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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No place for Travellers says Badger and Batty.

Plans have been abandoned to create a 10 pitch Gypsy and Traveller site in Efford, Plymouth after council minutes from 30 years ago saying the site was unsuitable have been uncovered.

Cllr Brian Vincent, ward councillor for Efford and Lipson has acknowledged that there is a significant need for provisioned to be made in and around Plymouth for Gypsies and Travellers,  however he has helped conclude that as the site was not suitable for habitation 30 years ago when it was first used as a temporary site, it would be ‘unfair’ to continue plans as “People’s aspirations are far greater now.” Instead the £516,000 funding for the Efford site will be used to make improvements at The Ride, Plymouth’s only official site that in May 2012 proved to be an inadequate provision for Devon’s homeless Travellers looking for a legal place to live as it attracts more applications than it has pitches.

“We still have significant need for Gypsy and Traveller sites in Plymouth and finding suitable locations is essential. This will be an important part of the development of the Plymouth Plan and any detailed proposals will be the subject to thorough consultation.” – Cllr Brian Vincent

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Plymouth City Council has decided that the brown field site would best serve as a ‘wildlife area’ where nature would be allowed to take control, hoping that £2,000 allocated from the community fund will help turn it into a new home for bats, foxes and badgers.

“We are looking to improve the ecosystem by breaking up the concrete bases of the old shower blocks to encourage a natural progression of wildflowers.” – Cllr Brian Vincent

A success for badgers and opposition group Horseshoe Residents’ Association, but a bleak day for Travellers as the charity Friends, Families and Travellers have been reported to have accused the council of making a short-sighted decision that would increase homelessness.

“It’s deeply disappointing, Homelessness in the travelling community is 25% higher than the fixed community. It’s a desperate situation because those without somewhere permanent to go face an endless cycle of eviction.” Emma Nuttall, Friends, Families and Travellers Advice and Policy manager (via BBC News)

Concerns have also been raised regarding the cost efficiency of the change in proposal with the council reporting to spend between £16,000 and £300,000 a year on  processing unauthorised encampments where homeless Travellers have been forced to settle. “We have nowhere else to go and no other choice but to camp on derelict sites” said a local Traveller seeking advice from Friends, Families and Travellers: “it’s impossible to get planning permission anywhere even when we own the land.”

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

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*

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.

FAQ Gypsies and Travellers

Romany Gypsy and Traveller families have been an integral part of British society since before the time of King Henry VIII yet myths and misconceptions continue to be perpetrated in both the media and the public mind. At times it certainly seems that discrimination against Romany Gypsies and Travellers is the last acceptable form of racism.

Below are a series of FAQ and the truth on the matter.

MYTH – Gypsies and Travellers are thieves and criminals!

FACT – There is no evidence of higher crime rates amongst Gypsies and Travellers. Whilst some are involved in crime, just as in any other community, members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities are statistically underrepresented in the prison population.

Media reports and images are often inaccurate and discriminatory.

Some settled people engage in criminal activity, it is not assumed that this is a characteristic of all settled people.

MYTH – Gypsies and Travellers don’t pay tax!

FACT – Like everyone else Gypsies and Travellers pay road tax, VAT on goods and services, and income tax when working or self-employed. They also pay council tax and licence fees on their homes.

MYTH – Gypsies and Traveller live outside the law!

FACT – There is no evidence for above average crime rates amongst Gypsies and Travellers, likewise all taxes are paid.

Unfortunately housing is one of the biggest problems both Romany and Traveller families face.

Since 1994 councils have not be obliged to provide sites for Gypsy and Traveller families, this has lead to homeless Gypsies and Travellers having to stop in unsuitable, often dangerous locations. In 2002 Government research estimates that at least 4500 additional pitches are needed nationally.

As an alternative to this families who try to provide their own often find difficulties getting planning permission with only 10% of initial planning applications by Gypsies and Travellers succeeding compared to 80% of applications from the settled population. Subsequently continuing the cycle of eviction and homelessness.

The conflicts that can be generated are in nobody’s long-term interest.

MYTH – Gypsies and Travellers are dirty!

FACT – Gypsies and Travellers take pride in cleanliness in themselves and their homes, and have strict hygiene laws that govern their daily lives. For the Romani this is known as Marime (Mahrime) and dictates how food is prepared, clothes are washed and their homes are kept, at the very minimum different bowls are used for washing hands, food and different items of clothing.

Unfortunately, a quarter of Gypsies and Travellers are homeless without access to a legal site, limiting their availability to facilities such as running (tap) water or rubbish collection.

Between 1970 and 1994 under the Caravan Site Act 1966, when local authorities were obliged to provide sites many provided them in unsuitable locations far from local facilities, by motorways, rubbish tips or industrial activities.

MYTH – Gypsies and Travellers are work shy!

FACT – Gypsy and Traveller community members often start work young and traditional skills are passed down between generations. There is a strong work ethic within Gypsy and Traveller communities which is based simply on the need to survive and make a living.

MYTH – Gypsies and Travellers sites ruin neighbourhoods!

FACT – Research shows that relationships between Gypsies and Travellers and the settled community develop effectively where well-designed and well-managed sites are provided.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 1996 found that Gypsies and Travellers and settled neighbours have built up effective relationships once a site has been established.

MYTH – Can’t Gypsies and Travellers just live in houses!

The  courts  have confirmed that homeless  Gypsies  and Travellers should not be forced to accept conventional housing.

In 2003 a High Court the judge quoted European case law stating:

“In order to meet the requirements and accord respect, something more than taking account of an applicant’s Gypsy  culture is required…Respect includes the positive obligation to act so as to facilitate the Gypsy way of life.”

Although some Gypsies and Travellers are content with their brick-and-mortar homes others feel like they have been forced into them, accepting due to desperation at having nowhere else safe to go causing much difficulty and stress including isolated from their extended family. Romany culture developed alongside a travelling lifestyle making being ‘trapped’ in one place difficult for them, equally others may see the conventional positioning of the kitchen and bathroom in most houses as being incompatible with Romany hygiene laws.  Sometimes it is not simply not practical due to work commitments and business.

It is estimated that 50% of the UK’s Gypsies and Travellers now live in houses; however there are no accurate figures due to a lack of adequate surveying, including previously The National Census. This unknown can often lead to the needs of housed Gypsies and Travellers not being met.

MYTH – Gypsies and Travellers don’t pay tax!

FACT – Like everyone else Gypsies and Travellers pay road tax, VAT on goods and services, and income tax when working or self-employed. They also pay council tax and licence fees on their homes.

MYTH – Gypsies and Travellers are greedy!

Romani Gypsy and Irish Traveller culture often values portable wealth and unlike non-Gypsy culture this wealth is often highly visible but the amount of capital they might have in their homes is worth is far less than the equity many non-Gypsies have and in terms of caravans is constantly depreciating in value.

MYTH – Gypsies and Travellers don’t care about society!

FACT – Gypsies and Travellers are a part of society and not separate from it. They engaged in many paid and voluntary activities supporting local communities and national life.

Read More 

Leicestershire Together: Gypsies and Travellers – The Truth

Flintshire County Council: Gypsies and Travellers

Newark & Sherwood Community & Voluntary Service: Myths & Misconceptions