Gypsies—Are They Misunderstood?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Britain
“THE Gypsies are here!” Few neighbourhoods would welcome such news. Many view Gypsies as thieves, social misfits.* They are accused of turning neighbourhoods into eyesores by dwelling in campsites that are unkempt and filthy. This feeling of disdain, however, is quite mutual. Indeed, Gypsies call non-Gypsies gaji or gorgios. These words and their variants mean “yokels” or “barbarians.”
Who, though, are the Gypsies? Why do they have such a difficult time maintaining friendly relations with the settled community? Are they really misfits or, perhaps, simply misunderstood?
Their Mysterious History
In a general sense, the word “gypsy” means “a person of nomadic habit or origin.” True Gypsies, however, are a race of people with a language of their own. They call themselves Rom, which means “Man” in their language. From this we get the word “Romany”—another name for the Gypsy. However, the origin of the Gypsies was long a puzzle.
The word “Gypsy” itself derives from “Egyptian.” But it is most unlikely that they originated in Egypt, though at one time they claimed to do so. As recently as the 1780’s, philologist Grellmann noted the striking similarity between the Gypsies’ Romany language and the Indo-Aryan languages of northern India. His studies led him to conclude that India was the motherland of the Gypsy. Today this is generally accepted as fact. However, when and why they began their westward migration remains a mystery. As Gypsies themselves have never been keepers of written records, historical traces of them are found only in the annals of the nations in which they have sojourned.
Such records reveal that the Gypsies have seldom been welcome as guests. Indeed, their carefree way of life—and occasional rapacity—have often triggered vicious persecution. In the 16th century, England ordered them out of the country, declaring death for any who remained! Gypsies fared just as badly in what is now Romania. There they were bought and sold as slaves up until the middle of the 19th century. In 1726, Emperor Charles VI of Germany declared that Gypsy men were to be hanged. Their women and children were to have their ears cut off, so as to be easily identified if they dared return. In France, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, Gypsies were chased by dogs and hunted like deer for “sport.”
What of modern times? The Nazi regime labelled Gypsies “enemies of the people” and set about exterminating them. Over 400,000 perished.
Their Life Today
In spite of this gruesome history of persecution, Gypsies today thrive in Europe, the United States, South America, and Australia. A common language, an undying urge to keep on the move, an unwritten culture kept alive around the campfire, and a conviction that they are a superior people have helped preserve the identity of this diverse and scattered people. Time, however, has wrought some changes.
While there is a growing tendency among some of them to settle, thousands still travel the roads. Fewer and fewer, though, do so in their colourful, horse-drawn vardos. In Western Europe, most of the Gypsies are motorized, losing, as a result, much of their former romantic image. However, in Eastern Europe and Spain the old culture lingers: dancing, making music, telling fortunes, taming bears, dealing in horses, and making a living in the Gypsies’ own inimitable ways. Thousands of spectators can thus still thrill to the vivacious flamenco dancing of the Spanish Gypsy and the heart-stirring music of his Hungarian brother!
Although extreme persecution has died down, the Gypsy still is often in trouble. For example, according to a British government report in 1982, “there are 8-9,000 or so gypsy families in England and Wales, and of those about half live on permanent authorised sites. The rest park their caravans on unauthorised sites, with the constant threat of eviction and frequently to the annoyance of nearby residents.”
Modernization has forced the Gypsy to rethink his feelings toward secular education. In the past, this was generally considered a waste of time. However, a recent report by The National Gypsy Council states that ‘our children need education so that they can mix with the children of the settled community in order to ensure a peaceful co-existence.’
Changes in the Making
Modernization has also forced some changes in the ways the Gypsies make their living. In times past, seasonal farm work was very popular among Gypsies. Usually, farmers would allow them to camp on their land while they worked. Mechanization, though, has sharply reduced such work opportunities. Not needing their labour anymore, farmers are generally unwilling to allow Gypsies to camp on their land. Thus the Gypsy has been forced to the cities where scrap-metal dealing and the building trade have afforded work opportunities.
Since Gypsies have a way with animals, some have chosen, instead, to work with travelling fairs and circuses. Because they are lovers of music, some do well as entertainers. The women, keen observers of human nature, often make a good living telling “fortunes.” (See following article.) The Gypsy is well suited for such occupations. They allow him to avoid being tied too long to one place. Freedom to roam is far more precious to him than accumulating material possessions.
The following first-person story shows how one Gypsy found a new life-style, the best one of all.
Indeed, the word “Gypsy” carries such a stigma that in some places Gypsies themselves prefer to be called Travellers.