By Karoline Wale
Roma (or Romani) is an overarching term describing various groups of gypsies, mainly living on the shores of the Danube in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia (though many have moved further west). Despite being Europe’s largest ethnic majority, little was known about their culture until very recently as they were not formally studied by anthropologists until 1975 (when three pioneer studies appeared by Gropper, Rehfisch and Sunderland). This is partly due to how the Roma do not fit the classic “one culture, one territory, one social structure” model due to living all over Europe, being invariably multilingual and not sharing a common religion or political structure.
Once settled in a country, Roma reproduce their communities with apparent ease. It is of great anthropological interest how they do so without shared religion or overarching political organisation, especially since they live dispersed among dominant majority populations. It is even difficult to define the Roma, since they are not a unified community in language or lifestyle. For example in Bulgaria, there are over 30 Romani dialects are spoken in addition to Bulgarian. The most widespread group of Roma within Bulgaria is called the yerlii which is also divided into the daskane roma (mostly Christian) and the horohane roma (mostly Muslim). Both of these groups in turn tend to subdivide further and other so-called Romani tribes include the Kardarashi (often called the Serbian gypsies), the Rudari (or the Romanian gypsies), the Ursari and many more. Despite all this categorising, many Roma people may not know which group they pertain to, instead referring to their own homes and families. In fact, the term “Roma” (роми) came into frequent use in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communist regime in 1989 after the first конгрес (type of convention) of the “International Romany Union” in 1971. Unfortunately, it was used to describe many people who often did not self-identify as Roma.
Although many of these groups tend to have their own dialect, there is now a global Romani language developing due to the arrival of the internet. In this way, Roma are becoming more unified as a community. This is an impressive feat given that when one says “the Romani language”, they could be referring to any of several languages. In fact, seven varieties of Romani are dissimilar enough to be considered languages of their own (rather than dialects). All of these languages are indic, due to the Roma people’s indian origins, and is grammatically Balkanic due to the surrounding areas. It is also unique due to being one of the few languages not spoken in its country of origin. When one says the Romani language, they could be referring to any of these varieties.
Furthermore, there are many different types of settlements in which Roma people tend to live in Bulgaria. It is often surprising for people to learn about the communities in the region of Levski, where many rich Roma lead lives of wealth and prosperity within huge mansions (shown above). This contrasts with the Roma who live in the village of Dolni Tsibar where the Roma place an immense value on education. Children are encouraged to go to university and succeed through hard work and education, which goes against the negative stereotype of Roma people. In fact, it is widely believed that this village has the “hardest working Roma people in Europe”. The local school has 200 students of which 80% continued to secondary education and a minimum of 10 people every year continue to university. There is also a project aimed at mature students so that they may complete their education so that no one is excluded. For these reasons, this village is often referred to as “Roma Cambridge”. Both of these examples contradict the ghetto stereotype of Roma settlements.
One of the main issues facing the Roma community is their representation in society. You can see this when you search “roma” or “cigani” in google images and are presented with either over-sexualised images of women (a la Esmeralda) or overly-sensationalised images of violence, both of which stem from negative stereotypes over the years. This stereotype sets up a symbolic frontier between the so-called “nomal” and “other”, contributing to the maintenance of the social order of today. This in turn contributes to many people rejecting the name “Roma” to describe themselves, particularly if they succeed through education as they do not want to face this kind of prejudice.
Social scientists like Dr Annabel Tremlett have now shown how, when asked to represent themselves, Roma people tend to identify as “cigani” and the way in which their everyday lives are similar to anybody else’s. In fact, in interviews with Dr Tremlett taken over the course of a decade, no-one talked about being Roma unless asked. Instead the interviews focussed on the importance of family and the mundanity of everyday life. She hopes that allowing Roma to self-represent will help disband some of the prejudice since the current representation of Roma people is sticking due to the scarcity of alternative presentations for the public imagination to feed off. Having said this, there are now many famous Roma who are embracing their roots such as the clarinet-player Ivo Papazov, known as Ibryana, and the singer Azis. This is leading to greater representation within the community.
In conclusion, Romani culture is very rich and diverse which goes far beyond the stereotype. We have seen how the “Romani” language could be one of several, the many different types of Roma settlements apart from ghettos and how greater appreciation and understanding of this culture could disband the taboo surrounding this group of people. In later essays, you can read about what the history of Roma and some of the issues they face in modern-day society.
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Tremlett, Annabel. “Roma Culture And Society Along The Danube And Cultural Representations Of The Roma In The UK”. Presentation, UCL, 2017.
“Село Долни Цибър – Ромският Кеймбридж”. Nova.Bg. Last modified 2012. https://nova.bg/news/view/2012/12/17/41174/%D1%81%D0%B5%D0%BB%D0%BE-%D0%B4%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%BD%D0%B8-%D1%86%D0%B8%D0%B1%D1%8A%D1%80-%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%BC%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B8%D1%8F%D1%82-%D0%BA%D0%B5%D0%B9%D0%BC%D0%B1%D1%80%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%B6/.
“A Picture Taken On July 20, 2013, Shows A Roma Band Performing During A Wedding Procession In The Village Of Dolni Tsibar On The River Danube”. Getty Images. Last modified 2013. http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/picture-taken-on-july-20-shows-a-roma-band-performing-news-photo/175078464#picture-taken-on-july-20-shows-a-roma-band-performing-during-a-in-picture-id175078464.