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The International Writers Magazine: Roma

The World's Outsiders
• James Morford
In our imaginations (about the only place we actually see them) they are dark-skinned, wear robes, supposedly see the future in crystal balls, read Tarot cards, and are usually thieves. We never consider our thoughts being based on myth or prejudice.


Has there ever been an ethnicity so little understood? In Europe they are called Roma (Romanies), Americans call them Gypsies. In historical persecution they have long rivaled the Jews (Gypsies were also victims of The Holocaust, a million to a million and a half murdered by the Nazis).

Gypsies have been (and are) discriminated against, but they have never fostered a culture placing them even close to an elite status. Nobody seems jealous of them. They have no present or past political clout. Why then are they singled out for persecution?

Perhaps it is because they lead lives contrary to what other ethnicities venerate. For example, Roma culture possesses no sacred books or sacrosanct military victories to celebrate. As one might expect of a nationless people, they are, if anything, outsiders to what most peoples consider tradition. Because they operate without much regard for other groups approval (as long as this disapproval does not cause immediate practical problems) the world blames them for being, above all, themselves. What they are, is what the world tries to define them as being. Unfortunately, whenever Gypsies are singled out for praise by another culture, it is usually for their individual skills, or a hazy romanticized tribute to an individual coupled with an all-inclusive demonization of his or her ethnicity. Regardless, Gypsies continue being what they are. Most know a risk is taken for simply being a Roma. They understand that among a majority, when a minority is found to value itself for itself, they run a risk of retribution. Yet they continue to value themselves for themselves, and under duress remain a people who have lasted for centuries.

There are a million Gypsies in the United States (where they are not much persecuted, although many were deported after recently arriving from Europe), nearly a million in Brazil, and possibly ten to eleven million more in Europe. When Americans do think about Gypsies positively, it is usually within the context that Gypsies are more emotionally vital and possess that abused word, soul. Americans think Gypsy instincts are more in touch with basic human vitality than their own. If only American were unfettered by accursed middle class backgrounds, they might too, live their lives to the hilt!

Gypsies were long thought, incorrectly, to have originated in Egypt (the word, gypsy (egipcien,“ originated in Middle English, and the word ‘’gyp” today continues to mean cheat). It turns out Egypt is only one of the many countries where they immigrated.

Where did these people originate? Surprisingly, in Northern India. They were Hindus, and in one historical version, forced to migrate from India by the Moslems. Something like l9 times in 200 years the Moslems swooped down from Persia in the north to plunder them. The gypsies fled through Kashmir and west into Treseria, then into Armenia. Fleeing the Turks, they journeyed into Byzantium. In the l3th Century they reached the Balkan Peninsula, and later split into groups that spread throughout Europe.

One manner of tracing the path of the Roma was keeping track of new words that entered their language. Although the basis of their language was the Sanskrit derived from Northern India, sprinkling their vocabulary are Greek and Slavic words proving Gypsies once traveled to those areas.

Gypsy work was what they could do while on the move, blacksmiths, horse traders, handymen, entertainers, fortune tellers, anything not requiring ownership of real estate or long apprenticeships for licensure. In large families they traveled by wagons and horses and lived off the land. Their peers were family and close friends. They did what they could to avoid any kind of public education, or what might include them in the host nation’s population.

There is another historical version for their emigration from India. Dark-skinned Hindus were considered, “Untouchables,” so to avoid that nullifying stigma, the Gypsies left India. Later, their sheer numbers and insular ways provoked expulsion from those lands to where they had once sought refuge.

The reasons behind Gypsy insularity are fairly easy to trace. For one thing, being constantly on the move engenders a retreat from the individual’s psyche so as to join a group’s collective mind. Within a kind of “group think” the individual can find a kind of stability, a surrender of sorts to their environment. Also, to exist Gypsies needed deception to survive. Simply put, to avoid prosecution they disguised who they were. They would arrive in a nation, claim to be Christians fleeing from Moslems, and thus achieve not only acceptance, but status. Their naïve Christian hosts would lavish gifts upon them and guarantee a safe passage or keeping. To help pull off this deception, Gypsies would claim to possess all kinds of titles. Their leaders became Dukes and Earls, honored by their hosts because of royal blood. Even the Pope granted Roma favors. Since people in the Middle Ages seldom traveled more than a few miles from where they were born, much less migrated, those who did were thought to be paying a kind of penance. In Christendom, Gypsies were reputed suffering for believing in Jesus Christ. The Roma, ever alert for an advantage to survive, did not discourage this belief.

Eventually, however, the truth became known, and an understandable violent reaction set in. In Rumania, Vlad the Impaler (known to the world as Count Dracula) threw them in slave camps. In 1496 the Reichstag in Landau and Freiburg declared them carriers of the plague, and in 1545 the German Diet of Augsburg decreed that “whomever kills a gypsy will not be guilty of murder.”

Measures to persecute them were often physical. One Austrian kingship, Bohemia, ordered all Gypsies right ears cut off. The March of Moravia declared that the mutilation be their left ear. Other areas of Austria had them branded on their backs so their next potential tormentor knew who and what they were.

The major punishment, however, was expulsion. By 1539 France issued a general expulsion order, and in 1609 so did Scotland.

The more Gypsies were harassed the more secretive they became, a vicious circle that repeated itself many times over. Roma had their own legal system that operated outside the law of the nation they happened to reside. They had no written laws nor a constitution. Their courts, “Kris”, decided the law, and the Kris had great powers, their ultimate enforcement the law of “bolla,” which means expulsion. Those Gypsies that voluntarily decided to live outside the Roma community were labeled ‘mahrime,” and not allowed to return. Citizens of host nations, their folkways and mores built on the conventional stability of a settled community, found all this disturbing and unnecessary. Also, it was difficult, even on the surface, for these citizens to mix because the Roma were not allowed to date young non-Romani men. Gypsy weddings were arranged by the father of the groom, and after the wedding, the bride moved in with her husband’s family.

The more persecuted the more Gypsies tried to disguise their identity, discarding robes for conventional apparel, changing their names, and not conversing in their language in front of “foreigners.” Gypsies gave up trying to please their hosts and began living lifestyles similar to what everyone thought they actually were, thieves. To those coming to their settlements to trade horses or seek futures revealed in crystal balls and the reading of Tarot cards, would find their pockets picked.

Over the centuries persecutions of the Roma continued, culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust. Even following World War II, and up until the present, they have been discriminated against. And not just in Western Europe. Central Europe, under Communist control, governments did not appreciate a person or group that refused to accept the imposed norm. Thus, Roma were denied benefits of impartial hiring practices or adequate medical care. When Gypsy children were forced to attend school, it was a school for the handicapped. The lack of medical treatment meant Gypsy life spans were much shorter than the average European citizen, homeopathic remedies for such illnesses as tuberculosis were grossly inadequate to cure a serious disease.

Even today we hear of the Roma and the discriminated-against lives they lead. Antiziganism is the word used to denote anti-Romani sentiment. It is where Gypsies are assaulted in city streets without regard to the individuals involved. The chief economy of the average Roma is thought theft. Since relatively live such isolated lives, theft is the only way many Europeans come in contact with them. This leads to exaggerations and scarring of the public psyche.

Statistics tell the story: In today’s Czech Republic 40% of the population would like Gypsies expelled from the state. Germany in 2005, deported 50,000 gypsies to Kosovo, and the year 2010 saw France demolish at least 51 Roma camps and begin repatriating gypsies to the nations of their origin. The media in the UK reported that Gypsies were more highly discriminated again than any other group, and even Norway, that had sterilized the Roma before l977, had the leader of their right wing party, Progress, urge national expulsion.

And so discrimination, fueled by the past, aggravated in the present, and a likely blot on the future, is a specter that haunts the European Gypsy. As a political group they have no power and remain at the mercy of their host nation. Assimilation by that host nation, such as what has happened in the United States, is perhaps their only hope. The question is if that assimilation is a freak occurrence brought about by historical factors probably singular. It is a question faced by a unique people who have suffered a great deal over the years, and who must count on themselves for resiliency. As Alexandre Le Cleve, a former director of Hors la Rue and member of Romeurope, associations that work to improve lives of the Roma, said in early June of this year: “The problem is they (Roma) are dark-skinned and so recognizable. But institutionally they are invisible.”

© james morford June 2013

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