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.