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

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A time to fear your own private opinions.

Earlier to day the Independent newspaper published an article entitled Top Twitter Gaffes of 2013 after a Public Relations Expert tweeted the unforgivable: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”. She unsurprisingly lost her job soon after landing.

As a Human Rights activist who campaigns predominantly online I am highly concerned about the impact my e-footprint might have for future job prospects. I might be working in what I would hope to be a mutually exclusive sphere to Justine but I am no less controversial and no stranger to grime satire.

One would hope Justine’s comments were a crass attempt at raising awareness of the disparity between access to health care and education for people living in different areas of ‘African’ communities but it simply wasn’t. Just a ‘harmless’ ‘joke’ with the punchline playing on misinformation and ignorance.

Now I do not agree with people’s personal lives, or as I put it earlier ‘being a bad person’, so severely impacting someone’s career as to lose them their job, especially within the private sector where unlike politicians or public figures they are not themselves a product just another drone following the corporate line. But in this example the company, due to the amount of attention she received could not but sack her as a representative on grounds of bringing said company into disrepute. Let alone any ill comfort or feeling she might have created between herself and her co-workers.

So where is my personal concern in all this? As a Human Rights campaigner  I discuss issues such as discrimination and ignorance without our direct communities and throughout the world. As a masochist my interests lay within more controversial areas of human rights abuses such as indigenous right, Roma and the Arab-Israeli conflict (Hint: I use the word Palestinian). All I want, somewhat naïvely, is for all human beings to be treated as people with equal access to the same state facilities as people of other races and cultures within their given country. That statement also includes ‘regardless of sex’ but that’s a topic for a different time.

What possible problem could that cause for me then? Non at all one would hope but people so often fall within one of a small number of categories – ‘The Bore: You’re so Boring’, ‘The Ignorant: But they’re Criminals?’, ‘The Doe-Eyed: What? I Didn’t Realise Racism Existed Today?, & ‘The Enraged: But they’re Criminals!’. The majority of my peers fall within either the first or third category, and the second and fourth are so closely related and interchangeable that it’s sometimes difficult to determine exactly where ‘The Average Person’ stands. There is also a fifth category known as the ‘But I’m not a Bad Person’ but everyone is a little guilty of that.

Each category presents its own unique trials and obstacles, it is very difficult to know exactly where a given person is going to stand on the topic and without a full understanding of the issues and exactly what I know or do not know my feed can feel a little daunting with individual statements cherry pick-able almost at random.

Above all this, what does every employer want? Someone who can get along with a team and when you risk taking a stand on something you believe in, especially something that goes against conventional opinions or highlights problem where ‘there aren’t any, right guys?’, you gamble building a reputation as a high-risk investment.

You don’t believe me? Try reading some of my hate mail :3

Keep your head down

A couple of days ago I posted a status on Facebook™ about a women at my workplace who has been being sexually harassment and was on one occasional sexually assaulted physically by a superior within the company. I posted this primarily because I believe that it is pretty grime that she almost did not report it because she was worried about potential backlash that might, in her opinion, put her job at risk. It came to the point that she no longer felt entirely safe, let alone comfortable.

Keep your head down

Has her job been put at risk? I highly doubt it but still remains to be seen. The important thing is she felt that it might jeopardise her position within the company because she was  scared how her colleagues and managers might react and most importantly how the offender might react. This fear, founded in reality or not, is very real and it prevents people like this lady coming forward and standing up for themselves.

My second motivation for posting my little update, and in some ways the most important reason, was because I have friends and acquaintances who believe that sexual harassment within the work place is not an issue because it is not an everyday occurrence. I believe they are wrong, it can be an everyday occurrence, some people will experience it multiple time in their life and some people will never come across it at all.

Now moving onto my point, after posting this I was sent the most well meaning message from a work colleague essentially telling me to mind my own business because it does not directly impact me and, I quote, I should ‘keep my head down’.

Fair, fair spreading rumour around the office is not the wisest or nicest of ideas, and as they say ” You stick your neck out, you are asking to lose your head”.

I’m not entirely sure I agree, in fact I’m not entirely sure I agree with the principle at all. I believe discussing these issues is highly important or at the very least should not be taboo, and to back up dehumanised and conservative statistics with personal experience, not that antidote cannot be faulty or just down right dangerous but it lends a face to something that not everyone experiences and could be excused for not considering relevant to their lives.

I have been sexually assaulted on multiple occasions to varying degrees, and it is very difficult to know what to do and how to react. A simple part of you just wants to smack the offender in the face and teach him a lesson but what lesson will be learnt. Violence is not the simple answer because it can so easily be used again you. Instead of anger I feel fear, embarrassment and shame. As the ‘victim’ this is not acceptable. We have every right to stand up for ourselves but it is sometimes difficult to know how and it is not guaranteed that we will be supported.

As my second point on the original post goes on to discuss but skims around, even though she was being supported and taken seriously, her manager (who was being less than subtle shouter her complaint across the break room within ear shot of multiple colleagues) seemed more interesting in reassuring himself that, for her sake he hadn’t been making her feel uncomfortable with his own ‘banter’ but ultimately that he was a good person. Understandable perhaps but she might have preferred not to have him telling her so many times about how much of a ‘great guy’ the man who assaulted her is. I think we all agree that he isn’t a Disney villain (or Walt Disney himself) but in this instance as we are focusing on his treatment of her , how amusing he is down the pub with the lads might not be entirely relevant.

The stories of how much of a laugh he is, even though the manager is trying to be supportive, is just going someway to reaffirm the fear of not only hierarchical bureaucratic position within the company but also social position within the working entity as a society or social group.

This is not a situation I am going to get any further involved in, she wants to try to keep it quiet amongst per colleagues so I doubt she would appreciate me taking a front row seat in her personal battle I stand by believing it is very important not to pretend that such issues do not exist and are not relevant to the lives of the majority of people regardless of whether or not they have first hand experience.  Every man has a women in their lives: mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, every women has the same. That’s why I think we owe it to yourself and the people we love not to play pretend or feels as if there is nothing we can do about it, we can do a lot by simple talking.

Like in the plot of every film or video game, surely these characters would get more stuff done if they simple talk to each other.

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.

A global battle.

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?

Hungarian Roma asylum-seekers deported from Canada.

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?