Europe and the Roma: A History of Fascination and Fear by Klaus-Michael Bogdal; Travellers through Time: A Gypsy History by Jeremy Harte - review by Damian Le Bas

Damian Le Bas

Home Is Where the Hatred Is

Europe and the Roma: A History of Fascination and Fear

By

Allen Lane 608pp £40

Travellers through Time: A Gypsy History

By

Reaktion 320pp £20
 

‘European societies are still capable of decivilizing themselves today,’ Klaus-Michael Bogdal reminds us towards the end of Europe and the Roma, his magisterial contribution to the understanding of the cultural position of Romani people in Europe. This is not a history of the Roma, but rather a history of how the Roma have been seen, described and treated. As such, it is a ruthless analysis of the cultural mindset of Europe, its nations, rulers, popular movements and artists, through a study of how it has treated one of its largest ethnic minorities. Romani agency is not foregrounded, but that is not Bogdal’s purpose. What he demonstrates is an appreciation of over half a millennium’s worth of chronicles, books, art, music and films with Gypsy subject matter that is nothing short of astounding.

‘Roma’ and ‘Romani’ are words from the Romani language that have Indian etymologies – despite popular perceptions, they have no connection to Romania. People are commonly confused by the ordinariness of being Roma or part-Roma, and of seeming like ‘any old European’. It’s a confusion I and millions of others of Roma descent have dealt with all our lives. The reason for the confusion, as Europe and the Roma explains, is that six hundred years of cultural production have caused people to expect the opposite. The first four centuries following the earliest chronicled arrival of ‘Gypsies’ in Europe in about 1400 are covered by the opening third of the book. The remainder deals with the period since 1800. This lopsidedness of focus tells us something about the relative amounts of attention paid to Romani people by artists, writers and composers over time. Notwithstanding the subtler portrayals of Gypsies found, for instance, in the work of Emily Brontë and D H Lawrence, the tendency has been to use Gypsy characters as a kind of shorthand for savagery and nonconformity. When we read Prosper Mérimée’s appendix to his tale of Carmen, on which Bizet’s opera was based, we get a taste of this. ‘While they are still very young, their ugliness may not be unattractive,’ Mérimée wrote of Spanish Romani girls, ‘but once they have borne children they become positively repulsive.’ Many of the artists discussed here loathed Romani people and it is often their work that has shaped popular conceptions of who we are. The irony in the phrase ‘positively repulsive’ is that it accidentally encapsulates the old, contradictory view of the Roma as, on the one hand, free and natural humans whose lifestyles, arts and bodies are often lusted after and, on the other, irredeemable amoral primitives who deserve to be exterminated for the good of civilised Europe. There have, it is true, been exceptions to the prevailing crudity of depiction. By making Esmerelda in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame ‘the stereotype of the beautiful, erotic, barefoot Gypsy girl’ and revealing first that she is not Romani and second that Quasimodo the heroic bellringer – hardly a Gypsy stereotype – was born to Roma parents, Victor Hugo was arguably making a case for the primacy of nurture, not heredity, in the transmission of Romani (and all) culture.

Bogdal also considers anti-Gypsy feeling in the context of other prejudices. In his discussion of the cultural framing of the Gitanos – the Romani of Spain – Bogdal reminds us how Spain itself was seen by the rest of Europe in the 19th century, with Alexandre Dumas claiming that ‘Africa begins in the Pyrenees’ and Alfred de Vigny referring to the Spanish as ‘Catholic Turks’. Europe’s modern history contains a bewildering litany of ethnic speculations and insults, with anti-Semitism and anti-Gypsyism having yielded the most consistently violent results. In the latter part of Europe and the Roma, Bogdal trains his sights on authors who have written – often badly – about the Romani Holocaust, highlighting how their attempts at sympathetic fiction were often vehicles for the same stereotypes to which the Nazis themselves subscribed. Nor did the Nazi persecution of Romani people, and the contemporaneous genocides carried out by client regimes such as the Ustaše in Croatia, come out of nowhere. Centuries of enslavement of Romani people in Romania, of Gypsy hunts in Germany and of hanging, deportation, torture and beheading elsewhere in Europe had seeded the idea that Gypsies could and should be punished with impunity simply for being Gypsies. Such episodes have also helped sow internecine discord among Gypsies. For instance, the Sinti Romani people of Germany and surrounding lands are reluctant to identify closely with the Roma, whose name is associated with eastern Europe and the Balkans, and therefore higher levels of poverty. At times, consensus can be stranger than strife. The Mercedes-Benz has been widely and deeply embraced as a mark of Gypsy success – having a Mercedes is a status symbol in many Romani communities and the three-pointed star has been adopted as a decorative element – despite the fact that Romani people were forced to work as slaves in Mercedes factories during the Nazi era.

Bogdal departs from the tradition of simply equating hatred of Jews with hatred of Gypsies and explains the different roots of these two ancient prejudices. Romani people were reviled as illiterate rural (often specifically forest-dwelling) people, who eschewed civilised notions of property, wealth and achievement and refused to get to grips with the modern world. This represented almost the exact opposite of popular views of Jewish people as urban, moneyed, cultured and successful to the point of controlling the establishment. The difference is connected to the places these two peoples have held in notions of world history. Jewish people were an inseparable part of the Christian story. Romani people had no such fixed position in the tale of the ‘peoples of the world’, and the poor understanding of their history left a space into which all kinds of notions flowed. An early theory was that they were spies from the East, a lingering fear of which had been created by the devastating Mongol and Ottoman invasions of Europe in the 13th and 15th centuries.

Bogdal implies that people in general, and anthropologists and historians in particular, should ask themselves a question. If you’re not obsessed with the racial origins of Italians, Serbs or Germans of Turkish heritage, for example, then why are you so interested in the racial origins of the Roma, and specifically in Romani ethnic purity? The persistent expectation that Romani people should exhibit uniform standards in language, skin colour, dress and habits, something inherited from the age of scientific racism, is hampering our attempts to put forward subtler ideas of nationhood. These pressures, however, do not come exclusively from the outside. As Bogdal observes in a long but important sentence, ‘A people like the Roma who can only preserve ethnic identity within the lowest classes, even in modern differentiated societies, and who consider their way of life an ethnic characteristic they fear losing if they advance socially, because there are no suitable role models within their own community and no broad acceptance of a Romani doctor or CEO, find themselves in a nearly inescapable situation.’

*

Jeremy Harte’s Travellers through Time focuses on Romanies in England. Like Europe and the Roma, it contains many references to variations in skin colour, which would be unnerving were it not for the fact that it is a matter frequently discussed by British Romanies ourselves, who tend to find the ‘G-word’ less dismaying than our continental cousins do. Harte has spent many years in close conversation with Romani families, in the position of both participant observer and, more importantly, old friend. As such, he is an excellent guide to the history of Britain’s Gypsies. His knowledge of the Anglo-Romani language and its connection to both continental and older British forms of Romani is sound. His research has encompassed the jumbled trove of parish records, acts of Parliament, literary references and close anthropological studies which, besides conversation with Gypsies, were the only sources from which to construct a general history of Romani Britain until very recently.

Like Bogdal, Harte notes that the work of the 19th-century writer and linguist George Borrow provided a turning point in the understanding of Romani people. Borrow was not averse to embellishment: he translated the name of a Gypsy family called Smith into a Romani form, Petulengro, for instance. But unlike earlier figures who wrote about nomads, Borrow went out of his way to spend time in their company and base his observations on actual observation. Harte has spent enough time around Gypsies to presume correctly that the key loci in our history are the same places where we congregate today: at horse fairs, the races, christenings, weddings and funerals, around camps and stopping places, in pubs that are happy to serve us and – too often, alas – in jail. There is something touching about the way he flits from depicting the life of a family around the fire at their stopping place to a subtle analysis of government acts that have crippled the nomad’s ability to navigate ancestral roads. Harte is not mystified by the role incarceration has played in Romani history because, as his book demonstrates, the history of an outlawed culture is bound to be a history of outlaws.

The closeness of Harte’s acquaintance with the Gypsy community is made clear by one important characteristic of this book: the reference to hundreds of individual Romani people by name (its index is partly a roll call of well-known English Gypsy surnames). The travels, exploits and sufferings of specific individuals and families are described in detail, Harte drawing on both documentary and orally transmitted evidence. This places Travellers through Time in a small category of works that avoid referring to ‘Gypsies’ only en masse and in general terms. Whether or not we view it as a deficiency, this cannot be said of Bogdal’s book.

It is difficult not to cringe, however, when Harte writes of ‘the best Gypsy families today’. The desire of intellectuals to rank Romani families in terms of their ‘quality’ is an inheritance of 19th-century ‘Gypsylorism’ and by this point must surely be seen for what it is: a patronising habit best abandoned.

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