Roma - The Invisible Desi People
Thinking about how to begin a proper introduction of my people in a Desi cyberspace, it seemed to me that, at least in the contemporary context, such info looks rather worthy of an ultimate 2 crore question on KBC. What do you think of this: name the South Asian population emigrated from the Subcontinent a millennium ago, nevertheless preserving all this time in the European, American or Australian heartlands of the Western civilization the caste purity rules, their Indo-Aryan language, whose number is nowadays of about 15-20 million people.
The background of the answer is a less noticed South Asian emigration that landed in the Byzantine Empire. It happened in the 11th century, in the context of Mahmud Ghazni’s attacks in Northern India. Until nowadays the details of this migration remain unclear. The ethnic names point rather to basic meanings, not to a specific group: Rom (married person)/ Chhavo (unmarried person), Manush (human being), Kalo (black). They remind somehow of the other more recent Diaspora name, Desi, expressing the consciousness of the basic South Asian identity, as revealed while living among non-South Asians. The choices of names may reflect also the conditions of the two emigrations. While the word Desi indicates the continuity of the connections with the motherland, the Romani names express a regrouping around the basic tenets of the South Asian identity and the desire to continue it wherever they live. In the 11th century’s context, when the Byzantine Empire was in a continuous conflict with its eastern neighbor, the Seljuk Empire, it would have been impossible to preserve any link with the Subcontinent. It is also probable they imagined themselves as the survivors, after witnessing that temporary destruction of the North Indian society.
Thus it appeared the Romanipen (in the last years named also Romani Dharm), the code of conduct adapted to the minority status, focused on the preservation of the identity. In this sense, for enforcing the internal social coherence, the Romanipen employs the usual South Asian means. The phralipen (brotherhood) is the main pillar of the community, emphasized, for example, by calling those of the same age as phral (brother) or phen (sister) and the older as kak (uncle), bibi (aunt). There is a set of purity rules that everybody has to keep, it is not enough just to be born in a Romani community to be considered part of it. The code is enforced by the public opinion of the community, which shuns the persons that disregard the social life inside it, everybody has to be careful of the lajav (shame). When it is necessary to judge a dispute, to clarify the application of a rule or other uncertainties, a group of pativale (respected and trustworthy) Roma assemble to debate and give a verdict.
When the Romani population grew in certain areas, the caste system reappeared, as they specialized in different economic niches. For example, in South Eastern Europe, where there are dozens of castes. This part of Europe remained until nowadays the territory with the highest Romani population (80-90% of the worldwide Roma until the middle of the 19th century, 60-70% today), also with the most important Romani influence in the local society. The other important area is Spain (mostly the southern province of Andalusia). In such territories the Romani influence is obvious in music (the proportion of Romani singers exceeds by far the percent of the Romani minority in most countries), spirituality (for example, in Romania, the use of the tilak of ash on the forehead, to keep the state of well-being). The linguistic influence is important also. Again, in Romania, the most used modality to make a family name is by adding -escu to somebody’s name (see for example the names of the Romanian presidents), or to make a locality name, by adding –eşti (for example, Bucureşti – “At Bucur” in Romani, Bucharest in English, the capital of Romania). As a note, Roma and Romanians are different people, the latter are the descendants of the colonists from the Italian city of Rome, hence their name.
Then, what causes this lack of public knowledge about us? It is mostly to the discrimination encountered by our ancestors in the new areas of settlement. The local population was not very keen to accept the existence of the Romani culture, implicitly of a multicultural society. Its focus was on assimilation, coming with “explanations” for the differences, like those medieval descriptions of the Roma as some Europeans who darken their faces and speak gibberish, in order to look different and fool the others. Then, as the time elapsed and it appeared more and more clear that this people still remains different in certain aspects, these differences were not accepted as cultural ones, as belonging to another world view. They were distorted in order to look like the local majority are right and Roma are wrong, all of this despite the non-violence of the Roma, the peaceful arrival, the absence of any attempt to destabilize the local structures.
Thus it appeared the Gypsy imagery, as a malevolent caricature of the Roma, taking the public place and perpetuating a cultural rift. The Roma became an invisible population, almost nothing is known in public about our way of life. Nobody is interested in it, as long as it is dismissed as a non-culture or as a counter-culture. When there are attempts of clarifying who are the Roma, these tend to present the Romani culture from the point of view of the non-Romani local cultures, further deepening the misunderstandings.
On the other side, the Roma remained with a specific organization unrecognized by the others, struggling continuously for the survival of the unofficial Romani social islands. At the popular level there are, of course, many contacts between Roma and non-Roma, as presented above in the examples of Romani local influences. However, officially, nothing happened until now. This determined a perception of the Roma as second-class citizens, as easy scapegoats for any mishaps of the local majorities. Many times we shared discrimination patterns with the other historically non-assimilated European minority, the Jews. Both had to face paranoid accusations like bringing plague in Europe, stealing or killing children, various conspiracy theories, all culminating with the annihilation attempt of the Holocaust. However, for the Jews it was easier to find communication bridges, due to the similarities of the world view.
In the pre-modern context, the people managed to survive and preserve the identity. However, the advent of the modernity changes the rules of the game. It becomes obvious that the lack of involvement in the public life has far worse consequences, in many cases it determined already the institutionalization of the disfranchisement. Also the flexibility of the social life, the increased possibilities of communication, raises the pressure for self-identification and self-characterization among people from different cultures. This would be also the background of my approach, I am part of a Romani society that has to find rapidly ways for a public presence, a public voice.
It becomes clear that the social life is not the same as centuries ago and that we cannot continue to remain at an unofficial level in order to preserve our identity. For some years I have been working on a presentation of the Romani people, trying to come also with some ideas. As a result of the increased worldwide visibility of the Subcontinent and of the Desi diaspora recently emigrated, I was able to find more appropriate cultural tools for such a presentation, showing us as normal people from the point of view of our world view, departing from the usual public abnormalization. Recently I posted online what I wrote until now, in order to support the Romani focus of the upcoming Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, hoping that this secret with such ample historical proportions will come to light.
Roma - The Invisible Desi People
- » Published on December 13, 2007
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Author: Alin Dosoftei
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