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The best books on Romani History and Culture

recommended by Yaron Matras

Their language indicates they originated in India, but the music they play is world music. Some will tell your fortune but they don't believe in supernatural powers. Yaron Matras recommends the best books and dispels some common myths about Gypsies.

Interview by Toby Ash

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Let’s start by clarifying some basic terminology. Would it be correct to say that all Romanis are Gypsies but that all Gypsies are not Romanis?

Yes, broadly speaking that is correct. When we say all Romanis are Gypsies, I would correct that somewhat and say that all Romanis are often referred to as Gypsies by others, sometimes by themselves but not always. By and large today the term ‘Gypsy’ is one outsiders use to refer to Romani people as well as to non-Romani people, such as Travellers. So when we say Romanis are Gypsies, it’s not about what they are or are not, it’s about how people perceive them and refer to them.  The reference is often associated with a particular perception, some of which is true and much of which is not. For example, when people associate Gypsies with people who travel, then most Romanis are not Gypsies because most don’t travel and have never done so. Romanis refer to themselves as ‘Rom’ in their language. To them what that means is a particular set of values, family structure, beliefs and language and so on. Others refer to them as Gypsies because they select a particular image which they apply to the Romani people but also to other people, notably Traveller communities.

Can you give us a brief overview of the history of the Romani people?

This is a little problematic because the history of the Romani people is not documented from the very beginning, and what is documented has been done by outsiders. So, what we know is selective and partly inferred.

Early Romani history can really only be inferred from the language, which is Indian, so we know that the population originated in India. To some extent we can pinpoint using linguistic analysis the regions of India they are from and also the time of their exodus, but these are very crude estimates. We assume that the Romani people originated in central India, then stayed in the north western regions of India, and subsequently emigrated towards Anatolia around the tenth century.  That’s as far as we can get from the linguistic evidence. The circumstantial evidence that supports this is that we know there was a general movement of people from India specialising in particular trades who ended up in various parts of central and western Asia and the Middle East. It is important to note that the exodus of Roma was not an isolated phenomenon, but was part of a general movement, especially of artisan castes, out of India.

Subsequently, with the decline of Byzantine Empire from about the fifteenth century, groups of Romani people moved to central and western Europe and to parts of the north too. Their presence in the Balkans was chronicled largely by outsiders in tax registers and court proceedings – especially during the Ottoman period – and their migration is documented in edicts issued against Gypsies in European states.  Those that emigrated were very conspicuous because of their foreign appearance and they tended to exploit the superstitions of the local populations by offering services such as fortune telling, but they were also active as artisans producing tools and other goods. However, although there was this movement west and north with the decline of the Byzantine Empire, most Romanis stayed in the Balkans.

What are the numbers of Romani now, and where do they live?

It is very difficult to say as there are no reliable statistics. Estimates vary from three million to more than 10 million – the reality is probably somewhere in between. The largest populations of Roma are in south eastern Europe – both in terms of actual numbers and as a proportion of the population as a whole – in countries like Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania , Slovakia, Hungary, Greece and Turkey. The further west you go, the population starts to dwindle.

Are there Roma communities in North and South America?

Yes, there are large communities in both North and South America that descend from immigrants who left Europe mainly at the end of the nineteenth century. There is also a sizeable Roma community in Australia too.

You have selected five books on Romani culture and history. How much scholarship is there on the subject?

There is scholarship, and in the last few years there has been a lot more interest. Today there are well-attended annual meetings of academics specialising in Romani studies and there is an academic journal called Romani Studies, which I edit, which was founded 1888.  But if you look at the subject areas, much of it is ethnographic and linguistic. The linguistic study of the Roma is the most established discipline, dating back more than 200 years. There is much less representation in political science and history; Romani history is not really present in university history departments at all. Moreover, most of the historical investigations that do exist are limited to the study of sources in a particular region during a particular period.

Are there Romani archives that historians can look at, or is it solely an oral historical tradition?

No, there aren’t any archives. There are activists now documenting oral histories, but there is very little. And of course oral history only goes back a generation or two, and even then there are gaps. The most notable one is the genocide of Roma that took place in World War Two. We still have survivors alive today, but telling the story of what happened has been very much taboo in Romani families, partly because many who survived the concentration camps were forcibly sterilised. This is especially traumatising in the context of Romani society, which is very family orientated. For years survivors never spoke of their ordeal, and it is only very recently that some have started to talk to people, either historians or documentary film makers, wanting to document what happened.

The history of the Romani people tends to be written by non-Roma, based on documents – often about their persecution – compiled by non-Roma. We also have official records, such as tax payments, which give insights into occupations and movement patterns. There are also literary depictions that give some insight, albeit again from an outsider perspective, into the appearance and organisation of Romani families. Sometimes there are also records of some positive government measures, such as safe conduct letters, permissions to settle and edicts giving Roma particular rights in particular places. These are the type of documents that can be referred to when piecing together Romani history.

Increasingly, professional historians working on the Roma are being challenged by a very vocal group of Romani activists who are putting forward their own narrative of Romani historiography which is based not so much on evidence based research, but on an attempt to reshape and redefine a Romani identity and project that retrospectively into history. These people are very vocal through NGOs, schools and the media, and, as a result, we have all sorts of ghost narratives of Romani history appearing on the internet and elsewhere.

Your first book looks at how the Romani population in Russia adapted to life under Communism. Please tell us more.

This is a very interesting book because it looks at the very first recognition of the Roma as an ethnic or national minority anywhere. It is somewhat ironic that it happened in the Soviet Union, but that said it did only last a few years from the late 1920s until the late 1930s.

The book focuses on the activities of a small circle of Romani activists and how they managed to create a special status for the minority after the Communist revolution.  It was really a survival strategy. The Roma were always a self-employed and free enterprise loving people and the new Soviet economic structure introduced serious impediments to them continuing to live as they had for generations. The authorities had also taken to banning Romani cultural performances and characterising them as degenerates. Their whole way of life was being brought into question, and they needed to somehow discover a way of fitting in.

Of course, there was no tradition of political activism within Romani communities, so these activists had to reinvent the Roma to try and convince the authorities that they were a nationality like any other. They did this by turning popular stereotypes to their advantage. They suggested that the Roma were backwards and needed special support to become good socialist citizens and argued that they could only get that support if they were recognised as an individual ethnic group. Through that argument they managed to set up special schools and teaching training programmes as well as industrial and agricultural collectives for Romani people. What impresses me in particular, because of my work on Romani language, is that they also, for the first time ever, initiated a state programme to create a Romani literary language. To this day, there has never been a comparable quantity of Romani language publications produced in any one country. Four to five hundred books were published in Romani, including translations of Pushkin and others, but also political propaganda and educational material. Unfortunately, much of it was destroyed at the end of the 1930s.

What happened then?

This was when centralisation was stepped up and there was a general reversal of the liberal nationalities policy. The only institution that survived was the Romen Theatre, which still exists today. It’s an irony of history that this traditional image of the Roma as performers on stage is the only thing that was allowed to survive from the whole experiment.

Tell us about you second choice.

The focus here is how the Roma are portrayed in the modern media, notably the prejudice and incitement that is spread. The book also examines the new right in Europe and how it scapegoats Romani people, and how their narrative is finding resonance among governing institutions. It has a particularly strong focus on central and eastern Europe.

Each chapter has a different author – they are mostly early career researchers who have entered the area of Romani studies in the last decade or so. In the past, researchers in Romani studies were primarily interested in ethnography and linguistics. Now we have a generation who are more interested in how society deals with Gypsies as a minority, and what that treatment says about that society as a whole. The book’s editor, Michael Stewart, has had a very important role nurturing this generation of early career researchers from all across Europe. He has organised annual summer schools in Romani studies and many of the book’s contributors are graduates of these.

The authors show how EU expansion has sparked the search for a new nationalist ideology in many new member states. There is a sense of disappointment with EU membership and there is a frustration and anger, which has been feeding the rise of the new right, with a type of political correctness being imposed on them with its stress on human and minority rights. This frustration often leads to aggression against the Romani minority. They are often the first to lose their jobs because they tend to be less skilled, and also because of general discrimination. Having lost their job they are then accused of being dependent on benefits and a burden on the state and society. Resentment is fuelled further by the traditional image of the Romani people as being work shy.

While on this topic – though this is not explicitly discussed in the contributions to the book – we might add that paradoxically, Roma can also be seen as objects of envy. They are perceived to be free from the mundane routines and sexual morality of mainstream society, and their music and lifestyle is perceived as creative and colourful. So, they can be seen as the “other” in a positive rather than just a negative sense – except that positive is exoticised way beyond reality. For example, their supernatural powers are exaggerated. Personally, I know a number of Roma who do, or have in the past, make a living from telling fortunes. But not one of them actually believes there is any truth in their fortune telling, it’s just a business. The people who are actually superstitious are their non-Romani clients. It’s an irony that society projects supernatural powers onto the Roma, but it’s actually an expression of society’s own superstition.

Much has been written about Spain’s minority Jewish and Muslim populations, but little scholarly attention has been paid to Gypsies. What does this book tell us?

This book looks at Spanish archives and is really a model for writing Romani history. To write a book on the Romani experience in Spain, not only do you need fluency in Spanish, but you also need to be able to recognise when Romani people are being referred to in the documents. They do not call them by the name the Roma call themselves and they very rarely site anything in the Romani language. Spanish sources, as did most of Europe in this period, also generally refer to Romani people as Egyptians.

The history of the Roma in Spain is one full of edicts expelling them wholesale from specific provinces time and time again. This was especially the case after economic and military crises when there was a pervading sense of insecurity. The major concern of the authorities was that the indigenous Spanish population would actually join the Roma communities. This comes up often in these edicts and penalties would be imposed on people who were caught associating with them. So, it seems the Romani people were tolerated in particular occupations in the economy but that the Spanish authorities feared that the local population would take on their ways if they associated too much with them. Therefore through that, there was a general association between attitudes to Romani people and crime prevention. Basically, the preoccupation with the Roma became a preoccupation with crime prevention, because people lacking a steady domicile were regarded as having a propensity to crime. This led to a vicious circle: expulsion led to nomadism, which was then criminalised. However, one of really interesting things that Pym observes is that most of the expulsion orders do not seem to have been followed through. They are repeated year after year in the same provinces, and it seems that nothing was really done to enforce them.

Today, you still have a Romani population of about half a million in Spain. This is partly because the Romani people were very effective in moving back and forth across the borders of the various provinces to avoid trouble and also because they were able to seek protection from their persecutors. During the Spanish Inquisition they were protected by local noble men and even local clergy in various places, who either sympathised with their plight or who were able to extract financial benefit by helping them. The reason that many Roma moved to Andalucia in southern Spain seems to be because there were much larger estates there, so they had much more freedom to move about without being noticed by the authorities. That region also had many people of Muslim descent who were also regarded with suspicion during the inquisition, so the Roma were not being singled out for persecution there.

Your fourth book looks at Romani music. Please tell us more.

I chose this book for two reasons. Firstly, nothing is more associated with Romani culture than music. It’s the first point of encounter that many people have directly or indirectly with the Roma. Secondly, the author is one of the leading ethnographers of Romani society. She’s immersed in Romani culture and language, and this is an exemplary investigation into a central aspect of Roma culture.

What Carol Silverman shows us here is that Romani music is really world music. Roma people are essentially performers and while they do have their own styles and way of organising their music, they simply play to audiences. There is no such thing as music that is inherently Roma – there are different types and styles of music for different purposes. That in turn is very true for Romani culture in general, which Silverman calls “cultural hybridity” and a “cosmopolitan culture”.

This book deconstructs the idea of Romani culture being something primordial, essential and something exotic that has been preserved over the centuries from India. While you can say that about certain aspects of their culture, most notably the language, we can’t see them as a museum exhibit that never changes. Romani culture is very dynamic and they have absorbed influences and have made creative use these influences; indeed they are leading figures in the creative development of other people’s cultures, nowhere more so than in the area of music.

Onto you final pick now and a study of a Romanian village.

This is one of the best ethnographies of a Romani community and strangely one of the only modern ones from Romania, which has one of the largest Romani populations in the world. Very little has been written about the history, culture and language of the Roma in Romania, so this is an important contribution.

Ada Engebrigsten lived in a village in Transylvania for more than a year and observes the relations between the Roma and non-Roma by spending time with both. In many ways it is a classic ethnography. She describes customs such as marriages and funerals and closely examines work patterns within the Roma community. She also looks at the impact of modern influences such as NGOs and church missionaries. One of the most interesting chapters is on what she calls the “Roma cosmology” – the internal value system which divides honourable and dishonourable behaviour, good fortune and misfortune, inside and outside and upper body and lower body. The idea of good and bad is mapped onto some very abstract notions, especially in respect of behaviour towards outsiders. This really is a core element of Romani culture and understanding it is essential to understanding the inner world of this community.

One of the things I like about this book is that even though there is no commitment to a particular theoretical approach, it very much reminds me of the structuralist ethnographies that were popular in the 1920s and 1930s; the works by Claude Levi-Strauss and others who saw value systems in communities as systematic and structured in some way. Many modern ethnographies from the 1980s onwards are very much pitched in a post-modernist and post-structuralist approach, trying to do away with these systematic approaches. As I say, while Engebrigsten doesn’t specifically commit herself to a theoretical framework, I do think there is an aspect of structure that she brings into the discussion. She sees Romani actions and beliefs as not random, but fitting into a general whole.

Interview by Toby Ash

March 6, 2014

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Yaron Matras

Yaron Matras

Yaron Matras is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Manchester. He is editor of the journal Romani Studies and has written a number of books on Romani language and history including Romani in Britain: The afterlife of LanguageRomani: A Linguistic Introduction and, most recently, I Met Lucky People: The Story of Romani Gypsies.

Yaron Matras

Yaron Matras

Yaron Matras is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Manchester. He is editor of the journal Romani Studies and has written a number of books on Romani language and history including Romani in Britain: The afterlife of LanguageRomani: A Linguistic Introduction and, most recently, I Met Lucky People: The Story of Romani Gypsies.