Gypsy Lore

Josh leapt towards the blue sky, and plunged into the quickly moving water thirty feet below. He emerged from the surface with a shout, and began swimming vigorously towards the bank. I looked downwards, standing on the humble diving platform – a small tower with a wooden board and a ladder poised above the river. A few Bosnian kids sat on the rock below; they half-heartedly clapped. I looked across the river at the stone houses dotting the riverbank of Mostar, Bosnia.


The river in Mostar, Bosnia

We had met the Bosnians a few minutes earlier. I had just jumped in, and a lean kid of about eighteen had reached out his hand, helping me up the last few feet onto the rocky ledge overlooking the river. I clapped him on the back. These were locals from Saravejo. Their English was crippled. There was another kid of the same age, and a third, a pudgy kid of about twelve. The leader, whom I was inclined to trust, had freckles and dark hair; puzzled, I observed numerous parallel scars, apparently self-inflicted, lining his right arm.

I began to prepare to for my second jump. The Bosnians got up to leave. As I looked behind and beneath me, I noticed our bag – which had previously lain hidden away at the back of the rocky ledge, and which contained our wallets, cash, and much more – dangling from the hand of the twelve-year-old. My adrenaline surged. I pointed directly at him, meeting eyes with him and yelling. He dropped the bag where he stood and continued to walk.

I climbed down the precarious ladder as quickly as I could. I shouted down to Josh, who was still climbing from the water, “Check our bag!” I caught the Bosnians one by one along the path leading to the exit. I recognized that English was useless. I shouted stupidly, motioning to each one to empty the pockets of his swim trunks. Each, in turn, obliged. Empty. The second teenager, the silent one, began gesturing aggressively; he was angry about my intrusion. The leader was cooperative. He led me back to the platform, turning out his pockets, shrugging and nodding understandingly. I bid them goodbye, heart still pounding. Nothing had been taken.


Our friend John looks across Mostar’s river.

Later, a question occurred to me. Were they gypsies – or more properly, Roma? I had seen an image of a boy with similar scars, once, in a New Yorker photo gallery of Poland’s present-day Roma (image 7). Days earlier, our travel companions had undergone a violent confrontation with, apparently, gypsies, in Budapest, Hungary. Stumbling home loud and drunk at 4am, they were pickpocketed, and yet fought back, exchanging blows, and ultimately pinning an unlucky ruffian to the ground, brutally struggling to hold him in a chokehold for half an hour until the police arrived. On other occasions, travelling, we saw people whom we assumed to be gypsies, women with dark, leathery skin holding children, or children begging alone, a boy and a girl of five sleeping in an embrace in front of a tray.

Roma in Bosnia

In retrospect, the prospect seems plausible. Roma populations in Sarajevo – before the 1992 Yugoslav war, at least – were varied and diverse. T. A. Acton writes that Bosnian Roma populations in the early 1980s included, in addition to well-established Muslim Khorakhane Rom, and Albanian Rom who had fled violence in Kosovo, a newer, distinct, and poorer group of Bosnian Kalderash Rom, descended from gypsies originally enslaved in Romania until the 1860s [1]. Even the Kalderash soon became well settled in commerce trades. “’You should have seen Banja Luka before the war,’” one old Rom tells Acton. “’It was the best town in the world for business.’” [1] Everything changed when the war arrived. Though the Bosnian Muslims were the primary victims — at the hands of the Serbs — Roma were also targeted. “From October 1992, some [Roma] report that Chetniks [Serbs] in Serbian-held areas were suggesting to them that they should leave,” Acton writes [1].

Things became very difficult for the Roma after the war. “Banja Luka had been a majority Serb area before the war, and during the war it was cleansed of its non-Serb population,” writes Judith Latham in Roma of the Former Yugoslavia [2]. “Hundreds of Romani communities in Bosnia have been demolished, but no money has been planned for their reconstruction.” [2] Latham’s paper describes, in broad terms, the political and economic difficulties faced by Bosnian Roma. Many were forced to fight in the war’s various armies, sometimes against each other, and some are wounded; many now live as refugees in Western Europe, from which Bosnia and Serbia now refuse them reentry; many remain in Bosnia, destitute. “People from one Romani settlement in Sarajevo, which was knocked down by artillery fire during the war, are currently living in tents,” Latham writes. [2]

Challenges persist today for Bosnia’s Roma. Writing on behalf of Oxfam Great Britain, Alex Jones describes literacy among Roma schoolchildren in Tulza, Bosnia. Schools teach in local languages, and not in Romani, and Roma families often demand that children work. Truancy is high. “At the time of Oxfam’s research, 66 per cent of boys attended school, compared to only 13 per cent of girls,” Jones writes. “[T]he literacy rate among our respondents leads us to estimate that the literacy rate of Roma women may be just 4 per cent.” [3]

Other accounts of Roma culture

In light of these difficult facts, I’ve enjoyed discovering accounts of Roma culture that are both positive and rich. I’ve found many in the journal Romani Studies.

Greek Orthodox Roma in Ano Liossia

In one article [4], Electra Bada describes a Roma community in Ano Liossia, an “underdeveloped area at the outskirts of Athens.” Though the central theme of the article is tragic – the case study centers on the shooting death of a young Roma woman by her new husband – Bada reveals, through her depiction of the trial and its surrounding events, a fascinating and highly developed culture.

Bada’s informants speak a “South Balkan Romani dialect” and are Greek Orthodox Christians [4]. The murder of young Maria by her husband Kostas, a 20-year-old Rom, was apparently inspired by jealousy: “Many Romani girls in Ano Liossia dance in their houses with their doors open so as to be admired by their neighbours and family, and Maria often did this too,” Bada writes. Maria’s grandmother, Eleftheria, remembers, “She would turn on the radio and dance with her belly out.” “The belly as a sign is significant in the events related to this murder,” Bada observes. “Kostas shot Maria in the belly while she was pregnant.” [4]

The Roma of Ano Liossia are financially secure and well-established in various commerce and mercantile trades. The late Maria’s family (of which Bada’s informants are members) is particularly powerful, known to the Roma community as well as to many of the surrounding Greeks, and respected for its success in business.

On the day of the trial – which is held in a Greek civil court, and not a Roma one – Maria’s relatives, in Roma tradition, form two lines outside the door and symbolically berate Kostas and his family as they arrive, slapping him and calling him “murderer” [4].

In the days before the trial, Maria’s mother, Anna, notices a butterfly in on the kitchen floor, lingering even after the floor is cleaned. “Anna believed Maria’s soul had taken the form of a butterfly in order to be with her family during this crucial time,” Bada remembers. “She felt that Maria’s soul was asking for justice.” [4]

Gábor gypsies in Tîrgu Mures

Another article, by Saba Tesfay, describes Gábor gypsies, “a Kalderash, Vlax Gypsy group who live primarily in and around Tîrgu Mureş and other towns and villages in Transylvania and the Partium” in Romania. [5] Tesfay pays particular attention to the Gábors’ style of dress, and the connection between these traditions and the group’s identity.

The Gábors are, again, well established in their region of rural Transylvania, and thrive in the mercantile trades. They have a strong sense of communal identity, and forbid marriage with non-Gypsy and non-Gábor groups. “’Everyone knows where they belong. We do not mingle with other nationalities… everyone with their own nationality,’” one woman tells Tesfay [5]. Somewhat, though not entirely, unusually, the Gábors are Protestants, of the Adventist Church. “Whereas in church the Gábors are at the same level as the gajes [non-Gypsies], pursuing the same objectives, in the market the Gábors sell [and] the gajes buy. In church they stand side by side, but in the market they oppose each other,” Tesfay writes. [5]

Tesfay goes into some detail in to the men’s and women’s traditional dress. This traditional attire is central to the Gábors’ identity. “’[Our ancestors] used to be filthy, many of them slept in one room and ate from one dish – we have abandoned all this stuff. We have left a lot of things behind. But not the clothes,’” one elderly man recounts. [5]

The Gábors’ religion, culture, and, finally, attire, create strong group bonds, and a source of pride. “[W]e don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t steal,” Tesfay is told. One Gábor puts it this way: “We never stole but there were some who drank, like Csabi, he used to drink and squabbled a lot with Gizi. They used to be loud but they aren’t so noisy any more. We are civilised.” [5]

Litovska Roma in Ashmjany

In another article, Volha Bartash describes Litovska Roma living in the Belarussian-Lithuanian border town of Ashmjany [6]. Though the Litovska had been sedentary in Ashmjany before the war, during the first decade after the war they once again became nomadic; finally, they settled in Ashmjany once more. The Litovska “found employment at local enterprises and collective farms”; today some “continue to work in the state sector” or “run small businesses of their own.” [6] “Many Romani families have upgraded their living conditions,” Bartash writes. [6]

These Roma preserve interesting memories from the post-war decade, which Bartash uncovers in his field work. During those years, the Roma – from the Litovska as well as the Polska and Russka groups – found work primarily in horse dealing. They maintained a symbiotic relationship with the local Belarussian farmers. In exchange for shelter in the farmers’ “barns, bathhouses and empty old buildings” or “in their own cottages,” the Roma “assisted the hosts in running farms and put horses at their disposal during spring field work,” observes Bartash. [6]

During the winter, shelter was often very difficult to find. “Peasants did not want to let them stay overnight,” one Polska Rom remembers. “[T]hey were always afraid of being robbed by Tsyhany [gypsies]; while Tsyhany were afraid of being killed by peasants.” [6] This Rom remembers a story about his father, who once pushed forward into the woods and built a fire despite the bitter winter cold. “Stick your hand out and feel how cold it is!” he told his wife, who lay with the children in the warm wagon. “She reached her hand out and said: ‘How cold, Misha, how cold!’” [6]

Bartash describes much more, including the large springtime migrations in which over fifty kinsmen traveled together, and the great celebrations that occurred upon the arrival of summer.

The lives of gypsies

It is with pain, after hearing stories like these, that I return to consider the present image of gypsies in the public sphere. These dreams and images, of caravans and celebrations, melt away, to reveal poverty, begging, and non-assimilation – and the Bosnian kids.

Public sentiment against gypsies, especially in France, is on the rise. In Belgium, local authorities struggle to assimilate Roma immigrants, whose children have devastating truancy rates and whose “major source of income is begging in the streets.” [7] The Bosnian kids too had, it seemed, dim futures. Surely things are worse on the streets than they are in the academic journals.

Or are they? It’s easy to romanticize these distant accounts, and to cast a cruel, judgmental eye on the present. We receive troubling news every day, and it’s hard to sympathize.

But the intrigue and mystery I’ve found in these stories of Roma, all over the world and at many stages in history, are surely also present, even now, in even the most outwardly troubling situations. They are present in the gypsies currently despised in many parts of Europe, even in the few among them who steal. They were present in the Bosnian kids.

The Roma – perhaps the only living people defined by their roaming, nomadic, stateless character – will always remain fascinating. As Alexander Petrovic wrote in 1940 in “Contributions to the Study of Serbian Gypsies”:

The whole world is their native land: wherever they can pitch their tents and get a pasture for their horses, and wherever they can find something to eat. Their eternal companions are the sun, the moon, and the stars, and especially the limitless sky, which they worship and call o Del, i.e., God. [8]

This sense of adventure will forever be preserved in the Roma people.


A view over Mostar at the end of the day.


  1. Acton, T. A. “Romani.” Migration World Magazine 24.4 (1996): 21. ProQuest. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
  2. Judith Latham (1999) Roma of the former Yugoslavia, Nationalities Papers, 27:2, 205-226
  3. Alex Jones. “Migration, Ethnicity and Conflict: Oxfam’s Experience of Working with Roma Communities in Tuzla, Bosnia-hercegovina”. Gender and Development 6.1 (1998): 57–62
  4. Bada, Electra. “Greek Roma Social Performance, Resistance and Conflict Resolution: The Case of a Roma Trial.” Romani Studies16.2 (2006): 153-67. ProQuest. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
  5. Tesfay, Saba. “Wearing Gypsy Identity in a Gábor Gypsy Community in Tîrgu Mures.” Romani Studies 19.1 (2009): 1-17.ProQuest. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
  6. Bartash, Volha. “The Sedentarisation of Roma in the Soviet Union After 1956: A Case Study from the Former Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic 1.” Romani Studies 25.1 (2015): 22-51. ProQuest. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
  7. Hemelsoet, Elias. “Whose Problem is it Anyway? Realising the Right to Education for Roma Children in Ghent, Belgium.” Romani Studies 25.1 (2015): 1-21. ProQuest. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
  8. Petrovic, Alexander. “CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE STUDY OF THE SERBIAN GYPSIES. no. 15.” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society 19 (1940): 87. ProQuest. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
This entry was posted in Culture.

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