Friday, October 22, 2010

Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves?

It is common, no matter where you travel, for locals to ask you what you think of their country. Romania is no different, but with an added extra: people declaim that Romanians are not all gypsies and not to judge the country because of them. This is telling for several reasons. Firstly that this is the impression that many in the West have of Romania and Romanians (if they have an impression at all); secondly that ordinary Romanians are embarrassed by this preconception; and thirdly that this is a negative image. It is sad that in today's world where we have done our utmost to banish discrimination against blacks, Jews, homosexuals, the disabled and women, that prejudice against gypsies, or Roma, is not only widespread, but also accepted amongst many, otherwise liberal, sections of society. As a people they are the poorest and most disadvantaged in Europe. How did this come about? and who are the Roma anyway?

Colourful Roma clothes worn by the friendly Gabor family with whom I stayed.

It is generally accepted that they came to Europe in the Middle Ages from somewhere in today's western India. From the start they were discriminated against. Those that didn't become slaves (which was their status in Transylvania until 1856) were, much like the Jews, forbidden from owning land. And since they didn't have scholarly traditions to fall back on, they were forced into a nomadic lifestyle. So they became itinerant tinkers, entertainers and odd-jobs people. When the age of nationalism, borders and knowledge work came along they were badly positioned and straightjacketed into conforming to a sedentary norm that they had been excluded from for centuries. Some, like traditional tin workers and brick makers, had the skills to adapt and do well, but many sank further down the socio-economic scale. Persistent age-old prejudices have also hindered the Roma's development and integration into mainstream society, with many hearsay beliefs about their customs held by majority populations who have no contact with them.
Romania is particularly known for being home to a large Roma minority (mainly due to the fact that they were kept there as slaves and not allowed to leave) that are maligned, particularly in Western Europe, for being thieves and beggars. So when I was sent a "cold-call" e-mail from a guy organising tours and homestays with Roma my initial reaction was to bin it (like with all junk mail), but then I thought about it a little more and became intrigued. As a tourist it is highly unlikely that you will have much contact with Roma apart from the odd urchin begging for some "bani". So I thought "to hell with it, I'll never have an opportunity like this again," and proceeded to organise a couple of homestays with different Roma families, and I'm very glad I did. (It was interesting to note that local Romanians whom I told about my plans invariably told me to be careful and keep and eye on my belongings.)

Since most Europeans have little or no contact with them they view Roma as one homogeneous blot, to be shunned, but if I was to have one, take-home message from my time with the families, it is that there is not a single, unified Roma community or group, and that there is as much variety within them as there is within society at large. The first family I stayed with were poor, and lived in a densely-built little gypsy neighbourhood of a small, provincial town. I was struck by the fact that, apart from their slightly darker complexion, there was little to distinguish them from the white (and other minority) denizens of Britain's grimier housing estates: poorly educated, TV on 24/7, no prospects, lax and reckless upbringing of kids, teenage mothers, single parents, petty squabbling and raised voices in the streets and poor diet (fresh fruit and veg don't get much of a look-in). Nevertheless they were both friendly and hospitable and made me feel very welcome. The other family prided themselves on being Gabori, a caste of Roma who take pride in maintaining their traditions and customs and are skilled in various crafts (the ones I stayed with were tinsmiths, and had a small workshop even employing some non-Roma locals). The children were as good as gold, there were books in the house, the family sat around the table for meals, the house was immaculately kept and the head of the house was even a member of the local voluntary police. By visiting these families, and putting names and faces to what used to be an abstract idea, helped shatter this image of the Roma as being somehow different from us. For anyone thinking of visiting the area I would highly recommend trying to stay with some of these families, as the more contact and bridges that are built between Roma and others the more integrated they can become into society in general, and then throwaway, prejudicial comments and views will, hopefully, no longer be acceptable.

Main street in a poor, Roma suburb.

Some potential food for thought when regarding Roma and the way they are viewed, here is an fact. Roma have never had, or seriously demanded a homeland. Therefore there has not been the associated ethnic cleansing, wars, land-grabbing and discrimination from them, unlike pretty much every other ethnic group, at least in Europe. The worst they have done is petty thievery and small-scale, personal violence. Compare this to what the English, French, Germans, Russians, Hungarians, etc., etc. have unleashed on their neighbours. Furthermore they were brutally targetted by the Nazi regime and treated just as the Jews. Unfortunately, due to their lack of written records and history, nobody knows precise numbers of how many Roma died during WWII, especially as most were simply shot on sight. And since they have never really had any money or influence their fate during that period has been simply ignored and swept under the carpet. Whilst everyone learns about the Jewish Holocaust you will be hard-pressed to find much information - be it books, newspaper or magazine articles, films or even textbooks - on the Roma equivalent (not to demean the 6mn Jews who did die, but ignoring the fate of others is both unjust and cruel).


H said...

Excellent post. Very few travellers bother to experience Gypsies, beyond the Romantic or racist stereotype, and not many have couch surfing type experiences with them.

As you have mentioned, there is quite some variety among Gypsy community, from dirt-poor marginalized peasants (Borat type village), workers trying to dig the way for their family to opulent mafia-type clans.

What seems common to all of them is the parallel life in relation to the majority community.

You have no idea how much it weights to simply write "there were books in the house, the family sat around the table for meals, the house was immaculately kept" in order to challenge the image of parallel life.

The other problem in dealing with the Gypsy issue, apart of the large discrimination and negative view of the majority, is the lack of proper interlocutors from the Gypsy community.

Current interlocutors from Gypsy community are the few Gypsy speaking people who got some education (university) and started NGO's, as well as clan leaders, that still patronize traditional organisations (in Romania there is a King of Gypsies, as well as an Emperor, they have some power over parts of their communities). In Romania there is even a so called "Party of Gypsies"
that attempts to protect their civil rights as for any other ethno-cultural minority. But, none of them is properly functional and the representativity is quite poor.

As far as I know there has not yet been established a good communication network with the Gypsy community, in order to fuel integration, education and so on.

Also, worthy of notice is that some Gypsies who manage to integrate, do not (want to) consider themselves Gypsies any more. My next door neighbours, a family of dark skinned Gypsies with Gypsy names, but who
have jobs and went to school, are bashing "the Gypsies" with the same vehemence as a Romanian. They also refuse to speak Gypsy language at all. As kids we would sometimes make fun at the Gypsy kids saying "but you are also Gypsy" and they would go on denying.

What I would want to know is how did the Gypsies that you meet viewed themselves as Gypsies? And how did they view the majority of light skinned Romanians who do not speak
Gypsy language - discriminatory, abusive? What did they perceive as being different in their Gypsy background, other than the skin and the language they speak? What is their Gypsy heritage?

Unknown said...

I am a gypsy and I live in the USA. There are literally tens of thousands of gypsy's that live in America. A lot of them do not claim there gypsy heritage because of the stereotypical discrimination and the perceived notion that gypsy's are thieves and kidnap babies and young children. The myth about child brides and that our women are tramps could not be further from the truth. I have a 21 year old daughter who I would bet my soul is still a virgin. As a matter of fact the vast majority of gypsy women who get married are pure and innocent when they are married and if the husband finds out that she isn't well its considered to be a disgrace. Most Gypsy's are compassionate people and would feed anyone who is hungry even a stranger off the street. Now don't get me wrong I am not saying that a few gypsy's aren't bad people because that would be a lie. There is good and bad in everyone. If a gypsy would take advantage of someone it would be to feed his family. If the children weren't so discriminated against even here in America they would love to go to college and be productive members of society. But as it is discrimination is still alive and thriving here in America. Many gypsy's are born again Christians here is America and in Romania. God is doing a great wonder in the lives of my people. Where I live the town actually has a lot of respect for my family because we are good hardworking respectable people. Who wouldn't ever hurt anyone or take anything that did not belong to us. If you would like to know anything else about my people or our culture I would be only to happy to inform anyone who would like to know.