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

Reblog Pip Borev: An Open Letter to Carol Vorderman

Dear Carol Vorderman, 

I was somewhat shocked to discover that you still have a career after coming across your ignorant, vile and derogatory rant about Gypsy and Traveller communities in Closer magazine. This shock, however, was short lived when I remembered that, as you point out, there is one rule for us and one rule for the rest of society. Nonetheless, I am still rather bewildered as to why you feel so hard done by, thus, I would like to highlight to you the special privileges that you, as a rich, white and successful celebrity, are missing out on by not being part of a Gypsy or Traveller community. 

Under the Race Relations Act 1976, Gypsy and Traveller communities are recognised as ethnic minorities, thus, supposedly should be protected from discrimination. I guess you find this very unfair – why should a bunch of delinquents who decided to live in caravans be entitled to these extra rights that the hard working white tax payer doesn’t get? Maybe if you bought a caravan and became a Gypsy then you would also be able to bask in the privileges that the Race Relations Act supposedly brings, such as: being refused registration at your local GP surgery; being refused service from pubs and restaurants; being forced to deny your identity so you are not bullied at school or refused employment; and being refused planning permission whether it be on the green belt, a remote mountain peak or the moon. 
What more could Gypsy and Traveller communities want? All these extra privileges and still they have to snatch away the very few pleasures that the rest of society are given, such as cricket pitches, village greens, playing fields and the roadside. Of the19,413 Gypsy and Traveller caravans in England, 84% are on authorised sites while 16% on unauthorised sites. Under the Housing Act 1996, a person is considered homeless if they have accommodation but “there is no place where he is entitled or permitted both to place it and to reside in it”. Therefore, any Gypsy or Traveller living on an unauthorised site can be considered homeless. The Coalition government have withdrawn funding for and repealed targets to provide sites for Gypsy and Traveller communities whilst introducing greater powers for local authorities to challenge unauthorised developments. This was introduced in spite of the fact that there is a widely documented pitch shortage. In Preston, the home of the Hoghton Cricket Club whom you speak of so fondly of, there are an estimated 111 Gypsies and Travellers but just 14 pitches. The presence of unauthorised sites, thus, is hardly surprising. 
But what about the people “who pay their taxes and work hard to keep their homes and villages nice”? Why should they be subjected to the injustice of having homeless people living in their white middle class villages? Why can’t Gypsies and Traveller just live in houses like everyone else? Turns out, that around one half to two thirds of Gypsies and Travellers are living in bricks and mortar accommodation. If you would like the rest of us to join them then we will happily ditch centuries of nomadic tradition and move in next door to you and your hard working neighbours Carol. Oh wait, that’s right, you wouldn’t want the likes of me living next door to you would you? So where should we go? Should we only ‘invade’ the not so “pristine” parks situated in council estates, after all, as long as we’re not leaving behind “faeces” on the precious cricket pitches of middle class villages, does it really matter? Or do you simply want the “Gypsy problem” to disappear as Hitler advocated during WWII when he murdered 500,000 Romani Gypsies, including members of my own family.
The truth is that you are entirely correct. There is one rule for Gypsies and Travellers and one rule for everyone else, except it is your rule that comes crammed with extra privileges. Gypsies and Travellers are hated not because they ‘invade’ fields and cricket pitches, but because they have been a hugely maligned and despised minority since their arrival to Europe and the UK, centuries ago. They have been subjected to slavery, extermination, sterilisation, segregation both geographically and in education, evictions, poverty, hate crime, and the criminalisation of their entire culture. In spite of this, the rest of society wonders why we remain so resistant to assimilation. The sad truth is that despite Hitler’s attempted extermination of Europe’s Romani community, attitudes towards Gypsy and Traveller communities have not changed but instead have remained hostile and prejudiced. “Discrimination against gypsies and travellers appears to be the last ‘respectable’ form of racism” and goes without the same level of outrage that racism towards other ethnic minorities receives. Had your column included a similar article about any other ethnic minority, I am certain that you would be surrounded by shame and scandal. Perhaps then Carol, you are a very lucky that there is one rule for Gypsies and Travellers and one rule for everyone else, as if there wasn’t your career would certainly be over. 
Yours sincerely,
Pip Borev.

Reblogged from: http://pipopotamus.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/an-open-letter-to-carol-vorderman.html

Romany and Cornish – Minority Languages in the UK

“Even if the language were actually “dead” (I do not believe that it has, by any reasonable definition of “dead”), precedent suggests that should not be a barrier to its official recognition. Ned Maddrell was the last fluent, native speaker of the Manx language and he died in 1974. Dolly Pentreath, the last native Cornish speaker, died in 1777. That’s 236 years ago. Yet Cornish is recognised, and Romani is not.

Of course, this is partly explained by the effectiveness of lobbying for recognition of languages like Cornish, but surely there is also something else at play. The fact is that, in origin, Romani is not a language of white Europeans, and is therefore not so easily seen as part of the heritage of a northern European country.”Damian Le Bas: [more]

I would love to write my own report on this when I have the time, perhaps in another lifetime. As someone who is found of, and has a comparable comprehension in, both Cornish and Romani – being Romani by blood, Cornish by birth.

The comparative recognition of the two languages fascinates me. As Damian L Bas correctly identifies Cornish is a dead language with the last native speaker having passed away in 1777. The Cornish revival has not been a success and is more of an eccentricity than a true revival yet resources for learning the language and literature written in the language is freely available (at least within the Duchy itself) to anyone who would show an interest. I have never myself met a fluent speaker and I always react with surprise upon learning (on the very rare occasions) that someone I have just met might have at one point taken lessons. Perhaps at school for a project or a workshop at one of our many revivalist festivals. It’s a futile task yet public money is funnelled into it.

Romani however is a language still spoken, both in its Angloromani form and … lets call them … European variants. I myself am not a native speaker of Angloromani, as I am not one of Cornish, I speak English as is expected of everyone born here, even fluent Welsh speakers and the children of those new to the country. Yet it is ignored as not only a language spoken in this country today, for in the metropolitan centres a cacophony of Asian tongues can be heard, but as one with a long and rich history, fundamental to the modern variant of English itself.

Not even a passing remark can be found in official, or academic text (outside special interest “Gypsy” groups) referring to the use of a Romani tongue, as plus ultra a history or geographic of the British Isles will rarely document the presence of a Romani demographic. This lack of recognition seriously harms, in more ways than I can comprehend in an orderly fashion, the further development of the Romani people as a fundamental dynamic of British society. There is no way to study, or even to read, in the language spoken by our ancestors and spoken by our parents today.

My English is perfect, it’s only a shame that race politics means I cannot  speak in the language of my choosing.

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

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?