I Met Lucky People by Yaron Matras – review Sukhdev Sandhu

Romanian Roma people

The Roma movement is often political, a series of displacements and exoduses triggered by prejudice and social panics. Photograph: Mihai Barbu/EPA

Here they come: swarming and noisy, dirty and barely civilised – stories about the Roma. Talk-radio gobmeisters, custodians of mass-market morality belching out bellicose headlines and editorials, on-the-make politicos eager to show they’re in touch with what the public is “really” thinking: in recent months they’ve all united in a chorus of hate aimed at Romanians or Bulgarians who have the temerity to step foot in Britain. Their accusations are as horrendous as they are hackneyed: the Roma are pickpockets, baby thieves, spongers, beggars, tax-shirkers, doorstep-defecators. Worst of all, they bring down house values.

On the periphery even of the liberal imagination, Romani people have long oscillated between being invisibles and folk devils. Hardly homogeneous (those living in present-day Britain are a mixed bunch, including Irish Travellers, Hungarian Romani who arrived after the failed uprising in 1956, and the Kale of north Wales), they have been labelled and relabelled ever since they migrated from India in the middle ages: Saracens, Bohemians, Egyptians, all terms signifying vagabond otherness, dangerous mobility. As early as 1496, the legislative council of the holy Roman empire, meeting in Bavaria, declared them “enemy agents”.

Yaron Matras’s I Met Lucky People, a historical and linguistic survey of the Roma, tells how many European territories soon followed suit. In 1530, King Henry VIII passed an Act expelling “outlandish people” prone to palm-reading and fortune-telling. In 1541 they were blamed for fires in Prague and kicked out of Czech lands. In 1548, the German diet in Augsburg ruled that their murder was not a prosecutable offence. By the early 18th century, those living in parts of Austria might have their backs branded.

Time and again over the last millennium, Roma movement has been more than purely cultural; it is as likely to be political, a series of displacements and exoduses triggered by prejudice and social panics. Like the Jews, another group repeatedly castigated and cast out through history, the Roma were targeted by Nazis. They were sterilised and, during a period they refer to as the “Great Devouring”, at least 100,000 (some estimates claim 1.5 million) were exterminated. Matras calls this “genocide”, but also points out that not one German implicated in it has been brought to justice.

Relatively little scholarship on these people exist. No doubt this has something to do with stories often being passed down orally rather than textually. But given how consistently harassed and persecuted the Roma have been, that they’ve been described as “the first blacks in Europe”, and to this day use words such as “pani” (water) and “sap” (snake) that are identical to similar words in Hindi and Punjabi, it’s surprising that they’re so little studied.

Perhaps it’s because, in some eyes, they can pass for white, and therefore aren’t the “right” kind of minority. Certainly, they don’t easily fit within the schema of postcolonial analysis; their history precedes that of European imperialism, and the polemical claim “We’re here, because you were there,” often used by pro-immigrant activists, has little force. Besides, many Roma, if they’re not living in rural landscapes, are found in edgelands that are terra incognita to many scholars.

I Met Lucky People is expository, describing its subjects in almost anthropological prose. At its best, though, it homes in on the possibility that the Roma problem has nothing to do with the Roma, but with the “paradigmatic dilemma” they raise: “The identity of the Roms as a people is difficult to conceptualise if one’s understanding of nationhood is bound to territory, national sovereignty and formal institutions. We tend to think of a nation as having a land, a state, an official language and a recorded history.”

Matras rightly debunks the idea that the Roma are in constant motion; some settlements go back decades, while it’s often pushy local authorities, or grand projects such as the 2012 Olympics, that perturb and unanchor inhabitants. No doubt he’d agree that it’s odd, if not downright hypocritical, for them to be so routinely talked about in the language of pandemics or military conquest (“swarms”, “invasions”), or that they should be damned for their perceived nomadism when non-Roma society fetishises speed and circulation, weekend breaks and EasyJet getaways.

No less strange is how European society discusses the Roma relationship to work. Often it’s assumed there is no relation: they’re portrayed as being indolent and like “chavs” (a Romani word). Specific histories – such as the number of Roma who served as snipers for Britain during the first world war or who laboured in munitions factories during the second world war – are conveniently overlooked. At the same time, the extravagant and voyeuristic attention given to the tiny number of Roma families who have lavish mansions feeds suspicions that “they” are getting rich at “our” expense.

Matras points out that most Roma live below the poverty line. This may be the price they pay for cleaving, in his words, “to independence and flexibility in earning their livelihood”. There’s not a vast amount of money to be made in hawking carpets, shifting deckchairs, repairing roofs, selling trinkets. Working seasonally rather than for steady wages is tough, but it’s neither illogical nor reprehensible. It may even be preferable to the forms of psychic servitude and clocked-on torment that capitalism inflicts on so many people.

Perhaps on one level we suspect that already. Matras draws attention to the many novels (including ones by DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf) that celebrate the Roma for their perceived transgressions, as well as the hundreds of songs – by jazzbos, metal bands and folk chanteuses – that, however hokey and sentimental, fantasise about exercising Gypsy freedoms.

He might also have mentioned Ewan MacColl who, when speaking of his experiences recording The Travelling People (1964), the final episode in his widely revered Radio Ballads series, recalled: “There were occasions when it was easy to imagine that one had slipped through a time-warp and was in a place where automobiles and television and supermarket were still in the future. To sit in the dark in a bow-tent made by throwing a tarpaulin over bent sycamore saplings and to listen to a disembodied voice telling the story of the firebird was to experience a special kind of enchantment.”

To some that kind of reverie is as worthy of scorn as situationist Guy Debord championing the Roma as fork‑tongued rebels, rhetorical refuseniks whose dialects helped them avoid capture by straight society: “The Gypsies rightly contend that one is never obliged to speak the truth except in one’s own language; in the enemy’s language the lie must reign.”

But both MacColl and Debord are, in their different ways, expressing their shared belief that what gets called civilisation all too often feels like enclosure. Perhaps today’s hatred of the Roma springs mostly from hatred of ourselves – our complicity in a deformed social system that few of us can imagine opting out of.

Originally published in The Guardian 29 January 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/29/i-met-lucky-people-review


International Romani Day

For International Romani Day I’m thinking of doing a little bit of an International Romani Awareness Day by using my twitter account to post a series of questions, on the hour every hour, followed briefly by an answer. A kinda IQ style quiz.

As yet I’m not quite sure of exactly what questions I am planning on asking but I think I’m looking at basic categories

International Romani Day – History.

Romani Culture and History;

The Holocaust

Romani Culture Today

Situation in Europe

Situation in UK

Situation World Wide

The problem is I’m always worried about getting something wrong or misrepresenting something. This is so incredibly important I don’t want to misinform people.

Don’t blame the Roma for their mass exodus from their Bulgarian and Romania homes.

Due to media hype and political rhetoric there is a fear brewing that with the uncapping of the immigrant restriction for Bulgaria and Romania at the beginning of next year we will see a full scale 29 million strong migration. We have been lead to believe the entire populations of Bulgaria and Romania will be banging down the doors of Dover, and with them will include the most abhorred of all, the Roma.

For the most part this is utter nonsense; Whitehall reports reassure us that this predicted mass tsunami will be more of a trickle with most Bulgarians and Romanians who want to move abroad have already done so. Regardless, this publicised hostility has lead to many Romanians and Bulgarians blaming the Roma for the mass hysteria, resulting in increased violence against their communities and worsening conditions.

The Roma (referred incorrectly to as Gypsies) are well known for being Europe’s poorest and most segregated minority. Living in Romania and Bulgaria under apartheid conditions, they have every reason to want to build a better life for themselves.

Understandable, the EU’s more affluent countries are concerned … for all the wrong reasons. The situation surrounding the Roma is, and always has been, a European problem. If Britain is concerned about mass Roma immigration we should first look at the situation in Eastern Europe and address the problem at the source. Wouldn’t time be better spent investigating and improving the conditions for Roma in their native countries?

Roma prosecution in Romania and Bulgaria

“…systematic discrimination is taking place against up to 10 million Roma across Europe. [Amnesty International] has documented the failures of governments across the continent to live up to their obligations”.

The Roma first arrived in Romania (Wallachia) in 1241 and until liberation in 1856 most lived in Slavery for boyers and orthodox monasteries. In 1886 the Roma population of modern day Romania stood at an estimated 200,000.

During the Second World War The Romania Government of Ion Antonescu departed 25,000 Roma to the Transnistria concentration camp; a total of 36,000 Romanian Roma were killed.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Research Institute estimates the total number of Romani people murdered during the holocaust (by 1945) at between 500,000 and 1/5 million

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg in August 2008, noted that “today’s rhetoric against the Roma is very similar to the one used by Nazis and fascists before the mass killings started in the thirties and forties. Once more, it is argued that the Roma are a threat to safety and public health. No distinction is made between a few criminals and the overwhelming majority of the Roma population. This is shameful and dangerous.”

Academic studies against the Roma people are often published, and without criticism. Professor Ognian Saparev published an  article on ‘Gypsies’ stating that they should be confined to ghettos due to a cultural inclination towards crime.

A popular style of modern Roma music known as ‘manele’ is prohibited on public transport and in taxis in some Romanian cities as an experimental study (published by Professor’s Dr. Ioan Bradu Iamandescu) linked ‘manele’ with increased aggression and low cognitive ability.

Today an estimated 400,000 live in ghettoes in Bulgaria without access to basic facilities. In 2006 the European Committee of Social Rights found violations of the European Social Charter concerning right to housing, and in 2008 concerning right to health.

Roma children are often segregated in the education system and sent to special schools with half the number of students in schools of children with disabilities being of the Roma ethnicity, and two-thirds of the students in delinquent schools being of the Roma ethnicity. The Bulgarian Helsink Committee found a variety of human rights abuses, including physical violence to be common place in these schools.

In Romania since 1985 more than 1500 Roma have been forcibly moved to a ghetto built on a rubbish dump outside Romania’s second largest city Cluj-Napoca. In 400 Roma were given 2 days notice to move out of their homes where they had been living without conflict for 20 years.  The European Roma Rights Centre are fighting against such convictions.

In June 1012 the Mayor of Baia Mare ordered 2,000 Roma to be moved overnight from their homes to a former chemical laboratory (known to locals as the “death factory”). Police were involved in the eviction and forced the Roma into open trucks to be transported to the factory.  The factory had not been renovated for human habitation and poisonous toxins in the dust and air caused 22 children and 2 adults to have to be rushed to hospital. They were the only people permitted to leave the camp with local police patrolling the area. In another part of town a 2-metre-high wall “The great Gypsy wall” was constructed to separate the Roma community from the town. Mayor Cherecheş has subsequently been fined by the National Council Against Discrimination after complaints from Amnesty International but has no intention of demolishing the wall.

The United Nations Development Programme is concerned that the percentage of Roma with access to running water and sewage treatment in Romania is well below the average leading to high proliferation of pediculosis, mycosis, askaridosis, respiratory health problems, hepatitis and tuberculosis.

Re-Blog: Travellers should resist collective shame for slavery

Travellers should resist collective shame for slavery.

by Rosaleen McDonagh

OPINION: The cruel actions of a family in England have horrified my community

‘Your crowd were at it again.” This came from a friend, referring to the recent sentencing of members of the Connors family for slavery offences in England.

The family are Travellers who exploited, beat and starved vulnerable men for financial benefit. The men who had been under the control of this family, some for more than 20 years, were paid £5 a day. Their living conditions were appalling. The images and the reports of the malnutrition and the treatment they suffered was evocative of an earlier century when white people carried out similar forms of cruelty on black people.

The collective shame and shock within my community was palpable when the news reports were broadcast. Traveller children were afraid to go to school the following morning. “Slave owners” was the taunt in the playground, in the classroom, in the library and even in the workplace.

The punishment is dished out to a whole community for the acts of individual criminals. My friend, using the phrase “your crowd”, not only articulated a false sense of familiarity – it was an attempt at goading.

Catapulted into guilt

The coverage of the Connors case catapulted my community into guilt. Guilt by association operates more intensely when it is embedded in a context of racism. The impulse was to keep our heads down, bury our shame and hold our silence. This is problematic. Silence can be toxic. Being falsely incriminated by way of one’s ethnicity should not mean that you collude with criminality.

The words of Traveller human rights activist Martin Collins came to my mind when I searched for a response to the taunt “your crowd”. Criminality is not part of Traveller culture nor part of our DNA.

Shame should not be used as a mechanism to hold a community to account. Collective shame should not have to be carried by the whole community for the behaviour of one small group. It should not have to be carried from one generation to another. My generation already carries many elements of shame – these are projected on to us by the mere fact that Travellers are “the other”.

Slavery, feuding, domestic violence and other forms of criminality are all too prevalent, not just within the Traveller community. The stereotypes and the misdefinition of Traveller identity gets reduced to these negative behaviours.

The exploitation of migrant workers, the mistreatment of domestic workers and the trafficking of women are forms of criminality that are societal rather than ethnic issues.

Internalised oppression can never be used as an excuse for criminality. Systemic oppression does, however, lead to behaviours whereby the oppressed, to feel powerful, will exploit other vulnerable people in inhumane ways. This modus operandi for internalised oppression manifests as a particular type of social contract.

Endemic alienation

This concerns itself with bullying and intimidation and serves as a form of fast-tracking of social mobility based on money, machismo, and bravado. Alienation can become so endemic within marginalised individuals and communities that crime can be perceived to have the most immediate rewards.

The rewards for buying into the dominant social contract include a sense of citizenship, belonging and opportunity. Esteem and dignity are on offer. Participation comes with rewards of access and choice.

However, in my community I know very few doctors, barristers, dentists, teachers, engineers or academics. The list of professions we are not a part of seems to get longer with each generation.

The crimes carried out by members of the Connors family are also attacks on the fabric of a vulnerable community. Exploitation and intimidation are not confined to victims beyond the community but also happen within the Traveller community.

This is often difficult to challenge or highlight. An imposed collective shame is difficult to shrug off. Challenging a false social contract based on crime is difficult in a context of racism. Exposing any kind of antisocial behaviour within a small community comes at a price. Individuals within our community do take on these tasks with integrity and courage. They are our agents for social change.

* Rosaleen McDonagh is a playwright from the Travelling community

Kill me with Affection. Part 2

In which I discuss why sometimes writing about an ethnicity you ‘like’ can do more harm than good. 

Earlier I discussed Tolkien’s use of a simile race in his greatest works but I will admit that perhaps I did not make my motivation clear. In fact I may have simply just muddled the waters for Tolkien is for all intense and purposes irrelevance to my point, The Hobbit was simply the inspiration behind my train of thought.

I call these posts ‘Kill me with Affection’ because I have noticed that this is indeed what a number of authors do, whether it be their intention or not. Lets take the Romani discourse for example, that is after all what I desire to speak about.

People write, on mass it would seem, on the topic of ‘Gypsies’. I reference fiction, fantasy, role-playing. Not entirely limited to books, we also have television, plays, video and card games, we might even take drawing, photography and fashion we will always come down to the same problem. People enjoying ‘Gypsies’, or at the very least this fictional romanticist of what a ‘Gypsy’ is. No body really likes Gypsies, I have spoken to many people who enjoy the tales and dressing up but when it gets down to it don’t much care for our living, breathing forms. But I’m afraid that I’m mixing too many issues at once so lets start simply.

  • People enjoy writing about ‘Gypsies’.
  • People enjoy reading about ‘Gypsies’.
  • People have a very set view of what constitutes a ‘Gypsy’ is and are only interested in their understanding of what one is and what one should be .
  • People have a number of misunderstanding on Romani culture and how we live our lives, relevant to both the ‘Gypsy idealism’ and how other Romani families live both now and ‘then’. The ‘then’ being any arbitrary imagined period, or perhaps more aptly ‘style’ that the author wishes to portray, hopefully correlated with some factual truth.
  • Audience
  • In addition to this we also have Travelling people as literary, or story devises – smuggling, curses, fortune telling.

People want to write and read stories about a particular race because they find them interesting. The author, or society has decided that they are interesting. Why do people find this race interesting, personal perception of what another race is like, and because the Romani have been romanticised for eons.

People are tired of their day-to-day life they want a holiday, they’re stressed by work, their home life etcetera. etcetera look Gypsies they have no responsibility, travel from place to place without worries. Even if we just stick with all of the ‘good’ things that people think about Romanies and Travellers and forget the bad exist we are still left with this issue of dehumanisation.

The people who are being written about are not a people but a desire of what the writer wants – escapism. Now this can lead to two sets of problems, firstly Romanies, or Gypsies as the common bookworm identifies us as, become equated with faeries and mythical creatures. This is an attitude I have particularly noticed of Americans.

A Mythological creature cannot suffer racism, discrimination or crime, they have no human rights and as a result of this I have found that people are more likely to dismiss the suffering of Romani people because they have problems taking them seriously as human beings, this is further amplified by intense misconceptions of what a Romani looks like, “what women is not a gypsy, where is her tambarin and singing goat” etc. etc.

This fairytale lifestyle is also insulting. Yes us Romani are pretty great, we sing and we dance but we travel out of necessity, pulled by economic opportunity and pushed by discrimination and genocide. The Roma and Sinti suffered the Porajmos, the Romani holocaust. We have been slaves, and we are still to this day forced into ghettos and work camps. To wash over our history (and present reality) of hardship is disgusting, it is an insult spat in our face and the faces of everyone we have ever loved.

English: "Gypsy Caravan" by Leon Goodman

“Gypsy Caravan” by Leon Goodman

But most importantly these stories paint a very particular view of what us ‘Gypsies’ are supposed to be like, not every story is the same but most grew from tired stereotypes based around one period of Romani history. I say one, I lie, I actually mean two. The first is the Bohemian, the likes of Esméralda and Carmen, and the second my people (*bows*) with our painted vardos. Beautiful imagery I’ve no doubt, and indeed the painted vardo is still very much to this day beloved by modern Romany however this view, this idea of how a ‘Gypsy’ should be distracts away from how we are. There is this hatred towards ‘Travellers’ in their trailers but a romantic love of ‘Real Gypsies’ in their horse-drawns. We live to shouts of ‘if only they would live properly, I don’t mind proper Gypsies’. This is not right, how can a characterchure of a bygone age that only ever existed partially be the ‘Real’ and us, with our blood, our history, our culture be the fake?

Even if the author wish to avoid old stereotypes, they will come up against the issue that they, and their readership, simply do not understand enough about Romani culture to accurately portray us. Is that not a good enough reason in itself not to write about our culture?

Nevertheless, even after countless research, an author who has decided to write about a culture that interests them merely because they are interested is doomed to fail, because fundamentally they will write about the aspects of that culture that interests them, they will expanded upon, exaggerated it and distorted it. It is not their characters that are important but their ethnicity. A distorted wreak of cultural mishmashing lacking in believability, they will not live as themselves but as an ‘other’ to be juxtaposed against the ‘norm’. For the author will always have their audience in mind, a gargle of romanticists, without even the smallest consideration that a ‘Gypsy’ might be able to read their books.

Why is it I say that people are killing me with affection? Because even when people are being nice to the Romani all they seem to be able to come up with are washed up old stereotypes that at the end of the day continue to do more harm than good.

Kill me with affection (Part 1)

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?