Klos, Narratives of Otherness, S.2
“Romanies are from India, right?” – Competing ethnicity discourses in Romani studies
Ethnicity studies offer applicable tools to analyze ethnicity discourses, for example, working out the inner logic or “grammar,”[xv] as Pohl puts it, according to which origin narratives, for instance, or more generally speaking, strategies of identification are structured. However, there have been reservations within both ethnicity studies and Romani studies to cooperate more interdisciplinarily with each other. On the one hand, late medieval migrations and ethnicity discourses have only been ephemeral phenomena to the more established fields of late Antiquity, respectively early Middle Ages or modern nationalism studies. Key dissertations to close this chronological, under-theorized gap were written in 1991 on Mongols in the judgement of the Western world by Felicitas Schmieder[xvi] and similarly 2013 on European-Mongol Relations by Colleen Chi-Wei Ho[xvii], as well as in 2001 on Europe’s fear of the Ottoman Turks from 1450 to 1600 by Almut Höfert[xviii] – but not on Romani migration, European-Romani interactions, cultural exchange or perceptions. On the other hand, at several annual meetings of the Gypsy Lore Society, a central platform for research and collecting source material, ethnogenesis has been made the subject of highly controversial discussions on the grounds that it has “the particular characteristic of concerning relatively diverse groups, engaged in the production of a new form of collective identification, and in the process of the unification of a ‘Roma’ category, based on the possession of a common culture and identity.”[xix]
Yet since when can Romanies be seen as a people – if at all? Did they move out from northern India as a distinctive group identifiable by an ethnonym, which was perceived as being constituted by an ingrained common nature, a ‘deep structure,’ unaffected by personal choice or the passage of time during their migrations to Europe?[xx] Historical sources on this migration period are scarce, temporally and geographically scattered, not unambiguous concerning terminology, and often the first indication that a given source deals with Romanies at all is the problematic assumption that any reference to a migrant group pursuing a stereotypical occupation can for that reason be equated with them.[xxi] For instance, one of the most often quoted sources for this period between the 8th and 12th century is an Arabic account from today’s Iran written around 950 by Hamzah al-Isfahāni, copied by Firdūsi, describing how half a century earlier the Sassanid king Varhān V. Gor (420-438) persuaded the king of India to send him 12,000 musicians, who then were distributed to the various parts of the Persian kingdom.[xxii] According to Grattan Puxon this source proved that Arabic writers knew long before the European linguists of the Romanies’ Indian origin.[xxiii] Such inferences, equating today’s Romanies with those musicians carrying Romani-like names, supports the idea of a quasi-ahistoric common nature, i.e. an ethnic identity. After they had reached the Byzantine Empire approximately in the 10th century, the number of records increases, the new ethnonym Ἀθίγγανος (plural Ἀθίγγανοι)[xxiv] appears, and the spectrum of alleged Romani occupations is expanded by fortunetelling, soothsaying, and sorcery.[xxv] In other words, the names given and the occupations described can be seen as symbolic markers or performances of ethnicity according to which Romanies are routinely identified and thus a discourse is produced that organizes the social world and gives meaning to it.[xxvi]
Ethnicity discourses are thus generally characterized by perceptions of immutability. From the perspective of longue durée social identities might be transformed over time or the composition of a group might change drastically during migration periods, wars, divisions, or intermarriage. Yet, an interpersonal and quasi natural structure that is not within an individual’s power to reverse remains static. According to this interpretation of Romanies as a people, all the kindred groups that had left India centuries ago performed their shared ethnicity in various ways and in different places while remaining connected through their overarching kinship at all times. Some of them remained in Persia, others settled around the Levantine Sea, and still others might have joined the Ottoman advance into the Balkans where they eventually fell into slavery until they were released in the mid-nineteenth century and migrated into western Europe, where they became known as ‘Roma.’ According to this view, those small cohesive bands that explored western European cities in the 15th century, followed by larger immigration waves in the subsequent centuries, were part of a larger ethnic unit. They were identified by new ethnonyms and attributions, but at large their ‘ingrained nature’ remained the same.
Casting Romanies as a people has an important advantage, i.e. it reduces complexity and allows the deduction of concrete political directives. Generally speaking, it simplifies classification and allocation in a specific world view, for instance in a chronicle or cosmography. It can also be used to recommend or justify persecutions, for instance in Grellmann’s study.[xxvii] Likewise, apparent ethnic unity can be an important argument for human rights activists, such as Jean-Pierre Liégeois[xxviii], Thomas Acton[xxix], Donald Kenrick[xxx], or Ian Hancock[xxxi], to name only a few. All of them stress that Romanies are a transnational ethnic minority of common origin, although more in the sense of an overarching kinship than a diasporic people waiting to return to a certain homeland. Individual subdivisions might be very different from each other, yet a language of kinship solidarity is used to proclaim a unity that is believed to be primary.[xxxii]
In contrast, opponents of this view that Romanies can be described as a people criticize exactly idem reduction of complexity and rather emphasize the constructed character of ethnographic terms like ‘gypsy,’ ‘gitano,’ or ‘cingari.’ Instead, Klaus-Michael Bogdal, for instance, ostentatiously uses the plural form ‘Romani peoples’ (Romvölker).[xxxiii] He argues that conceived and constantly reiterated collective features have been attributed to a plurality of groups by an out-group, thus “inventing an ethnicity.”[xxxiv] Fifteenth century chroniclers were not interested in those peoples’ “real existence”[xxxv] but had their own reasons to use them as a discursive canvas. He concludes: “In this way, Europe invents the gypsies in the 15th century.”[xxxvi] Similarly, Wulf Dietmar Hund[xxxvii], Wim Willens[xxxviii], and Ulrich Friedrich Opfermann[xxxix] describe this process as a ‘quotation community’ (Zitategemeinschaft). The same sources and phrases are continuously repeated – aloof from empirical evidence about a variety of Romani speaking peoples– by a non-Romani elite to uphold the idea of a distinct group of outsiders, a homogeneous ethnicity. Grellmann was an important member of this elite and according to Willens even the creator of this ethnic construction that had not existed before.[xl] In other words, “gypsies are not from India, but ideologically cooked up by the rising bourgeois society,”[xli] as Hund phrases it.
As a last point, one might also argue that it was neither in the 15th nor 18th century that a Romani ethnic identity was invented, but as recently as the 20th century in the course of National Socialist race ideology. The Documentation and Cultural Center of German Sinti and Roma in Heidelberg, for example, begins their permanent exhibition – worldwide the first of this kind when it was opened in 1997 – with idem chapter of systematic racial data acquisition during the Third Reich. Pictures show the measuring of craniums and determination tables of eye colors and so forth. The depiction of these pseudo-scientific and in the end futile efforts to find and define common racial features at the beginning of the exhibition conveys a clear message: This is where Romani history starts; this is where an ethnicity was generated arbitrarily. There is no history before that. There could not be any because there was no understanding of ethnic unity up until this point in history. Hence, according to this view, Romani identity was produced by a social discourse, a racist science, and a non-Romani society.
This being said, the constructed character of an ethnographic term does not mean it cannot turn into an actual self-description. Germans, Slavs, Franks, or Arabs are all terms that did not originally correspond to any stable, widespread self-identification but were impositions by an out-group. Yet, through movements like nationalism (Germans) or pan-ethnic movements (Pan-Slavism, Pan-Arabism) such designations have been successfully reclaimed due to the success of the corresponding political unit.[xlii] However, it seems comparatively more difficult for marginalized and victimized groups to reclaim generic terms that have historically been used against them.
Who then were the bands of foreign people that begin to appear in 15th century chronicles and municipal account books?
Did they feel connected through a quasi-natural bond that can be described as ethnicity? Did they have any memory of a common Indian origin, which they purposefully and in accordance with each other concealed and replaced with an origin story more beneficial to them in a Christian-feudal society? In other words, were ethnogenic processes essentially completed and self-determined when the groups arrived in western Europe or did they only begin and were largely determined by an out-group? Research discussions in Romani studies thus focus heavily on the question of Romani agency. The strongly negative interpretation of a Romani ‘lie’ has been semantically replaced by a ‘Great Trick’-variant but the premises of ethnic cohesion and organized actions have only recently been called into question by constructivist approaches.[xliii]