“a wound from a word remains”
For my family, words were everything. Not the stale stamped written word, but the fluttering fragile spoken ones. There were things you just didn’t say, words that should never ripen on your tongue. There were whole sentences that my lips could never embrace, forbidden fruit of an entirely different tree.
It’s funny, the little things you remember – the way dat’d save bits of metal, shape them, and hammer them into the heels of my shoes to stop them wearing down. The way he’d grab my hand when a policeman walked by, muttering “don’t dikh at le”, hat pulled over his ears, downcast eyes looking away. My dat knew a lot of the phandle though and knew which were the “good lads” and which we had to avoid. The way we ate each others silences, hungry for a conversation that we could never have.
Our small town was full to overflowing with British Romany, European Romani, Pavee, Nagin, and Romanichal. There were plenty of non-Romani/Travellers too and they’d make sure we knew our place. Maami and Paapu were evicted several times, more than once during the winter. No one cared whether my family had anywhere to go [we didn’t]. We spent sweaty summers picking fruit or working farms; sometimes the men got building or labourer jobs in France, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Scotland, or Germany. Usually we were moved on by police within a couple of days. Over the years I saw common land disappear, lay-bys become fenced with large boulders, pitch-sites disappear or shrink dramatically (from fifty pitches to ten or less). There was literally nowhere we could go where we were allowed to be. No “atchin tan” where we were safe.
You hear a lot of words when you grow up Romani. Many of them are directed at you, thrown like knives. Gyppo, black pig, pikey, tinker, knacker, dirty gypsy. We saw signs that said we weren’t welcome or wanted; that we couldn’t stop or stay; and we heard protests at our presence. Words full of hate that stacked one after the other on my shoulders, keeping me small. Everyone knew who the “Gypsy” kids were. Everyone knew by your last name, your father, the street you lived on. They knew by the state of your shoes and how they clacked on the pavement from the little pieces of hammered metal keeping them whole. People know, when you live around them, people know by your cheek bones, nose, hair, and eyes. They know by your clothes, your accent, your body language.
It never goes away, I don’t think, that… I don’t want to say fear, because it isn’t really… at least not most of the time. I suppose it’s a distrust of anyone non-Romani. In my experience as a child we were often treated very badly, forced out of places, away from places, constantly riled on for things we hadn’t even done. Something happened, you blamed it on the Gypsies. Watching my grandparents, aunts, and uncles be evicted and standing barefoot in the snow as the phandle search the house. They didn’t care I had no shoes on. I was a Gypsy kid, as far as they were concerned, I probably didn’t even have shoes…
Sitting here, baked under fluorescent lights, eight thousand miles away from home, I feel the separation like a hole ripped through my soul. It’s so different here; so quiet, so unremarkable, so.. empty. I don’t talk about home. I don’t talk about my past, my childhood, my family. I don’t talk in my own tongue, I trip over words that aren’t mine, often preferring to stay silent. Non-Romani think I’m strange – too quiet, too different, too… something. Romani in the US, it seems, don’t understand my childhood. It was loud, chaotic, traumatic, beautiful, bright, and hollow. It was full to overflowing with life and loss and love and hate and poverty and laughter. Being a Gypsy kid wasn’t easy. Being raised in the UK, wasn’t easy. There was (and still is) horrific institutionalized racism against Romani and Travellers. People still protest at our existence as though we can just vanish in a puff of smoke…
Wait, that’s what happened to many of my family members during the Holocaust. But, that doesn’t matter, right?? It didn’t happen to me, so I can’t claim its generational trauma. I can’t claim to be affected by the alcoholism, violence, anger, and genetic damage that came from it. I can’t be upset that I lost my grandparents, aunts, and uncles to the silence before I ever even got to know them. When you are raised by women with hollow eyes and men with stones in their hearts, it’s difficult to remain unaffected.
It’s difficult to forget. Even though the world has already forgotten the things it has done generation after generation. Even though the world says we Romani don’t remember… we do. In our bones, in our eyes, in our hearts.
People seem shocked at the violence thrown at Romani families – they hear of arson, beatings, property damage, attempted murder and gasp – as if they too didn’t harbour anti-Romani feelings. They pretend as though this horrible racism is only towards those bad, brown Romanian Gypsies. The newspapers constantly build walls of hatred against us, mislabeling us all deliberately, tarring us all with the same brush. They see us begging on the streets and instead of stopping to ask why, call us dirty, lazy, addicts. They see us fleeing our home countries and instead of stopping to ask why, call us dirty, lazy, thieving addicts. We have always been subjected to the same levels of racism, but social media and the immediacy of the internet have brought it directly into our homes.
I’ve seen the same people who decry open violence against continental EU Romani out picketing pitch sites. I’ve seen them spit in my grandmother’s face. I’ve seen them poison our horses. They don’t understand that racism against Romani from Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, is the same as racism against British Romani. Racism is racism, period.
When you’re a child, it doesn’t matter how dark or light your skin, what your accent is, what clothes you wear. It matters that people throw bricks through your windows, throw you out of school, out of shops, off the bus. It matters that you’re treated like an animal simply because of your ethnicity.
As the old saying goes:
te avel gadžo ke řomeste andro kher, rodel mel. te avel řom ke gadžeste, rodel xarakteris.
– Non-Romani visiting Roma, look for dirt. Roma visiting non-Romani, look for character.