In the mirror of Romani culture

“To know ourselves we have to know Others, who act as the mirror in which we see ourselves reflected” wrote the reporter Kapuściński in “The Other”. There are few cultures that are still in a strong and dynamic relationship with Others as the gypsy one. The Romani minority represent one of the last examples of interculturalism in the contemporary society, living in a sort of “cultural non-place”, mainly thanks to their nomadism. According to De André, they have been wandering across the world for at least 2000 years, affected by what he defines “dromomania” (wanderlust) without weapons and constantly persecuted, not considered a population because they lack a territory and a State. That is why, in his opinion, they would merit the Nobel prize for peace. Furthermore, in the song Khorakhanè he attributes them an even more utopic function: when a man meets and knows them, he should not recognise himself anymore and in every land peace should surrender.  In fact, also assuming a less idyllic perspective, once the prejudices’ barrier is overcome, their culture may act as a mirror that first insinuates the doubt, brings awareness and finally demonstrates that there are similarities beyond differences and that is possible to learn from both. To explain this concept, in the book “L’identità zingara” Romanò Ghjì adopts the metaphor of the weighing scale: the extrema represent the diversities of the Rom and gagè (non-Rom) cultures, determining the constant oscillations of the horizontal bar, but in the middle there is the fulcrum, symbol of the encounter, exchange and reciprocal enrichment which can lead to equilibrium. Usually, people tend to assume a completely negative point of view, considering Gypsies simply as the opposite extrema, incompatible and far from their culture, with a tendency to isolate. However, it is important to understand that Rom today are the result of the encounter between two contrasting systems of thought, nomad and sedentary, oriental and occidental. They managed to survive thanks to such non-purism. In order to escape assimilation, being accepted and tolerated at the same time, they used the stratagem of social mimicry. According to Ghjì, they adopted “real masks” different from the controversial Pirandellian ones because the pretence became a style of life, an efficacious form that created a truly dual identity. It is curious that the concept of “I” in their language is plural and feminine, to underline the completeness of the human figure. Thus, it is not strange if the identity is characterised by a double connotation, as Rom have both a gypsy and gagè names used depending on the situation, as the two cultures’ requirements differ a lot. Namely, the Romani process of auto-identification is based on criteria that do not involve the single individual but the whole genealogy, because the single man is

defined only as part of the community. The presentation begins with the description of the specific group and family, starting from details about the father, his physical imperfections and events that had made him famous, followed by information about the mother, siblings and relatives, looking for links with the interlocutor. In fact, there is a common principle of origin called “phral”, but then each family group differentiated.  They are divided in many, many clans, each one with its own traditions, cultural heritage and organisational structure. There are some groups where there is not a leader, other ones with a very hierarchical structure, also divided in castes. Women are either venerated or subject to a strict control.  Some of them are seriously indigent, other ones are as rich as sultans and share the same standards of living. The Koldash clan of “king” Florian Chioaba, for instance, is made up of 300 families, with a total income of 300-400 million euros per year. Some are Christian, others Hindu, Islamic or animist. Rituals are very variegated as well, but the common element is the fact that even when they are regarded as key moment for the individual in the community, like the baptism, the marriage and the funeral, they are always performed by the united group.  Contraposed to the gagè egoism, there is a strong sense of belonging, cooperation and reciprocity. It is evident in the mechanisms of sharing things, food and money in excess, and of charity and mutual aid that must be ensured to every member in difficulty. To be poor in their conception is not to be penniless, but to be ill, without sons or, even worse, a greedy, selfish rich. Such conception of wealth creates many problems in the contemporary society, as it clearly clashes with gagè values and it is applied also in the working environment. The word job can be translated by “butì”, that stands for a symbolic object produced to show the creativity, intelligence and ability to improvise of the creator. Therefore, the more diffused occupations are craftsmanship, in particular using metals and copper, circus or ambulant performances, music, palmistry or future forecasting. Thus, it is easy to understand the difficulties faced in a society not interested anymore in traditional activities, which did not evolve during the process of industrialization. Then there is a bureaucratic obstacle deriving from the requirement of documents, certificates and study titles. Consequently, Rom developed illegal adaptability strategies, asking for charity, stealing or even establishing relations with the Mafia, which create a vicious cycle explainable only up to a certain limit using their concept of property or cultural differences. It would be a blind idealization to neglect those negative aspects and the deriving complexity of interaction and comprehension among cultures. It is important to be aware of the narrations of the biased perspectives of critics and supporters, in order to interpret the true meaning of the actions performed by the social actors without filters. Only in this way it would be possible to truly compare, overcoming conflictual relationships based on prejudice and gaining reciprocal benefits, understanding better the Others, their culture and our mirrored culture.


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Author: Koudelka

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” 

This is probably the only part where I am going to use the “I”, because I strongly believe that the ideas and messages I try to convey should be independent and more important than the person behind them. I would love to be able to offer some food for thought, a different perspective or simply a pause for reflection while waiting for the bus. However, what I would appreciate most is to start a debate or a conversation in order to share opinions, thus do not hesitate to comment the blog or contact me privately.

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