On the first day of the last intern training workshop, in the last week before my first summer in Prague, I was recommended a book: “Bury Me Standing,” by Isabel Fonesca. Wanting to learn all that I could and be as prepared as possible, I dutifully rented this and several other dusty books from the Georgetown library before setting off for my adventures.
I got through most of the book before ever leaving the States, and arrived in Prague thinking I had had the rare treat of discovering an in-depth and perceptive account of the inner world of Europe’s “Gypsies.”. Arriving here, I was promptly disabused of both of these notions. Not only had everyone and their mother heard of this book, but the folks I work with rolled their eyes with exasperation that this was the book I had chosen.
I was assured that Ms. Fonesca had something of a proclivity for exaggerating, and took unfortunate liberties with both the quotation and the interpretation of her interviews and experiences. This book, while an interesting read for the uninitiated gadje (non-Roma), only perpetuated many of the myths and misunderstandings of Romany culture.
Naturally, I chucked it aside and went about my summer learning by degrees all of the ways in which she was wrong, in which her stories did not apply, her descriptions did not fit. (I can only imagine the look on Jakub’s face when he reads what I am about to write and thinks to himself “She has learned nothing.”) But I have to admit that now, ten weeks and a completed internship later, I find myself secretly agreeing with some of her observations. She describes at the end of her book a phenomenon referred to by Ian Hancock, a well-known Romany intellectual, as “hamishagos,” a Romany word meaning “to meddle or disturb.”
“The problem is… an old one: our national disease, hamishagos. For some reason this makes us want to hinder, instead of help, our own who are getting ahead. “Sar laci and’ekh vadra” (‘like crabs in a bucket’), when one tries to climb out, the others hang on to him and pull him back down” (Hancock, “Roma,” 1988).
Almost as often as I have sat quietly and written at the office, I have also sat quietly and listened. I have heard again and again of how this organization or that claims to be helping the Roma, but is only truly interested in using a trendy political issue for its own gain. (For the record, I do believe that this is sometimes the case.) I have heard again and again the words “It is a dirty game.”
I have heard again and again how this person or that cannot be trusted, has ulterior motives, is blind and ignorant. I have written press releases denouncing organizations such as the European Roma and Travellers’ Forum and the United Nations Development Programme for their lack of legitimacy, because they do not represent the Roma people. There is probably some amount of truth in all of this.
What I have not heard, however, is which organization is doing some real good in the world, which IS making a difference, what body really IS legitimate. Perhaps none? Maybe. More likely the problem is in a lack of anything resembling consensus in the Romany movement, a lack of consensus that results, it seems, in something like the crabs-in-a-bucket phenomenon.
The Roma – to their credit – are a phenomenally diverse Nation. They inhabit lands from the Eurasian steppe to the slopes of the Pyrenees. They speak countless dialects of an ancient Hindic tongue and worship a dozen gods, if any at all. But finally, and against all odds, this Nation is coming together to forge one voice, champion one cause, constitute one front with which to fight the discrimination, racism, and poverty that they have suffered for centuries in silence.
But where there is no single, uniform Romany culture in Europe, there is also no single, uniform Romany voice. Many distrust one another. And if they do trust one another, they absolutely do not trust any “gadje” organization that is (or is pretending to be) trying to help. “There are many things they will tell you,” I was once told by another non-Roma who works very intimately within the Romany movement, “but there are many things that they will never, ever say to you, because you are gadje. There are things you will never know.” Fair enough.
But as one Romany organization, with the help of this international body or that, begins to climb out of the pit to which so many other profoundly driven yet equally ignored Romany groups are relegated, it is swiftly dragged back down. This does not stem from a jealous desire to not want to see a brother succeed, but rather from a mistrust and disagreement forged of a lack of common vision, or at best a lack of game-plan.
The Roma, it is true, continue to go unrepresented (with no elected officials on these Romany boards and forums, they are only warriors, not ever representatives), and like crabs in a bucket, they continue to grab at one another’s ankles as each tries to climb free. The idea that one should try to climb at all, I suppose, is not the problem. The problem is how to make the ascent. You cannot climb to freedom by stepping on the heads others, but with so many scrambling in chaos around you, at the end of the day, you do not climb free at all.
So now, in my final blog, let me treat you to what I believe I have learned: while some Roma will go about denouncing their successful brothers and sisters as “career Gypsies,” and others will blindly follow any Rom who has the guts to make a stand, the one thing that I truly think is going to make a difference in this fight is for the Roma to stop dividing, stop denouncing, stop rejecting and questioning and “expressing concern.” Or, well, at least do less of all that.
There is undoubtedly a need for caution, and a need to step carefully and make well thought-out judgments, but if the Moravian Roma are going to continue to take every opportunity to express their fundamental difference from the Bohemian Roma, then the entire concept of the Romany Nation falls on its face. If every Romany organization lacks legitimacy, and every successful Rom is a “career Gypsy,” then the Romany movement moves nowhere at all.
The title of Fonesca’s book comes from a Romany _expression that a frustrated friend of hers once yelled across a crowded parking lot: “Prohasar man opre pirende – sa muro djiben semas opre chengende.” – “Bury me standing. I’ve been on my knees all my life.” Yes. It is undoubtedly time for the Roma to stand, to keep standing, to stand tall, even, if necessary, to be buried standing. There is no more room for those who cry victim and those who plead helpless. Stand. And make a stand. But for crying out loud, stand together!
Posted By Stacy Kosko (Czech Republic)
Posted Aug 19th, 2004