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English Gipsies and Their Language, by Charles G. Leland, [1874], at


Difficulty of obtaining Information.—The Khedivé on the Gipsies.—Mr Edward Elias.—Mahomet introduces me to the Gipsies.—They call themselves Tatâren.—The Rhagarin or Gipsies at Boulac.—Cophts.—Herr Seetzen on Egyptian Gipsies.—The Gipsy with the Monkey in Cairo.—Street-cries of the Gipsy Women in Egypt. Captain Newbold on the Egyptian Gipsies.

Since writing the foregoing pages, and only a day or two after one of the incidents therein described, I went to Egypt, passing the winter in Cairo and on the Nile. While waiting in the city for the friend with whom I was to ascend the mysterious river, it naturally occurred to me, that as I was in the country which many people still believe is the original land of the Gipsies, it would be well worth my while to try to meet with some, if any were to be found.

It is remarkable, that notwithstanding my inquiries from many gentlemen, both native and foreign, including savans and beys, the only educated person I ever met in Egypt who was able to give me any information on the subject of its Gipsies was the Khedivé or Viceroy himself, a fact which will not seem strange to those who are aware of the really wonderful extent of his knowledge of the country which he rules. I had been but a few days in Cairo when, at an interview with the Khedivé, Mr Beardsley, the American Consul, by whom I was presented, mentioned to his Highness that I was interested in the subject of the Gipsies, upon which the Khedivé said that there were in Egypt many people known as “Rhagarin” (Ghagarin), who were probably the same as the “Bohémiens” or Gipsies of Europe. His words were, as nearly as I can remember, as follows:—

“They are wanderers who live in tents, and are regarded with contempt even by the peasantry. Their women tell fortunes, tattoo,  189 and sell small-wares; the men work in iron (quincaillerie). They are all adroit thieves, and noted as such. The men may sometimes be seen going around the country with monkeys; in fact, they appear to be in all respects the same people as the Gipsies of Europe.”

This was all that I could learn for several days; for though there were Gipsies—or “Egypcians”—in Egypt, I had almost as much trouble to find them as Eilert Sundt had to discover their brethren in Norway. In speaking of the subject to Mr Edward Elias, a gentleman well known in Egypt, he most kindly undertook to secure the aid of the chief of police, who in turn had recourse to the Shekh of the Gipsies. But the Shekh I was told was not himself a Gipsy, and there were none of his subjects in Cairo. After a few days, three wanderers, supposed to be Rommany, were arrested; but on examination they proved to be ignorant of any language except Arabic. Their occupation was music and dancing “with a stick;” in fact, they were performers in those curious and extremely ancient Fescennine farces, or Atellanæ, which are depicted on ancient vases, and are still acted on the roads in Egypt as they were in Greece before the days of Thespis. Then I was informed that Gipsies were often encamped near the Pyramids, but research in this direction was equally fruitless.

Remembering what his Highness had told me, that Gipsies went about exhibiting monkeys, I one day, on meeting a man bearing an ape, endeavoured to enter into conversation with him. Those who know Cairo can imagine with what result! In an instant we were surrounded by fifty natives of the lower class, jabbering, jeering, screaming, and begging—all intent, as it verily seemed, on defeating my object. I gave the monkey-bearer money; instead of thanking me, he simply clamoured for more, while the mob became intolerable, so that I was glad to make my escape.

At last I was successful. I had frequently employed as donkey-driver an intelligent and well-behaved man named Mahomet, who spoke English well, and who was familiar with the byways of Cairo. On asking him if he could show me any Rhagarin, he replied that every Saturday there was a fair or market held at Boulac, where I would be sure to meet with women of the tribe. The men, I was told, seldom ventured into the city, because they were subject to much insult and ill-treatment from the common people. On the day appointed I rode to the market, which was extremely interesting. There were thousands of blue-shirted and red-tarbouched or white-turbaned Egyptians, buying or selling, or else merely amusing themselves; dealers in sugar-cane, pipe-pedlars, and vendors of rosaries; jugglers and minstrels. At last we came to a middle-aged woman seated on the ground behind a basket containing beads, glass armlets, and similar trinkets. She was dressed like any Arab woman of the lower class, but was not veiled, and on her chin blue lines were tattooed. Her features and whole expression were, however, evidently Gipsy.

I spoke to her in Rommany, using such words as would have been intelligible to any of the race in England, Germany, or Turkey; but she did not understand me, and declared that she could speak nothing but Arabic. At my request Mahomet explained to her that I had travelled from a distant country in “Orobba,” where there were many Rhagarin who declared that their fathers came from Egypt, and that I wished to know if any in the latter country could speak the old language. She replied that the Rhagarin of “Montesinos” could still speak it, but that her people in Egypt had lost the tongue. Mahomet declared that Montesinos meant Mount Sinai or Syria. I then asked her if the Rhagarin had no peculiar name for themselves, and she replied, “Yes, we call ourselves Tatâren.”

This was at least satisfactory. All over Southern Germany and in Norway the Rommany are sailed Tatâren; and though the word means Tartars, and is simply a misapplied term, it indicates a common race. The woman seemed to be very much gratified at the interest I manifested in her people. I gave her a double piastre, and asked for its value in blue-glass armlets. She gave me two pair, and as I turned to depart called me back, and with a good-natured smile handed me four more as a present. This generosity was very Gipsy-like, and very unlike the usual behaviour of any common Egyptian.

While on the Nile, I inquired of people in different towns if they had ever seen Gipsies where they lived, and was invariably answered in the negative. Remembering to have read in some book a statement that the Ghawâzi or dancing-girls formed a tribe by themselves, and spoke a peculiar language, I asked an American who has lived for many years in Egypt if he thought they could be Gipsies. He replied that an English lady of title, who had also been for a long time in the country, had formed this opinion. But when I questioned dancing-girls myself, I found them quite ignorant of any language except Arabic, and knowing nothing relating to the Rommany. Two Ghawâzi whom I saw had, indeed, the peculiarly brilliant eyes and general expression of Gipsies. The rest appeared to be Egyptian-Arab; and I found on inquiry that one of the latter had really been a peasant girl who till within seven months had worked in the fields, while two others were occupied alternately with field-work and dancing.

At the market in Boulac, Mahomet took me to a number of Rhagarin. They all resembled the one whom I have described, and were all occupied in selling exactly the same class of articles. They all differed slightly, as I thought, from the ordinary Egyptians in their appearance, and were decidedly unlike them, in being neither importunate for money nor disagreeable in their manners. But though they were certainly Gipsies, none of them would speak Rommany, and I doubt very much if they could have done so.

Bonaventura Vulcanius, who in 1597 first gave the world a specimen of Rommany in his curious book “De Literis et Lingua Getarum” (which specimen, by the way, on account of its rarity, I propose to republish in another work), believed that the Gipsies were Nubians; and others, following in his track, supposed they were really Cophtic Christians (Pott, “Die Zigeuner,” &c., Halle, 1844, p. 5). And I must confess that this recurred forcibly to my memory when, at Minieh, in Egypt, I asked a Copht scribe if he were Muslim, and he replied, “La, ana Gipti” (“No, I am a Copht”), pronouncing the word Gipti, or Copht, so that it might readily be taken for “Gipsy.” And learning that romi is the Cophtic for a man, I was again startled; and when I found tema (tem, land) and other Rommany words in ancient Egyptian (vide Brugsch, “Grammaire,” &c.), it seemed as if there were still many mysteries to solve in this strange language.

Other writers long before me attempted to investigate Egyptian Gipsy, but with no satisfactory result. A German named Seetzen ascertained that there were Gipsies both in Egypt and Syria, and wrote (1806) on the subject a MS., which Pott (“Die Zigeuner,” &c.) cites largely. Of these Roms he speaks as follows: “Gipsies are to be found in the entire Osmanli realm, from the limits of Hungary into Egypt. The Turks call them Tschinganih; but the Syrians and Egyptians, as well as themselves, Nury, in the plural El Naúar. It was on the 24th November 1806 when I visited a troop of them, encamped with their black tents in an olive grove, to the west side of Naplos. They were for the greater part of a dirty yellow complexion, with black hair, which hung down on the side from where it was parted in a short plait, and their lips are mulatto-like.” (Seetzen subsequently remarks that their physiognomy is precisely like that of the modern Egyptians.) “The women had their under lips coloured dark blue, like female Bedouins, and a few eaten-in points around the mouth of like colour. They, and the boys also, wore earrings. They made sieves of horse-hair or of leather, iron nails, and similar small ironware, or mended kettles. They appear to be very poor, and the men go almost naked, unless the cold compels them to put on warmer clothing. The little boys ran about naked. Although both Christians and Mahometans declared that they buried their dead in remote hill corners, or burned them, they denied it, and declared they were good Mahometans, and as such buried their dead in Mahometan cemeteries.” (This corresponds to their custom in Great Britain in the past generation, and the earnestness which they display at present to secure regular burial like Christians.) “But as their instruction is even more neglected than that of the Bedouins, their religious information is so limited that one may say of them, they have either no religion at all, or the simplest of all. As to wine, they are less strict than most Mahometans. They assured me that in Egypt there were many Nury.”

The same writer obtained from one of these Syrian-Egyptian Gipsies a not inconsiderable vocabulary of their language, and says: “I find many Arabic, Turkish, and some Greek words in it; it appears to me, however, that they have borrowed from a fourth language, which was perhaps their mother-tongue, but which I cannot name, wanting dictionaries.” The words which he gives appear to me to consist of Egyptian-Arabic, with its usual admixture from other sources, simply made into a gibberish, and sometimes with one word substituted for another to hide the meaning—the whole probably obtained through a dragoman, as is seen, for instance, when he gives the word nisnaszehá, a fox, and states that it is of unknown origin. The truth is, nisnas means a monkey, and, like most of Seetzen’s “Nuri” words, is inflected with an á final, as if one should say “monkeyó.” I have no doubt the Nauár may talk such a jargon; but I should not be astonished, either, if the Shekh who for a small pecuniary consideration eagerly aided Seetzen to note it down, had “sold” him with what certainly would appear to any Egyptian to be the real babble of the nursery. There are a very few Rommany words in this vocabulary, but then it should be remembered that there are some Arabic words in Rommany.

The street-cry of the Gipsy women in Cairo is [ARABIC TEXT which cannot be reproduced] “Neduqq wanetahir!” “We tattoo and circumcise!” a phrase which sufficiently indicates their calling. In the “Deutscher Dragoman” of Dr Philip Wolff, Leipzig, 1867, I find the following under the word Zigeuner:—

“Gipsy—in Egypt, Gagrî” (pronounced more nearly ’Rh’agri), “plural Gagar; in Syria, Newarî, plural Nawar. When they go about with monkeys, they are called Kurudâti, from kird, ape. The Gipsies of Upper Egypt call themselves Saâideh—i.e., people from Said, or Upper Egypt (vide Kremer, i. 138-148). According to Von Gobineau, they are called in Syria Kurbati, [ARABIC TEXT which cannot be reproduced] (vide ‘Zeitschrift der D. M. G.,’ xi. 690).”

More than this of the Gipsies in Egypt the deponent sayeth not. He has interrogated the oracles, and they were dumb. That there are Roms in the land of Mizr his eyes have shown, but whether any of them can talk Rommany is to him as yet unknown.

* * * * *

Since the foregoing was printed, I have found in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Vol. XVI., Part 2, 1856, p. 285), an article on The Gipsies in Egypt, by the late Captain Newbold, F.R.S., which gives much information on this mysterious subject. The Egyptian Gipsies, as Captain Newbold found, are extremely jealous and suspicious of any inquiry into their habits and mode of life, so that he had great difficulty in tracing them to their haunts, and inducing them to unreserved communication.

These Gipsies are divided into three kinds, the Helebis, Ghagars (Rhagarin), and Núris or Náwer. Of the Rhagars there are sixteen thousand. The Helebi are most prosperous of all these, and their women, who are called Fehemis, are the only ones who practice fortune-telling and sorcery. The male Helebis are chiefly ostensible dealers in horses and cattle, but have a bad character for honesty. Some of them are to be found in every official department in Egypt, though not known to be Gipsies—(a statement which casts much light on the circumstance that neither the chief of police himself nor the Shekh of the Rhagarin, with all their alleged efforts, could find a single Gipsy for me). The Helebis look down on the Rhagarin, and do not suffer their daughters to intermarry with them, though they themselves marry Rhagarin girls. The Fehemi, or Helebi women, are noted for their chastity; the Rhagarin are not. The men of the Rhagarin are tinkers and blacksmiths, and sell cheap jewellery or instruments of iron and brass. Many of them are athletes, mountebanks, and monkey-exhibitors; the women are rope-dancers and musicians. They are divided into classes, bearing the names of Romani, Meddahin, Ghurradin, Barmeki (Barmecides), Waled Abu Tenna, Beit er Rafái, Hemmeli, &c. The Helebis and Rhagarin are distinctly different in their personal appearance from the other inhabitants of Egypt, having the eyes and expression peculiar to all Gipsies. Captain Newbold, in fact, assumes that any person “who remains in Egypt longer than the ordinary run of travellers, and roams about the streets and environs of the large towns, can hardly fail to notice the strange appearance of certain females, whose features at once distinguish them from the ordinary Fellah Arabs and Cophts of the country.”

“The Nuris or Náwers are hereditary thieves, but are now (1856) employed as police and watchmen in the Pacha’s country estates. In Egypt they intermarry with the Fellahin or Arabs of the soil, from whom, in physical appearance and dress, they can hardly be distinguished. Outwardly they profess Mohammedanism, and have little intercourse with the Helebis and Ghagars (or Rhagarin).”

Each of these tribes or classes speak a separate and distinct dialect or jargon. That of the Rhagarin most resembles the language spoken by the Kurbáts, or Gipsies of Syria. “It seems to me probable,” says Captain Newbold, “that the whole of these tribes had one common origin in India, or the adjacent countries on its Western frontier, and that the difference in the jargons they now speak is owing to their sojourn in the various countries through which they have passed. This is certain, that the Gipsies are strangers in the land of Egypt.”

I am not astonished, on examining the specimens of these three dialects given by Captain Newbold, with the important addition made by Mr W. Burckhardt Barker, that I could not converse with the Rhagarin. That of the Náwers does not contain a single word which would be recognised as Rommany, while those which occur in the other two jargons are, if not positively either few and far between, strangely distorted from the original. A great number are ordinary vulgar Arabic. It is very curious that while in England such a remarkably large proportion of Hindustani words have been preserved, they have been lost in the East, in countries comparatively near the fatherland—India.

I would, in conclusion to this work, remark that numbers of Rommany words, which are set down by philologists as belonging to Greek, Slavonian, and other languages, were originally Hindu, and have only changed their form a little because the wanderers found a resemblance to the old word in a new one. I am also satisfied that much may be learned as to the origin of these words from a familiar acquaintance with the vulgar dialects of Persia, and such words as are not put down in dictionaries, owing to their provincial character. I have found, on questioning a Persian gentleman, that he knew the meaning of many Rommany words from their resemblance to vulgar Persian, though they were not in the Persian dictionary which I used.

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