They’re called Roma, their culture is ancient and intriguing… and the word “gypsy” is a slur.
All right my friends, let me tell you about “Gypsies” — or as they’re actually called, the Romani people, or simply the Roma.
They’ve been in the news a few times lately for child abductions. They’ve got a reputation as musicians and fortune-tellers at best; or as thieves, pickpockets and kidnappers at worst.
They’re probably from Romania, right? They must have something to do with the Romanians.
Nope. They’re not Romanian at all, actually. They’re not really called “gypsies,” either.
In this tale, I’m going to tell you where these fascinating people truly come from, what they’ve been through, and why their culture is utterly intriguing— and nothing like what you’ve probably heard.
But to do that, I have to tell you this story from the very beginning.
Musical accompaniment for this article:
The Roma originally come from northwestern India — probably somewhere in the area of Rajasthan or Punjab; it’s hard to pinpoint, because the Romani historical tradition is all oral, and this was around 1,500 years ago.
Their closest relatives are probably the Dom people, who share a similar language and culture.
The Dom probably split from the Roma and left India around the 500s A.D., to live mostly in Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Iraq.
It’s hard to know the exact “when,” “where” or “why” of this split, because — again — the traditions are all oral, and this happened more than a thousand years ago.
It’s also hard to pinpoint when, where and why the Romani people left India and came to Europe.
All we have are hints and stories. But they’re intriguing ones.
There’s a funny story about the Roma in the Shahnameh — the Persian sort-of-equivalent of the Iliad and the Odyssey, or the One Thousand and One Nights.
According to the Shahnameh, this king named Bahrām V Gōr, who reigned in the 400s A.D., learned that many of his people were too poor to afford live music, so he asked the king of India to send him ten thousand luri — expert lute players, to entertain the plebs.
The Romani luri showed up with their donkey-drawn wagons, and for a few days they played music in the streets and juggled and did acrobatics and so forth. The locals loved it, and the king was so pleased that he rewarded each Romani man and woman with an ox, a donkey, and a donkey-load of wheat, so they could stick around and perform full-time.
But the luri all took the loot, and they split town! They went off into the countryside and chilled, and ate the oxen and the wheat. A year later, they showed up at the king’s court, cheeks hollowed with hunger, extending their hands all sad and pitiful, like, “Please, sir, can I have some more?”
Well, let me tell you, the king flipped the frick out. He told the Roma, “Pack your bags right now, and get the hell out of the civilized world.” (In other words, go to Europe.)
That’s how the story goes, anyway.
The truth is, we really don’t know why the Romani people left India — but we know from written records that they showed up in the Balkans in the 1300s. The first European mention of them is from a Franciscan monk called Simon Simeonis, who described them as “traveling people who look kind of like they might be from Crete.” (I’m paraphrasing, obviously.)
Anyway, the Roma kept moving westward. They showed up in Germany in the 1400s. By the 1500s they’d made it as far as Scotland and Sweden.
Meanwhile, a completely separate wave of Roma were migrating westward across North Africa, then up and east through Spain. The two groups finally met in France in the 1600s.
I like to imagine two wagon trains meeting up in the French countryside — the leaders call out to each other, realize they’re speaking the same language; and at first they think this is just a regular old fellow tribe of France-dwelling Roma.
But they get to talking — and five minutes later it’s all “Dude! DUDE! WHAT THE!! WHAT?!” and they’re all hugging and picking each other up and twirling each other around, and swapping tales of their epic migrations.
But just about everywhere the Roma went, they were social rejects. I mean, think about it from the medieval European perspective: who were these totally unknown wanderers with their incomprehensible language, suddenly showing up penniless, busking in the streets and robbing people?
This was not exactly a recipe for popularity.
Especially in a time and place where starvation, disease, and rampant xenophobia were facts of everyday life.
And that’s where the Romani people really started to pick up their bad reputation.
So where did that word come from? According to folk tradition, some ancient emperor had exiled the Roma from Egypt as punishment for harboring the infant Jesus, and they’d been forced to wander the world as outcasts ever since.
Almost everywhere they do, the Roma have been spat upon as an inferior race of sinners.
Apparently nobody bothered to learn the Romani language and ask the Roma where they were really from. Or to note the obvious logical fallacy that the Europeans — a bunch of Christians — were punishing the people who had supposedly protected the infant Christ. Nobody cared. They didn’t like the “Gypsies,” so the “Gypsies” had to be cast out.
And that’s basically how the Roma have always been treated — as outcasts, marked out as subhuman by people who know nothing about them.
Since nobody wanted the Roma around, most of them tended to wander the countryside, begging and busking when they could; stealing and robbing when they had to.
When they showed up in cities, their reputation as thieves and fortune-tellers (i.e., witches) preceded them; and the locals kicked and spat on them in the streets, blamed sickness and misfortune on dark “Gypsy magic,” and blamed “Gypsy” thieves for lost money and valuables.
In the third case, at least, the locals were sometimes right.
Clearly, something had to be done about the Roma.
Most of Eastern Europe responded by just straight-out enslaving all the Romani people they could catch.
The Mongols, who were trying to conquer Europe at the time, also enslaved the Roma they came across; as did the Ottomans after them.
Some areas didn’t emancipate their Romani slaves until the 1850s —around the time of the American Civil War.
Western European kingdoms, on the other hand, were — relatively speaking — slightly less systematically brutal toward the Roma.
Most kingdoms “only” tried to forcibly expel them; and when that didn’t work, they passed laws:
Any Romani person caught in a Western European city was legally required to be put to death.
These laws don’t seem to have been enforced very consistently, though, because stories about “Gypsy” travelers and fortune-tellers kept showing up in fiction and history throughout the Middle Ages, right up into the modern era.
By the 1500s, most of Western Europe had accepted that they weren’t going to get rid of the Romani people, so they started trying to forcibly assimilate them. England was the first to revoke the mandatory death penalty, and other kingdoms soon followed.
Some places, like Spain, Norway and the Habsburg Monarchy (roughly modern Germany and Austria), rounded up all the Romani people they could find, put the adults in workhouses and the children in orphanages, forbade them to speak their Romani language — punishable by flogging — and generally treated them as second-class citizens.
The Romani people had essentially no civil rights.
Then came the Nazis, who set about committing yet another systematic genocide of the Romani people. They stripped all Roma of their citizenship, rounded them up, packed them on trains and sent them to concentration camps.
Experts differ on how many Romani people actually died in the Holocaust — estimates range from 220,000 to a million Romani men, women and children.
When the War ended and the camps were broken open, the Romani people weren’t resettled anywhere. Nobody made much serious effort to give them citizenship — or any legal rights, anywhere, really.
In most places they still wander the countryside, just like they have for the last 500 years —dirt-poor, busking, begging, stealing, and getting treated like filthy pests wherever they go.
Most people still call Romani people “gypsies” without even realizing it’s a racial slur.
Very few people have any idea who the Roma actually are or where they’re from — people I’ve asked, personally, tend to make a guess about Romania.
And the vast majority of the world’s people, to this day, just don’t really care what happens to the Romani.
But by this point, I hope you care.
So who are the Romani people, really?
Well, like I said, they’re from northwestern India.
They speak a language called Romani — an Indo-Aryan language related to Hindi, with roots in Sanskrit. The language’s name comes from the fact that
The Romani word for “man” is “rom.”
So Romani literally means “the language in which the word for ‘man’ is rom.” And the Romani word for their own people,
“Roma” simply means “the men,” or “the people.”
Important point: none of this has anything at all to do with the Romanian people, or the Romanian language.
You’re probably curious, then, why there are so many Romani people in Romania.
Well get ready for this: it’s pure coincidence.
An accident of history. Incredible, I know.
The Romanians — not the Roma, okay, but the people of Romania, who call themselves Român; literally, “Romans” — consider themselves the only legitimate heirs of the Western Roman Empire. And they really do have some basis for that claim.
The Romanian word Român comes from the Latin romanus, meaning “citizen of Rome.” And the Romanian language is actually a direct descendant of Latin — in fact, in some ways it’s even closer to Latin than the Italian language is.
That was all a sidenote, I know. But I wanted to show you how completely unrelated the Roma people, with their Hindi-related language and culture, whose word for “man” is rom — are from the Român people, with their Rome-descendant language and culture (whose word for “man,” by the way, is om — like the Italian uomo and the French homme).
Like I said, pure historical coincidence.
There just happen to be a lot of Roma in Romania.
So that settles the questions of origins and language.
But, I mean, who actually are the Roma? What’s their culture all about?
The Roma live in clans and chiefdoms, organized in a loose caste system inherited from ancient Indian culture.
When I say “loose,” I mean that the divisions between the castes aren’t particularly formal. They they tend not to oppress each other or assign each other specific jobs. In most places they’re just trying to keep their heads above water, as a people, as a whole.
But they do have a huge number of distinct subgroups and tribes — including the Bashaldé, the Churari, the Ungaritza, the Lalleri and the Kalderash.
Like the Kenyan tribes I wrote about in my article on Mombasa, these Romani subgroups might be hard for you (an outsider) to tell apart — but
The people of each clan speak their own dialects of the Romani language.
They each follow their own customs and beliefs, make their livings in their own ways, and observe their own unique ceremonies for marriages and comings-of-age.
The ancestors of the Roma were probably Hindu — but today some are Christian, some are Muslim, and many combine practices from all three religions with older shamanic beliefs.
Those beliefs tend to focus around a Mother Goddess; some Roma practice Shaktism, in which the Divine Mother is associated with the Virgin Mary, or Saint Anne, or Saint Sara; and sometimes also identified with Kali, the Hindu goddess of time, change, creation and destruction.
Some Roma practice yoga; many practice prayer — and almost all of them practice charms, fortune-telling, and other little rituals designed to bring baxt, luck.
Baxt is a very big deal in Romani culture.
The Roma abhor physical churches, written holy books, priests, and any spiritual leader who isn’t one of their own tribal elders.
Music-wise, the Roma sing slow, plaintive folk songs and play fast jazzy beats, often accompanied by tongue-clacking, hand-clapping, mouth-basses, spoon-clicking; and sometimes also by guitars, violins, drums and other local instruments they’ve picked up in their travels.
If I had to liken Romani music to something you’d recognize, I’d probably compare it to flamenco music — on which it’s acknowledged as a major influence — or to Turkish and Balkan village music. In truth, though, Romani music is a fusion of all these styles and many more; and it’s picked up tricks and twists everywhere the Roma have traveled.
Want to guess what Romani cuisine is like?
If you guessed hot, spicy, and colorful, you’re dead-on. They use a lot of paprika, garlic and bell peppers — along with whatever kinds of fruit, vegetables and meat happen to be available.
Some Romani dishes are potato-based; others use pineapples or raisins or cornbread or cottage cheese or rabbit meat. Some subgroups use falafel and dolma; others use tortillas and sausage.
They don’t put all these things together, obviously — and dishes vary widely between one Romani subgroup and another — but the point is that they love spice and variety in their food. By tradition, they always serve their food with their right hand, and eat two meals a day — for baxt.
Romani architecture is — I can’t think of any other way to describe it — wildly unique.
When a tribe of Roma manage to pile up some cash and settle down — and it does happen; more than you might think, after the history I’ve told you — they tend to gather into enclaves and pool their wealth to build titanic mansions that look like nothing else on earth.
There’s a taste of ancient Hindu temples in these houses; hints of Vietnamese palaces and Japanese pagodas and Transylvanian forest strongholds — but Romani architecture is none of these things. It is — like everything else about Romani culture — nothing other than itself.
The Roma build these mansions in clusters, on specific streets, in specific neighborhoods that federations of clans have staked out and claimed as their own territory. Like the estate I lived on in Mombasa, these Roma enclaves are tightly-knit, self-policing, and highly suspicious of outsiders. Very little is known about what goes on inside them.
Check out the Google Street View photos of these neighborhoods — or of the ghettoes to which the Roma have been exiled in other cities — and you’ll see children staring warily into the cameras; people hiding inside houses.
I think you’d be feeling pretty cagey these days too, if you were a Romani person.
Luckily for the rest of us, though, not all Roma are so secretive.
Many Romani people have been working to reclaim their cultural identity — especially in art, music and literature.
As more Romani people built up wealth, settled down and sent their kids to college — mostly in the late 1800s and afterward— a generation of talented, articulate Romani intellectuals appeared.
These intellectuals presented compelling cases for the establishment of a collective Romani cultural identity, and for distinctive styles of Romani literature and art.
I don’t know much about most of these theorists and artists — people like cultural activist Jenő Zsigó, artist Tibor Balogh, cultural anthropologist Ágnes Daróczi or art historian Tímea Junghaus. I pulled those names from Wikipedia.
But have you heard of Charlie Chaplin?
He may have been Rom. His parents destroyed his birth certificate — and hid their ancestry — during the forced assimilation of Romani people in 1880s England.
Still, there are tantalizing hints — an aging family friend wrote to the Chaplin family in the 1970s, informing them that Charlie was born “in a caravan [that] belonged to the Gypsy Queen, who was my auntie.” And Chaplin’s mother, Hannah, was from a “traveling family.” And the area of London where he was born was known, in the 1880s, as a Romani community. It’s, shall we say, not unlikely.
Other Romani artists are very open about their ethnicity.
Eugene Hütz, lead singer of the band Gogol Bordello, is a Ukrainian Rom, who self-identifies as a “Gypsy punk” — reappropriating the racial slur as a cool word; as something to be embraced.
If you really want to inject a concentrated dose of Romani culture straight into your brain, take a listen to this:
Can you guess what language he’s singing in the chorus?
Here’s what happens when Hütz and his Romani troupe show up on the David Letterman show. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any other live musical performance quite like it:
Hütz’s musical style, his mode of dress, his lyrics, the stories he tells, the entire phenomenon he and his traveling troupe create on stage — are almost pure classic Romani, infused with elements from across Europe and the Balkans. Which is, of course, what Romani style has always been about.
But Hütz and his clan have led the way, and other musical acts have followed. “Gypsy” music is wildly popular in Turkey and the Balkans today, and becoming more popular throughout Europe and the U.S., too. It comes with its own traditional dances, slang, and styles of dress — most of which are proudly rocked by people who have no claim to Romani ancestry at all.
I’ll always remember one night I went out in Istanbul with two French girls and one German one — all of whom self-identified as “Gypsies,” and who dressed like full-on Romani women — to a “Gypsy” club where they taught me the traditional dances and slang.
Look, I’m not here to start an argument about cultural appropriation.
I’m just telling you, you can find scenes just like this in Paris, in Tbilisi, in Izmir, in Munich and Barcelona and Amsterdam and San Francisco.
I’m not sure what any of this has to do with an Indic people who migrated out of Punjab a thousand years ago — but, culturally, it is what we call “very much a thing.”
Underdoggieness is pretty much always cool.
The Roma themselves, sadly, are probably going to remain underdogs for a while to come.
I had a confrontation with a Rom once, at the central train station in Bologna, Italy.
I was moving a huge load of suitcases from Istanbul to Florence, by plane and by train and by massive amounts of dragging and grunting and sheer force of will — and I arrived by bus at the Bologna Stazione Centrale, and I dragged my bags out of that bus, and
I was just too tired to keep on dragging them.
A small group of very poor Romani women surrounded me, as they always converge on tourists at Italian train stations — saying “Hello my friend” and offering help with tickets, help with bags, help with directions, pointing and back-slapping and tugging at my elbow.
I looked across the station, and I saw the train on the tracks. It was not that far away.
Maybe two minutes’ walk, without my huge load of suitcases.
I tried to pull the suitcases. The Romani women would not let me. They smiled and tugged at the suitcase handles and kept saying “please, my friend,” and I looked at that train and, I mean, where could they run off to, really, between here and there, dragging giant fifty-pound suitcases?
I said “Sure. Why not?”
They were thrilled. They dragged the suitcases toward the train; but it turned out — yeah, there’s always a “but it turned out” in these stories, isn’t there? — that my particular train was leaving from a terminal that was across the platforms and down a whole series of escalators and then way across another platform and down even more escalators, and they kept saying “not far now my friend” and oh my God this train station was huge, so much huger than it’d looked from outside — and we finally arrived, all sweaty and smiling, on the platform from which my train was leaving.
And there was a Romani man waiting for us there, in an Adidas tracksuit, with one gold tooth and the bulge of a knife in his pocket.
“How are you, my friend?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” I said. “These girls worked hard. I’m happy to tip. A big tip for them.”
I pulled out a twenty-euro note.
The man frowned; looked at me like I’d told a rude joke. “Twenty euro, this is nothing.”
“Twenty euro is a lot,” I said. “Twenty euro is more than I paid for this train ticket.”
“Fifty euro,” he said, shifting the bulge in his jacket pocket. He smiled, showing his gold tooth.
“My train is coming,” I told the man. And indeed it was — right at that very moment.
“Just fifty euro,” said the Rom. He took the handle of one of the suitcases; began dragging it toward the train. “See, we help. We help with everything.” Now the women were taking the other suitcases and dragging them too.
“I gave you twenty euro,” I told him. The train was pulling to a stop. I took my suitcase from him and started lifting it onto the train.
“We help,” said the man. Now he and the women were lifting the suitcases onto the train. People were beginning to stare.
“I gave you twenty euro,” I repeated. “That is plenty. I don’t need any more help. Thank you.”
He sighed, very disappointed in me. “Forty euro,” he said. All my bags were on the train now. He could see he was losing his leverage.
I took out ten more euro and handed it to him. “Thirty,” I said. “Thank you for your help.”
The man smiled broadly and shook my hand. “Good bargain, my friend.”
Then he stepped off the train. He and the women vanished into the depths of the Bologna Stazione Centrale. I was left on the train with my four heavy suitcases; and my wallet, which I’d managed to hold onto — but which was now thirty euros lighter.
My point is, Romani people are not epic heroes, or misunderstood bards, or brilliant musicians, or fortune-tellers, or robbers or thieves or scammers or beggars or intellectuals or child kidnappers or art theorists. They are — like every other people on earth — all of these things.
The Romani are every single one of these things — and so much more.
They’ve survived cross-continental migrations and multiple attempts at genocide. They speak a language very few outsiders ever learn, or bother to try to learn.
They’ve influenced music and art and clothing across the Middle East and Europe and the Balkans.
And through it all, they’ve clung tightly to that strange core that makes them uniquely, undeniably Romani — and no one else.
And most of us assume they’re something like Romanians, and call them a racist slur.
Look, I’m not saying the Roma are better than anyone else.
All I’m saying is that the Roma are fascinating, and they’ve put up with a hell of a lot, and they deserve to be known for who they really are.