This article was originally published on Thinking-East in 2005.
Luli in Uzbekistan: A little-known community
For instance, in English there exists a verb derived from the noun Gypsy, to gyp, which means to cheat. So the person who is cheated is gypped, and the person who cheats is a Gypsy — an interesting demonstration of how language itself can tell us the social role and stigmas served by the Rromas in Western culture.
In Central Asia, the Rroma are known as the Jughi, Multani or Luli. They call themselves Mugat (Mughat ), which means fire-worshipper, and Ghurbat, which means lonely or destitute. All of these words are derived from Arabic. «Part of the Rroma came to Central Asia in 1380 from the city Multan, which is now in Pakistan. That’s why sometimes they are called Multani: the ones who came from Multan», Dr. Khol Nazarov, a Luli professor, explained to me. The ancestors of the Central Asian Rroma belonged to a caste of singers, musicians and dancers. Faced with hardship in their homeland, they were forced to leave, and dispersed worldwide. A small community of Rroma settled in Uzbekistan, where they are still living, now known as the Luli, in my home city of Samarkand.
Because of their nomadic lifestyle, the Rroma have always been distrusted by their less mobile neighbours. As in the West, they are widely believed to be beggars, thieves, and criminals, unable to settle down. However, the situation in Uzbekistan is slightly different from the sizeable Rroma communities in Western countries. During the Soviet era, the material situation of most Rromas was comparatively good. Due to guaranteed work, housing and other social services, Rromas were less disadvantaged than they are today. At the same time, however, the Soviet authorities exerted a great deal of pressure on the Rroma to assimilate. The official use of the Rroma language was forbidden. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union. The subsequent malfunctioning economy could not provide jobs for the Rroma anymore; unemployment rates, especially among Luli, soared. Marginalisation grew worse: deprived of a secure livelihood, the Rromas resorted to begging as a means to survive — and due to the old Soviet cultural policies, their sense of identity had been severely shaken.
The hardships experienced by the Uzbek Rromas have attracted the attention of Samarkand human rights activists, who say the authorities should do more for the Luli community. «At the moment, they don’t even have a national cultural centre», says Komil Ashurov of the Samarkand Human Rights Center. While other ethnic minorities have their own national cultural centres, like “Сохнут” for Jews or “Русь” for Russians, the Luli lack an official forum for preserving their cultural heritage.
Breaking the silence: a visit to a Luli community
The idea of researching the Luli seemed crazy to many people, including my family and friends, and in particular my mother. They were concerned because they considered it to be a dangerous undertaking. Matters only worsened as it became clear that I intended to visit their community to talk to them and see where and how they lived.
One cannot imagine what obstacles I had to overcome to reach the “land of Luli”.
They are widely distrusted among the non-Luli, who have absorbed centuries-old stereotypes about their community. Nor does it help that the Luli live in separate communities called jughihona, which makes them seem extremely dangerous and secluded. That’s why no one could even imagine that I would ever want to go there alone. The first time I ventured out there, alongside my supervisor, Maite Ojeda, I had agreed with one of my Luli interviewees to meet beforehand and then travel together to the jughihona. At the last moment the interviewee refused to take us there, saying she was afraid that something might happen to us because, “Luli men are dangerous”. I was shocked: here was an insider who seemed to hold the view that Luli represent danger.
Two other women attempted convincing us not to go. Nevertheless, we eventually got into the minibus and drove to the jughihona. The next obstacle was the driver, who refused to leave us there on our own because “it wasn’t safe”. He vowed to wait for us.
All the trepidation and warnings made us expect the worst, but instead we were about to experience the complete opposite: the people inside the Luli community were very friendly! And so, the first stereotype was broken. They no longer seemed dangerous or aggressive to me anymore. I could now move on to complete my intended work, which was to find out what the Luli knew about themselves.
The Luli’s self-perception
I interviewed sixteen Luli, seven of which, all females aged between thirteen and thirty-five, confessed ignorance about their people’s history. The other nine, aged between thirty and fifty-five, could definitely say that the Luli’s origins lay in India. Those who were able to give more details were educated males over forty years old. So, as one can see, almost half of the interviewed did not have anything tell their children about their origins. What is more frightening is the fact that this unawareness is already most prevalent among Luli youth. When asked how information on cultural peculiarities is passed on from generation to generation, one Luli man, a machinist, said: «Nothing is passed on. Our grandparents used to tell us stories, which are only in our memory now. And we don’t talk about it to our children. They know nothing about it. It just disappears.»
When asked about their occupation, most of the Luli reply qidirish, or talbidan. The word qidirish, which stems from the Uzbek language, means “to search”, “to travel” or “to visit” (relatives or friends), while the word talbidan (or, talabidan ) means “to invite”, “search”, “wish” or “ask” and originates from the Persian language. Thus for the Luli, they understand their main occupation positively, not negatively as conceived by outsiders. The Luli don’t say they beg, they say they ask — I recall one explaining: «We ask, but people call us beggars, and that’s insulting. Because we just ask.»
Tajik and Uzbek outsiders call the Luli gadoy , while Russian-speaking outsiders call them poproshayka. The word gadoy means “pauper” or “cadger”, which implies a parasitic way of life. The word poproshayka also means pauper, but also “beggar”, and it has a scornful undertone. Obviously, outsiders have their own very negative view on the Luli’s occupation, that they are simply beggars, leeches of society. This is in keeping with worldwide attitudes toward the Rromas. However, the question remains unanswered whether this lifestyle is a tradition or a need for the Luli in Samarkand.
Begging: Tradition or Need?
Why do the Luli beg? For the answer, I first turned to outsiders, asking each of my interviewees to choose one noun that could best describe what/who the Luli are. Nine out of twenty-three responded that they are; the rest said the Luli are “wild creatures”, “beasts”, or “the very dregs of the population”. The majority believes that begging is a custom, a tradition of life for the Luli. Moreover, the majority of outsiders understand the very word Luli itself as synonymous with begging, to the extent that some do not even know that the Luli form an ethnic group, and assumed they were just beggars. Also, outsiders see no connection between the Luli with European and Russian Rroma. Consequently, they make some associations with the Luli that are very different from the associations Westerners make with the “Gypsies”. For example: «A Luli is a beggar, whereas Tzigane is a nationality», a young man aged twenty-three told me. «Tzigane is a nationality; they dance, sing and earn money; they are more civilized; I respect them. But Luli are beggars, who don’t work, all they can do is beg.» The term tzigane is actually the common Eastern European name for the Rroma (identical to the Hungarian czig ny, the Russian zigan, the German zigeuner and even the Italian zingari) which infiltrated the region of Central Asian during the Soviet era.
Only two out of the twenty-three people interviewed believed the Luli’s begging was a result of their socioeconomic environment: «They grew up seeing and absorbing it. They are used to that», said a young Uzbek woman aged twenty. Another two people thought that the Luli beg out of need. Thus, the majority of outsiders believe that begging is the Luli way of life.
What do Luli say about the reasons for their begging? Seven out of seventeen I interviewed claimed that it is a tradition, and the other ten believe it happens out of a need.
When interviewing the Luli I faced two perceptional contradictions:
First, when interviewing educated men the picture seems clear: begging is by no means a tradition. I get strong arguments that it is not a custom at all. For example: «Our ancestors were singers and dancers. This is our tradition», explained a Luli man aged fifty. His wife, however, argued that begging is in truth a heritage and a tradition left by their ancestors, and that people beg regardless of their age and financial status. This contradiction in perspective within a Luli family was shocking, but I found such divisions to be widespread among their community.
Yet, now comes the second contradiction: when asked what exactly they would do for their people if they had the power to fix their community’s troubles, the Luli who claim begging to be a traditional occupation respond that they would provide jobs for everyone so that they would not need to beg in the streets. The same Luli wife who claimed her people beg because of tradition said: «If there were jobs no one would beg, that is for sure. We beg because we have to eat. I would love to work and not beg in the streets.» History seems to prove her correct: during Soviet times there were less people, non-Luli and Luli, begging in the streets, for most of them worked in factories and farms.
Therefore, begging is not a Luli tradition.
…At least not in the sense of tradition as a cultural psychology, for I have seen that Luli definitely have their own traditional method of solving financial problems. It is true that when non-Luli people suffer financial hardships their first response is to sell their property, then they borrow money, and only when faced with unrelenting privation might they finally resort to begging. Yet, in the case of the Luli, it is common to see an insider who is suffering hardship beg while still owning a television set or a car which an outsider might have already sold.
Stereotyping the Luli
There is another stereotype that exists regarding the Luli’s wedding rites. Outsiders believe the future bride swears to provide for the family, to feed her husband and is then given a stick and a sack, which are the symbols for begging. When I ask Luli about this tradition, they say it is absurd gossip. When I watched a video of their wedding ceremonies, I was surprised to find that their weddings are just like Uzbeks’ and Tajiks’, except for the absence of registration ceremonies. I checked with the local Mullah to be certain — is there really such a marriage tradition as commonly believed by outsiders? — to which he answered: «I have been working in this place for 15 years already, but I have never witnessed anything like this.»
Outsiders are also deluded in thinking that Luli have a different religion, such as Buddhism, or have no religion at all. In actual fact all the Luli claim to be Muslim. During their weddings, the bride and the groom are taken to the local mosque twice, instead of the registration office. They have some strict rules on what the woman should wear, such as headscarves, long dresses with long sleeves, etc., all of which are strictly Islamic.
One of the most prevalent stereotypes about the Luli is that they have their own specific worldview, which influences their lifestyle. A common notion is that the Luli are mysterious and freedom loving, to the point where they (wrongly) resisted all authority, no matter how benign. But they appeared to me to be very realistic and craving freedom no more intensely than you and me. When I asked them what they felt they need in order to be happy, there was not a single answer saying that they needed more freedom, or that they wanted to travel. On the contrary, their needs were very mundane: to have a house, a job, a loving spouse and happy children.
The need for a better understanding on both sides
When I set out to research the Luli of Samarkand, I had a whole array of my own assumptions about their community. Those assumptions have been strongly shaken, and this is for the better. The only thing I can say for sure anymore is that the situation of the Luli is a large issue, which needs much more research and awareness. I can also say that the lack of information outside Luli society definitely results in baseless stereotypes, which continue to fuel destructive intolerance. This in its own way makes integration of the two communities, Luli and non-Luli, impossible.
The lack of accurate self-perception among the Luli themselves serves to make them unable to defend themselves against discrimination, and their book and perceptional illiteracy results in ignorance about their historical and cultural uniqueness. Moreover, it keeps the Luli in poverty, as outsiders of society, and contributes to the disappearance of this national minority’s individuality.