How much of who we think a person is, shape how we feel about them? The story of the Gypsy experience in Europe, is one that showcases the extent that beliefs determine exactly that. A simple misconception about the origins of one group of people would have effects that lasted long after the misconception was cleared up. The name ‘Gypsy’ is at the heart of this confusion. The proper name for this group of people is Romani. In addition to the confusion of their origins, the isolated nature of this group further exasperated the situation of misunderstanding. Their story highlights the lesson we all should remember that fear is often based on ignorance.
Romanis got the name ‘Gypsies’ because Europeans believed that they had come from Egypt.
The truth being that they were a people who had left India some 500 years before entering Europe 1000 years ago. The biblical narrative of dark skinned nomadic people was familiar to Europeans. To a world that had limited knowledge beyond its borders, maybe this made it easier to explain the presence of this strange new people. The Romani were renowned for their traveling performance caravans. They were known for being tamers of wild beasts, and displaying feats that defied people’s understanding. The world still being a superstitious place, they were regarded as having mystical capabilities. A trait that further connected them to the land of Egypt. Egypt the land of unexplained mysteries, a lost civilization steeped in fantastical lore.
It also makes sense that the Romani themselves would play into this notion. The lands they had migrated through were not highly regarded by Europeans. Europe was predominantly Christian when the Romani arrived from the East. The nation that they entered Europe from was the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic state. Its people were regarded as a nation of infidels. The land of India was even more distant to Europeans 1000 years ago. India was still seen as land of heathen barbarians. It makes sense that the Romani, who wanted to avoid conflict didn’t want to be associated with either of these people. So when circumstances presented themselves that showed them in a more favorable light, they didn’t make too great an effort to change that opinion.
The Romani would make their way throughout the European continent. Eventually making their way into the countries of Holland, Spain and even Scotland. They had an uncompromising commitment to their culture. They remained an independent and isolated people. The ability to be highly mobile combined with self-sufficiency was an uncommon attribute. Their migratory nature brings into question the concept of nationality. Having no homeland and yet a clearly discernible culture constantly positioned them as outsiders wherever they found themselves.
The Rich Vibrant Culture of the Romani
The Romani culture has been characterized by the image of roaming circus performers. It was common for them to travel with exotic animals. They would put on exhibitions that would include demonstrations with these animals as well as musical performances. The music of the Romanis influenced a multitude of musical styles. Jazz music, bolero and flamenco all trace inspiration from the music of these eccentric nomads. Their costumes during these shows was memorable for its flamboyance, often incorporating wildly colorful costumes. These shows were not enough to subsist on alone. Their skills in animal husbandry made them useful horseman. They were also adept gunsmiths and canon builders. Moving from place to place, they tried to find a place in the different countries in which they found themselves.
The Romani people are Europe’s largest minority group
Predominately residing in the different countries of Eastern Europe. They’ve faced resistance and discrimination the entire time they’ve been in Europe. Labeled as assassins and thieves, the Romani people have always been viewed through a lens of fear. Constantly rejected, they’ve had their language outlawed. They’ve seen their children abducted and their people tortured and killed. The worst time for the Romanis was during the second world war. Hitler and the Nazis targeted them, and interred them in concentration camps along with the Jewish people and other ‘non-desirables.’ In all total two million Romani would die in these camps. In 1980 in Czechoslovakia Romani women were forcibly sterilized. Social problems continue to plague the Romani community as a result of their cultural isolation/ostracization. Poor education, higher crime rates and problems with drug use are rampant in present day Romani communities. The fear and stigma of the Romani persists today. Just last year, France deported 10,000 Romani from its country.
Throughout history the origin story of the Romani has played a role in the level of acceptance in various locales. The story that they came from Egypt allowed them to be accepted easier. As the idea that they were from the far more foreign land of India, became more common, they were meet with greater resistance. This sense of unfamiliarity would be the cornerstone for vile acts of hate. Despite this obstacle, the Romani have persisted on the European continent. They have held fast to their identity and carved out a place for themselves by working hard and being adaptable. Where it is they originated over 1000 years ago has no bearing on this.