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Nommer et classer dans les Balkans

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Gilles de Rapper
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Pierre Sintès

Deuxième partie. Les termes de la différence en Grèce

An Account of First Encounter : Doing Fieldwork with Rom Groups in Greece

Nadina Christopoulou

Résumé

Ce texte est un bref aperçu sur les façons de nommer l’Autre à partir du cas des groupes roms de Grèce. Il rapporte les premières impressions et images d’une anthropologue sur le point de mener une enquête dans son propre pays, mais aussi, d’une certaine manière, en dehors. Qui est « Tsigane » et qu’est-ce qu’un « Tsigane » ? D’où viennent les « Tsiganes » ? Pourquoi sont-ils chez nous ? Faut-il les éviter ou les craindre ? Telles sont les questions que se posent habituellement les gens qui, d’une manière ou d’une autre, entrent en contact avec les Roms. Ce sont aussi des questions qui reflètent l’inquiétude des communautés locales grecques et leur peur de l’inconnu. Mais comment quelque chose de si proche depuis si longtemps peut-il rester « inconnu » ? Et comment cette « altérité » est-elle maintenue ? Dans quelle mesure la limite entre l’intérieur et l’extérieur est-elle provisoire ? Après tout, le « dominant » et le « marginal » partagent un même temps et un même espace géographique. Qu’est-ce qui les maintient dès lors séparés ? Un rapide survol de la littérature concernant les Roms en Grèce suffit à montrer comment d’innombrables stéréotypes ont été créés et entretenus. Dans tout cela, les Roms (en tant que « communautés » variées aux activités souvent très différentes) ne sont pas demeurés des victimes passives de l’exclusion, mais ont souvent manipulé ces stéréotypes de manière à atteindre leurs objectifs et à assurer leur survie là où, jusque récemment, leur existence n’était pas reconnue.

Texte intégral

1This essay is based on fieldwork with Rom groups in Greece, between 1997 and 1999, as part of a thesis on Romani storytelling. It is an account of first images and impressions, of personal recollections, from oral and written sources, which were part of my luggage upon returning to do fieldwork in my native country, yet just a bit outside it. My first acquaintance with the subject of my research did not happen in libraries or archives but was rather filtered through popular belief. Having being born and raised in Greece myself (not very far from the places where I was about to trace stories told by the Roma) I already had in mind quite a few stories about them.

  • 1 Such feasts were taking place every year in all the towns and villages of Greece, mainly on the day (...)

2Gypsy caravans have been crossing the roads of Greece, from the busiest city streets to the most remote mountain paths for centuries. Their passage signified the passage of time: from one season to the next, the caravans moved along with the change of weather. As wage workers, they moved back and forth seeking seasonal crops. The agricultural calendar dictated their moves as much as the religious calendar, which determined in the honour of which saint, the next πανηγύϱι1 was going to take place. The Rom in Greece witnessed the passage from one era to another many a time. They took part in the life of Greek society, living within its domain, yet remaining outsiders.

3In the eyes of the villagers or the inhabitants of small towns, for whom the distance from the urban centres granted an analogous detachment from the current national reality and the ongoing transformations, these colourful caravans brought great novelty and an air of change. The regular, often stagnant, pace of rural life was interrupted by the intruders, who were received with curiosity mingled with some fear.

4My own very first image of the Rom was in one of those places. In a small coastal town in the south-west of Greece, from the window of the house where I grew up, I could see at a distance the caravans crossing the main road. The colourful crowd, together with vans, horses and donkeys, paraded proudly, barefoot, in a swirl of floral skirts and unfamiliar sounds. Such an image exercised an irresistible appeal to my eyes as a child under home restraint for the afternoon hours. Usually, they turned up with the end of winter, bringing along a forewarning of summer. Their appearance was rare enough to wrap them in a cloud of mystery, yet regular enough to grant them an element of recognition.

5“Eat, or I will give you to the Gypsies!” was my grandmother’s benign yet gripping blackmail, possibly the very first mention that came to my ears. A compelling threat this was, an insidiously potent reproduction of a stereotype, and at the same time, a kick to every child’s imagination. An unknown crowd, frequently mentioned in passing, yet never in detail. From early childhood one learned to distinguish the strange visitors with the darker skin and the bizarre dress code. Along came dozens of stories, proverbs, sayings, rumours or even legends about them.

  • 2 Dowry-items [Greek]: a term used generically for all kinds of goods that a woman needed as part of (...)

6What was this peculiar crowd? Where did they come from? Why were they different? No one knew and no one asked much. People said they were thieves and crooks, superstitious evil-doers, faithless practitioners of witchcraft and other unworldly acts, and often blamed them for stealing their chickens. Often it was their very own respectable neighbours who had committed those crimes. When, however, the man of the house was out in the fields or in the market, many ladies would call in the Gypsy-woman to read the coffee-cup. As a child I witnessed countless such occasions in the neighbourhood, awaiting with great anxiety the verdict for the loves and passions of the young and the not-so-young women. It was often the same Gypsy-woman who provided a variety of είδη πϱοιϰός,2 goods for-sale for the weddings that she had herself foretold. Whether a true clairvoyant or a skilful entrepreneur, the character of the fortune-teller appeared and reappeared in the yards and passages of the small towns, commanding fear and respect.

7She also appeared in the passages of literature:

  • 3 These verses are from the poem titled Ο δωδεϰάλογος του Γύφτου [The Twelve Words of the Gypsy] writ (...)

“Partridge-breasted Gypsy woman, witch,
you, who speak at midnight to the stars
a language of command.”3

8For Kostis Palamas in 1907, the Gypsy woman is a mixture of uncontrolled beauty and unknown powers. In similar terms Gryparis addresses Zuhrae, Papadiamantis the “Little Gypsy” and Drosinis refers to “the herb of love.”

9Not all poetry has such benign, beautiful and romantic images. Drawing upon popular belief which held Gypsies as the makers of the nails that killed Jesus Christ, Aristotle Valaoritis writes about the Gypsies as cursed creatures, traitors, hangmen and executioners, inventors of tortures, murderers of heroes of the Greek revolution who killed Athanasios Diakos and hammered the bones of Katsantonis. Christianity and nationalist feeling were placed together against the Rom on a common front.

10At other times, they were seen not as threatening but simply as poor, miserable and inferior.

  • 4 K. Biris, Ρομ ϰαι Γύφτοι: Εθνογϱαφία ϰαι Ιστοϱία των Τσιγγάνων [Rom and Gypsies: Ethnography and Hi (...)

11Kostas Biris,4 a historian and ethnographer writes in 1954 that:

“Curses and swearwords are the only literary and musical manifestations of the Gypsies. They have no songs, nor do they know any dances, nor do they play any instruments. They have no particular dress codes other than the rugs in which they are wrapped. They do not have their own language, nor their own religion. They have no tradition of their own other than their craftsmanship in metalwork and their magical superstitions. Other than that, their intellectual world is non-existent. Not because they are stupid or small-minded, but due to a peculiar intellectual tendency which characterizes them: they are interested in nothing else other than the cycle of life of their Gypsy household (Δεν ενδιαφέϱονται για τίποτα άλλο πέϱα από τον ϰύϰλο της ζωής του γυφταϱιού τους).”

12 This stepped on a long existing trend in folklore research.

  • 5 A. Paspatis, “Μελέτη πεϱί των Ατσίγγανων ϰαι της γλώσσης αυτών” [Study on the Gypsies and their lan (...)

13In 1857, A. Paspatis wrote5:

“The reader should not be estranged by this complete and absolute oblivion of progenitors and a homeland. Their migration from India and the endless roving within Russia and the Balkans has obliterated from the memory of these illiterate people, any recollection of their descent and their native land. But whoever asks them about their own opinion, what should he expect from such gross ignorance of people who are crooks and liars?”

14The creation of a stereotype of exotic otherness, paired with the stereotype of people with no roots and no memory, helped to sustain marginality and to justify exclusion. The Rom are perfect examples, in a sense, of the “oriental” as described by the late E. Said:

  • 6 E. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1991), p. 207 [1978 for the original versi (...)

“The Oriental was linked to elements in Western society (delinquents, the insane, women, the poor) having in common an identity best described as lamentably alien. Orientals were rarely seen or looked at, they were seen through, analysed not as citizens, or even people, but as problems to be solved, or confined, or taken over. The point is that the very designation of something as oriental, involved an already pronounced evaluative judgement.”6

15What seems at first as a benign, romantic image is just the other side of a compelling threat. Strangely, the same stereotype was often reproduced and subversively used by the Rom themselves as a way of safeguarding and protecting their autonomy, their social structure and cultural identity from the pressures of assimilation.

  • 7 Gypsy [Greek].

16At the age of five, I recall being taken to another Gypsy woman, to receive treatment for mumps. She was a renowned soothsayer, and my great aunt, who wrapped me in a shawl and took me there on a rainy night, was a great believer. She whispered unrecognisable words and marked on my throat with charcoal the Star of David. And a few years later, after a school accident, it was a Gypsy man, who cured my sprained leg. Mr. Yiftos,7 a blacksmith who lived in the village and who doubled his skills as a “practical doctor” and a chiropractor, first applied an onion paste on the bruise overnight, “to take away the pain.” The next morning, he came again, and this time he smeared beaten egg-whites on sheep-wool and wrapped it tightly around the wound. The bruise healed and the mumps passed, as fast as they do for every child. But the astonishment remained, along with a lasting bewilderment about a people that I often saw but knew almost nothing about, and what I had heard was a hazy mixture of thrill and fear, of threats and blessings.

  • 8 Herzfeld refers to the tension lived out by Greeks today between similarity and difference, inclusi (...)

17This was the first time I saw the Rom, and what I first heard about them. This was the seventies, the period that rural Greece, long after the cities, started locking up its doors. Along with my informal education in the neighbourhood streets and front-yards, came the formal education at the local school. There, we were taught that our country had a glorious past, that it was the birthplace not only of heroes and philosophers but also of civilisation as a whole, the place where history begun and where all sciences were invented. We also learned that whoever was not Greek, was “barbarian,” and that our major enemy, the one begetting all evil, the source of all our national disasters, was the Turks.8 They were responsible for our misfortunes as well as for our glorious country’s failure to keep up with modern civilisation, despite, as we were told, being its very first cradle. Had it not been for those four hundred years of Ottoman rule, or, as we called it, of the Turkish yoke. We had not seen any Turks, but when we asked how they were, we were told that they were “like the Gypsies.” The values of cherishing our roots, our country, our religion and our family, were often contrasted, exemplarum gratis, with the rootless, miserable, cursed Gypsies. If not used as bad examples, all problems, the Gypsies included, were best ignored.

  • 9 They were placed in Thessaly by Homer in the Iliad, but also in Crete in the Odyssey. According to (...)
  • 10 The people of Lydia, the kingdom of Croesus in Asia Minor, afterwards a Persian satrapy.
  • 11 These theories are mainly presented by S. N. Liakos, Η ϰαταγωγή των Αϱμονίων-τουπίϰλην Βλάχων [The (...)

18Then, there was another side to our construction of our-Self: never a villain, and this time, not the victim, either. In a country densely sown with celebrated archaeological sites and monuments, imagined to be the ancient birthplace of civilisation, the bearer and sole heir of ancient values, we were taught to suffice on “grapes and Homer’s verses.” And in those verses, alongside countless others, we learned of our ancient victories and glories, and of our own, this time, ancient reign. But ours, we learned, was not one of slavery but of civilisation and “enlightened” rule, as our ancestors had undertaken the heavy burden of civilizing the savage world. And in those moments of munificence and collective revivalism, we constructed the Other in very different terms: the Gypsies were offspring of Apollo, remnants of Alexander’s army seeking their long-lost homeland, Thracian tribes, or even ancient Pelasgians,9 Paphlagonians, Scythians, Lydians,10 or Phoenicians,11 roving tribes who had wandered the world like birds of passage in search of their roots.

  • 12 C. Faltaits, Οι Μπϱάχιδες τσιγγάνοι της Θεσσαλίας απόγονοι του Απόλλωνος [The Brahides Gypsies of T (...)

19Constantine Faltaits, a major folklorist and researcher calls them pre-hellenes, ancient inhabitants of the Balkans. He claims that he first met the heirs of Apollo in 1929 in Trikala. In other Rom groups around Greece he recognised the inheritants of Hephaestus, of Orpheus or even the centaurs. He traces the etymology of names (Brahides-Βϱαγχίδαι: diviners named after Βϱάγχος, Apollo’s son). He also traces similar practices: music, divination, medicine or metalwork). He even finds similarities in hair-colour: “There are in fact certain Brahides Gypsies who are very blond indeed, as blond as Apollo himself was.”12 And he goes on to wonder:

  • 13 Ibid. [my translation].

“The same names with the very ancient mythological or historical names of persons, tribes, families, peoples and classes. The same attributes. The same places. No digression. Why not the same clan, the same tribe, the same continuous family?”13

20Such merciful, benign, romanticizing assertions by well-intentioned researchers, are perhaps even nastier: as they imply, gently and tacitly, that in order for the “other” to justify its place within, it has to claim a link to the self, a link to the past, perhaps a utopian past, but something more familiar and proximate nonetheless. And through this more generous and charitable reconstruction of the Other, once again, we reconstructed, re-imagined, re-invented, re-instated and rescued our battered Self. As for the Other within our symbolic geography, still, it could better stay ignored.

21Who are, after all, the Gypsies? Where are they from? Why are they here? How do they manage to live? Why are they so different? These questions are common currency: they are questions that people ask, that researchers asked, questions that I asked myself. And never a clear answer. One after the other, split images and split perceptions. The other as a threat against the other as a solution, the other as a villain against the other as a victim. The other scorned and dismissed as alien and inferior against the other appropriated as the archetypal expression of the Self.

22 The answers to these questions however, do not only answer these questions. They also point to certain unasked questions about the people who ask them and their motives: Why do we know so little about the Roma despite living so close and for so long? Why do we suffice on fearing, excluding and ignoring them? Why do we delegate difference to an outcast space? Why do we fear and oppress the other?

  • 14 E. Said, op. cit. (supra, n. 6), p. 209.

23The other after all, stands against us like a mirror, like a reminder, like a reflection of our “own, chosen weaknesses.”14

Notes

1 Such feasts were taking place every year in all the towns and villages of Greece, mainly on the day of their patron-saint. The presence of the Rom in those feasts was prominent, as they were the main providers of entertainment. The music and singing for which they were renowned, were complimented by secondary activities such as peddling, fortune-telling and horse-dealing, which added a special colour to the festive occasion.

2 Dowry-items [Greek]: a term used generically for all kinds of goods that a woman needed as part of her dowry, in order to set up a new household, including linen, embroidery, woollen blankets, etc.

3 These verses are from the poem titled Ο δωδεϰάλογος του Γύφτου [The Twelve Words of the Gypsy] written by Kostis Palamas in 1907, K. Palamas, Ο δωδεϰάλογος του Γύφτου (1967).

4 K. Biris, Ρομ ϰαι Γύφτοι: Εθνογϱαφία ϰαι Ιστοϱία των Τσιγγάνων [Rom and Gypsies: Ethnography and History of the Tsingannoi] (1954) p. 7.

5 A. Paspatis, “Μελέτη πεϱί των Ατσίγγανων ϰαι της γλώσσης αυτών” [Study on the Gypsies and their language], Πανδώϱα 8 (1857).

6 E. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1991), p. 207 [1978 for the original version].

7 Gypsy [Greek].

8 Herzfeld refers to the tension lived out by Greeks today between similarity and difference, inclusion and exclusion, on the one hand creating an abstract notion of Ancient Greece as the idealised spiritual and intellectual ancestor of Europe, while on the other hand experiencing a fall from cultural grace caused by the Ottoman rule. M. Herzfeld, Anthropology through the Looking Glass: Critical Ethnography in the Margins of Europe (1987) and “History in the Making: National and International Politics in a Rural Cretan community”, in J. Pina Cabral, J. Cambell (eds.), Europe Observed (1992), p. 93-122.

9 They were placed in Thessaly by Homer in the Iliad, but also in Crete in the Odyssey. According to Hesiod, Strabo and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, they also appear around Dodona. See H. G. Liddell, R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (1883), p. 1109.

10 The people of Lydia, the kingdom of Croesus in Asia Minor, afterwards a Persian satrapy.

11 These theories are mainly presented by S. N. Liakos, Η ϰαταγωγή των Αϱμονίων-τουπίϰλην Βλάχων [The Origin of the Armonian Vlachs] (1965), p. 34-83 and by C. Faltaits, Τσίγγανοι ϰαι Οϱφεύς [Gypsies and Orpheus] (1930), p. 2-12; Το πϱόβλημα του δημοτιϰού τϱαγουδιού: Ελληνιϰό ή Γύφτιϰo; [The Problem of the Greek Song: Greek or Gypsy?] (1927), p. 9-16.

12 C. Faltaits, Οι Μπϱάχιδες τσιγγάνοι της Θεσσαλίας απόγονοι του Απόλλωνος [The Brahides Gypsies of Thessaly, offspring of Apollo] (1935), p. 1- 2.

13 Ibid. [my translation].

14 E. Said, op. cit. (supra, n. 6), p. 209.

Auteur

Est titulaire d’un doctorat de l’université de Cambridge (‘There was or there was not’ : Marginal Identities, History and the Politics of Memory in the Storytelling Practice of the Rom in the Peloponnese) et a mené des recherches dans le cadre de plusieurs programmes européens sur les enfants de migrants et de réfugiés (Enfants d’ici, contes d’ailleurs, 2000-2001 ; CHICAM [Children In Communication About Migration], 2002-2004). Elle est l’auteur de publications sur les contes roms et sur les enfants réfugiés.

© École française d’Athènes, 2008

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