Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey by Isabel Fonseca (Random House, Inc., New York, 1996). Reviewed by Leslie Gross, Gryphon book review editor.

Although I take issue with much of this book and with its author, Isabel Fonseca, I must admit that Bury Me Standing is an important work. I cannot deny the positive reaction that it has met by an until now almost completely uninformed readership.

First I will analyze this book from a factual viewpoint, giving attention to three of the major topics that appear in it - the origin of the Roma, slavery, and the Holocaust. Then I will attend to some contradictions and inconsistencies, as well as some evidence of the author's personal prejudices that may have colored her observations. Lastly, I will discuss the impact of the book, which has been by and large positive, and demonstrate why I believe that, despite its many weakness, Bury Me Standing is indeed a book of lasting impact.

This book is written in the first person narrative. Ms. Fonseca is the eyewitness and the storyteller, and thus brings into her story her own personal prejudices, her ignorant assumptions and an untrained eye. I do not believe that Ms. Fonseca intended for this book to be a scholarly dissertation, as evidenced by the use of the first person and the disuse of any citation other than a general bibliography. The problem is, as a journalist, she is compelled to report the facts as well as her observations, and presents these with an air of authority that she does not possess. Nowhere, in the Romani or the gadjo world, is Ms. Fonseca recognized as an expert on Gypsy language or culture, nor is she an anthropologist, a historian or an ethnographer. In fact, she often brings more experienced people along with her, as in the case of Marcel Courtiade in Albania, Elena Marushiakova in Bulgaria, Emilian Nicholae and Nicolae Gheorghe in Romania. Though in other accounts in the book one is left with the impression that Fonseca is fluent in Romani, she mentions at the beginning of her stay with the Dukas family in Albania that she had hoped to learn "some" of the language but had a difficult time (53). A whole chapter is dedicated to establishing the origin of the Roma and proving their distinct ethnic, linguistic, and cultural relationship, despite different citizenships and homelands. The history of the Roma, as East Europeans, is difficult to define and solidify. Just as the Hungarians and Romanians can both point to "history" and to "fact" to establish the legitimacy of their claims over Transylvania, and as Russians and Ukrainians bicker over who are the true descendants of the Kievan Rus "empire", Gypsy and non-Gypsy scholars can point to different sources that have been time-tested and come out with two different pictures of how a group of Indians became what the world now inaccurately calls "Gypsies."

My own reading on the subject, admittedly from an interest kindled by Ms. Fonseca's book, tells me that scholarship over the last two centuries has "conclusively" (a relative word when discussing history) demonstrated that Gypsies are indeed from India, and arrived in Europe somewhere between the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Their Indian origin was first recognized in 1760 at the University of Leiden by Stefan Vali. Before that, Gypsies were believe to be Egyptians (hence the name Gypsies), Tatars, Arabs, even Jews. John Samson and Ralph Turner, both early 20th century linguists, published ground-breaking books about the linguistic origins of Romani and, defacto, the origins of the Roma themselves. Samson, writing a few years before Turner, proposed that the population was from the Sindh region in India, and left as one in the 10th century. After leaving India, Samson explains, the group splintered into three groups, the Rom, Dom and Lom and went in separate directions. This has a few problems with it, for example, the languages of the three groups do not share the all the same roots - the language of the Dom evolving from a much earlier form of Sanskrit than did the other two. Turner elaborated on Samson's work, but advanced the idea that the three-way split happened before leaving India. He also placed their origins in the center of the country, unlike Sampson who placed it further to the northwest. Most "serious" scholarship since then has been based on the work of Turner. Ian Hancock at the University of Texas elaborated further in his book and links the Roma to the Rajputs - a non-Aryan military force created to combat Muslim invaders in the 11th century. These non-Aryans, given honorary Ksattriya status (the military Indian caste), moved north out of India in their battles against the Muslims, and eventually formed one distinct group with a new language and identity. For the next hundred years or so, one can trace the migration of the group through the language, and create a route that demonstrates the path these early Gypsies took. According to Jan Yoors, and others, Gypsies left much earlier than the 11th century and went first to Persia. The main source for this are the poem, the Shah Nameh, written in 1011 by Firdausi, and a historical account by Persian historian Hamza in 950. Both of these sources mention a gift given by the King of Sindh, Shengil of India, to the Shah of Persia. The gift is 12,000 Zott musicians (according to Hamza) or 10,000 Luri musicians (according to Firdausi) who for one reason or another did not stay long in the India, and wandered about the Middle East for the next nearly 1,000 years.

There are a few problems with this theory. The main one is that Romani would have still been in its formative stages at that point, has no Arabic or Turkic, as one would expect from a people who spent nearly ten centuries years in territory where those were the main languages spoken. And Romani, more than most other languages, has readily borrowed words from the lands it has passed through.

I dwell on this in some detail because while Ms. Fonseca does indeed mention other theories in her treatment of the origin of the Gypsies, she after all presents the Shah Nameh as the ultimate authority and Turner, as well as Hancock is waved away with an impatient flick of the wrist while the theory of the Ksattriyas is dismissed as the stuff of fairy tales: "At the same time, many contemporary Gypsy writers and activists ... argue for a classier genealogy; we hear, for example, that the Gypsies descend from the Kshattriyas, the warrior caste, just below the Brahmins. There is something ambiguous about origins, after all: you can be whoever you want to be" (100).

Within the last decade or so, a major discovery or more accurately rediscovery has been made, about one aspect of the history of the Roma in Europe. In Romania, for five or six hundred years, the Gypsies there were slaves, property that could be bought and sold, bred or killed. The period of enslavement in Romania exceeded the period of enslavement of the Africans in America. Bury Me Standing is certainly the first pop book that had dealt with this issue, and its world-wide acclaim will certainly cause more of the general public to be aware of something that until very recently, was hidden even from the academics. Ms. Fonseca does allow herself to play a bit of a heroine in this portion of the story: she claims to have discovered records never seen by the public before that documented and confirmed Romania's historical practice of enslavement of the Roma. This is quite possibly true, but the discovery of slavery was not made by her, neither was Bury Me Standing the first book to be published on the topic.

The Holocaust and the experience of the Gypsies in regards to it are little known to the outside world. Very few people realize that the Final Solution was not just directed toward Jews, but also toward Gypsies, as a distinct ethnic group. Bury Me Standing devotes a chapter to this event, and seeks to establish that the Holocaust for the Gypsies, as for the Jews, was not a horrific and isolated event in their existence, but progression and culmination of abuse and violence directed at them since the beginning of Gypsy presence in Europe. I think it is in this portion of the book that makes it a success - Ms. Fonseca tells the story of Gypsy suffering in an eloquent and heart-rending way. She mentions that she began her research with the mindset that "the Gypsies were the 'new Jews' of Eastern Europe. Here they are, scattered in huge numbers as the Jews were before them, and they have been the first casualties of the nascent democracies" (271). As she found out more about the Holocaust, and centuries of negative legislation leading up to it, she experienced the realization that "they are not the new Jews: the Gypsies, alongside the Jews, are ancient scapegoats. The Jews poisoned the wells; the Gypsies brought the plague" (ibid).

The experience of the modern Gypsy in Eastern Europe is the premise, or topic of this book. In order to accurately represent the Gypsy population in Eastern Europe, Ms. Fonseca travels to many countries, and visits many different Gypsies. Her travels include trips to Bulgaria, Albania, Romania, Poland, and Germany. Unfortunately, the author felt it unnecessary to detail the time spent in each place, or the dates. From what I've gathered, not through research but mere guesswork from comments and phrases in the book, she spent about a summer in Albania, a couple of short, perhaps week long trips to Romania over the course of several years, a couple of weeks in Bulgaria, a week in Poland, and a few days in Germany. This does not seem like a well-rounded view of the Gypsies in each area, though in her reasoning it was enough time for a well-rounded view of Gypsies in general. And certainly, as is true in any personal account, the author is not obliged to attempt to be non-biased, and is allowed to color observations with one's own feelings or conceptions.

I do not believe it is possible for any human to be entirely without prejudices. As long as someone has something that I do not, or does something that I do not understand, or approve of, I cannot honestly say that I am without bias. And so Ms. Fonseca has demonstrated that herself. Several times in the book she records her personal feelings, such as when she was visiting Gypsy communities in Romania: "We went to see the few remaining Roma of Casin, and, after another day of measuring hate, I confess that I had run out of sympathy. The Gypsies were bound to be at least as bad as their accusers, I felt; chances are they deserved each other" (168-9).

While in staying with a family in Albania, she kicked one of her hosts in the shins, because of playful breast-pinching that all the women did to each other (42).

Part of the achievement of this work was the destruction of some stereotypes, especially in regards to those surrounding the Gypsy Holocaust. But other stereotypes, she continues to uphold. Early on in the book the reader encounters this passage:

The liar - or, without being euphemistic, we can say the fabler - may also believe that the revised version is more true. And so it may be; more true in the sense of more vivid. But lies of course are also designed to deceive. In another instance she says of conflicting accounts she got of the burning of a village: "The story that emerged contained many common Gypsy themes, contradictions, and complaints" (189). I think there is evident danger in linking any of man's faults to a particular ethnic group. Yet she goes out of her way to demonstrate this, especially by making a distinction between the lies of Roma and the lies of gadje. Though she makes it clear that the Roma lies are more fun and less harmful, it perpetuates the image of the Gypsy that cannot be trusted, not unlike the African American that should not be left alone with the good silver.

I believe that the comparison of Gypsies and African Americans, and the existence of the "slave mentality" and its impact would be a fascinating study. Apparently, the idea has occurred the Fonseca as well, though the chief comparison she makes between the two is incredibly irresponsible and tacky (51):

"This habit flourished alongside the foppish tastes of many Gypsy men; they loved flash cuts and flapping lapels, in shiny, striped or stippled fabrics (young men picked fashionably off colors and wore them in winning, original combinations); they liked hats, wore watch fobs, mustaches, and lots of (gold) jewelry. When suits became shiny from wear and grease, so much the better. If they were rich, they picked the biggest cars - real pimpmobiles, whose two-tone paint jobs, diamonds-in-the-back, and custom features echo the gaudy caravans once used in Poland and still occasionally to be seen in Britain and France. In their brilliant sense of color and their taste for glitz, along with the necessary flair to carry it off, they resembled African Americans, with whom (in parts of what is now Romania) they also shared a history of prolonged enslavement by white men."

Perhaps one of the reasons for her detailed and in my opinion, fair and just treatment of the Holocaust is that Ms. Fonseca herself is a Jew. And perhaps, as a Jew, she possesses an understandable prejudice toward Germany. She makes a distinction between discrimination in Germany and in England. She said that in Germany she saw "Zigeuner chips" for sale, and was disgusted. "You can find chocolate creams in Britain called 'Gypsies'; but this was Germany, and Zigeuner recalled the 'Z' tattoo on the arms of the early Gypsy arrivals at Auschwitz" (228-9).

Why is it any different? Be it in England or in Germany, unspoken or militantly vocal, it is never justifiable, never dismissable, never excusable.

One particularly annoying inconsistency is Ms. Fonseca's depiction of the lazy, no-good Gypsy male. This is reminiscent to me again of generalities made about the African-American male. Certainly Ms. Fonseca was an eyewitness to this phenomenon of Gypsy male lethargy, but concluded that it found its roots in their culture (often this is the explanation for the African American unemployed too), rather than the massive economic turmoil and crisis that the collapse of communism has wrought upon the Eastern Europe. She does not buy economic restructuring and large scale unemployment as a viable excuse, though she does mention them now and again in passing. Here are a few of her statements involving unemployment and "male laziness."

Later, embedded within descriptions of the national state of affairs, or a passing comment, we learn that unemployment in Albania - where she first recognized the genetic propensity of Gypsies to be lazy - was around 70 percent (37).

One of the most common solutions proposed to help eradicate prejudice is for the Gypsies to find their voice and begin to make themselves known - to work to destroy stereotypes and inform the public of their existence, their history, and their culture. And this they have begun to do. Today there are thousands of Romany groups in many countries around the world. The Roma have a seat at the UN.

Fonseca takes a disgusted and condescending view toward the leadership. Several times she mentions the discord amongst the leadership. She characterizes the Gypsy leaders as "scattered, vain, egomaniacal, ignorant, power-mad, back-stabbing" (295).

I think this is a bit unfair. Scattered? Yes, as the Gypsies are a diasporic people, so are their leaders dispersed. Vain, egomaniacal, power-mad? I believe that these self-same descriptions would pertain to most strong leaders, including members of the United States Congress. Ignorant? Gypsies have long struggled in Eastern Europe for equality of education - there are many barriers to a literate, informed population. Romani as a first language makes it difficult for a child to enter a school where a different language is spoken - i.e. all schools - and which offers no assimilation classes. Under communism, Gypsies that wanted to advance in education often had to renounce their identity and stop speaking Romani. It is little wonder then, that the leadership does not always tout degrees from Oxford.

Fonseca brushes Hancock's research aside as pure malarky, and then condescendingly allows that he should be able to stretch the truth a little, after all, he's a victim. She makes him look like a defensive Gypsy, creating a history.

She presents herself as the impartial observer, knowledgeable and well-researched observer at that, and everyone else has some kind of motive, or bias. She is the impartial, professional journalist, while Hancock is the romanticizing Gypsy. And of course we know, established early on, that Gypsies lie, so we haven't much reason to trust him, educated though he may be.

I made the statement at the outset that this is an important book. Despite my criticisms of it, I still believe this to be true. The world of the Gypsies is little known to most gadje, particularly American gadje. I believe it would be safe to estimate that nine out of ten Americans have never met, or are not aware of having met, a Rom. The Gypsies we see are Disney's Esmereldas, the occasional fortune teller at a renaissance fair, and the Halloween costumes. This book, if nothing else, demonstrates the existence of a flesh and bone person, as opposed to a phantasmal caricature, clearly and undeniably. It awakens us to the reality that the greatest tragedy of all time, the Holocaust, was not solely a Jewish experience. We realize that our African American brothers and sisters were not alone struggling beneath a yoke of slavery and oppression in these modem times. Some of our misconceptions may still be in place, and some may have even been reinforced by this book. But I believe that a little truth can go a long way, and once acquired it shines light on ignorance and exposes the lies. What we really need now is a Bury Me Standing written from the inside, by a Gypsy author. - LG 1996

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