Quarrelling with myself
(or about the "exotic" in Romany culture)
One needs not be an expert in order to realize something elementary: Romani culture is a "culture of survival". A whole arsenal of historical arguments could crush anyone in a second if attempted to support the contrary. Tolerated or chased away, mutilated or persecuted, the Roma survived their own history. It is this very survival, of course, which is reflected in the Romany culture in an original manner. For sure, the historical determination makes possible equating the Romany culture and the infinite voluptuousness of surviving. I think at the same time that one should also not forget that the Roma history is a "sub-history" of the many nations they have lived among.
So it happens that jumping a few centuries of slavery, freeing, persecutions, upsets and assimilations, some novices experience ecstatic feelings (sic!) by contemplating the "exotism" of the Romany culture
From some academics in nice suits to an array of artists searching for a marketable topic, it is still identified, even praised, the "exotism" of a "free existence", of a transcendental unbondable and non-sedentary spirit, of an unfinished quest
The non-sense is so visible that it becomes revolting. After all, what can be so "exotic" in somebody's sufferings?
The long journey of the Roma exile throughout the world (including throughout Europe) has a much more dramatic motivation than just an invoked atavic bohemism (well, the Roma were identified ethnically as "bohemians" in an European country). The Roma migration cannot be conceived as an avant-la-lettre hippy movement so that one can ask, at a certain point, if it is not more respectable the ignorance of the many than the superficiality of these so-called "connaisseurs". After all, only the Roma themselves know exactly the price paid for their "freedom". For instance, it is sufficient only one visit in Zabrauti neighbourhood and all the trumpeted exotism is fading away in less than a second.
Eugen Crai, LL.M.
Brief introduction to Roma's history
Normally one starts telling a story from the beginning.
Indeed the temptation to do so is big, also when we're talking about
the history of people.For sedentary people,for whom the ownership of
land is a central value in their culture, it is very important to know
where they come from and which land they owned originally. Studyng a
Rroma community in Hungary, Michael Stewart doesn't find such a preoccupation:
Unlike other Diaspora populations, which may cling to the idea a place
where they might one day be "at home", the Gypsies have been
a nomad people with no homeland to dream of, no original territory to
reclaim. What makes them so special is that they are quite happy in
this condition. The same cannot be said for those who study Gypsies.It
is a curious fact that the aspect of the Gypsies that has most interested
non-Gypsy observers,at least since the eighteen century, is their obscure
"origins". In 1753 a Hungaryan theologian, Istvan Wali, discovered
that the vocabulary of three Indian students from Malabar, whom he had
met in Leiden, was comprehensible to native Gypsies. But it was only
when H.M. Grellmann published his book Die Zigeuner (The Gypsies) in
1783 that Waly's discovery became widely known. (Stewart, 1997 p 27)
But having foreign among your ancestors doesn't mean automatically that
you are different from the rest of your surroundings. Many ordinary
people, in no way different from their neighbours, would be surprised
of the number of foreign ancestors appearing in their personal genealogies
just a few generations ago. Wich means that in the case somebody is
different the appearance of such foreign ancestors, does not fully explain
this difference.Therefore we have to look how and why people maintain
and regenerate these differences over generations.
From the first attestations on of Rromi in Romania they were held
as serfs, and were owned by landlords, monasteries and the principalities.
Most were kept because of their specific professions. Until the abolition
of slavery in the nineteenth century new groups of slaves have been
brought with the Ottoman Empire.Viorel Achim gives an overview of all
the kinds of serfs that existed, depending on the type of owner, profession,
and kind of tribute the Rromi had to pai to their owners, or whether
they were sedentary of wandering around the country.
This was a nomadism where people lived in fixed winter quarters and
in summertime travelled the same routeto visit the same places every
year, having a permit from their owner. From the nomads point of view
these permits even offered some protection: harming them would harm
their powerful owner. Without any such documents they would be regarded
as escaped serfs, and this was seen as a crime. This was a well-controlled
system and on specific days of the year they had to pay tribute to their
owner. Everywhere in the world misunderstandings and depreciation occurred
in the relationship between nomads and sedentary people.
For sedentary people, land and buildings are the major capital goods
they invest in and which they want to pass on to the next generation.
Nomads cannot see the value of these goods: 'you cannot take them with
you.' They prefer to invest in things such as wagons, gold, or large
herds of cattle,which of course in the eyes of sedentary people have
no stable value. So both are in the opinion of the other , squandering
In those days nobody was equal before the low. This equality is a
quaite recent principle of justise. Every group, according to class,religion,
language, descent, even within the same empire, or province, had it
own status, was governed by a different set of laws and fell under the
jurisdiction of different rulers. Because of these differences statutes
intermarriage between groups was very limited, thus maintaining different
cultures with its set of norms and values, typical economic activities,
languages, for centuries. Later,as part of the policy to assimilate
the Rromi, they even obliged them to intermarry. An example of such
a policy was the law proclaimed in 1783 by Joseph II of the Austrian
Empire which organised the lives of Rromi in Transilvania in every detail.
They were obliged to assimilate completely with the surrounding people:
they were not allowed to speak their own language, or wear their traditional
clothes, marriages between Rromi were forbidden, they were not trade
horses, and the number of musicians had to be reduced as much as possible.
Their children had to go to school under the responsibility of the local
priest. The landlord, had to give them small plots of land so they would
be involved in agriculture. And everybody who abandoned their home or
workplace were be treated as a vagabond, and brought back to their registered
place of residence. The implementation of this law depended, however,
on local conditions and therefore varied very much from province to
ABOLITION OF SLAVERY
Under the influence of the international abolition movement and despite
strong resistance from the nobility in the middle of the nineteenth
century groups of serfs, including groups of Rromi, were liberated in
Alachua and Moldova. These measured had as important objective the obligation
to tie the Rromi to villages, where they should work in agriculture
on same basis as other peasants: part of the harvest had to be given
to the landowner. Many Rromi refused the plots of land alloted to them
under these unprofitable conditions, and chose to maintain their professions.
For them abolition meant an aggravation of their exploitation. Large
numbers moved to the margins of the cities and villages,and as a result
in every village some metalworkers and other craftsmen settled themselves,
were thw agricultural population needed their skilk. Of corse a part
of the liberated population became peasants, in the first place those
who already worked as serfs on the land. Around a number of monasteries,
villages were erected consisting mainly, or some exclusively,of Rromi.
Some nomadic groups continued their itinerant lifestyle. In the spring
they came from teir winter quarters to the villages where they were
officially registered, paid their taxes, and then travelled around the
country until the next winter. During the second half of the nineteenth
and the beginning of twentieth century the abolition gave rise to a
large wave of migration to other parts of Europe and to the Americas.
THE INTER-WAR PERIOD AND THE SECOND WORLD WAR
The period between the two words wars is characterised on the one hand
by a further assimilation of the Rroma population and on the other hand
the appearance of their own emancipation movement. Local and organisations,
such as the General Union of Rromi in Romania, were fonded. Unfortunately
they were not given the time to consolidate themselves. After the installation
of the royal dictatorship and the start of the Second World War these
organisations were dissolved. In this period, industrial progress made
a number of their manufactured goods obsolete and non-competitive. Their
craftsmanship was on the decline; some trades even disappeared completely.
The racism that appeared in the inter-war period was not invented by
the Germans. The history of the world is unfortunately full of outbursts
of racism. The stategies range from reducing large groups to a marginal
status of second-rank citizenship,and slavery , to ethnic cleansing
and total genocide. During this period, so-called scientists came up
with 'scientific' justifications of the racial inferiority of certain
ethnic groups, thus paving the way for the politicies promoted by Antonescu's
governement towards the Rroma. In1942 some 25000 Rromi were deported
to Transnistria where they were settled on the banks of the river Bug,
wuthout places to work and without sufficient means of subsistence.
The selection was based on life style, nomadisn, time served in prison,lack
of means of subsistence or a permanent occupation. Approximately half
of them died there
THE COMMUNIST REGIME
Under communist rule everybody was equal before the law. Of course,
as in Animal
Farm by George Orwell, some were more equal than oters. Although a law
did not distinguish between groups, certain groups were more affected
by a law than others. On paper it could discriminate very much. The
communist regime denied the Rromi the status of ethnic minority, and
as a consequence no education was given in their own mother tongue and
no account was taken of their specific culture.
In those days, because of the policy of full employment, everybody had
a job and an income, which assured the person free medical care, a number
of holidays and pension. Many Rromi worked as unskilled labourers in
big factories or on the co-operative or state farms.
With the closing down of many big factories and other factories reducing
their work force to a more competitive level, and the land of land of
the co-operatives been given back to their original owners, the majority
of the Rroma lost their jobs. Many have resumed their traditional ways
of life, including turning back to nomadism.
The different groups of Rroma have adapted themselves in different ways
to the new situation. Some have found their niche, friends, professional
relations, etc., while others are victims of poverty and discrimination
and have no means of surrival.
1998 Tiganii in istoria Romaniei. Bucuresti: Editura Enciclopedica
1995 Bury Me Standing. London: Chatto and Windus
1994 The Gypsies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers
1996 The Time of the gypsies. Boulder: Westview Press.
1967 The Gypsies. New York: Simon and Schuster
This personal perspective of Roma history was written by Pieter van
Abshoven and does not represent the view of the National Office for
We would welcome other perspectives of Rromani's diverse historical