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Roma, 6(1):13-20 (1981)

T a l k i n g   B a c k

Ian Hancock

International Romani Union

“If we are going to depend upon anthropological studies to define our history and our culture and our ‘future’, then we are lost.”
Kasaipwalova, 1973: 454

I wrote “Talking Back” twenty-five years ago. I’ve included it here because I find it instructive to see how my style has altered over the years.  Nevertheless while in perhaps less strident tones, I still adhere to many of the sentiments I expressed back then, even if my understanding of the details of our history has changed rather radically.

This paper was about non-Romani interference in Romani matters.  It was written at a time when no one had any idea that within a decade, the whole face of Europe would change and Romanies would be thrust onto center stage.  Since that time, a whole “Gypsy Industry” has emerged, with non-Romani human rights and other groups intent on bettering our condition for the sake of Europe, and on showing us how to do it ourselves. For the most part this is necessary and welcome, but some of those have set themselves up as ethnic police. One gypsilorist recently published an article explaining to other gadje how Romanies feel—or how we ought to feel—about the Holocaust! (Stewart, 2004).  The presumptuousness and the confident arrogance of such people is staggering—more than anything reminiscent of 19th century studies focusing on Native Americans or tribal Africans. Non-Romani linguists have discovered our language anew and are being given huge grants to study it—one such in Britain has already received over half a million dollars to work on Romani, and has applied for hundreds of thousands more.  Meanwhile at the beginning of the 21st century The Economist was able to report that throughout Europe, Romanies were “at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator: the poorest, the most unemployed, the least educated, the shortest-lived, the most welfare dependent, the most imprisoned and the most segregated”.  A World Bank report from 2003 stated “Roma are the most prominent poverty risk group in many of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.  They are poorer than other groups, more likely to fall into poverty, and more likely to remain poor.  In some cases poverty rates for Roma are more than 10 times that of non-Roma.  A recent survey found that nearly 80 percent of Roma in Romania and Bulgaria were living on less than $4.30 per day . . . Even in Hungary, one of the most prosperous accession countries, 40 percent of Roma live below the poverty line.  In February 2005 USA Today reported the European Union as saying “poverty rates [for Romanies] range from four to ten times that of Europeans” (Marklein, 2005:6A—a statement which at the same time, perhaps unconsciously, does not include us as “Europeans”).

At a Chapter meeting of the Gypsy Lore Society in New York in 1979, the late Diane Tong remarked on the fact that some of its members were promoting their academic careers studying Gypsies, but were giving nothing back.  Board member Joseph Mitchell’s angry response was “[but] we are giving them their history!” (Tong, p.c.).

Some, Guether Lewy for example, have put themselves in charge of what we should be called, maintaining that “in fact there is nothing pejorative, per se, about the word ‘Zigeuner’” (2000:ix), despite its rejection by both the German Romanies themselves, and by contemporary German media policy.    Another writes “the word ‘Gypsy’ has lost ground to the word ‘Roma’ in texts and discourses by and about Gypsies/Roma (. . . but) in this presentation I prefer ‘Gypsy’ . . . rather than escaping into the more sterile term ‘Roma’” (Fallon, 2002:1). As Jackson says, “definition is itself at the roots of racism—the way we reduce the world to a word, and gag the mouths of others with our labels” (1995:14).

Danger! Educated Gypsies!

In recent years, a number of people who are themselves Romanies have begun to re-examine the Rajput hypothesis, which has been discussed over the years by Leland, Burton, Woolner, Kochanowski, Mróz and others.  In its current form, it sees the ancestors of the Romani populations as originating with the military forces and their non-military contingents that left India a thousand years ago as a result of Islamic incursions led by Mahmud of Ghazni.

For some reason, the possibility that our ancestors were not the “robbers, murderers [and] hangmen” of conventional Gypsy exohistory (Vekerdi, 1988:13), or even that we are “the descendants of itinerant castes of artisans and entertainers” (Matras, 1999:1) but instead were individuals of some historical significance seems threatening to some gypsilorists.  In a statement appearing in the American News Service Online on 12 January 1998, Sheila Salo of the Gypsy Lore Society stated that “there may be political motivations for advancing that theory,” an attitude echoing that of Isabel Fonseca in her influential book Bury Me Standing: “Gypsy writers and activists . . . argue for a classier genealogy; we hear, for example, that the Gypsies descend from the Kshattriyas, the warrior caste, just below the Brahmins.  There is something ambiguous about origins, after all: you can be whoever you want to be” (1996:100).  Surely such cynicism masks a certain unease on the part of those who seek to define and limit Romani identity.  The most recent paper in which the traditional position is upheld is by prominent gypsilorist Yaron Matras, editor of Romani Studies (formerly The Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society) who, according to one reviewer, regards me and the Rajput hypothesis and its proponents “dangerous”(Acton, 2004:00).

A body of scholarship has also emerged which even goes a step further: it rejects any Indian connection of the Romani people whatsoever, military or otherwise. The most blatant statement in this vein appeared in Wexler (1997:16) where, ignoring both serological and cultural factors, he wrote that “most of the members of each Romani community are of indigenous origin . . . Romani is not of Indic origin and did not acquire its Asian component by direct contact with, or by inheritance from, Indic languages.” This of course is nothing new; two centuries ago Grellmann (1787:83-84) noted the same belief:

A third party allows that the language of the original
Gipsies was really a non-Romani vernacular, and that of
some country, but asserts it to be so disguised and
falsified, partly with the design of the Gipsies themselves,
partly by adventitious events, through length of time and
continual wandering of these people, that it is entirely
newly formed, and now used by the Gipsies only.

Grellmann’s third party might be excused, but surely not any modern scholar who makes the same assertion, and one must wonder whether the purpose of challenging it may simply be to generate controversy and debate; but its existence is dangerous at a time when the number of administrators and policy makers who would exploit this scholarship in their decision-making is growing.  The work of the supporters of this notion is already being quoted in anti-Romani literature, even at the governmental level; Judith Okely demonstrated considerable naïveté when she complained “I am appalled that apparently sentences in my book The Traveller Gypsies (1983) have been used against the Gypsies in a legal wrangle.” (1990:4).

Américo Paredes’ timely discussion of the “current quarrel . . . between minority groups and the social sciences” (1971:1) is especially applicable to our own situation. With the Third World Romani Congress imminently upon us, the question of how to deal with those who are increasingly seeking to define us and the legitimacy of our social and political action is one urgently requiring attention, and one which will occupy much of the discussion in Göttingen this May.  I attempt, in this preliminary paper to analyze the situation, and to propose an explanation for it. The solution, also proposed below, is rather more easily dealt with.

It is no revelation that those in a position to label or define a group are invariably in a dominant position vis-à-vis that group (see Hancock, ‘1975: 10-11). The white power structures have manipulated Romanies since our very arrival in Europe eight centuries ago (Hancock 1981); intolerant of our existence, simultaneously envious of and hostile to the Romani way of life, Europeans have shipped our people as slaves and felons to Africa and the Americas, tortured and killed our people, and continue to subject our people to the most antiquated and senseless laws.  This point cannot be emphasized too strongly: no single human group, so widely and so consistently, has suffered or continues to suffer at the hands of others as have the Rom. The reasons are clear:

In terms of group psychology, there is always a need to create an outgroup, onto which the majority projects its own fears and suppressed desires, and reassures itself by blaming that outgroup for criminal, licentious or other forbidden behaviour.  In terms of social anthropology, any minority group seen to be distinct, whether physically or otherwise, may be feared as a threat to accepted norms because its mere existence demonstrates that these norms are not universal (Burney, 1968:2-3).

Lacking military and political strength and a geographical homeland, and being forced to travel in small groups for self-preservation, we have, over the centuries, developed through contact with different European peoples into a number of sub-groups, divided by dialect, retention of romaniya, and by physical appearance. We were one people when we left India, and one people when we arrived in Europe a thousand years after that. An increasing number of Rom seek to restore that lost unity; many gadje ridicule our desire to do so.

Several of the gajikane spokesmen offering observations on Romani nationalism have, significantly, been associated with the Gypsy Lore Society. The late Hon. Sec. of that organization, Dora Yates asked in reference to a. nationalist movement “except in a fairy tale, could any hope ever have been more fantastic?” (1953:140). Twenty years later, the former sub-editor of the same society’s journal, Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, called the notion “romantic twaddle” (1973:2).  Werner Cohn in the same year wrote quite bluntly that “the Gypsies have no leaders, no executive committees, no nationalist movement . . . I know of no authenticated case of genuine Gypsy allegiance to political or religious causes” (1973:66), while most recently another Gypsy Lore Society member, Matti Salo, observed that “political activists, both those who claim Gypsy identity and those who do not, have attempted to construct a pan-Gypsy identity, dismissing as irrelevant the ethnic categories of the actors themselves” (1977:2).  Salo continued (loc. cit.) by stating that he found “a lack of common ethnic consciousness” among his informants.

This kind of blindness to what has been a growing movement among Rom in Europe for a hundred years, and in the USA since the late 1960s reflects not ignorance but fear. Gajikane scholars of romaniya are victims of what Douglas has referred to as Bongo-Bongoism (1970:15-16),

. . . the trap of all anthropological discussion. Hitherto when a generalization is advanced, it is rejected out of court by any fieldworker, who can say “this is all very well, but it doesn’t apply to the Bongo-Bongo.”

Gypsylorists, unlike Romanologists—and there is a difference—have jealously protected “their” Gypsies and “their” intimacy with them, content that any potential argument from their fellow gypsylorists could be countered by applying the techniques of Bongo-Bongoism, and especially secure in the knowledge that the objects of their study, “fortunately and safely illiterate” (Paredes, 1971:16), would be nowhere in sight, and certainly not invited, to comment.

“Gypsylorists remain the arcane priests of an oriental mystery quite removed from the thinking of educated Rom who are dismissed almost as a contradiction in terms” (Acton, 1980:3). It is difficult to know which group is the most damaging, those gadje who cling to the golden earrings stereotype, or those who know enough to acknowledge its falseness, but who nevertheless belittle or ignore what is happening outside of their own narrow, self-applied academic confines.  Perhaps the latter, since they have more contact with the scholarly world and are therefore more frequently approached by other gadje as sources of information about the Rom. Examples of their glib dismissal of educated Rom as “not real gypsies” need not be repeated here. Where else, would the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, go to obtain their information for the entry gypsy in its most recent edition: “members of a wandering race [who] make a living by basket-making, horse dealing, fortune telling . . .” This clearly excludes as Rom such prominent individuals as Vanko Rouda, Django Reinhardt, Vanya de Gila, Matéo Maximoff, Jan Cibula, Šaip Jusuf and thousands of others who have never been in doubt as to their Romani identity. A leading medical, journal, published in New York contains an anonymous article on Rom which offers the information that “a gypsy is born in an open field and dies in the same fashion” (MD, 1977:27). This would certainly come as a surprise to the tens of thousands of American Rom who were born in hospitals.  Clébert observed that “The myth of the romantic Gypsy continues on its grotesque course, which future societies will have great difficulty in-stopping” (1963: 95), and he was right.

It cannot seriously be believed that those in the unification movement are unaware of the divisions now separating the Romani population, as Salo claims. This, and standardization of the language, is of vital concern to members of the World Romani Congress. Aspects of this have been discussed in Hancock (1975), and may be summarized thus:

1.  Because of historical and contemporary factors, not least anti-social pressures from the host societies, which continue to divide the Romani-speaking populations, there are today a great many widely differing dialects of the language.
2. Perhaps the greatest obstacle in achieving political and cultural unity is the lack of communication among the various Romani groups in Europe and the Americas.
3.  It may be assumed that progress towards reunification would be more easily made if a common dialect were available to all groups. To quote Sarkon, E dobinda la shibake ketanemaske s’o paso o angluno karing le ketanimaste sar ekh nyamo, “the achievement of linguistic unity is the first step towards unity as a people.”
4. No single dialect spoken anywhere is so close to the common protoform that it may be adopted without modi- fication. In other words, whatever dialect is chosen will have to be adapted to a more internationally acceptable form, especially lexically.
5.  Using existing means of education, the propagation of such a standard will be very unevenly achieved. Settled, already literate Rom, such as predominate in Eastern European countries, will have a far better opportunity to acquire the standard dialect. For illiterate and nomadic Rom the task would be much harder.
6.  Not all Rom everywhere will ever learn, or be disposed to learn, such a dialect. This will create a ‘linguistic elite’ consisting of those who have learned the new international standard.

These clearly point up current concern and awareness among Rom for their ethnic (as well as social) divisions.

Dealing with the problems outlined above will be one of the tasks of the Congress this year. The point being made here is that we do not need gadje to think on our behalf, or to tell us what aspirations or occupations are authentically “gypsy.” It is presumptuous to assume that Rom need to be told how to manage their own affairs, and who is or is not a Rom. Although Acton, at whom Salo’s comments were directed, is himself not a Rom, he was reporting accurately what he knew to be taking place within Romani politics (1974).

Just as unreal, though diametrically opposed to Salo’s interpretation, is the older view represented by Graffunder, who tells us (1835:52) that “when Gypsies meet, even if they have come from widely separated parts of the earth, they greet one another with the familiar cry ‘Han dume Romnitschel’ Are ye Romničel?—and straightway begins the dance of joy.” This is wishful thinking, but it has been repeated endlessly over the years by novelists and journalists who prefer to believe such nonsense. In the same way, Bercovici first began the fiction that no words existed in Romani for duty or possession (1929:15), which was repeated by von Stroheim in his amazing novel Paprika (1935:12), an anonymous writer in Coronet (1950:126) and Marie Wynn Clarke (1967:210).  Once a notion achieves the sanctity of print it seems, it is assumed to be true.  It is not thought necessary to check the sources at first hand—and in this way misconceptions are perpetuated.

Until recently, it has not been easy for Rom to speak against these things. Widespread illiteracy, political ineffectiveness, social separation, and non-participation in academic life have all allowed the status quo to be maintained. But it must not be assumed that the present state of things is completely new, or that the Romani intelligentsia has lost a part of its identity by acquiring gadjikane educational skills. Rom have survived from the beginning by learning the behavior of the gadje, and have kept a step ahead because of it. The emerging situation is merely a continuation of this. Secondly, there are social reasons for the apparent sudden blossoming of Romani political and scholastic activity; this in fact got its initial stimulus in central and eastern Europe, but as a result of the devastation caused by the Second World War (Hancock, 1980) it was fragmented in Europe generally. The repercussions are still being felt. Although reorganization began in France in the 1950s, all Romani activities were made illegal by De Gaulle when he came to power in 1958, and have only been reinstated since his resignation in 1969. Since then the Komitia Lumiaki Romani, now incorporated into the World Romani Congress, which has today an eastern European, a western European, and a North American branch, has made great strides forward. Our international congress in London, Geneva and now Göttingen have attracted the attention of many countries to our situation, and in the past four years alone we have achieved official recognition as an Indian people by the Government of India, national minority status in Yugoslavia, and permanent representation in the United Nations Organization. We also now have our own Indian Institute of Romani Studies, and this journal, Roma.  None of this could (or would) have been achieved if we so-called “educated gypsies” didn’t exist, and if our brothers and sisters were not anxious to see our efforts bear fruit.  The excuse, should it ever be proffered, that ignorance of these things is due to their having happened so recently would be unacceptable, since World Romani Congress offices have kept the media informed of events. That there has nevertheless been a tendency to minimize their significance underlines the theme of this essay.

It is true that much of the “gypsy myth” has been intentionally created as a smokescreen by Rom themselves to insulate Romaniya from gajikaniya. Perceptive Romanologists have realized this, and have dealt with it in its proper perspective, i.e. in its function as a survival technique. Gypsylorists differ from the latter group in the extent to which they are unaware of the separation of the myth from the reality.

Today, things are different. If a gadjo wants to learn about Rom or Romaniya or know something of our language, he need only go to the library to find many titles on these subjects. We cannot stop them from doing this, nor do we have any control over their selectiveness, their ability to distinguish scholarly work from trash; but we can maintain our integrity by making accurate information available to the gadjikane scholars, and to the journalists, so that it is obtained at first hand, rather than via the garbled ramblings of Borrow, Bercovici, Maas and others. There was a time when smoke-screening served its purpose, and to some extent, it still does. It does in many human societies where outsiders are concerned (cf. Jansen, 1959), but times are rapidly changing.

I stated at the beginning of this paper that providing a solution to this situation was easier than attempting its analysis. The solution lies in talking back, loudly and clearly, wherever possible through our own publications such as Roma and E Loli Phabaj, and through our own conferences and our own scholars.  Paredes (1971:15) discusses this well in his reference to the Detroit folklore symposium, where he illustrates his point that the outsider working with urban folklore is finding that “the subjects of his research are able to talk back to him:”

One of the most interesting results of the Detroit symposium was the way the main speakers were challenged . . . the remarkable thing was the number of speakers (some scholars and some not) who rose to challenge the learned doctors as spokesmen for their ethnic group, questioning not points of theory and method, but the whole  view of the subject under research, and at times questioning even the right of the scholar to do studies outside his own ethnic group.

The gadje know more about us today than they ever have, and to keep ahead we must study our own history and make our own pronouncements where and when they concern us. This is no cultural sellout; it is necessary if we are to resist being manipulated and defined by outsiders (Lomax, 1977).   It is necessary if we are to gain respect. It is necessary if we are to stop being gypsies and start being Rom.

List of works consulted

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ACTON, Thomas, 2005. “Has Rishi gone out of style? Academic and policy paradigms in Romani Studies.”  Roma,  summer issue.
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