Will Roma cultural route help bypass prejudice?

Updated:

LENDAVA, Slovenia — The word "gypsy" is often used pejoratively. But the Council of Europe is trying to change that with a new tourism route focusing on Roma culture and history.

“People see gypsies by a squalid dump at the side of the road,” said Jake Bowers, a militant British gypsy and journalist, “but they don’t really know us. I’d like a situation where we are recognized as a transnational European nation with representation at the United Nations.”

Bowers was speaking at the inauguration of the Roma Cultural Route last month, sponsored by the Strasbourg-based Council, which is not related to the European Union and works on European integration through culture and human rights. The route will link dispersed gypsy, or Roma, communities across Europe to strengthen existing networks and encourage Roma and non-Roma people to meet. Nine countries are already taking part with museums, shows and documentation centers. The inauguration took place in Slovenia at the Roma Kamenci settlement near the spa town Lendeva.

With his crewcut reddish hair and ruddy complexion, Bowers doesn’t look like a typical Roma, who usually have darker features, and that’s partly the point. After much historical research, including DNA testing, it seems incontrovertible that the original Roma came from India through Greece more than 1,000 years ago, dividing into groups according to trade and sometimes intermingling with outsiders. Today’s Roma are made up of many clans and tribes, and for practical purposes include Britain’s travelers and Ireland’s tinkers, who are native to the islands but share the same problems of social exclusion.

“Yeah, we’ve got problems, big problems in some places,” said Bowers, “but we belong to European society.” He believes that it’s time to replace negative stereotypes with more positive images that have a strong resonance in a globalized world. “We transcend notions of national borders,” he said, “and offer a permanent challenge to Europeans to live with diversity.”

The Kamenci settlement is a pilot project along the cultural route. Here, a Roma village has opened its doors to visitors with a museum and creative activities and workshops for Roma and others. In the field behind the settlement of rudimentary wooden and brick houses, little girls wearing long, colorful frocks gyrate their hips to taped music before an audience made up of Roma, Slovene and European NGO officials. Guest singers, musicians and dancers have come from other countries to celebrate the official launch.

Among the striking personalities is Miranda Volasranta, a Finnish Roma who runs a Roma civil rights forum in Helsinki. She dresses in traditional clothing that includes a 22-pound black velvet skirt.

Volasranta points to contributions the Roma have made to European culture, starting with Miguel de Cervantes’ short story, "The Little Gypsy Girl," through Alexander Pushkin’s poem collection, "The Gypsies," to Victor Hugo, who invented the lovely martyr La Esmeralda in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." There was Prosper Merimee and his free and forceful Carmen, not to mention the many composers who have used Roma musical themes in their work, including Sergei Rachmaninov, Johannes Brahms, Igor Stravinsky, Joseph Haydn, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Maurice Ravel and Bela Bartok.

“Our cultural richness has mostly been transferred by non-Roma people,” said Volasranta, “in a highly romantic version. At the same time, we remain invisible to our neighbors. I hope this route will lead to many more cultural centers and museums to support Roma artists and craftspeople.”

There are some 12 million Roma in Europe, the continent's largest ethnic minority. Their situations vary greatly, from comfortable integration in Scandinavian countries to virtual apartheid in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. They are mostly settled nowadays rather than leading nomadic lifestyles, although the Roma of Britain, Ireland and France generally still travel from place to place. Too often, though, Roma children are sent to substandard schools, and many can’t read or write. Their families' permanent living situations can be grim.

Most of the Roma at the Slovenia meeting argued that education is the only way out of poverty and social exclusion. But at the same time, they want to hold on to such Roma cultural values as collective living and respect for children and the elderly. “There is nothing so sad as a Roma who has lost his sense of cultural identity because he is literally left with nothing,” said Romanian writer Luminita Cioaba, who fought with her family and community to finish school and attend university, and who writes books about Roma history.

The European Parliament also has focused on Roma rights. The year-old "Platform for Roma Inclusion" has issued a list of 10 basic principles, including fair access to schooling. But Polish-born Roma activist Rudko Kawczynski has accused the movers and shakers of creating NGOs with little understanding of the problems. As Bowers glumly put it, “our Romani story is a litany of false dawns.”

But while he is not exactly optimistic, Bowers believes the Roma route could combat prejudice. “The only way you can overcome racism is by direct contact between people. If anyone who thinks all gypsies are thieves and degenerates were to walk into this place,” he said, referring to Kamenci, “they would realize that it is a community like any other, albeit with a different culture.”