By Isabel Fonseca
Since I’ve co-opted the name of an ethnicity for this travel site, it’s about time I deal with “the Gypsies and their journey”—their migration and diaspora. Though I’ve met many Gypsies in my travels and learned much from them, including a number of songs, I’m by no means an expert. But I’ll try to make clear who these people are through this book review.
The title, from a Gypsy saying “Bury me standing; I’ve been on my knees all my life,” is well chosen, given the author’s attempt to correct common misunderstandings, both the vilification and the romanticizing. Author Isabel Fonseca recounts her experiences learning the Romani language and living among Gypsies, or Roma, in several countries of the former East Bloc. (I use Roma as a noun, interchangeable with Gypsy, as does Fonseca. Romani is distinct from Romanian, a Latin language.)
She depicts the squalor of a Roma neighborhood in Tirana, Albania, and the Gypsies’ notion of ritual cleanliness: taboos about anything below the waist, defilement through contact with the gadje, or non-Roma. We learn of their traditional trades as smiths, failed socialist-era assimilationist policy, and modern activists’ attempts to organize themselves and defend their rights. With Fonseca, we meet glue-sniffing orphans on Bucharest streets and visit families in sumptuous villas.
Fonseca intersperses personal interactions with research. We learn that, paradoxically, Nazi “racial hygienists” compiled probably the most thorough genealogy of Roma ever, mainly to discover and isolate those with genetic dispositions to “anti-social behavior.” In medieval Romania, Gypsies were part of a slave caste, which, she hypothesizes, included members of other nationalities. She arrives at this conslusion through encounters with marginalized groups who fit the profile of “Gypsies,” but who have no knowledge of Romani language or customs. For such people, she suggests, the term Gypsy – despite its often-negative connotations – might be more suitable than Roma.
As a linguist, I, like Fonseca, have occasionally had to explain to Roma that their language came from India and bears many similarities to other languages of the subcontinent. Why are Gypsies unaware of this past? In areas where the Roma have migrated over the centuries, there are legends – containing some kernel of truth – such as a Persian tale about their receiving cattle as a gift from the ruler. After they promptly slaughtered them all and had a feast, he kicked them out of the country for their undignified behavior. But Roma have no recorded history of their origins – quite unlike the Jews – as their literati have only recently standardized a written language. Even their oral histories seem to go back no more than about four generations.
Fonseca’s observation on the tendency to disinform gadje about Romani language also rang a bell with me. I once sat in a restaurant with a Gypsy musical ensemble during their break. I asked the name of their band. Bokhale muja. They even wrote it down for me, along with a translation ‘Merry Fellows.’ A year later, I told a Roma conservatory student that I knew of a group in town called Bokhale muja. He burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny? It means ‘Merry Fellows,’ doesn’t it?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Sorry, they were pulling your leg. It means ‘hungry faces.”
In addition to such brief contacts, I’ve enjoyed lasting friendships with Roma, including one who recently ran – albeit unsuccessfully – for a Slovak parliamentary seat. I’ve visited their homes for dinner, but I’ve never managed to get to know Gypsies anywhere near as intimately as Fonseca has.
Just as this book was a wealth of information for me, curious readers, even those with no direct experience of this people, will doubtless find it fascinating.