For nearly 800 years Romani, who constitute the largest ethnic minority in Europe, have migrated through the world1. Neither agricultural nor industrialised, they are economically dependent on surrounding societies, their nomadic and secluded ways often drawing much suspicion.
Diverse theories as to Romani origins, cultural validity and ethnic identity share the hypothesis of an Indian origin and a collective belief system called romipen. Studies of how romipen organises the Romani built environment are confirmed by my own findings on an annual Romani pilgrimage from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in France, to Rome.
Linguistic similarities between Romani language and Sanskrit, and genetic ties between various Rom clans around the globe and contemporary Indians, confirm a shared ancestry. Roma across the world negotiate the perpetuity of their culture with pressure to assimilate into a host culture. Because the Rom are an ethnicity without a designated homeland, their vernacular is not a regional material or style, but a strong tie to romipen — a belief system about the body, its place in the universe, and a myriad of pollution boundaries. Similar to the role religion plays in many cultures, romipen enforces both a collective identity and a ubiquitous isolation.
Despite 800 years of migratory dispersal from India through Persia, the Byzantine Empire, the Balkans and Europe, Romani settlements in England, western and eastern Europe and the Americas show clear similarities in the organisation and treatment of living spaces, demonstrating the importance of the built environment as a means by which traditions, taboos and cosmology have survived time, place and confrontation with a multitude of cultures.
Romipen [Rom coupled with the Indic suffix -pen meaning -ness or -hood] encompasses everything that distinguishes the Rom from other ethnicities. Most prominent under this code are the pollution boundaries that maintain the purity of the Rom culture. Romipen beliefs and taboos thwart contamination of both the individual and the people. Romipen is fundamental to the creation and continuity of both symbolic and physical boundaries dividing Rom from gadze (non-Romani) cultures, regardless of place or site.
Unlike western cultures, with their future lying ahead and their past behind, Rom do not organise themselves temporally; in fact, time has little importance compared to the body. The Romani concept of the body begins with a formal distinction between inside and outside. The outer self is a public presence that may take on a changeable persona determined by circumstance. The inner self must be kept pure, housing the ethnic being that sustains the individual and contributes to Romani people as a whole. The conception and codification of the rules of romipen ‘are resolved in their symbolic application to the body’2. The upper and lower halves of the body are separated by the waistline as an axis mundi. This division determines various uses of space and strict distinctions between wuhzo (pure) and marime (polluting) behaviours. Because defecation, childbirth, menstruation and death are considered to be marime these processes must occur at a distance from the home and even the settlement. The distinction between the upper and lower halves of the body is also expressed in the manner and space in which all washing is conducted. Separate vessels for washing are designated for food, cutlery, the body, and clothing. To separate these activities, almost all personal washing and laundering is done outside the home, while the washing of food and cutlery is done inside in a more celebratory manner.
Many Rom settlements appear to be modest camp sites made up of campers, shanties, converted containers, or kit houses. There is only one entrance to the camp and the dwellings are placed in a circle defining an internal common space. The single entrance discourages outsiders and maintains a relatively continuous boundary around the site. Besides the obvious distinction between interior and exterior, there is a series of thresholds that one crosses from the periphery of the settlement to the actual interior of the dwellings. These thresholds are defined by their degree of cleanliness. In general, the exterior of the site is untidy and considered a dumping ground for waste. This is not bothersome to the Rom who are predominantly concerned with the cleanliness and ornamentation of their immediate living quarters. Much like the treatment of their outer personal appearance, the Rom are not attentive to the public façade. It is their homes and the liminal spaces between them that are manicured. In many of the camps that I visited the transition from exterior to interior cleanliness was drastic. The periphery of the camp was often treated as a landfill, cluttered with any and every unwanted object. Passing the initial threshold, the clutter subsides and central common areas are almost always immaculate. La Foce camp in Genoa was overcrowded and thus lacked a large central space; narrow alleys between houses were considered communal and were kept clean by piling unwanted objects on the roofs. The treatment of the interior and exterior of both home and encampment parallels the inner and outer body outlined in romipen.
The boundaries of encampments range from the monumental, such as cliffs or large retaining walls, to permeable — gestures that imply a threshold, such as rubbish along the periphery. Each camp I visited established its boundary in a different way. Sometimes the natural landscape or urban elements were used as a protective shield. Where a site did not have a barrier, the Rom often placed their homes very tightly around the edge of the camp forming a fortified wall. In extreme cases, fencing and vegetation completed the barrier. One of the largest naturally confined settlements is outside Granada in Spain, where up until 1963, as many as ten thousand Rom lived in the caves of Sacromonte. For the Rom, these caves offered a natural barrier behind which they could isolate and protect themselves from gadze intrusion. Near Sacromonte another group of Rom settled in a ravine sixty feet below street level where they live peacefully in a state of invisible symbiosis with gadze society.
Although barriers shield the Rom from the dominant society, the cultural clash between Rom and gadzo is becoming more tumultuous in western Europe as eastern European countries enter the European Union. Rom are travelling more freely and will continue to travel. Often viewed as parasitic by gadze societies, Rom depend on romipen and their isolated encampments to carry their culture. Strict adherence to the romipen vernacular is unlikely to waver — after all it has survived 800 years of drifting through other cultures with non-nomadic vernaculars that challenge romipen. One hopes that awareness of romipen as a cultural vernacular with deep historic links will lead to an affirmation of the unique and tumultuous symbiosis between these disparate cultures.
1 The word gipsy, or gypsy, derives from the word ‘Egyptian.’ There are several theories explaining why Gypsies are connected with Egypt, however at present Romani (Romany, Rom, Rrom, Rromani, Roma) is the prevalent usage.
The Romani word for non-Romani people is gadze (plural gadzo). It is not an offensive word; it means only ‘non-Romani people’. Other spellings and pronunciations have been widely used such as: gorgio, gadgio, gaujo, gawjo and gawja.
2 Okley p80
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©Emily Moore and On Site review
©Emily Moore and On Site review