Borders and Nations Rendering People Absolete: the Struggle for Identity and Recognition of Dom People in Lebanon.


The creation of nation states with defined borders, modernization, as well as political and climatic change, have led numerous peripatetic groups, including the Dom people, to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and prompted numerous challenges to their livelihoods and identity.

The Dom are everywhere in Lebanon. If you have been approached by a young girl or boy selling flowers or chicklets on the street, or a woman in colourful garments offering to predict your future, it’s possible they are Dom. The common name for the Dom in Lebanon is ‘Nawar’, ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Ghajar’- words with derogatory and condescending overtones that render its people ‘uncivilised’ or ‘backward’. These words have been a major obstacle for the Dom and non-Dom. They prevent Lebanese society from acknowledging the Dom are a people with a history, culture and traditions that should be upheld and treated with respect.

The sole study of the Dom carried out by Terre des Hommes (TDH) in 2011 estimated their number to be 3,000 in Beirut and Southern Lebanon.[1] Nevertheless, marginalisation has prompted  shame which has led many Dom to hide their identity, making it difficult to find accurate figures of their exact number. What’s more, experts predict that the Domari language could become extinct in the following 60 years,  since the youth prefer Arabic.[2]  This creates a pressing need to implement measures to retain the community’s collective wisdom. My aim in this article is to encourage others to deepen their understanding of the Dom, because, put simply, each culture holds valuable knowledge that should be retained and its people celebrated, rather than marginalised for their differences.



Few Dom can recount the history of their people. It has been passed from generation to generation through folktales and myths with no written record. Experts believe that their origins can be traced back to the Domba, an Indian caste whose members were merchant nomads who specialised in entertainment and the production of goods. Between the 4th and 6th centuries some Domba communities started migrating north from central India, before venturing West.[3]  In the past, porous borders  enabled the Dom to travel back and forth between Lebanon and neighbouring countries seasonally. However, the introduction of the French Mandate for Lebanon and Syria in 1923 marked the beginning of an end to their traditional nomadic lifestyle, capturing them in a legal limbo between statelessness and citizenship.

Since national identity and citizenship became the key institutions in determining access to resources, patterns of solidarity and active civil participation, the Dom have been subject to those who ruled the country they resided in. Their integration into Lebanese society has been overshadowed by their ‘deviant’ status and a lack of knowledge of, or willingness to understand their culture. It is therefore necessary to assess the interplay between their struggle for recognition and the changes in their sense of identity created by the acquisition of Lebanese citizenship and the struggles that came with it.

What Does it Mean To Be Dom?

The question of what it means to be Dom doesn’t have a clear answer and varies from generation to generation. There does not even seem to be a consensus among those who self-identify as Dom, as to what being Dom actually means.[4]

Three Dom women spoke to me about their views on their identity and how their background, as well as their age, influenced their attitude towards ‘being Dom’.

One Dom woman told me, ‘I am proud that I am Dom, this is how I was born and it was not my choice.’ She went on to explain, ‘a lot of people don’t like to identify as Dom because people have a very negative perception of them.’ The separation from their homeland and disruption of their traditions often means younger generations take more interest in the language of their adopted country, and therefore also that identity.[5]

Another young Lebanese woman claimed being Dom does not mean anything to her, since she does not speak the language, and identifies as Lebanese.[6]

In fact, only one quarter of Dom children in Lebanon speak Domari,[7]  with many families no longer teaching it to their children in order to avoid discrimination.[8] UNESCO has catalogued the language as ‘severely endangered’, particularly in Lebanon and Palestine.[9]

According to Bruno Herin, an expert in Middle Eastern minority languages, ‘language is an essential component of ethnicity and identity, and the loss of an ancestral language is often felt as losing a part of oneself.’[10]

Nomadism has also been lost with time in the Domari culture. Even though

we still hear of some ‘modern day nomadic Gypsies’ who travel the old trade routes with

no regard for national borders,[11]  this only accounts for about 13% of Dom people[12]  while the rest live sedentary lives.

Another Dom woman explained that Dom communities travelled because they did not like to socialize with other people due to the negative perception many people have of them. ‘They never stayed in one place too long’, she recalled, as  she recounted moving four times during her childhood as her family lived out  a semi-nomadic lifestyle; moving every summer to work in Lebanon, yet maintaining a permanent home in Syria.[13]

For a long time, nomadism enabled the Dom to stay isolated and hence retain their culture, language and traditions. However, that lifestyle was largely halted by modernisation and forced settlement.  This has made the peripatetic way of life redundant, forcing many into a life of poverty and social derision.[14]

The French Mandate

Historically, Lebanon and Syria were traversed by the migratory paths  of numerous nomadic tribes, such as the Dom, who seasonally travelled the region and temporarily settled in the Bekaa Valley to feed their livestock.[15]  After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the introduction of the French Mandate in Lebanon and Syria, all minorities – chiefly Armenians, Bedouins, Kurds, Syriacs and Dom - who could prove to have resided in Lebanon prior to 1924 were given Lebanese nationality. Many did not participate in the 1921 and 1932 national censuses because they were seasonally out of Lebanon or because of their distrust of the French colonial presence and fear of military conscription.

Dawn Chatty, a Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration at Oxford University states that as a result of this exclusion ‘they effectively became stateless’.[16]  In the past their people were stateless but free to move where they pleased, today they are still stateless but cannot even move within the country in which they settled.[17]  Not having citizenship became a major obstacle to buying land, gaining access to healthcare, education or social services. This exclusion planted the seeds of an ongoing marginalization of the Dom people.


There are two types of stateless citizens in Lebanon: those who are documented and those who are undocumented. The former are mostly registered as Quayd ad-Dars (under study) while the unregistered are commonly referred to as Maktoumeen al-Qayd (without records).

Quayd ad-Dars was the status given to stateless Dom in 1958 (those who were not registered in the 1932 census). According to the TDH report, 6% of Dom fall under this status.[18]  This status is referred to as ‘less than full’ citizenship as it enables those so catagorised access to the basic rights of free movement, education and work; yet still imposes major restrictions on their access to basic government services such as social security and healthcare.[19] (Quayd ad-Dars  often remain undocumented, because yearly residence permits are expensive).

As one of my Dom interviewees explained, ‘IDs are expensive and people don’t have the resources to pay for them. That is why they don’t pass it on.’[20]  In many cases, it is also difficult for them to find evidence to prove their right to Lebanese nationality as they don’t have the relevant documents - many fail to register their marriages or the birth of their children and are thus denied basic social rights.

Invisible Citizens

In 1994, the Lebanese government issued the Naturalisation Decree 5247 which granted Lebanese nationality to more than 170,000 people.[21]  It applied to all those who were either ‘unregistered at birth’ or stateless persons whose national status had been ‘under study’.  Over 72% of the Dom gained full citizenship through this act.[22]  In theory, it facilitated Dom integration into Lebanese society by giving them full citizenship rights: job mobility, education, healthcare, state welfare, political participation and representation.  As a Dom woman who was part of this mass-naturalisation, explained, ‘It is important to have it [ID], if you don’t have it, you won’t be able to go to a hospital, you won’t be able to travel.’[23]

It cannot be denied that a lot of Dom people have benefited from acquiring citizenship, nevertheless the fact that 21% remain stateless, and 76% live below the lower poverty line  demonstrates that the process still leaves a lot to be desired.[24] Although people have the right to use their citizenship status, many fail to do so. Lebanese policies often create a system of discrimination and denial of rights and many mixed Lebanese-Dom couples lack proper documentation. Under Lebanese law, nationality cannot be passed on matrilineally and as a result children of a Lebanese Dom mother married to a stateless person cannot access state medical care or public education. Moreover, many Dom women who were already married with large families in 1994 were registered as ‘single’. Their children are now catagorised as Maktoumeen al- Qayd and do not have any rights. As one of my Dom interviewees explained, ‘People are not always aware of the policies that affect them, for example having an ID, they don’t know their rights because they are not educated or exposed.’[25]

Politically, the Dom minority do not have representation in the Lebanese Parliament and continue to be ‘un-recognized’ ethnic group. They are treated as second-class citizens and even when in the lead up to elections political parties give away generous bribes to their potential voters, the Dom are offered considerably less than other supposedly ‘equal’ Lebanese citizens.[26] While they do have formal access to state resources and services, in practice they are treated differently because of their skin-tone, their clothing, the way they speak, their family names and history.

Tahaddi was founded in the 1990s to offer medical, social and educational assistance to socially vulnerable families and people facing discrimination. They now teach over 400 students, mostly Domaris, but also some Syrians and run a health centre, offering social services to vulnerable families. The centre has been instrumental in making the Dom aware of their history and becoming proud agents of their communities. The education director and co-founder of Tahaddi, Catherine Mourtada, spoke with me about stateless children. She explained how, ‘Even though the registration of stateless children in public schools has become easier since the Syrian crisis, a lot of families fail to put their children in school due to the harsh discrimination [they face].’[27]

When attempting to register their children for public schools they are very quickly spotted as ‘Nawar’ (Gypsy) and dismissed by comments such as, ‘there is no place, we are full’.[28] Mourtada added that there has been a substantial change to the dynamics at the centre since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War and since the centre opened its doors to Syrian refugees, with negative stereotypes against ‘Nawar’ being reinforced. Claims such as ‘my child became like this because of the Nawar’,[29] have led the Dom to increasingly internalise the negative stereotypes given to them and as a result their attendance at the school has dropped off. In fact, 77% of Dom children in Lebanon aged four and older reported never attending school,[30] compared to 10.3% of the broader Lebanese population.[31]

It is evident that negative stereotypes against the Dom and unequal treatment by the authorities have led to a lack of participation in society and prevented them from the full practice of their rights. They remain voiceless, not able to break the cycle of self- perpetuating statelessness and inter-generational poverty. The lack of any self-perceived  positive attributes to Dom identity means that many Dom have no pride in who they are.[32] The fact that the Dom have internalised the negative stereotypes constructed by the public due to their ‘deviant’ status within Lebanese society suggests that the development of  a proud Dom identity and a strong sense of collective self-worth would be the key to their future.


Since the Dom are predominantly Muslim, the citizenship decree caused a public outcry from Christians who feared that the law would further tip the sectarian balance in favour of the Muslims.

Guita Hourani, the Director of the Lebanese Emigration Research Centre, said that a high-level official of the Christian and Sunni supported ‘Future Movement’ confirmed to her that the 1994 naturalisation Decree was entirely a ‘political naturalisation undertaking’, rather than a human rights project.[33]  The act also awakened many underlying prejudices against the Dom minority.

A few years after the law was passed, Karam a resident of Zahle (the capital city of the Bekaa Governorate in Lebanon) raised his concerns in an interview with the Daily Star, fearing that the naturalisation act would encourage, ‘more Muslim “gypsies” to move into the neighborhood.’ He claimed, ‘These people cause trouble wherever they go and they’re thieves. We want the government to do something about it, but they’ve just granted half of them nationality.[34]

In 2003 the Lebanese Maronite League submitted an appeal against the naturalisation decree, calling for its re-examination and an investigation potentially leading to the de-naturalising  of individuals who had been naturalised in 1994.[35]  Later on, in 2011 President Michel Suleiman signed the decrees 6690 and 6691 which withdrew Lebanese citizenship from 176 people. There is no proven evidence that this act directly affected any Dom people, nevertheless they face significant uncertainty due to the fear of de-naturalisation and their inability to gain official status.

Future Perspectives

Interventions need to be implemented by stakeholders on a governmental, civil society and personal level in order to integrate the Dom into Lebanese society - through dialogue and solidarity. An extensive study should to be carried out to identify their needs and educate public opinion about the Dom.

Since there is no written record of their history, the only way to trace their history is through their spoken language. The ‘Endangered Languages Documentation Programme’ at SOAS University in London is recording on audio and video the traditional Domari stories and myths in order to preserve their culture. Mandana Seyfeddinipur, the director of the department states that ‘this medium gives people a voice and makes them visible.[36]

Education is a driving factor for class mobility and change and is one of the main instruments for breaking the vicious cycle of inter-generational poverty in the Dom community. The association Tahaddi is working toward positive change in this regard and government officials would do well to partner with such organizations to assist the Dom communities.

Governments should generate policy, particularly for naturalised and stateless people, that would create opportunities for the most vulnerable members of society to improve their status. They can do this by increasing access to economic opportunities and facilitating advancements that would traverse geographic and ethnic boundaries.[37]  

Specifically, the Lebanese government could act to engender change for the Dom and other minority groups by signing up to the UN ‘Convention for the Reduction of Statelessness’. For the Lebanese government, explicitly spelling out the principles regulating the right to nationality and the rights of stateless people, would bring the Lebanese Constitution up to speed with international human rights standards.[38]

The key challenge will be the integration of the Dom into Lebanese society. This would be the first step towards creating an understanding of the Dom’s origins and culture, thus giving the Dom a platform for constructing and determining their own identity, exempt from the negative stereotypes constructed by majority communities.

Likewise, certain social attitudes must be altered within the community.

As a Dom woman explained to me, ‘Change [also] needs to come from the Dom community. You can bring about change yourself, you should not wait for the outside world to change things for you. Change begins with the Dom.[39]  We can interpret this as meaning - less isolation and more social networks are needed within the community.

She added that ‘the one who hides their own identity has no identity.’[40] 

Essentially, the Dom will have to be their own advocates in order to move forward and keep their traditions from falling in to obsolescence.



[1] Terre des Hommes Lausanne (2011) The Dom people and their children in Lebanon. A child protection assessment. Lebanon: Tdh Lebanon and Insan Association, p. 19.

[2] Herin, B. (2015) ‘Domari: the language of the 'Middle Eastern Gypsies',  The Middle East in London, vol. 11, pp. 15-16.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Terre des Hommes Lausanne, Op. cit, p.34.

[5] Anonymous, interviewed by Lucia Mrazova, 6 June 2018, Beirut, Lebanon.

[6] Anonymous (2), interviewed by Lucia Mrazova, 6 June 2018, Beirut, Lebanon.

[7] Plackett, B (2014) ‘Researchers Try to Save Some Middle-Eastern Languages From Extinction’,  Al- Fanar Media. Available online at:…- languages-extinction.  Accessed 12 July 2018.

[8]  C. Mourtada, interviewed by Lucia Mrazova, 22 June 2018, Tahaddi, Beirut, Lebanon.

[9] Moseley, C. (ed.), (2010). Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.

[10] Herin, B. Op. cit, pp. 15-16.

[11]  Marsi, F. (2017) ‘The Dom, part of Lebanon but marginalized’, The Daily Star (Lebanon),

Available online at: Accessed 12 July 2018.

[12] Terre des Hommes Lausanne, Op. cit

[13] Anonymous (3), interviewed by Lucia Mrazova, 22 June 2018, Beirut, Lebanon.

[14] C Mourtada, interviewed by Lucia Mrazova, 22 June 2018, Tahaddi, Beirut, Lebanon.

[15] Obeid, G. (2016) ‘How history left many Bedouins in Lebanon stateless’,  The Daily Star (Lebanon). Available online at: Accessed: 21 September 2018

[16] Ibid.                                                                                                                                                       

[17] Frontiers Ruwad Association, (2010) States made them stateless?! Available online at:  Accessed: 20 September 2018

[18] Terre des Hommes Lausanne. Op.cit, p. 40.

[19] Frontiers Ruwad Association, (2015) Statelessness in Lebanon:  Submission in view of Lebanon’s second periodic review by the Human Rights Council.  Available online at: Accessed: 20 September 2018

[20] Anonymous (1), interviewed by Lucia Mrazova, 6 June 2018, Beirut, Lebanon.

[21] Decree 5247, dated 20 June 1994, ‘Acceptance in Lebanese Nationality’, Official Gazette,

Annex 2 to issue no. 16, dated 30 June 1994.

[22] Terre des Hommes Lausanne, Op.cit, p. 8.

[23] Anonymous (1), interviewed by Lucia Mrazova, 6 June 2018, Beirut, Lebanon.

[24] Terre des Hommes Lausanne, Op.cit, pp. 31 & 38.

[25] R Das & J Davidson, (2011) Profiles Of Poverty: The Human Face Of Poverty In Lebanon. Beirut: Dar Manhal Al-Hayat Publishers, p. 209.

[26] C Mourtada, interviewed by Lucia Mrazova, 22 June 2018, Tahaddi, Beirut, Lebanon.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Terre des Hommes Lausanne, Op.cit, p. 23.

[31] Central Administration of Statistics, (2007) Living Conditions Survey 2007. Beirut: Chemaly and

Chemaly, pp. 208 & 225.

[32] Terre des Hommes Lausanne, Op.cit, p. 34.

[33] Hourani, G. (2011) ‘The Kurds of Lebanon: Socioeconomic mobility and political participation via naturalization’, LERC Research Paper Series, 1/2011 p. 39.

[34] The Daily Star, (1998) ‘”Real” Arabs still feel second-class’, The Daily Star (Lebanon) Available online at:…-

class.ashx Accessed 12 July 2018.

[35] State Consultative Council [Majlis al-Shura], (2003) Decision no: 484/2002-2003, 7/5/2003, p. 38.

[36] M Seyfeddinipur, (2015) ‘Endangered languages: why it matters’

TEDxLSHTM. Available online at:  <; Accessed: 18 June 2018.

[37] Hourani, Op.cit, p. 95.

[38] Frontiers Ruwad Association (2010), Op.cit, p.10.

[39] Anonymous (1), interviewed by Lucia Mrazova, 6 June 2018, Beirut, Lebanon.

[40] Ibid.