The Roma of Crete
By Louis Tracy
They have been living in Crete since at least 1322. Families can be easily seen selling rugs by the roadside. Children are conspicuous in most centres, playing accordions and drums for pennies. We see them in the market, men and women, offering any amount of cheap clothes, shoes, fruit and vegetables, bric-a-brac, to passers-by. We often come across the wide-eyed eight-year-old, asking for five euros for a balloon, and reluctantly taking less. What life does she have? What impressions do we take of these people who live amongst us, these Tsiganoi, or, in English, Gypsies? If you have any curiosity, you may wish to see beyond the colourful clothes, the ragged appeareance of the children. You may want to hold the gaze of the Tsiganoi for a moment, and ask why life for them is so different to the mainstream, so separate from most of us.
An exhibition in Heraklion, ‘Through My Eyes’, has gone some way toward opening up the world of the Roma, the preferred name of the Gypsies, of Crete. Beginning in early December and running until the 10th of January, this simple, powerful show of photographs, with twice-weekly seminars, raises as many questions as it attempts to answer, but cannot fail to challenge preconceptions about the Roma. An accompanying filmed documentary, still available, is a moving portrayal of life in Crete’s largest ‘camp’, at Alikarnassos, outside Heraklion. The settlement, maintaining at least six hundred people, has existed for twenty years and has successfully challenged attempts at forced eviction and years of systemic racism. Six homes were burned to the ground, according to Helsinki Watch. The camp survives without running water and electricity. Direct appeals to the European Court of Human Rights, with support from organizations such as Greek-Helsinki Monitor and the International Red Cross have ensured its continued presence, although conditions are still desperately poor. Basic services, such as education, medical care, attention to hygiene and rubbish collection are almost non-existent, although notable efforts have been made to offer some amelioration. A scandalous lack of recognition of human needs takes place every day, here in Crete. The accepted truth, as I have heard it, is that Gypsies don’t want to change. And yet we, in general, know nothing about the people living at this end of the social spectrum. The Historical Museum of Heraklion has made an exceptional move toward understanding the situation, with this exhibition. It gives a ‘voice’ to individuals from a hidden community who have thus far been virtually silent.
Quite simply, a period of training in basic photography was offered to a number of Roma from the camp. They then went away and took photographs of their lives. From these images, headings were given (by the photographers themselves), to categories of photographs; Houses, Families, Faces, etc. The results are extraordinary. We are allowed a rare glimpse inside the minds of (mainly) young Roma women who maintain a faithfulness to their traditions and customs while facing the reality of a grinding, low status survival in a hostile world. Survival, for them, being a life of child-bearing, dance, honour and the continuance of traditions and customs. Men, too, have produced work for this exhibition, and text accompanying the pictures is testament to their singular contribution. However, it is young women in particular whose work is most touching. They are so alive, sometimes so fragile, other times looking at the camera lens with amused detachment. They are never in need of re-assurance about their own image, as I might be, they simply record, without barriers. A lively text accompanies these pictures, with English translations, often humourous, always interesting. One cannot escape the sense that these young people are hoping for change, some compromise with a world that they find themselves locked out of. And we need to reach out to them.
Without romanticizing, without prejudice, it is a truth that we must begin to make peace with the Tsiganoi of Crete. They are powerless? No, of course not. The outsiders in any society, banded together, always have some power of their own. Cretans would not be Cretans unless this was true. The Roma, however, have more to fear from change than other minorities. No other group in history have been more blamed, hated and vilified. In what is now Europe they were slaves since the first anti-Gypsy laws were enacted, although they were certainly hunted, persecuted and enslaved before this. During the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries, the harassment, persecution and legislation against the Roma continued throughout most of Europe and Scandinavia. Punishment for merely being Rom in Western Europe included deportation (if lucky), galley slavery, flogging, mutilation, or even execution. Persecution of Roma has been the norm ever since.
Laws have usually left them no choice but to move on. There has been some respite in recent years, due to the scrutiny of abuses from international bodies and their own efforts to organize representation. Recently, the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, where some attempts were made at assimilating Gypsies, has left Roma more exposed to further discrimination. Roma are spread throughout Europe, with pockets in the US and South America, Canada and Australasia. But it is here, in Greece, the Balkans and Eastern Europe where they are most concentrated. Nationalist sentiments by any country have usually neglected and scapegoated the Gypsy population. It is a myth that Gypsies/Roma have always desired the ‘freedom of the open road’. This hard, nomadic life has more often been forced upon them. The dream of the ‘open road’ has more often than not been simply that; a dream. Dreams sustain the persecuted.
In the last century, in Germany, Gypsies were persecuted by the Nazis every bit as relentlessly as the Jews. Gypsies were singled out as an ethnic group to be completely exterminated by the German state and its collaborators. In Greece and in many other countries, we must refuse to allow the disappearance of a Gypsy culture that we barely even recognise, just because it fails to fit into our picture of ‘civilisation’ or acceptability. Governments often enact the popular will of the people. In the case of the Tsiganoi, this involves their remaining firmly outside the mainstream of society, one way or another. Unfortunately, in our civilised world, assimilation can easily mean disappearance, absorbing any difference into the smooth, but barely sustainable, myth of To Patris, or the Nation, or the People.
We can see the pride of the Roma of Spain, and southern France, every time we visit those lands, where Gitane/Gitano culture plays a visible and valued part in the life of the country. Flamenco is Gypsy music. They are horse-traders, songsmiths, metalworkers and lovers of freedom. This romantic image is not without problems, as we know, as it is largely one-sided. But at least it offers some status. It will take leaps of faith from the Tsiganoi of Greece, as well as hands of friendship from outside, to achieve a semblance of pride in Gypsy-dom within Greece. For now they are ‘other’, outcasts and branded as thieves and beggars, among other epithets. Theirs is a closed world, without a written history, without a homeland. They have never claimed a homeland. The truth is that everywhere the Gypsies have travelled from their caste-based beginnings in India (see the accompanying article from Ross Daly), they have assimilated. They have adapted. We have not, very much, and until we learn something about them, we will always be ‘gadje’, non-Roma, outsiders to them. They have a right to live their lives, lives that are earthy and rich in a set of traditions that will attract and repel in roughly equal measure, but it is their own. And it changes, over time, just like ours.
“Roma have to face continuing political and cultural persecution, but they still travel the ‘endless road’, making music, telling tales, tricking the gadje, raising their children, and struggling to get by. These days as well as the traditional horse-drawn wagon, they can be seen traveling by car, truck and camper van. Their communities are both urban and rural, but they are united by the common dream of the ‘endless road’, the Gypsy ideal of freedom. Gypsy music and dance continues to enrich communities everywhere they sojourn and each land they pass through. Tales of their wanderings, songs from heart, passionate music drawn from much suffering, transformed into joy by their natural exuberance. This is the folklore of the Roma, this is their generous gift to the gadje, and this must not be allowed to die.”
(c) T. Herbert 2001
The Crete Gazette will follow this feature next month, with an exclusive report from the Gypsy settlement at Alikarnassos, and a review of current developments within Crete.
Readers interested in finding out more about the Gypsies of Crete can look at the following links: