Tuesday, 8 April 2014

International Romani Day: and why this year will be my last.

Last year I asked the question “Why are Britain’s Romani not at the forefront of International Romani Day action?”; a simple question, you would expect, yet, one that seemed to unsettle the so called activists who had turned this day into a Dale Farm Remembrance day. This was the first year in which I felt uneasy celebrating International Romani Day, in fact, it was the start of a year long journey of confronting and rebuffing everything I had ever taken for granted:  my knowledge of self and my knowledge of us – the Romani people. This year will be my last International Romani Day – an unexpected statement some may say, given my usual forthright support of all things Romani. I’m still a proud Romani man; I’m still passionate and sincere about equality; but on my journey of discovery I recognised how distant this day has become from us – the Romani people – who it superficially aids. 

I have always been vocal on what I understand as an appropriation of my oppression. For as long as I have engaged with the Romani rights ‘movement’, it has been led by well educated, non-Romani, individuals. At first, I found this somewhat perplexing; it was almost humorous to learn that the ‘enemy’ – whom I had always been told to avoid and whom were the source of my exclusion – were ‘fighting’ for my rights. Their support, however, I have always welcomed - it is mostly offered with good intentions – but their leadership is something I abhor. “I’m organising Roma Nation Day” wrote one well known, non-Romani, activist to me in an email. This is an individual who has built his entire career, and to an extent his life, on cultural appropriation and speaking for other people. Should anyone dare to criticise his monopoly over Romani activism, his antagonistic tactics, or categorically incorrect homogenisation of anyone who has ever been within 5 foot of a caravan; he has a herd of Oxbridge educated followers ready to defend him and bombard his critics with emails.  As a matter of fact, I have been on the receiving end of this: but Pip, why can’t you just let us speak for you? There wouldn’t even be a Roma day if it wasn’t for He Who Must Not Be Named. 

Sadly, they are not far from the truth. The International Romani Union, whom first declared International Romani Day back in 1990, have always counted non-Romani activists amongst their ranks. This is something I’ve learnt relatively recently; until I read a friend’s paper last year, I had not the slightest indication of who the International Romani Union were, let alone that it had established International Romani Day, and even the Romani flag. These realisations were a turning point for me and my understanding of what it is to be Romani, as beneath the rhetoric of cultural celebration and equal rights, is something that has always sat in firm opposition to my beliefs – nationalism.  In truth, the International Romani Union is established on the belief that the Romani people are some kind of dispersed nation, descending from India, whose culture and language has been polluted through the coercion of the nation states in which we have come to settle. They yearn for our reunification – for us to recognise and somewhat pine for our Indian homeland – and to purify our muddied tongues so that we may speak a standardised, unpolluted, dialect of the Romani language.

To learn that the flag I had been flying stood for something that would not be out of place in a far right manifesto was somewhat hard to swallow. For as long as I can remember, I have stood in opposition to nationalism and considered it the root and the cause of our oppression, yet I began to wonder: was I, too, guilty of employing nationalist beliefs? I had considered my B+ blood type and thalassemia as some form of genetic authentication of my true Romani blood, given their prevalence in India; I had been guilty of branding others widos – fake Gypsies – for their lack of knowledge of the Romani tongue; I had told the story of our supposed Indian homeland time and time again to anyone who had asked who we – the Gypsies – were; and I had referred to us so often as ‘we’ – as though we were a homogeneous people separated by nothing but borders. I realised, however, that I am not a nationalist; I am merely the victim of my own inquisitive mind. In my search for the answer to - ‘who am I?’ - I had turned to the studies, the theories, and the literature popularised by those who adhere to this nationalist way of thinking. Now I understand, however, that the answers cannot be found in books. They’ll only inform me of someone else’s agenda or their understanding of self and others. My truth – my ­ understanding of who I am – can only be found in my words and my experiences. 

‘Agenda’ – I think this is where my concerns with International Romani Day are rooted. I have always understood this day as a time for Romani people across the world to celebrate our cultures and raise awareness of the inequality that we face, but now I only see it as an instrument of nationalism, especially now it’s increasingly being referred to as ‘Roma Nation Day’. The people – like He Who Must Not Be Named – who profess to be the ‘organisers’ of International Romani Day, appear to have a much different understanding of what it is to be Romani. I won’t speak for 12 million people, but I have never met a Rom who places India as central to their identity and it’s certainly not central to my own. I’m aware that our language has its origins in India, but I do not feel Indian – I will never feel Indian – and I feel no connection to my supposed homeland in any way at all. My Baba always tells me that the Rom are the lost tribe of Moses – whether it’s true or not, this is how she makes sense of her history. Who is anyone to tell her that she’s wrong? To tell her that she has somehow internalised one of the many fallacies disseminated by the non-Romani people? 

This however, seems to characterise the International Romani Union or whoever else is behind this nationalist rhetoric. Here we have highly educated Romani men and their interfering non-Romani associates, who believe they can non-democratically decide what, who and where is Romani and what, who and where isn’t. Apparently, we should all speak in a perfect Kalderas dialect of Romani, call ourselves the Roma, and mourn for a homeland we didn’t even know existed. I speak a mishmash of Bugurdzi and Anglo-Romani, I call myself a Gypsy and I have more nostalgia for Bulgaria than I do India – does this mean I’m not a true Rom?  I can speak only for myself, but Romani is not a nationality, it’s more like a state of mind.  Yes, we are born Romani and we are raised Romani but we are also citizens, and have been for centuries, of the countries in which we have built our cultures and lives. 

I do not see it as pollution or impure to speak a dialect of Romani that has been influenced by the migratory path of my ancestors, nor do I see it as wrong to have adopted elements of the culture of the country in which I have grown up in. I am not impure, I am not less of a Rom; rather, the hybridity of our identities and cultures is a clear illustration of our nomadic pasts.  Whether we still travel or not, we are the nomads and it is this which I believe runs through our blood. Our cultures and identities are so complex and diverse because of the journeys our ancestors took, and this is what makes the ‘Roma Nation’ seem so bizarre to me. Part of the reason we are seen as so at odds with society is our rejection of place and our rejection to conform to societal expectations. Romani nationalism asks us to reject our nomadic past, irradiate any influence it has had on our culture, and conform to the non-Romani notion that we are no one without a homeland. 

Other people always wish to tell me who I am – even the non-Romani apparently know more about me than I do. It is almost a weekly tradition now, that a born again Gypsy (and I don’t mean the Light and Life kind) will preach to me from the book of Hancock. Usually the discovery of great granny born in a tent is enough to qualify them as Romani experts. “The word Gypsy is offensive” they tell me as they plan their April 8th demonstrations. Our very own brand of Zionism has, at least, registered in their minds even if it has bypassed the rest of us. These people don’t speak for me, and I doubt they speak for the 12 million Romani people living in deplorable conditions. When you are confronted with neo-nazi violence, continual eviction, poverty, educational segregation, sterilisation, unemployment, poor health and racism, the flashmobs of middle class activists, unwittingly propagating nationalist agendas, do not even register. I am not someone’s political play thing, nor do I accept the nationalist ramblings of the self-elected Romani leaders. I will always celebrate my culture and I will always fight for equality, but I will do this with sincerity and not within the nationalist framework in which International Romani Day is currently positioned.


  1. Well I''m going to celebrate It. Not because someone wrote it down in a book or a politician said this is our day to celebrate, but because my people are recognized on this day. On this day I will remember everyone who came before me. Not just my grandmother not just my grandfather,but every gypsy man and woman Who fought and stood up for their children. for all Gom who who were deceived and told that they had to stay in the shadows.I understand what you're saying,I do.I'm saddened and hurt as well because of all of this, but we are strong people, and I know that one day it won't be like this.I don't know you but I love you as my Gypsy brother. we just have to help them to become aware the change is possible. Most of our people don't even realize they have a choice. This will change. God will change it. God bless.

  2. Good article.

    I was speaking the other day about how Roma had become much the same as Jewish folk were in the 20s/30s- a diaspora with no identified homeland - and then of course WW2 and Israel changed all that.

    We were idlely speculating if there might be a move to do the same for Roma - ie set up a Western satellite state bang in the middle of a high conflict zone in Asia, arm them to the teeth, wring hands about horrible treatment that europeans have given them, while demanding an adherence to white Western hegemony as a condition of support in a region where people will come to hate their colonial tresspassing, while the West is held up as a model of tolerence for defending this poor put upon minority.

  3. Romano Djives is something that I have an internal fight over. It seems our voices are increasingly marginalized by non-Romani academics and politicians - but then I remind myself, it's always been this way. International Romani Day is a good day for awareness, but only if it brings awareness to the right things. My daj always told me that the only way Roma would be accepted was if the non-Roma spoke on our behalf and dictated everything for us. They pretty much do that, but we're still not accepted. I have a lot of other things I'd like to say, but I don't feel that I have the freedom to say them.

    I'm with you on this on, though phrala.

  4. That's a lot of wisdom, for one so young!

  5. Well said: and no one should ever try to speak for you: you do it so well, and the time has come for academics and outsiders to shut up, and step back.

    The diversity of romani and travelling people should be acknowledged, and respected, and reclaimed from the romanticism of the past: it is an issue the media obstinately refuses to engage with, as part of its agenda of hate.

    Oh: and my great granny was born in a tent, of course, from a family of travellers and romany gypsies: it does not give me an insight into the life of travelling people today, but exploring my own family background has forced me to consider my own preconceptions, and forged an interest in these issues, and a deep revulsion at the way the media, post Leveson, is ever more ruthlessly targeting and demonising gypsies and travellers.

  6. I could not agree more with you on many levels - you're right (as are those who've replied) - it's time for *supporters* to know their place - if people want to support the cause of the various nomadic peoples in Europe, they (we) need to wait until we're (a) told we're needed and (b) told what we're needed for - not jump the gun and tell you what you need or make decisions for people.

    The heterogeneous nature of the various nomadic groups in Europe is surely inherent in their very nature, genetics, culture, food and so on - I think (as an outsider who's got about 1/64th "gypsy blood" looking in) that such rich culture deserves celebrating and preserving, but if and how that's done is very much up to those within each of those very different nomadic groups - I (as said outsider with 1/64th "gypsy blood") have absolutely no idea what is/isn't important to those groups just as I'm fairly sure that each of the different groups has no clue about the others and can't speak for them, as you say.

    Cherishing and celebrating your heterogeneity as an individual in the way you want, at the time you want and in the place you want sounds like the way I'd probably want to approach it too, were it me (I have similar issues with being told that I should "celebrate gay pride" - I'm not proud of it though - no more than I'm proud of being male or blond or whatever else I have zero control over due to my genetics). You're bang on right that it's time for "experts" to back off but know that there are plenty willing to follow when we are told it is the time and what we are needed for - plenty who aren't here to take over or to tell you what you want - just who want to show support IF and only IF we're told it is welcome.


  7. Nice one. "The history of the nation state is written in Gypsy blood," says high priest professor whatsit. Same as for my working class ancestors same as for Africans same as for the Irish poor same as same as same as same as....
    I'm a settled person with vague pretensions towards travelling becos I have and do live within 5 foot of a caravan - on wheels and a floating one. Still working that one out... New Traveller? Bargee (euch!)? traveller with a small t? 'cultural' or 'lifestyle', definitely not a hippy!!!!! Or am I just me, white working class and all that is just something I do?
    Circumstances mainly beyond my control has propelled me to a position where I get to fight prejudice towards Romani Gypsies and also Travellers. Racists can't seem to tell the difference unless they use an idea of it to give a perceived impure/inferior version an extra boot. As the prejudice comes from Gadze (as you put it although we are not homogenous either) then its my responsibility so I fight it and don't need anyone's permission to do that fank you very much. Although if I don't know any Romani or Irish Travellers then I won't recognise it in me though making me of the problem. What a brilliant way to make friends though. Equality.
    Yet I wouldn't dream of working out someone else's identity or telling them what to think. Not that I don't have urges seeing that in my head I often get moments when I think I know everything there is to know about everything.. But about what its like to be a Romani I know nothing. Zilch. And never will.
    I once had a chat with a pissed off eu special advisor at one of those academic conferences thingies . Romani Studies is a bit out there on its own I sed to him. There's a reason for that he sed. Most of it is shit. Just reporting a relevant quote btw....Not my argument. I have my own journey and I hope that our paths cross Pip. I will always need support and advice on how to support.

  8. Dear Filip,

    I have read your post and I liked it a lot. I am the online community manager of the No Hate Speech Movement of the Council of Europe. We have an online community of 50 young activists from all around Europe and we organise action days almost every month. Our last Action Day was on the 8 April for Solidarity with Roma people on the occassion of the International Romani Day. Are you interested in joining our community? I would like to set up a strong team of Roma activists to move forward in online actions.
    You can read more of us on: http://www.nohatespeechmovement.org
    Or visit our FB page: https://www.facebook.com/nohatespeech

    Kind regards,
    Laszlo FOLDI

    1. If you contact me on twitter https://twitter.com/pipogypopotamus i'll give you my email address

  9. That is a very interesting academic opinion but on ground level things like this day are so important. It seems like every day one of my students calls another child "gitano" as an insult and I have to remind them that they are talking about real people and it isn't an insult at all.
    Campaigns like this put Romani people in the limelight and say: hey, look, these are human beings, they exist outside of your fairy tales!

    A few months ago a child in my city was kidnapped and managed to get away, and all the little children were terrified that "gitanos" were coming to steal them. No one knew where the kidnappers were from, but that word had just got attached to them. If these kids go to one of the kids workshops being offered in Oviedo tomorrow for "día internacional del pueblo gitano" maybe it will undo some of that damage. I don't know who organized the workshops but I think they are a great idea.