Back to Main Category

Slavic Review, 2004


Ian Hancock

István Pogács
The Roma Café: Human Rights and the Plight of the Romani People
Pluto Press, London 2004
ISBN 0 7453 2052 X

The anecdotal style of this book reminded me somewhat of Isabel Fonseca’s Bury Me Standing (Vintage, London 1996), upon which it frequently draws, but it is written with rather more compassion, even affection, for its subjects.  And unlike Zoltan Barany, also an expatriate Hungarian specialist in Romanies who says at the beginning of his own book “I don’t like the Gypsies very much” (The East European Gypsies, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 19), István Pogács “liked and readily empathized with most of them” (11).  He goes so far as to solicit donations at the beginning of the book to support an NGO committed to ending poverty in a Romanian Gypsy village.

Like so many of the books on Romanies, the author relied heavily on gadje (unnecessarily written throughout with a capital G–it is not a proper noun, simply meaning ‘non-Romani people,’ singular gadjo); his self-admitted ‘vast knowledge’ only recognized a couple of Romanies among the dozens listed in the acknowledgments, and none appeared in the nine names of those given pre-publication mss. to review.  Indeed, of the four Romanies specifically named “none . . . spoke to [him] on a confidential basis” (11).  He admits at the same time, that “hundreds of Roma” accepted him into their homes.  He occasionally uses the plural Roma as a singular (“Miklos was . . . the first Roma I had met” (65).)

Despite his new familiarity with Romanies, the author still has some lingering nostalgia for what he calls “the ‘authentic’ Gypsies of popular imagination,” lamenting that those he met were “less and less like [them]” (56), thus he describes one woman as not “remotely resembl[ing] the popular stereotype of the Gypsy” (108), though with relief, perhaps, he draws special attention to one “exotic” Romani woman’s “thick black hair and large gold earrings” a couple of pages later (110).  He discusses the criminal stereotype and the ownership of “luxurious homes” by some individuals (7) but also mentions the existence of a Romani intelligentsia on the same page.

He makes reference to “authentic Gypsy music” as opposed to music played for income (110), though this is nowhere defined.  He devotes a good deal of space to music and the arts, in fact, and far less to political effort or the on-the-ground confrontation of antigypsyism (Tony Gatlif’s name appears in the book for example, but not Nicolae Gheorghe’s or Rudko Kawczynski’s), and surprisingly little mention is made of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center or the magnificent work it is doing.

Pogács appears surprised to find “real” Romanies differing from his own preconceptions—and from the academic accounts he had read, particularly about modesty taboos.  He writes “so far I have avoided any discussion of these beliefs in this analysis of the current condition of Romani women . . . I simply couldn’t find much evidence of the continued recognition of these rules . . . behaviour seemed to flatly contradict the pollution practices I’d read about . . . ideas about pollution or shame have ceased to be of universal importance amongst the Roma” (121).  This would seem to contradict his earlier statement that “it should come as no surprise that Gypsies can be every bit as narrow-minded and intolerant as Gadje . . . Vlach Gypsy women, especially those of child-bearing age, are expected to behave with conspicuous modesty and to remain virgins until they marry” (107).  The author seems unaware that as a gadjo, he was not privy to in-group behavior, and that in any case Romani behavior may be drastically modified in the company of non-Romanies.

His statement–evidently inspired by Fonseca, op. cit.–that “indifference to history has been identified as a feature of traditional Romani culture; most Gypsies, it is said, live in the present” (32).  This isn’t said by Gypsies, however, who, despite maintaining a traditionally non-literate culture, are most interested in family history.  That Romanies may not be familiar with the details of–say–Maria Teresa’s 18th century Austro-Hungarian policies might equally be claimed for any uneducated Hungarian.

Making the chapter on the Porrajmos (“The Devouring”) the third in the book reflects the author’s awareness of the “largely unacknowledged legacy of the Roma Holocaust,” the repercussions of which are still very much a factor today.  Predictably, and perhaps inevitably, the chapter is replete with comparisons with the Holocaust’s Jewish victims, indeed there are several dozen references to Jews throughout the book, and while this is welcome in the context of two diaspora peoples whose European experiences have been so similar, and who share a 20th century grief that defies measure, I should like to see more accounts of Romani history and experience presented in our own context.

Despite these shortcomings, the book does provide a concise background to the situation during Communism and since its demise, addressing what it calls “the spectacular and catastrophic casualties of the transition process” for Romanies in the New Europe (7-8).  It fairly states that “too often the perspective of ‘ordinary,’ poorly-educated Roma has been overlooked” (9), and the author tries to redress this.  But while the book is described as an “analysis of the diverse problems facing Central and Eastern Europe’s Gypsies,” it in fact deals at first hand only with those populations in Hungary and the neighboring ethnically Hungarian areas of Romania.  Nevertheless this is a nice book.  I recommend it as one that usefully provides another outsider’s perspective, and one that helps bridge the gulf of misunderstanding that will continue to divide these two worlds into the foreseeable future.

Ian Hancock, Director
The Romani Archives and Documentation Center

August 2004