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Posts Tagged ‘roma’

Photo: Rajpot
A stool painted by Travelers, or Gypsies.

A while back, I started following Romani Arts (@romaniarts) on twitter, which is how I learned about a Scotland-based nonprofit that validates and promotes Gypsy culture. It’s called Rajpot.

From the website: “RAJPOT was established as a voluntary organisation by individuals from varying backgrounds, including Scottish Gypsy Travellers, with a view to establishing an inter-cultural arts centre that would enable people from indigenous and seldom heard cultural communities, often oppressed communities, to give voice to their experiences and allow their stories to resonate across cultural boundaries, deploying a multi-art format: visual arts, craft-making, performance art (drama, story-telling, music, poetry recital, etc.) …

“The word ‘Rajpot’ derives from the Scottish Gypsy Traveller language of Cant and usually refers to someone considered to be ‘mad’. …

“The creator embraced this humorous view of himself in designing the plans for the centre, where a large pot, typically used by Gypsy Travellers, occupies pride of place on an outside fire at the heart of the design; the symbolic value should be apparent to any Gypsy Traveller, many of whom preferred historically to cook in a large pot on an open fire.”

Rajpot’s History page offers additional background: “The origins of Scottish Gypsy Travellers, or Nackens, are commonly held by experts to be traceable to North-West India. It is believed that Gypsy warriors were expelled from India and gradually migrated westward around 1000 AD.

“Official records note the arrival of Romanies in Scotland around 1505, several years before the earliest record of their presence in England at Lambeth Palace.

“Research has noted that ‘cultural osmosis and intermarriage’ ensued between the Romanies and a group of pre-existing craftsmen referred to as ‘tynklers’; this name emerged on account of the tinkling noise they made in the production of tin wares.

“The art of tinsmithing was a widespread occupation among Gypsy groups throughout Europe. On that basis, the tinsmiths may have constituted an earlier band of Gypsy migrants who self-identified with the new arrivals.”

I have no way to evaluate whether that history is accurate. (You might check Wikipedia.) But the impulse to create an organization that honors an often misunderstood population seems a worthy one.

On a related note, this is a lovely photographic book on Travelers by two women from my old high school: Irish Tinkers.

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Photo: Akos Stiller for the New York Times
Vladimir Ledecky, the mayor of Spissky Hrhov, Slovakia, meets with Roma residents. The village has worked hard to better integrate Roma with the broader community.

The Roma, derided for centuries wherever they have traveled, have been seen as the ultimate “other.” But in this New York Times story, a village where they used to be unwelcome has made common cause with them — and prospered as a result.

Rick Lyman writes, “In a part of eastern Slovakia where other villages are withering, Spissky Hrhov shows signs of surprising prosperity. The houses are solid and well-tended. There is running water and electricity. A former distillery has been turned into an art space, its facade decorated with a colorful mosaic.

“But there is something even more striking about this place. About 350 of the 1,800 residents are Roma, a group commonly shunted aside, impoverished, undereducated and widely disparaged across Europe.

“ ‘Twenty years ago, this village nearly disappeared,’ said Vladimir Ledecky, 51, who has been mayor for 18 of those years.

“ ‘We were down to 700 residents, half of them Roma,’ he explained. ‘The problem for Slovak villages is that when the population becomes half Roma, the other half tends to move out.’

“That is when Mr. Ledecky decided to take what is still a novel and controversial approach to the Roma in his country — working to better integrate them with the community. …

“The situation for Roma has improved vastly in the village, said Petronela Kacova, 27, who lives in one of the Roma neighborhood’s newest apartment blocks with her husband and two young children. Until she got this new home, the family had to share one room in her mother-in-law’s house. Now, she said, relations are cordial between Roma and non-Roma residents, unlike in other nearby villages.

“ ‘The children know each other in school, so they play together,’ she said. ‘And we sometimes sit together, Slovaks and Roma, when we are at the pub.’ …

“ ‘There was nothing to do if people had no jobs,’ said the mayor, who is a former software engineer. ‘So, the only thing to do was to set up a village company, the only aim of which was to provide Roma with jobs. We didn’t want to have any profit.’

“The first product from the village company was pavement tiles for sidewalks. The business flourished. Then the village started its own construction company, for local infrastructure projects and to help local residents with home projects.

“ ‘We grew so fast and started making a profit, so we kept expanding,’ Mr. Ledecky said. …

“One by one, the former illegal Roma shanties were turned into legal brick homes and apartment blocks that the Roma either owned or rented. A new town hall was built. Wooden sculptures and colorful mosaics decorated the new town center. A village swimming pool was built with the profits from the businesses, and a new park is underway.

“ ‘The village has become so trendy, people are just coming,’ Mr. Ledecky said.

“One of the arguments Slovak mayors have made in refusing to upgrade Roma settlements is that doing so would only encourage more Roma to move in, exacerbating the problem. But that has not been the experience in Spissky Hrhov.

“For one thing, the village’s own Roma residents have proved vigilant about keeping out illegal shanties, eager to protect their own neighborhood and steady jobs.”

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: The Daily Mail
At the Ursul festival, Romany gypsies wear bear skins to ward off evil spirits from the year gone by. This scene in Comanesti, north of Bucharest, is replicated across Romania.

Today I saw a photo in the Boston Globe about an unusual custom in Romania. Inspired to do a Google search, I found a surprising amount of information.

Jay Akbar writes for Mailonline, “In a bizarre ritual every December between Christmas and New Year, Roma gypsies living in Comăneşti, 300km north of Bucharest … put on real bear skins and parade through the streets.

“The festival called Ursul — which is replicated across the country — originated from an ancient Indo-European tribe known as the Geto-Dacians, who believed bears were sacred.

“They and other tribes who lived in what is now Romania and Moldova — then known as Dacia — thought bears were the spirit of the forest and ‘the supreme master of cosmic energy’.

“According to Romanian mythology, the bear possesses the power to protect and heal.

“Villagers would long ago cover a newborn baby with bear fat, to give him strength and luck. And today they believe bear skins protect them from the spirits they are chasing out of the village.”

Read more at The Daily Mail, where you will find lots of terrific pictures.

The Ursul experiences of photographer Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi are at CNN. She recounts how her grandmother used to see Gypsies descending “into towns from the forests in which they lived, bringing with them real bears.”

Up until the 1930s, she says, “Townsfolk would pay the Gypsies in exchange for letting the bear cubs walk up and down their backs — seen as a cure for backache.”

No more live bears today — just people in bearskins.

(Even so, I wonder if I should ask a physical therapist about getting a bear cub treatment.)

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Roma families (also called gypsies, tinkers or travelers) have a hard life in Europe. Recently, Elisabetta Povoledo wrote at the New York Times about some Roma women who are hoping to build a better life for their families by starting food businesses.

“On a muggy July evening, a handful of Italian hipsters milled around a food stand at an alternative music festival in Rome, trying to decipher some of the exotic offerings: mici, sarmale and dolma.

“These Balkan delicacies — barbecued meatballs, cabbage wraps and stuffed peppers — are the basic ingredients of an entrepreneurial scheme cooked up by a group of Roma women looking to better their lives and leave the overcrowded and insalubrious camp in Rome where they currently live.

“They call themselves the Gipsy Queens.

“ ‘Cooking? I’ve been cooking practically since I was born,’ said one of the chefs, Florentina Darmas, 33, a mother of three, who is originally from Romania. …

“Nowadays she is trying to break down some of the barriers faced by her traditionally marginalized group using the universal language of food. …

“ ‘We realized there was unexpressed potential in the community, especially on the part of women,’ said Mariangela De Blasi, a social worker with Arci Solidarietà Onlus, a Rome-based nonprofit organization that works with marginalized people and manages the burgeoning catering business. …

“If their entrepreneurial plans pan out, the Gipsy Queens hope to buy a food truck or rent a kitchen on a more permanent basis — foundations for steady work that will bring in rent money.

“ ‘Getting out [of the camp] is my first priority,’ said Hanifa Hokic, 31, a divorced mother of five children between 8 and 12 years old, who is originally from Bosnia. …

“Maria Miclescu, a 20-year-old mother of two, agreed that to give her children ‘a better future,’ she had to leave. Her husband is trying to establish a small-appliance repair business …

“The oldest member of the group, Mihaela Miclescu, 49, who is a grandmother, was happy to join the Gipsy Queens.

‘I wanted to show Italians that we are not bad people, that we want to work, not to beg.’

More here.

Photo: Gianni Cipriano for the New York Times
Maria Miclescu, left, and Codruca Balteanu at a food stand run by the Gipsy Queens during a music festival in Rome. 

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