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Gypsies, Roma, Travellers: An Animated History

Animated still
2:51
Damn Fine Media

Editor’s note: The terms Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers are broad titles which describe diverse and different communities and are used in this article and film as general descriptors for the purpose of clarity. For a fuller discussion of these terms see the comments section below and Roma explainer at right.

Europe is home to 10–12 million Roma and Travellers, yet many Europeans are unable to answer the basic question, “Who are the Roma?” Even fewer can answer questions about their history.

It is a complex and highly contested narrative, partly because the “Roma” are not a single, homogeneous group of people. They can include Romanichals in England; Kalé in Wales and Finland; Travellers in Ireland (who are not Roma), Scotland, Sweden, and Norway; Manouche from France; Gitano from Spain; Sinti from Germany, Poland, Austria, and Italy; Ashakli from Kosovo; Egyptians from Albania; Beyash from Croatia; Romanlar from Turkey; Domari from Palestine and Egypt; Lom from Armenia, and many others. It is also partly because many of these groups have differing narratives of their history and ethnogenesis (their origins as an ethnic group).

The Roma do not follow a single faith, but are Catholic Manouche, Mercheros, and Sinti; Muslim Ashkali and Romanlar; Pentecostal Kalderash and Lovari; Protestant Travellers; Anglican Gypsies; and Baptist Roma. There are variations in practises associated with birth, marriages and death, yet also linked cultures that display subtle but distinctive patterns or, as a Roma preacher once described it, “many stars scattered in the sight of God.”

Yet there is much that is shared between different groups of Roma. Roma have a common lexicon in differing dialects of Rromanës, the Romani language. There are common notions around cleanliness codes and behaviors regarding what is Rromano (to behave with dignity and respect as a Roma person) and what can be seen as part of Rromanipé or the “Romani world view.”

Roma groups often have similar occupations, drawing upon traditions of peripatetic and mobile economies that exploit niche markets, such as peddling and trading certain livestock (horses, dogs, and small birds). Roma artisans have also made livings from repairing items deemed “uneconomic” to mend, such as pocket watches, tea-pots, and porcelain dishes—the originators of what is now described as the circular economy. Many Roma, Gypsies, and Travellers are engaged in recycling and have been for centuries, long before major environmental concerns. We were also healers and herbalists for the “country people.”

Mobility has, for many Roma, been part and parcel of identity. It’s “not all wagons and horses,” though, and Roma have been engaged with agriculture (as they still are in many places), artisan skills and automobiles trading, road repairs and roofing. Metal work of all kinds has always been part of the Roma economy, as has craft production (baskets and bamboo furniture, knives’ handles, carved and decorated wagons, fairground signs). Many groups’ names actually stem from occupations—the Balkan Sepetçiler are basket-makers (from the Turkish term for woven baskets) and represent a commercial skill that was used as the basis for organizing taxable communities in the past. Diversity in and amongst Roma groups has its origins in occupational identity, as much as in any other distinctions of culture.

What “binds” or unites the communities in all this rich diversity? The idea of a common heritage of exclusion certainly contributes to the sense of shared “pasts”—the notion of always being the “outsider,” the “other.” There are connections too in the languages; the important words for water, bread, road, blessings, luck, greetings, and farewells can be common to Rromanës dialects. Terms for horses, tools, numbers, and others are sometimes close enough in many cases that one Roma person can “trade” them with another—a favorite game in many communities, as language holds the “key” to our past in its core and “loan words,” gathered over time and migration routes. Language experts have identified these commonalities and drawn from this heritage to illuminate this shared past and heritage.

The notion of the historical journey, the narrative of “the long road of the Roma” over 1,000 years since leaving the Indian lands, is also strong in many Roma groups as a component of identity, with good evidence to support this. Just as not all Italians are descended from Romans and Etruscans, not all Roma groups are direct descendants of Hindus from the Punjab or Ganges basin. However, the point of the “imagined community” is not that it is literally a fiction, but rather that it is symbolically meaningful and has a purpose in bringing together individuals around common ideas of heritage and belonging to which broadly, we can subscribe. The Roma, in this sense, are a people like any other, dispersed across many lands and territories over time and circumstance.

The remarkable thing is that (as a famous historian of the Gypsies once noted), unlike many other peoples in this context, we have no one priesthood, no single holy book, no promised land to return to and yet we not only endure and survive, we truly live in the world. The need is to go beyond this and to flourish, to achieve equality and emancipation from poverty, exclusion, and misery, to become full citizens in the lands we inhabit and to achieve the kind of potential that the creative genius of our existence so far, clearly suggests we can reach.

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