Sunday, April 24, 2005

Book review

I have just finished reading a book which I wish, here and now, to recommend in the most glowing possible terms. That book is “Bury Me Standing”, by Isabel Fonseca. It is a non-fiction book, filed somewhere between anthropological study, historical account, cultural primer and impassioned plea, on behalf of Europe’s most misunderstood, misrepresented, unknown population, the gypsies.

Fonseca, an American Jew, mentions at one point how she came to be interested in the gypsies through the similarity of their European experience to that of the Jews. And in many ways the similarity in the way they have been scapegoated over the centuries is stark, and of course both populations were massacred by the Nazis. But really here’s where the similarity begins and ends. She spends time with various gypsy families throughout Eastern Europe, from Albania to Poland, describing their way of life and the values and beliefs that lie behind them. It’s really really fascinating. I can’t possibly do it justice in a few paragraphs here, but some of the things I didn’t know before reading the book include:

  • The reason that there are more gypsies in Romania than in any other country is because Romania (or rather Walachia) was the only country in the world in which gypsies were systematically enslaved. Gypsies were actually therefore imported into the country from Bulgaria during the middle ages. Hence their numbers here now. (This is a fact that it is still suppressed and hushed up in Romania, and almost nobody here knows this)

  • Gypsies* don’t really have a cultural sense of their own history. Gypsy history* tends to go back only as far as the oldest member of the family or clan group. Unlike the Jews, for example, gypsies* have no real legendary or mythical origin story – which is why nobody really knows who they are or where they originated, though it is fairly widely theorised that they originated in India. (*Obviously all statements here are generalisations and not intended to be some kind of definitive statement, but rather than precede any statement with the proviso “It is generally thought that…” or “Evidence seems to make the following generalisation roughly acceptable...” I’ll leave it to you to take it as read that I’m not actually saying “All gypsies are X” or “Gypsy people do Y”. OK?)

  • They are, however, consummate story tellers, with story telling ability being highly prized, and the story and its telling being much more important than the truth of the tale being told. So, even those older-generation histories are not especially reliable as historical documentation.

  • It’s not clear whether gypsies are nomadic through tradition or choice, or because they’ve constantly been forced to move on. Likewise, they don’t tend to work the land. Again, either by choice/culture or because with such a precarious existence they’ve not had the opportunity.

  • During communist times in E Europe, they were forcibly “assimilated” – by having the traditional family groups split up and moved into villages to live side by side with the local population. The moment the wall fell in 89/90, the long standing resentments and racism towards the gypsy populations forced to live in their midsts exploded into terrible crimes against gypsies – where entire villages spontaneously broke into mini-civil wars and attempted to ethnically cleanse themselves of the hated Roma (gypsies were murdered, their houses destroyed and burned down all while the local policemen and fire departments looked on).

  • Gypsies are (nearly everywhere) seen as thieves. I know people here tend to assume that they are and act accordingly. In Romania in 1994 for example, the author quotes the official crime figures. 11% of all (solved) petty crimes in that year were committed by gypsies. So, maybe it’s a stereotype rooted in some truth? But then you realise 11% of the population of Romania is gypsy, and then it doesn’t seem quite as clear cut.

  • Other aspects of gypsy culture that stand out are a great sense of cleanliness (again bucking commonly held perceptions) and , a deep fear of and fight against death, and a complete lack of interest in integrating into the societies in which they find themselves.

In fact it’s this last thought which ultimately left me with a seemingly unanswerable question. How exactly can the gadje (non-gypsy) population of Europe learn to live with their neighbours, when their values and needs are so different from ours? And indeed when there is really no interest on their part in integrating in any meaningful way. Communist thinking failed because it required that everybody be a contributing member of (the same) society. Capitalism is failing because it is based on greed and selfishness and nobody wants the gypsies as their neighbours. (Though the book suggests that gypsies are exceedingly successful capitalists, being experts at making bargains and deals – another source of resentment among gadje). And because of the lack of a historical mind set and a similar lack of willingness to advocate for themselves in the traditional media of our societies, there is no chance of Gypsies gaining a “homeland” as Jews have.

Vaclav Havel once said that “the Gypsies are a litmus test not of democracy but of a civil society”. I can’t help but agreeing with him. Get yourself down your nearest library and get hold of this book. It’s gripping, tragic, fascinating and depressing all in equal measure. And she’s a damn good writer.


GG said...

I recommend you to visit the official site of the last census (2002) in Romania

I took this document from that site:

You can see that the census indicates that gypsyes are 2.5% of the romanian population and 244475 (45%) of them are settled in Transylvania.

GG said...

I do not believe gypsyes have a stronger sense of cleanliness than other ethnic groups. At least judging by my everyday encounters with them, I would say otherwise.

Andy H said...


Thanks for your comments. On the cleanliness question - I didn't actually say that gypsies have a greater sense of cleanliness than other ethnic groups, merely that they have a strong sense of it. If you read the book, which I recommend you do, you will see that the women spend most of their day cleaning. This all happens inside the house/compound, so is mostly invisible to the outsider, and in many cases it contrasts considerably with the outside of their dwellings which are often left uncleaned (hence our perceptions).

As with the census that you kindly link to, I think my question is why the figures for the gypsy population is so low. I don;t believe for a moment that there are only 535000 gypsies in Romania, and I don't believe you do either. Is it not at all possible that gypsies may have ignored the census process altogether? Nearly every statistic I have ever read suggests that there are at least 2million gypsies in Romania - do you have the figures from the previous census (I can't get anything to open from that site)? How come the census result is so at odds with generally understood facts on the ground? Did the missing 1.5million gypsies all leave the country in the 7 years since 1994? Where did they go? I'm genuinely baffled.


gg said...

Hello again

Try this: on click on "Rezultate generale", then, after the page loads, right click on "Populatia dupa etnie" and choose "Save target as..." (or "save link as", depending on browser). This should work.

I doubt that gypsies ignored the census process, as during this process, (virtually) every home in the country was visited by surveyors who took down people's answers regarding ethnicity, religion, etc.

It is likely that some gypsies declared themselves as Romanian or maybe Hungarian, but I don't think the real figure can be as high as 11% (from 2.5%)

gg said...

...nearly as high as 11%

adi said...

your post might be very old but i see you are also horribly misinformed, so i need to correct you.

1. the total number number oif gypsies in romania is not 2 mil. that is just right wing hungarian propaganda (the kind of guys calling us roma-nians, etc). also the number of gypsies is a bit higher then the census shows. mostly because part of the them don't have a permanent home and they couldn't be counted in the census and some declared themselves romanians or hungarians depending on the thnic mix of the region the lived in. the actual number of gypsies in romania is somwher between 1 and 1.2 mil.

2. gypsies were not slaves. they were a mix between slaves and servants. the only similarity with slavery was that a nobleman was allowed to own gypsies. anyone who hit, starved, or generally abused a gypsy would have all his land and wealth confiscated by the ruler. you were only allowed to hit gypsies when you caught them in the act of stealing from you. and this is the major difference between gypsies and salves.

Andy H said...

Well to be fair, it's not me who is misinformed by Isabel Fonseca, since all these facts came from her book.

And I have a problem with the idea that it's a Hungarian propaganda in effect here, since Hungarians are equally racist towards gypsies in my experience. (look at the rise of those scum Jobbik)

I'd make a guess that your estimate of 1 -1.2 million Rroma in Romania is accurate.