I know it has been quite some time since I have blogged but things got pretty hectic during the last months of fieldwork, and I have been working on many projects since returning to the States. I’m back now and currently working on a paper for an upcoming conference. The paper focuses on questions of Egyptian identity in the Balkans. While gathering notes I felt compelled to write this blog post to dispel certain myths about Roma and Egyptian communities in Albania. One of the facets of my research is an examination of narratives and stories. I look at the ways people talk about race, talk about difference, and discuss belonging. As a result I hear a lot of thoughts and sayings, and I am very interested in how those things circulate. I decided that I would collect some examples of things that I regularly heard during research and list some of the ways that scholars, all all people, can problematize these simplistic, and often inaccurate constructions of Roma and Egyptian identity. Please note that my research is based upon extensive ethnographic data. I welcome engaging and constructive feedback in the comments section but offensive and hateful comments will not be accepted. I also know that I am not the first person to talk about these topics and issues, and I am not trying to speak for any group of people. Instead I envision this as a space for dialogue and conversation, as a way to bring thoughts together and engage these subject matters.
Myth #01: Roma and Egyptian groups are not different — they are the same.
I decided to address this myth first because most people hear the term “Roma” or “Egyptian” or more commonly “gypsy” and lump everyone into the same category (or anyone who they think fits this mold, an example being someone wearing loud colors or anyone begging in the street). This type of grouping is wrong. From a sociocultural standpoint, researchers, scholars, and activists must be careful to make distinctions. While many scholars such as Vesselin Poppov might argue that Roma and Egyptian groups have the same origin, others such as Rubin Zemon argue otherwise. One of Zemon’s main points is that the Egyptian community (sometimes referred to as Balkano-Egyptian or by the pejorative ‘jevg’) traces its ancestry to Egypt, while Roma trace theirs to India. Egyptian groups, found mainly in Albania, Kosova, and Macedonia, do not speak the Romani language but rather, Albanian. I am not trying to use this blog post to begin a debate about origins here but I am arguing that researchers need to be mindful of how groups organize and perceive themselves. My ethnographic data in Albania points to two very distinct groups: Roma and Egyptian communities (and not to be confused with “gypsy” as Egyptians do not identify at all as “Roma” or “gypsy”). Many of my interlocutors identified themselves as either “gabel” or “jevg”; others simply called themselves “dorë zezë” (“black hand or black side). Many people in these communities have clear boundaries of belonging to these groups (of course even these boundaries are sometimes fuzzy). People articulate what it means to be Roma versus what it means to be Egyptian. Sure there is always push-back or resistance to terminology but what I am trying to say is that these forms of categorization are important for people and carry significance. And it is important that those who do work in these communities or who produce scholarship acknowledge these differences. What is most important is simply asking individuals how they identify and what those sets of identity mean to them. As such it is critical that we do NOT assume singularity.
Myth #02: The term “gypsy” means the same thing everywhere.
Along the lines of #01, it is also critical that people understand that the term “gypsy” takes on many meanings throughout the world, especially across Europe. Particularly in parts of Western Europe, the term “gypsy” might apply to groups of folk who travel, who have a nomadic lifestyle. In Southeastern Europe, and particularly in the Balkans, terms like “Roma” or “gypsy” extend beyond lifestyle practices and signify certain ethnic and racial subjectivities. This also happens in places like France, Italy, and Hungary. As such it is important to critically consider these local categories and the meaning they carry in particular contexts. To provide some more information on the subject of the Roma community of Europe, I would encourage folks to read texts such as Ian Hancock’s book We Are the Romani People or Alaina Lemon’s Between Two Fires.
Myth #03: All the Roma in Albania do not want to work and do not need money. They are lazy.
This is a sentiment that I regularly encounter while conducting fieldwork. Many people in Tirana assume that if I am working with Roma or Egyptian groups then I must be in the non-profit or human rights sector, since many of those groups do this kind of work. As I have expressed in previous posts it is difficult to communicate exactly what I do, but this does not stop many folks from yelling at me or engineering debates about why I SHOULD NOT do work with Roma and Egyptian groups. And one of the main reasons that people often cite is their belief that “those people” are lazy, they simply do not want to work, and they will take all of your money and drink it while their kids beg in the street.” Alright, let’s keep it real. Yes there are people who are lazy, and there are many people who do not want to work. And yes, there are people who do make their children work while they drink raki or beer. And yes folks have the right to be frustrated about things in society. But this not a “Roma thing” or something that only Roma/Egyptian folks do. And one of my research aims is to break this stereotype. Now as I write this, I can already hear folks who claim to know more than me, that they know a lot of Roma or Egyptian families who are cheaters, liars, and thieves. People who are just trying to get over on the system. For those folks who would argue this, I ask: What type of research have you done into the construction of these stereotypes and labels? How have you analyzed systemic racial disparities in Tirana? How have Roma and Egyptian individuals faced discrimination when applying for jobs? When trying to obtain housing? What type of health disparities have you studied in the region? What do you know about the day-to-day experience of stigmas? Of begging? Of racism? What work have you done with human rights? I ask these questions not to come across as arrogant nor high and mighty but rather to stir the conversation and think more critically about some of the comments that have become part of the everyday social fabric. I want us to be able to grasp the weight of statements such as these, to question how they are produced. The photo that I shared above was taken in the spring of 2014 at one of the Roma and Egyptian neighborhoods outside of Tirana. As you can see, this neighborhood is filled with tents and shacks, people using whatever materials they have to put together barracks. The neighborhood is covered with trash and the surrounding city dwellers dump their trash nearby. And what is that towering above them? Empty apartment buildings, buildings that have been sitting there for four years now. No one lives in them. No one ever has lived in them. Many members of this community have protested tirelessly for better housing, have pleaded with the municipality and with local business owners about housing yet the common response is, “Sorry we have no place for you to go.” Yet these buildings are empty. While we cannot easily snap a finger and the community can immediately get housing, we can ask, what socioeconomic and political dynamics shape a space that has new, empty buildings towering over impoverished and malnourished folks in their barracks, crying out for a better place to live? Which brings me to my next and last point…
Myth #04: The Roma do not want houses, they only want to move around. This is a part of their culture.
Okay this one can get a little contentious. Please understand, I AM NOT saying that Roma groups are not nomadic, for in fact, history and research very well points to these patterns. BUT I am arguing that we should question moving practices in Tirana and throughout Albania because many Roma and Egyptian groups do not desire to move around. They do want homes. Yes there are those who migrate often but it is not because they are culturally (nor biologically) designed to do so — many want jobs and security just like everyone else. One of my research interlocutors has been on the move ever since the ’97 socioeconomic crisis in Albania. His family lost their home and then he was forced out of his town by gangs. So they fled to Tirana. Then Greece. Got deported. And now has lived in three different neighborhoods in Tirana because of unlawful and illegal convictions. He cannot obtain steady employment. And he does not own any land or property anywhere. Yet many folks assume that his family is culturally unable to stay in one place even though that’s all they want: a stable home. I conducted a survey with over fifty Roma and Egyptian families that said the same thing. My research is still ongoing but once again I think scholars especially need to reconsider a framing of Roma communities, particularly outside of the lens of the nomadic lifestyle. Not everyone desires to constantly be on the move. Some are looking for work, for stability, for safety. And we need to ask broader questions about these dynamics when we work in these communities.