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by Isabel Fonseca
Gypsies, the long-lost children of India, number about 12 million worldwide. In Europe, the 8 million Gypsies constitute its largest minority. Recent films like Tony Gatlif's Latcho Drom: A Musical History of the Gypsies from India to Spain (1994) and books like Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey (1996) will help ensure that the Gypsies do not again disappear -- outside the world's consciousness.
Bury Me Standing -- the title comes from the Gypsy saying, "Bury me standing, I've been on my knees all my life"-- is a compassionate book about a marginalized and much-maligned people. Nonetheless, over the past seven centuries, the Gypsies have made many contributions to European folk music, dance, and lore. An outstanding example of these contribitions --Flameno-- highlights the Cannes award-winning Latcho Drom .
When Isabel Fonseca, an American journalist and former assistant editor of the Times Literary Supplement, set out to write this book in 1991, she "had in mind that the Gypsies were 'the New Jews of Eastern Europe.'" After four years of field work that included living with Gypsy families in many European countries and researching library documents, she concluded that the Gypsies "alongside with the Jews are ancient scapegoats."
Traditionally, Gypsies never kept any written records nor sustained an oral history. The research on their origin began with a systematic philological analysis of their language, Romani, which has been firmly established as a Sanskritic language. Words like dand, (tooth), mun, (mouth), lon, (salt), akha (eyes), khel (play) are identical with those in Punjabi spoken in northwest India. Fonseca does not comment on the obvious resemblance with Punjabi, presumably because of her unfamiliarity with it or any other modern Indian language. She is also puzzled by the Gypsy habit of shaking head side-to-side to signify yes. This distinctive gesture alone suffices to pinpoint their India origin -- rendering all linguistic evidence redundant! If confirmation were needed, it would be readily provided by the Gypsy music's use of the Indian ragas such as Bairavi, Mulkausa, and Kalyani as well as the bol (the rhythmic syllables -- tak, dhin, dha -- imitating drum beats).
Fonseca seems to think that the current scholarly consensus is that
the Gypsies are from the Dom group of tribes, still extant in India,
making their living as wandering musicians, smiths, metalworkers,
scavengers, and basketmakers. They migrated first from northwest
India to Persia in 950 A.D. at the invitation of Shah Behram Gur.
As recorded by the contemporary Persian historian Hamza, the Shah
"out of solicitude for his subjects, imported 12,000 musicians
for their listening pleasure."
Fonseca errs in stating that the Gypsy designation for themsleves
as Roma is derived from Dom, one of the outcaste tirbes in India.
Roma is a variation of "ramante," a Punjabi word meaning
moving, wandering. This etymology is cogently discussed in W.R.
Rishi's book "ROMA: The Panjabi Emigrants in Europe, second
edition" published in 1996 by Punjabi University, Patiala,
Punjab, India. Rishi traces the origin of the Roma to the 500, 000
prisoners of war taken by Muhamad Ghaznvi in 1001 from the Punjab
to Afghanistan and subjected to Islamic conversion by the sword.
Many of them resisted by escaping westward to the Christian lands
of Armenia and Greece. To this day, the Roma use the word Gajo,
derived from Ghazi-- the Koranic title of infidel-killing Muslims--
as a disparaging term. The Roma are from the warrior castes of the
The Roma appeared in Europe first in 1300 A.D., fleeing from forcible
Islamic conversions by the Turks. In Europe, ironically, they were
accused of being advance spies for the Turks, and persecuted again.
They were also mistaken as Egyptians, whence the folklore origin
of the term Gypsy. Fonseca apparently is unaware of yet another
etymology: Punjab-say -- from Punjab, which was what the earliest
immigrants to Persia replied when asked where they have come from.
By the time, they reached Byzantium, the locals heard Punjab-say
as Jabsay, Gypsy. The locals took Gypsy to mean from Egypt, a country
they had heard of.
The history of the Roma in Europe, gleaned, for the most part, from
court- and church-records and from rare academic publications, is
a horror--Europe's heart of darkness. One of the examples Fonseca
cites is the 1783 dissertation published by Heinrich Grellman of
Gottingen University. In his book, Grellman describes an event of
the previous year in Hont county, Hungary: "The case involved
more than 150 Gypsies, forty-one of whom were tortured into confessions
of cannibalism. Fifteen men were hanged, six broken on the wheel,
two quartered, and eighteen women beheaded -- before an investigation
ordered by the Hapsburg monarch Joseph II revealed that all of the
supposed victims were still alive."
During World War II, the Nazis exterminated 1.5 million Gypsies.
At the Nuremberg trials, the Nazis' lawyers argued that the killing
of the Gypsies was justified since they had been punished as criminals,
not as a race. There was no one to speak for the Gypsies, and the
international tribunal accepted this as exonerating defense! Ah,
Although tyrants, bigots, and the misinformed have often stereotyped
the Gypsies as congenital criminals, sociological studies show that
the Gypsies commit crimes no more than others. A large-scale study
cited by Fonseca: In Romania, which has the largest Gypsy population
of any country, out of all criminal convictions that of the Gypsies
total 11 percent. Their population in the country? Exactly 11 percent.
(The Gypsies in Romania do not have equal access to the justice
system. Their situation is worse than that of the Blacks and Hispanics
in the U.S.A.)
In recent decades, a Gypsy intelligentsia has begun to emerge. Fonseca
presents detailed profiles of several. Dr. Ian Hancock, an American
Gypsy, and the author of The Pariah Syndrome, was instrumental in
bringing about, in April 1994, the first-ever Congressional hearing
in Washington, D.C., on the human-rights abuses of the Gypsies.
After prolonged efforts, Hancock also succeeded in the Gypsy inclusion
in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Gypsy inclusion
had long been opposed by Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner!
It was only after Wiesel's resignation, writes Fonseca, herself
an American Jew, that one Gypsy was allowed onto the museum's 65-member
council. (The council comprised more than thirty Jews as well as
Poles, Ukranians, and Russians among others but not a single Gypsy.)
Saip Jusuf is the author of one of the first Romani grammars and
a principal leader in Skopje, Macedonia, which has the largest Gypsy
settlement anywhere. Jusuf helped organize the first world Romany
Congress in 1971 in London. The conference was financed in part
by the Government of India, and at its urging the U.N. agreed first
to recognize the Rom as a distinct ethnic group and several years
later accorded voting rights to the International Romani Union.
In an interview with the author, Jusuf, having converted from Islam
to his ancestral Hinduism, joyously displayed his new icon collection
of Ganesha, Parvati, and Durga . Ramche Mustupha, a poet, showed
his passport. Under "citizenship" it recorded Yugoslav;
under "nationality," Hindu. The lost children of India,
having found their ancestral land, are very proud of its ancient
civilization -- the oldest continuous civilization in the world
-- "Amaro Baro Thanh" (Romani for "our big land").
Fonseca observes: "Many of the young women, fed up with the
baggy-bottomed Turkish trousers they were supposed to wear, have
begun to wear saris."
Unlike other beleaguered and marginalized minorities, the Rom are
not seeking a homeland of their own, a Romanistan, in or outside
India. The Rom are resisting, as they always have, to maintain the
freedom for a life-style of their choosing. "To allow this
to the Gypsies," Vaclav Havel, in Prague, said, "is the
litmus test of a civil society." However, Havel's is a lonely
voice. All over Central and East Europe "Death to the Gypsies"
graffiti can be observed. Since the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslavakia,
twenty-eight Gypsies have been murdered.
Fonseca cites several specific cases of terrorism against the Gypsies
during the 90's. "In February 1995, in Oberwart, Austria, a
town seventy-five miles south of Vienna, four Gypsy men were murdered.
A pipe bomb had been concealed behind a sign that said, in Gothic
tombstone lettering, 'Gypsies go back to India'; the bomb exploded
in their faces when they tried to take it down. The first response
of the Austrian police was to search the victims' own settlement
for weapons; 'Gypsies killed by own bomb,' the papers reported."
Oberwart, Austria, is in Burgenland, where the Gypsies have been
settled for three centuries.
The resurging repression of the Gypsies is Europe's continuing crime
against humanity. At the Nazi trials in Nuremberg, there was no
one to speak on behalf of the Gypsies. Now, the Gypsies have at
least this eloquent book exposing Europe's recrudescing genocidal
threats to them.
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