The "Gypsy Question"

By Cameron Hewitt

Eastern Europe is home to a silent population — mostly in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia — of millions of dark-skinned people who speak an Indian dialect and live according to their own rules. Whether roaming the countryside in caravans, squatting in dilapidated apartment blocks, conning tourists in big cities, or attempting to integrate with their white neighbors, these people are a world apart.

The most common name for Europe's overlooked culture, "Gypsy," is a holdover from the time when these people were thought to have come from Egypt. While the term isn't overtly offensive to most, it's both geographically mistaken and politically incorrect. It's also taken on a negative connotation — as with the ethnic slur, "I've been gypped!" (The most commonly used word in most Eastern European languages is Cigany, which is very closely related to the word for "liar." And the German name, Zigeuner, likely comes from Ziehende Gäuner, or "traveling thieves.") Instead of these outdated names, today's most widely accepted term for these people is "Roma."

The Roma most likely originated in today's India. In fact, the language still spoken by about two-thirds of today's European Roma — called Romany — is related to contemporary Indian languages. The Roma migrated into Europe through the Ottoman Empire (today's Turkey), arriving in the Balkan Peninsula in the 1300s. Under the Ottomans, the Roma weren't allowed into towns, but were still treated relatively well. Traditionally, Roma earned their livelihood as entertainers (fortune telling, music and dancing, horse shows, dancing bears); as thieves; and as metalworkers (which is why they tended to concentrate in mining areas, like Slovakia and Kosovo).

Roma were initially not allowed to enter Austrian territory, but as the Hapsburgs recaptured lands once controlled by the Ottomans (like Slovakia and Hungary), they allowed the Roma already living there to stay. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as "Gypsy music" funneled into the theaters of Vienna and Budapest, a romantic image of Europe's Roma emerged. Many people's image of the Roma date from this era: a happy-go-lucky nomadic lifestyle; intoxicating music, with dancers swirling around a campfire; mystical, or even magical, powers over white Europeans; and beautiful, alluring, sultry women. But white Europe's image of the Roma also had a sinister side. Even today, Europeans and Americans alike might warn their children, "If you don't behave, I'll sell you to the Gypsies!" This widespread bigotry culminated in the Holocaust — when half a million Roma people were butchered in Nazi concentration camps.

Today's Roma are Europe's forgotten population — estimates range from 6 to 12 million. Unemployment among the Roma hovers around 70 percent. While only 3 percent of the Hungarian population is Roma, nearly two out of every three male prison inmates is a Roma. Roma are subject to a pervasive bigotry unparalleled in today's Europe. Local news anchors — hardly fair or balanced — pointedly scapegoat the "liars" for problems. A small town in the Czech Republic tried to build a wall between its wealthy neighborhood and the Roma ghetto — until the European Parliament forced them to stop. Schools are sometimes carefully segregated, with signs reading, "Whites Only."

It's easy for us to criticize Eastern Europeans for their seemingly closed-minded attitudes. But to be fair, the Roma's poor reputation is at least partly deserved. Many Roma do turn to thievery for survival. It's downright foolish not to be a little suspicious of a Roma person hanging out in a tourist zone. And the Roma population puts an enormous strain on the already overtaxed social welfare networks in these countries. To an Eastern European trying to make his way in today's world, the Roma are a problem.

Still, the situation is tragic. Attempts at cooperation are often unsuccessful. The Roma — whose culture is inherently nomadic and independent — generally aren't inclined to settle down and integrate. Roma who do find jobs and send their kids to school often find themselves shunned both by their fellow Roma, and by the white Europeans they're trying to integrate with. The communists attempted to force integration, splitting some apartment buildings between Roma and Slavic people. The Slavs moved out as soon as the regime fell.

So far, the Roma haven't produced a Martin Luther King, Jr., to mobilize the culture and demand equal rights — and many experts think they likely never will. The greatest "crossover" success stores are musicians and artists, with no political aspirations. But the white European community is beginning to take note. The Decade of Roma Inclusion — launched in 2005 by Hungarian-American businessman George Soros — is an initiative being undertaken by eight Eastern European counties to better address the needs of their Roma citizens. Despite the best efforts of many well-intentioned people, the so-called "Gypsy Question" in Eastern Europe still doesn't have a satisfactory answer. Hopefully the Roma will find a place in the new, united Europe.

Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of Rick Steves' Eastern Europe.