A Look Inside the Şatră

The word șatră can be translated from Romanian to English as “a Gypsy tent or camp”. If we examine the semantics of șatră in the Romanian language, we will find the following meanings: “a tent belonging to nomad Romani people”, but also “rude”, and “in a state of sloppiness and dirt”. This ambivalence has been prevalent when it comes to the word Gypsy in English, and in the majority of cultures that have interacted with Roma tribes.

Let’s get one thing out of our way: Gypsy is a word that carries a negative meaning, and its etymology raises confusion about the origin of Roma people. To start with, Gypsy means Romany, or Romani, also known as Roma. They are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group that originates from Northern India. They have no ethnic relation to Romanians or Romans; the name similarity is a pure coincidence here. It could be confusing at first, but you’ll get used to it. This particular ethnic group is filled with apparently puzzling and indecipherable complications, which, if unpacked, lead to really interesting and complex discussions. The problem is that not everyone will take the time and mental effort to try to understand. In this article, I will try to provide answers to questions that surrounded me as I was growing up. Where do Roma people come from? Why does no one talk about them? Why do people ignore my questions about it and stick to ridiculing and shoving Roma people aside?

Cik´ni by Josef Koudelka

I. Origins

For the longest time, academics have scratched their heads in confusion while trying to trace back the origins of Romani culture. Many obstacles stood in their way. Firstly, the nomadic aspect that lies at the heart of the Romani way of life meant that they accumulated vocabulary from the places where they temporarily settled before moving on. These linguistic changes make it difficult to disentangle and dissect the structure of their language. Secondly, when traveling, the Roma were viewed with suspicion and reserve, so were most outsiders. This attitude manifested itself into a sort of mysticism attributed to their past and origins, as the Roma were seen as mysterious entities, and it seems that fear won over curiosity in many host lands. Lastly, perhaps in an attempt to save and preserve their culture despite constantly changing their environment, and perhaps also as a shield against discrimination and alienation, Roma people built a wall between themselves and their hosts, holding their culture within their hearts and their tight community, not in a sacred book. The one method that was successful in tracing back their journey was comparative linguistics. 

In The Gypsies, Angus Fraser states that “if we apply these three tests of evolutionary relationship — community of basic vocabulary, similarity of grammatical structure, and regularity of sound correspondence — to Romani and certain Indic languages, all the findings suggest unity and origin” (15). Later in the book, he also mentions that “all these characteristics, and others besides, confirm the affinity with several of the modern Indic languages and show that Romani must date from post-Sanskritic times” (19). These findings underline the value of comparative linguistics as a tool for historical research, and lead us back to the point I made about the misleading term of Gypsy, which was introduced in the 16th century with the meaning of Egyptian, a term assigned to Roma people solely based on their complexion. The fact that this term survived throughout the centuries and well after light was shed on the real origin of Roma people reflects the world’s tendency to ignore and marginalize this ethnic group.

II. The Dangers of Stereotypes

We have touched on the origins of Roma people and provided explanations for their invisibility and mystery. But the answer I found does not satisfy me, as the problem seems to run deeper than a simple “it’s a difficult investigation and they don’t want us to know either”. This people’s mysterious aura, their mystical and exotic image which flourished in outsiders’ consciousness, should not be taken lightly. I propose that this mystery is partly because of their culture’s hidden richness, but also because outsiders have perpetually tried time and time again to rob Roma people of their culture. Perhaps their origins and history are so full of hypotheses and instability because we (by “we” I mean the outsiders) have robbed them of a chance to safely show their cultural identity. How did we do it?

This article focuses solely on the Roma people living in Romania. Fraser estimates the arrival and settlement of Romani people in the Balkans to have happened around the 14th century, at “a time when the Ottoman advance was steadily eating up the Balkans . . . Wallachia and Moldavia have a special—and ignominious—place in Gypsy history, for there the Gypsies were systematically turned into slaves” (57). Fraser proceeds to give some more detailed descriptions of a place the Roma came across and were taken over to as slaves, which might help readers unaccustomed to this land’s history.

“Latin-speaking Vlachs, [now modern-day Romanians], are generally of the Orthodox faith. Their periods of true independence were brief, and for much of their existence they were under control of neighbouring powers. But [they] devised their own very similar methods for dealing with their Gypsy populations and for ensuring that they could preserve them as a valuable labour force.” (57)

Being bought and sold by rulers, estate-owners or monasteries was not the first instance when Roma people were reified in the collective mind. There is a pattern of thought in host countries, where Romani are viewed not as an ethnic group, but as people united by the same behavior, be it stealing, singing, or creating hand-made metal utensils. There is a hidden danger in this way of thinking, which was to be uncovered by the Romani’s arrival in the Romanian provinces, as Fraser states: 

“First the churches and monasteries, then the boyars (estate-owners) found that Gypsies were invaluable to them. Impoverished peasants were selling their land and could be turned into serfs to work the soil, but the Gypsies filled a niche between peasant and master and were valued as artisans who specialised in certain trades—blacksmith, locksmith, tinsmith, etc. Since they were peripatetic they could not be relied upon to be readily available. To prevent them from escaping they were turned into slaves of the boyars as they had been of the Church; and to make the controls all-embracing it was declared that every Gypsy without a master was the property of the state.” (58) 

Fraser states that Romani people were only fully emancipated in 1856, which gave them almost a century of peace and of starting to build up their independence, before what Fraser calls “The Forgotten Holocaust”. He asserts that, during the Holocaust, “Romania’s main action was to expel tens of thousands of Gypsies to a dumping ground in the newly formed province of Transnistria, a slice of Ukraine seized from the USSR” (268); most of them succumbed to typhus. To avoid paying post-war reparations, Germany claimed that “up to late 1942 Gypsies were not being persecuted on racial grounds and that any action taken before then, regardless of whether it was unjustified, merited no compensation” (269). Survivors ended up with a scarce compensation, and due to insufficient financial means and lack of education, would not manage to stand a trial for their rights. Placing the blame on the possible criminality of an already oppressed ethnic group which was trying, with little to no exterior help, to rise from slavery is another example of the atrocities that come out of the generalisations placed on Roma people.

After another short break, and an attempt to pick themselves back up, the Communist regime in Romania waited around the corner, getting ready to strike them down again.Refusing to offer Roma people an ethnic group status, and denying them educational and cultural support in the 1970s, “Ceauşescu[1] tried to obliterate the Gypsies’ culture and force them into squalid ghettos or bleak tented settlements in the countryside. Their valuables—huge old Austro-Hungarian gold coins were their preferred form of savings—were stolen by the Securitate[2] and they were never free from the risk of harassment” (281).

Poster advertising a slave auction in Wallachia. “For sale, a prime lot of Gypsy slaves, to be sold by auction at the Monastery of St Elias, 8 May 1852, consisting of 18 men, 10 boys, 7 women and 3 girls: in fine condition.” From I. Hancock, The Pariah Syndrome, 1987.
Taken from Angus Fraser’s The Gypsies

III. Silence and Ignorance

After reading this very brief and highly simplified timeline, one would find it hard to believe that an ethnic group such as the Roma, being knocked down time after time, would rise up, dust itself up and move on so easily. After looking into the past and seeing their constant struggle to keep their cultural identity alive, it is easier to understand their current struggle for survival in a society that continues to lack understanding and inclusion. They presently live in a world where they are constantly excluded and then blamed for their asocial behavior. 

Ever since I was a child, I was taught to fear Roma people, to run away from gypsies, as they might steal me away. But where does the fear that was instilled in us come from? 

We might call it a failure of the educational system, as Roma history and culture are not insisted on in school, and have been, for a long time, a taboo subject. Personally, the only time I heard my high school teacher mentioning Roma people in History class was in Senior year. Our teacher was a rather curious man, a fossil which had been roaming the corridors and terrorizing students since before the Revolution of ‘89, when he was a Party Member. The only way to get into his good graces was to bring him a potted orchid he would then bring home with him. One day, he was supposed to grade a student in my class who had skipped a few classes and, worst of all, forgot to bring a potted orchid. The teacher refused to give him a final grade and threatened to fail him. After the student protested, our teacher got up, yelled out “Shut up, you moron! I know all about you and your kind . . .” Everyone froze, and our classmate stood up for himself, saying that he did not deserve to be treated like that, as he had been nothing but respectful, but the teacher would hear nothing of it. I was deep in thought trying to process what happened for a long time, but I still could not believe that a History teacher, of all people, would engage in such blatant discrimination. Then, I realized I had never known that our classmate was a Gypsy, as we had never talked about it. We never talked about it after that, and nobody ever mentioned our teacher again. Later that year, he had a heart attack while teaching a class and someone lit a candle for him in the teachers’ office. 

Now, if you were that kid in my class, would you have shown up to school the next day, and the day after that? Wouldn’t it have been easier for you to say “fuck it” and find a different path in life? The one tendency I saw when it comes to outsiders, whether they are Romanians or any other culture, is to say that the past was rough for everyone and that there is no point unburying the dead. Refusing to acknowledge the pain that was caused, which still has great effects over Roma people, shows an unwillingness to uncover the atrocities that hide deep within our collective subconscious. 

[1] Romanian communist leader from 1974 to 1989

[2] Secret police agency for the Socialist Republic of Romania

Works cited:
Fraser, A., 2007. The Gypsies. Malden: Blackwell.


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