“The trees whisper secrets,” my mother said. “If you listen, they’ll tell you stories.”
I spent hours listening as a child, waiting for the weeping willow, beech, or ash to tell me something, anything; where they came from, who they were, where we were all going.
But, they stood silent, year after year. All I heard was the wind as it danced through their leaves.
I thought there was something wrong with me; I thought I wasn’t listening well enough.
Turns out, trees don’t speak at all.
What I heard most, in those moments in the woods, was my own heart; I am Romnji, it said. We are Romani.
Us raggle-taggle Gypsies (-oh!) have been romanticized and ostracized from the moment we entered Europe. We have been written about by the best and brightest authors – Jane Austen (Emma), Sir Walter Scott (Guy Mannering), Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), George Eliot (The Mill on the Floss), Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and too many others. Our culture is seen as mysterious, inaccessible, and exotic, and has long be eroticised. We are both foreign and indigenous, with a set of ascribed attributes making up our highly contested identities; we are, in fact, a gadže creation.
We represent idealized pastoralism in an increasingly industrialized world; we represent freedom, escape, and resistance; we live an idle, natural, life. Adjectives people use when discussing us include words such as swarthy, dark, supple, agile, handsome, wild, fierce, defiant, promiscuous, sensual, provocative, enticing.
All this muted with a side of equally powerful negative stereotypes – criminals, parasites, deceitful vagrants, rogues, beggars, vagabonds – who live like pigs and die like dogs. We pose a danger to health, property, and person.
As much as I, and the literary world wanted me to, I just couldn’t hear those whispers. My magic, my sight, my Gypsy blood did nothing to translate the creaking and sighing of the forest as I sat and waited, day after day.
According to popular fantasy and believers in all things arcane, “From the time a gypsy child is very young, they learn to listen to the trees. In fact, Wind Whispering is probably the first magic a young gypsy learns“.
I never did learn it.
The only whispers I heard were the ramblings of a broken old woman as she fled from the Nazis every night in her dreams.
“Only the zoralo kašt will talk to you, čerajinoři,” Maami said one afternoon as I cried in her tea. “There are many, many trees and many, many people and they are the same – not all of them know how to speak so you can understand.”
I didn’t realize it then, but Maami didn’t mean the trees; she never meant the trees. She was talking about Roma and non-Roma… about how to listen to the world. “Our magic doesn’t lie in talking,” she said. “It’s only in the silences that you can hear what’s being said.”
As a child, I was told in subtle ways not to trust gadže. I was told to be silent, told that it was safer if we just kept to ourselves. I watched how my grandmother, both strong and afraid, navigated the world as a stereotype – becoming an old, wizened crone. I watched how my mother was simply unable to integrate, instead falling apart at the seams, like an old tent whose pole was slowly rotting from the inside out. I was never sure how to act, so I didn’t. I just stood, silent, like the ash and the willow and the beech.
“The Gypsy” is a social construct – and not an individual with personal characteristics. When a non-Romani calls me “Gypsy” what is it that they mean? Is that my life is seen as Other, outsider, marginal? Or is it that I am mystical, magical, or even dangerous? Do they mean I am Traveller, Romani, Sinti, or Manouche? Or are they referencing any of the pop culture images of my people?
We have become, it seems, the epitome of the “Marginal Man“, forever on the outskirts of society, forever the pariah. As Robert Park states:
“the movement of gypsies [note: no capitalization] and other pariah peoples […] bring about no important changes in cultural life. They choose and maintain of their free will a lifestyle void of any cultural association. Why, with so wide an acquaintance with regions, with men, and with cities, with life in the open road and in the slums, has he [the gypsy] been able to contribute so little to our knowledge of life? The trouble is not lack of experience, but lack of vocation. Wanderlust, which is the most elementary expression of the romantic temperament and the romantic interest in life, has assumed for him the character of a vice. He has sacrificed the human need of association and organization to a romantic passion for individual freedom. He is not only “homeless”, but a man without a cause and without a country”.
These vast assumptions echo the ongoing antiziganism Romani face throughout Europe; we are romantics who are addicted to wandering; we do not form any social bonds, neighbourly or otherwise, hence we are asocial; we contribute nothing to either our own cultural heritage or society as a whole; and in all of the aimless, free-spirited wandering, are not citizens of any country. In fact, antiziganist commentary and laws throughout Europe show a well-organized, premeditated attempt to destroy the last traces of my people; a people who have inhabited these territories for more than six centuries.
Even today, the movie industry and the media machine grind away daily at any strides we make. Our cultures are whitewashed under the erroneous, misleading, and often offensive (and uncapitalized) gypsy. We are referred to as “hordes” who “overtake” cities and neighbourhoods; we are sexy, dangerous women who steal your heart as we pocket your wallet, while our rugged, swarthy men beat us and traffic our children.
We are everything and nothing.
“Thing is,” Maami said, adding another drop of whisky to her tea, “we stopped listening to those trees a long time ago.”