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The Gypsies – a Romanian problem

Romanians kicked up a mighty fuss about being discriminated against by the Italians but it's the pot calling the kettle black, writes Mircea Cartarescu

The European Council's recent recommendation to use the term "Roma" in place of "Gypsy" has not been widely adopted in Romania. As Mircea Cartarescu by no means uses the latter term in a pejorative sense – on the contrary rehabilitating it, so to speak – it has been retained here.

People make it easy for themselves by blaming the Gypsies for Romania's bad image in the world, eternally bewailing the fact that people abroad are unable to distinguish Romanians (all honourable, peaceful, diligent citizens, blessed with the virtues of their forefathers) from the gypsies, this "surrogate folk," as our stupid, racist jokes will have them. In fact the Gypsy problem in Romania results from Romania's policy towards the Gypsies, and not from the "inferiority of their race."

Perhaps one should recall from time to time the historical roots of the problem. The Romanians in Wallachia and Moldavia – alone in Europe – made the Gypsies their slaves, binding them to the soil. Torn from their nomadic way of life, the Gypsies were forced to put down roots on the land of their masters. Like the black slaves in America, free people were turned into workhorses – albeit rational ones.

For centuries they could be bought and sold. Families were torn apart, children separated from their mothers, women from their menfolk. Young women were regularly raped by their masters, and the so-called 'crow-scum' was the target of widespread contempt and discrimination. One voivode, or provincial governor, would have them climb trees then shoot them down with arrows. Hunting crows, he called it. Tied to localities and kept like animals, the Gypsies in the Romanian principalities multiplied faster than anywhere else in Europe. So we created the Gypsy problem ourselves.

This is our historical responsibility. Forced to become sedentary and till the soil, the Gypsies forgot their traditional occupations. They were now no longer boiler makers, goldsmiths, minstrels, bear trainers, silversmiths, etc. Like all slaves they became lazy, indolent farm labourers. How can someone who doesn't work for himself be industrious? Someone who – whether he works or not – is always dealt the same blows?

With time the gypsies became an amorphous, dissolute mass with no more than a vague notion of their former freedom. They became cowardly, garrulous, drunken and quarrelsome, filled with vice and infirmity. This is the eternal lot of all slaves throughout the world. The hot-blooded youths rebelled against this state of things, stealing horses, robbing, counterfeiting, raping and murdering. The young Romanian serfs acted no differently: they joined the Hajduci and became highwaymen.

Paradoxically, we gave these ancient inhabitants the coup de grace in granting them their freedom. In the wake of 1848, enthusiasm gripped the new, pro-Western Romanian elite. Not for the first time, philanthropy paved the way for horrendous catastrophe. Assembled before the estates of hundreds of enlightened boyars, the Gypsy slaves were told: "Brothers, you are free! Go where your feet take you."

This "slave liberation," without the slightest logistical or psychological preparation, wreaked unthinkable havoc. Hundreds of thousands of Gypsies were suddenly free to die of hunger. With no money, clothing or livelihood, without a belief or a culture – with nothing but their naked humanity, they soon populated the prisons en masse. No one knows how many perished at the time from so much freedom, or how many have died until today as a result.

We never stop bad-mouthing the Gypsies – but what would we do in their place? What is it like to be born a Gypsy, and to live as a Gypsy amidst a people filled with nothing but hatred and disdain? Let's assume you manage to get over the cultural handicap of being born into a wretched milieu, of your father emptying the toilets, your mother cleaning the stairs and your brothers sitting in jail, of lice being discovered in your hair and you being isolated from the other children who laugh at you because none of the pupils in the school primer is as dark-skinned as you. Let's assume as a mature person you become an honest worker like everyone else.

Will anyone ever address you as anything but "Hey you, Gypsy"? Will people not eternally say "Once a Gypsy, always a Gypsy" at the slightest provocation? Will anyone ever employ you on the same terms as a Romanian? Will anyone put the slightest trust in you? Through an inhuman effort you manage to avoid the quagmire and become an intellectual. Will anyone ever see you as anything other than a "stinking Gypsy"? You're an engineer, as singer, a doctor: will the foreign minister not exile you to the Egyptian desert? And then: how to avoid going crazy, how to break free of the vicious circle that holds us captive: I hate myself because I'm evil, and I'm evil because I hate myself?

We're appalled when other countries see us as a nation of criminals, but we see the Gypsies in exactly the same light. And in doing so we compel them to behave accordingly. With our racist attitude toward them, and the inaction of the state, the Church and the institutions in this matter which – and I would like to stress this point – is of concern to all Romanians and not just to Gypsies, we prolong the drama. We keep misery and delinquency on their side, hatred and disdain on ours, and remain trapped over the centuries in the same vicious circle. And our sluggishness has its price, as the unfortunate incident in Rome only goes to show.


Mircea Cartarescu, born in Bucharest in 1956, is the best-known contemporary Romanian author. Read our feature "Bucharest in a trance" on Cartarescu and his magnum opus "Die Wissenden" (the knowing).

The article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on November 29, 2007.

Translation: lp.

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