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Ethnic Forum: Journal of Ethnic Studies and Ethnic Bibliography
8(2):72-80 (1988)


Ian Hancock

Marlene Sway, Familiar Strangers: Gypsy Life in America. Illinois University Press: Urbana & Chicago, 1988. pp. xi + 155. $19.95.

If the year of publication were not given at the beginning of this book, it would be difficult to estimate the date of its appearance on the basis of its content alone. Marlene Sway, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has provided the most recent account of Romanies and Romani life in America, but one which includes little that has not already been said, usually in greater detail, elsewhere. Rather than contribute much that is new to a field that is attracting more and more interest, Sway perpetuates a number of misleading stereotypes, and creates several new ones.

The author’s approach emphasizes two points in particular, and it is in these areas that her work departs most clearly from that of her predecessors: firstly her “middleman minority” status of the Roma, and secondly the very close parallels with Judaism and Jewish life she believes to be evident in Gypsy culture. The book consists of eight chapters, together with a glossary of Romani words, a bibliography and an index. The first and last chapters are an introduction and a conclusion, while the remaining six deal with the concept of middleman minorities, Romani migrations and persecutions, religion, family, the internal legal system, and economic adaptability. Much is made of the author’s long-term relationship with Romanies themselves and, in particular, with a small boy called Little George (whose picture is probably the one on the dust jacket), which began with their doing business at her father’s army surplus store in Los Angeles. Her first “tremendous insight into Gypsy culture” came at the age of 14, when she attended a wedding (p. 2).

Nevertheless, almost all of the discussion regarding the topics dealt with throughout the book rests upon the published works of other non-Gypsy writers. In too many cases these turn out to be popular, rather than scholarly, sources: Clebert, Wedeck and Bercovici in particular.

The book has been written with an obvious affection, even protectiveness, for the subjects. The dedication at the front of the book states that it was written to affirm that Gypsies are indeed “human.” Sway says that she learned to speak the Romani language, and even modified her appearance, to identify more closely with her subjects: “I look like a Gypsy myself, and when I was conducting fieldwork I dressed in accordance with Gypsy tradition” (p. 7). The jacket-notes maintain that “Gypsies ... do not steal”; she herself assures us that “wife beatings, child abuse, fist fights, and other violent behavior hardly exist among Gypsies” (p. 117). While, despite the stereotype, the conviction-rate for theft among Romani Americans is no higher than the national average, it is no lower either, and stealing, grounded historically in European subsistence-theft, is a fact of life for many groups, particularly those whose ancestors were most rigorously oppressed before coming here, such as the Vlax.

Much is made of illiteracy among Gypsies, which is given as a mainstay of the Romani occupational status as “middlemen” in her concluding chapter (p. 124). The inability to read persists, she implies, despite an average of five years of schooling; yet “after six or seven months” of her private tutelage, “they were able to read better than most students in their grades” (p. 2). Unless her students promptly forgot all they’d been taught when she moved away, it is difficult to understand why she thinks illiteracy must be so widespread. In fact, for Vlax men, literacy in English is not at all unusual, and among other groups such as the Bashalde and Romanichals, it is very rare to find a completely illiterate man or woman.

This leads to another serious weakness with the book. The author makes it clear that her work deals with other Romani groups besides the Vlax. The point is made in the introductory chapter that she intends to deal with American Gypsies less narrowly than other writers have done, and to this end she compares her own findings with the situation of Gypsies in Britain and Jugoslavia, but there is only one (secondary) reference to another American population in the book itself, on pages 9 and 10, which deals in part with the situation of the Detroit Bashaldo Roma.1 In fact. Sway goes so far as to criticize others for exactly the shortcomings she is guilty of herself: Beynon errs because his study lacks “any attempt to compare the Detroit Gypsy musicians with Gypsies in other parts of America” (p. 10). Rena Cropper “... makes no attempt to compare the Gypsies she has studied with Gypsies in other parts of the United States”2 and Anne Sutherland failed “... to compare the Barvale Gypsies with other Gypsies living in the United States”.3  Although Sway visited Gypsies in California and Virginia and elsewhere, she only visited Vlax Gypsies, i.e., those who began arriving in North America in the last quarter of the nineteenth century following their emancipation from slavery in Wallachia (hence “Vlax”) and Moldavia. And while she draws numerous parallels with Romanichals in Britain, based mainly on Okely4 (reviewed by this writer in Hancock, 1985),5 there is no discussion of American Romanichals, the second largest Gypsy population in this country, or of the Bashaldo Roma, or of any other American Roma. The net result is that the reading public has been given yet another book presenting “American Gypsies” as a monolithic whole, but which only describes one group. Sway goes a step further by drawing parallels with Balkan Gypsy populations in Kosovo and Metohija in Jugoslavia, and Northern Gypsy populations in Britain, neither of which shares the kind of kinship with American Vlax which she implies. To illustrate, on p. 102, reference is made to Romanichals in Britain collecting used clothing, but not wearing them because they are marime (ritually polluted). But the Greek-derived term marime is strictly Vlax and is quite unknown to northern and other Romani populations, whose words for the concept are forms of the Indian-derived makhardo, i.e., “smeared.” Some Balkan Romani populations have no word at all for the notion of ritual pollution, which Sway seems not to have properly understood even as it exists among her American Vlax informants. She makes no reference to the distinction between the conditions of marimos and pekhelimos, for example. In Chapter 4, the whole concept is discussed as underlying traditional Romani religious belief (similar discussions have been made of connections between fortune-telling and the native Romani religion; see, for example, Andersen, 1987).6 Since the Indian vs. the Balkan origins and components of the concept are not dealt with, and Sway only gives examples of their expression within Vlax society, the reader might well conclude that all Gypsies everywhere adhere to the same beliefs and practices — that the Romani interpretation of purity and pollution is universal. Her comparisons with British Gypsies only reinforce this.

Chapter Two deals with “the field of middleman minority theory,” and devotes a good deal of space to emphasizing the similarities Sway perceives between Romani and Jewish culture, but many of her parallels are strained. There are plenty of Romani groups that do not practice circumcision, for example. And one of the Romani words for “Jew,” Biboldo, is not taken from the name of a “legendary Jewish leader of the Spanish Gypsies,” but is simply a word that translates as “unbaptized” (bi- “un-,” + boldo, past participle of bol-  “dip, baptize.”) It isn’t the common Vlax word for “Jew” in any case, which is Zhidovo. It is pushing the comparison somewhat to say that Gypsies “... are not literate, therefore they do not study the Five Books of Moses, the Mishnah, the Talmud, or any other body of Jewish knowledge” (p. 59), as though they would if they were. On page 48, Sway writes that “Like the Jews, the Gypsies have a schochet they call the masengero who serves as the ritual slaughterer for the community (Tipler, 1968:69).” When her source is consulted, however, it makes clear that “there seems to be no religious significance” to the job of the masengero, which is simply the regular word in Northern Romani for “butcher.”7 It is not a word which exists in the dialect of the Vlax Gypsies she is describing, who use masari instead. The only Romani groups who employ a ritual slaughterer are Muslim Gypsies in the southern Balkans, and this is an acquisition from Islam; otherwise, the occupation has no place in Romani culture.

Comparisons with the Jewish people are made again at the end of Chapter 3, in the section dealing with Gypsies under Nazism. The figure of “over a million” victims is repeated twice, and while recent scholarship on the Romani Holocaust in fact supports this, neither of the sources she lists for that total8,9 cites anything like that number. It was disappointing that, while acknowledging the fate shared by Jewish and Romani victims in Nazi Germany, Sway refers only to the Armenian massacre and the Jewish Holocaust as “the two tragic attempts at genocide in the twentieth century,” as though what happened to Gypsies was somehow different.

The same chapter begins with accounts of Gypsy origins. Like many before her, Sway is persuaded by Firdausi’s account of the ten thousand musicians sent from India to Persia. But she wrongly puts this event “at the close of the ninth century” (p. 32, and again on p. 44) instead of in AD 439, a misreading of Tipler who mentions the period when Firdausi lived, but not the time of the events he described in his epic which took place some six centuries earlier. Sway fails to state that evidence linking the people described by Firdausi with the European Roma is suppositional at best and, in any case, if substantiated would apply to the modern-day Domari (Nawari) Gypsies of the Middle East whose history is almost certainly unconnected with that of the Romanies.

Her linguistic and historical observations are, in the main, not correct. According to her own findings, the first group of Gypsies turned loose by the Persians went south and into Egypt, about the year one thousand, while a second, later group calling themselves Dom left for Armenia where their language was “strongly influenced by Armenian” causing the “‘d’ of many words” to be “exchanged for the Armenian ‘t’ sound,” as though Armenian lacked a ‘d’. These Lom Gypsies were then pushed westwards towards Europe by Seljuk invaders, and “began to call themselves the Rom, dropping the Armenian ‘l’ in their name for an ‘r’.” According to Sway, “Since the Romany language has never been written, it has been easily influenced by the sounds of local languages” (p. 33). Romani, in fact, supports a growing literature, and has been written for well over a century.

The first hundred years in Europe, crucial ones in Romani history, are taken care of in the sentence “Gypsies roamed Greece for a century” (p. 33). The impact of the Greek language upon Romani is illustrated with the word for “devil,” viz., beng, which is in fact from Munda (spoken in India), not Greek. On page 41, Sway notes that “almost no words of Chaldean origin can be found in the Romany language.” This is another statement that can be traced to Tipler (1968:63); it would be interesting to learn what the few exceptions are. Romani is quite a different language from that of the Nawar to which Tipler refers. She writes of a “nonexistent country called Little or Lower Egypt” (p. 40), though both Little Egypt and Lower Egypt are, or were, actual places.

In discussing deportations in the same chapter (p. 38), Sway maintains that “according to folklore, the Gypsies intermarried with local Indians” when they reached the Americas, and cites Trigg as her source.10 Trigg got his information, however, from Bercovici,11 who offered it only as a “possibility” of his own creation. Hardly established folklore, as Sway would have it. The same instant tradition is created on page 40, where she tells us that “In Sweden today, it is still widely believed that the Gypsies are the last remnants of the Tartars.” Her source for this is Takman.12 However, upon consulting Takman, one finds no indication that such is “widely believed in Sweden” but instead that:

“The term ‘tattare’ originally denoted the Mongolian Tartars who were little known in western and northern Europe. The same name was incorrectly given to the nomad Gypsies who arrived in Germany at the beginning of the 15th century” (p. 45).

Swedish deportation policy to America is not discussed, nor is the fact that Gypsies were with Christopher Columbus on his third trans-Atlantic voyage to the Americas.

Chapter 5 deals with the family, but describes Vlax family life only. In no sense can her description apply to all American Gypsies, though this point is never made clear in the book. Some statements are questionable. On page 65, non-Gypsy-style dating is said to be “envied as a tempting but unfulfilled fantasy.” This is quite wrong, at least for Gypsy boys; raklia (non-Gypsy girls) are routinely courted, though perhaps not with flowers and chocolates. It is from them that sexual experience is expected to be acquired, and though romantic attachments are of course avoided, they happen. While the anthropologists’ idealized Gypsies would be polluting themselves by indulging in this sort of social behavior, it is common nevertheless. It is also not true, as Sway maintains, that precocious (i.e. pre-teen or early teen) marriages and becoming obsolete. Three of the four weddings that have taken place in Texas over the past year, were between boys of sixteen and girls of fourteen, thirteen and thirteen respectively. Sway uses data based on the Romanichals in England to support her observation, though the two populations are separated by thousands of miles and six centuries of history. The bidding for colored scarves and collecting contribution in a loaf (a cottage or similar loaf, not a French one) are not always alternative to each other; contributions can be collected in the loaf at the time that the scarves are distributed (only to those who contributed). Sway also omits discussion of the origin or function of the stago, or wedding staff in her description of a Vlax marriage.

Regarding the statement in Chapter 6 (The Gypsy legal system) that “food and liquor for all those in attendance” at a kris (a kind of court or tribunal) must be provided by the guilty party, this reviewer has never been at such an event where liquor was even allowed into the hall. There are very strong constraints on drinking behavior while the kris is in progress, just as there are on using English during the proceedings. Drinking and eating will usually (though not always) follow the completion of the hearing, however. In referring to territoriality parallels are again drawn between American Vlax and British Romanichals, one family of which is misnamed (“Petalungros” instead of “Petulengros,” p. 89).

Sway’s concluding chapter contains some questionable statements. It is hard for this reviewer to believe, for example, that in reference to a group of Jugoslav Gypsies newly-arrived in this country via Mexico “two weeks after their resettlement in Chicago, the women of this tribe knew enough English to give cursory palm readings” (p. 114). The discussion of attitudes towards India in the same chapter presupposes a recognition of that country as the ancestral homeland in the first place. When Sway says “The Gypsies . . . have never expressed a desire to return to their land of origin” and that “they do not like being associate with India,” (pp. 125-6) the implication is that Gypsies in this country know about this and have consciously rejected it, which is not the case. If American Vlax think in terms of an original country at all, Egypt is the one most often mentioned. In Europe, on the other hand, India has become central to Romani nationalism, and it was the Indian government which most earnestly led the International Romani Union towards its membership in the United Nations in 1979, a decade ago.

For this reviewer, the strongest condemnation of this book is in its complete omission of discussion of Romani civil and social rights. This was surely not ignorance of the facts. She consulted Sutherland, who touches upon this in the conclusion to the first edition of her book and deals with it at length in the new introduction to the second (1986) edition, and she lists in her bibliography, a newspaper article by Dean13 that is wholly devoted to the issue of Gypsy political involvement. She cannot be unaware of the appointment by President Reagan of the first American Gypsy to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in 1987 (p. 6), although she says that Gypsies are not recognized by the government. She claims that Gypsies are “illiterate, and lack educated professionals among them” (p. Ill), a plainly derogatory statement, which suggests that because (in her view) Gypsies are not professionals, then Gypsies cannot, or should not, be professionals. There are many Romani American professionals, of course; one of the Johnsons, a family mentioned in her book, received his law degree in 1988 in Atlanta, and is setting up practice. Another Vlax lawyer lives in New Jersey. There are Rom who are teachers, psychologists, publishers, actors, film-producers and so on, all in the U.S.; the former mayor of a town in Oregon was a Vlax Rom. One must ask, then, what motivates scholars such as Dr. Sway to deny that such individuals exist? Evidently, this is how she wants Gypsies to be: Gypsies who don’t steal, or get into fistfights; and especially Gypsies who can’t read, because if they learn to read, they stop being Gypsies. Her whole hypothesis of Gypsies as “middlemen . . . economically dependent upon their host society,” rests upon the oft-repeated notion of illiteracy. The unspoken assumption is that Gypsies can only be Gypsies if they are illiterate.  Gypsies who can read, and the number is growing steadily, reject this kind of defining, and are beginning to challenge it, as events in this country in the next few years will surely show. In Europe, things have moved more quickly, and Sway must account for the Roma in Šuto Orizari who run the town council; the President of the International Romani Union, who is an engineer; its Secretary, who is a professor or the head of its U.N. Presidium, who is a medical doctor. They are all native speakers of Romani; they are all fiercely proud of being Roma they are all deeply concerned with passing Romani culture on to their children and grandchildren — yet Dr. Sway would evidently disqualify them from the ethnicity they claim, because “there are no ‘educated professionals’ among the Gypsies.”

Lastly, a note on the errors evident in the Romani words in the text on p. 99, and in the glossary as well, bujo is said to mean “dishcloth,” when it means “pouch;” the word for “dishcloth” is dirza. Singular forms are used for the plural in “three rom baro” (p. 1) and “rom baro (big men)” (p. 93) where rom bare or perhaps bare roma would be appropriate; plural form are used for singular in “a wealthy Machwaya”; and “a gaje institution’ (both p. 80) and “I have not encountered one gaje” (p. 85), where “a wealthy Machwano,” “a gaj(ikan)o institution,” and “... one gajo” would be correct. A masculine form is used instead of a feminine in “the gajo was Sharon Rainier” (p. 79). A female non-Gypsy is a gaji.  On p. 51, posta is listed as meaning “sacrifice,” when the word is posto and it means a “fast.” The word for “sacrifice” is zhertva. Marna Fisher’s “Gypsies” is listed as being in Rose & Rose’ Minority problems,14 but was omitted from the second (1965) edition.


1. Roma is the plural of Rom, and this, and Romanies, are the preferred terms meaning “Gypsies.” The original Romani population, which arrived in Europe some seven centuries ago, now exists in several divisions as a result of separation and differing historical circumstances. Sway’s book deals with the Vlax population in America, who have come here from the area of Europe which is now Romania, though via a number of other countries, such as Russia and Serbia. The Vlax are themselves further divided into branches distinguished by dialect and occupational or family ties; these include the Kalderash, the Machwaya, the Lowara, and so on. In Vlax Romani, the word Rom can also function as a plural.

2. See Ian Hancock, “The Development of Romani Linguistics,” in Languages and Cultures: Papers in Honor of Edgar C. Polome. A. Jazyery and Werner Winter, eds. (The Hague: Mouton, 1988); for a discussion of the linguistic history during this period and see Ian Hancock, The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution (Ann Arbor, MI: Karoma Publishers, 1987, and on this website), for details of Romani history in the Balkan area.

3. Anne Sutherland, Gypsies, the Hidden Americans (New York: Macmillan, 1975).

4. Judith Okely, The Traveller Gypsies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

5. Ian Hancock, “Review of Okely,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 6 (1985): 89-93.

6. Ruth Andersen, A Subtle Craft in Several Worlds: Performance and Participation in Romani Fortune-Telling. (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1987).

7. Derek Tipler, “From Nomads to Nation,” Midstream 14 (July, 1968): 61-70.

8. Matéo Maximoff, “Germany and the Gypsies,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society 25 (1946): 104-108.

9. Dora Yates, “Hitler and the Gypsies,” Commentary 8 (1949): 455-459.

10. Elwood B. Trigg, Gypsies, Demons and Divinities (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1973).

11. Conrad Bercovici, The Story of the Gypsies (London: Cape, 1929), 510.

12. John Takman, The Gypsies in Sweden: A Socio-Medical Study (Stockholm: Liber Vorlag, 1976), 44.

13. Paul Dean, “Gypsies are Banding Together to Fight Age-Old Stereotypes.” Los Angles Times (October 5, 1986): 1, 10-11.

14. C. Rose and A. Rose, eds., Minority Problems  (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 50-54.