I have always been vocal on what I understand as an appropriation of my oppression. For as long as I have engaged with the Romani rights ‘movement’, it has been led by well educated, non-Romani, individuals. At first, I found this somewhat perplexing; it was almost humorous to learn that the ‘enemy’ – whom I had always been told to avoid and whom were the source of my exclusion – were ‘fighting’ for my rights. Their support, however, I have always welcomed - it is mostly offered with good intentions – but their leadership is something I abhor. “I’m organising Roma Nation Day” wrote one well known, non-Romani, activist to me in an email. This is an individual who has built his entire career, and to an extent his life, on cultural appropriation and speaking for other people. Should anyone dare to criticise his monopoly over Romani activism, his antagonistic tactics, or categorically incorrect homogenisation of anyone who has ever been within 5 foot of a caravan; he has a herd of Oxbridge educated followers ready to defend him and bombard his critics with emails. As a matter of fact, I have been on the receiving end of this: but Pip, why can’t you just let us speak for you? There wouldn’t even be a Roma day if it wasn’t for He Who Must Not Be Named.
Sadly, they are not far from the truth. The International Romani Union, whom first declared International Romani Day back in 1990, have always counted non-Romani activists amongst their ranks. This is something I’ve learnt relatively recently; until I read a friend’s paper last year, I had not the slightest indication of who the International Romani Union were, let alone that it had established International Romani Day, and even the Romani flag. These realisations were a turning point for me and my understanding of what it is to be Romani, as beneath the rhetoric of cultural celebration and equal rights, is something that has always sat in firm opposition to my beliefs – nationalism. In truth, the International Romani Union is established on the belief that the Romani people are some kind of dispersed nation, descending from India, whose culture and language has been polluted through the coercion of the nation states in which we have come to settle. They yearn for our reunification – for us to recognise and somewhat pine for our Indian homeland – and to purify our muddied tongues so that we may speak a standardised, unpolluted, dialect of the Romani language.
To learn that the flag I had been flying stood for something that would not be out of place in a far right manifesto was somewhat hard to swallow. For as long as I can remember, I have stood in opposition to nationalism and considered it the root and the cause of our oppression, yet I began to wonder: was I, too, guilty of employing nationalist beliefs? I had considered my B+ blood type and thalassemia as some form of genetic authentication of my true Romani blood, given their prevalence in India; I had been guilty of branding others widos – fake Gypsies – for their lack of knowledge of the Romani tongue; I had told the story of our supposed Indian homeland time and time again to anyone who had asked who we – the Gypsies – were; and I had referred to us so often as ‘we’ – as though we were a homogeneous people separated by nothing but borders. I realised, however, that I am not a nationalist; I am merely the victim of my own inquisitive mind. In my search for the answer to - ‘who am I?’ - I had turned to the studies, the theories, and the literature popularised by those who adhere to this nationalist way of thinking. Now I understand, however, that the answers cannot be found in books. They’ll only inform me of someone else’s agenda or their understanding of self and others. My truth – my understanding of who I am – can only be found in my words and my experiences.
‘Agenda’ – I think this is where my concerns with International Romani Day are rooted. I have always understood this day as a time for Romani people across the world to celebrate our cultures and raise awareness of the inequality that we face, but now I only see it as an instrument of nationalism, especially now it’s increasingly being referred to as ‘Roma Nation Day’. The people – like He Who Must Not Be Named – who profess to be the ‘organisers’ of International Romani Day, appear to have a much different understanding of what it is to be Romani. I won’t speak for 12 million people, but I have never met a Rom who places India as central to their identity and it’s certainly not central to my own. I’m aware that our language has its origins in India, but I do not feel Indian – I will never feel Indian – and I feel no connection to my supposed homeland in any way at all. My Baba always tells me that the Rom are the lost tribe of Moses – whether it’s true or not, this is how she makes sense of her history. Who is anyone to tell her that she’s wrong? To tell her that she has somehow internalised one of the many fallacies disseminated by the non-Romani people?
This however, seems to characterise the International Romani Union or whoever else is behind this nationalist rhetoric. Here we have highly educated Romani men and their interfering non-Romani associates, who believe they can non-democratically decide what, who and where is Romani and what, who and where isn’t. Apparently, we should all speak in a perfect Kalderas dialect of Romani, call ourselves the Roma, and mourn for a homeland we didn’t even know existed. I speak a mishmash of Bugurdzi and Anglo-Romani, I call myself a Gypsy and I have more nostalgia for Bulgaria than I do India – does this mean I’m not a true Rom? I can speak only for myself, but Romani is not a nationality, it’s more like a state of mind. Yes, we are born Romani and we are raised Romani but we are also citizens, and have been for centuries, of the countries in which we have built our cultures and lives.
I do not see it as pollution or impure to speak a dialect of Romani that has been influenced by the migratory path of my ancestors, nor do I see it as wrong to have adopted elements of the culture of the country in which I have grown up in. I am not impure, I am not less of a Rom; rather, the hybridity of our identities and cultures is a clear illustration of our nomadic pasts. Whether we still travel or not, we are the nomads and it is this which I believe runs through our blood. Our cultures and identities are so complex and diverse because of the journeys our ancestors took, and this is what makes the ‘Roma Nation’ seem so bizarre to me. Part of the reason we are seen as so at odds with society is our rejection of place and our rejection to conform to societal expectations. Romani nationalism asks us to reject our nomadic past, irradiate any influence it has had on our culture, and conform to the non-Romani notion that we are no one without a homeland.
Other people always wish to tell me who I am – even the non-Romani apparently know more about me than I do. It is almost a weekly tradition now, that a born again Gypsy (and I don’t mean the Light and Life kind) will preach to me from the book of Hancock. Usually the discovery of great granny born in a tent is enough to qualify them as Romani experts. “The word Gypsy is offensive” they tell me as they plan their April 8th demonstrations. Our very own brand of Zionism has, at least, registered in their minds even if it has bypassed the rest of us. These people don’t speak for me, and I doubt they speak for the 12 million Romani people living in deplorable conditions. When you are confronted with neo-nazi violence, continual eviction, poverty, educational segregation, sterilisation, unemployment, poor health and racism, the flashmobs of middle class activists, unwittingly propagating nationalist agendas, do not even register. I am not someone’s political play thing, nor do I accept the nationalist ramblings of the self-elected Romani leaders. I will always celebrate my culture and I will always fight for equality, but I will do this with sincerity and not within the nationalist framework in which International Romani Day is currently positioned.