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V. Nicolae & Hanna Slavik, eds., Roma Diplomacy.  Brussels: European Roma Information Office. 2007.


Ian Hancock

Diplomacy is defined as "the management of international relations by negotiation; the method by which these relations are adjusted and managed by ambassadors and envoys; skill . . . in the conduct of international intercourse and negotiations." While the assumption was that we met in Geneva to discuss diplomacy between Romani and non-Romani agencies, I want to take a step back and address issues of diplomacy solely within the Romani world.

A diaspora people, we as Romanies exist in a great many distinct groups and are both geographically and politically dispersed. We have become fragmented by complex social and historical factors, with far-reaching consequences - thus the above definition from the Oxford English Dictionary (Onions, 1968: 514) must apply equally well to us: we must be able to talk to each other before we are in a position to talk to anyone else.

At present, different Romani organizations representing different interest groups meet with various non-Romani agencies to address mutually agreed-upon issues. However, the Romani groups involved in each situation do not and cannot speak for all Romanies everywhere. They represent either their own shared agenda (e.g., rights of the child) or their own group (e.g., human rights training of Roma in Sweden). They do not speak for Romanies as one global people.

This, of course, is to be expected and is not what I am addressing here. What I want to focus on is why, even within such single-topic contexts, we find it difficult to find common ground amongst ourselves. I was in Stockholm not long ago, where at least five different Romani groups resident in Sweden had come together to discuss Roma-related issues; the lack of cooperation amongst them almost led in one case to a death threat. More recently still, I was in Saint Louis, Missouri, where nearly 3000 Roma have settled, part of a much larger population of some 45,000 Bosnian refugees in that city. They must deal with hostility from the non-Romani Bosnians, with learning English, with finding jobs and establishing homes. Yet, they exist in three distinct groups, who maintain their separateness and distinctiveness from each other despite sharing the fact of being a minority within a minority in a new land.  At one of our international meetings, the Romani delegates from one particular country sat outside the conference hall angry and threatening to leave because they could not understand the Vlax dialect being used in the presentations.

It is this divisiveness that I want to concentrate on, because it causes us the most problems. I repeat, before we can talk to the rest of the world, we must be able to talk to each other. In order to talk to each other, we must know who we - and each other - are: what separates us and what we have in common.

Are Roma one people? The fact that we met in Brussels and are here today in Geneva - from many different parts of the world - is an indication that we are now treated as though we were, regardless of how we have been traditionally regarded.

Who’s in Charge of Identity?

The definition of Romani identity rests in many hands, though hardly in our own.  The media, and even some academics, regard it as based solely on social behaviour. Like Cher with her 1971 hit song "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves," in a recent issue The New York Press referred to "hoboes and gypsies" as if they were same thing, and The New Yorker magazine wrote about "assertive women: female scholars, priestesses, gypsies, mystics, nature lovers" (Boyer, 2006, p. 36), evidently assuming that all of those labels refer to behaviours or occupations. One academic specializing in Roma, Professor Ralph Sandland of Nottingham University, says the word Gypsy "is merely a job description" (1996, p. 384), while The Centurion: "Police Lifestyle Magazine defines 'Gypsies' as "any family-oriented band of nomads" (Schroeder, 1983. p. 59). The Romani Archives and Documentation Center in Texas receives the Google Search links to "Gypsy" in the press every day. For January 23, 2006, the Center received  four items: one dealt with moths, one with Broadway chorus-line dancers, one with an Irish soccer team, and the last with recreational vehicles. Not one of them had anything to do with Roma.

The academics and folklorists who recognize an ethnic identity have, nevertheless, set their own limitations, traditionally wanting us to be illiterate and living under the hedges in order to be authentic. Even the great Paspati maintained that "it is in the tent that the Gypsy must be studied, and not in the villages of the bastardized sedentary Gypsies" (1883, p. 14); his contemporary, Pischel, too believed that "the Gypsy ceases to be a Gypsy as soon as he is domiciled and follows some trade" (1883, p. 358). This would disqualify most of us, and it is clear that educated, settled Roma pose a problem. The Czech sociologist, Jaroslav Sus, claimed that it was an "utterly mistaken opinion that Gypsies form a nationality or a nation, that they have their own national culture, their own national language" (1961, p. 89). The former sub-editor of the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society mocked the same notion as nothing but "romantic twaddle" (Vesey-Fitzgerald, 1973, p. 2). Dora Yates, former honorary secretary of that organization, asked "except in a fairy tale, could any hope [of a Romani nationalist movement] ever have been more fantastic?" (1953, p. 40). Yet another member, Werner Cohn, wrote in his book The Gypsies that we "have no leaders, no executive committees, no nationalist movement . . . . I know of no authenticated case of genuine Gypsy allegiance to political or religious causes" (1973, p. 66) - and these are the experts. A firm denial of the nationalist movement also originates with the Gypsy Lore Society. One member, JiÍí Lipa wrote:

To be exact, there is no one Gypsy culture nor one Gypsy language. . . . If in the process of looking for native assistants and for training them [the gypsilorist finds that] literary talents should appear, so much the better. . . . [I]n reality, however, it is mere toying, a waste of energy and material means which are not abundant for Gypsy studies. While a missing attribute is being artificially contrived, which is supposed to make the Gypsies an ethnic minority in the conventional sense in the eyes of wishful thinkers and bureaucrats, irreplaceable values of Gypsy culture are being lost in our time. (1983, p. 4)

The question of who speaks for us is one constantly addressed.  Although sympathetic to our position, a non-Romani took it upon himself to “forgive” a non-Romani Auschwitz survivor for anti-Roma statements made in his book (Weiss, 2007).  At The University of Texas in April, 2007, the promotional flyer for a conference on Romani women in Turkey entitled Reconfiguring gender and Roma (“Gypsy”) identity through political discourses in Western Turkey noted that “Rom and non-Rom men’s voices speak for Roma women,” though the “reconfiguration of Roma identity” in this presentation was made on our behalf by a non-Romani woman, and not by a Romani herself.  In a new book on world music, the passages on Romani music are illustrated by two non-Roma Balkan music specialists (Naylor, 2006: 89-90).  A week-long “Gypsy” conference at The University of Florida in March, 2007, consisted mainly of singing and dancing and dressing up by various non-Roma, but included no Romani participation.  When they were questioned in this regard, the response was that they “couldn’t find any Gypsies.”  They have since received a complaint from members of the Miami Romani community.

So Who Are We?

While some of the earliest Roma told the Europeans that we had come from India, this fact was not generally known, and was eventually forgotten even by our own people. As a consequence, a great many incorrect, and sometimes bizarre, hypotheses gained currency. Some gazhe have written that we originated from inside the hollow earth, or on the Moon, or in Atlantis, that we were the remnants of a race of prehistoric horsemen, were Nubians, or Druids, or even that we were a conglomerate drawn from the fringes of European society and that we artificially dyed our skin and spoke a made-up jargon for the purposes of plotting criminal activity.

The problem I am focusing on here is that we ourselves are as uncertain about our origins as is the general gazhikano population - and that uncertainty serves only to sustain the universal Hollywood image. Some of our own people have said that we are Berbers or Jews or Egyptians, or were a presence in the Roman Empire, thus giving the stamp of legitimacy to such claims. It is the very existence of this nebulous identity that has contributed to the ease of its manipulation.

In my book We Are the Romani People [Hancock, 2002], I complained that degrees have been awarded to graduate students whose theses and dissertations were supervised by committees the members of which had no expertise whatsoever in Romani studies. An article that appeared in a published collection of scholarly essays about Roma in 1999 maintained that "whether Gypsies originate in either Egypt or India is a matter that has not been settled" (Esplugas, 1999, p. 43). Since 1997 at least three "Gypsy" courses have been established at different American universities by faculty who have no qualifications in the area, who have never met any Romanies, and whose list of readings contain non-academic and misleading titles. Books and articles about Romanies number in the tens of thousands, but practically every single one of them has been written by an outsider--and most of those by people who have never actually met any Roma in their lives. It would be hard to imagine a book about modern-day Poles or Slovaks being taken seriously, had it been written by someone who had never visited Poland or Slovakia and who had never met anyone from those countries.

Recent scholarship is forcing a serious re-examination of our origins. My own sociohistorical and linguistic work supports genetic research conducted by Kalaydjieva and others, who found that "confirming the centuries-old linguistic theory of the Indian origins [of Roma] is no great triumph for modern genetic research," but that "the major, unexpected and most significant result of these studies is the strong evidence of the common descent of all Gypsies regardless of declared group identity, country of residence and rules of endogamy. . . . [T]he Gypsy group was born in Europe" (2005: 1085-6).

This European perspective is fundamental to the discussion. Three hitherto unconsidered aspects of the contemporary Romani condition rest upon the facts of our history, and must be acknowledged if we are to understand our problems of identity and in-group communication or lack of it.

First, our population has been a composite one from its very beginning, and, at the beginning, was occupationally, rather than ethnically-defined;

Second, while our earliest linguistic, cultural and genetic components are traceable to India, Romanies everywhere essentially constitute a population that acquired its identity and language in the West (accepting the Christian, Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire as linguistically and culturally "western").

Third, the entry into Europe from Anatolia was not as a single people, but as a number of at least three smaller migrations over perhaps as much as a two-century span of time.

Together, these account in large part for the lack of cohesiveness among the various groups self-identifying as Romani, and for the major dialect splits within the language. We might see each major post-Byzantine group as evolving in its own way, continuing independently a process of assimilation and adaptation begun in northwest India. Thus, the descendants of those held in slavery until the 19th century, and those whose ancestors entered Spain in the 15th century are today very different.  The former - the Vlax Romanies – were heavily influenced genetically, culturally and linguistically by Romanian and the Romanians; the latter B the Kalé Romanies – were influenced in the same way by Mozarabic and Spanish, and both populations have, furthermore been separated by more than six centuries. Any originally acquired characteristics each group might still share, which constitute the genetic, linguistic, and cultural "core of direct retention," are greatly outweighed by characteristics accreted from the non-Romani world. The reunification (or more accurately unification) movement urged by such organizations as the International Romani Union or the Roma National Congress seeks - as I do myself - to emphasize the original, shared features of each group, rather than those acquired from outside which separate them. Yet, for some, that original material is now scant, and creating for them any sense of a pan-Romani, global ethnicity would require the kind of effort that is, sadly, very far down on the list of day-to-day priorities and, pragmatically, would be difficult to instigate. It also calls into question the legitimacy of the exclusionary and subjective position taken by some groups who regard themselves as being "more Romani" than others.

Accommodating Our Dual Heritage

The extent to which our "Asianness" should play a part in the discourse is a matter of some debate. We are unique among world populations in having the Indian ingredients in our early makeup come together in the West; we are both an Asian and a Western people, but with no Asian experience or (hardly any) presence. Mirga and Gheorghe have noted that some of us "eagerly affirm [our] European roots and heritage and consider [our] Indian past as irrelevant to the current Romani causes and claims" (1997: 22); while Šaip Jusuf said his feelings of affinity with India were so intense that he refused to recognise that we belong to any European country (Sharma, 1976, p. 29-30). The late Matéo Maximoff (1994) stridently claimed that if you did not speak the Romani language you could not claim Romani identity.

In a very real sense, we are as European as anyone else. "European" is not a nationality or an ethnicity; Europeans are composed of a multitude of these. "European" does not mean being originally from a part of Europe; if that were true, the Saami and Hungarians and Finns and Estonians would not be Europeans. Having a country is not a qualification; if that were true, then the Basques, the Catalans, and the Frisians would not qualify.

While the knowledge of our Indian origins is important, just as it is important for any nation to know its own history, it is not a body of knowledge kept in mind on a daily basis. In fact, most of us do not even know about it and some of us do not believe it when we first hear about it. When skinheads carry placards that say "Gypsies Go Back to India" this is an informed but unrealistic bigotryCEuropean Romanies regard Europe as home, not India. Our own spokespersons, who believe we should refrain from bringing too much attention to our Indian connection argue that if we stress our non-Europeanness, it will merely serve as justification for those who would like us to leave. In any case, in light of the details about our history that are now emerging, we may not even have begun to be an ethnic population until our ancestors reached the West, and the time spent in Europe and beyond accounts for practically the entirety of the Romani experience.

Despite the emphasis on Europe, it is important to remember also that we are a diaspora people found all over the world; we are a global population, with between a quarter and a third of our total number outside of Europe. The exclusive focus of Romani-related organisations on populations located only in Europe fails to acknowledge our existence internationally. With the constant (especially post-communist) migration of members of European Romani families to North and South America and to Australia, and with the tremendous increase in the use of the Internet, contacts linking us around the world will continue to grow.

At our follow-up meeting in Geneva, a document was circulated that I found entirely relevant to our own situation. It was the text of an interview by Eugen Tomiuc (2006) with the Chairman of the British Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony, Dr. Abduljalil Sajid, part of which is worth reproducing here:

Muslims are a multifarious and multifaceted people throughout the world, and Europe is not separated from the world. Muslims are divided, as all human beings are . . . and Europe is also divided. We didn't come here as a monolithic, collective group in Europe. We all are coming from different backgrounds and we all have to cement our differences and work out together what are our issues, common challenges, common problems, and how we can bring a common approach to deal with those challenges. That will be our strength. I think we can form a permanent body of European imams' councils. That would be a great strength. There we can debate our issues and bring common resolution to those issues to the whole world, and especially to the European people that we are going to be our partners in faith, in belief, and in citizenship. And you have nothing to fear from the Muslims of Europe. [Regarding my identity as either] a Muslim in Europe or as a European Muslim, I'm both. I consider myself a European Muslim. My identity is in my geography, my area, but I myself also consider that my first and foremost duty is to the identity of my faith, believing in God. So I am a Muslim in Europe as well as a European Muslim. I do not see a contradiction in either of these two terms, and we should not be asked and forced to choose one against another. We can be both.

Everything that Sajid maintains for Muslims in Europe (a good many of whom are in fact Roma) also holds true for us.  While not linked by a common religion, we share a common origin, but we are divided as the result of many factors, above all physical separation and lack of education.  Both have kept us from taking charge of our place in the global community.  This is now changing.  Our leaders and representatives from all parts of the world are able to meet in person or communicate via the Internet.  More scholarly works on our history and socio-political situation have been published in the past twenty years than ever before.  Courses in Romani studies are being offered at the highest level, and educational grants for young Roma are now a reality.  We have what we need to improve our situation, and to speak for ourselves in the international forum.  But before we can be fully equipped to do that, we must speak to each other.


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