Book review: I Met Lucky People: The Story of the Romani Gypsies, by Yaron Matras
On the periphery even of the liberal imagination, Romani people have long oscillated between being invisibles and folk devils.
Hardly homogeneous, they have been labelled and relabelled ever since they migrated from India in the Middle Ages - Saracens, Bohemians, Egyptians - all terms signifying vagabond otherness and dangerous mobility. As early as 1496, the legislative council of the Holy Roman Empire, meeting in Bavaria, declared them "enemy agents". Yaron Matras' I Met Lucky People, a historical and linguistic survey of the Roma, tells how many European territories soon followed suit.
Time and again over the past millennium, Roma movement has been more than purely cultural; it is as likely to be political, a series of displacements and exoduses triggered by prejudice and social panic. Like the Jews, another group repeatedly castigated and cast out through history, the Roma were targeted by Nazis. They were sterilised and, during a period they refer to as the "Great Devouring", at least 100,000 were exterminated. Matras calls this "genocide", but also points out that not one German implicated in it has been brought to justice.
Relatively little scholarship on these people exists. No doubt this has something to do with stories often being passed down orally rather than textually. But given how consistently harassed and persecuted the Roma have been, that they've been described as "the first blacks in Europe", and to this day use words such as "pani" (water) and "sap" (snake) that are identical to similar words in Hindi and Punjabi, it's surprising that they're so little studied.
Perhaps it's because, in some eyes, they can pass for white, and therefore aren't the "right" kind of minority. Certainly, they don't easily fit within the schema of postcolonial analysis; their history precedes that of European imperialism.
Matras rightly debunks the idea that the Roma are in constant motion; some settlements go back decades, while it's often pushy local authorities, or grand projects such as the 2012 Olympics, that perturb and unanchor inhabitants.
He draws attention to the many novels (including ones by D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf) that celebrate the Roma for their perceived transgressions, as well as the hundreds of songs - by jazz musicians, metal bands and folk chanteuses - that fantasise about exercising gypsy freedoms.
Perhaps today's hatred of the Roma springs mostly from hatred of ourselves - our complicity in a deformed social system that few of us can imagine opting out of.
Guardian News & Media