The 'Story of the Gypsies' is still being written...

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a friend about the book 'Bury Me Standing', by Isabel Fonesca. When asked if I had read it and what my thoughts were, I recalled that Fonesca had upset a lot of people by suddenly trying to claim Romani heritage after the book was published. She has now recanted her statements, but it didn't go over well with the Romani community as a whole. My friend asked me why a Romani person (a 'real Gypsy') like myself hasn't written a book on the subject. This very blog was suggested as a starting point.

To answer this question, Romani culture is extremely diverse, so it's really impossible to speak for all of us, though some have tried, with mixed results. Ian Hancock, a Jewish/Romani scholar and professor at the University of Texas, has attempted to do just that. He is a good man, with good intentions, but he draws much criticism as well because he wants to call all of us 'Roma', which is like calling all Native Americans 'Cherokee'. The Roma are only one of many Romani natsias or 'nations'. He wants to also create a unified Romani language, of which there is currently many different dialects and some are so different that they can hardly be compared to one another. We also tend to be a very private people, so Hancock teaching Romani to gadje angers many of the older generation, as they have been taught to keep our secrets to ourselves. I come as close as saying, "oh, hey, we're real and by the way, things aren't very good for us around the world," but that's it. Anything else is overstepping boundaries, and is the main reason people don't like Hancock. I, myself, applaud him for his efforts to bring Romani issues to light, but he does attempt to speak for all of us, and that is a mistake. Gitanos (Gypsies in Spain) have very different customs, beliefs, language and traditions than Kalderash (France) or Sinti (France/Germany). It would be impossible to write a book that would encompass (and do justice to) all the different groups, and it is also considered disrespectful and 'against the culture' to tell outsiders many of the things that Hancock discusses freely. These are probably the main reasons no Romani person has stepped forward and written something like that... Fonesca's experience was with one group. It sheds some light, but what really needs to be said is that no matter where we are, there always seems to be prejudice against the Romani people. It is particularly bad in Italy and the Czech Republic right now. I will say that Hancock is an intelligent and brave man, but take what he tells you with a grain of salt, as he can only speak about his own family and experiences. Many Romani people are offended that he has taken on the role of speaking for all of us, and for many groups his interpretations and explanations are inaccurate.

On a different subject (and after all my efforts to dismiss it as fantasy, gadje-inspired fiction) I finally did watch the Hunchback of Notre Dame (the Disney version) the other day, and while some parts were very wrong, others such as the hatred for Gypsies and their living on the outskirts of society, plus Esmeralda's cunning and fiery, no holds barred personality were fairly accurate. I particularly liked the part where the judge was asking all the Gypsies he found where she was and no one would talk. THAT is very Romani... we take care of our own, and would rather die than betray our people. I also enjoyed when she spit in his face at the end. Again, very Romani... in the Holocaust, the Gypsies were the only group who were allowed to stay together as families. The Jews and all other prisoners were separated into women, children and men, but the Nazis quickly learned that would not work with Gypsies. There was a massive revolt, and after that they just kept them together, in the 'Gypsy Family Camp'. There is an interesting book, written by a German Sinto (Gypsy man) called 'Wintertime'. His name is Walter Winter, and the book is one of the few (possibly only) first hand accounts by a Romani Holocaust Survivor.

I am aware of the paradox that exists between building a bridge to understanding our culture while not betraying what is sacred to our ancestors. Let's not forget, Romani people became secretive and closed off for a reason, and those atrocities are hard to forget, especially for those who lived to see them firsthand. There are many lovely things about Romani culture... the music, the dancing, a strong loyalty to each other and solid family and cultural values. I do not dismiss or deny the beauty of my people and I am proud that, despite our struggles (of which there have been many), we have moved with the ages, and only stand stronger each time we are knocked down. I don't know if there is a person who could encompass all that we are into a single book... it would be more like an encyclopedia! And, even then, there would likely be arguing and bickering about who got what wrong about which group. I also understand that we will have to give up some of our privacy in order to gain understanding. It's quite the tightrope, and one I don't think I could walk... but, I am flattered by the suggestion.

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