The Gypsies

Nowadays, the Romanians' principal obsession is the Gypsies, who make the Romanians feel as if they were living in a castle under siege. Almost all crimes are attributed to Gypsies, whose population seems to be rising every day. Although the figure given by the 1992 census is not a spectacular one – 409,723 or 1.8 per cent of the population – the number is misleading, sine many Gypsies were not recorded as Romanians. Their real number is certainly higher. But they are even more numerous in the collective imaginary than they are in reality. There is talk of a million, two million or even three million (in other words, more than one in ten of the total population of Romania). While Romanians are having fewer and fewer children, the Gypsies are having many. They continue to show Third World demographic behavior, compared with the European behavior of the rest of the population. What will happen? Some say that Gypsies will be in the majority in 50 years' time. Originally, the Gypsies came from the direction of India and their presence in the Romanian lands was first recorded in the fourteenth century. They were divided from the Romanians, not only by their "race" but also by their social condition. For centuries, they were slaves, working on the estates of princes, boyars and monasteries. Their emancipation occurred in Wallachia and Moldavia towards the middle of the nineteenth century (shortly before the liberation of the remained villages, but in districts of their own, where they did not mix with Romanians. Others went to the towns, where they are like-wise generally concentrated in certain districts. Nomadic Gypsies have almost disappeared. The Romanians' impression is that Gypsies do not work, living instead by stealing or begging. In-fact, some are skilled craftsmen with a tradition of fine work in iron, wood and gold. At least no-one denies that they are born musicians. Fiddlers are by definitions Gypsies, and Gypsy music is an important element of the artistic sensibility of this part of Europe.The Gypsies are the most widespread minority in Romania, being more or less evenly distributed throughout the country. Despite the generic name used to designate them, they are also the most heterogeneous minority. They think of themselves as a diverse ethnic group divided into subgroups. They also vary greatly in terms of integration: many remain exclusively within their own community, in an archipelago of Gypsy "islands", while others are integrated to varying degrees, and some are even assimilated. "Authentic" Gypsies speak their own language and have maintained their customs and laws. "Gypsy justice" still operates, in parallel with the law of the land. In a republican Romania, Gypsies have remained monarchists after their own fashion: they have a "king", and also an "emperor". The majority live in poverty. Many of their children do not go to school, or do not complete their schooling; abandoned children and "street children" are more often than not Gypsies. But a Gypsy bourgeoisie or aristocracy has also emerged. Being by nature reluctant to accept constraints, the Gypsies have shown more "economic imagination" than the Romanians since 1989. Some have become rich, often by less than orthodox means (this could be said, of course, of plenty of wealth in Romania). The "Gypsy mafia" regularly features in the mass media, in connection with kidnapping, fighting, prostitution and so on. Gypsy "palaces" have built almost all over the country; they are not exactly palaces, but large, striking houses with countless turrets: a kitsch synthesis in which Disneyland meets the Far East. A traveler approaching the town of Strehaia from Craiova, the capital of Oltenia for example, will enter the town though an entire district of such palaces. The Romanian district on the other side, by contrast, has people crowded into sordid blocks of flats. Here, the Gypsies are rich and the Romanians are poor. The Gypsy men do not attract attention by any specific costume, but the women still dress in their traditional wide multicolored skirts. The maids who work in the gypsy "palaces" are evidently Romanian. For Romanians, this is an upside-down world. While it is certainly abusive to imply an equivalence between "Gypsy" and "criminal", it is no less true to say that Gypsies live in a world of their own, in which the constraints imposed by modern society have not yet made themselves felt. In recent years, Gypsy intellectuals and politicians have emerged – there is a Roma Party with representation in the Romanian parliament. Their mission is not an easy one: on the one hand, they have to convince their own community of the necessity of respecting certain rules, and on the other, they must convince the Romanians that they need to show more goodwill towards the Gypsies. When Gypsies want to leave the country, they go without troubling much about visas, as Romanians have to. Wherever you go in the West, you will meet Romanian Gypsies; the Romanians might be expected to be delighted that at least some Gypsies are leaving the country, but they tend not to be, as they consider that wherever Gypsies go they make a laughing stock of Romania. A well-known anecdote tells how Romanian Gypsies ate the swans in the lake of Schönbrunn Palace near Vienna. Their recent presence in London did not go unobserved as they exercised their traditional practice of begging. The Romanians are very offended by the assimilation, current in the West, on the terms Romanian and Gypsy. Although Gypsies who leave Romania are Romanians, at least according to their passports, Romanians are unable to understand how someone who is not ethnically and culturally Romanian can nevertheless be considered to be so. Another matter irritates Romanians intensely. As the word Ţigan ("Gypsy") has come to be pejorative, Gypsies insist on being called by the name they use themselves, Romi ("Roma"). "Roma" is uncomfortably similar to "Romanian", although the two words have quite different origins. How can foreigners be expected to make such fine distinctions? What is amusing is that in the time of Ceausescu, the Romanians campaigned – thinking of their ancient Roman origins – for the English spellings "Rumania" and "Rumania" to be changed to "Romania" and "Romanian". And they almost completely succeeded in imposing this modification on the English language (although not on French and German). Now, they are having second thoughts, but what can they do? There have also been bloody confrontations between Romanians and Gypsies. In a village, a Gypsy kills a Romanian. The indignant villagers fall on the whole Gypsy community. Houses are set on fire, and people burn to death. Even if such episodes are few and far between, they constitute danger signals. The only solution is acceptance and integration. There is a need for goodwill, imagination and perseverance on both sides. Romania: Borderland of Europe Reaktion Books, £19.95, 2001

by Lucian Boia (b. 1944)