For and against Romanistan

Nicholas Xenos

  • Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey by Isabel Fonseca
    Chatto, 322 pp, £18.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 7011 3851 3

Before 1914, Europeans could cross national borders without a passport and without much noticing that a border had in fact been crossed. The Great War changed all that, or rather the postwar settlement did, redrawing the map of Central and South-East Europe along supposedly ethnic lines, based on the Woodrow Wilson principle of national self-determination. That these same treaties codified the rights of minorities was only logical, since it was the creation of these nation-states on the basis of dominant ethnic groups that had the instant fleet of establishing such ‘minorities’. Many of these – Hungarians and Germans in Czechoslovakia and Romania, for example – belonged to ethnic groups whose states were somewhere else, which created split political personalities of a new and unstable kind. In 1923, the Turkish and Greek Governments, acknowledging the need permanently to resettle refugees following their three-year-old war, exchanged one and a half million people, sending them ‘home’ to their ‘proper’ nation-states: the destabilising consequences of such genetically engineered map-making soon became evident. Borders that had hitherto been vague transitional zones became firm markers of personal and collective identity.

This fixing of identities presented new problems for at least two European peoples of questionable pedigree: Jews and Gypsies. The rush to establish a homeland gave fresh impetus and opportunity to Zionists, but not all Jews were interested. Many Western and Central European Jews were comfortable with their German or French or Austrian identities, while a few clung to the cosmopolitanism afforded by a Jewish identity that did not aspire to an actual homeland. By 1940, of course, neither assimilation nor cosmopolitanism was still an option.

Gypsies had the terrible honour of being singled out, together with the Jews, to be exterminated in this porraimos, or ‘devouring’, solely on the basis of their race. There is a sad irony in the story retold by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem of a question raised with the prosecuting counsel by the Dutch writer Harry Mulisch, who asked: ‘Would the death of the Jews have been less of an evil if they were a people without a culture, such as the Gypsies who were also exterminated?’ ‘Without a culture’ means more than simply being without a ‘high’ culture, though this seems to be what Arendt has in mind, since she criticises the outrage expressed at the persecution of such as Albert Einstein, contrasting it with the relative silence over the fate of nameless Eastern European Jews. The larger implication is that Gypsies stand outside European culture altogether; that they have no claim, say, on German literature or Austrian music. Since 1948 the Jews have been able to claim Israel as their homeland, regardless of their particular citizenship, and thus to become a people like everyone else in the Wilsonian world: but where, exactly, do Gypsies belong in this order of things?

When the French Government ‘repatriated’ 81 ‘illegal immigrants’ to Romania in July 1995, most of those put on the plane were Gypsies. Once France had declared that the citizens of Romania no longer needed political asylum, its decision to expel these people seemed to follow logically, given the Government’s failure to give serious attention to the question of whether Romania was the patria of those expelled or of the 1200 other ‘Romanian’ Gypsies who have settled in the Lyon area in recent years. Instead, the French followed the path bulldozed a few months earlier by the Germans, who sent a larger group of Gypsies back to Romania – along with a large cheque made out to Bucharest, to persuade the Romanian Government to take back what it hadn’t wanted in the first place. This was a nifty switch on previous German practice, since Bonn had routinely paid ransom money to the Ceausescu regime to ‘return’ ethnic Germans to the fatherland. The dictator’s heirs seem to have hit on a new and potentially lucrative market, fuelled equally by Romania’s own well-established history of racism and that of its enlightened Western neighbours.

In fact, for over four centuries, Gypsies were legally enslaved in Wallachia and Moldavia, two of the three feudal principalities that later became Romania. The probability that there the word ‘gypsy’ denoted a slave caste is only one of the many bits of Gypsy history and culture that grace the pages of Isabel Fonseca’s engrossing account of Gypsy life. Much of the historical and lexicographic material is already available in Angus Fraser’s The Gypsies, but Fonseca adds concreteness to Fraser’s more scholarly account, giving a personality to these ‘quintessential strangers’. Most of what she describes she saw or heard herself as she travelled and lived among the Roma in Central and South-East Europe on frequent trips between 1991 and 1995, but this is not a travelogue or an exercise in exoticism. ‘Gypsies lie,’ she observes. ‘They lie a lot – more often and more inventively than other people. Not to each other but to gadje’ (gadje is the Gypsy word for non-Gypsies; the goyim of Romani). Since Fonseca is a gadjo, she has to assume that she, too, was lied to by her informants. And inventive lying is only one of the layers of obfuscation through which she must delve, since Gypsies have developed a variety of survival strategies that employ shifting identities and twists on gadjo perceptions. Fonseca reports, for example, that one of her guides denied the very existence of Romani as a true language with its own linguistic rules in order to convince her that she would never really be able to learn it, thus protecting Gypsy identity from the threat of penetration by this particular gadjo. Most important of all, though, is the apparent lack of collective memory among Gypsies, who have forgotten, among other things, that they were ever enslaved.

Fonseca writes very well about the connection between memory and identity which is the key to understanding the plight of the more than twelve million Gypsies in the contemporary world. ‘Nostalgia is the very essence of Gypsy song, and seems always to have been. But nostalgia for what? Nostos is the Greek for “a return home”; the Gypsies have no home, and, perhaps uniquely among peoples, they have no dream of a homeland. Utopia – ou topos – means “no place”. Nostalgia for utopia: a return home to no place.’ There is no primal origin in the Gypsy imagination and thus no cultivated memory of a place of belonging. While Fonseca later suggests that the Balkans are a kind of surrogate homeland, her first observation is more interesting. The Gypsies have no use for borders; their geographical sensibility is shaped by human relationships rather than by the physical landscape. Unlike the Balkan tribes, they have no sacred mountains or rivers to dream of or semi-mythical battlegrounds to remember or historical accounts to settle.

Gypsy oral culture is particularly ill-suited to the tasks of nation-building. Fonseca describes the Gypsies’ inability to order events in some sort of coherent narrative as a propensity to live in the ‘heroic present’. When they tell a story, they are theatrical, expressing what they feel about the events in question at the moment of telling rather than attempting to establish how things ‘really’ were. This can get them into trouble when they have to deal with the police or other instruments of the state, since their version of events can’t be translated into the ‘facts’ on which bureaucratic institutions rely. More fundamentally, their form of storytelling is contrary to the quasi-mythical narratives of identity that underpin the modern nation-state. Without a linear story-line that stretches from some distant origin to their destiny in the here and now, the Roma can’t formulate a claim to national identity in a language other nations can recognise.

During the past two centuries language has become the central signifier of ethnic and national identity. In Israel, a new national language had to be created – modern Hebrew – in order to assimilate speakers of Yiddish or Ladino, the stigmatised languages of an oppressed minority, and of German or Russian, the national languages of other peoples. Romani is a spoken language rather than a literary one, and does not even have a standard form of transcription, let alone agreement about whether or not it is a language in the first place. Fraser has suggested that rather than see Romani as a language with a myriad of dialects, it might better be understood as a cluster of closely related but independent languages. Fonseca insists that Romani is a key element uniting Gypsies and that its very looseness and adaptability reflect these same qualities in Gypsy culture. If that is correct, to standardise Romani would be likely to kill it and the unique culture it articulates.

Gypsies thus have none of the credentials required for membership of the club of nations. As Fonseca argues, they are in fact stateless yet not considered to be so. When it suits a country to deport Gypsies, they are ascribed the identity of the country they came from, even though not generally considered among its citizens. Citizenship laws have been instituted in the Czech Republic, for example, that have the effect of excluding Gypsies under the pretext of identifying them as Slovaks:

The law looks as if it was designed to disfranchise, and then to evict, Gypsies in particular: nearly all of the three hundred thousand Gypsies in the Czech Republic (or their parents) migrated or were sent over from Slovakia. In order to obtain citizenship now you needed to be fluent in Czech (most Gypsies speak Romani and Slovak), you had to have stable residence for at least two years, and you needed a clean criminal record for the preceding five years. Significantly, the last requirement stretched back into the Communist period, when many un- or self-employed Gypsies acquired records for such crimes as ‘avoiding work’ or ‘neglect’, both of which were frequently used as a pretext to remove baby Gypsies to state children’s homes. Thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – are likely to find themselves without citizenship in either the Czech Republic or in Slovakia: that is, stateless.

While everyone around them is busy constructing memories in order to anchor themselves in one place or another, the Gypsies, intolerably but necessarily, drift from place to place because they either will not or cannot come to rest anywhere.

Gypsy modes of life themselves present obstacles to the notion of belonging. Tending to congregate in the formerly hazy borderlands, Gypsies became adept at finding gaps in the web of government decrees and regulations, and exploiting them for survival. Some tribes made their living by trading horses across borders; today the same tribes deal in automobiles. The less scrupulous dealers, then and now, know that by constantly moving they won’t have to answer for cheating a buyer. Either by choice or necessity – there’s no way of knowing for certain – Gypsies have not engaged in the settled work of agriculture or industry, occupying instead the sojourner professions of trade, tinkering and music. And of course, some of them appear not to work at all.

Most readers of Fonseca’s book will have learnt what they know about Gypsies from fiction and opera, or from encountering Gypsies in the railway stations and streets of Western European cities. Exiting from the Termini Station in Rome, for example, you encounter gauntly beautiful or pathetically emaciated women in bright clothing and with imploring hands, who have hordes of scruffy children clinging to their garments or grabbing at yours. Or you pass almost prostrate women on church steps with a sleeping child draped across their laps and a look of heartbreak in their eyes. In Fonseca’s words, these women seem ‘to be suffering from compassion-stimulation fatigue’. They’re not very successful as beggars – and in any case most of us believe that they’re somehow cheating us.

Unless you happen to go through an industrial wasteland or park on the perimeter of cities where a group of Gypsies has encamped, you might never see a Gypsy man. Male laziness has been institutionalised among the Roma, especially in the home. Fonseca relates the endless labours of Gypsy women, particularly of the daughters-in-law, the boria, who spend their days scrubbing clothes, walls and floors, and preparing food, all the while careful not to disturb the paterfamilias and the sons. When Gypsy men do work and display any sign of material success, they are eyed suspiciously. Many have done well as entrepreneurs in Bulgaria and Romania, but their success as capitalists only reinforces the notion that they must be thieves, so that their businesses and homes have been subjected to a new wave of pogroms – the final resort of the militantly rooted.

Gypsy disregard for gadjo conventions places the Roma at the extremes of otherness, where they are seen either as perpetually unwanted intruders or as outsiders tempting us with romantic dreams of a world without borders. As for the Gypsies themselves, their acceptance of the collective nouns Gypsy and Roma is relatively new; these terms originated from outside, Gypsies having traditionally thought of themselves as a collection of disparate tribes or extended families. Their adoption points to the dilemma facing the Roma today – ‘the temptation to exist’, in Fonseca’s words. In recent years, a literate Gypsy élite has been convening meetings to discuss the future of its people. While a small minority has begun to float the impossible idea of a Gypsy homeland, a would-be Romanistan, others have argued that it is only by claiming no place as their place that Gypsies can gain a measure of protection in international law from the whims of national governments. They dream of a recognised transnational identity. Fonseca, true to her unromantic but sympathetic view of the Gypsies, almost forces herself to believe that these conferences may mark a turning-point. She observes that, like others before them, this new élite has been rejected by many Gypsies, who consider them to have crossed over into the gadjo world. In many respects they have indeed crossed over, and become ‘career Gypsies’. On the other hand, the prospect of a transnational identity looks no more likely today than it did seventy-five years ago.

Fonseca twice quotes Vaclav Havel’s comment that the treatment of Gypsies is ‘a litmus test of a civil society’, but the example of anti-Gypsy citizenship laws in the Czech Republic, despite the President’s goodwill, is more telling. With the Czech Government lobbying for inclusion in the European Community, the Republic’s identity as a European nation is on the line. By acting to exclude Gypsies from citizenship, the Government is defining what it is to be a Czech, and, potentially, a European citizen, at least in part by what it is not.