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

A Roma reality check by Yaron Matras

Gypsies in Cumbria

Last week a friend told me about a conversation he overheard at a hairdressers in Birmingham. The barber complained about the competition, which kept rates low by employing immigrant staff. “They’re probably Romanian, you can tell from the caravans outside,” he joked, then added hastily: “But I shouldn’t say that.” In the weeks leading up to 1 January, Romanians and Bulgarians were said to be queuing up to take advantage of the lifting of employment restrictions in the UK. Several weeks on we know that the panic was unjustified and the warnings were pure scaremongering. But the hairdresser revealed something about the public’s perception of the debate. Romanians are equated with Roma – hence the association with caravans and the shyness to appear politically incorrect.

“Roma” does sound a bit like “Romanian”, so you can’t blame people for getting confused. But the similarity is coincidental. Many Roma live in Romania, but there are also Roma communities in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and many other countries. Most Roma don’t live in caravans, either; in south-eastern and central Europe they have been settled since the 15 century, often segregated on the outskirts of towns and villages.

It is the image of Roma on our streets that triggers an emotional reaction, more so than the thought of just any citizen from new EU member states arriving at a job centre in Basingstoke or Leeds. It was the Roma who were singled out last November by the deputy prime minister as “intimidating” and “offensive” in their behaviour. Unfounded allegations that Roma were kidnapping children in Greece and Ireland didn’t help either.

Why is the presence of Roma in Britain perceived as a challenge? There is, to some extent, the reality on the ground: Roma organise their lives in extended families and rely on their family structures for support. When they migrate they do so in large groups and not as individuals. This makes them more conspicuous, as they require clusters of rented homes in close proximity; they are often seen socialising outdoors because their houses cannot accommodate large groups.

But this does not explain entirely these reactions. Our perception of Roma is shaped by fictional images of Gypsies that are deeply entrenched in our culture. This fictional image represents the opposite of our own values: our society restrains the way it expresses emotion, so we envy the passion that Gypsies express through their music and colourful appearance. We feel trapped by the routines of our daily lives, so we romanticise Gypsy life as free and spontaneous, but we also resent it as lawless and uncontrolled. Roma organise their work in families and are usually self-employed, but we think of them as work-shy. They have no country of their own, so we regard them as rootless.

Perception and prejudice stand in the way of a rational assessment of the real problems on the ground faced by Roma migrants. But if we put them aside, we find that there are more opportunities than challenges. Compared with their neighbours in the deprived urban districts in which they tend to settle, Roma are more likely than others to find work and their children are more likely to attend school regularly. Allegations of a propensity to crime among Roma migrants have repeatedly been dismissed by local police as baseless.

Rather than change their behaviour or their culture, the challenge facing Roma migrants is how to make use of opportunities to settle, gain skills and participate in community life while protecting their own identity and values just like any other ethnic minority. The bigger challenge is how to change majority society’s attitudes to Roma.

By definition, social inclusion can only take place if exclusionary practices are eradicated. Instead of blaming the Roma for our fears and fantasies, we should reach out to them and allow ourselves to be inspired by their generosity, flexibility and their commitment to mutual support.

Article originally appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday, 12 February – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/12/roma-reality-check

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

Quick Response: “Gypsy” School in UK?

A new education centre has opened in Birmingham for children who do not have a school place or have been excluded from mainstream school.

Baverstock in the City targets Gypsy and traveller children, those for whom English is not their first language and pupils with challenging behaviour.

It is a Balsall Heath branch of The Baverstock Academy.

An application to turn it into a free school has been prepared, which would give it a capacity of 1,000 students.

‘No place for them’

Thomas Marshall, head teacher of The Baverstock Academy, said: “There are close to 900 Gypsy Romany traveller children without a school place at the moment.

“The number of students with English as a second language is growing and growing across the city as people move into Birmingham and they don’t have school places because they tend to move into the centre of the city where there aren’t enough secondary schools.”

He said his experience with teaching excluded students was developed at the academy which regularly made eight or nine permanent exclusions each year and had a very high number of fixed-term exclusions when he took over in September 2010.

“When they enjoy education they want to take part even further and achieve goals… The children want to be educated and there was no place for them,” he added.

‘Get on without bullying’

Damien Le Bas, editor of the Travellers’ Times, said Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers report problems with school that includes bullying and teachers that misunderstand their ethnicity.

He said: “People forget that in the 1960s lots of schools wouldn’t accept traveller children so there is an historic cultural problem and it’s no surprise we [Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers] have the worst educational attainment in the country over all indicators.”

He said traveller children can have an expectation they will take part in a family business, sometimes instead of school, from a young age.

“I welcome this focus on traveller education, though am not sure about separating students,” he added.

“I benefitted enormously through being in a mixed school with people with high expectations, but I know some who wish they’d been able to be in a school just with travellers so they could get on without the bullying and other problems they faced.”

About 30 students will be inducted to the centre at the Friends Institute on Moseley Road later and a further 50 are expected to start this academic year. – BBC NEWS

 

The concept is really big in Europe and they’re really disgusting places to be, they’re basically sanatoriums, and forced enrolment has nothing to do with performance it’s based purely on ethnicity, topped up with ‘excluded pupils and others without a school place’. I’m sure nothing like that would happen here…
But you never know it might be a good thing but to group a group of ethnicities together with excluded pupils (side note: then shame the excluded pupils by calling it a “Gypsy” school, they’re not really going to like that) is pretty damning, you haven’t even arrived yet and you’re a ‘trouble maker’. A ‘drop in centre’ style thing would be pretty useful, not really viable but I would see people suggesting it, but it occurs to me that if you are already settled in Birmingham (or wherever), then you’re settled enough to apply for a ‘normal’ school place. But as Damien says, to have somewhere you can just ‘get on with it’ would be a welcome thing, assuming of course the ‘trouble’ children don’t hold them back, but continuing to segregate people isn’t going to promote inclusion, if we can’t get children of different cultures to play together how are we to expect them to play nicely as adults – both sides need to learn that the other isn’t “dirty, violent or stupid”. Settled people have jut as much of an image problem in Travelling communities as Travellers have in settled communities.
The idea of including speaks of foreign languages (umm good luck with that because I doubt many Europeans will be pleased about sending their children to the ‘”Gypsy” school’. Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Czech, good luck with that) is an interesting one, it would be interesting to see if the demand is high enough to bring in teachers that speak, at least a passing level, of Romani to accommodate for the increasing number of Roma refugees and immigrants. Most English Romany now use English as their first language (as do the Irish), the old chib is broken, but there are plenty of Roma children that require the additional support (but once again they’re from, or have family in, these countries with specialist Roma schools…).
It would be interesting, if the government is going to open a “Gypsy” school to open a “Gypsy” school, not just one for troubled children but an actual good quality school comparable to that of Jewish schools, providing high quality education whilst promoting cultural values (but whose culture? there isn’t but one), and some teachers who are themselves Romani and Pavee/Irish Travellers. Make it a place for, not a place to put. It’s never going to happen but equally why not? Forced inclusion doesn’t work, forced exclusion doesn’t work, to move forward we have to work with people.

Young Roma Gain New Perspective Far From Home, in New Zealand with the Māori

Roma in Central and Eastern Europe are in a unique situation compared to other ethnic groups—they are not indigenous to the continent, nor do they have a homeland like national minorities. However, the socioeconomic disadvantages and discrimination that they frequently face parallel those of other populations throughout the globe, whether they are indigenous peoples, refugees, migrants, or other groups.

Two young Roma leaders, Erika Adamaova from Slovakia and Florin Nasture from Romania, had the unique opportunity in April and May to travel halfway around the world to New Zealand to participate in a youth leadership Study Session on “Democracy in the Pacific.” The program introduced them to some of the parallels and contrasts between Roma and New Zealand’s indigenous Māori population and sparked ideas for new approaches to Roma development programs.

The program was organized by the Pacific Centre for Participatory Democracy—a youth-led NGO based in Gisborne, on the east side of New Zealand’s North Island—and was funded by the New Zealand government, including the Ministry of Māori Development and NZAID. The World Bank Institute also provided support.

The session involved 28 young leaders from New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific Islands, and Indonesia. The organizers were interested in involving Roma to include a diverse set of perspectives. The program aimed to support an inter-cultural and inter-generational dialogue and to identify strategies for sustainable and innovative community development initiatives. During their visit, Erika and Florin also had the opportunity to visit schools, government agencies, and Māori organizations.

Who are the Māori?
New Zealand Out at Pasture
Roma and Māori are vastly different ethnic groups, each with their own unique and rich histories and cultures. Māori are an indigenous minority of approximately 620,000 based largely in New Zealand, with small diaspora populations in Australia and other countries. Roma are an ethnic minority spread across the world, but concentrated in Europe, where an estimated 9 to 12 million live. Although Roma originally migrated into Europe from India, they do not have territorial claims there.

There are also similarities. Both Roma and Māori societies are historically based on oral traditions, which made codifying language and creating a written historical record particularly important. Both groups are striking in their internal diversity.

A More Traditional International Conference

The study session incorporated and exposed the participants to Māori culture and traditions. It was held on a marae, the traditional Māori meeting house, which is central to every aspect of Māori life, including weddings and funerals, and serves as the center of the community. Participants were welcomed through Māori ceremony, including the Māori language and music.

“Being on the marae, I finally understood why workshops, conferences and study sessions organized for Roma activists do not achieve their intended impact and effect,” said Erika. “Organizing such events in a four-star hotel is comfortable and pleasant, but to stay in direct interaction with the community and culture motivates and helps the participants to better understand the way of living, thinking and cultural values…The whole Study Session was held in the spirit of Māori culture and traditions.”

Learning from Each Other

New Zealand Fun ActivitiesRoma attendees compared and contrasted their status in Central and Eastern Europe with that of Māori in New Zealand. The Treaty of Waitangi sets the framework for relations between Māori and the Government, and has influenced the status of Māori in New Zealand. The Treaty was signed in 1840 between representatives of the British government and chiefs of iwi (Māori tribal groups) from across New Zealand. While there is ongoing debate about the meaning of the Treaty, it has been an important basis for recognizing the rights of Māori in New Zealand. In recent years, the Waitangi Tribunal has been hearing claims by Māori against the Crown of breaches of the Treaty. The Government has signed settlements with about 12 iwi.

Increased use of the Māori language has been part of a Māori cultural renaissance in New Zealand. Māori is an official language alongside English. A Māori Language Strategy supports the incorporation of the language across society, including within public services, media, and the arts. Keeping alive the Māori language is seen as critical in sustaining a strong and proud cultural identity. The Roma participants were impressed by the emphasis on language use. Florin noted, “The way to preserve culture is by introducing the Roma language into the schools were Roma children are studying.”

Roma and Māori women face similar challenges. “Talking to Māori women, I realized that the privileged status of men over women is not a part of Māori culture,” said Erika. “An effective approach to promote educational attainment among young Roma mothers would be to implement policies that will encourage young Roma mothers to stay in school.”

Contributing to the lack of education among Roma in Central and Eastern Europe iNew Zealand Florin and Erikas the unofficial policy in many countries of enrolling Roma children into special schools intended for the mentally and physically disabled. Many of these children eventually drop out, as they have no prospect of attending secondary school or university.

New Zealand, however, has effectively banned special schools, something that some CEE governments still resist. However, many Māori parents—and a small but growing number of non-Māori parents—choose to send their children to bilingual or immersion schools that expose students to Māori language and culture.

A Renewed Sense of Identity

The Roma participants returned home having learned important lessons about fostering cultural identity, improving living standards, and increasing social inclusion. “Many Roma feel there is a gap between the community as a whole and its leaders and elites,” pointed out Florin. “Community participation is key to closing this gap, and it will in turn strengthen Roma identity and a feeling of belonging.”

Florin also emphasized that the whole approach to Roma integration should be turned on its head. “In our region, we take a negative perspective, focusing on the disparity between the Roma and the majority, and creating the appearance of a helpless Roma population.” Māori, on the other hand, are more positive. “They build on existing successes to channel their potential. Like them, Roma should not be people with problems who create problems; we should have the power to overcome our obstacles

Whilst there aren’t any Romany gypsies in New Zealand… You mean there aren’t many right? Yes you’re right, my mistakes: Whilst there aren’t many Romany gypsies in New Zealand…

Whilst doing my research yesterday on Romani in New Zealand I came across an article on the ‘Original Gypsy Fair’ discussing how despite there not being any Romany in the NZ a small number of Kiwis have adopted an itinerant lifestyle (going as far as to call themselves Gypsies).

This statement, that there aren’t any Romani make me feel uncomfortable because there are Romani there, between 120,000 and 300,000. Romany from the UK, Roma from Europe, Romani on gap years… Despite there not being a visible community it’s ridiculous to claim that there are aren’t any at all, like saying that there are no Indians, or Jews. Sure they’re not going around advertising themselves but they’re still there.

Anyway, the point of my post. I sent a quick message to the site explaining that a mistake had been made, and that claiming that there aren’t any is an insult to their Romani Kiwi population and mades me, a potential visitor, feel uncomfortable with visiting a country that wants to hide their Romani population and play pretend (I don’t think it was that at all, I just think that they literally did not know. Probably have no idea that there is more to being Romani than living in a caravan). I received a reply later that day apologising and the post in question has been change from ‘Whilst there aren’t any’ to ‘Whilst there aren’t many’. So a big thank you to Tourism.net.nz and to the lovely man who set things straight. Thank you for being understanding!

Here is the article in question! http://www.tourism.net.nz/featured-events/2011/new-zealand-gypsy-travellers-fairs.html

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*