Small groups of middle-aged men were shooting up heroin next to kids who were selling flowers on the street that led to Hussein´s home in downtown Tehran. I was accompanying an Iranian journalist who was about to meet Hussein´s family for a piece on nomadic culture in Iran. Hussein´s family belongs to the estimated 70´000 undocumented gypsies that are living in the Islamic Republic. Most of them maintained their own language as well as their nomadic culture and are therefore not very well integrated in the Islamic society. Although the government made several efforts to better include this ethnic minority into the system, they still pretty much live in a parallel society with its own financial and legal systems.

Responding the king´s call

According to the legend reported in the shahnameh of ferdowsi, the national epic of Greater Iran, the gypsies were brought to Persia by the Sasanian king Bahrām V Gōr towards the end of his reign (421-439).

As Bahrām realized that his poor subordinates could not afford to enjoy music, he asked the king of India to send him ten thousand lute playing experts, so called luris, in order to entertain the poor. Each luri-family was given an ox and a donkey so they could live from agriculture and play music to their fellow Persian farmers for free. However, the luris ate the ox and returned to the king with hollowed cheeks after one year, asking for more food. The king furiously sent them away because he was disappointed with their wasteful behaviour. This is how the Indian luris supposedly became nomads in Persia.

Guards of the treasure

Another legend, however, suggests that the Persian king employed the Indian gypsies because they were famous for their fighting skills. He wanted them to guard and carry back a precious treasure that he obtained in an India expedition. Once they successfully brought the treasure back to Persia, the king allowed them to stay. Howsoever the real story, the Iranian gypsies are still today well-known for both their musical talent as well as their fighter honor.

Musical talent and fighter honor: A descendant of the luris. Picture: Sahar Fadaian (16. October 2014)
Musical talent and fighter honor: A descendant of the luris. Picture: Sahar Fadaian (16. October 2014)

Until today, the gypsies usually earn a living by playing music, repairing tools and selling goods on the streets. However, most of the Iranian gypsies live in poor conditions with child labour, prostitution, drug use and violence not being unusual. Due to their nomadic lifestyle they are excluded from a big part of the civil life. Most of them don´t own identity cards and are therefore not registered in the social system. Their non-islamic marriages are usually not recognized by the law, they are not allowed to use banking services such as credits or mortgages and their kids don´t go to school (regularly).

Living two different lifes

Hussein welcomed us with a big smile, as we arrived in the backyard of his appartment. Loud sounds blasted out of a rustic music studio in the basement of the house. Together with his wife, his three kids and another family Hussein lives in a poorly furnished two-room appartment in the first floor. Apart from the carpet, the TV and the empty fridge there were not many items in the room. However, Hussein´s family seemed happy with this frugal life.

Plain furnishing: Living room of a gypsy family. Picture: Sahar Fadaian. (16. October 2014)
Plain furnishing: Living room of a gypsy family. Picture: Sahar Fadaian. (16. October 2014)

The family father explained that his ḡarbālband tribe only lives in Tehran during winter. It is the working period where they live a poor life and generate the money for the summer. When I realized that they didn´t offer us tea – a very basic gesture of Iranian hospitality – I understood how penny-wise their winter lifestyle actually is. However, things seem to change dramatically during summer, when Hussein´s tribe travels through the north and lives the good life. When I asked Hussein whether he feels more at home in Tehran or in the north he immediately replied: “In the north, of course.” Paradoxically Hussein´s family speaks their native language in Tehran and speaks farsi “at home”. Apparently they also curse less in the north where they generally wear better clothes too:

„We live two different lifes in summer and winter.“

In summer, a series of wild parties and marriages takes place. The gypsies definitely know how to party. The parties, however, are more than just an opportunity to forget about the existential winter-worries and to celebrate an excessive lifestyle: They are the foundation of a complex credit lending system that the gypsies have set up in order to circumvent the official banking services which they are not allowed not use.

A parallel credit system

If a gypsy needs money, he organizes a wedding for his child or just an ordinary party and invites everyone he knows. All the guests who attend the party have to give a certain amount of money to the host. He will have to pay back the money when they reversely invite him to their party. That way the community can provide relatively big credits for its members. The solvency of this system, however, is not very stable. It seems that the gypsies´ use of ressources has not become a lot more sustainable since king Bahrām´s reign.

Living from hand to mouth: A gypsy with his dogs. Picture: Sahar Fadaian (16. October 2014)
Living from hand to mouth: A gypsy with his dogs. Picture: Sahar Fadaian (16. October 2014)

Hussein shows us his accounting book with all the payments he has received and all the contributions that he has made to other people. His face darkens as he looks at the numbers. In his last party he received 40 Million Tomam (13´000 Dollar), enough to buy an appartment in Tehran.

On alcohol and drugs

He explains that he will be invited to many parties next summer and that he doesn´t know how he will come up with all the amounts of money due to pay back his debts. He is worried because he didn´t invest his money wisely. On the contrary. He spent it all on alcohol and drugs:

“I hope they are not going to kill me.”

As most of the Iranian gypsies are also excluded from the legal system, they settle disputes themselves – sometimes with knives. Hussein shows me some of his scars after he recognizes my sceptical look. “Maybe I will have to marry my oldest daughter off to another family”, Hussein says looking at his eight year old.

Subject to governmental intervention: A mother with her daughter. Picture: Sahar Fadaian (16. October 2014)

Most of the gypsy marriages are arranged and take place at a very young age. It is a lucrative way for the family to make quick money but it also imposes a threat to the kids. In some severe cases of young marriages the authorities intervened and took custody of the children, separating them from their families.

An exceptional cultural phenomenon

On the way back I discussed the role of the authorities with the journalist whom I accompanied. She has a contrasting opinion on the issue: “On the one hand I think it is important that the authorities try to take care of the children who are endangered by their families. Many of them work long hours on the streets of downtown Tehran, selling goods in the traffic jam and providing for their parents´ drug habits. On the other hand separating a gypsy kid from its family can cause more problems than it is solving. They become very vulnerable once they are separated from their peers.” In case of doubt, however, she would prefer not to intervene in the gypsies´ lifes. The government should respect the gypsies for what they are – an exceptional cultural phenomenon with a distinct history and culture.