The gypsies' journey -- 'Us against the world'


"Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey," by Isabel Fonseca. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 315 pages. $25

Even in today's age of ostensible toleration, Americans routinely stereotype Gypsies as cheats and thieves. They are the "Travellers" who coat people's driveways with worthless sealant, the hucksters running crooked carnival games, the scam artists who take honest folks' money and disappear. But in Europe, where two-thirds of the world's 12 million Gypsies live, these people aren't just stereo typed - they are actively, venomously, despised.

"All over Eastern Europe," writes Ms. Fonseca in her journalistic history of Central European Gypsies, "I visited ... burnt-out or torn-down Gypsy settlements." The Nazis slaughtered millions of Gypsies, and with the collapse of communist rule Romanians and Bulgarians initiated widespread campaigns of arson and violence against this long-persecuted minority. Gypsies have recently been attacked in Austria, Italy and Germany, and in 1993 a contestant in a Czech beauty contest was applauded when she said she wanted to become a public prosecutor "so that I might cleanse our town of all the dark-skinned people" (a common European euphemism for Gypsies). Even in places where they have lived for generations, Gypsies are still hated outsiders.

Ms. Fonseca offers "Bury Me Standing" as a history for this largely illiterate minority. She wants to speak for millions of silent victims and, through photographs and extensive anthropological detail, to give these people faces and names. Yet even as she achieves these goals, she makes it painfully clear why Gypsies are so universally disliked.

"Gypsies lie," Ms. Fonseca admits. "They lie a lot." Among the Rom, as Gypsies are sometimes called, stealing seems to be perfectly acceptable and sharp dealing is admired. Gypsies' yards are filled with trash and their children are unkempt. Gypsies won't register their births or marriages, send their children to school, or fill out the papers that governments want. Their most fundamental tenet, Ms. Fonseca says, is "us against the world," and the world's natural response is to unite against the Gypsies.

This disdain for outsiders and what they think, which causes Gypsies so much difficulty, begs for explanation, and this book's greatest failing is that it never shows why this trait might have developed. If, for example, Gypsy culture arose from a pattern of nomadic tinkers and entertainers marketing their skills to settled groups, that might explain why Gypsies don't care about keeping their yards tidy. People who expect to move on as soon as leaving grows more convenient than staying aren't going to worry about the neighbors.

Today, the environment in which Gypsy culture developed no longer exists. If Gypsies are going to survive in the modern world, they will have to change many of their strategies, habits, and ways of life. "Bury me standing," says one of Ms. Fonseca's Gypsy friends near the end of the book. "I've been on my knees all my life." Yet ultimately, it doesn't matter how much the Gypsies have suffered. If the Rom don't change, the only thing certain is that the world will bury them all.

John R. Alden is an anthropologist and archeologist. He has worked in the Middle East and Latin America, and in the 1970s lived for eight months in a village of settled nomads in south central Iran.

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