Inside and Outside Majority Culture

Inside and Outside Majority Culture

Does a Roma philosophy exist? Many would not hesitate to answer “no”. Others declare that such a philosophy probably does exist, and would want to know more about it, but find it impossible to get access to it. I often receive requests in this sense, but until now I have not produced an acceptable definition.

Advancements in knowledge are fueled by natural human curiosity. The ancient Greeks began the study which we call philosophy. According to Spengler (The Decline of the West, Perspectives of World History, Introduction), the ancient Greeks also possessed some knowledge in natural sciences and astronomy, yet were unable to situate it, because they did not have that large scale world view that is given in the “higher culture” that underlies Western civilization. The beginnings of knowledge in the natural sciences are connected to Copernicus and Galileo, whose achievements were followed by a growing specialization. Even today, new, hitherto unexplored branches of knowledge are emerging, drawing our attention to ever newer mysteries of the natural world.

The Roma individual did not have either the time or the opportunity to be curious, and still less opportunity for contemplation. He always had to make decisions and take actions on the spur of the moment, and to make the right decisions, for a mistake meant that either he had to flee or he perished, unless he could correct it immediately. To make the correct decision, he needed a perfect knowledge of his natural environment, which in turn was based upon primary experience and a direct, respect-based connection to nature. Such knowledge, in fact, is implicitly a combination of philosophy and natural sciences, a knowledge which helped him to make the right decisions at any given moment.

The resulting mechanism of natural selection combined with highly developed biological sensors produced a world view in which understanding and recognizing any thing or phenomenon are the work of a single moment. For this reason, there is no “visible” Roma philosophy or science, just that particular Roma wisdom which does not speak the language of the literate classes. The literate classes thus do not understand it, and this is why I have little regard for those self-appointed Roma experts who maintain, to this day — and perhaps even believe — that they have a monopoly on wisdom when it comes to Roma issues.

Moreover, this is the reason that my series of attempts to involve Roma intellectuals — poets, journalists, teachers, sociologists — in a research project aimed at discovering their own culture has not been successful. These intellectuals, due to their schooling and training, have left this culture behind, and view this culture, and themselves, from an outsider’s point of view. (This is a path which, thanks to some divine miracle, I have managed to avoid. I have paid dearly for it, but have also gained many joyful experiences and much knowledge as a result. The reason is most likely that I was born into a community that enjoyed all the advantages of a genuine social integration, in which no one expected us to abandon our own culture; on the contrary, we were encouraged to preserve it.) And this is why I have great regard for the qualitative, individual-centred methodology of the cultural anthropologists — the only method, I believe, that is scientifically tenable.

As Prime Minister Kálmán Széll (1843—1915) declared: we must study the culture of the Roma to understand the background to the Roma situation, so that we could plan our programs accordingly. Almost a century later, legal historians Barna Mezei and László Pomogyi said the same thing. I could also quote Péter György, according to whom ignorance is a sign of contempt; and Professor György Ádám, who wrote the following in his book The Mind: Front and Back: “A vacuum in knowledge will suck in pseudo-knowledge.” I myself have been expressing the very same idea for years, but in vain. To this day, we have failed to identify the essence of Roma culture or to even come close to defining that which essentially differentiates this culture from the majority cultures. Majority cultures, naturally, also differ from one another; but the uniqueness of the Roma culture is clearly of a different quality — deeper and more fundamental. Until very recently, scholars had no inkling of these issues. They considered Gypsies to be “social monsters”, even if they did not express it outright, and this attitude, in time, gave wide latitude to pseudo-scientific statements, most of which are still around today, and unfortunately prevail in public thinking.

We might take inspiration from the following statement, made by neurobiologist Tamás Freund at a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the death of István Széchenyi: “The evolutionary process did not shape the human brain to function in communities of several hundred thousand or a million people. About 50,000 years ago, primitive man hunted and fished in tribal communities of 100—200 people (…) which is the community size within which we are able to keep track of our network of social relationships with the other community members.” Later, he stated: “In a genealogically closed, large-scale community, in which brain capacity is no longer sufficient to keep exact track of the social relationship networks within the community, natural selection favours selfish genes (or behavior patterns). In contrast, in small communities, in which the brain is able to continually keep track of social relations, natural selection supports the genes (or behaviours) which ensure cooperation. This law seems to apply to human societies, too — naturally not on the level of genetic evolution, but on that of cultural evolution, supporting the evolution of a human type that is cooperative within a smaller community, but becomes selfish within a larger one, taking advantage of the altruism of others.”

Symbolic events and actions eased the tensions arising from contacts with other cultures. On the surface, these events have no significance, but in fact they served to stabilize the existing order. I would like to cite a few of these from the past and, in part, the present of my own community. In my experience, these customs were retained to the greatest degree, even in the midst of radically altered circumstances, among the descendents of those groups whose members were amateur or semi­professional musicians in villages or small towns. In other words, freelance musicians who lived on the dividing edge of two cultures [i.e. majority and minority], taking the norms of both communities into account while creating their own world. This was a narrow edge on which the group could survive only if it displayed openness toward both Roma and Hungarian cultures. Their situation was like that of the pendulum whose movement is limited in both directions, yet later this situation enabled a seamless transition, the opportunity for a slow but smooth process of assimilation, or, where possible, for social integration.

The first such example is a symbolic series of actions which ensured, in addition to preserving the boundaries between groups, the secure and regulated process for an individual to switch his/her identity from one group to another. In my experience, boundaries between groups were preserved using two effective methods. One: a member of group A could not eat any food prepared by a member of group B. The other method: a member of group A could not marry a member of group B. These were never formal prohibitions, but rather expressions of an internal impulse resulting from selection pressure.

Whenever someone entered the house, no matter who — relative, acquaintance, or stranger — it was mandatory to offer him/her something to eat. (There were no set mealtimes; everyone ate when he or she got hungry, provided there was food available.) However, it was also mandatory for the guest to reject the offer of food, even if he happened to be very hungry. The exception to this rule was if the visitor was a member of the same group, who then had only to judge whether the host really did have enough food on hand, and whether accepting the offer of a meal would cause a major dent in the stock of provisions of the family The following, euphemistic dialogue was an everyday occurrence: “Av, besh tele, ha!” (Come, sit down, eat!) Or simply: “Ha!” (Eat!) The reply was usually: “Na syom bokhalo.” (I’m not hungry) or “bokhali”, depending on whether the speaker was male or female. Another frequent reply: “Akani hayom” (I just ate), or simply “Na kampel” (I don’t want any). The common, contemporary polite response forms (“No, thank you”) were unknown in this society. And the real meaning of this euphemistic dialogue was the following: “Come, join our group!”

“Thanks, but I don’t want to be part of your group.”

To ignore the prohibition and accept the offer of food was a significant, sometimes shocking event affecting the existing inter-group relationships. Such an event never occurred unexpectedly or without some precedent — it would occur when a conflict had arisen, or when someone simply did not feel comfortable within his own group. Because a significant part of information exchange took the form of metacommunication, members of groups in close proximity to each other were usually well-informed about each others’ deeds, so such developments did not come as a surprise. But even if the visitor arrived from afar, people could rely upon their high degree of sensitivity to body language to grasp the meaning of the situation.

At such times, the first offer of food would be followed by additional offers. Eventually, the visitor would take part in the group’s communal activities (e.g. picking mushrooms, preparing herbal medicines, doing odd jobs or handicrafts), and thus the switch from one group to another was complete.

In the life of every Roma community, the curse played an important role: primarily and essentially to defend against outside aggression. In certain situations, the curse was the only available form of protection. A common form of the curse was to wish serious illness — usually cancer — upon another person (for example: “May cancer befall you!” “May the cancer consume your intestines!”), and the effect was often terrifying, especially if the curse was accompanied by some form of witchcraft.

The curses could take very particular forms. One form was to utter a curse against oneself as a way of emphasizing the truth of a declaration. For example: “If it isn’t so, let me die!” “I haven’t seen it; if I did see it, may I be struck blind!” “I won’t touch it; if I touch it, may my hand break!” — and a whole array of similar curses that served to reinforce either assertions or denials. In some groups, every assertion or denial was accompanied by such a reinforcing formula: otherwise, no one took the statement seriously. Those whose native language has become Hungarian often add the self-curse in the Roma language. “May I be struck dead!” in the Roma language is “te merav”. For example: “I told Katie, te merav, that I would not go with her!” (Similarly, they often insert the Roma-language “phenlahi” or “phenla”, meaning “she/he said it”, into a Hungarian sentence.)

The curse could also be used between individuals, as in family arguments, in a milder and less serious form, which, everyone knew, would have no real effect (though no one could be quite sure of this, especially if someone became ill or suffered an accident after the curse was uttered. Such events led to fear and a lessening of people’s willingness to use the curses.) Those expressions which are considered obscene in Hungarian, and are therefore substituted with euphemisms, played a major role: but here, there were no euphemisms, everyone called everything by its name, and such expressions did not lead to tension even in children’s communications. In this world, the real meaning of these words was different.

Among the curses, there was one whose meaning differed from the rest by its symbolic content, but only if uttered in our native Roma language.

Uttered in Hungarian, this curse was just an everyday expression, and can thus be considered as verbal magic. To understand it, we must know the meaning of the Roma-language words:

God = Del; vocative case: devla.

To strike = marel; imperative form: mar; strike him/her = mar ole/ola;

May God strike you down = te marel tut o Del; may God strike me down = man; him/her: ole/ola. (In general, the objective case of the personal pronoun is le/la; the ole/ola forms are used only when specific persons are meant.)

To call upon the wrath of God in subjunctive mode — te marel tut o Del; te marel ole/ola o Del! — did not count as a serious curse; anyone could use it on anyone else. And people did, believing that God will certainly know that the speaker did not really mean to invoke the wrath of God. But the situation was entirely different in imperative mode: “God, strike him/her down!” = “Devla, mar ole/ola!” In this case, it is clear that the speaker really wants God to strike the accursed. Over time, the verb “mar” was pronounced in a more drawn-out, melodious fashion: “Devla maar ole/ola!” Later, “devla” was omitted and what remained was “maarole” (for a male) and “maarola” (for a female). In this form, this curse could only be said by an older person to a younger one, or by a man to a woman, or by a higher- ranking person to a lower-ranking one, within the framework of the natural dominance relationships. The reverse could not happen. If it did, a crisis situation ensued, usually resulting in a permanent severance of the relationship, which also affected the relations of the object of the acccursed with the group that had received them. The principle of natural dominance could not be undermined.

As a child, I often heard the following exchange at meetings between two men: Hat i romni sar hi? (So, how is the wife?)

Phirel ando gav. (She goes into the village.)

Originally, the women went into the village to beg, to read palms, tell fortunes or perform healing rituals. Later, the purpose was to sell homemade tools, such as ropes, baskets, doormats, and brooms. Finally, it was to carry out “marketing activities” for festive musical performances. This included practices that would hasten the eventual wedding feast, using the appropriate techniques, such as reading cards and palms. At such times, extended and deep conversations would allow the women to exchange their skills and knowledge. The (Hungarian) peasant women gained first-hand information about the “secrets” of the Roma world, while the Roma women learned about domestic skills related to housekeeping, cooking, baking, and gardening. Such exchanges were significant factors in building interpersonal relationships, which were very important building blocks of the integration process that would eventually lead to mixed marriages, which did not necessarily mean assimilation.

Groups that chose to remain in place and that displayed the cultural patterns described above, relied on skilled craftsmen to build their houses, which were real buildings set up entirely above the ground, and which at first consisted of a single space. The foundation was of stone, the walls were of adobe, and the slabs and roofs were of wood brought from the forest, with the silent acquiescence of the local forest guard. The rooftops were made of straw, reeds, corn husks or similar plants. The appearance of chimneys represented a significant development: this meant an end to the practice of open-air fires. The so-called masina (fireplace), used for heating, cooking and baking alike, appeared. Later, this fireplace would become the effective and the symbolic centre of the Roma household. The lifestyle and way of thinking changed. Settlements based upon this type of house, with their common yards, became the most authentic form of Roma community life to the present day. Fences and locked doors were unknown; the common yard served as the centre of the settlement, both by its location and its function as the scene of intensive and extensive community socializing.

A growing openness toward the customs and habits of the majority was reflected in the development of roads among settlements, in which the houses were built alongside each other forming a street in half-circle. This street opened from, and also led back into the main road that was used by everyone, thereby closing off a small zone between the houses and the main road. The street was named, the houses were numbered, and thereby these communities became subjects of the town’s administration. The Roma settlement had opened itself toward the majority community; external relations were expanded. Still, the sense of group identity remained strong.

For the most part, the Roma streets, the so-called “Roma alleys”, were located on the edges of the village or the town, but topographically were an integral part of them. These Roma communities, by virtue of their economic activity, came in closer contact with the majority society, and the first signs of assimilation appeared.

These Roma settlements included a network of streets and trails which were used exclusively by the Roma residents, and which — together with their homes – formed an integral part of their community space, and were also used exclusively by them. The primary function of this community space was to prevent conflicts.

On the basis of the settlement structures described above, we can identify a clear developmental trend. We can safely say that this trend was the dominant path of adaptation taken by Hungary’s Roma population, notwithstanding the fact that by the middle of the 20th century, the adaptation process was realized in three different ways. One of them was taken by urban-dwelling, professional musicians, whose communities displayed some traits of the middle class. The second was followed by the village-dwelling, non-professional musicians living at the intersection of the majority and minority communities. And the third was chosen by all those groups which remained outside the systems of the majority society, creating an outsider culture that minimized outward relationships. This meant that they would leave their own territory only when and only as long as absolutely necessary. Their external relations were thus exclusively functional and economic. It was in these places that the lack of respect for property occasionally led to conflicts. These groups simply lacked any sense of property; the notions of planning ahead or of accumulating resources were unknown to them. Their way of thinking and their world view still reflected the norms of nomadic peoples. But the real difficulty for us comes from the fact that these different communities, reflecting different degrees of “development”, coexisted at the same time and in proximity to each other — a sign revealing their singular sense of time, which differs from that of other European cultures. Other problematic issues arise if we consider Roma communities that morphologically do not fit into any of the three above-mentioned groups. Some of them were for example much larger and ethnically diverse communities, comprising both Hungarian-speaking and Romanian-speaking Gypsies, as well as some people who were neither. Probably this diversity is the reason why their patterns of settlement were not uniform. Other types of group not fitting the usual norms emerged when several isolated families within a particular settlement together formed sort of a “bubble” inserted into the “gadjo” (non-Roma) community. It is notable that this type of community, which fosters well-balanced external relationships, exists up to the present day.

Human communities naturally organize themselves in the form of families, groups, and associations of groups. I do not wish to delve into how these formations emerged over the course of civilization; sociologists are better equipped to do so than I am. I will merely point out that in Europe today, the family as the basic unit of society is no longer the same as it was before. The main cause of this change is to be found in human intervention into the natural world and its plunder at an ever-increasing scale; the resulting accumulation of property; and, in turn, the attendant alienation within human society.

In addition: the stages of human development build upon each other, and as part of this process, it may happen that various traditions, having no connection or only a very tenuous connection with each other, emerge side by side. It can also happen that diverse stages of development coexist side by side, which can be the cause of serious conflicts.

To the present day, our Roma communities have been formed by families, by groups, and networks of groups, and they lack higher levels of social organization. In other words, for some reason, we have remained at the level of the primitive communal system of our ancestors (and because the past and present exist simultaneously in Roma culture, there is no apparent division between the two when we examine community relationships). Thus our world view, way of thinking and life strategy have emerged under the circumstances of unconditional trust, solidarity and guaranteed truth-telling.

In contrast, the official culture that prevails among majority societies is, in every respect, the reverse of that of a traditional folk community. Official majority culture is dogmatic and hierarchical; it is regulated by privileges and norms sanctified authoritatively. The system’s leading principle is that of selfishness; the legal system is based upon property. Naturally, no community can exist without norms. Our groups and communities also had and continue to have norms, but these are sanctified not by authority, but by the laws of nature and by the accumulated experiences of collective memory, stored in order of importance. We commit to memory only that which is necessary in order to survive. It is likely that this survival strategy contributed to the emergence of this community structure, unique in Europe and so far unexplained, which enabled the community to survive. This assertion is valid only for the community which I studied and which is familiar to me. I know, by now, that there are Roma/Gypsy communities which are organized along different principles. The future will decide which of these will prove to be adaptive.

I will attempt to demonstrate how this system works through a practical example, but I have to begin by saying that a complete exploration of the interconnections, and the data and documents needed for such research, are not available. I can thus rely only upon my recollections, which may be sufficient to shed light upon a few significant facts.

There were four groups living in close proximity to one another, in neighbouring settlements. To be precise, two of these four groups were located in the same settlement, at the two far ends of the village, but this did not affect the relationships between them. For the sake of simplicity I will number the groups 1, 2, 3 and 4. The size and occupations of the groups differed: groups 1 and 3 were mostly musicians; group 2 worked at odd jobs in the agricultural and forestry sectors on a seasonal basis, but there was always work to be done; the members of group 4 mostly worked as blacksmiths. However, none of these occupations in itself was enough to ensure the families’ livelihoods, so from time to time they did some other kind of work, standing on more than one foot, so to speak. These “second jobs” could include the preparation of herbal medicines; collecting and selling wild berries and mushrooms; making ropes, doormats, baskets, brooms and tool handles; growing and selling tobacco; raising silkworms for sale. The blacksmiths would produce gardening and other tools using scrap iron.

There were only two activities that all four groups pursued with more or less regularity. One such activity was seasonal agricultural work. In some cases, members of all four groups would work together as a team. Before the mechanization of agriculture, there was plenty of such work available, and this had a positive effect on inter-group relations. The other activity pursued by all groups was providing music. If there was too much work during the dance and wedding season (in fall and spring), the musicians in groups 1 and 3 would help one another out, while maintaining a little healthy rivalry between them. The resulting conflicts were usually resolved by the wives using their own emphatic but essentially harmless methods. The other two groups also included some members who could play music, and they too joined in this work when invited to do so.

This harmony began to dissipate when the government undertook to create the “socialist Gypsy” type by organizing the blacksmiths into light-industry cooperatives. This process affected group 4 as a whole, which consequently split off from the other groups and became hermetically closed. Its members got an “elected” leader, who was in fact appointed by officials, a quasi Gypsy King who got a car, chauffeur, and secretary. They had a Party Secretary, production managers, foremen and so on; the technical and economic leaders were brought in from the outside. Those belonging to this group abandoned their community traditions and their naturally evolved norms. They accepted as partners only those members of groups 2 and 3 who joined the cooperative as workers. These individuals had skills relevant to this activity, unlike the members of group 1 (musicians) who were entirely left out of this partial integration and did not even attempt to join it.

Group 1 had close relationships with group 2, based upon multiple parallel and “trade” marriages with group 2. (A “parallel” marriage is when two men from a particular group marry two women from another particular group. The “trade” marriage is the reverse: two men from different groups each choose wives from the opposite group. Once such a parallel or trade marriage was established, the young people were inspired to follow suit, and more such marriages would result.) But group 1 did not have this type of relationship with groups 3 and 4. In contrast, a strong bond developed between groups 2 and 4 and between groups 3 and 4, based on several cross-group marriages. Groups 2 and 3 had no such direct relationship with each other, just as group1 and 4 did not. (There was one marriage-based relationship between group 1 and 3, but for some reason this remained isolated, and no further “parallel” or “trade” marriages ensued.) As a result, situations developed in which nearly everyone in the two groups concerned was related to everyone else. Due to the taboo on marrying a relative, the next generation had to seek spouses elsewhere. This repeated itself in each generation, widening the gene pool. Naturally, in some cases, the circle of relationships would close in on itself, but this did not affect the principle of the system.

Viewed from the outside, this structure may appear complicated and tangled. In reality, it was a complex and contingent structure organized along simple and clear rules, in which the nonlinear dynamic of endogenous cycles fully prevailed. Basically, there were two types of relationships in this system: one based on residence and one based on family. The residence-based relationship never extended beyond the necessary common activities, so groups who lived in the same village were only loosely connected to one another, so that no transformation could begin under these conditions; yet it was a static system that existed over several generations. The other, family-based relationship was a much stronger one based on parallel and trade marriages, interwoven with double group identities, which might fortuitously lead to networks, but which necessarily shifted and changed with every new generation, as described above. With these shifts, the intergroup relationships would be rearranged to such an extent that after three or four generations, people no longer remembered the earlier relationships. Exceptions to this rule were the groups not organized along ties of blood, where marriageable individuals were available even after several generations. And, since the generational shifts occurred at different times within the different groups, this whole system was a constant, unceasing process.

Each group was a member of one of these dynamic, family-based networks that fostered close relationships, belonging at the same time to a residence-based, functional community that fostered looser relationships. Only the viable, strong communities could survive. The concurrent presence of acceptance and rejection is an essential difference from the vertically organized, power-structure-based relationships of the majority society. (We have not even begun to study these issues.) Depending on the varied access to resources — for example acceptance of the institution of private property — the Roma strategies, way of life, cultural profile all could change. Such a change occurred among those working as craftsmen, when modern mass production methods squeezed out their products from the market. Only one thing could not change: the above-described community structure, which in the end produced the following results:

1. The continual widening of the gene pool prevents intermarriage and the ensuing biological collapse.

2. Rejection as well as acceptance is an essential building-block of the community’s integration. In the long run, rejection effectively forms a barrier to the emergence of mass society and of power structures.

3. The system is characterized by a continuous state of balance, and no change- inducing tensions arise.

The essence of assimilation is the elimination of this kind of nature-oriented condition, a process which by today has largely been completed. However, most of the reflexes inherent in the nature-oriented condition are still present, which sometimes erupt in the form of incomprehensible aversions, unexplainable urges and tensions. The process of assimilation began during the 1950s, but was given a fateful impetus by the Hungarian Communist Party directive of 1961, which aimed to abolish Roma settlements. The principle of equality and the institutional prohibition of racism, as proclaimed by Communist ideology, struck a chord among the Roma, which made the incentive toward assimilation very effective. This tendency was further strengthened by full employment and the all-inclusive system of social benefits.

Then came the political and economic system change of 1990, which thoroughly reformed the societies of Eastern Europe; it is a truism to say that the Roma were the biggest losers of this change. In essence, what happened, at least in Hungary, was that the political and economic changes invalidated — in the domain of culture as well — all of the changes of the previous decades, which for us had been positive achievements. Economically, socially and politically, the Roma communities, from one day to the next, reverted to the conditions that were typical half a century earlier, except that now they no longer possessed those capabilities and skills that had earlier served to ensure their survival. Their community structure had gone up in smoke, their groups had fallen apart.

Naturally, we too had great hopes for the advent of democracy and freedom; no one considered the possibility, which then came to pass, that the Roma could not be included in the process of democratic transformations. No one knew — neither ourselves, the handful of Roma intelligentsia, nor the democratic opposition offering his help — that our communities had been left out of the development process that enabled the institutions of representative democracy to take root. We were left out of history, and this had serious consequences. We could not take part in the process of regime change; we could not develop our own institutions; the functional organization of our communities according to modern democratic norms did not take place; and for these reasons, today we have no legal means of defending ourselves or of promoting our interests.

The title alone of the above-cited presentation by Tamás Freund is thought- provoking: “The biological and social determinism of sacrifice on behalf of the larger community”. The first of his theses is that the majority society in the 20th century, fueled by selfish behavioural patterns, practically eliminated the small communities that had lived within frameworks dictated by the laws of nature, and made it impossible for them to complete the process of social integration. One segment of these communities has, by now, been assimilated, or else is on the road to assimilation. The situation of the other, unfortunately larger segment of these communities continues to be unresolved. The severe tensions we see today stem from the incapacity to come to terms with the culture of outsiderness, and from the rise of political racism.

In view of this, I shall attempt to outline how the four groups presented above have fared following the regime change. In general, we can say that not one of these groups has chosen a well-defined path or found a successful resolution of their situation. We can point to a number of attempts, whose end result may turn out to be assimilation, but may also produce cultural patterns that offer new perspectives for the future. Several signs of this are evident among groups 1, 3 and 4 — more precisely, among their remainders, since these groups no longer exist in their original forms. The former group 2 seems to have fully accomplished the assimilation process. They are the seasonal agricultural labourers, but are also trying to set up micro-enterprises.

I believe the most noteworthy development is the fate of group 1. Let me recall, by way of explanation, a vague memory from the 1940s. What happened: a small group that made its living from creating wooden washtubs, bowls and spoons settled into a neighbouring village, and they were quickly accepted by the villagers, since they filled an economic need. We too had some dealings with them, and as children, we spent many hours playing with their children. The newcomer group was dubbed “the washtub people” after their occupation. (Today, I know that they were in fact “Beash” Gypsies, that is, Gypsies who spoke an archaic Romanian dialect, and that they had shortly before arrived from Romania.) They would have liked to deepen our connections, but at the time our group held strongly to its exclusionary reflexes and group boundaries, so the attempt at closer ties did not succeed. Of course, they too had their own norms and taboos designed to protect their group boundaries. In this case, perhaps rational considerations trumped these protective instincts, but it is more likely that they simply wanted to join our well-functioning community structure. After a short time, they moved on. They moved, we knew not where and did not ask. For years, we heard nothing about them. Then, sometime in the 1980s, the news emerged that a young man from our group was “friendly with some washtub people”, and went on to marry a girl from that group. This was followed by additional such marriages, resulting in a new group that carries the visible characteristics that our Hungarian Gypsy groups maintained into the middle of the 20th century, but also bears the marks of an even more archaic culture than our own traditions of the time; however, nothing can be pointed out as a possible legacy of the Beash culture.

Visiting my relatives I would always glance over at the little hill on the edge of the village, where our houses used to stand, and where I spent the most intensive years of my childhood. Nothing remains of those houses, but the site itself is enough to bring back memories. Then, on one occasion and to my great surprise, I saw that new houses had been built there. These were of bricks, but their location and arrangement was entirely the same as ours had been. And, oddly, the same number of houses (seven) stands there as in our day.

— Who are they? I asked my relatives.

— The washtub people, they replied sharply and with some indignation in their voice, and then proceeded to list all the people who had married into that group. At this time, I knew that in some parts of the country, this type of intermixing had occurred between Hungarian Gypsies and the Beash. I was in fact happy to hear it, unlike my relatives, whose reactions were still dictated by their reflex to protect group boundaries.

Their characteristic occupation is gathering: they make use of herbal medicines and the discarded refuse of civilization. Their exclusion is almost complete; they are even excluded from odd jobs and black-market jobs. But they do not really seek out such opportunities; instead, they mostly go collecting at the local garbage dumps. Most noteworthy of all, this new group (apart from a few members who married in) came into being by splitting off from another, larger group that had embarked on the road to assimilation. We can assume that what we see here is a form of rebellion against assimilation. The surrounding groups even gave them a name — “the washtub people” — and so their split and their identity as a separate group can be considered final. Today, even education officials and the local administration consider them to be a separate ethnic group, even though, as we have seen, they are actually part of the larger community, but have split off from it.

It is also noteworthy to consider what happened to the descendents of group 4, who were originally blacksmiths. Again, the processes which now determine the community’s situation began in the 1980s. But here, events took a different turn. They are part of a bigger picture that reflected the realities of the surrounding Central European countries and emerged in particular from the Gypsy King elections. The phenomenon of the rich Gypsy appeared: first one, then two, three, and then the rest. In this group, too, there was an attempt to crown a king, but the village’s Catholic priest rejected their request to perform the crowning. Their elaborate, glittering houses were built apart from the others, at the edge of the village, thus creating separate housing communities. The rest of the descendents of group 4, the poor people, were now a new group and remained in their original location on the hill. They constitute the opposite pole. These poor Gypsies tend now to take jobs in the enterprises owned by the rich Gypsies. The economic stratification of the Roma communities is underway, which contains the promise of a social construction similar to that of the majority population. By now, a second generation of this type has grown up, whose members are emerging on the scene not as rich Gypsies, but as entrepreneurs or wage earners.

Translation by Katica Avvakumovits

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email