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world wide wednesdays :: gypped

traditional romani wagon
it's likely that you've used the term "gypped" when you've felt cheated of something and i'll bet you didn't know when you were doing so that you were saying something that was derogatory and more than a little racist. most of us don't know that the word originates from the term "gypsy" and began as a way of referring to activities of theirs perceived as sly, underhanded or outright criminal. it's evidence of a long, dark history of mistrust and vilification between white europeans and the widespread minority group they call gypsies.

the term "gypsy" itself is a misnomer, given by people who believed these darker-skinned neighbours originated in egypt. in fact, linguistic and dna analysis has determined that they came from northern india, beginning their migration between 500 and 100a.d. and arriving in europe [specifically the balkans] as early as the twelfth century. the romani language [also the proper name for the people who speak it, although you'll hear rom, roma and local variants of the term used as well], which is spoken today by between five and six million people is related most closely to hindi, punjabi and bengali. generally, it is those located in eastern europe who have retained the language; the further north you go, the more romani have combined their original language with that of the country in which they've settled. [side note: most romani speak the language of their home countries as well as that of their ethnic group, however many further north don't know a pure form of the ethnic language at all. there are significant romani communities all over europe, however, as far north as finland and all the way west to portugal.]

flag of the romani people, adopted 1933
after leaving northern india and eventually finding themselves in europe, it's a fair guess that the first thing that went through the collective romani mind was "we've made a huge mistake". from their first interaction with the peoples of europe, things were at best coldly civil.   by 1385, less that sixty-five years after the first written account of european- romani contact, there are records of romani being traded as slaves. while some jurisdictions allowed the romani safe passage, this was often to facilitate them going somewhere else. from the early 15th to the early 16th century, many states expelled romani from their territory and several later instituted laws that they could be killed on site. and sadly, those who were killed might have been considered lucky. it was common in much of europe for romani to be branded, maimed [women would have their ears cut off to make them more easily identifiable in bohemia and moravia] and beaten. in 1545 the holy roman empire declared that killing a "gypsy" would not be considered a crime and the glut of bodies that resulted from the ensuing frenzy of murders caused so many civic problems that they had to step in and ask the people to at least stop drowning romani women and children. [side note: even the very first interaction with europeans had some inauspicious signs for the romani. the irish cleric symon semeonis, who decided to stroll from his home country to the holy land, was the first to record a meeting with the romani, on the island of crete in 1322. in his account, he referred to them as the "children of cain", meaning that they were descended from adam and eve's evil son who killed his good-guy brother abel.]

the history of romani persecution is absolutely horrific in both its practices and the length of time it has endured. notice that i'm using the present tense there? that's because there are still outbursts of xenophobia against the romani in modern europe. while you hear mention of the romani being targeted by the nazis for extermination, discussion of their modern persecution usually ends there. and even the extent of their persecution during the holocaust hasn't been sorted out: while original estimates put the number of romani killed during the holocaust at between 100,000 and 500,000, it has more recently been postulated that the number might be closer to 2,000,000. [note: one of the stories concocted by the catholic church to ensure that their flock stayed well and truly pissed at the romani was that they had been responsible for forging the nails that were used to crucify christ. this is patently ridiculous, because the romani weren't anywhere near the holy lands at that time, but why should the facts get in the way of some good old fashioned religious hatred? it seems that labeling insular, marginal communities within europe as complicit in the murder of christ was a successful strategy for bigots.]

map of present-day romani populations within europe
after the war, the romani who were left in eastern europe might not have been explicitly marked for death, but the new governments that emerged weren't a hell of a lot more sympathetic. many countries gathered up their romani populations, shipped them off to remote locations and told them to stay put, outlawing their traditional nomadic lifestyle. policies of forced integration continued unabated, as they had for hundreds of years. czechoslovakia distinguished itself by labeling romani as a "socially degraded stratum" and in 1973 introduced a program of forced and/ or coerced sterilization that continued until 1991. think about that for a moment: when we first heard nirvana's "smells like teen spirit", a developed european country was sterilizing women against their will. 

to this day, many romani face discrimination across europe and live in dire poverty. often, they have been left worse off than they were under communist rule, since they have lost the jobs that the government provided and no longer have access to free education. although at least no one is subjecting them to forced surgery anymore. as their status in europe has become more precarious, the romani have responded in much the same way that they always have, by moving to an area where their prospects seem better. when canada lifted its requirement that potential czech immigrants and refugees acquire a visa, in 1996, they received a shocking ten-fold increase in refugee claims, almost all of them from romani desperate to escape. canada blinked slowly and reacted by slamming the visa requirement back on in 1997. [side note: this was not the first case of romani fleeing europe for the west. there are significant communities in several areas of the united states.]

modern romani in lviv, ukraine
however the destination for most romani exiting eastern europe has been to western europe. the western european nations have reacted to this with a "didn't we kick you out a few hundred years ago?" kind of welcome. italy declared romani  a threat to national security after two romani men raped and killed and italian woman. they did not, however, declare italians a threat to national security when two romani children drowned within sight of several beach-goers. [and any country that elects silvio berlusconi is some sort of threat in my books.] the french press has sounded the alert that paris is being overrun by hordes of gypsy children pickpocketing tourists [as if the children were the problem and the victims]. both the french and italian governments have demolished the temporary encampments where many romani have been forced to take up residence as a subtle way of telling them to move along. police in naples gently encouraged a group of romani to abandon their camp by lobbing molotov cocktails at it. romani remain a popular target for politicians seeking to assign blame for rising crime rates and other urban problems, to say nothing of white supremacist movements. [side note: part of the perception that romani are criminals is based on a misunderstanding of similar-sounding terms. the child pickpockets who have shown up in droves in many european cities are thought to be controlled by members of a romani mafia. in fact, authorities believe that they are controlled by a branch of the romanian mafia, which is made up of romanians of different origins, including, but not exclusive to, romani.]

the situation of europe's romani should be a continental embarrassment and yet we seem to hear little of it. and when you do read press on the issue, much of it reinforces the dominant narrative that the romani are criminal by nature. aside from the characterization as an empire of thieves, much lurid press has been given to the romanian tradition of child marriage, without clarifying how widespread the custom actually is among modern romani groups. in societies that like to consider themselves progressive, hatred and distrust of the romani remain acceptable, even the norm. the group has truly been gypped.

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