Book review: Marc Bordigoni, Gypsies, Tsiganes, Roma : received ideas about the Travel World

Roma 2Not a day goes by without seeing the Roma issue portrayed in one way or another on the news. On TV, on computer screens, on paper, the word seems to have spread everywhere. In cities such as Marseille, it’s nearly impossible to walk the streets without being asked for some food or money by people in all likelihood originating from Eastern Europe, and who may or may not be Roma..

  But who are the Roma? What does the word « Roma » even mean and what reality lies behind it?

 Marc Bordigoni does know the subject well, as he has studied it for years. He has long been familiar with the camps of south-west France and learnt to know their inhabitants and their particular lifestyle. And because he is a research fellow, he is trying to share his experience with a wider audience, thanks to a book published in 2013 by « Le Cavalier Bleu »(The Blue Knight) in its collection «  idées reçues »(received ideas, prejudices), entitled «Gypsies, Tsiganes, Roma : received ideas about the Nomads ». For the anthropologist, who works at the Institute for Mediterranean, European and Comparative ethnology at the MMSH (Mediterranean House for Human Sciences) in Aix-en-Provence, this is not his first try, for he has already written several articles concerning the relations between the « gypsies » and the surrounding world, particularly on agricultural work and the pilgrimage to the Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Not only is he a member of ADAM (Anthropologists of the Mediterranean) and of the AFA (French Anthropological Association), but also of the scientific committee of the periodical: Tsiganes Studies, the only reference journal in the French language on the subject. Marc Bordigoni has also written a book called “Travellers, the law and daily life” published by Dalloz in 2013.

In three parts corresponding to three modalities (interrogative, assertive and exclamatory) Marc Bordigoni’s essay “Gypsies, Tsiganes, Roma” tackles the greatest prejudices that public opinion can hold- sometimes even as a grudge- against the Roma people.

Roma 3The chapter: “Who are they? Where are they from?” highlights the semantic haze surrounding these people on the fringe. Despite the uncertainty attached to their country of origin - one day Egypt, the next India - it appears that this question lacks relevance because their presence on French territory may date back to the fourteenth century. Multiple waves of immigration are said to have caused them to set up all over the territory. Marc Bordigoni also shows how French political leaders, throughout the long history of Roma migration, have made it as hard as possible for them to work and integrate. As examples, he quotes the anthropometric booklet they have to use to check in and out at the police station or Town Hall in every town they travel through, as well as the ban on Romas from Romania or Bulgaria practicing certain professions - a ban which was only to be lifted on December 31, 2013.

The second part “Gypsies cause a problem” investigates how public opinion has demonized them and why. The author tries to get his readers understand that if Roma people sometimes live along the lines of another model than our own, it’s up to us to respect and acknowledge the latter. The life they live, whether in big cities or in camps, has nothing to do with any of the clichés we have in mind. For example, Marc Bordigoni laughed us out of court for thinking that they were dirty and showed us that they are indeed very concerned about the cleanliness of their habitat and that the mountains of detritus surrounding their camps are a paradoxical barrier protecting them from the world outside the camp as well as the effect of a lack of respect for the Besson Law. That law indeed requires that « every municipality of more than 5000 inhabitants participate in the hosting of the Traveler community and of those whose traditional habitat is made up of mobile residences. »(Article 1). But by 2010, only 52% of the areas intended for this purpose had been created. Moreover, Town councils sometimes go as far as enjoining the French corporation EDF not to set up the electric connections and the water companies not to install the necessary water mains in their vicinity. Such disrespect for the law logically causes problems such as health issues, which more particularly concern the Roma people. Thus, the waste processing of the camps is not taken charge of by the towns whose duty it is, but by third-sector voluntary associations. ”Doctors of the World” have already whistle-blown on the impact of the sanitary emergency on Roma people’s health in France. Besides a weak vaccination cover, their infant and maternal health is significantly worrying, with only 1/10 woman being medically followed during pregnancy.

Roma 1The third and last section of the essay, entitled “Gypsies are extraordinary!” is a non-exhaustive list of the main qualities generally ascribed to the Roma people. The author explores their beliefs and customs as well as their mystification. In this section, he explains that since the nineteenth century and Victor Hugo’s masterpiece “Notre Dame de Paris”, gypsies are not only seen as thieves and beggars , mostly known for their dirtiness, lack of education and trouble-making capacity, but also as fortune-tellers, believers and music-lovers. The religious question is broached, mainly showing that the beliefs of the Roma compose a sort of syncretism in which catholic ritual holds a major place and which is blended with superstition for it is a deeply popular form of religion.

Were one to open Marc Bordigoni’s essay and expect to find there a statement on current events or a list of propositions concerning the plight of the Roma, one might well be disappointed. The author is by no means a politician, but an anthropologist. His enterprise is not to set out to reform the Roma condition in France. The purpose of the essay is to take the caricature of the Roma and deconstruct it, in order to draw a portrait as close as possible to reality.  In the same perspective, the Biennial for Real Writing (“écritures du Reel”) in Marseille exhibits three artistic constructions revolving round the same issue, the Roma’s identity. The exhibition: « Roms, Romani, one population, one language » subtitled « Nomadic artistic exploration constructions” represents a different way of getting to know this unfairly stigmatized population.