Book Review: Bury Me Standing
- The Gypsies and Their Journey
Isabel Fonseca

Published in the MEDANZ newsletter, December 2003

No, not a belly dance book but one that gives important background information on a much over-romanced group of people.

Isabel Fonseca met and lived with dozens of Gypsy families in East Central Europe from 1991-1995. The book can be roughly divided into three parts. The first part tells of her first hand experience living with a Rom family in Albania. This was the part I found most interesting. The second part has more distance. Here she speaks with a range of Rom in the Balkans, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and Germany. She also blends in statistics about these people's current status in Europe. The third part is a historical recounting including the Holocaust - the Devouring - in which 500,000 Rom were killed and many were used in Mengele's "research".

I found the book well written and accessible. It was a fascinating read. I wasn't surprised when she wrote that some of the young boria (daughters-in-law) in a rare moment of spare time played music and danced among themselves but were disgraced when it turned out their father-in-law was still at home. (So much for the cheerful, carefree dancing gypsies)

Nor that menstruating women were not permitted to visit newborn babies. She commented that age gives Rom women not only power but relief from some of the most restrictive rituals after menopause.

"Gypsies" put great store on cleanliness - both physical and ritual. The boria were before dawn washing - using separate tubs for women's and men's clothing (some groups also separate clothing for above and below the waist). Yet mending and patching is not part of their culture.

The ritual cleanliness extends to food preparation and choice of food. For instance, hedgehogs don't lick themselves so are considered "clean". In unknown places, such as diners, they prefer to use hands to eat with as the knives & forks could be ritually unclean having been use by others.

Similarly, no good Rom woman would show her knees. To place her skirt over a man's head is to shame him and make him ritually unclean.

She found there was no point is in asking, "Where do Rom come from?" Ancient history to the Rom is the memory of the oldest person in the community. The link to India was made in 1753 by a Hungarian - Istvan Vali - based on linguistics. The historical record of migration shows they arrived from India between 700CE and 1000CE.

The Rom define themselves by the group and language. Those who do not speak Romani are not Rom - no matter what their ancestry might be. In contrast, two "gypsy" great-great-grandparents automatically qualified a person for admission to Auschwitz (compared to Jews needing more than one grandparent to gain the same status).

Throughout much of the book, Isabel describes the Rom's grinding poverty. People living in plastic bags or large wicker baskets. Squalor and deprivation. Often the local non-Rom had it almost as bad - but they didn't have to cope with the authorities turning a blind eye when what little they had was burned to the ground. And the ways of coping was different. While their fellow countrymen cope with deprivation by hoarding - the Rom abandoned themselves to gluttony.

Often there is a basis for much of the "gypsy" stereotype. They often have no sense of time as we understand it. Telling stories need not relate to what we regard as objective truth - rather the real version of events is that which has the most dramatic appeal.

Theft is common. But a thief is seen by gypsy specialists - who often see what they know rather than what is in front of their eyes - as "not a thief but, someone who, divested of his traditional economic niche, had adapted to a new but still symbiotic relationship with the gadjo" Isabel wrote "Slovaks were always planting for the Gypsies as well as themselves. The Masai of East Africa are said to believe all cattle belong to them; the Roma of eastern Slovakia, it seems, feel the same way about potatoes."

If you want to get a realistic idea of Rom life in Europe, I would recommend this book. But it is not a cheerful read.

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