20th May 2022
24 minutes read
translated by Thomas Cooper
20th May 2022
24 minutes read
My father was a lifeguard at the swimming pool in our small town, and every summer he tanned a darker brown than you ever would have thought possible. Not like most Hungarians, not a flaky, reddish bronze, he was really the color of chocolate. He was proud of his brown skin, he liked to show off his good looks and his many other virtues with his little jokes, his hey, check this out: he’d bend his arm, and the folds of skin in the crooks of his elbows would be tints of dark purple.
And check this out: he’d turn to the side and push the edge of his bathing suit down a little on his backside: brilliant white. “See,” he grinned, “that’s the difference, Gypsies are brown there too”.
I’d never seen a Roma person’s backside, so at nine years of age whatever my father said was gospel. My father brought it up a lot, and I never understood why it was important to him to call attention to this difference if it was as clear as day that we had absolutely nothing to do with Roma.
But the difference was terribly important, of course.
As a child in elementary school, naturally I learned only too well that Hungarians are non-smelly, non-lousy, non-lazy, non-messy, non-barefoot, non-bin-diggers, non-dunce-flunkers, non-stealers, non-syringers, non-hovel-dwellers, non-trough-eaters, non-mother-stabbers, non-sister-fuckers, and non-brat-producing-welfare-check-scroungers.
I learned what it meant to be a Hungarian, and it was as clear as day what it meant to be Roma.
But then I learned something else, on the basis of which I think I can justifiably say I have a rather complex relationship to what we refer to in Hungarian as “cigányozás,” or Gypsy slurs.
When I was a kid, I tanned pretty brown too, and I almost never burned. Today, I’m a pale intellectual in his study. Even my lips burn in the sun. Others may never imagine how brown I used to get in my sunflower-yellow T-shirt, how dark the purple folds of skin in the crooks of my elbow were. At most, they notice my older son’s creole skin and venture some guesses about his father’s side of the family.
So, as a child, I experienced what it was like to be the subject and the object of Roma slurs. Until I was a teenager, if people wanted to offend me or tease me in the gray area of joking or provocative banter, they would scowl, “you Gypsy! You’re a Gypsy!” And that meant anything and everything that was non-Hungarian, and anything and everything that was horrible. It hurt and it didn’t. I sensed the intention to cause pain, but as I was not actually Roma, I was not offended, neither on my own behalf, nor on behalf of the Roma.
When it hurt, it must have hurt because my father was preoccupied with the question. Otherwise, why would he have been so eager to prove that he was not Roma? But his spasmodic insistence on drawing distinctions proves something else, at some time, he must have been slurred as Roma. He passed away a long time ago, so I cannot ask him what it was like, under communism, as a kid with brown skin, but his aunt recently told me that during the Second World War, as a small child, she was repeatedly teased because of her brown skin: “Your mother bought you from the Gypsies at the scrap market for 25 kilograms of bran.”
My son’s first experience of the very concept of being Roma and the practice of slurring Roma was also unusual. One day, he came home from kindergarten and asked,
“dad, is the computer a Gypsy?”
Even kindergarteners borrow words and phrases from the people they hear around them slurring Roma. They say Gypsy this and Gypsy that without knowing what they’re talking about. In our close family, we have great respect and admiration for Roma culture, so I started to tell my son about the Roma, about the rich Roma cultures. I told him, simplifying things a bit to fit with what he knew of the world, that this people, the Roma, started their long migration from the distant magic land of India, and eventually, in the era of knights and kings, came to live alongside the Hungarians and other peoples, where they have been living ever since. I told him that the Roma, like us, are diverse, that there are those who identify as Gypsy instead of Roma, that the Roma speak many different languages, and many of them speak Hungarian as their mother tongue, and that they are also Hungarian. We listened to some authentic Roma folk music, and I told him some Roma folk tales, and then later he, the five-year-old, found he was neither the subject nor the object of anti-Gypsy slurs, but the accused. In the hallway in the kindergarten, he saw a little boy with brownish skin, and he cheerfully shouted, “mom, look! There’s that Gypsy kid.” The boy’s grandmother snapped, “why are you using words like that, he’s a little boy just like all the others.”
My son was startled and had no idea what she meant.
And no wonder. Making slurs against Roma is an incomprehensible, widespread social tick. Everything’s a mess, our tongues are sprained, our sentences are swollen, our thoughts snap and crack. Even if there were some sense to slurring Roma, it still wouldn’t make sense.
And this tick is chronic.
Hungarians make anti-Roma slurs like they complain about the weather.
As in the lines from the Hungarian folk song: Always cold in wintertime, in summer always hot, weather always grim and gray, rains and rains and rain all day.
So, you don’t have to be particularly much of anything. A little brown is more than enough. Don’t even need purple folds of skin. Either you use anti-Roma slurs or someone does the same against you. People have been slurring my family for being Roma for four generations.
I can hardly express what it meant for a child to have a different skin color in our little city in the early 1990s, but I can tell you one thing: a different school. Crowded with the kids who underperformed or were thought to underperform, the kids that the teachers hit with wooden slippers. We were afraid to go near the place, though to this day I don’t know much about it. Just that it was “the Gypsy school”. There was a class in my elementary school for the kids who were the weakest students, and there were three Roma kids in that class. They were either siblings or close relatives, or at least we figured they were, because among ourselves we called them Gypsy Paul, Gypsy Rose, and Gypsy Julia. I don’t think I ever knew their family name. I have lingering images of them in my mind, always a little untidy, and older and taller than we were because they kept repeating grades. We would see them in the afternoon on the playground, but we never played with them. They kept their distance. I barely heard them speak at all, and I’m quite sure I myself never spoke to them. Of our time together there, I remember this silence.
When I was a university student living in Budapest, young Roma often stood in the doorway of the building next door, and whenever I saw them and thought about passing them, I was afraid, in a state of physical and mental readiness. In case something happened. In case they did something to me.
Looking back, I had to ask myself: why do I have such a fundamental antipathy towards Roma? One could logically assume that the origins of this feeling must lie somewhere in my childhood. As I tried to figure out what might have had a strong negative effect on me in the past, I immediately thought that perhaps it was the fact that I had been beaten up by Roma as a kid. I began to count the individual instances, all the kids I had punched or kicked and all those who had done the same to me. And when I’d added all the figures up, it turned out I had gotten in fights with more blonde kids than Roma kids, but that I hadn’t remembered being beaten up by blonde kids. Blonde kids had beaten me up several times, but there’s no common phrasing for that in Hungarian.
For me, that settled the debate concerning the primacy of thought or language. In a manner that I had experienced directly, with almost sensual vividness and an ethical dimension. With a crumbling sense of self-worth and a feeling of having been duped.
I felt numb.
Sometimes, thinking back on this realization, I let myself believe that language precedes both ethics and the body.
What it meant for someone to be Roma was so deeply ingrained in us, yet we knew nothing. Our youngest children don’t really understand what a computer is, but they’ve all learned how to use anti-Roma slurs. I drank it in with my mother’s milk.
When I had grasped this, it dawned on me that the phrase “anti-Roma slur” had not existed for me as a child. No one in our family or in the rural town reflected on the ways in which we used language. That entire settlements, entire societies reflect as little on this as kindergarten kids.
But our words of hate not only give form to later memories, they also shape our perceptions, or at least our narrative perceptions. This is a scientific cliché of course, but to encounter the process in everyday life is, well, jarring. The other day, my daughter came home and told me that two Roma kids with knives had tried to break into the school. My son came home and told me his classmates had seen two Roma kindergarten kids sticking their feet through the fence, and that they had a huge knife. I asked my daughter, and she said another kid had seen the knife. We didn’t find out who, if anyone, had seen the knife. Perhaps someone had seen two kids hanging out in the street and then climbing the school fence. (Several teachers in the school regularly use anti-Roma slurs, and though I expressed an objection or two, that only made things a little better.)
Looking back, the young people standing in the doorway of the building next to mine never did a thing to me over all those years.
They chitchatted, they munched on sunflower seeds.
Once, to tease me, since the non-brown Hungarian does not speak Romani, they greeted me quietly: “Tavesz baktalo!” “May you enjoy good fortune!” They wished me well. That’s all. And I continued onwards without saying a word. Silence surrounds our encounter.
I learned very late, when I was already an adult, that the residents of a Roma street in my hometown are Oláh Roma and speak a dialect known as Lovari. I have rifled through the index cards of my memory in vain.
I have not a single memory of ever having heard children speaking any dialect of the Romani language.
The quiet, withdrawn Gypsy Paul, Gypsy Rose, and Gypsy Julia did not fail school after four years because they were dumb, but because no one bothered with the fact that they spoke a different mother tongue. And they had learned Hungarian from people who hated them. We didn’t even let them have their honest-to-God real names.
Putting all this into a theoretical framework, I grasped how deeply I had been duped by my mother’s language, much as everyone else had been duped, and I realized that I was surrounded by a huge lie. But until I was a young adult, though I knew the Gypsy Siblings and my father’s non-brown butt, I didn’t know what it was to be brown. What does Roma mean?
A decade ago, having reached this realization, I began to take an interest in the Roma figures of the Hungarian literary tradition of the last two hundred years and theater genres of medieval origin. Since then, as a writer, I have been consuming and studying Roma cultural goods in ever larger doses. I have written three commedia dell’arte-based plays for the Transylvanian Traveling Theater featuring Roma characters: a fortune teller, an executioner, and a vagabond who does whatever jobs people need done. The three characters show the direction in which I have gone as I evolved. The first is clearly based on a stereotype so widespread and familiar that it is boring, while the second goes a bit beyond stereotypes, since the Roma executioner is a rare and unusual figure in the Hungarian literary tradition, though this character also draws on the clichés concerning Roma in literature.
But the desire for authenticity grew in me, and I became more and more interested in my vagabond character, who was a woodcutter if need be, a blacksmith if need be, or a musician if need be. He became multidimensional, as did my knowledge. A non-brown Hungarian knows very well, of course, that Roma have an excellent musical tradition, but he or she is less likely to know that for centuries they were the best smiths, and also excelled in other trades. And as for what life was like for Roma in the past, beyond the garb worn by the musicians of yore and their manner of speaking, we know almost nothing, much as we know almost nothing about the ideas Roma had of the world.
In the course of my research at the time, based on ethnographic literature, I uncovered a great deal of information concerning the history of Roma mentalities, superstitions, beliefs, and myths which shared many similarities with elements of Hungarian folk life of yesteryear, but in many ways also differed.
They were reminiscent of fairy tales, but hadn’t survived in tales.
And many of the superstitions made much more sense than the superstitions found among non-Roma because there were stories behind them. Let me give an example: scholars have found indications of a belief among nomadic Transylvanian Roma at the end of the last century according to which a certain illness could be cured by drinking brandy in which garlic has been soaked. There is nothing surprising about this. The disease, however, is mentioned as a demon who came to the world when the fairy queen’s husband, the hairy demon king, peed on a garlic clove and secretly fed it to his wife. And the origin of the fairies and the demons comes from the myth of the origin of the mountains, a consequence of the battle between the elements and the heavenly bodies, whose parents were the earth and the sky, who long ago separated from one another’s embrace! I was enthralled by the way in which the everyday superstition was part of a larger, cosmological tale of which no similar variant exists in the Hungarian oral tradition. For years, I studied similar tales, and I used them to write an artist’s book with tales for adults entitled The End of the Heart: New Gypsy Tales. The tales are ethnographically authentic, but they are my own inventions written in my own modern Hungarian.
However, on my journey to learn about Roma culture, the first phase, during which I brought cultural treasures to life from dead journals, was not inspired by the amazement with which I stared at my father’s brown skin, but at the iridescent purple. At one of my book launches in Budapest, I met a Roma man, and I learned that half of his family was from the same small town as mine. They lived in the Roma neighborhood on the edge of the town, where the Roma kids of my schooldays had also lived. When we realized that we were acquaintances who had never met, he asked me if I was Roma, and I told him, evasively wrapping my “no” into an anecdote, about my father’s elbows, to which he replied that when he had visited relatives there as a child, his grandmother had always said to him,
“I could just eat that beautiful purple mouth of yours!”
For me, the study of the beauty of this unusual purple tone was the period during which I was writing The End of the Heart. I was thrilled to be able to study the distinctive characteristics of Roma culture, characteristics unique to Roma culture, its nature, its essence. I looked for the strange in the familiar.
And what a wealth I found! A tradition of folk poetry, ballads, fairy tales and folklore of unimaginable size and richness for us non-brown Hungarian people, treasures which have survived far longer on the lips of the Roma people than anything comparable on the lips of the Hungarians. For instance, there were Roma communities in which magic tales were told as parts of rites at wake services up until the mid-1990s, decades after the non-Roma around them had abandoned the practice of storytelling among families. It was also painful to realize how little we know about the culture of a people with whom we have lived for 600 years, and in some cases, how little we know about the culture of a community with a Hungarian identity. Almost nothing. Everything that I thought before I embarked on my research was wrong. Everything was different, was otherwise, hadn’t happened that way. And many other things had happened too. It was an experience that left me feeling stripped bare. Since then, a feeling of humility mixed with the shame caused by this experience has pushed me to continue acquiring as much knowledge as possible, which I can pass on to others, not infrequently to Roma too. For let’s be honest, the old folk traditions of the Euro-Atlantic national cultures, including folk songs, folk dances, folk tales, and the related traditions, are today little more than subculture.
I also came to grasp that I had to take my eyes off the captivating shades of purplish-brown. It hardly suffices, after all, simply to gaze into the shimmering mirror of art, for this too is merely another form of the superficial. Two years ago, I began a new phase in my research, in which I had set out to map my father’s brown back.
My goal was to learn about the history of the Hungarian Roma community.
What were the Roma people without the accoutrements of their culture?
I knew, of course, that Roma had lived alongside Hungarians for a long time, but not that some had lived among us since the beginning of the fifteenth century, while others had only been among us since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I knew that they had come from India, but I had no idea which lands they had passed through in their wanderings or which languages had influenced their language, much as I had not realized that there are many Romani languages and dialects, and many Roma who have not spoken any Romani languages for centuries. I knew that during the Second World War, we had sent some of our Roma compatriots to the death camps because of their ethnicity, but the fact that this kind of discrimination, persecution, and murder had been around since the Middle Ages flickered only dimly in my mind. In light of all this, however, what surprised me was the extent to which the Medieval accusations of child theft (note the aforementioned claim that my mother had been purchased for 25 kilograms of bran), brutishness, bloodlust, and cannibalism are still leveled today, or at least until a few decades ago, and that, as one of fate’s comic ironies, the peoples of the so-called West said similar things about us Hungarians when we arrived in our present homeland in the ninth century. All false, of course, in fact Medieval and Early Modern scholars handed down nonsense about the Roma for centuries.
I was also surprised that for centuries in the Middle Ages “Gypsy” was not an ethnic category.
It was used to refer to all kinds of perceived rabble, and in some documented cases, not to Roma at all. The practice of anti-Gypsyism, then, must have meant something else too.
It was also something of an unusual twist for me that, all the centuries of prejudice, persecution, and legal discrimination notwithstanding, Hungarians sometimes had a positive attitude towards the Roma. From the Middle Ages onwards, many of our kings, princes, counts, and regents valued their work and their contributions to the tax base. They often protected and supported the Roma with laws and letters of safe passage, and the Roma were appreciated among the peasants, albeit with some disdain because of their way of life, for their masterful knowledge of their crafts and trades. And one finds no trace of racial discrimination in a vast body of old court records. In the soil of my experiences as a child, which had been pounded hard with hatred of Roma, this had an utterly astonishing effect. But there were also brutal show trials that ended in mass executions, trials in which the Hungarian authorities slaughtered almost entire Roma communities which were demonstrably innocent of any wrongdoing. At the same time, however, there do appear to have been particular criminal acts which were more likely to have been committed by Roma, primarily horse theft or a form of fraud in the horse trade, though one should then note that the Roma had unrivalled expertise when it came to horses, and there is clear evidence that they put this knowledge to good use breaking horses in. There are also archival court records from centuries ago in which the amount of litigation involving Roma was roughly proportional to their presence in the local population, and one also finds acquittals in this material. For as long as I can remember, my family has been complaining about the number of crimes allegedly committed by Roma. The police columns in the local papers make veiled references to Roma, and members of the Hungarian parliament openly accuse Roma of having crime “in their blood.” A few decades ago, people started using a single word for convenience, “cigánybűnözés,” or “Gypsy-crime.” This attitude towards Roma did not exist for centuries of Hungarian history, or at least was not widespread, because Roma and non-Roma lived together, worked together, and even fought side by side in Hungary’s wars. The swirling dichotomy of good will and ill will towards Roma is now pushing the framework of our shared history to the point where, at present, it is about to snap.
As I dug deeper, I entered the third phase of my knowledge and self-awareness, which is where I have been ever since: at the border of brown skin and light skin just under my father’s bathing suit. The question of boundaries.
For I have come across more and more data showing that an immense share of our cultural assets, thought to be Hungarian or perceived to be Roma, are in fact common. They cannot be clearly separated into two piles. For example,
Hungarian folk music would not exist without Roma musicians.
Our superstitions are shared. And what strikes me most deeply is that it is not only the cultural riches that are common, but also the mixing of blood. I came across a case according to which, in my very hometown in the 1920s and 1930s, 600 non-Roma people became so impoverished they moved to the Roma neighborhood and lived in huts dug into the ground, starving and cold, just like the Roma. They intermixed, and many similar processes have been documented in our history, as has the opposite process, i.e., the process of Roma assimilating entirely, becoming, effectively, non-Roma. The ancestors of some non-brown Hungarians are Roma, and the ancestors of many of our Roma compatriots are non-Roma by blood. I was born in an adobe house which did not have a bathroom, and it was just a few streets away from the slum where Gypsy Paul and his sisters went to school, the slum where their family members affectionately referred to their purple lips! So which epithelial cell on my father’s waist, which pigment, was Roma and which Hungarian?
And as I brooded over this focal problem and the concept and phenomena of cultural hybridity, I came to understand that even these concepts and the most well-intentioned attempt to arrive at a more subtle, differentiated grasp of the question merely mask the lie of our everyday world. Because there is a lie at the bottom of it all, our lie: the claim that Roma are in some essential way different, that there is something different in their essence. Something non-Hungarian. But there are only traits, which are folded and refolded in varying ways, have patterns in their wrinkles, and sometimes shimmer purple, but our skin is continuous, and the epithelial cells know nothing of borders. The boundary between brown and non-brown skin is merely the linguistic contrivance with which we give form to our perceptions.
These are my realizations, and I quietly hope they may serve as a weapon against my own anti-Roma racism.
I often wonder whether this struggle against these deeply ingrained biases is little more than an indulgence in the narcissistic pretense of self-deprecation in the name of self-improvement, but when I confront my own meanness, my contemptibility, I realize I am too sickly and bilious to draw sustenance from this. The Roma have given me a different course of treatment: the more frail and failing I seem to myself, the more brilliant the treasures of Roma culture become, and I sense more and more vividly that Roma-Hungarian culture and Hungarian-Roma culture are shared.
I am journeying towards the root of my anti-Roma biases, like the nine-legged mare, the soul animal of the Hungarian shaman, who is journeying to the underworld, and I find and kill the many serpents that are choking life below, and the bright disaffirmation will shine forth. The shaman will ascend to the brightness above.
I can only hope that my racism against Roma has a fairytale counterpart, which I will find and which will help me live.
The other day on the train, my son, now ten years old, not knowing what I was writing about, made a revealing comment – thankfully not muffling his voice as I do when this kind of subject comes up in public – “Dad,” he said, “if I went to the pool and there were only Roma there, I wouldn’t feel comfortable either, I would be afraid. Because everyone talks about them, about the thieves, the knife attacks, my classmates and my teachers have said it so many times that I feel the same.”
He has learned about Roma culture, he judges others’ actions correctly – and he senses the alternative viewpoint. I would be dishonest were I to deny that in the presence of Roma artists and scientists I also feel a sense of discomfort. I am cornered by a mix of my passionate curiosity towards them and my paranoid guilt for the strength of my most deeply ingrained prejudices in the given moment. There are always two of us present, me and the other me, with his mother-tongue anti-Gypsy vocabulary.
Now I recall how, as a kid, one of the least appealing pools at the swimming complex was called the Gypsy pool. It was almost the only pool in which Roma swam. Not many of them went to the pool for poverty, and because everybody eyeballed them, even those sharing the same pool. Including me, and my dad, who was Hungarian to the core, but his butt was non-Gypsy.