Gypsies of Greece: Tradition and Modernism
By Anna Lydaki
During the 14th century Greece became a station along the Gypsies’ route from India to the west, which had begun in 8th or 9th century. Eventually, choosing it as their “homeland”, they remained. Later, as a result of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923, other Gypsies came from Asia Minor and yet others from the Balkans decided to move here.
Since then they have lived beside us, in campsites on the outskirts of towns and villages and, more recently, in houses big and small within urban areas.
Gypsies today either hold on entirely to their cultural traditions, (manner of dress, the nomadic way of life, living in tents, traveling in trucks etc), or seem to have been urbanized. Many of them have given up their nomadic way of life and display a wish to settle in one place permanently. This does not however mean that they will give up traveling altogether. Traditional ancestral ways and job requirements mean that traveling is taken for granted and preferred as the basic element of their lives.
However, no matter how Gypsies choose to live, (whether integrated or not, on campsites or in houses, the women wearing traditional skirts or western-style clothing), the fact remains that they are determined to preserve some of the characteristics of their people. They always learn their own language, Romani; they insist on intermarriage (with rare exceptions); and close family ties continue to define the individual. These represent centuries-old traditions which have not been lost despite the barrage of modern living.
The Gypsy community may well represent one of the last spontaneous, albeit unconscientious, threshold of resistance to the compelling new order of things which requires that everyone has a common national identity with the purpose of becoming part of a utopic, progressive, prosperous society.
There can be no doubt that the Gypsies’ situation today is critical. The evolution of technology has made their traditional jobs obsolete and almost all of them are now forced to make a living from peddling, in itself a dying trade. The rate of illiteracy is very high and quite a lot of children who live on campsites do not attend school. Those whose parents have “permanent” homes do go to school, (at least intermittently), and learn how to read and write. Some of them even continue their studies to higher education levels. However, frequent journeys on which they accompany their parents, high absenteeism, and difficulty with the Greek language since Romani is most usually spoken at home are some of the reasons which lead to gypsy children abandoning school.
Gypsies today face conflict. On the one hand their traditions are very much alive and they live according to them with their own regulatory system. On the other hand they are forced to adopt the set of values which constitute the rest of society’s model for living and which stigmatizes anything “different”. Being different entails humiliation and brings about exclusion. Gypsies do not have a choice: they either become like the rest of us or they continue to suffer from the stigma of being marginal citizens, the disadvantaged “others”.
However, a closer look shows that in fact the differences between Gypsies and the rest of society are not as radical as we think. Most of the time they are only superficial. When they adopted Greece area as their “homeland” and traveled within its boundaries they learned to live like the locals, absorbing their cultural habits and even adopting their saints, something which is evident in the huge number of people who observe religious celebrations such as August 15th and St George’s day.
Another typical example is weddings. Gypsy weddings, and associated customs, are seen as a rite of passage from one social category to another and they take place so that a couple’s new life goes well. This is also true of weddings in Greek rural society. It must be accepted that it was from here that these traditions were encountered and adopted centuries ago. The choosing of the bride, the agreements made between the in-laws about the dowry, the mutual help, the participation of old and young alike in the dancing and singing, the rituals involving bread as a symbol of fertility, the silent “decked out” bride, the use of red, the gifts, and the display of the blood-stained sheet are all elements of traditional Greek weddings.
During my field work with the Gypsies of Ano Liossia, Aghia Varvara and Zefiri, I realized that the difference lies in the fact that Gypsies have preserved these traditions almost intact, while the rural population lost them in moving to the city. The difference stems from the delayed urbanisation of Gypsies, the reasons for which can be found in their tendency to maintain close family ties and in the importance they place in the clan, limiting themselves to being members of a whole rather than individuals.
The gypsy stigma which they have carried for centuries made them seek out their own kind and to stay close together, searching for the security denied to them by society. They did not scatter or get lost in big cities, but lived together, as they always had, perpetuating traditional ancestral behavior inherited from their forefathers who had lived in the Greek countryside and had adopted elements from Greek rural culture.
Here one could argue that Gypsies who live in other countries also have characteristics similar to Greek Gypsies. While this is true, it is equally true that there are similarities between all nations.
The difference between Gypsies and non-gypsies lies in the fact that the former either refused or were not able to become inhabitants of the city, to participate in the developments which form a city, to evolve.
Today they are called upon to speed up this process, to make up for their delay and to become modernised. In other words to resemble every other modern city dweller anywhere in the world, the lure being acceptance in exchange for the selling out of their traditions.
This would result, however, in the violent withdrawal from their own kind, the loss of social cohesion, the lack of a sense of belonging, loneliness and the ineffectual imitation of the behavior of the “others”.
If the state truly wants to help Gypsies then they must first help them to live humanely. The miserable conditions in which most of them live, fear, and insecurity do not enable them to project their true wishes.
They must therefore be supported financially and professionally, they must be able to enjoy the benefits of developing technology, and their children must be able to receive an education.
And all of this should be done without demanding from them, indirectly but nonetheless coercively, that in exchange they have to live as we do.
Without the fear of rejection, they will be able to evaluate society’s standards and progressively will choose by themselves those they wish to adopt and those they wish to leave.
Based on their volition alone will any changes take place, and maybe they know better than we do that the one-way street of progress does not always lead to happiness.
Anna Lydaki has done field work in areas where Gypsies live. She has written the books Balami ke Roma, I Tsigani ton Ano liosion (Non Gypsies and Gypsies. The Gypsies of Ano Liosia) and I Tsigani stin poli. Megalonontas stin Aghia Varvara (Gypsies in the City. Growing up in Aghia Varvara), Kastaniotis Editions, Athens 1997, 1998. She has also had numerous articles published in newspapers, scientific magazines, and volumes, and her second book is being translated in Hungarian. She is assistant professor at the Department of Sociology at the Panteion University of Athens, where she teaches Qualitative Research and Ethnography.
Read more about the Gypsies of Crete and Greece: