Today is International Roma Day. There is something of a paradox here. We Europeans love to roam – as evidenced by the increasing number of pilgrim ways and national footpaths – but those who roam as a way of life – the Roma people – are perhaps the most persecuted minority in Europe. International Roma Day was no doubt created by some well-meaning official or UN committee as a formalised expression of collective guilt at our inability to cast aside the deep prejudice towards this ‘people’ which has endured for centuries. Nevertheless, today is a prompt to remember the many thousands of Roma murdered in Nazi concentration camps and the many more who are hounded in Europe today. Only last week thousands of right wing rioters sought to exploit local fear of 70 Roma arriving in their village to stage violent protests. Here is a 15 year old boy who stood up to them with reasoned argument.
But even within our fear of the transient stranger, there is a romantic undercurrent that draws us to the Roma and which threads through folk tales and music. Woody Guthrie’s ‘Gypsy Davey’ an Americanised version of the originally Scottish folk song, ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsies O’. As a teenager, longing to break free of the constraints of family, I was mesmerised by this version by the Irish group Planxty, although being a sensible kid, I waited until I was old enough to go to art school and left home in the conventional way. The theme in both versions of the song is of a rich woman who leaves her husband to run away with the gypsies. Emily Bronte’s only novel, Wuthering Heights refrains the same theme, with Heathcliff playing the role of the dark haired and irresistibly masculine gypsy who causes mayhem in the breast of the middle-class Catherine Earnshaw. Kate Bush’s eponymous song has logged over 18 million views on youtube – so the romantic idea clearly still has pulling power.
Also known as Gypsies (derived from the Old English Egipcien) the Roma were thought at one time to be itinerant Egyptians. Recent linguistic and DNA evidence suggests they are in fact related to the Dom or Domba of North-western India and that they reached the Balkans around 1000 years ago, from where they spread out across Europe. Despite their dispersion over time and space, it is now thought that European Gypsies all descend from a small group that left India at the same time, although it’s not clear whether persecution, war or famine drove them to leave. Whatever the reason, Roma have their own pilgrim traditions. One such is the annual pilgrimage to the Southern French village, of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, when Romani gather to celebrate their patron saint Sara e Kali (Sara the Black). I will be joining the celebrations this year and hope to post on my return.