Most of what me know of the Romani comes from the texts of Gadje, whether it be fact or fantasy our archives are ridiculed with inaccuracies and as a result of this so too are our collective memories. Many tale strung of the Romani can be believed and this serves more often than not to our disadvantage.
I ponder this now after watching The Hobbit last night, a young Hobbit, the audience’s innocent child of the West Country (Wessex) goes on a journey with a group of Jews, I mean Dwarves, to recover their lost homeland and recover a great deal of gold. Tolkien constructed the Dwarves to parallel the Jewish people in many ways, their language is Semitic and due to a dispossession of their lands are forced to wander the world forever aliens. But the problem arises with their love of gold, and the way it can corrupt them, they’re not alone in their corruptibility but it is a prominent element in all their stories. They lose their home(s) because they got too greedy. People may not like admitting that they know the stereotypes but the Jewish people have been discriminated against and slain in the millions, need I remind you, in part due to tales that they value gold over all things.
Put my point, I do not believe that Tolkien hated Jews in any way – in his personal life he spoke of them highly and in his stories of Dwarves they are brave and honourable. But are his tales racist, I would but leave it to Jewish people to decide but I believe, in accordance with my understanding of racism that yes Tolkien’s portrayal of Jews in the form of Dwarves was racist and that he himself, due to holding the views did, was also a racist. That is not to say that he was a bad man. He held a genuine affection for them, but is that not a problem in itself?
Moving away from Tolkien now and speaking in my general terms, people will write on topics that interest them, they will write topics on people that interest them, with or without the appropriate knowledge to accurately portray them. There is nothing inherently wrong with writing about people from other cultures however it must be accepted that it is for the pleasure of the author and it must be considered why it is that they want to write on such a topic, especially if they have no true first hand experience.
Group A wants to write a book about Group B, a group of people who they find interesting, now Group A is predominantly dominated by white, privileged individuals, notably male but not always, they find Group B interesting because they view them as being different from themselves and it is this difference that they want to write about. They maybe expanded upon, exaggerated it and distorted it. No, Group B will always be distorted and will not live as themselves but as an ‘other’ to be juxtaposed against the ‘norm’. With all good intentions I believe it is virtually impossible to write about a peoples other than your own, for an audience to resemble yourself, or at least this is what I have learnt from authors so far. I would love nothing more to be proven wrong.
I have seen some wonderful portrayals of PoC (People of Colour) in books and films written by white authors, at least I believe them to be wonderful they may not be, but alas I do not believe the same can be said for my people.
You write of the Romani, in perfect fantasy for the pleasure of yourself and your middle-class audience, but what are we but your characterchures?
For most people explaining that they’re are not Romanian is a fairly straightforward business. If you are unsure whether or not someone you know is Romanian just ask them this simple question – Where they born in Romania? No. Still not sure – Was anyone in their direct family born in Romania? No. Congratulation they’re not Romanian. Like wise if the answer(s) to the above question(s) was yes than congratulations they’re Romanian. Not an altogether difficult line of enquiry yet it seems to be one that I come across with far to frequent an occurrence. The problem arises when my ethnicity is mentioned, I am Romany, Romani, Rromani etc. many different spellings but never one that ends in -an.
On second thoughts forget about everything I have just said, this is not something I personally experience very often in fact it happened for the first time in October, you can read a post I published about it here. I believe, and indeed hope, that most people in the UK understand what I mean by Romany, this is not a theory I have necessarily put to the test but it is how thing are in my observations but you never know maybe people just think I’m Romanian. But nevertheless it is something that I often read about, especially on American blogs, with ‘Gypsies’ in America being seen by the general publish as A) travelling criminals or B) magical creatures that live perfect lives, it can be very difficult for my American friends to explain their ethnicity, culture and language.
A frustrating situation I am sure you can all agree, but is it harmful? I believe it is, for not only are people denying Romani ethnicity, culture and language, whether by pure accident and ignorant, or due to political agenda but it also deepens the feeling that Romanies do not truly belonging to any geographical location and leaves us open to attack. As long as the Romani people are not considered ‘part’ of a national society we will continue to be sidelined and blamed for the ill-fortunate of nations. Now this isn’t the time or the place for discussing the puerile idiotism of blaming immigrants for all and sundry, and I leave the discussion of European Roma/Romani to those who know the topic more intimately than I.
But the Romany of the United Kingdom are not immigrants. The first (UK) Egyptian Act was passed in 1530, 482(3) years ago during the reign of King Henry VIII, four years before the Reformation. We are just as integral.
I am not a Romanian, I am a proud British Romany.
For Krečuno (Muldivvus – Christmas) this year my friend bought me a little make your own matchstick ledge wagon.
I love it, it is so cute!
Better yet, when I turned it over I noticed that it also includes parts to construct a bow-top!
A battle rages, one I was born into yet I find myself able to walk away from. The battle is real but is my involvement?
The Rom, the world’s most hated men are oppressed and imprisoned, their house burnt down, their women and children beaten, dying for an accident of birth they seek asylum but are sent back to lands who would kill them whilst their murderers sip coffee around a UN table.
In the UK our lives are easier; deprived of homes, falsely arrested, our children are bullied in schools and told that they will never be able to get a job. But here it is for our lifestyle not our blood. Travellers and Romani alike, anyone who is unfortunate enough to be granted ‘Gypsy Status’. Perhaps far worse for them who haven’t qualified. Left in a no-man’s land.
I find myself in the awkward position that I am no longer a Traveller, separated from my kin I sit in kenna free from the pressures of my birth yet aware of the suffering. I paint myself a vanguard, crying for my burdens yet…
I can walk away from the battle at any time. Have I already?
To destroy a peoples you must take their language, their history and their religion.
I do not fanatically regret the current cultural practices of the British Romany, as if in some fantastical school-ground fantasy wishing upon a star for some historical fallacy that never truly existed outside the minds of romantic poets. I am however aware of the cultural erosion experienced by all Romani (regardless of group or vitsa) and occasionally I ponder. I wonder about what has been lost, either through fear of persecution, enslavement and cultural genocide, or through adaptation.
My family has lost our language, I know of only a few words in an already pogadi chib. But for all the puerile sadness this causes me it is not for what I ponder today.
From what I understand, Romani groups upon first arriving in Europe converted to Christianity, as they may have converted to Islam previously, to secure free-passed with the popularity of the religion spreading through coercion, oppression, slavery and positive economic opportunity. Most Romani today are Christian. Truly, full-heartedly but it wasn’t the religion we first arrived with and glimmers of this can be seen throughout our culture from our strict marime code to our unique take on religious ceremony.
The largest Romani festival is the pilgrimage of Saint Sarah in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue. Saint Sarah is thoughts to have been adopted by the Romani after their arrival in Europe, she is a Christian saint after all. However parallel cannot help but be drawn between this figure and the Hindu deity Kali, as also suggested by her Romani name Sara-e-Kali (translation: Black Sarah).
Even outside of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer Sara-e-Kali is important, some Catholic Romanies when they pray to the Blessed Mother refer to Sara-e-Kali and not the Virgin Mary!
So I wonder and I ponder what our religion would have once looked like, obviously each group would have had different practices that stretched and changed as they made contact with new people and cultures but what was it like before Christianity. What would Christmas have been like before we became Christians?
People often ask if I want to go back to living in a caravan. Whether I want to go back to living as a ‘Gypsy’. This is not a question I can answer. Why should I want to go back to living in a caravan? what do they mean by living as a ‘Gypsy’? They don’t realise that such a simply question can be so full of politics. They don’t mean anything by it but they say more about themselves than they mean to. These are not questions I can answer, they are nonsensical and ridiculous.
Do you want to go back to working the land, do you want to go back to living as a serf? I read somewhere in some book that Englishman of none-noble blood were peasants or factory workers. Is that not true?
The comparison is ridiculous isn’t it. I mean, Romani and Travellers still live in caravans don’t they? A large number of us still do and thanks to legal definitions of what ‘Gypsy’ and Travellers are we cannot seem to exist without our mobile homes but why should my ethnicity define my lifestyle? Is my blood different from how it was now I live in a house. Will it magically, miraculously change back the moment I step back into a wagon. I was born Romany. Why do I have to live a certain why to prove that?
The answer is simple really. I know it, I just don’t agree with it.
There are two reasons really:
Firstly: Internal. A Romany has to live with Romanipen. Even the Romanichal, Britain’s Romany Gypsies have Romanipen. The essence of being Romani. We are born with it and we live with it for as long as we live by it and continue to be accepted by our community and fellow communities.
Secondly: External. To be viewed as a ‘Gypsy’ we must conform to people’s understanding of what a ‘Gypsy’ is. The term ‘Gypsy’ is an exonym, invented by outsiders for the benefit of outsiders. The rest of us, us ‘Gypsies’ ourselves, have just had a long time to accept it. No surprise than really that the wider external world has so much sway. The issue gets even more complicated when we start discussing settled Travellers. Real mind-blowing stuff, but for now we’ll just say that legally and socially from an external prospective we must conform to an external understanding to be classed as a ‘real Gypsy’.
So all explained then right? Wrong. We still have the issue of my ethnicity & why it should define my very being when your ethnicity doesn’t decide yours. It’s to do with your misunderstanding of what a Romani is.
My people have lived in a variety of different ways from tents to house since we left India 1,500 years ago, and we continue to live as such. Romani heritage is nomadic, as an ethnicity we have no homeland of our own, the pull of economic opportunity and the push of persecution have driven us to be highly adaptable to changes in economic and politic climates. however about 90% of Roma and Romani live in houses globally with a lower rate of 50% for ‘Gypsies’ and Travellers in Western Europe. Keeping in mind that 50% applies only to brick-and-mortar houses, and not the majority of ‘Travellers’ who live in caravan parts as part of a settled communities. The Anglophile’s view of painted caravans is a romanticised notion, only partial grounding in reality.
It’s wrong for you to expect me to live a certain way and I’m not going to do it.