Eastern Europe and another to what is now Syria and Iraq.

For centuries, they made their living as entertainers and dancers. That tradition, and its suggestion of sexuality, persists, although many Gypsies converted to Islam. A racy music video that swept the Middle East last year features Iraqi Gypsies tossing their hair and shaking their shoulders as a singer croons about eating a luscious orange to a woman clad in orange.

Gypsies have been persecuted for centuries, including under Nazi Germany. Many Iraqis associate Gypsies with the commercial sex trade, so all Gypsies have been treated harshly, even those with no connections to prostitution.

Sadr's father, a revered ayatollah assassinated by Saddam Hussein, had devoted entire sermons to calls for Gypsies to reform and had even sent envoys to their enclaves to convert them to a pious lifestyle.

"After the war, we had this great chance to get rid of them," Amshani said.

A year ago, police blamed the Mahdi Army, Sadr's militia, for driving out about 1,000 residents of a southern village known as Qawliya, Arabic shorthand for both Gypsy and prostitute. The militia said at the time that it ran into resistance while trying to rescue a girl kidnapped by the Gypsies and that neighbors razed the village. Gypsy camps in Abu Ghraib and Hillah also disbanded in recent months after Sadrist imams condemned them, Amshani said.

The cleric described gunfights between the Gypsies and "religious young men" in Kamalia that lasted a month after the toppling of Hussein. Gypsies came to him seeking protection from hostile neighbors, he said, but he could not help if they clung to prostitution.

Others said the neighborhood's Gypsies were pressured to go - but not with arms.

"The heads of clans went and asked them to leave because they gave the place a bad reputation," said resident Hussein Miklif, 25. "Everyone knew if they stayed they would hurt people's feelings."

Neighbors gave them a week to arrange their affairs, he said.

"It's clean now," Miklif said.

Regardless of whether guns triggered it, the 200 Gypsy households in the Kamalia area - so sympathetic to insurgents that there are no army or police checkpoints - have scattered.

"After the fall of the regime, their houses were raided," said Nadwa Dawood, spokeswoman for Iraq's Ministry of Displacement and Migration. "We consider them as refugees because they left their houses and are moving from place to place."

Some sold their houses cheaply or sublet them. Others simply fled in caravans to Syria and Jordan without looking back.

"The neighborhood was empty," said Abdul Mohsin Saahib, 47, who moved in two months after the war.

He looked at many houses vacated by Gypsies before settling on one. He saw paintings of scantily clad girls on the walls, rooms with cabaret stages, and others with windows opening onto the street to sell alcohol.

"They don't have religion," said Saahib's father, Hajj Jassim Mohamed, 58. He also said supplanting the Gypsies evened the score with Hussein.

"The government used to oppress other Iraqis, honest Iraqis, and bad families used to have many houses," he said. "After the war, they realized people in the neighborhood were religious and didn't want them anymore. They knew it would be dangerous for them to stay."

The family purified their house with soap and water after buying it from Gypsies. They cemented the liquor counter shut. And they hung pictures of Sadr and his father on the wall.

Another buyer said the cleric's office in Sadr City told him the house was available. Sheikh Ghaith al-Tamimi, the spokesman for the cleric in that Baghdad slum, said the office had the names of the Gypsies in Kamalia by street but stopped short of selling their houses.

"We asked them to leave the place, but we couldn't deal with their houses," he said. "But if we knew of someone who needed them, we would tell him or her to buy or rent them."

Mehsin, the squatter at the officers' club, returned to her house after being forced out. A woman with a kitchen knife greeted her, but she managed to extract three million dinars (about $2,000) for her house, she said. She called it less than a tenth of its value.

She and the other Gypsies arrived at the squatters' camp a year ago after being kicked out of refuges in a school and a military base.

"What can we do? We just don't have the money," Mehsin said. "People who could afford it left the country. Where could we go? This is our country."

Contact staff writer Gaiutra Bahadur at 215-854-2601 or bahadug@phillynews.com.

Correspondent Alaa al-Baldawy contributed to this article.

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