Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
The Right to be Different

By Jahn Otto Johansen

Allow me to start my commentary with a personal note. I am very grateful to meet Professor Hancock here in Bergen. I never met you in person before, but when I lived in Washington you inspired and encouraged me while I was working on the first book to be published in Northern Europe on the Holocaust of the Gypsies.

Your books and your work for the International Romani Union have been very important for the cause of the Romani people, although as we both know, the Roma are very split when it comes to discussing strategy or apportioning blame. It’s not always easy, neither for Romani intellectuals nor for non-Romani, gadje, to enter this very complex field. I understand the reactions to so-called “Gypsy experts” who themselves are not Roma. They might in many cases be a part of the problem, not a part of the solution. The Roma question must in my view be discussed in Romani terms. That is the only way to avoid both hateful and romantic stereotypes.

You, Professor Ian Hancock, although also being criticised by some Romani activists (like the director of the Regional Roma Participation Program in Budapest, Rudko Kawezynski), you balance passionate empathy with academic professionalism. In my view the Rafto Foundation has made a very good choice. It is, indeed, impossible to find somebody that would not be criticised by somebody somewhere.

But I would like to add: the heated discussions among the Roma themselves should NOT be seen as a weakness and absolutely NOT be used as an excuse by non-Romanis not to be engaged in this very, very important problem.

There are difficult questions to be asked, and they far outnumber the answers. But the debate within the Romani society, or rather societies, must go on and will go on. Should Roma engage in a Gandhi-like civil rights fight of non-participation in broader societies, or should they fight with non-Romani human rights people? Should they confront non-Romani power structures, should they challenge the whole gadje society? Or should they rather concentrate on organising themselves to build exclusive institutions to fight for their cause?

It is not for me or other gadje to answer these questions. But I repeat: The debate, that often might turn ugly and very personal, should not be taken as an excuse to ignore the plight of the most scorned and victimised minority in Europe today.

More than half a century after the Holocaust that made Jews, Roma and homosexuals, the exclusive victims, very strong anti-Roma sentiments persists in several European countries. In the former socialist countries, that now present themselves as market economies and democratic societies that would like to join the EU and NATO, there is a common problem of discrimination, poverty, racism, pogroms and abuse. This is a European disgrace.

There is no division of opinion among the Romani intellectuals and activists about the SCALE of the problems and the NEED to bring them to public attention. Rajko Djuric, the president of the International Romani Union, and Ian Hancock, who is a representative to the UN and to UNICEF for the Union, both play a very important role. Anti-Roma racism, intimidation and killing have so far failed to gain the kind of attention and international condemnation as racism in the US or Apartheid in South Africa, or Anti-Semitism. It is a paradox that the scrawls that are common place in many Central- and East-European countries - “Death to the Gypsies” and “Gypsies to the gas” should concern us less than “Death to the Jews” and “Jews to the gas,” evil slogans that are also re-emerging in this part of the world.

In approaching this problem, the first point I would like to make is this: Roma are non-territorial minorities. They do not have home states, although there is common knowledge today that they left their homeland in Northwestern India in the 10th and 11th centuries and came to Europe some six centuries ago. But they do not claim their old homeland, like the Zionists did. Therefore, in my view the parallels that have been drawn between Roma and pre-war European Jewry is only partly useful. Both people were subjected to civil exclusion and historically to legislation that limited their physical mobility and occupational opportunities. The kinds of political demand cosmopolitan definition of citizenship, a non-politically, non-territorially based definition of citizenship was parallel. But the Jews took back their homeland. The Roma never thought about that and they never laid claims to any territory in Europe or elsewhere.

Until recently the Roma did not have strong international organisations to defend their rights, like the Jews. Roma have still a very long way to go before their organisations function as the same efficient pressure groups as the Jewish ones.

Some analysts argue that the parallel between the Roma and the native populations in the US and Australia might be a better one. Native Americans show a lot of similar social characteristics as Roma in Eastern Europe. Both react in many places to their difficult situation by becoming alcohol and drug dependants. They have a catastrophically high unemployment. In Central- and Eastern Europe I have been to places where the unemployment among the Roma was 100 percent. They were the first victims of the new capitalism, when there was no more demand for them. The Roma like the native Indians face destroyed social structures within the community. But this parallel is only partly useful, since the Indians have and do claim their territories and the Roma not.

The Roma are a global people, living on more than one continent. But in this context I would regard them as a Trans-European people. The Europe of the Roma is a Europe without national and political borders. The Europe of the Roma is a Europe without borders; a Europe based on a non-ethnical definition of citizenship. I stress this point especially at a time when Brussels bureaucrats and European politicians claim to be the real Europeans. To me Roma are the real Europeans, although they are a truly trans-national people in a global sense. The other point I want to make is the pluralism and the diversity of the Roma. They have a common homeland of origin and a common early history. If you see the language as the vehicle of culture, the Roma speak a language and maintain a culture whose origin is directly traceable to India.

But at the time as I acknowledge this essential position, I must add that it is difficult to speak of a single Roma population or a single Roma (or Gypsy) culture. Professor Hancock has explained in his writings, that it must be kept mind that although the Roma entered Europe six centuries ago as a single people, it is not possible to speak of Gypsies as a unified ethnic group, nor is there today one single Gypsy culture.

The people that the gadje consider “Gypsy” are, in fact, composed of numerous distinct groups. They are divided by tribal loyalty, linked to traditional professions, the languages they speak or whether they have been recently nomadic or sedentary. Members of these different groups may recognise each other as Roma, but more often than not they view other groups of Gypsies with distrust and dislike.

In Romania alone there are at least 40 different groups of Roma, and there is linguistic diversity among them. Not more than 60 percent speak a dialect of Romani or Romanese, and quite often they can not understand each other. Many have lost their Romani language and speak only either Romanian or Hungarian. In the former Czechoslovakia, now Slovakia and the Czech Republic, there are three main groups of Roma: Slovak and Hungarian Romas who have been settled in Slovakia since the 16th or 18th century. Many of them emigrated to Bohemia after World War II in order to find jobs. Most of them are today unemployed. They cannot go back to Slovakia, and many of those who were born in Bohemia, do not regard Slovakia as their home. But they can neither obtain Czech citizenship.

Then you have the Olach and Vlax-Romas who are traditionally nomadic and speak a different dialect. Of the Czech and Moravian Romas – the third group – few survived World War II. Most of them were exterminated by the German Nazis, in some cases assisted by Czech citizens.

In Bulgaria you will find Roma groups who are Muslims and others who are Orthodox Christians.

In Germany there is a deep split between German Sintis, the survivors of Holocaust, and Gypsies from Central- and Eastern Europe. Rajko Djuric said in a conversation with the social-anthropologist Rain Jaroschek (recorded by Frankfurter Rundschau) that the critical and rather unfriendly attitudes of the German Sintis towards foreign Roma make the situation for the latter very, very difficult. The Sinti repesentatives cooperate with the German emmigree and police authorities, which are not known to be friendly to Gypsies, to expel them to Central and Eastern Europe.

The problem in Germany right now is what to do with the Romani refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina. They have no homeland to go back to because they are being persecuted by Bosnian Serbs, by Croats and by Muslims. Even the victims of Serbian and Croat ethnic cleansing, dislike and persecute Gypsies. And in Serbia proper the growing nationalism with a fascist face makes the situation extremely difficult for Roma, who used to have a culturally accepted position. Now they experience that the Serbs just hate them, as the Croats and Muslims do. But in spite of this impossible situation the German Bundestates insist on sending them back the former Yugoslavia, and the German Sintis agree. The cultural diversities and even the conflicts within the Roma population of Europe are enormous. Indeed, we cannot talk about one single Roma population or a unified Roma culture. In the ongoing debate over what it means to be a Roma, one person’s definition of Romani history, image and identity is another’s distortion, as Professor Hancock wrote in a recent issue of Transitions.

This diversity and split is a problem for the Romani communities in their fight against discrimination, but it is also strength. In their cultural diversity the European Roma reject the cultural complexity of Europe. It has been argued that the Gypsies are both “the heart of Europe” and radically “other” to it. This paradox expresses the debate about the “real” identity of the Romani people in terms of their status as “true Europeans.” “True Europeans” was the expression used in a 1996 declaration by European parliamentarians.

But again, I will stress another important observation by Professor Hancock: Roma identity has for a very long time been in the hands of non-Gypsy specialists, especially politicians and academics, whose ideas about who and what the Roma people are, have influenced the Gypsy Image. They select those aspects of their subjects that they find appealing, while ignoring others.

Therefore it is so important for us to listen to Romani activists and academics like Ian Hancock, who do not practise that kind of selectivness, based on what might be most attractive or exotic, but tries to present us the whole and diversified picture.

With these words from a gadje, a non-Roma, who does NOT regard himself a “Gypsy expert”, I thank you for your attention.


Speech given by Jahn Otto Johansen at the seminar “The Right to be Different”, held in connection with the awarding of the Professor Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize for Human Rights 1997 to the Romani People, represented by Professor Ian Hancock, Saturday, 1 November 1997, at the SAS Radisson Hotel Norge in Bergen, Norway.

Posted 22 October 1999.



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