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Migrations West to East in the Times of the
e Example of a Gypsy/Roma Group in Modern Iran
Elena Marushiakova and Vesselin Popov
Abstract: is article presents the community of the Romanies/Gypsies called
the Zargar, who live in contemporary Iran. For centuries the Zargar had not been
aware of the existence of other Gypsies. Only nowadays, with the means of mod-
ern telecommunications, including the Internet, have representatives of the Zargar
‘discovered’ that there are other Roma in the world, and they have begun look-
ing for their place within the international Romani community. Lacking a clear
memory of their own past, the Zargar are trying to construct such a history and an
extended identity, while establishing contact with their ‘kin’ in Europe.
Keywords: Gypsies, Iran, migration, oral history, Ottoman Empire, Roma, Zargar
e Iranian Gypsy community that calls itself Zargar (meaning ‘goldsmith’ in
Farsi) was introduced to academia for the rst time through an article by the
famous Iranian scholar Gernot Windfuhr (1970). Windfuhr paid particular
attention to the native tongue of this community, which turned out to be
Romani, the language of the European Gypsy diaspora (Matras 2002) and a
dialect of the so-called Balkan group. is revelation created a scientic sensa-
tion because nobody expected that Gypsies of the Romani subdivision would
be found living so far to the east. e nearest Romani communities who speak
the same dialect are found in race in north-western Greece, more than 1,000
kilometres away from Iran, in a very dierent linguistic environment (Turk-
ish and Greek). e obvious conclusion is that the Zargar are migrants whose
origins are in the Balkan region.
Aer the publication of Windfuhr’s article, none of the researchers from
Europe in the eld of Romani studies managed to establish contact with rep-
resentatives of the Zargar until 2002. In the summer of that year, on a mailing
Anthropology of the Middle East, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 2010: 93–99 © Berghahn Journals
NOTES FROM THE FIELD
94 ← Elena Marushiakova and Vesselin Popov
list dedicated to Gypsy aairs (‘Patrin’, 26 August 2002), we read the following
message (original spelling retained, reecting the level of knowledge of the
Hello to all of the roma. We … are the rom of iran. We are familiar with your
site and other sites about roma. We are 15,000 persons rom in iran and we have
relationship to yether and we are happy for this. We knew hat there are rom in the
other countries but we couldn’t prove this. Until we saw your site on the Internet
and we were be very happy. One hundred years ago we tolourated much hardness
and trouble and we hope to cure these with you (all of the roma) until we enjoy of
our life … good luck.
e next steps for establishing contact between the Zargar and other Roma
were made in 2004, when Anna Oprisan, coordinator of the International Blue
Crescent Relief and Development Foundation, met representatives of the Zar-
gar community in Tehran and arranged an invitation for them to participate
in that year’s International Romani Studies Conference in Istanbul (Oprisan
2004). At this same conference in the following year, we had the opportunity
to meet and talk to two male representatives of the Zargar community, whom
we will call N.Z. and A.Z. (in order to respect their privacy). It was a truly
unique chance to learn more and to receive rst-hand information through
informal talks about one of the least studied and, apart from linguistics, almost
unknown Roma communities in the world.
Earlier publications on the Zargar are devoted to their language and its dis-
tinctive features (Baghbidi 2003; Tehrānizāde-ye Qučāni 1991; Xādemoššari’e-e
Sāmāni 1994; Windfuhr 1970, 2002). erefore, in our conversations with the
two Zargar, we paid more attention to the oral history, way of life and ethno-
cultural characteristics of the community. On the basis of an analysis of our
notes – written down aer each of our numerous conversations with N.Z. and
A.Z. in Istanbul, during the conference, in the hotel and while walking around
the city – it is possible to make a preliminary reconstruction of the history of
the community and their migration to Iran.
e numbers of the Zargar living in Iran are dicult to determine with
precision. N.Z. quoted dierent gures on several occasions. In person, he
claimed that there are about 200 large families, while his son J.Z., in a series
of letters via the Internet mailing group network, asserted that there are about
15,000 individuals. Given the population of a large Zargar family (including
married sons and their children), a realistic gure is between 2,000 and 3,000,
with a maximum of 3,000 to 4,000.
e Zargar live mainly in the Tehran province in two principal villages:
Zargarha and Gheshlagh Zargarha. Until the early 1980s, they were nomads,
moving smiths and herdsman tending mainly sheep and goats. At the time of
the Shah (i.e. prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979), the Zargar were oered
the lands of their summer or winter settlements, and they settled in their sum-
mer ones. Today they are mainly farmers, and among them are many musicians,
Migrations West to East in the Ottoman Empire → 95
some quite famous in the region. N.Z. owns a small bakery in Gheshlagh Zar-
garha called Maru Romanu (maru means ‘bread’ in Romani), but he is also a
professional musician, singing and performing on the saz, a traditional Persian
instrument. He has recorded a CD of songs in Farsi, but the title track is in the
e community members clearly consider themselves to be a distinct ethnic
group. ey call themselves Roma or Zargar, depending on which language
they speak (Roma is used only when speaking in Romani). Non-Zargar are
called gadzhe, and a gore is a person, not Romani by birth, who has married
one of them and has been adopted into the community. In fact, most of them
bear the family name Zargar, but this family name can be also found among
members of other ethnic communities in Iran. ere are internal divisions
among the Zargar into dierent tribes, for example, Chukorlu, Pashalar, Sala-
tonlu, Sardom and Sayfon, among others. It is said that the Sardom and Sayfon
peoples now live scattered in dierent cities and that they are losing their
native tongue and slowly dropping out of their communities.
Although the majority of the Zargar live in the villages Zargarha and Ghesh-
lagh Zargarha, some individuals have moved to other cities in Iran, mainly
to the capital Tehran. Entire families are now living in other cities, such as
Abadan, Khoy, Salmas, Shiraz, Urumieh and Quchan (in the distant province
of Khorasan). e Zargar community is endogamous. Until recently, inhabit-
ants of the two villages married only within their borders, but a recent practice
is to take women from the next village. e goal is not to have girls marrying
outside the community. It is preferred to solve problems together within the
community, with consultations taking place between adult male heads of the
families (the aksakal), instead of turning to the authorities.
e Zargar in Iran are trilingual and use dierent languages in dierent
social contexts. Farsi is the ocial language and is used in the public domain.
Turkish (Azeri dialect) is spoken in north-western Iran, and Romani is the
language for domestic use. e Zargar share the religion of the region’s popu-
lation, Shi’a Islam. Generally, men may have up to four wives, and although in
the past there have been such cases, in the families of the Zargar there is usu-
ally one wife. e men are good musicians, and they are oen invited to play
at weddings and other festive gatherings in the region. ey celebrate holidays
(lulu di’s, literally, ‘red days’, in Romani) that are observed by the surrounding
population (e.g. Ramazan, Nowruz, etc.) and do not have their own Gypsy hol-
idays. At marriages among the Zargar, many people gather. A room with the
wedding dowry of the bride is made ready. e women ceremoniously bathe,
light candles and walk around the house with them. e bride is painted with
henna, and this part of the ceremony is attended only by women. Our inform-
ants, N.Z. and A.Z., were not able to point out any dierence or particularity
compared to other marriage ceremonies in Iran, but they insisted that this is
their own ethnically specic pattern of Zargar weddings. is conrms the
well-known principle of social sciences and humanities, that is, that there are
96 ← Elena Marushiakova and Vesselin Popov
no ethnic-specic elements in any culture per se. e separate elements are
regarded as ethnic markers, serving to distinguish between peoples and shap-
ing borders among communities, only aer they are perceived and rationalised
as ethnically specic (Anderson 1983; Barth 1969; Hobsbawm 1992).
According to the statements of our informants, the Zargar have no clear
memory of the history of their community, and at the moment they are trying
to reconstruct it – or, more accurately, to construct it. A legend, recorded dec-
ades ago by Windfuhr (1970: 289), tells that the Zargar community was cre-
ated by three brothers (Ahmad, Seyfolah and Zabdolmalek), all of whom were
cunning master goldsmiths. ey lived in Rom (an unspecied location in the
Ottoman Empire) and were invited by Nader Shah (1736–1747) to settle in the
lands of present-day Iran. e legend recounts that the brothers were granted
lands in dierent places (including the region of the two villages inhabited
by Zargar today) for their summer and winter pastures, and that they were
exempted from various taxes and military duties. e Zargar beneted from
these privileges up until the rule of Ahmad Shah (1909–1930), when they were
retracted. e documents from the time of Nader Shah were burned by an
insane woman, so the former rights cannot be recovered.
is story is not common for all of the Zargar. In our conversations, A.Z. said
that he has always been interested in his community’s origin and that he had
questioned his grandmother and grandfather. e only response he received
was that their ancestors resided in Shiraz and that they had come from Sham
(Damascus) via Syria. A.Z. himself thought at rst, because of the ethnonym
used in his mother tongue, that they had come from Romania, then from
Rome. He began to read and write on the Internet, buying every source he
could nd about Gypsies, and nally came to understand who they really are.
He then developed his own version of the history of the community. According
to A.Z., the Zargar lived somewhere in the Middle East and fought valiantly
in the wars of the Ottoman Empire against the armies of Timur (Tamerlane).
Aer the battle in Angora (Ankara) in 1402, they were carried away as captives
to Iran, where some of them adopted the name Kazılbash.
Explanations given today by the Zargar about the reason for settling in Iran
are based on a contemporary reading of the name Zargar. It must be noted,
however, that nowhere – neither in the historical sources nor in the oral his-
tory of the community – is there any hint of goldsmithing. Traditional occupa-
tions have been itinerant herdsman or smithy, musician, tradesman, but never
anything pertaining to gold or its mining, which is a business linked to perma-
nent settlement in larger urban centres. References to Shiraz are not accidental,
however. Aer their migration to Iran, the Zargar appear to have adapted to
the rhythms of the surrounding population’s pastoral nomadism. Initially act-
ing as service providers, the Zargar were later included with their own herds
in the main nomadic ows, migrating seasonally between the region of Shiraz
and the province Fars in the south (where their winter pastures were located)
to their settlements in the north (where their summer pastures were located).
Migrations West to East in the Ottoman Empire → 97
From today’s perspective, it is very dicult to understand the history of the
Zargar, based on the available data. In the course of our conversations with
the two Zargar, we conducted a short linguistic test, the purpose of which is
to identify and analyse Romani dialects. We asked our colleague Yaron Matras
(who developed the test) to undertake a linguistic analysis of it. According to
Matras, the Zargar in Iran speak a dialect of Romani language from the so-
called Balkan group that is very similar to the dialects spoken in north-west-
ern Greece today. Based on the results of the linguistic test, the time that the
Zargar le the Balkans can be dated to two or three centuries ago, around the
late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. During the Ottoman Empire,
the movement of people for temporary employment and even permanent mass
migrations were common phenomena. Moreover, by the end of the sixteenth
century and especially in the seventeenth century, due to the widespread adop-
tion of Islam by Albanians and the following demographic explosion, large
segments of the population had spread throughout the Balkan peninsula and
beyond. is included, of course, the Gypsies and perhaps also the ancestors
of today’s Krimurja, who reached the Crimean peninsula in the second half of
the eighteenth century (Marushiakova and Popov 2004, 2005). e possibility
for a Gypsy group to migrate from Epirus and reach Syria (as narrated in the
oral history of the community) is neither unusual nor impossible. Why the
ancestors of the Zargar migrated from the Middle East to Iran, however, is a
question that has no answer.
Settling in the land of Iran, the Zargar quickly entered the general structure
of the many dierent population groups with nomadic lifestyles. Just a few
decades ago, there was even an attempt to create something like a coalition/
confederation of nomadic peoples in which the Zargar participated. Much
more complex, however, is how to include the Zargar in the overall picture of
the various Gypsy and Gypsy-like communities in present-day Iran. Another
major problem is the double meaning of the word ‘Gypsy’. In Central and
Eastern Europe, ‘Gypsy’ is always understood in ethnic terms as referring to a
specic people, the descendants of early migrants from India. In the Western
academic world, the dominant concept has been that ‘Gypsy’ is an expression
of a lifestyle. In this view, the term encompasses communities from dierent
ethnic origins who lead a nomadic lifestyle. Such relapses or echoes of this
approach can be found in various forms and in many studies still being con-
ducted. (e.g. Barth 1961; Ivano et al. 1997; White 1922).
In conclusion, it is not clear what is meant by Gypsies in the academic lit-
erature on Iran. Quite dierent peoples, such as the Qarachi, Sozmani, Mıtrıp,
Navar, Gadzhar, Kauli/Koli, Korbati/Gorbati, Dzhuki/Chuki, Luli, Luri and
many others, have been categorised under this label (see Berland and Rao
2004; Hamzeh’ee 2002; Ivanov 1914, 1920; Kenrick 2000; Patkanov 1887; Rao
1987; Williams 2000). Some of these communities, like the Qarachi, Sozmani,
Mıtrıp and Navar, who live in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries,
are undoubtedly Gypsies in the Eastern European sense of the word, that is,
98 ← Elena Marushiakova and Vesselin Popov
descendants of migrants from India, from the Dom subdivision (most of them
having lost their original language). Others are probably representatives of
Gypsy-like communities. At this stage, however, without new ethnological and
linguistic studies, it is very dicult to outline an overall picture of the various
Gypsy and Gypsy-like communities in contemporary Iran.
Elena Marushiakova is head of the Department of Balkan Ethnology at the Ethno-
graphic Institute and Museum at Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, where she and
Vesselin Popov have created a specialised Romani/Gypsy studies library and
archive and are co-chairs of the Romani Studies unit. In 1991, Marushiakova and
Popov founded Minority Studies Society Studii Romani. From 2001 to 2004, they
conducted research on Gypsies in the former Soviet Union within the framework
of the research programme ‘Dierence and Integration’, initiated by the universi-
ties of Leipzig and Halle. Since 2009, Marushiakova has held the Fulbright New
Century Scholars Award from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Aairs
of the U.S. Department of State and the Council for International Exchange of
Scholars. Marushiakova and Popov have written a number of publications about
Gypsies in Bulgaria, the Balkans, and Central and Eastern Europe. eir major
publications include the rst monographic research on the history, ethnography,
social structure and culture of Gypsies, Gypsies in Bulgaria (1997), and Gypsies in
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