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György Kerényi

We were birds

 

WE WERE BIRDS ORIGINALLY, and from birds we turned into what we are now, so commences a beautiful Gypsy folktale. And what else could be the ending: one day we will turn into birds again. Ten million people in Europe, and five hundred thousand in Hungary are waiting for this transformation, and many of them have about as much access to civilization as birds do - we may add to complete the image. But looking through the history of the Roma, especially in the 20th century, and the world that provides the background and the living-space for the characters of these photos, we must realize that their metamorphosis would make only their Gadjo (non-Romani) environment happy. Freedom and independence, as perceived through the eyes of Gadjos, are of course present in the lives of many Gypsy groups; but usually this freedom is only the means of escape, of humanizing and taming the inhuman living conditions, and it is less frequently the result of their so often recalled „otherness".

They have no written culture, so we don't know much about their past. The accounts and scholarly works about them often simply echo piles of prejudices written a hundred years ago, and retold in an unchanged form. But even nowadays, in an age of strict scholarly methodology, these works reflect the prejudiced world-view of the researcher examining his „Gypsy object". Thus, false and negative generalizations exercise their destructive influence in the mask of science. Statements that are only partly true, and are valid only for some Gypsy groups are canonized; the hands trying to clutch the spokes of the common ladder are kicked off by the sympathetic acknowledgement of otherness. During their wanderings and their encounters with societies that have tried to resolve the „Gypsy issue" sometimes with admission, but typically with various methods of exclusion, the Roma have dissolved into groups with different cultures and lifestyles. Yet we judge and condemn them as a homogeneous mass. It's in their blood, we say: biological determinism has become outmoded and not comme ilfaut, and it has been replaced by the concept of sociocultural otherness, casting a benevolent shadow over the rigidity of the institutions trying to get rid of Gypsies.

What makes a minority is that it is deprived of its opportunities of social progress as well as the economic, political and cultural capital. And what if a few thousand have managed not only to stay on the surface, but also to become wealthy? Still, in Hungary seventy percent of the working-age Roma are unemployed, and their fate is determined for generations. Their children can study in auxiliary schools to find their way on the labor market, and their unhealthy flats and living conditions make their life-expectancy ten years lower than the average Hungarian's. Yes, they have minority self-governments, and lately the central government has worked out a Roma program, but the five hundred thousand-strong Romani population as a whole has been left out of the great social-economic reorganization and the redistribution of the national wealth, and discrimination keeps following them through every phase of their lives. The laws are made by the powerful everywhere. Their culture, the only area where they can expect some appreciation, is also merely a tolerated, often exotic spectacle.

On paper, they are the citizens of Hungary. In reality, they belong only to Gypsyland.

ACCORDING TO OUR HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE, they migrated from India sometime during the first milleneum. They first appeared in larger groups in Hungary in the 14th-15th centuries. Their Indian origins still darken their skin, and the experience of centuries-long existence outside society and sometimes persecution darken their collective subconsciousness. Initially, unlike the reception of their brothers trying their luck in Western Europe, they were spared persecution in Hungary. Charters from kings and aristocrats guaranteed for them an autonomy equal to the citizens of towns. Their skills, especially their metal-work which provided a living for them in their nomadic life, was relied upon in a Hungary that was constantly at war. Of course, they lived on the margins of society, and the work they managed to get was often consonant with their social status, but they had a place.

Due to the centralizing efforts of the Habsburgs in the 18th century, the Gypsies suddenly had to realize that they became a problem for the police and the administration. They had to see their children taken away from them and given to Hungarian peasants. (At the time, it was not yet called state care. This most brutal form of central solicitude still threatens Gypsy families). They were forbidden to keep horses, to wear their traditional clothes and to speak their language - the basic pillars of their culture and, to a certain degree, their survival. From that century on, the „Gypsy case" became the problem of the administrative offices, and even more for the police. (This was especially the case in terms of itinerant, newly arrived groups of Roma). And even though more and more of them settled down - by the end of the 19th century, ninety percent of the Roma had done so, the common sentiment was „one bad apple spoils the whole bushel" and all of them were considered a problem for the majority society.

Their nomadic life is closely connected to the traditional professions of Gypsies: tinkers, nail-smiths, basket weavers and trough makers could only sell their services and their products in a larger geographical area. However, an increasing number of them settled down to make their living as smiths, adobe makers, musicians and day-workers. Although the appearance of large-scale industry in the previous century decreased the importance of their traditional trades, it could not cease it entirely. It was, in fact, the mass poverty and unemployment hitting millions of people in the turn of the century that pushed them, like many others, into hitherto unknown depths of misery.

Their integration was hindered by the increasing prejudices of centuries as well as their position in the labor market. „They are enemies of order and society, they are blood-thirsty beasts... we cannot protect ourselves from them, and we cannot treat them otherwise than what we would do with wicked enemies and beasts", an honest Hungarian journalist wrote in the beginning of the 20th century. For a while, the administration did not adopt such views, but by the period between the two world wars, proposals were made in the Parliament suggesting the sterilization of Gypsies and their confinement into labor camps. Institutionalized prejudices ultimately led to the Porrajmos, the Gypsy Holocaust; thousands of Hungarian Roma were exterminated in the Nazi deathcamps.

AFTER THE SECOND WORLD WAR, the Roma were left out of the reallocation of land. They were swallowed up by the large agricultural concerns and forced industrialization. Most of the Romani men became unskilled workers commuting into the cities and securing for themselves a stable but meagre income. „Regular work, more civilized life", „a changing life-style: assimilation is well on the way": the pass didn't crumble down yet, and trains and buses shuttled between the two worlds. For a long time, Socialist economy needed cheap and unskilled labor. And so the Gypsies witnessed the transformation of the political system on the periphery.

In 1961, a Party resolution unraveled the mystery of who the Gypsy are; they were defined merely as a layer of society in a disadvantageous position, and not as a minority. The architects of a better future planned to abolish their disadvantageous position through orders eliminating Gypsy settlements, providing employment and „improving their behavior". The „GS" (reduced value) flat construction program was initiated. As a result, some of the Roma escaped the inhuman living conditions and got into a better environment (and the myth of the over-supported Gypsies took root in society), but their segregation remained unaltered. In fact, new settlements developed, offering an extreme contrast of the end of the European milleneum just as shocking as the rows of hovels were forty years ago. Since most of the Roma were unskilled laborers, they were the first to be swept out of their workplaces by the transformation of the system at the end of the eighties. Many of them completed the eight years of primary school, even if they studied in „Gypsy classes". However, in the meantime, a high school diploma became the minimum requirement for entering the labor market, and their percentage in secondary school hardly improved. Thus, without education, they have been unable to regain their former employment rates: today the greater part of Roma exist in the hopeless state of enduring, extreme poverty. They live from social benefits, family allowances, as temporary public workers, unable to pay off their flat construction loans or the public utilities, collecting plants and rubbish, often sunk into alcoholism, psychosis and deviancy, in families falling apart. They are the biggest losers of the transformations in Eastern Europe. Their destiny, Gypsy life, is a state of indigence and stigmatization. Today, at least sixty percent of Hungarian society categorizes Gypsies among the most repugnant social groups.

Sometimes there is much talk about Gypsies, but usually they are enveloped in silence. Their existence is a burden for everyone: for teachers, for neighbors, for politicians. Whether we want to „elevate, integrate or assimilate" or to liquidate, segregate or regulate them, the discourse is always about them and not with them. We always know just what the problem is with them: there are too many of them; they are different; they are strange; they don't follow our moral codes; they are work-shirkers; they are criminals - shall we go on with the list? We don't know what they want, how they want to live. In Gypsy classes, in huts on the outskirts of villages, in prison, on state benefits? Or do they perhaps have desires like we do? Or are they really so unalterably different? How many times have we run along the same lap, and for how many centuries have they been running? We make small talk about them, while Gypsyland, the realm of poverty and stigmatization is constantly being constructed and expanded.

ABSENCE: rooms without objects, shoes without laces, smiles without teeth. But what is there is also absence: the children's ruffled Sunday clothes, the skinny duck held close, the oversized jacket, the portable stereos on the shoulders.

But in nothingness, the few things that are still there with the people begin to talk. Objects and their owners talk quietly or loudly, their voice doesn't get out of the thick walls surrounding their world. But in return, the acoustics of their hermetically sealed catacombs are perfect. They seem to be inseparable, but they are not. They will drift away from each other as time goes by. The objects will be lost; the houses will be torn down by a storm; their portable stereos will be sold. These people will go to the next world empty-handed; nothing but their bodies will be laid in the grave. They form an unbearably strong evidence in a lawsuit, and however irrefutable they may be, they are not taken into consideration.

Without losing its social determination, the poverty depicted on these photos steps over it. The old man standing in front of his hovel, clutching his hands to pray, or rather to curse, the smiling man in another picture, where the house and its inhabitant enjoy the warmth of the sun seemingly buttressing each other, or the third man, who, we may be sure, conquered the ruins with the help of his portable stereo -they and the others are not just illustrations of poverty. In the photos, absence is not emptiness, and indigence is not inhuman. It is, in fact, very human.

They fight and have fought by themselves, but their sin is a common one: they are all Gypsies. Their shared destiny does not take away the concrete determining factors of their existence - the world where human beings are forced to live like this - from the photos. The poverty these pictures show is almost metaphysical, but beyond (or perhaps before) the aesthetic-philosophical depth of the photos, it is we, the citizens of Hungary at the end of the 20th century, who should react to them revealing themselves.

These pictures are not stolen glimpses of a world unknown to most of us. Yet we usually steal glances at them. We interpret their otherness, we costruct programs and sometimes pogroms, drawing up the things to do point by point. We chatter about them, because we can't and we won't talk to them.

The man who hasn't eaten for three days, because he is expecting his grandchild home from the institute for the weekend, and he needs a hundred forints for the kid who loves potato baked in fat; the eight-years-old ehild who carries out slag from waste stockpiles to sell it for a pittance - the words we speak to them miss their objects. They don't form a coherent unit; in this world, the only valid sentence belongs to these people. It is what they have told to the photographers. They don't have anything to say to us, but they did have something for the photographers: goat, flower, cooking-stove, portable stereo, wife, kids. Heavy, simple sentences. The gestures in front of the camera contain neither accusations, nor desires. All they have is certainty, wisdom and recognition. Peace. These people are beyond their Gypsyness. It is merely an ID card, a brown stamp that keeps and detains them in Gypsyland. But they are more than this: they are proud, happy, exhausted, sad, in love. If only we knew just this much about them, the days of Gypsyland would be counted.

It is painful to realize how much we, the so called majority, are not present in these photos. Everything there belongs to the Roma - the house, the pullover, the goat, all the absences. Gypsyland. It is only seemingly a part of the segment of time and space called Hungary. It is not the Hajdúhadháza you find on the maps, it is another Tólápa, another Budapest: our Hungary is not like this. And yet our Hungary is like this. This Gypsyland is in our Hungary; nevertheless, we visit it as foreigners. We watch and observe its inhabitants, a shocked group of tourists, while they look through us. They don't see us as we tiptoe through their empty rooms; they don't hear our sighs, our hushed greetings. We can't leave there our words - how could we, without credibility, validity or meaning? Gradually, everything emigrates from Gypsyland, and only the people remain.

 

 

  
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