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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Casual Racism in (Deviant)Art – ‘Ethnic Minorities’ are not Elves.

One of the most annoying aspects of casual racism I often witness on DeviantArt, in addition to the use of outdated and offensive anthropological terminology aka Eskimo, Lapp, Gypsy, is the continuous dehumanisation of ethnic ‘minorities’ via the use of overly mystical and magical imagery. I’m not going to go into too much detail about why this is ‘bad’ as I would hope that you should be able to figure it out for yourselves… [To me more about this – Kill me with Affection Part 1, Part 2]

Anyhow my criticism of such work has often resulted in people missing the point entirely, believing that my problem is not with the dehumanisation of vulnerable communities but with fantasy and magic. This is not the case in the slightest, I utterly adore fantasy as one should be able to see from viewing my gallery. The difference between my gallery, and the gallery of someone who enjoys dehumanising communities is that elves are not real. Portraying elves as magically beings (as they are) harms absolutely nobody whereas continuously portraying real world communities as magical, as elves and fairies, is harmful. It dehumanises them, taking away their humanity and white-washes over both the historical and contemporary struggles of these communities. It can also add to the political rhetoric used against them and decreases the believability of human rights abuse reports. It’s not on.

I’m not even going to go into the costumes used prominently in these pieces. Some of it even amounting to, and the equivalent of, black-face.

You want to appreciate the majesty of Native Americans, of Inuits, of Saami, of Romanies, of Maori, of Imazighen? Read a book, one with footnotes. Preferably written by someone within that community.

*shakes tambourine and shuffles out*

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.

HBT2-044512r

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?