What defines the Roma identity? Who are Roma? And who are gadje? These were all pivotal question explored at the World Roma Festival Khamoro 2010 that wrapped up over a week ago.
Experts and academics who discussed their views at the International Conference on Roma Identity, one of the major events of the festival, agreed that very little is known about the largest European minority, about their culture, history and language, and that our views of the Roma are largely based on prejudices and ignorance.
Among the featured artists Czech director Marketa Nešlehová dissected the theme of what it means to be Roma today in a less conventional manner. In her recently released documentary featuring the lives of three young Roma, Nešlehová abandoned a conventional script, letting “the lives of the protagonists speak for themselves”, she said after the movie screening.
In ROM-ID each protagonist tells his/her story, struggle for integration and difficulties of find a job, often linked with prejudices about employing Roma.
The festival revealed that the question of the Roma identity doesn’t lend itself to a straight-forward answer. For historical reasons, including the repression of the Romani language and culture and the total absence of detailed studies on the Roma history, describing the Roma community and listing common characteristics turns out to be a complicated job requiring further studies.
The debate also touched on the loop of a stigma of the Roma community–that their behaviour is influenced by the society’s prejudices. For instance, only a small percentage of young Roma know Romani language, and many families intentionally avoid speaking Romani to their children to avoid that their children are further stigmatized.
Professor Jan Hancock, Director of the Romani archives at the University of Texas, USA, said that the value of being acquainted with the minority language is undeniable, noting that through the study of their history and their language, Roma can rediscover their roots and create a self-portrait not based on prejudice and historic misinterpretations. Encouraging examples in this sense come from Finland, where evening classes of Romani language have been established. Thanks to this program, implemented by the Romani Education Unit, a body established by the Finish Parliament, Roma in Finland have the possibility to study their native language and to participate in several other educational activities about Romani history and culture.
The featured bands from all over Europe brought their own stories of identity and integration on stage, not just entertaining, but also serving up heaps of food for thought to the audiences present.