17 September 2003, Volume
THE ROMANY MINORITY IN ROMANIA AND IN SOUTHEASTERN EUROPE
By Radu, Prince of Hohenzollern-Veringen
Chatham House, London, 5 June 2003
Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is a pleasure and a privilege indeed to be here today.
As a Romanian, I consider it to be a privilege to address you because my country still pays the effect of 40 years of isolation, and of a dictatorship which made it particular, even inside the communist bloc. And we are also paying for the consequences of another 10 years in which neither my country, nor the region, nor the continent knew exactly what to do with the "behind-the-Iron-Curtain-minority" of this continent.
As a member of the Romanian royal family I consider it a privilege to be here today, because it is an uncommon and surprising position the one I am assuming -- namely representing both the king and the authorities of a country which is not a monarchy. But this is only apparently a paradox. In fact, it is an indication of the maturity of the Romanian democracy, and a sign of the courage, far-sightedness, and creativity of today's Romanian political leadership and of Romanian society as a whole.
Finally, I also feel privileged to be addressing you as a Southeastern European, because what occurs in this fascinating process of European reunification is not only characterized by an abundance of exceptionally important issues, a lot of crucial challenges, but also by miscommunication, frustration, lack of knowledge, and superficiality.
The Romany minority is therefore not the only one that has to be better-known and better understood; so must be the entire region in which that minority lives, if we really want to construct a united Europe. For the enlargement of the European Union does not mean expanding territory and a benevolent tolerance of an alien civilization, but a reunification in geographical, historical, and cultural terms.
The same applies to the Romany minority: Solving the problem requires a better understanding of the issue, eliminating what is wrong in its perception and, above all, accepting in our mind that this reality is unavoidable, that it is not an embarrassing political topic, but a matter of fact of the continent. The Romany minority's existence should not be seen as one of the complications brought by the process of EU enlargement, and it is certainly not just another part of the price we pay for the melting away of the Iron Curtain.
If we accept that Southeastern Europe is a paradoxical issue, we shall have to do the same about the Romany minority. In fact, one is tied to the other. Not only are both issues geographically situated in the same area, but the existence of both affects the same nervous center of the Western European brain.
Traveling almost every week to another town of Europe, I can see how things look dramatically different, seen from Warsaw, Bucharest, Lisbon, London, Paris, Sofia, Dublin, or Rome. This diversity of points of view, mentalities, ignorance, cultures, preconceived ideas, interests, chemistries, is not only a treasure. It is also a problem. And it concerns both Southeast Europeans and the Romany minority.
I argued a few lines above that Southeastern Europe, as well as the Romany minority are two paradoxical issues. It would be wise not to avoid or to disregard the paradox, but to explain it.
You might remember this famous Italian playwright of the 20th century, Luigi Pirandello. In many of his writings, Pirandello's analysis of the human being turns around three points: The way one is, the way one seems to be, and the way one wants to be. I cannot help thinking how relevant this taxonomic division is to both issues: Eastern Europe and its Romany minority.
Karl von Clausewitz (the political and military analyst and strategist, famous for his studies about the history of international relations and the art of war) used to say that a war has an unpredictable development, just like a pendulum suspended between three equal magnets, situated at an equal distance from the pendulum: despite the identical physical forces developed by the magnets, the pendulum moves unpredictably (cited in Beyerchen, 2000, p.154).
In my opinion, the unpredictability of the Romany issue is surrounded by the following "three magnets":
The facts about the Romany minority (history and reality nowadays), corresponding to Pirandello's "The way one is."
The stereotypes and images created around the Gypsies, corresponding to Pirandello's "The way one seems to be."
The way Gypsies see themselves, corresponding to Pirandello's "The way one wants to be."
One could easily notice that these "three magnets" might perfectly "surround" the Balkans populations issue, as well as the issue of Central and Southeastern European candidate countries to the EU and, why not, any political or geopolitical issue involving cooperation, integration, or globalization.'The Way One Wants To Be'
I invited to Elisabeth Palace, our residence in Bucharest, a young Romany gentleman who is a member of the Romanian parliament, and asked him to tell me things that he would like me to tell you.
The Romanian deputy told me that his people is an enigmatic one. This sounds nice and romantic. But it might also be a reality which can be analyzed. He went on by telling me that the Gypsy people is enigmatic even for itself. This sounds more complicated politically and philosophically.
He told me that this "mysterious-even-for-itself" people is 13 centuries old, managing to survive with no written tongue. That is an important characteristic, making the Gypsies different from almost any other people on earth. He also told me that Gypsies communicate by soul and blood (temperament) as much as through words, and this makes them unable to dissimulate their identity, however intelligent or educated they might be. One could note that my guest put education in opposition with sincerity.
The young Romanian deputy considers himself as belonging to a great people, a vision about the Gypsies that Lord Menuhin also shared. Yehudi Menuhin used to say that mankind owes Gypsies and Jews the last two thousand years of creativity in music.
For the Gypsies, the most precious gift given by God is the Earth (Terra). I am now going to tell you, no disrespect intended, that such a statement is easier to understand in the Balkans and in Southeastern Europe than in Western Europe. It is so because in the countries from my region, the meaning of the earth and of God's existence is simpler and more deprived of prejudices than in Western Europe. Terra means a gift, the most priceless one, but the Earth is also source of freedom, it gives one automatically the right to use it and to rove through it, as an expression of liberty. Gypsies restrained to a marked territory, he explained, are tantamount to caged human beings.
God gave people the Earth as a gift, together with the freedom to move. God did not establish any borders. Man traced the lines and the obstacles. The colorful clothes worn by the Gypsies express their personality, their wish for freedom, he said. They attribute an entirely different meaning to God, woman, and child; what matters to them is not the value of land or gold, but the fundamental cult for family (which must be very numerous, in principle) and the idea of family planning is very upsetting to them. They derive a sublime pleasure from meeting the entire family, all its very numerous members.
My young interlocutor reminded me that the Roma were freed from slavery in the second half of the 19th century, and that ever since no one on this planet has given any thought as to the possibility of planning a strategy to give their life a purpose, a place, a helping hand. Up until the second half of the 20th century they were subjected to practices of extermination. I might add that these practices culminated -- but, alas, did by no means end there -- in the Holocaust, or as the Roma call that atrocity in their own language, the "Porrjamos."
As far as the Romany population in Romania is concerned, they were subjected to the phenomenon of segregation between 1950 and 1989, and then to that of social marginalization, between 1990 and 2000. However, the last 10 years have brought about significant potential improvement to them, stemming from their having been officially recognized as a minority in Romania.
Yet it was also in this period that most Gypsies sunk below poverty levels. According to my guest, the West should understand the reasons why they behave the way they do. Moreover, the young member of the Romanian parliament told me that we should ask from the Gypsies what they can deliver, and not something else. He thinks that Europeans have not given them anything for 1,300 years. And that, according to their teachings, first one gives and only then one can ask for something.
I asked why, in his opinion, his people has been roaming the earth for 1,300 years and has never developed a written language. He answered that it was because of the lack of military organization. I asked why there was no military organization. He replied that the primary link among the members of this people is faith, and God did not bequeath any army. Furthermore, castes (the links between communities of kin) were their forms of social organization, and that these never provoked any conflicts outside the caste itself. At the same time, the STABOR (its etymology means public meeting of reconciliation) did not judge people but got them together. Such an institution was able to avoid conflicts, it wisely underlined the fact that what has already happened cannot not be erased, and prevented conflicts, making armies irrelevant.
We went on to talk about the reasons why the Roma are not integrated in Romania. He said the main reason is poverty. The second: education (they were forced to be educated in a way they did not want during the communist regime). His alternatives to the state system of education are: various nongovernmental forms of integration by respecting their identities and values, by attracting them in such a way that they would not feel discriminated against or pressured. "What fuels discrimination?" I asked. He gave me three answers: the prejudices and stereotypes of the majority, the Roma's own index of delinquency, and their daily attitude, which bothers others through its extravagance.'The Way One Is'
The first documents attesting the existence of Romany communities date back to the year 1068, at the time of the Byzantine Empire.
Gypsies have been given various names by the various peoples with whom they have had contacts: "arami" (Armenea, pagan), "faraontseg" (crowd), "bohemien" (from Bohemia), "tartares" (tartar), "gypsy" (Egyptian), "saracin" (Arab), "athinganoi" (tzigane). There used to be quite a few divergent theories concerning their place of origin. Some experts believed that they came from Egypt, mainly because of their tanned skin color. Today, however, there is largely a consensus that their origins are in northwest India, in the Punjab province, as U.S. scholar Zoltan Barany shows in a book published in 2002 (Barany, 2002, p. 9). It is certain that the migration of the Gypsies to Europe -- alongside other Oriental ethnic groups -- was a gradual one, with stops in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania. The word "rrom" (from the Greek "rhomaios", which was a name for the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, and after Christianization up until the fall of the empire, for the Christians in the Byzantium), together with "sinto" (the Gypsies from the Germanic area) and "kalo" (the Gypsies from the Hispanic area) define a transborder ethnic community, with a distinct language and a distinct culture.
There were no Romanian studies about the Gypsies until 1837, when the University of Berlin asked Moldovan scholar and politician Mihail Kogalniceanu to write a study about them. Although terse, the sources confirm the indifference of the Romanian elite for the fate of the slaves: "When and from where did this population arrive in Moldova? They don't know the answer themselves and there are no details about them in our chronicles.... Gypsies are scattered here and there all over Moldova and you will find no landowner who does not own some of their locations," wrote in the 18th century Moldovan prince and scholar Dimitrie Cantemir in his "The Description of Moldova" (Cantemir, 1990, p. 81). There are many notes of foreign travelers about the Gypsies in Romania. For centuries, the Gypsies would have to endure in the Romanian Principalities a treatment that was similar to the institution of slavery in the Byzantine Empire.
Intermarriage was forbidden in some places, and in others the rules were very strict: at the end of the 15th century, any non-Romany man who left a Romany woman pregnant and married her, was forced to become a slave himself. Grouped according to counties, led by "bulucbasi," subordinated to the "hetman" -- or chief of Gypsies -- according to the laws of the country, the Gypsies were considered goods and chattels, sold or even given as a gift, and also functioning as a trading unit. One could even sell "half" of a slave, that is one-half of the number of children who would have been the share of one of the spouses. Selling slaves was such a large-scale activity that, in the first half of the 19th century, the slaves were fattened because, as they were sold by the pound, their worth depended on their weight. One pound of slave flesh was sold for two gold coins, a female slave cost one-third less than a male slave and young children half this price. Even newborn babies were sold by the pound. The least valuable were the "sterile old gypsies"(see http://www.romanothan.ro/engleza/reports/docs/rmofr.htm).
The dismemberment of the feudal system led to the abolition of the slavery of Gypsies in modern Romania as well: in Moldova, in 1844 the princely and monastery slaves were freed; in 1855 the boyar slaves; in Walachia, in 1847 the princely and monastery slaves; in 1856 the princely slaves.
Although slavery was abolished, the reform programs proposed by the 1848 generation and subsequent governments did not include the social emancipation, let alone integration, of Gypsies. If, in time, the status of the Romanian peasant improved systematically, for the Gypsies, following the release from slavery by law in 1856, the absence of an elite and of resources to enforce the representation of their interests led to their reverting to the past situation. After the abolition of slavery, many of them returned to the places where they had been slaves and offered themselves for sale.
In order to survive, most gypsies were forced to break away from the Romanian ethnic majority and develop a "culture of poverty" and a "culture of shame," dominated by the existence of individual and collective stigma. Marginalization and the social exclusion of the Gypsies led in time to the formation of an important socio-cultural gap between the majority and the Gypsy community. Some attempts at becoming organized were made in the post-Abolition period, with distribution into occupational groups (a sort of Gypsy guilds), but by the early 20th century, industrialization had rendered these -- largely handicraft-oriented -- divisions futile.
A certain degree of improvement in the situation of the Gypsies was noticed in the interwar period, particularly between 1934 and 1939, when, with the help and under the patronage of some of the institutions and personalities of the times, the General Society of the Romany People published books and magazines of its own, had 784,793 subscribers, and on the whole supported the rights of the Roma.
However, the ensuing decade was to be appalling for this minority. In 1940, the Ministry of the Interior, upon recommendation from the Ministry of Health, forbid the movement of the "nomadic" Gypsies, on the grounds that it allegedly spread typhoid fever. The following year, a secret census revealed a number of 208,700 Gypsies, claimed to be contaminating the "Romanian race." ("Helsinki Watch," No. 3, 1994). A 1942 decree of the government headed by Marshal Ion Antonescu established the lines of spoliation and determined the deportation criteria for Gypsies. It started by confiscating their assets through the recently established National Center for Romanization. Then food was rationed and the "amoral" Gypsies were sent to perform "community work" in Transnistria.
The "nomadic" gypsies were the first to suffer from persecutions. Marshal Antonescu ordered their deportation to Transnistria according to their tribal division. The "semi-nomads," another category, were also selected for deportation. On 11 August, the Inspectorate-General wrote to the interior minister that the deportation of nomadic Gypsies, which had been decreed on 1 May, had been nearly completed and 84 percent of this category's members having already reached Transnistria. The "sedentary" Gypsies followed. One of the criteria for deportation was the lack of assets -- yet ownership of land or of a house could not save many of them from deportation.
The evacuation began on 12 September 1942. Every train was accompanied by a military commander, and guards received orders to shoot if necessary . Nine trains were prepared to transport the Roma from various regions. They were only allowed one piece of hand luggage. Whatever was left behind was confiscated. In eight days, 30,176 sedentary Gypsies were sent to Transnistria. Another 18,260 "less dangerous" Roma were supposed to follow them in spring 1943, but the unexpected advancement of the Russian troops rendered the plan useless. The arrival of the "sedentary gypsies" amplified the disaster. By 25 November 1942, 309 Gypsies had died. Dying by starvation was not uncommon, given the scarcity of food. Typhoid fever affected thousands of the deported Gypsies. During the winter of 1942-43, approximately 3,000-4,000 Gypsies died of typhoid fever. Some froze to death, as they had few or no clothes. Others (and the data is still contradictory) were shot. The Romanian Commission on the Victims of the Holocaust assessed that approximately 36,000 Gypsies died in Transnistria, although other assessments suggest a larger figure (see Achim, 1998, pp.141-143 and 2001, pp.101-111; Ioanid, 2000, pp. 225-237; Barany, 2002, p. 106).
Until the 1960s, communist-era egalitarianism and enforced homogenization allowed Gypsies only minimal representation of identity (music in the Romany language, books, etc.), but it also made possible relatively equal access to resources and social services, leading to a significant improvement of their socioeconomic status. Social mobility set the premises for the emergence of an elite that was, on one hand, integrated into the culture of the majority, and on the other hand tacitly represented the regime-encouraged model for this ethnic group.
Simultaneously, between 1950-70, "deviationists" from enforced social conformism were subjected to continued measures of enforced sedentarization, the banning of nomadism and of traveling trades. In the 1980s, a national program adopted by the Romanian Communist Party under the name of "The Integration of the Gypsies" and enforced by the Interior Ministry, focused only on bringing down the level of Romany delinquency and on producing what could be called a "preventive" census, in which the Roma were discouraged from declaring their ethnic identity, or "Romanian" was entered automatically, regardless of the answers members of minorities (Hungarians, Roma, and others) would give.
After this period, within the context of general minority-related policies ("irrespective of their nationality," as the communist formula sounded), the Romany minority disappeared even as an "implied" entity. Accession to a higher social position was possible only through individual social mobility ("naturalization"), i.e. renouncing or hiding one's ethnic identity, which led to a reduction of the Roma's displayed alteration and to a heightened racial bias. From a cultural and social point of view, the Gypsies were considered a parasitic "subculture," a marginal social group.
During the last decade of the communist regime in Romania, the Romany population "benefited" from the agreement between Romania and West Germany. Starting with the 1980s, ethnic Germans were allowed to emigrate to West Germany, but the German state paid a tax for every man, woman, or child who emigrated. The state seized the houses of the Saxon population and forced the Romany population to move in.
After the economic collapse of the 1980s, the exclusion of the Gypsies from the labor market became generalized. Opposition to exclusion and the racial bias of local institutions and communities triggered among members of the minority acts of "civil disobedience," a fact that deepened the split between the ethnic majority and the Gypsies, leading to a proliferation of racial manifestations.
Shortly after the fall of the communist dictatorship, the Gypsies were officially recognized as a national minority. Although this meant the acquisition of some political and civil rights, the deterioration of the social and economic situation of the minority has continued. The transition to a market economy has affected a great number of its members, as the lack of skilled labor force among the Roma has led to a higher rate of unemployment than elsewhere in Romanian society.
Different Romany communities (around 40) established numerous political and civil organizations. On 25 April 2000, the government adopted a "National Strategy for the Improvement of the Situation of the Romany Population," a 10-year program aimed at elevating the social and economic level of the Gypsies and at facilitating their integration in society.
Living at the margins of the city, these people say they want precious few things: a job for all those capable of work, if not, just for the head of the family; a decent house, education and food for the children. Their talent is not spent on dancing or music, acrobatics, or witchcraft any longer, but on the art of surviving. This is how a good part of the Romany community, here and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, looks in the year 2003.
To be sure, the harsh realities of "transition" did not forge in their mind just these modest and legitimate aspirations. Many want to acquire goods as easily as possible and on the account of the majority. Having said that, I wish to emphasize my refusal to be trapped into the stereotypes of the "Gypsy thief" or the "Gypsy crook," that -- as stereotypes always do -- are indiscriminately generalized to describe the Romany minority as a whole. But awareness of the misuse of the stereotype, I hasten to add, should not automatically make one jump to the other side of the fence, and neither would it be helpful (above all to the Roma themselves) to overlook the existence among some members of the community suffering from of a temptation to break the law, to cheat, to "get by" without work -- in short of the existence of a subculture of felony and of misdemeanor.'The Way One Seems To Be'
In his book "The Struggle for the Control of Identity," Ian Hancock spoke about the stereotypes and preconceptions regarding the Roma. He claims that there is only a vague understanding of the Gypsy identity among non-Roma. This lack of comprehension, he writes, is due to a combination of several reasons: their being associated with the Islamic conquest of some parts of the Christian world; the color of their skin, whose darker shade is linked to the idea of sin; the fact that Romany culture does not encourage relationships with the non-Romany world and creates suspicions among those thus excluded; the fact that they have no territory or economic, political, or military power; and, of course, the fact that they are "gypsies," that is, lazybones.
Hancock also argues that anti-Romany prejudice in the Western world is also due to the fact that people who never met a Gypsy person in their lives do not hesitate to talk in detail about how Gypsies look and live. The image the Europeans have is half-negative, half-romantic. The spreading of false information can sometimes pass for wisdom. There is, for example, a widespread conviction that Gypsies hate water and hate to wash, which is not only inaccurate, but even if it were not so, would hardly be applicable to the Romany minority alone. Let us not forget that respectable members of European societies in the Middle Ages only seldom washed for fear of ruining their health (Hancock, in http://www.othervoices.org/2.1/hancock/roma.html).
Romanian researcher Florian Colceag evoked a Gypsy legend meant to justify their antisocial behavior: a Roman soldier ordered a Gypsy blacksmith to make five nails for the crucifixion of Jesus. The blacksmith swallowed one of the nails, claiming to have lost it. This is why Jesus Christ was not nailed in the heart. As a reward, God decided that Gypsies had the right to steal from the Romans. This legend gives the Gypsies a sacred right to steal from the Romans' descendants (see http://www.austega.com/florin/ROMANIA.htm).
A scrutiny of Florin Colceag's study "Romania and European Integration" (2001) reveals a number of significant findings concerning the way Roma are perceived by non-Roma:
-- Aggressive behavior towards others is allegedly sometimes viewed by Roma as an act in line with their social codes, one that contributes to individual and collective welfare.
-- Isolation is said to have forged among them a sentiment and a self-perception of being a "chosen" or a special people.
-- "Holistic and un-precise experiences" (the meaning of none of which is defined) supposedly drive them close to immediate adaptation to needs, creating "cooperating customs," and a pyramidal structure based on decisional influences. The Gypsies are said to be adaptable to any social ruling system. Even if most of them are illiterate, they are often described as having perfect knowledge of how to avoid judicial retribution and how to take advantage of current legislation, such as social aid.
-- Conservative manifestations respecting their traditions are perceived as strengthening the power of the group. This power is said to express group and personal interests in a close connection, allegedly creating the ability to become a parasite on any social or political system, and developing creative flexible and articulated thinking. Some researchers, nonetheless, also note a very specific intelligence, held at high value in Gypsy culture. These scholars describe the Gypsies as being highly intuitive from a musical and kinesthetic point of view, and as capable of developing various skills to a high level of mastery.
-- Skillfulness and an opportunistic philosophy of life has reputedly led them to develop a capability of exploiting existing opportunities in any kind of environment. They are said to have developed a capacity to adjust to any environment, folding on any culture, yet at the same time preserving their own cosmic perspective.
Unfortunately, these distorted images and stereotypes about the Romany minority generalize the above-mentioned behavior to the entire Romany social body. Myths always shape the perception of those groups that do not fit into the dominant political culture.
Yet in the same political culture, the Roma are not always (and above all not solely) perceived in negative terms. In the popular mind, the Gypsies are the epitome of freedom. There are hundreds of literary pieces, either novels or poems, as well as a great number of songs, that have a Gypsy theme. And the theme has overwhelmingly to do with freedom : freedom from nine-to-five jobs, freedom from having to attend to personal hygiene, freedom from sexual restrictions, freedom from the burden of material possessions, freedom from responsibility, freedom from the restraints of the law. Hand-in-hand, however, one finds dishonesty being perceived as an accompanying fundamental feature in the Romany stereotype: "Gypsies lie. They lie a lot more often and more inventively than other people." Freedom to lie, or lying in order to be free, one could well ask. But one would ask in vain.
For the modern image of the Gypsy is a dual one: on one hand, the romantic image, which has the Gypsy as free and primitive, rural, possessing a horse and a chariot; on the other hand, the image of the social parasite, dirty and uneducated. Both images have one thing in common: the Gypsies as a social group, without an own culture or identity; a symbol of unlawfulness and rebellion. Those who dispatch messages to the world every day -- the media for example -- fail most of the time to communicate the positive examples generated by the community. The deviant behavior of some Gypsy will help the papers sell better than the initiative of a schoolteacher who becomes active in supporting the community he claims to be a part of. However, in Romania, a prestigious publication has recently been penalized by the authorities for running an ad that was discriminatory towards the Roma.
Or take the "nomadic" stereotype. Those Roma who have a permanent residence are still tempted by nomadic life, and many of them will go back to the road if they only could, it is often claimed. Contrary to the "running" stereotype, however, only 5 percent of the Romany population in Europe is estimated to have an itinerant way of life. Or take the widespread image of the traditional Gypsy, where delinquency and laziness are assumed to be inherent to Gypsy nature. While most Gypsies are not engaged in full-time employment, it would be mistaken to jump to the conclusion that they are work-shy by nature. In Romania, for instance, the rural Romany population, and not only rural, work in the fields all days as day laborers, taking the place of old Gypsies who are unable to cultivate and look after their land. Their traditional crafts are endangered as, generally speaking, there is no longer a market for what they used to produce.
The circulation of stereotypes has been also enhanced by the globalization that affects the third millennium. Some famous examples come to mind. They are all related to the world of the movies. The Gypsy appears as an expression of exoticism and parasitic existence.
The movie "Chocolat," starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, shows a romantic Gypsy, full of love, dancing and singing innocently while being excluded by a society that has no regard for his values and which humiliates him. Felony is presented to millions of spectators in the movie "Snatch," starring Brad Pitt. The mafia, gambling, illegal boxing, fraud, and once again music and dancing. The last line about Gypsies in this movie is "What do you know about Gypsies?" To which the answer quickly comes: "They are not to be trusted!"
In an excellent film directed by Emir Kusturica, the heroes, who are Serbian Gypsies from the southern Danube, are the same as those from "Chocolat" and "Snatch." Apart from a deeper knowledge of the Gypsy world (the hierarchy in the community, their love for music), we run into gangsters, oil trafficking, prostitution, revenge, and chaos once again.
Who, then, can shed light on the genuine situation of the Roma? Their characteristics make a historical definition difficult and open the path for prejudice. History has taught the Gypsies that the less contact they have with the "gadje" (non-Romany people), the safer they are. The exclusive nature of the Romany culture, which does not encourage intimacy with those outside the community, creates suspicion on the part of those who are excluded and fuels stereotypes. Even their leaders admit it.
Ladislav Brody, a Czech parliamentarian of Romany origin, once said: "We are divided into four clans -- musicians, craftsmen, businessmen, and thieves. The thieves are the ones making life difficult for the rest of us. We are able to tell who belongs to which clan by the way they speak. However, the majority cannot see who is a good person and who isn't. You can see a Gypsy man wearing good clothes and who is nevertheless a thief. Thieves are a minority in our community but they form the basis for the stereotypes attached to the Roma" (cited in O'Nions, 1995).
I will return for a moment to the confessions of my young guest at the Elizabeth Palace, a man who represents the Romany minority in the Romanian parliament. He spoke about the value that Gypsies attach to land, woman, and child.
We cannot help highlighting a few things that come in contradiction to this profound world view: Romanian Gypsies have sold their children for the past 12 years for prices ranging from $800 to $10,000, their women have crossed the border most of the times in order to beg or become prostitutes, they are the most common victims of domestic violence, and the name of God, next to that of woman, is to be found in the most terrible Gypsy curses. Things get more complicated, however, as one begins to realize that it is not only Gypsies are the one involved in these terrible crimes, just as it is not only their ethnic identity that makes these people commit them.
What the Romany deputy said about the premature marriage between Romany children, or about the fact that most of the time they are "promised" to each other before they can make a decision on their own is that these things, according to Gypsy law, are not an infringement of human rights or the rights of the child, but represent a family duty, an attempt to make children responsible and ready to face life. The engagement agreement is a symbolic, cultural act which does not have any erotic implications until biological age allows it.
I asked my interlocutor what he wished for his people. First of all equal chances of integration in society, respect for the culture and traditions of their ethnic group, and education, he replied. What question would he ask the ethnic Romanian majority and even those who govern Europe, if he could do so? Just one: "What have you ever given us for the past 1,000 years that gives you the right to demand from us anything at all?" the reply came. This rhetorical question springs from a traumatic past the Romany minority had to go through, as an object of repeated and varied political offense by the majority, a past which the leaders of the community divide into four periods: Slavery, from the moment they arrived in Europe until the 19th century; Extermination, the experience of World War II; Segregation, the communist attempt; and Social Marginalization, to which they think they have been subjected since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
History ("the way one is"), stereotypes ("the way one seems to be"), and subjectivism ("the way one wants to be") are the three magnets between which the genuine understanding of the Romany minority moves like a pendulum. Romania, Great Britain, and the whole of Europe will have to draw the most appropriate conclusions and bring this unpredictable movement of the pendulum to a stable point.
The Romany sociologist Nicolae Gheorghe had this to say about this process in its Romanian version: "The goal is to elevate the status of a member of a community from that of Gypsy to that of a Romany person. That is, to accomplish a symbolic change from the status of a slave to that of a citizen of a constitutional state, with the right to identify himself/herself as belonging to the Romany minority. Calling this a Romany community, not a Gypsy community, is a first step in changing the others' bias towards the Gypsies, a first step towards understanding the talent and the capabilities this community has" (see http://www.eurozine.com/biography/Gheorghe.html).
I was saying that history has taught the Gypsies that the less contact they have with the "gadje," the better for them. We must learn the opposite. On an interhuman level, one can solve the Romany problem by leaving the historical paradigm, by "de-structuring" mutual stereotypes and prejudices.
In the last decade, Romania has often been, for good reasons, criticized for its citizens' illegal activities abroad. This has been embarrassing for the Western countries, and it has also been embarrassing for Romania. But, sadly, this was often all Western media cared to cover when mentioning Romania. There have also been moments when my country has been generally seen as a country whose entire population comes out of the sewer. When in Romania, Gypsies are called "the Romany minority" and have to be treated properly, respecting local and international legislation on human rights. At least this is the situation in theory. When illegally in a Western country, Gypsies are called "Romanians" and have to quickly return to the country they belong to -- a country which is to become part of precisely the continent that cannot wait to send Gypsies home. This is no longer theory. This is practice. It reminds one of a Romanian folk story, in which a lazy woman cleans the house, hiding the rubbish under the carpet.
I mentioned Yehudi Menuhin in the beginning of my speech. Lord Menuhin always proved an admirable attitude concerning Gypsies. The Jewish musician who did not hesitate to play a concert in Berlin some months after World War II ended, Yehudi Menuhin was, one day, walking the streets of Paris on his way from a rehearsal. Under the archways of a building, he saw a Gypsy playing the violin and getting some coins in his opened violin box. Yehudi stopped, took his Stradivarius out, and played a duo with the beggar before the eyes of the pedestrians, unable to slip an appropriate tip into Menuhin's box.
Yehudi's impromptu act could be a powerful example of how the Romany issue should be faced: with understanding, responsibility, real good will, patience, a sense of humor, and with no superiority complex. But, obviously, Lord Menuhin was just a virtuoso, and Europe is too big a violin for one single bow, however inspired.
Radu, Prince of Hohenzollern-Veringen, is special representative of the Romanian government for integration, cooperation, and sustainable development.SOURCES
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