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Life on the margins: The Lyuli people of Uzbekistan

A young man from the Lyuli community in Uzbekistan's southern province of Surxondaryo. Photo (c): Aleksandr Barkovsky. Used with permission.

Uzbekistan was the cradle of several empires and nations in Central Asia, a characteristic that is reflected in its multiethnic population of over 30 million. While ethnic Uzbeks comprise the majority, there are close to 50 other groups, including the Luli or Lyuli. This small community lives on the margins of Uzbek society, often discriminated because of their ethnicity.

The Lyuli are believed to be distantly related to the Roma and Sinti people of Europe and the Middle East, but their origins are obscure. As such, there is currently little consensus on how to best describe this community in English. In Russian, the most commonly used term is “цыгане” — usually translated into English as “Gypsies”, which is widely considered derogatory and has largely been replaced by the word “Roma.”

According to a 2019 study conducted by Uzbek researcher Kamilla Zakirova:

Central Asia's [Roma] are usually called Lyuli. The Lyuli describe themselves using the term Mughat, an Iranian term meaning “fire cult followers,” which is applied to Zoroastrians. They have inhabited the territories of Central Asia for centuries, ever since their ancestors migrated from the Punjab in present day Pakistan. There are no accurate contemporary data on the Lyuli population because it does not participate in the government conducted census and many members of the Lyuli population never obtain legal documents.

I interviewed Aleksandr Barkovsky, a conceptual artist and activist who, himself an ethnic Russian, took a personal interest in the Lyuli, and made a series of short videos about the community. The interview has been edited for brevity. 

Filip Noubel:  What is the main social issue the Lyuli face today? 

Александр Барковский: Проблема образования – негласное решение с обеих сторон о недостижимости образования и отчасти его ненадобности. причины этого происходят по вине обеих сторон, как цыган, в основном из-за их патриархальных принципов, когда глава клана авторитарный мужчина имеет единственное право голоса и принимает решение не в пользу получения образования, а чаще всего в пользу сложившихся правил диаспоры. В обществе доминирует идея того, что цыгане «люли» сами сделали свой выбор не в пользу получения образования и давать им возможность учится и получать различные профессии не имеет никакого смысла. Хотя при опросе самих цыган «люли» можно узнать, что среди них есть большой процент желающих изменить свою судьбу. Взрослые цыгане говорят, что хотят для своих детей «лучшей судьбы» и понимают, что этого можно добиться при получении хорошего образования.

Aleksandr Barkovsky: The issue of education. There is an unspoken consensus that education is unattainable and partially not needed. The reasons for this lie on both sides, as the Roma people maintain patriarchal traditions and thus the head of the clan, a man who concentrates all the authority, makes decisions not in favour of education but in favour of the rules established in the community. Most people think that as the Lyuli choose not to pursue education, giving them a chance to study and learn different skills is meaningless. Yet if one surveys the community, one can find many Lyuli who want to change their lives. Adults say that they want “a better life for their children,” and understand that the only way to achieve that is to get good quality education.

FN: Does that mean Lyuli children really have no access to education?

AБ: Большая проблема цыган «люли» это дети лишенные детства. В семьях цыган «люли» детей рожают много, но выживают из них только половина иногда меньше. Уже с первых недель жизни мать берет ребёнка с собой в город где она ходит целый день летом под палящем солнцем зимой под снегом, в одной руке держа ребёнка, а другой прося милостыню. Таким образом ребёнок можно сказать что с молоком матери уже впитывает в себя картину мира попрошайничества, лишений, унижений и бесконечных побоев.

AB: One of the biggest problems is the fact that Lyuli children are deprived of their childhood. Lyuli families have many children, but only half or even less survive. From the very first weeks of infancy, the mother takes her child downtown where she walks under the scorching sun or in the snow holding her kid in one hand and begging with the other. As a result, children absorb with their mother's milk an image of the world that dominated by begging, deprivation, humiliation, and constant beatings.

Lyuli boy attending a school for the community in the southern province of Surxondaryo. Photo (c): Aleksandr Barkovsky. Used with permission.

FN: What is the status of women in the community?

AБ: Статус женщины в цыганском обществе не равноправен статусу мужчины. Женщина не имеет те же права, но имеет много различных обязанностей. Цыганские женщины вынуждены рожать много детей хотят они этого или нет, и только так они могут получить уважение в цыганском обществе, когда первый вопрос, который задают цыганской женщине это сколько у неё детей? Единственный шанс на образование, которое она может получить это получить его до замужества, что бывает крайне редко. Так же существует огромная проблема ранних браков среди цыган, когда девушку уже в 14-15 лет отдают замуж.

AB: Women do not have an equal status to men in Roma society. They do not have the same rights, but they have many obligations. They have to give birth to many children whether they want to or not —a large family is a way to gain respect among the community, and the first question [women] get is how many children they have. The only chance for female education is before marriage, and that is extremely rare. Particularly because marriages are held at a very young age; girls are married at the age of 14 or 15.

A Lyuli couple in a tent camp outside Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. Photo (c): Aleksandr Barkovsky. Used with permission.

FN: Does religion play an important role in the life of the Lyuli Roma? 

AБ: Цыгане «Люли» позиционируют себя как мусульмане сунниты, читают намаз и отмечают все религиозные исламские предписания и праздники. В светском же исламском обществе узбеки так и таджики дискриминируют их как единоверцев, считая их «не истинными» мусульманами из-за их языческого прошлого, кастовой системы, огнепоклонничества. Понимание ислама цыганами «Люли» носит скорее контекст народного ислама с элементами языческого прошлого которые и по сей день имеют место в жизни цыган.

AB: The Lyuli Roma identify as Sunni Muslims. They observe prayers, as well as all the other religious requirements and celebrations. In lay Muslim society they face discrimination from Uzbeks and Tajiks, who do not consider them “real” Muslims because of pagan elements to their religious practices, their caste system, and worship of fire. The Lyuli community's understanding of Islam is more about a popular Islamic spiritualism combined with elements of the pre-Islamic past, which remain to this day in the lives of the Lyuli Roma.

Lyuli family in a Russian Orthodox cemetery in Tashkent at Easter, when it is tradition to eat near gravestones. Photo (c): Alexander Barkovsky. Used with permission.

FN: What is the government's approach to the social issues faced by the community?

AБ: Проблема социальной незащищенности цыган «Люли», от части в том, что о них никому ничего не известно в обществе. Где они проживают и в каком количестве? От суда следует что власти могут вести любую политику по отношению к цыганской диаспоре и это всегда будет оставаться незамеченным. Поэтому для соблюдения их конституционных прав, необходима прозрачность ситуации и максимально возможная её информативность.

AB: The main reason why the Lyuli Roma lack social protection is the simple fact that nobody knows anything about them. Where do they live? How many of them are there? Whatever policy the government implements, it will have no effect. That's why in order to protect their constitutional rights, what's needed is transparency and more information.

Find out more about changes in Uzbek society here

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