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Book Reflections – The Roma Café by István Pogány

Book cover – The Roma Café by István Pogány

I have begun to read about the situation of the Roma people in Europe. I’ve been living in Europe for 18 months and I’m curious about the Roma people. Are you? I was inspired to start reading about Roma people partly by a BBC podcast about the initiative by 12 European countries called the decade of Roma Inclusion, partly by a comment from a colleague that Romani beggars are destitute and not actually part of a racket begging for a beggar master as is commonly believed, and spending a weekend with a young woman who is half Romani. 

Perhaps the first time I became aware of Romani culture was when I watched the film Gadjo Dilo (crazy stranger) which has great music in it. Also my father mentioned travelling gypsies when he was a child in England. 

I have started my education with The Roma Café and from page 13 I already knew I had started in the right place:

Modern scholarship in law and the social sciences often prizes unintelligibility, or so it seems. The near impossibility of establishing the meaning of a text is frequently seen as proof of its intellectual merit. Judged by this criterion my book will disappoint. I have deliberately chosen to write in a simple, accessible style. 

Roma, Romani, Gypsy? Pogány uses Roma as the plural noun, Romani as the singular noun and adjective but he also used Gypsy as a synonym for both. As he said there are some authors reclaiming Gypsy and rejecting the notion that it’s pejorative. He also makes the good point that there’s only so many repetitions one can make in a sentence of Roma and Romani especially when also referring to Romania. 

Do the Roma still roam? Predominantly the answer is no. In 1893 already only 3.3% of Hungarian gypsies were fully nomadic and more than 89% had become entirely settled. 

Pogány took the approach of creating a human face to ordinary Romani people living in Central and Eastern Europe, specifically Romania and Hungary. He had noticed that very few books on the history of the region “contain so much as an index entry for Roma or Gypsies, despite the centuries-long presence of large Roma communities in the region.” and that the Roma themselves have written very little due to chronically low literacy rates and an oral culture. It was very interesting to read about individual Romani families in a variety of situations. 

Pogány did a good job of writing in a clear, concise and unemotive style. From the outset he obviously wanted to give ordinary Romani people a voice that they either can’t or won’t give themselves. I wasn’t sure if he would represent people “warts and all” or if he would cherry pick positive anecdotes to provide a different viewpoint to the overwhelmingly negative attitudes held by most Europeans. There are definitely some warts on display and we as the reader can’t know his selection criteria for which vignettes made it into the book but it feels quite balanced. For some photographs taken by Pogány have a look at his website.

Pogány divides the book into chapters dealing with different pertinent topics on which he gained anecdotal evidence. These topics range from

  • the stereotypes of Gadje (not gypsies) that are commonly held by Roma
  • the history of Roma in Europe, including shocking details about the wretched conditions of Gypsy slaves
  • the Roma Holocaust during WWII, which continues to be denied, and the terrible treatment of Roma women by the Russians when they arrived.
  • The transition from Communism to market economies. Under communism the Roma had their basic needs met and were employed in phantasmagoric jobs that disappeared as soon as consumers had a choice about what to buy. 
  • Romani musicians are world famous and could make a comfortable living but the music has become less popular in Hungary with the rise of Hungarian nationalism. “Instrumental virtuosity, improvisation, elaborate ornamentation… rhythm – have been the hallmarks of Romani musicianship.”
  • Alcoholism, intermittent work ethic, poor education and homelessness 
  • Poverty
  • Racism and racist attacks and prejudices even by police 
  • Pogány closes his thoughtful and thought provoking book with a section on the principal problems facing the Roma and some tentative solutions 

The Roma people are many and varied and Pogány suggests that they do not necessarily feel close ties to each other beyond the clan. Many Roma were born in their host country and speak the language of their home; some also speak Romani which has linguistic links to Sanskrit and hints at the Indian origins of Gypsies. I liked this line. How often do we even recognize our own paradigm and prejudices? How often have I thought to myself that stereotypes save time? 

To ascribe a single, unchanging mentality to all members of a family, let alone to an entire ethnic group, is unsustainable; it is prejudice masquerading as truth. 

I enjoyed reading the book and I’m grateful that it was only 160 pages long. I gained insights into the lives of some Romani people and into the complexity of the situation and the difficulties faced by policy makers to improve the daily lives and futures of the largest minority group in Europe. 

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4 comments on “Book Reflections – The Roma Café by István Pogány

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This entry was posted on February 12, 2017 by in Books & Ideas and tagged , , , , , , .
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