As the immigration of Roma to Western European states continues to cause media panic, Damian Le Basconsiders the history of Romani trades and the astonishing variety of jobs that Europe and Asia have relied on their “Gypsies” to do.
I’M a writer and a filmmaker: I write and make films for a living, and writing and films are what put food on my table. That might not strike some people as particularly surprising, but to me, it still is.
When I was younger I tried to think of myself as a writer, but it was hard to really believe it. It was a vague aspiration, not a sensible ambition. And the most sensible ambition I could have had wasn’t really an “ambition” anyway: it was to do what everyone else did, the work that had put food on the table for years.
When I was a kid, “what everyone else did” meant either selling flowers or doing building and roofing work. These were the sensible options, and even people in my family who had aspirations still had to do the sensible stuff. My mother and father were artists, but art didn’t pay the bills. They still sold flowers to make ends meet. So I guessed that once I grew up I’d sell flowers or do some kind of building. There were other options that seemed a bit more exotic but were still pretty close to home: selling horses, fixing motors, or buying and selling scrap; but the idea of selling words I’d actually written myself, or films I’d actually made, would have sounded about as realistic as thinking I could go and open a flower shop in outer space.
In Romani culture, the idea that you should do ‘our kind of work’, ‘Gypsy work’ or ‘Romani buki’ or whatever you happen to call it, is a powerful one. Why shouldn’t it be? We might think of how common it is in all cultures to establish a ‘family business’, a trade you and your vitsa are known and trusted for: fine. But setting up shop in a job that plays to your strengths is not the same thing as playing a role in the world of work because other people just expect you to, or because you don’t believe you can do anything different.
Outside Romani culture, the idea of ‘Gypsy jobs’ is probably even more powerful. So what jobs do we do? They could be classified in different ways I suppose. There are the jobs that are jobs, and are useful to society; the jobs that are jobs, and aren’t useful to society; and the jobs that aren’t actually jobs, but crimes. So, as examples, in the first group we have agricultural labour (farm work); in the second group, fortune telling; and in the third group, stealing. There’s one hypothetical, externally generated tri-partite paradigmatic prism for viewing Romani labour. Or- in English- an outsider’s way of looking at Romani work.
Why do views like this continue to prevail, when they clearly have a detrimental effect on Romani people’s view of themselves and their potential (as they would have on anyone’s) and also clearly fail to describe the variety of jobs we are doing and, also, the variety of jobs we have always done? Yes, you read that correctly: the variety of jobs we have always done.
In the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University, my mother came across the pair of dental forceps shown in the picture above. The card attached reads:
“Dental forceps made by local GYPSIES. Made of iron, with long, slender, curved handle: the small pincer jaws end in two teeth on each side. Length c.17cm. People:
Albanian Gypsies. Locality: Scutari, Albania. Collected by Miss M.E
Durham, 1911. How acquired: presented by her, 1933.”
This information is significant, but not as significant as what Professor Thomas Acton later unfolded about these forceps. The Romani people (“Albanian Gypsies”) who made them would not only have been blacksmiths talented enough to make medical instruments, but they were also doing the dentistry. This is at least 80 years ago, and these “Gypsies” were dentists.
This is but one example of the variety I mentioned above, but it’s a didactic example at least. I can’t fully explain why this discovery made me smile so much, but I’ll try to explain it in part. I smiled- as I did when I first read about Helios Gomez, the artist and political thinker who was also Gitano- because it made me realise that, coming from a Romani family and feeling that I have a good grasp of my cultural heritage, there is still so much I do not know, that most of us do not know, about the range of things our people have done to survive. Historical textbooks are at pains to point out that one reason why Roma people in the Islamic world were doing trades like dentistry is because they were considered unclean by others: this information is of secondary significance to me. The main thing is that the resourcefulness and skill of these Roma led them to take up this trade, and this history of flexibility, and of skill, is not being made enough of in the current political discourse around Romani immigration.
There is one other caveat to all this discussion, which thrives on the presumption of laziness and fecklessness among Romani people. Let’s keep it simple: in plenty of corners generally hidden from the selective eyes of well-known history, Europe has gotten rich by breaking the backs of Romani people who worked and worked for centuries, the problem being that they were neither paid, nor respected as humans. Vast, successful corporations (you know who you are) have been seeded in this way and continue to thrive from these roots, and the very least we can ask is that this be noted and respected as part of the history of our continent.
“In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty:” so we are told by the biblical book of Proverbs. It’s a nice quotation with a bold simplicity to it, and you might even find yourself nodding along. I did. Then I thought about reality, and one reality in particular: slavery. It’s unlikely that the author (or compiler) of the book of Proverbs was a slave: literate slaves were few and far between in the ancient Near East. Anyway, in the toil of slavery there is indeed profit, it’s just that the profit doesn’t happen to go to the one who is toiling.
By Damian Le Bas