Monday, March 22, 2010

MATEO MAXIMOFF, Writer from an Oral Culture

He did not start out with exposure to the written word, although unlike
most Roma his father, a Kalderash Rom from Russia taught him how to
read, write and count. What he did bring to literature was a long
tradition of poetry and storytelling. His ancestors created poems for
special occasions, poems to be recited at funerals and left behind like
their history, without leaving a written trace. At the fall of night
nomadic Roma used to sit around roaring fires, letting their minds roam
free, creating wild stories of adventure and creatures only the mind can

He told me, for I was fortunate to be his friend toward the end of his
life, he started to write in prison, where he landed because of a family
feud. He translated that feud into his first novel, the Ursitory, the
novel that led me to Mateo. I was struck at once by the musicality of
his writing, although he wrote in French, not Romani. Yet even in a
language not his own, the sounds of his words were a major dimension of
the text. At the time I was studying Joyce and Chaucer, both giants of
the rhythm and sounds of their words enveloping their text. By
comparison Maximoff was a child of nature, an enchanting, seductive
artist drawing you into a world of natural magic. And like most true
writers, writing was the truest, richest form of living for him, to the
very end. I was supposed to meet him once again in Paris, but he was
already in a hospital for the last time. The year was 1999. There was no
way for us to communicate. No cell phones to reach each other. As a
result I did not see him while his life was fading, instead his image,
his husky Roma voice remained alive for me, as alive as the surviving
sounds and visions of his writings.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Distorted Brotherhood Of Man

I grew up in an era of mass murder. Hitler not only targeted Jews and
Gypsies. He targeted Poles, homosexuals, the insane, political
dissidents. Millions died in the countries he invaded. I understand 25
million Russians alone died in World War II. Hitler was of course far
from the only one using power for mass murder. Stalin and Mao Zedong
more than held their own in this era of horror and inhumanity.

It would take years for me to learn the full extent of the war. All I
grew up knowing was that any stranger was presumed an enemy. When in
doubt, kill. War on a planning board and war on the ground are two
unrelated realities. War on the ground has no logic; humanity is
replaced by killer instinct.

On the other side of that brutality was the need to trust. We trusted
our own. We trusted those we knew were persecuted like ourselves, those
who like us were on the run. Among them were Roma, then known only as
Gypsies. They were different from us, in dress, in custom, in language.
I don't remember animosity between us. Once back in Cologne, where I was
born, it was with a group of Gypsy kids that I "procured" potatoes and
briquettes for heating off railway cars in the dark. I knew we were
different, what brought us together was a humanity that was stronger
than the differences. Many of us had shared similar fates.

After the war I lost track of Roma. I lived in a world removed from
theirs, until 1995, when I picked up a pen and started to relive the
past. Once again, I connected with Roma as much as I could. I tried to
find out how Roma were faring in the after-war. In France I asked my
friend Mateo Maximoff, the Kalderash writer, how Gypsies were doing in
France. He told me they were doing alright, there was no trouble. All
the people from his clan had jobs in factories and hospitals repairing
pots, etc. In Italy I was told, Gypsies had resumed their lives from
before the war. They traveled the shores of the Mediterranean and the
Adriatic selling trinkets in the summer, doing itinerant farm work
whenever possible.

Then attitudes began to change. I witnessed the first open hostility
toward Roma in Paris, when a furious bell hop in front of a fancy Paris
hotel chased away a young Gypsy woman with a baby clutched to her chest.
Nobody seemed to care. The woman was alone with her baby, she looked
homeless. I later figured out she must have been a refugee. The Yugoslav
war, where Roma had been used as human shields, had come to an end. Roma
started to flood Western Europe in search of hope, only to crash into a
growing wall of hate.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Could The Dream Of Romasia Work In Reality?

[Roma Daily News] The first stone of Romasia, the land of Roma dream,
has been laid.

….."the idea was to purchase farmland, or to renovate derelict and
abandoned farmhouses where we could create working communities (many
have compared these Romasia farms to the Israeli kibbutz). The working
communities would consist of Roma families with a certain kinship,
people with skill in construction, agriculture, cattle-breeding – skills
that exist in practically every Roma nucleus, and are often carried out
to a high level of specialization and expertise."

I have lived on a Kibbutz in Israel in the early 60's. It was the
purest form of communism, in the good the sense, that I have ever come
across. The problem is that this form of isolationism cannot sustain
itself without solid bridges to the world that surrounds it. In this
increasingly complex world everything has to boil down to a give and
take. We all have to fit into and share this modern community of man,
otherwise instead of creating a separate community/country we create a
zone of war. I believe in diversity of cultures, I also believe that
without building bridges of peace and cooperation they will be endangered.

Meanwhile….. "the dream of building Romasia has gone ahead – but with
the help of private funds. The project is underway in Arad (Romania)
while the first plot of land has already been purchased in Costata
(again Romania)….."

Something positive has to happen to offer Europe's Roma a life worth
living. I do hope and wish this could be that solution, and it could,
with all sides willing to compromise.