«Everything depends on the will to see the beauty of differences. It is in that context that we fall in love with other cultures and other people.»

Gennaro Spinelli

In previous meetings we reflected on the theme of cultural identity and of the value of diversity. After having published these contributions, I asked myself a question: are we, Europeans educated in democracy and freedom, immune from the deceptive charm of prejudice? How do we feel and experience the 'different'? Let us stop trying to hide behind a pointing finger. Everyone, at least once in a lifetime, has been attracted by invisible hands into the comfortable abyss of passive ignorance. What to do? Continue to be lulled by the blind inertia of prejudice or opt for the healthy will to know? I chose the second option. I called for help Gennaro Spinelli, the representative of a population that, despite having been present in Europe for over six centuries, still represents an unknown world in the collective imagination and, consequently, is perceived as dangerous: the Roma.

Gennaro, I would like to start this conversation with some historical-geographical coordinates. Where and when does the history of the Roma people begin?

When we talk about Roma, we refer to a community that arrived in present-day Europe between 1200 and 1300. The journey of the Roma began over a thousand years ago from the northern regions of India, namely from Punjab, Rajasthan and the region of Sindh - in present-day Pakistan. It is very difficult to talk about the 'history of the Romani population' because when the Roma left India they were not Roma, they were Indians. This is a very important factor that deserves to be emphasized. Why did they leave India? Why did they set out? The reason is to be found between the year 1000 and 1017, when the Sultan of Persia Maḥmūd of Ghazni - belonging to the Ghaznavids, a Turkish Muslim dynasty established in the 10th century. A.D. in Ghazni, an Afghan city 150km south of Kabul - attacked northern India seventeen times in a short period of time. From incursions and assaults, from conquests and destruction, from deportations and violence, a community of refugees was created, forced to flee to seek a better condition. Their name was not Roma, but Ḍomba, a Sanskrit term meaning 'free man'. Arriving in Persia, a territory where they remained for a long time, the Ḍomba acquired new words and new customs, including the Muslim religion. From present-day Iran they moved first to Armenia, where the term 'ḍom' was transformed into 'lom', and later entered the Byzantine Empire and then poured into Western Europe between the 14/15th-century centuries, although small communities arrived already in the 13th-century. In the Balkans the 'l' of lom changed into the retroflex consonant 'r' and the current 'Roma' was reached. The arrival of Roma in Italy also dates back to that period on several occasions, mainly following the Balkan route from the north, by land, and from the south, by sea. Of the group from the north we know with certainty it arrived in Bologna on 18 July 1422, since the event is reported in an anonymous Bolognese chronicle contained in the Rerum Italicarum Scriptores published by the scholar Ludovico Antonio Muratori in 1731.

What role does the Romani language play? How did it develop and what linguistic contributions was it enriched during the history-travel?

Language is the essential element to start with. If today we are able to retrace the journey of the Romani population from India to Europe it is because of the linguistic comparison. Within the Romanes words there are as many as 800 Sanskrit words and others that are rooted in the Indian dialect spoken in Rajasthan (which I visited for the Romanistan project and where I was able to communicate also in Romanès). In Iran there are still communities that speak a type of Romanés that has about a hundred words in common with our Romanès. As we move away from Europe, there are fewer and fewer words in common because the Romany language has developed arriving in Europe. During this journey, Romanés was enriched with many Armenian, Greek, Latin words and with borrowings of the languages spoken in the countries of origin. Through the study of the language, we are therefore able to retrace the journey of the five main groups that make up the Romanés community: Roma, Sinti, Kalé, Manouches and Romanichals. It should be noted that the term Roma means both the totality of the five groups, and one of them. 

How many Roma are there currently in Europe and in the world?

To date there are about 12 million Roma in Europe and between 14 and 16 million in the world. To the 12 million Europeans, we must also add the Roma who are in the Americas, Australia and Iran. What we now call ‘Roma’ are those groups that migrated west. However, after the attacks of Maḥmūd of Ghazni not all the Ḍomba population headed in the same direction. There were groups that made their way to what is now Bangladesh, China and, in general, the East. We do not have reliable data because these studies are very recent and still under development.

Through the creation in 1990 - by the Romani Union - of a " mutidialectal alphabet", has it been possible to create a language understood by all and, at the same time, to safeguard the individual dialects?

The Romanés dialects have a common root that remains fixed. However, due to different shades and accents, they seem like another language. To this, we must add the fact that many words are borrowed from the national languages of the countries of arrival. Despite all these differences, there are many words in common that make us understand we are 'brothers from different regions', but sometimes it is not enough. For example, in Italy there is a great diversification between Roma and Sinti precisely because of the linguistic question which therefore arises both as an element of union and of division. Through language, a culture stands out and identifies itself. By identifying in a language, people who have even a slightly different dialect are considered different. This is why today in many Sinti communities in Italy there is the conception that Roma and Sinti are foreign worlds. To date we have an unified alphabet that has added improvements to the pre-existing one of the 1990s, thanks to the work of great linguists such as Jean-Pierre Liégeois - professor at the Sorbonne in Paris and one of the world's leading experts on Roma, Sinti and Kalé minorities - Matéo Maximoff - the first French Roma writer who also produced his works in his mother tongue - and my father, Santino Spinelli. It has therefore succeeded in creating an unified standard Romanés, which, for obvious reasons, has much in common with the Slavic.

Gennaro Spinelli
Gennaro Spinelli

Despite linguistic, religious and geographical differences, do Roma feel part of the same community? What idea does your flag represent?

Absolutely yes. There is a camaraderie among people who suffer from 'the same disease'. The evil of the Roma is called discrimination. In every country of the world, unfortunately, the Roma population is seen as a foreign sect. The word that still identifies Roma today is gypsy, but we do not identify with this name. Our flag - inspired by the Indian flag - identifies the pride of the Roma population and the immense journey that Roma still make today to integrate, despite many centuries having passed since their arrival in Europe. The flag, which has in the center the wheel of the journey between the blue of the sky and the green of the earth, was inaugurated by the International Romani Union (IRU) founded in 1971 near London - Gennaro is ambassador of IRU. In that occasion we also adopted the transnational hymn "Gelem Gelem" composed by Janko Jovanovich.

The Roma people have been one of the great victims of history. We always hear about the Shoah and we have recently begun to remember the Medz Yeghern, the genocide of the Armenians. But of the 500,000 Roma (official data, but perhaps far from reality) who died in the concentration camps, one hardly ever hears anything. Why is there little talk of Porrajmos?

Although the most used term to identify our holocaust is Porrajmos, it would be more correct to use the word Samudaripen, literally 'all dead', translated 'the great genocide'. There is still little talk of Samudaripen because no one was tried in Nuremberg for crimes against the Roma and no Roma were invited to the trial to report their executioners. Samudaripen was previously a taboo subject because in our culture there is no mention of the dead. My grandfather himself, who was deported, only spoke about it in the last years of his life. Only today is the will to speak being cleared. Official figures speak of 500,000 Roma who died in concentration camps or in public shootings, but the figure that comes closest to reality is between 500,000 and 1 and a half million people. Why this big difference? Because the majority of the victims, including many partisan Roma, were not counted.

Why is death a taboo?

Death is a taboo because within the Romanés community everything is dualistic: baxt-bibaxt = happiness-unhappiness, Devel-Beng = God-devil, pativ-laj = honor-shame and ÒuÒipé-melli-pé = pure-impure. Talking about the dead is taboo because it damages the honor of the deceased. Whatever said, it could be either positive or negative. As it may be negative, it is best not to talk about it. To date, the worst offense that can be done to a Roma is to talk about the deceased. A few years ago, the statements about the dead were the cause of disputes and clashes between families, precisely because honor was undermined.

What role do women, and the family in general, play within the community?

The honor we were talking about referring to the dead is the same honor that is attributed to women. Media always talk about the subjection of Roma women, while instead they are the essential element of the Romanés community. The woman has the power to transmit and perpetuate traditions, customs and language. She is a 'bearer of honor', an honor that she can give or that she can take away. That's why she is being protected. An example: in the past, women wore long skirts in order not to bring shame to their family and to preserve modesty, a fundamental cultural element. Obviously, a culture that does not evolve is destined to disappear. Our culture has objectively evolved and this clothing is no longer used. It is true for many other things, for example marriage at a young age, which no longer occurs, except in very small communities living in nomad camps and who have not had access to education. In that case we are not talking about Romanés culture, but about single individuals living in an absolutely degraded social context. Many are refugees, not nomads. No nomads remain in the same place for over 40 years and these people have been in the nomad camps for over four decades. It is therefore not a question of nomadism, but of refugees who came from abroad for reasons of poverty or wars, who are kept in nomadic camps in a social context that has been degraded for economic interests. Returning to the question, the concept of family in the Romani communities is not reduced to the simple marital nucleus, but extends to the whole parental group and social relationships are nothing more than an extension of family ones. Romani society has equipped itself with a “horizontal” type of social system. This system is essentially based on an egalitarian structure of positions of prestige within the community. There are, therefore, neither kings, nor queens, nor commanders in any Romani community. However, there is a series of rules that regulate the coexistence between the various members. Guarantor of these moral norms is the kriss, or the court or council of elders chaired by the Phurè (the patriarchs). They are basically peacemakers and are called to settle the disputes and conflicts that arise within the community. The Romani society is in constant transformation and is the legitimate daughter of its time. Traditional cultures, crafts and the language itself undergo a continuous renewal. The family seems to be the only stable reality within which deep bonds develop that unite the individual to the group and vice versa.

The terms gypsy (in Italian ‘zingaro’) come from the medieval Greek atsínganoi, 'untouchable', a word used with a negative and derogatory meaning. Where does this connotation come from?

The term atsinganos derives from the name of a heretical sect - referring to Manichaeism, a religious doctrine developed in the 3th-century by the Persian prophet Mani, who preached an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the perpetual contrast between Good and Evil - who refused physical contact with surrounding populations, practiced magic, led an itinerant life, respected the Sabbath festival and not practiced circumcision. Hence the derogatory connotation of the heteronymous gypsy/zingaro which was synonymous with 'untouchable', or asocial, a term also taken up by the Nazis to define Roma and Sinti.


My cousin used to tell me

that life is a torment,

but that we must go on

and never stop.

Faults here!

Faults there!

Wherever we go we find hostility.

But I don't think the Citizen

is the symbol of honesty.

Maybe hatred and racism,

only God knows.

But we continue our way

- méngro dróm -

because we are gypsies

and we live in freedom.

Luigi Cirelli

Among your 'faults', almsgiving and theft stand out at the top. Why is it difficult to understand that begging and theft are not cultural expressions, but ''survival'' strategies in social contexts of exclusion?

Roma are defended by no one, only by themselves. Discrimination creates a very strong camaraderie. To protect themselves, communities are self-conceiving, unfortunately. The inevitable consequence is the lack of communication with the outside, such as to be able to deny or oppose the usual clichés and, if this happens, it happens by individuals or small groups. There is therefore neither interlocution nor contradiction. To date, there are no high-level political representatives who can bring the demands of this great culture. Even when we talk about Roma on television, invitations are addressed to subjects from the nomadic camps who may struggle to speak correctly. They will certainly not call a person who explains the reality of things well in a decisive, precise and 'scientific' way. I often go to television, but I hardly ever face people who really want to understand. That is the question. What matters is not the will to understand, but to make an audience. The hate speech against Roma is very strong and this finds fertile ground for ‘spectacularization’ because anti-Gypsyism is accepted.

The Roma reality is often associated with the term ''nomad''. Nomadism is one of the most controversial and often misunderstood aspects of Romani culture. Nomadism, however, is not a cultural trait. Why does the Roma - nomad association still exist today?

We are not nomads by culture. Nomadism is not a cultural trait of ours primarily. A nomad travels for culture, a Roma travels for work. The Roma, after their arrival in Europe, when they found the possibility, they always settled down. When they did not find opportunities to lead a 'normal' life or for work reasons, they emigrated. It is not strange to still find signs from the 1970s that say 'it is forbidden to nomads and gypsies'. This is to make it clear that the Roma sedentarization process has been long and tiring. For example, my grandfather had a lot of trouble buying a house, despite the fact that he had good financial success with his automobile companies. I am a musician, I am not a nomad, I go to the shows and then I go home. Some have mobile homes as a matter of convenience because, staying out 300 days a year, it makes no sense to invest money in a house, but in a caravan equipped with all the comforts that can cost even more than a traditional house. When we talk about nomad camps we are talking about Kaggé associations - not Roma - which around the 1970s influenced public opinion and politics for the creation of nomad camps. The school also suffered a common destiny. They created the 'Laccio drom', literally ‘good road’, ghetto classes for Roma and Sinti in which practically nothing was taught. My father and my aunt attended one of these classes, with the difference that my aunt was unable to pass the elementary school level, while my father, thanks to a teacher who sensed his potential, was privately educated. Today he has two degrees, a conservatory diploma, teaches 200 university students and writes many books. How many other professors, politicians or writers would we have today if there were no ghetto classes? Nomadism is spoken of for the nomad camps. Those who today want to stay in the nomad camps do not go there for culture. Some go there for convenience, some out of desperation. Those people cannot speak for the Romani culture, but only for their small group. '' But they want to stay there '' ... Many years ago a dear friend of mine who managed to get out of the nomad camps gave me an example that touched me deeply. He told me: ''if you take a lion and raise it in a cage, that will be his home for him. He will never know the savannah. And if you take him away from the cage to leave him in the savannah, he will starve because he does not know how to hunt, that is, to live''. A nomad camp is nothing more than a fence with caravans inside and the soldiers standing guard at the entrance.

It is interesting to note that this correspondence, albeit erroneous, between nomadism and romanipè has always fascinated kaggé. However, if we direct our attention to the role played by the Roma people in the cultural sphere, we are faced with an unknown world. You live in an artist family and you are a talented violinist. Can we dispel the myth that Roma are unable to generate forms of artistic and literary expression?

The Pew Research Center in Washington conducted studies in seven European countries asking what kind of feelings people felt towards Romani communities and what they knew about their culture. The sentiment was negative in 87% of cases and the 88% of those interviewed replied that they did not know of the existence of a Romani culture. So why have many artists throughout history been inspired by Roma? Because the bohemian element in art, as well as that of freedom, is exceptional. However, this feeling of extreme freedom does not represent any Roma. We are free, but this does not mean that we are outside society and that we have no rules, indeed, we have very strict laws. For us, art is an element of release and union. Art was also one of the few things that they could not take away from us during the darkest periods of our history. Indeed, in Birkenau-Auschwitz in sector b2, known as Zigeunerlager, the concentration camp intended for Roma families, musical instruments were left to the families - who were not separated as in the case of the Jews - because the Nazis wanted to study the ‘gypsy element’. Taking away art and culture from Roma is very difficult. The Nazis tried it on May 16, 1944, but the Roma rebelled with clubs and stones. Unfortunately, this revolt, due to the lack of food and therefore of prolonged energy, was repressed in the blood on 2 August of the same year, the date on which we remember Samudaripen today.



that I'm bad

and in truth

I give you my heart.

Gagi (kaggé), give me your hand,

come with me

do not fear, my door is open.

And I think everyone's fine.

Let's help each other

We live as brothers in this world.

Rasim Sejdic

Do you think someone will enter through that door left open? And if he/she comes in, will he/she be able not only to see, but to look?

I believe that the doors must be opened, even in the community itself. I have a very special job and I have opened my door to the world to let our culture in and out. But how many are willing to do it? There must be a will to share, like a will to learn. Sharing and learning are almost the same thing. Will is the main element. I want to share, I want to open my doors and enter those of others. Why do some do it and others don't? There are two ways to approach discrimination: the first is to fight, the second is to hide. Fighting means facing, explaining and being explained. Hiding means closing in and not feeling anything anymore. Both approaches are to be accepted because you can neither judge those who no longer want to fight after a life of abuse and suffering, nor those who want to stop doing it. Everything lies in the will that depends from person to person and that is valid for all cultures.

Can travel be a lens that allows us to look rather than see?

The journey is what, through the comparison with your life, offers you the opportunity to see the differences and similarities, and to understand that the latter are many more than the former. This is the real function of travel. When I travel, I see in people the same feelings, the same emotions, the same human and social needs. The color of the skin comes after the human being. Except that the color of the skin is seen first and the ease of judgment takes over. We are all used to comparing others only to ourselves. We will always find the 'wrong' in others if we compare them to ourselves because no one is like us. It all depends on wanting to see the beauty of differences. It is in that context that we fall in love with other cultures and also with other people. Beauty is in the nuance of diversity and every diversity is a richness.

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Good luck Gennaro, may this path take you further and further away! In the next interview we will discover the value of theater as a tool of cultural integration together with Samuel Hili, Ivorian actor, director and playwright.




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