Book Review: Romale! by Ursula Glaeser & Astrid Kury

In a book presentation at the Wiener Festwochen, Roma artists critique injustices and the persistent clichees of who they are

The Activists of Romale!

Romale! Persönliches über Aufbruch, Kunst und Aktivismus (“Personal Views on Breaking Out, Art and Activism”) is an elegant book, showcasing life experiences of Roma as artists and human rights activists – breaking out of social exclusion. Presented within “Safe European Home?”, a multi-dimensional initiative of the Wiener Festwochen’s “Into The City” programme, it is a rallying cry against  displacement and violence against the Roma.

U.K. contributing artists Delaine and Damian Le Bas set up a mock camping ground in front of the Austrian Parliament. “As Gypsy-Roma Travellers, we don’t take this privilege of inclusion lightly,” said Delaine, “especially as this could not happen in the UK.” Their adult son Damian James Le Bas, who publishes the website Travellers’ Times and produces BBC-radio’s first programme on Roma, was impressed. “Romale!, is a beautiful book,” he said, “that we in the UK can only dream of.”

A German-language publication by Ursula Glaeser and Astrid Kury, the book features Roma artists who participated in the 6-month cultural festival Romale!10, organized last year in Graz. Glaeser and Kury stressed the continuing discrimination and racist violence against the 10-12 million estimated Roma in Europe, citing statistics from “Roma in Bewegung”, an exhibition for Austrian schools on Roma migration since the 10th century, from Rajasthan in central India through Persia towards Europe:

“It’s all about deconstructing the undifferentiated perceptions, and bring forward structural themes voiced by a new generation of Roma, themselves straddling art and activism; tradition and modernity, and able to demonstrate their own diversity, integration and courage.”

During the presentation in the Looshaus, Damian Les Bas pointed out that Roma identity comprises a matrix of characteristics that add up to a common culture, even if no one group brings all those qualities together. Roma history bears an imprint of irresponsible acts by those in power.

“What separates us from mainstream communities is the stereotyping, which we still struggle against: that we are all uneducated, beggars, thieves or robbers, promiscuous and dark-complexioned. What’s more, we are not allowed to forget: the stigma of the past is always made to follow us, as we fight for human rights and a place in society.”

Several of those featured in the book are part of a new generation of educated Roma who are out in the public space and whose presence is acknowledged by the media: as scholars, writers, filmmakers, and artists, who participate in the discourse.

Flamenco guitarist and designer Gabi Jimenez, who lives in Paris, says that French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s racist treatment of Roma forces him to be both an artist and an activist. Integration “has not been helpful for the gitan, who has not been allowed to live as an integral part of society since the 15th century, having been systematically discriminated against by policies and authorities.”

Sociologist Katalin Barsony, who worked as an expert for the Open Society Institute’s Roma Programme in Budapest and the European Roma Information Office in Brussels, says:

“We may use that word integration only when the Roma have been able to break out of poverty; and then, only if the Roma is able to retain ethnic and cultural identity.” An acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Barsony explains, “it should be possible to have multiple identities, but being European and being Hungarian, in my case, would have first to be based on accepting who we are as Roma, and a conscious awareness of those values in our tradition as a common thread.”

In the book’s initial pages, a stirring manifestation from Mirjam Karoly entitled “Living in Europe” appears to give good news on the Austrian experience, where Roma seem to be better integrated than elsewhere. However, she emphasizes that it took some time after Austria joined the EU, and it cost the lives of four people during the Oberwart Bombing in Burgenland.

“It is not possible to specify who is being educated and employed because there is no data,” says Karoly, a Roma and Austrian advisor to the OSCE. Indeed, with extreme right and populist politicians on the rise in Austria, the fear prevails of being registered as Roma – a phenomenon in the 1930s that led to persecution in the Holocaust.

Romale! raises crucial questions about furthering integration in the face of well-established institutions within which mainstream population groups feel threatened by “otherness”? What is required to stop social behaviour and practices that not only label Roma as outsiders but also make them more prone to misperceptions and unethical judgements and the butt of sick jokes?

 

Romale! Persönliches über Aufbruch, Kunst und Aktivismus
by Ursula Glaeser & Astrid Kury
Drava Verlag (2011)

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