by Justin E. H. Smith
[I have a long essay on the Roma communities of Paris appearing later this year in print. The essay's focus changed radically in the middle of my research for it, in part due to editorial decisions, in part as a result of changes in the world that seemed to demand attention to different issues than those initially conceived. One result of these changes is that I was left with significant amounts of material that have no place in the final version, which I thus thought best to share here at 3 Quarks Daily. This seems particularly urgent at the present moment, as there is inevitably a close connection between the plight of the Syrian refugees seeking to escape from war in Europe, and the plight of the Roma, who, I have come to believe, have very similar experiences of discrimination and social exclusion in Europe, and particularly Eastern Europe. The principal difference is that the Roma are internally displaced, and have been for centuries. –JS]
‘Gypsy’ is a classic misnomer, a deformation of ‘Egyptian’, arising from a long-discredited theory that the people it denotes had wandered from that country into the Levant, Anatolia, the Balkans, and finally Europe proper. It gives us the French gitane, glamorized in a brand of cigarette, and the Italian gitano. There is the alternative generic term tsigane, which yields Zigeuner in German, ţigani in Romanian, and so on, and which likely arises from a Byzantine Greek word for fortune tellers (or, perhaps, for untouchables). These are exonyms, and they are considered derogatory, though as with any insult much depends on who is uttering them, in what tone and for what purpose. When in 2007 the Romanian president Traian Băsescu called a reporter a ţigancă împuţită (a stinking Gypsy), to unexpected outrage, he was plainly only using the adjective to make explicit what he already felt to be packed into the noun.
In recent years, ‘Roma’ (along with ‘Rom’ and ‘Rrom’ and the adjectival ‘Romani’) has gained currency, in part as a way of freeing the people it describes from the history of connotations, mostly negative, that have congealed around ‘Gypsy’, and in part to provide a cohesion at the global scale that is lacking in the various regional designations. ‘Roma’ is the term we are now obliged to use, and the term I shall use here, even though it is far from universally satisfactory. For one thing, it is a masculine plural noun: it means ‘the Romani men’, or, perhaps, ‘the Romani husbands’. Moreover, its resemblance to various other geographical terms from the region –notably the name of the capital of Italy, and of the country of Romania (which, like an ancient road, does lead back to Rome, the city of Romulus)– is only a coincidence. Yet, like the English ‘niggardly’, ‘Roma’ invites misunderstanding. Grassroots organizations of Romanians have even petitioned the European Parliament to ban it, in the hope of distancing themselves from their fellow citizens who, they believe, are tarnishing their reputation throughout Europe. And indeed many Western Europeans do have trouble grasping the difference in question, and lack the patience to stop and dwell on etymologies.
I have just alluded, obliquely, to what is perhaps the most charged and poisonous word in American racial conflict. I did not do so casually. The comparison to the plight of members of the African diaspora is unavoidable. I once attended the concert of a Romanian Roma violinist in Montreal, at the legendary Café Sarajevo, who interrupted his own performance to invite a Haitian poet onstage to recite some of his work. “We’re both Gypsies!” the violinist declared to great applause when the poem was over. “You were brought by ship and I came by plane, but we’re still brothers.” This assimilation also has purchase among non-Roma throughout South-Eastern Europe, or at least those who have felt the cultural impact of hip-hop music from the US. In 2008 I found myself at a baptism party in Rahova, a poor neighborhood of Bucharest that is home to Roma and non-Roma alike. A charismatic young mechanic opened a bottle of Ciuc beer with his teeth and cued up Snoop Dogg’s ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ on his makeshift PC. “Snoop Dogg is a fucking Gypsy!” he declared. Implicit in this judgment was the understanding that to be so is both good and bad at once.
Beyond the Balkans, and in polite circles, ‘Gypsy’, like ‘Black’, continues to function as an insider’s expression of mutual recognition, while ‘Roma’, like ‘African-American’, is the term we others are invited to use. But whatever the terms, the comparison invoked at the Montreal concert and in the Bucharest slum is not a stretch, and is rooted in parallel historical experience. The enslavement of Roma in certain parts of the Balkans continued as a lawful institution into the 1860s, even as the Civil War raged in the US. Unlike the American experience, though, the decline of Roma slavery was not followed by a Reconstruction or a Civil Rights movement. There are today many Roma fighting for the rights of their people, but there are as yet no streets in Bucharest named for the Roma counterpart to Martin Luther King.
Nor are most Europeans aware that there is a wrong here to be righted. This is in large part because, again, for many the Romani people are not a people at all, but only free adopters of a certain lifestyle. Consider Cyprien Iov, a young Frenchman of Romanian origin and the host of what has recently been the most popular YouTube channel in France. In a recent video he complains about the way some French people treat him when they learn his family is from Romania, bemoaning in particular the widespread confusion between ‘Romanian’ and ‘Roma’. “The Romanians are the ones who come from Romania,” he explains, “the Roma are the ones who come to piss you off.” The implication here is that the Roma, even the ones born by accident in Romania, come from nowhere. This prejudice perfectly fits the pattern of European thinking about Eurasian migrations for at least the past millennium. Tartaros has no geography of its own, and is of interest only to the extent that it makes its black-hole-like proximity felt within Europe. As we read in the Novgorodian Chronicles of 1224, not of the Roma but of the Mongols: “In the same year, for our sins, there came unknown tribes… Only God knows who these people are or from whence they came… Here we record them in memory of the misfortunes of the Russian princes that came about at their hands.” This, more or less, remains today the preferred mode of psychical processing of those peoples who appear from the East.
In the romantic imagination of Europe the ‘Gypsy’ is sometimes associated with free-spiritedness and with sexual liberty, though in fact it would be difficult to think of a more sexually conservative culture than many of the more traditional communities of Roma, which place a high premium on female virginity and in which arranged marriage is the norm. The perception of licentiousness seems to arise from an assumption that without fixed addresses, without land, a people can have no properly moral life at all. And thus we see the slide from ‘Bohemian’ as a simple misnomer, like ‘Egyptian’, based on a supposed Czech origin of the Roma people, to the ‘Bohemian’ who first appears in the 1830s as the struggling, tragic artist, contemptuous of bourgeois values and wholly dedicated to the expression of his individual vision. In Romania I once saw a little girl innocently wearing a t-shirt that depicted a free-spirited hippie, with a headband and Lennon glasses, flashing a peace sign. This motif had triggered a reprimand from an old woman who objected to the celebration of what she perceived as markers of encroaching Gypsyhood.
It is in fact widely believed that one can become a Gypsy. Irish Travellers, a generally nomadic group whose origins lie entirely within Europe, and who since the early 2000s have a recognized minority status in the UK, are often called ‘Gypsies’ simply in view of the perceived similarity of their form of life to that of the Roma; the same is true of the nomadic Yeniche people in Germany and Switzerland. Some Roma report that, after explaining to outsiders that they are what some people call ‘Gypsies’, they are met with the enthusiastic response: “I love to travel too!”
What explains this exceptional ignorance? In part, it arises from the extreme closedness of traditional Roma society. Here one may appropriately make a comparison to Orthodox Judaism (indeed, some 17th-century sources considered the possibility that the Balkan Roma simply were Jews), in which strict boundary laws are enforced, and non-members are seen as in important respects inassimilable, even unclean. The prominent Anglo-Romani scholar Ian Hancock, a professor at the University of Texas, tells me of Roma communities in the Austin area, so closed as to go unperceived by most Americans, in which families will keep one glass for the rare Gadjo visitor to drink from, another set of glasses for themselves. “The barrier is held in place on both sides,” Hancock explains. “On the Roma side, it is held in place by the culture.” On the Gadjo side it is held in place by legislation: which is to say culture, backed up by the force of the state.
In their 19th-century incarnation as ‘Bohemians’, and as the supposed inspiration for the elective vie de Bohème adopted by Europeans of many nationalities, the variety of otherness manifested by the Roma in that era’s romantic literature is generally positive. Thus J.-K. Huysmans writes in 1874 of some Roma he has encountered begging, that “the women and children require straw, bread, and beer, not as mendicants asking for alms, but as princes who demand tribute.” Naturally, this sort of idealized image easily crosses over into its opposite, a delicate balance well captured by Alexandre Dumas in 1834, who, after encountering a group of Roma while traveling well armed and in company, remarks: “I admit that, alone and without arms, I would have found the encounter less picturesque and more dangerous.”
Picturesque or dangerous, the Roma remain unassimilated in ways that suggest the perception of a racial difference. While many Roma are indeed dark-skinned, many are not, and in any case the judgment of racial difference is never a straightforward description of another person’s phenotype, but always, precisely, a judgment. Hancock for his part strongly objects to the description of the Irish Travellers and other non-Roma groups as ‘Gypsies’, since, as he puts it to me: “Those are white folks.” Hancock, who himself would easily be deemed white by American standards, and who with his now somewhat faded accent could still be taken for a ‘typical’ Englishman, has declared himself, along with all the Roma of the world, a person of color.
The connection of the Romani language to what used to be called ‘Hindustani’, was proposed by Johann Rüdiger in 1782, and was common knowledge in Europe throughout the 19th century. But today not everyone agrees with Hancock’s understanding of Roma identity, with the self-definition as non-white or with the emphasis on Indian origins. For Henriette Asséo, a professor of history and the director of the Migrom project at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, Hancock is a ‘pure product’ of a politicized conception of academic research that conflates activism and scholarship. According to her, “this Indian past [of the Roma] does not exist.” What the French think of as ‘Gypsies’ is, she explains, mostly a product of administrative practices that were imposed on nomadic peoples of various ethnicities, including some from the Balkans, and others from within France. Between 1912 and 1936, she explains, there was an attempt to regulate itinerant work by issuing a special ‘carnet nomade’ or ‘nomad’s booklet’ to individuals who made their living in this way. But this document evolved into a sort of ‘collective passport’ for the entire family of the itinerant worker, which effectively made it impossible for children born into this social category to ever leave it. While some of the people in this category have genetic lineages that can be traced to India, this is for her irrelevant to culture. The ethnogenesis was, rather, a consequence of administrative practices. For Asséo, in contrast with Hancock, the particular genetic lineage of the people who are classified in this way, whether ethnically French or from the Balkans or points further east, whether ‘European’ or ‘Asian’, is of little importance. What matters is their present treatment at the hands of the state, and the shared experience this treatment brings.
Asséo also stresses that much of what seems so out of place and so debased about mendicancy arises from very recent changes in social attitudes toward work and individual responsibility. For millennia, begging was a recognized form of life, practiced not just by perceived social parasites, but also by monks and pilgrims. The distress Parisians feel today when they see a begging Roma woman is a result of transformations in ‘the visual regime’, Asséo explains, of the appearance in the landscape of modern capitalism of a figure belonging to a ‘traditional exchange society’.
On a November morning on the 5 line of the Paris metro just north of Bastille I witness a spontaneous tensing up when the barefoot woman with her baby enters and begins her plaintive cry. The cry is a sort of song, in a sort of French, yet it sounds centuries old, and seems to emerge from a world in which the spiritual concept of mercy had far greater purchase. It is also, one quickly realizes, a performance, like the work of a professional funeral crier. This is not to say the woman is not miserable, or that her infant is not poorly nourished, but only that misery too can generate its own routines. When the children are a bit older, when they are four or five and can run about, they often trail behind their mothers, playing like all children do, sometimes wishing the commuters, with joy and smiles, a sincere bon voyage. Children much older than this instill more anxiety than pity or sympathy, as indeed there are few examples of urban lore more captivating than the warnings about the Gypsy children who will swarm around you like wasps, who will poke at your knees with needles, who will do whatever it takes to get you to hand over your money.
Tartaros has no geography of its own, and so what might otherwise express itself as curiosity in Western Europe is often wedged out by the simple desire that migrants be sent “back where they came from,” even if the details of the place remain vague. Occasionally, of course, human-interest stories cause momentary flickers of interest. The geography of the Balkans, and patterns of migration out of them, came into somewhat clearer focus in France in October, 2013, when the 15-year-old Leonarda Dibrani was seized by government officials during a class field trip in the Franche-Comté town of Sochaux, and swiftly expelled along with her family back to Kosovo. The controversy that ensued was both riveting and unexpected. It brought the tough law-and-order tactics of the French interior minster, Manuel Valls, himself of Spanish origin, to the center of public debate, and threatened to compromise his prospects as a successor, within the ruling Socialist Party, to President François Hollande. Valls maintained throughout the controversy that France is a nation of laws, that there are proper procedures for naturalization that the Dibrani family had failed to follow, and that when the family was targeted for expulsion this was not in view of their Roma ethnicity or Kosovar nationality.
The plight of the Dibranis was complicated by the fact that their roots in Kosovo were rather more tenuous than initially thought; in fact the father of the family, Reshat, had presented his family as refugees from Kosovo in their French immigration papers even though they had in fact lived in Italy for many years. The children were not Italian either, and had little prospects of gaining citizenship there– hence the strategic move to France as ‘refugees’. But in terms of memory and experience, Italy was home, and indeed when the family had left Kosovo that place was not a country at all.
One does not expect to see the problem of statelessness within the boundaries of Europe, but in fact it is fairly common, and indigenous ethnic minorities like the Roma are the ones most susceptible to it. After the break-up of Czechoslovakia there was a widespread sentiment among Czechs that the true home of the Roma was in the other half, Slovakia, as indeed that was the region with historically higher percentages of Roma inhabitants. In 1993 new citizenship requirements were concocted to ensure that the Roma inhabitants of the new Czech Republic would have trouble meeting them. But Slovakia did not recognize them as its own, either, even though in many cases the parents of the Czech Roma had moved from Slovakia, and did so at a time when this was internal migration within Czechoslovakia rather than international emigration. Here, simply in trying to stay put –something that, as the prejudice would have it, Roma do not wish to do– Czech Roma found their state pulled out from under them.
From a legal point of view, at least, a Roma villager from Bulgaria has, since 2007, exactly the same right to be in Paris as does a banker from Luxembourg. The accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU was hastened by a concern to secure these countries’ place within the North Atlantic order, and when they acceded, Russia predictably grumbled. The EU is a political and economic union, unlike NATO’s military purpose, but the expansion of either one of them into the former Eastern Bloc sets back the prospect of Russian regional hegemony that much farther. When Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008 and sought to secure the independence of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it did so in a tit-for-tat response to NATO’s action in Kosovo. When Soviet monuments in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia are vandalized, Moscow threatens, vaguely, to do something about it. There are in fact numerous spots where NATO and EU countries bump up directly against the realm that Putin thinks of as the ‘near abroad’, or the part of the world in which Russia believes the North Atlantic empire, often called ‘the West’, has no business.
It is still summery when in late October I arrive in Pristhina, the capital of the newborn Republic of Kosovo, but I am told to expect snow within a few days. I am just in time to attend the Rolling Film Festival, a semi-annual event dedicated to films by and about Roma people now in its fifth year. The festival’s director is Sami Mustafa, a Lyon-based Roma filmmaker who grew up in the Plemetina mahala, or slum, near Prishtina (the precise semantic distinction between ‘mahala’ and ‘platz’ is unclear, though the former seems to denote a settlement that has gained some degree of acceptance, however grudging, from the Gadjé). He is also the founder of an NGO called Romawood, which seeks to promote films by and about Roma around the world. He began his work documenting the life of the people of Plemetina, and ended up shooting so much footage that it took him a decade to finish his first film. He has now made a number of shorts and features, both documentaries and dramas, about the lives of Roma, and says that he worries he is becoming “too patriotic” in his oeuvre. “That will change soon,” he tells me. As an artist Mustafa is interested in universal themes. While his current project focuses on German deportation of Kosovars, he observes that “these things are happening everywhere,” and cites the French deportation of Africans as an example. His is a patriotism tempered by recognition of the shared plight of much of humanity.
There is perhaps nothing more universal than the festival’s opening-night feature: Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 silent film, The Kid. Chaplin’s own Anglo-Romani heritage has been the subject of much discussion recently, and the festival’s organizers are proud to have him as one of their own. There are several dozen Roma from villages around Kosovo, who have been featured in the films of the festival and who have been invited to attend the big event at the opulent National Theatre. They are delighted by Chaplin’s pratfalls, and they gasp when he contemplates throwing the titular kid, a baby he has found in an alleyway, down a drainage ditch. They sigh and fawn when Chaplin has a change of heart, takes the kid home, and cuts him some cloth diapers from his own bedsheets. It is as if it were 1921 again, and we were all experiencing the wonder of cinema for the first time. Afterwards there is a reception. There are children rushing around, teenagers smoking, people telling stories and laughing. They have much the same dress and body language as the people who cause the Parisians in the metro to tense up. But there is no tension here. They are Roma people on a special night out, happy to see themselves represented in art and acknowledged in ceremony, happy to watch a good movie.
Prishtina is an epitome of so many of the continent’s hopes and worries: a perfect microcosm, at the level of families and their private struggles for a better life, of the blind macrocosmic march of geopolitics. Kosovo had been an Albanian-majority province within socialist Yugoslavia. Its Serbian minority long complained of unfair treatment, but also felt, and still feels, strongly attached to the territory in view of the presence there of a handful of churches and holy sites of central importance to Serbian Orthodoxy. The rise to power of Slobodan Milošević came at the moment of Yugoslavia’s impending decline, when in 1989 he traveled from Belgrade to the town of Kosovo Pole, site of an unforgotten 1389 battle between Christian Balkan troops and the invading Muslim Turks, to tell the local Serbs that no one would ever push them around again. In the Serbian imagination, the local Albanians had been elided with the medieval Turks, even if in the Battle of Kosovo Pole itself the Albanians, at the time Catholic, had joined forces with the Orthodox Serbs.
I meet Mimoza Gavrani, the local monitor for the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre, at a sunny outdoor café on Camil Hoxha Street in central Prishtina. On the main promenade 100 or so meters away there is a large monument to Mother Theresa, who hailed from Albania, and between us and the monument there are at least three people begging in the street. Gavrani, born in 1986 into a prosperous and educated family, is devoted to her work in defense of the Roma communities of Kosovo. At the same time, she is keen to convey the numerous respects in which her own history and identity are different from those of the people on behalf of whom she works, and also to project an image of her own middle-class background and aspirations.
Gavrani came from a small family, with just one brother, living a ‘regular life’ in a regular home, far from the settlements. She grew up surrounded by ethnic Albanians, going to an Albanian school and learning to draw the Albanian flag. As a child she had been unaware of her own ethnic difference, but would eventually learn the full significance of it when she came to the capital for her studies at the age of nineteen. “If I would grow up in a Roma settlement I would be married at the time [I began my studies], I wouldn't come to the university, and I would have many kids.” She emphasizes however that the early fertility of Roma women in the mahala is not simply an intrinsic feature of Roma society: one must have a child under five years old in order to receive social assistance. No wonder then, that there are so many children four or younger.
Gavrani is hopeful that by working to ‘build up civil society’ someday the members of traditional Roma communities will be able to take advantage of the opportunities that she has had in her own life. At the same time, she worries about the heavy-handed project of relocating Roma from the settlements into private apartments, a process which has accelerated over the past decade. “It was a mistake… those people have not been used to living in a flat.” She tells of families that have brought their cows into city apartment blocs, unwilling to give up this vital source of revenue and wellbeing for the sake of an administratively normalized existence.
1991 is a sort of Year Zero in Gavrani’s telling of her own life, and of the history of Kosovo. “My parents were going in a suit and a tie to work, but after ’91 everything got changed.” It was “like a storm.” “People were kicked out of working-places… and tomorrow you have to move.” Many Kosovar Roma families with the financial means left for Germany; those who stayed were often forced to take sides in the Serbian-Albanian conflict simply in order to survive. Although she identifies in the first instance as a Roma, Gavrani is also a proud Kosovar, and therefore a proud citizen of a principally Albanian country. When I mention that Kosovo is not yet fully recognized by other independent states, she retorts with a laugh that it is “recognized from the main countries.” She says that she has friends who were “really damaged” during the war, that beloved people died. She says she does not wish to revisit those details, but that she hates no one. She has friends who are Serbs, but she thinks that for the future of Kosovo and all its ethnic groups, “the new generation will have to accept the European spirit.”
It was in 1991 that the Kosovo Liberation Army was formed. By mid-decade, it would begin its violent insurrections. The violence reached a peak at the turn of the century, precipitating a large-scale NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, spearheaded by the Clinton administration in the US, from March to June, 1999. Milošević was eventually defeated, and throughout most of the first decade of the 2000s Kosovo was effectively under UN and NATO occupation, until, in 2008, it declared its independence to only partial international recognition. Russia, China, and of course Serbia, acknowledge no republic with a capital at Prishtina. By contrast, the marks of US cultural and economic legitimation are everywhere in that city: plaques acknowledging the financial support of the USAid program, kitsch stars-and-stripes and bald eagle motifs, and a major intersection of two of the city’s renamed thoroughfares, only slightly defamiliarized by their adaptation to the Albanian alphabet: the Boulevards Bill Klinton and Xhorxh Bush.
Kosovar Albanians had felt that their supposedly autonomous province within what remained of Yugoslavia was in fact an occupied territory of Serbia. With their independence, significant measures were taken to ensure that political and cultural hegemony would not just switch sides, but rather that Kosovo would become a model of multicultural coexistence for the Balkans. As a symbol of this, five stars were placed on the new republic’s flag, each recognizing a different ethnic constituency: the Albanians, the Serbs, the Bosniaks, the Turks, and the Roma. This is seldom noted, but nowhere else in the world are the Roma woven into the official story of a country’s identity so explicitly.
The reality of course is rather different. Many Albanians believed that during the war the Roma had collaborated with the Serbs, though for the most part this collaboration was simply an adaptation to the circumstances of daily life for people who happened to live in proximity to one ethnicity’s enclave rather than another’s. In March, 2004, a wave of violence rocked Kosovo, orchestrated by ethnic Albanians and targeting both the Serbian and the Roma communities. In the town of Vushtrii a mob of several hundred people committed a pogrom against the resident Ashkalis (Albanian-speaking Roma), burning down homes with defenseless families inside. KFOR (the international military force in Kosovo) and UNMIK (the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo) failed to respond to repeated pleas for help, on the grounds that they were only prepared for military intervention and not police work. One Ashkali leader, Abdush Cizmolli, commented at the time, “Nobody is more to blame than KFOR and UNMIK. If they wanted to, with one tank they could have saved us—it would not have come to all these problems.” The international forces have had trouble dealing with conflict beyond the conventional binary terms of a war between two nations. Introducing the tertium quid of the Roma and Ashkali, who are interspersed among the Serbs and Albanians and who are both victims and agents in the conflict without clear loyalty to either side, creates a cognitive dissonance far beyond what the already overextended and poorly organized foreign forces are able to handle.
In the immediate wake of the Kosovo war at the end of the last century, KFOR sought to avert future violence by placing firm boundaries between Albanians and Serbs who had previously lived side by side. One of the most famous divisions was that of the city of Mitrovica, along the natural barrier of the Ibar River, with Serbs being sent to the north bank and Albanians concentrated in the south. The bridge over the Ibar is still a site of deep tension. One crosses the river to the Serbian north under the lackadaisical watch of Italian Carabinieri, and arrives on the other side amidst the rubble of torn-up streets and graffiti-covered concrete slabs. Finally one comes to an apartment bloc, the first sign of life, adorned with enormous portraits of presidents Milošević, Lukashenko of Belarus, and Putin of Russia. Though this is also a passage from the land of Islam into Christendom, when moving from south to north one has a sharp feeling, as an American, of entering into hostile territory.
The process of resettlement inevitably displaced members of other ethnic groups too, and as a sort of afterthought to this engineered peace many Roma were placed in camps dangerously close to sites that had been used to deposit the toxic trailings of the Trepça industrial mining complex to the north of Mitrovica. This decision was a public health disaster, with extremely high incidence of lead poisoning, particularly among children. UNMIK would come under intense criticism by human rights organizations, not least the European Roma Rights Centre for which Gavrani works as Kosovo monitor, and would slowly seek to rectify the disaster it had facilitated. The UN, attempting to manage one of several crises caused by ethnic animosity and violence, in the end compounded that violence with its own hasty and inadequate response, a response that reflects a relative lack of concern for the value of Roma lives. Ethnic hatred in the Balkans filters up into bureaucratic indifference among the agencies that have stepped in to curb it.
The geopolitical dimensions make themselves known in even the smallest negotiations of life in Kosovo, and particularly into the cautious language international agencies and employees are required to use in their work there. I was told by more than one representative of UNICEF in Kosovo that I must be careful to avoid misquoting them in anything I write, for fear of sparking “an international incident.” Most importantly, I must be sure not to quote UN employees as referring to an entity called “the Republic of Kosovo,” but only to “Kosovo under UN Security Council Resolution 1244.” This admonition is meant to placate the Security Council members, most importantly Russia, who do not recognize the country’s sovereignty. It is coming from people whose principle task it is not to engage in high-level diplomacy, but to improve the condition of children in villages: to facilitate breastfeeding and access to elementary schools. Access to these basic needs, for Roma and non-Roma alike, hinges directly on whether the great powers feel slighted, and how they choose to react to these slights. The numbers and paths of migration, in turn, are the result of how international boundaries and transnational unions take shape, and of how well basic needs are being met at home.
American news reports tend to focus on the perception of Roma migration in Western Europe from the perspective of the majority cultures in the place of destination. A recent example of this is Adam Gopnik's article on the Roma in the February, 2014, issue of the New Yorker, which looked out at the continent from a decidedly Paris-centric perspective. As had already been the case for several months in the French media, the heroine of Gopnik's story was Leonarda. But while Leonarda caused a storm in France, in Kosovo the mention of her name is met with a shrug. Journalists there complain that her father, a born Svengali, now charges for interviews, and activists will predictably emphasize that the girl’s mistreatment at the hands of the French government was mild by comparison to the human-rights abuses that have been going on for years in the deportation of Roma, particularly from Germany. Hil Nrecaj, a human-rights lawyer from Prishtina and the executive director of the NGO Monitor, tells me of midnight raids by the police in German cities, of fathers who are taken away with hoods placed over their heads. “The Dibrani case doesn’t touch me so much,” he says.
Nrecaj spent the Kosovo war as a refugee in Macedonia, and this experience, he says, is what gives him the strength to defend those people who are sent to Kosovo as if they were being repatriated, but who are in fact far less at home there than they were in the countries from which they were expelled. Because Germany and many other European countries do not recognize jus soli, simply being born there is insufficient for gaining citizenship, and in many cases children who are born and raised in Western Europe, and who benefit from the financial investment of the welfare state in their health and education, end up being expelled in their teen years at the end of drawn-out bureaucratic battles for the families’ right to stay. These children do not speak Albanian, and do not think of themselves as Kosovar. They go from solid social support networks in their developed countries of birth, straight to the mahala.
He tells me of a brain-damaged child deported from Norway, against the protests of medical professionals who plead that Kosovo does not have the equipment or specialists needed to treat him. The plea goes unheard. He tells me of a Roma woman who is in fact a citizen of an EU country, but who is deported to Kosovo when she is unable to swiftly produce identification papers. Nrecaj defends Roma and non-Roma deportees alike, but he is clear that the disproportionate targeting of Roma can only be explained by simple racism. “They just want to get rid of these people,” he concludes. “They should take into consideration the right of the child. You cannot send children to a country they’ve never been before, telling them ‘this is your country, stay here’.”
Perhaps no stereotype is more pervasive than the one pertaining to the Roma’s supposedly innate penchant for nomadism. There is arguably no prejudice –not class nor race, nor gender– deeper than the one human groups living in fixed settlements harbor against those whose form of life takes them continuously from one settlement to the next. Sedentism underlies many of our most basic judgments about what separates the cultural from the natural, the human from the animal, and the right from the wrong. This ideology (for that is what it is) began to take shape with the agricultural revolution, and has hardened into an apparently universal morality over the past few millennia. It is now enshrined in law and architecture and philosophy, from John Locke’s theory of private property, to the spikes installed around London and Paris to prevent homeless people from sleeping in purportedly ‘public’ spaces.
The opening up of the European Union towards the South-East is a complicated, ongoing process, motivated in large measure by geopolitics, and in particular by a protracted stand-off with Russia and its inextinguishable interest in empire. The expansion has been, by most lights, hasty and premature, and has left many Europeans with the impression not of a political union of equals, but of a multi-tiered and fragile house of cards. One of the most vivid illustrations of this expansion's unforeseen consequences might well be provided by the Roma families camped out on the Boulevard Saint-Germain: nomadism, chosen or forced, come to the very heart of the sedentist world, where all the talk is of real estate and its august legitimacy, where people inherit apartments or buy them with ill-gotten fortunes, and do not simply sleep where they choose.
I stop to talk to a Roma family sitting on a mattress outside of the Café Flore. I ask the father where they come from. “Right here,” he says, pointing to the sidewalk and laughing. A little girl is jumping on the mattress, as if it were a bed in a room, clutching a box of someone’s discarded macaroons.
It might seem surprising that families such as this one are unable to turn to more established Roma groups when they arrive in a new city. But there simply is no unified Roma community in Europe, or even in a country as small as Kosovo (which counts at least three branches, not just Roma and Ashkali, but also an Albanian-speaking group that self-identifies as ‘Egyptian’, bringing back the very geographical misnomer ‘Roma’ had been meant to clear up). There is no prospect of a central focus of national identity in some particular territory or leader. Consequently, migrant Roma often have trouble finding mutual recognition in the more established communities in the countries in which they arrive. The members of the established communities, such as the French Manouches or German Sinti, frequently find it in their own interest to emphasize their belonging to the larger Gadjo culture, to underline national citizenship as the primary aspect of their identity.
For obvious reasons, this tendency is exacerbated in periods of heightened xenophobia, and it is certainly not only the Roma who are prone to it. Recently, in France, a certain Éric Zemmour has been generating noise from his thesis that the Vichy government, in facilitating the deportation of non-French Jews, did only what it had to do to protect French citizens, Jewish or Christian, and that this is precisely what a national government ought to do in such trying circumstances. Zemmour, a former journalist for Le Figaro and the author of a recent screedentitled French Suicide, is Jewish of Algerian descent, and appears intent on showing that a person with such a background has a place in the far right wing of France’s swelling nationalism, even going so far as to formulate his own apology for Vichy collaborationism.
A milder version of this dynamic is widespread: established members of minority communities seek to secure this status by denying solidarity with less established co-ethnics, particularly those who do not share the same citizenship. Consider the case of Romani Rose, a prominent member of the Sinti community in Germany, and leader of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma. In November, 2012, Sandra Maischberger devoted an episode of her popular talk show to the question of the place of Sinti and Roma in Germany, asking, “are we too intolerant?” As a guest on this show and elsewhere, Rose eloquently defends members of these related groups from crude stereotyping. A key part of his argument, however, is that the Roma have been in Germany for over 500 years, that German Roma and Sinti are sedentary and not migratory, and that they are now just as German as anyone else. Rose opposes the base bigotry of Philipp Gut, a foolish Swiss journalist and editor-in-chief of the weekly Die Weltwoche, who has also been invited as a panelist, to present his case that Balkan peoples, and especially Roma, are dragging Switzerland into a cesspool of crime and poverty, and strongly implying that these features are ineliminable from Roma culture. Rose warns his fellow panelist not to generalize, and not to equate current practices from cultural essence, but his main line returns clearly and often: I, and the people I speak for in the first instance, am not from the Balkans or anywhere else but here.
Hancock says that Rose is “a man alone.” The distinction he wants to make between the Sinti and the Roma, Hancock says, is “nonsense, frankly.” The Sinti have the same history “as the rest of us… they were probably the first and earliest to enter Europe, and went the furthest geographically. But they have pushed a different version of that history,” one that claims deeper or more authentic roots in Europe than those of the Roma, “which has caused endless confusion.” Hancock next makes a surprising claim about Rose: “We have a document in the Romani archives signed by Romani Rose, –and we’re not supposed to have this–, but he supported the German government’s ban and relocating of Romani refugees from the Balkans back in the ‘90s, when they were arresting people and putting them on planes and sending them back. He supported this, and we think this is reprehensible.” (A request to the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma for an interview with Rose did not receive a response.)
It should not be hard to see, by now, that the supposed nomadism of the Roma is really only a consequence of external pressures. It is true, Roma people move around. They move from Kosovo to Germany, for example. But if they do not settle, this may have a good deal less to do with a genetic need to roam, and much more to do with the fact that there are laws in place that explicitly prohibit them from settling, whether by explicitly announcing a ‘No Gypsies’ policy, or by midnight raids and laissez-passer expulsions.
A somewhat more positive stereotype than those of nomadism and thievery has it that the Roma are particularly talented entertainers. There are indeed some fine examples, and it is not insignificant that the person who singlehandedly innovated a distinctively European form of African-American jazz, Django Reinhardt, was a Manouche. The Bosniak Serbian director Emir Kusturica has made delirious and mildly exploitative films depicting the lives of Yugoslav Roma, such as his 1988 masterwork Time of the Gypsies. The French director Tony Gatlif, of Algerian Roma descent, is responsible for the touching 1997 film Gadjo Dilo (The Crazy Gadjo) which depicts the ‘going native’ of a young Frenchman captured by the musical and existential depth of Romanian Roma. But just as it is both good and bad at once to be Snoop Dogg, even the positive stereotypes have a constricting force. Nor do tremendous contributions in the arts, as Billie Holliday and so many other African-American artists of the pre-Civil Rights era well knew, necessarily facilitate social integration.
Moreover, the positive stereotype of creative talent can easily and quickly mutate into a negative one, when the broader society comes to feel that the talent is being used for degenerate ends. Today, in the Balkan countries, the Roma are closely associated with a style of pop music that goes by different names –manele in Romania, tallava in Albania– but that is everywhere considered a problem: vulgar, excessive, materialistic, and, perhaps most problematically, openly ‘Oriental’: arabesque flairs streaming out of ridiculous synthesizers, with accompanying lyrics about girls and money and revenge. In Romania there have been various campaigns to fight the manele out of public spaces: one such campaign called upon Bucharesters to fight back by turning their speakers out of their homes and cars and playing Beethoven at maximum volume.
At the festival in Prishtina one of the entries was the short film, Mangava Disco Punk (Romani for “I Love Disco Punk”). No masterpiece, it portrays a young Roma named Elvis in the Shutka neighborhood of the Macedonian capital of Skopje, who aspires to stardom in the ‘disco punk’ genre, a category previously unfamiliar to me, but that sounds very cool and worldly, much like Joy Division at the moment of its metamorphosis into New Order. In 18 minutes or so, the film relates Elvis’s challenges in sticking to his punk dreams. He calls his bandmate and tells him he is quitting. He then lapses into a dream, in which, among other things, a vulgar yet beautiful girl threatens to cut off his mohawk, and conceives for him a plan to become a tallava star. He is horrified, as he hates that aesthetic as much as the Bucharest defenders of Beethoven do, and he wakes up more determined than ever to stick with punk. The final scenes show younger Roma boys from Shutka getting mohawks (or, what they call in the movie ‘Cherokee style’ haircuts): the ultimate expression of liberation, as it had been nearly forty years ago for English boys. In the discussion period afterward, the actor who played Elvis, Irfan Nezir, is asked what’s wrong with tallava anyhow? He answers in simple yet clear English: “It’s boring. We need something new.” When asked what he hopes Gadjé will take away from this film, the actor who played his bandmate, Enoh Sait, chooses to cite one of the mottoes of the festival: “Look at me, not at us.”
This is, in fact, the refrain that one hears again and again from Roma in all walks of life: the demand to be seen as individuals, the reclamation of the forgotten human right of individuality. Their language is not bar-bar, but a real language, even if not every Roma speaks it. They come from somewhere real, not Tartaros. And to come from somewhere, ideally, is to be shaped by that place without being fully determined by it, to know, like Sami Mustafa, a patriotism that harmonizes with universalism. Such harmony has widely been held since the 19th century to be the destiny of small European nations— not least the nations of Serbia, Romania, Albania, deriving inspiration in turn from the standard of modern nationhood set by the French Revolution a century earlier. But these Gadjo nationalisms left something out, and the states that were born of them continue to fail to see what is right in their midst: yet another nation, composed, just as they are, of individuals.
Yet the prospects for a future Roma homeland seem slim, and not only because of external obstacles. Roma people tend to identify with very small communities, and the idea of common cause with people in far countries who speak different dialects and have different forms of life seems pointless to most. There is also a certain idea of freedom that is inimical to nationalism. In Prishtina I had asked Mimoza Gavrani if she could envision a Roma nationalist movement in the future. She says she thinks this would be ‘boring’ (a common term, evidently, in Balkan English), as it would generate the expectation that she and other Roma tether themselves to a particular parcel of land.
In this cosmopolitan spirit one hears perhaps a faint echo of the trait that has for so long been stereotyped as ‘nomadism’. It is a spirit that cannot but be at odds with the desire of states and municipalities and administrative systems to normalize every person who comes within their purview: to make them get their papers in order and to link them to a fixed address, and to ensure that all this be done through the normal channels, rather than through homesteading and bricolage. Officials, even the ones whose party ideology purports to defend the interests of the oppressed and marginalized, will always want the people they deal with to come from somewhere precise, to be attached to a place in a way that can be at once confirmed and made real by legal writ.
The tension between this official expectation and the existence of tight-knit, organic communities of self-reliant poor people is likely irresolvable. And so cows will continue to show up in apartment blocs in Prishtina. And in times of crisis, one fears, the officials will, as they always have, declare that such things are grave problems to be eliminated at all costs, rather than curious and even beautiful efflorescences of human determination.
Photographs by Josef Koudelka