Who are Roma people?

Roma people are understood as an ethnic minority which means that they are a group of people having common roots outside of a particular nation but no homeland, having a distinct language, culture and traditions that ought to be supported and protected. Roma people are often singled out based on their nomadic roots, however, many Roma today have settled in a particular region. (Vermeersch 359-371). Based on materials from Eastern Europe, the characteristics that would define a Romani group are: presence of group consciousness, being born into a group, observance of group endogamy, use of common language and traditional lifestyle (nomadic or sedentary) and profession/traditional occupation such as basket-making, internal self-governance and observance of group rules and norms, shared values, behavioral patterns and moral principles. Among Roma communities, family is regarded as the highest value. Roma people tend to restrict contacts with non-group members (gadže). These characteristics are the base of the “ideal” Roma group. Comparing various Romani communities to this model will indicate the change in group borders and segmentation or consolidation that leads formation of new Roma groups (Marushiakova and Popov).

Figure 1. “Gypsy Nomad Man’, Unknown Author, 1729. Roma Visual Tool. Accessed at: http://roma-ovt.ro/en
Part of the Trachten-Kabinett von Siebenbürgens album (Costumes – Transylvania cabinet). The works are interpretations of 18th century from several 1692 watercolors on the same subject by an author from Graz. The donation belongs to Baron Ludovic Czekelius de Rosenfeld. The image presents what was known as a typical suit of a Roma man. Romanies are still thought to dress this way yet due to their preferred identity, they often follow the dress of the region they reside.

History of Romani migration

Romani people seem to come from the Rajput population in northwestern India. They moved out of India in the incursions against the Ghaznavids about the year of 1000 and continued to move westward through Persia, Armenia, and the Byzantine Empire reaching Europe by A.D. 1250 (refer to the map below to trace the routes of Roma across Europe;  Taylor, 8). The Harvard medical study on American Gypsies (1987) concluded that the haptoglobin blood phenotypes establish Gypsies as a distinct racial group with origins in the Punjab region of India. Holorma et al in their study on “Genetic Structure of the Paternal Lineage of the Roma People”, conducted in 2011, also found that there was a shockingly low pairwise genetic distance between Roma people and Indians supporting the common Indian origin, providing a coherent genetic history. It should not be surprising to find that Romani language resembles closely what is known of a modern Hindi (Crowe and Kolsti, 3-11). Eight to ten million Roma live in Europe today, with the biggest number of people concentrated in Central and Southeastern Europe (Holorma et al, 2011).

Roma have been settled in the Balkans for centuries (as early as the 9thcentury) and spoke Romani dialects of the Balkan dialect group. The second wave of migration came from Wallachia and Moldova that scattered around Balkan Peninsula in the 17thand 18thcentury. Roma people practiced Islam or Christianity that lead to divisions into smaller subgroups and metagroups. The most general distinction between the groups is belonging to Muslims (Xoroxan, Xoraxanr ot Khorane Roma) and Orthodoc Christians (Dasikane Roma). Those groups could be further divided on a hierarchical level such as those belonging to Balkan dialect community (e.g. Arlia, Kovačiin the countries of former Yugoslavia and Erlii, Burgudži, Futadži, Fičiri, Drindari, Kalajdži, Košničari, Demirdži, etc. in Bulgaria). Roma people are in the process of discovering their “preferred identity” that diverts from the umbrella term “Roma” and highlights belonging to one particular tribe and speaking their own language influenced by the region they reside. The structure of their identity is also connected to their civic awareness and their integration into the respective states. The consolidation and segmentation of groups will continue thus it is expected to find a totally different tableau of the presence of Roma in Europe after several decades (Marushiakova and Vaselin).

Figure 2. A map derived from “Another Darkness Another Dawn” by Becky Taylor, Reaktion Books, 2014.

On the left, there is a Roma man dressed in specific Roma clothes, consisting of: a shirt with long sleeves (torn in the elbows a vest and leather pants. On his right shoulder, he has a long-sleeved leather jacket. He is wearing a fur hat and has a pipe in his mouth. On the back of the picture, there is a monograph of the photographic workshop led by Leopold Adler, in Brașov.

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