Paul Polansky is a solid, beefy guy, an ex-boxer, who I’d even go so far as to describe as a bit Hemingway-esque. He’s a former journalist who skipped America in protest of Vietnam and has been an expat ever since. Hisen heard he was in town for the day and took me to meet him at a gas station pizzeria off the highway.
This was the American author I’d been hearing about since the day I met Hisen, the one who had hired him during the war to travel Kosovo and help document the situation, and then the stories of the then-region’s Roma. The one who had told Hisen’s own story and others’ in Not a Refugee and Gypsy Taxi; who had marched with Hisen and hundreds of other Roma from the camps in Mitrovica to Macedonia during the war and lived in Hisen’s village for close to a decade. He has been, and still is, one of the strongest international advocates for Roma, and especially Kosovo’s Roma. Although his advocacy takes many forms, he is a writer first, and the images of Roma life and struggle in his his free-form poetry pulling from experiences over his years living and working with Roma in Kosovo and the Czech Republic are impossible to dismiss.
Originally hired by UNHCR to investigate the possibility of Roma hoarding weapons in the Mitrovica camps set up for Roma IDPs and returnees, Paul was far more interested in the living conditions of the Roma, and began his ongoing campaign to bring the horrific conditions in the camps to light and make UNHCR accountable for the situation the Roma there were trapped in. Paul doesn’t try to put a tactful face on what he has seen as a betrayal of Kosovo’s Roma by the international community, namely the UN. Nowhere in Kosovo has that betrayal been clearer than in the lead-contaminated camps (which have now all been closed, although 10-20 families remain in Osterode because they fear for their safety in the Albanian side of Mitrovica). Paul described, a he put it, the loss of an entire generation of Roma children in the poisoned camps in this report from 2009.
He remains skeptical about gadzo-led efforts to help/integrate/save the Roma, talking bitterly about Roma empowerment programs led by international organizations that pour money into translators, expat salaries, transportation, security, while in the meantime Roma families could use a tiny fraction of that money to invest in their own businesses. He says it is still hard to get UNHCR to hire Roma.
Even after hearing his background, I wasn’t sufficiently prepared for Paul’s overwhelming knowledge of Kosovo’s Roma. Within a few minutes after Hisen and I’d joined him at his table, he was boasting that he had taught Roma people their own history. They usually can’t trace their ancestry or traditions back past their great-grandparents. Paul, on the other hand, has it down pat all the way back to India. He pointed at Hisen. “Classic Lohari – blacksmith,” he said, explaining Hisen’s roots in an Indian blacksmith caste.
He has collected hundreds of Wikipedia pages worth of cultural memes and historical footprints of the Roma, and says he has been able to trace European Roma all the way back to their origins in India, going back one village at a time. In some cases, he has found specific cultural practices Roma hold today that match ones that only exist in specific places along their route from India. He gave me an example: when he was living in Preoce, one night Hisen asked Paul to take him and his young daughter to a local healer because the daughter had an ear infection. Over Paul’s protests to take the girl to a “real” doctor, Hisen insisted that this healer had an excellent reputation and would cure his daughter more surely than a doctor in Pristina. So off they went to the local healer, who examined the girl, left the room and came back with a straw. She stuck it in Hisen’s daughter’s ear and proceeded to suck out the white worms that were “causing” the daughter’s earache. The trick actually worked – the earache was gone. Paul, thinking this was interesting, investigated the practice of healers curing earaches by pretending to suck worms out of peoples’ ears, and tracked it to a very specific region in India. He says has done the same with several other practices whose origins Roma people themselves couldn’t explain. He’s made several trips to India to complete the tracking, and says he has multiple books worth of information yet to be published.
Paul has become very close with the Roma communities he’s worked with over the years, and has a perspective on Roma life unique to most outsiders. He’s the godparent of two of Hisen’s children, and Hisen says he’s so close to Paul that he knows “how the man is breathing.” So Paul’s poems go beyond showing the Roma as flat stereotypes, naïve innocents trapped by suffering. He tries to depict Roma and their culture “warts and all,” as he says in the introduction to Gypsy Taxi.
His poems point out that in some cases, Roma culture (or, at least, the culture in and around Preoce, where Paul was based) does not fit with the typical human rights agenda or even with the norms of other cultures around them. The difficulty in changing this, as Roma in Paul’s poems point out time and again, is that culture and tradition are the things that are keeping the Roma from assimilating, from disappearing – after being persecuted, ignored, forced out, poisoned and made to live out the stereotypes of garbage pickers, their culture is all they have left. How should Roma and the different groups working to change their situation reconcile this? It’s a very important question for people trying to bring different communities up to “modern” standards of living that include certain norms and beliefs.
His examples also highlight the differences between Roma in different parts of Kosovo, and definitely between Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians today. Roma from Prizren would not recognize many of the traditions and habits Paul documents in his poems about Roma in Preoce; based on what I’ve heard from Ashkali and Egyptian friends, the people described in the book would seem very foreign to them, even if they do actually share a common heritage if you go back far enough. What then does that say about the push to treat the “RAE community” as one group, and use a common strategy for addressing their common problems? Even if the symptoms are the same, problems might have different causes stemming from different cultures, situations, histories, etc. – and therefore require more carefully tailored solutions. Solutions that start with the Roma themselves, not internationals. At this point, since so much of the data on the problems faced by Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians treat them as one group (and there’s so little well-collected and comprehensive data on them to begin with), it’s really difficult to say whether the common solutions being devised apply.
Here are a couple of my favorite poems of Paul’s:
They caught me in the marketplace where my people used to sell clothes, where Albanians now sell contraband.
Four men threw me into the back seat of a blue Lada, yelling, “We told you, no more Gypsies in Prishtina.”
As I was pushed down on the floor,
I felt the gun barrel in my left ear. It was so cold
I jerked just as someone pulled the trigger.
Blood splattered the side of my face
from the wound in my shoulder.
I collapsed, pretending to be dead.
I prayed to my dear, deceased mother, to all mulos, that these men wouldn’t see from where the blood was oozing. When we arrived, they dragged me out by my feet. My head crashed on the ground, bouncing over several stones.
They threw me head-first into a well.
I never reached the water.
There were too many bodies.
I lay crumpled up, almost unconscious
until the smell and sting of wet lime
brought me back to my senses.
AFTER THE WAR*
after Hasan got a chance
to negotiate the purchase
of his new girlfriend
he asked me to help him
finalize the price
took Jemail with us
he was a respected as a good broker
when two parties couldn’t agree
we all sat on the floor in a circle
the father said he’d finally agreed
to sell his daughter
if his price was met
wanted 1,000 for himself
didn’t care about the traditional clothes and gold
for his daughter
Hasan said he was a refugee
the Albanians had burned down his home
had no place to live
very little money
did have a job
but couldn’t pay 1,000 euro
negotiations lasted for two hours
father wouldn’t compromise
finally we called a break
I went outside with Hasan and Jemail
to discuss the situation
Hasan said he wouldn’t pay
he wasn’t buying a cow
Jemail said he had to follow tradition
it was the only thing
Roma had left
after the war.
*from Gypsy Taxi, by Paul Polansky
Posted By Samantha Hammer
Posted Jul 29th, 2011