Before Maami Babka would leave the house, she would meticulously cover her hair with a dikhlo – a beautiful red or orange headscarf. She had short hair now, as did many of the women in my family, but she still kept it hidden. She would put on a petticoat, long skirt, and apron, and over the top of it all a heavy patched overcoat.
When she stepped out into the bitter morning air, cigarette dangling precariously, she became Gypsy. As we walked, children on their way to school would shout various slurs, looking for a reaction. “Oi, dirty pig!”, “Hey! Gypsy!”, “Witch, witch! Should be burned!”… but my grandmother just coughed, took drag on her cigarette, and smiled her crooked smile. She pretended not to understand the words they said and slapped me hard when I shouted back, “džungale parne benga!”
We’d shuffle our way to wherever it was she needed to go that day – to buy a bottle of sherry; some cigarettes; or to haggle the local grocer for the last, small cabbage. Holding tightly to my arm, she seemed to shrink with every step, becoming frail and wizened.
Yet, as soon as we closed the dilapidated council house door behind us, she unfolded herself, whipped off her overcoat, and started barking orders. She didn’t ask the Gadže for help, she made herself small, inconspicuous, harmless and worked out how to get what she needed. This split personality became a part of my life, too. At school I was silent, reserved, and stupid. At home, I was translating for my family, reading and signing housing, medical, and employment documents, and managing the little budget we had. I was a loud, capable Romnji but a very quiet, ignorant Gadži.
Cultural identity demands constant undulation between understanding of tradition and translation, between continuity and difference, and between ‘containment’ and ‘resistance’. I’m not quite sure what my grandmother’s passiveness was intended to achieve, but it was a performance of her identity and ethnicity to an external audience.
Similarly, I know an activist who attends events dressed as a stereotypical Gypsy – complete with headscarf, long, brightly-coloured skirts, and a crystal ball. She provides palmistry and other fortune readings while educating on the inappropriateness of such stereotypes and behaviour among non-Romani. Her performance of culture is equally as perplexing as that of my grandmother.
We are all engaged in constant construction, performance, and reinvention of our identities. What it means to “be Romani” is constantly re-evaluated, renegotiated, and reframed. I grew up in what I viewed to be a “traditional” family. However, the overarching idea of ‘tradition’ is one of dichotomy, such as “authentic” versus “inauthentic”, when really it is a conversation, a series of interactions between people – ideas, actions, objects – and between the contexts and power relations of the past and present. As such, my family weren’t really “traditional” at all, but rather encompassed a whole range of articulations of Romani culture and language.
Every Friday evening, my father smoothed out his moustache, put on his decorated and heeled boots, wide belt, (often a hat), and grabbed his guitar. Along with a cluster of my uncles, he sang in (or outside of) the local bars. They sang Romani, Irish, and Scottish songs. They dressed like the Gypsies in storybooks and glowered angrily at non-Romani as they staggered by.
For my father, this was performance on multiple levels. He was literally performing in front of (largely uninterested) non-Romani audiences, as well as performing ethnicity and identity. He represented himself through the embodiment of perceived positive stereotypes – that is, the Romani as a nation of musicians and dancers. I think this allowed a dual positivity to emerge – that of internal reinforcement of a positive feeling and an external bolstering of our social position. Our musicianship and culture became a positive expression of who we were. However, no matter what we did, we were still “strangers” who remained “outside” society – either as romanticized and exotic other, or dirty and dangerous other.
Being Romani isn’t a static, single expression of a static, single thought. It’s a whole mess of history and language, remembered and forgotten. It’s really a complex expression of multiple identities.
Baba Edita would sing as she scrubbed the floors. Her fragile voice shattering as it hit the tiles. She sang in English, badly accented and clumsy. She refused to answer us if we spoke in Romani, insisting that we needed to integrate, to blend in. We needed to live a gadžikanes life. Yet, she too, would wrap her short hair in a colourful dikhlo before stepping out of the house. Unlike Maami Babka, though, she would walk tall, greeting Gadže acquaintances with a smile and a nod. She knew all of the women on her two mile walk into town and some days it would take her all morning just to get a couple of cabbages from the grocer. We ate Sunday lunch with Baba and Papo every week, the same way our Gadže neighbours did. We spoke to each other in pretentious English, asking about the weather, our cousin’s baby, or the quality of local produce. We sat drinking coffee as our food digested, glancing at the Sunday paper, which only several of us kids could read. If anyone asked, her olive skin was Greek, her darker husband from a small island – sometimes Mikonos, sometimes Idra. I still don’t know how she knew the names of all the Greek islands but didn’t know who the British Prime Minister was. She only used the word Gypsy when she was mad at us, yelling that “those bloody travelling Gypsies took our good children and left you thieves here with me!”
For Baba Edita, being Romani meant something completely different than for Maami Babka. My parents were stuck somewhere in between the two competing views – being openly Romani (but non-confrontational) or being as inconspicuous as we could, while trying to merge our traditions and lifestyle with that of non-Romani. We spoke broken Romani in our house – a mixture of Slovak Romani, Anglo-Romani, and English; we ate a mix of traditional and non-traditional foods; I grew up wearing long skirts, long sleeves, and occasionally dikhlo, but attended schools that required uniforms with shorter skirts, knee socks, and blazers – a change not easily welcomed by my family.
Belonging and identity are so very important to Romani; so important, in fact, that the first question you’re usually asked is “who are you?” (also literally “whose are you?”) This isn’t just a question of your name – but also your history and your entire being. The answer usually involves your clan or tribe – Kalderara, Bergitka, Ludari – in short, a reference to where in the diaspora you belong.
For many of us, that’s a difficult question to answer. Our identities and indeed, performances as Romani are disconnected and distorted. They are framed in black and white terms of “more” or “less”; “authentic” or “inauthentic”; “true” or “false”. Our languages are broken and half-forgotten, but we children are blamed for being disinterested and detached, for being not Romani enough. My identity is that of “Romani woman”, however to other Romani I may not even be Romani. We have lost the overarching idea of what Gypsy should be. Our stories are different tributaries of the same strong river. We forget that our roots are all feeding the same great tree. We feel, I think, as though success and any kind of integration and education are a trade off of our “Gypsyness” – as though in order to remain authentic we must remain poverty-stricken wives, mothers, musicians. My uncle always claimed loudly and emphatically to anyone who would listen, “I’m not a Gypsy. I’ve never stolen anything in my life and I have married a good wife and my children don’t need to go to school to have a brain”. Even though we were poor and marginalized, my family all created separate spaces of “exception” for us to inhabit, defining our ethnicity as explicitly different to stereotypical ideas of Gypsy. We had little agency in choosing our own ethnicity – it was ascribed to us by outsiders, marking us as separate, different, and dangerous. Our efforts were spent redefining what this meant, to us and to the world.
Even now, I find myself in some strange no-mans-land, falling between the cracks of my own histories. Struggling to hold the legacies of my Romani ancestors – their travels, their words, their traditions – and meld them with my new life. I’m not always successful and collapse under the weight of expectation, but I am no more or less anything because of it.
“I was born by myself but carry the spirit and blood of my father, mother and my ancestors. So I am really never alone. My identity is through that.”