Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, by Isabel Fonseca, is an intimate exploration of the lives and history of Gypsies. Fonseca traveled extensively in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, visiting Gypsies in Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and other places. In writing that is at once personal and neutral, she portrays the immense poverty and hardships that these frequently persecuted people have had and continue to have to endure. Fonseca’s desire to really learn about these people is deeply authentic: among other things, she lived with an Albanian Gypsy family for several weeks, she made efforts to learn Romani, and she put extensive research into seeking out documents about the 400-year history of Gypsy slavery in Romania.
The Gypsies are intriguing in many ways. Although they have lived in Europe for 1000 years, they have never become fully integrated into the cultures in which they live; they have always to some extent kept their own culture and way of life. I had not realized how deeply the Western romanticized view of Gypsies and their nomadic way of life had ingrained itself in my thinking. For example, the image of the nomadic Gypsy is not accurate for the majority of Gypsies, who are actually quite settled – when they are allowed to be. The racial and cultural tensions between the Gypsies and other cultures in Eastern Europe is strong and violent, and the fact that these tensions are still very present today is something else I was only vaguely aware of. This history of and continuing persecution leads Fonseca to ask, “And so one has to wonder: are the Gypsies really nomadic by ‘nature,’ or have they become so because they have never been allowed to stay?” Fonseca discusses the causes and effects of this persecution in a sympathetic and enlightening manner.
Bury Me Standing was quite relevant to my recent thought about history, which I discussed in my post on contemplating history. The history of the Gypsies is one that has been unwritten, written, erased, and rewritten. The Gypsies themselves do not consider history important and often do not know much about their past beyond their great-grandparents:
Gypsies have no myths about the beginning of the world, or about their own origins; they have no sense of a great historical past. Very often their memories do not extend beyond three or four generations – that is, to those experiences and ancestors who are remembered by the oldest living person among them. The rest, as it were, is not history. Such a feeling is perhaps a legacy from the days of travel, when the dead were literally left behind; but it continues to serve a people who even when settled are hard-pressed to survive.
Rather than history, an important concept among Gypsies is that of baxt, which means luck, destiny, or fate. According to the Rom poet Rajko Djuric, “Above all, baxt is concerned with the present and the near future.” I find this attitude towards life intriguring because it is so different from my own Western way of thinking. To me, history is very important as a way of grounding myself and a way of trying to understand humanity and what it means to be alive, which is so very different from a life based on baxt. Also, in relation to the fact that the Gypsies do not maintain their own history is the fact that therefore their history has been written down by others, by non-Gypsies. Thus, much of this written history has no doubt been very biased and written to suit the needs of the opressors. In contrast to many of these written histories, Fonseca, though still an outsider, does a beautiful job of reporting the words, thoughts, and feelings of the Gypsies themselves.
Another other aspect that particularly intrigues me about the Gypsies is the parallel with Jews. Fonseca discusses these parallels (and differences) a little bit, especially in relation to the Holocaust, but I started thinking about it before she mentioned it. Both Gypsies and Jews have lived in a diaspora for hundreds (or, in the case of Jews, thousands) of years. In both cases, they have maintained their own culture admist the dominant culture in which they live. And in both cases they have been frequently persecuted, scape-goated, and feared as “the other.” However, each group developed very different ways to deal with being in diaspora and being “othered.” The Jews maintained their culture with a strong religious tradition and a powerful written and oral history of origins and promised land. The Gypsies, on the other hand, do not value history, as mentioned above. Instead, they look to the present and the future, relying on baxt. They maintain their culture through the need to survive. Their songs and poems are nostalgic, but for an ideal, not for a promised land:
Nostalgia is the essence of Gypsy song, and seems always to have been. But nostalgia for what? Nostos is the Greek for “a return home”; the Gypsies have no home, and, perhaps uniquely among peoples, they have no dream of a homeland. Utopia – ou topos – means “no place.” Nostalgia for utopia: a return home to no place. O lungo drom. The long road.
Perhaps it is the yearning itself which is celebrated, even a yearning for a past one never had (the most powerful kind). Such yearning is the impetus to travel. But the nostalgia of Gypsy song is weighted with fatalism.
I think it is important that we listen to the Gypsies themselves when trying to understand this marginalized group. Their way of thinking and maintaining culture is in some ways more different from the Western culture amongst which they live than that of the Jews. There is perhaps a danger of either lumping them together with the Jews, when in fact their experiences are in many ways very different, or of continuing to marginalize them in a way that Jews no longer are.
Although Bury Me Standing is at times painful to read, it is a beautifully written and important book offering a glimpse into the world of the Gypsies. I highly recommend it.