The union of Gypsy misfortune

This month, the European Union swells by another 28 million people. With the inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria into the European fold, that's maybe 28 million reasons to celebrate: there'll be bunting hung out on the streets of Bucharest and parties held in the courtyards of Sofia. As two of Europe's poorest countries, their inclusion in the ranks of the western power structure holds innumerable benefits, not least roads, recognition, grants, travel access, but also a sundering of the Soviet past.

Yet for others – in Paris, in Brussels and perhaps even in Dublin and outlying parts of Ireland – it spells the inclusion of three million potential problems: yet more gypsies. In a week that also heralds 2007 as “The European Year of Equal Opportunities for All”, the word “Gypsy” still holds freight, even amongst those to whom it applies: the Roma. 

Newspaper editors are stumped by how they should address the largest minority on the continent.  Town mayors all over Eastern Europe often avoid the term altogether and talk instead of “whitening out” their inner cities.   Skinheads are happy to call for flame-throwers in rock songs over the radio waves – they use “Gypsy” in the same context as “Burn, nigger, burn.”

As a sort of civil and moral frontier, most of us Europeans would like a shiny new lock on the swinging gate that is identity. Lock it shut. Leave the past behind. Snap the hasp on poverty, inequality, exclusion, genocide. 

But if a society recognises itself, and ultimately critiques itself, on how it treats its most downtrodden, then surely the most significant acid test for the EU is its ongoing treatment of the Roma.

You can pitch down tent on any number of geographies. The housing projects in Paris. The toxic dumps in Kosovo. The warren of backstreets in old Polish towns. Many parts of Dublin or Cork or Limerick. Each has its own – sometimes tiny – Romani communities that, when taken together, form a mosaic of life for almost 10 million people, a great number of whom live in Third World poverty. 

There are, of course, Romani doctors, psychologists, ethnographers, poets and scholars who have called for a new era of consciousness. They point to Romani contributions to the world of arts, politics and music by figures of Gypsy descent as diverse as Picasso, Django Reinhardt, Bob Hoskins, Charlie Chaplin, the Polish poet Papusza, Carmen Amaya and even Bill Clinton. But for the large part, their's is an echo chamber that doesn't pierce the old clichés of lying, cheating, stealing, breaking curfew with violin. 

“The persistent, relentless portrayal of Roma as rootless, lawless, immoral, childlike thieves... will ensure that anti-Gypsy prejudice will remain firmly a part of Euro-American attitudes,” says Ian Hancock, a Romani scholar from the University of Texas.

In Bratislava one afternoon – while I was researching the situation of the Roma in Slovakia – a young intellectual engaged me in a debate on American civil rights.  He knew of Martin Luther King, of Stokely Carmichael, even the poetry of Daniel Berrigan. He was a staunch and eloquent defender of the marginalised, but when I asked him about contemporary issues of sterilisation, school discrimination and burnings of Romani houses in his own country, he said without rancor: “Of course, yes, but they're just Gypsies.” Malice is sometimes another name for silence. 

The young girl paddling through the polluted streambed in Kosovo isn't likely to have heard of the “Year of Equal Opportunities”. The boy huffing glue in the broken elevator of the Saint-Denis project will probably not be aware that the decade from 2005-2015 is supposed to be “The Decade of Roma Inclusion”. The residents of Glod in Romania are hardly going to saunter to the local cineplex to watch how Sasha Cohen (as “Borat”) skewered them to look like poor Khazaks, showing their cars being pulled along by donkeys. Borat may have been using comedy as social provocation, but when he famously sang, ‘Throw the Jew down the Well', there's no doubt that there would have been a soft landing on the Gypsy below. 

It is important, of course, not to turn any culture into a list of sorrows and benedictions. Even the Roma themselves have a deep ambivalence about their own identity. While they are as internally diverse as any other group, it's the roving gangs, the scams, the illiteracy, the violence – and the silence – that often get the headlines.
Scholars like Ian Hancock have called on governments, poets, journalists, activists, and the general public to remember that the Roma, like African-Americans, were enslaved in Central Europe only 150 years ago. The Holocaust sent Gypsy ash up the chimneys. “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” says Milan Kundera. 

The moral direction of the European initiatives should not be brought into question. The call for inclusion is decent and right. Why not be in the habit of hoping for a better world? 

Yet so much about Romani history is still wrapped up in a willful forgetfulness. It is not that Europe or America doesn't care – dozens of conferences and non-governmental agencies confront “The Roma Question” in capital cities each year, and 2007 promises to be a bonus year – but the prevailing attitude still echoes the old Slovakian joke: “What is small, dark, filthy and knocking on the door?” 

The answer is not just the future, but the past as well.