If This Is A Rom – Lorenzo Renzi

Rom and Romanians await expulsion from Italy.

We don’t yet know what form the Italian government’s plan to expel gypsies, Rom, and Romanians from Italy will take. Because the newly arrived Rom, whose crimes have been so widely discussed in Italy in recent months, come from Romania, the plan also includes provisions to limit the presence of Romanians in Italy, to filter them out at the border. It’s true, of course, that even Romanians who are not Rom have committed numerous crimes.

Such a move, however, would contravene EC law. Romania entered the European Union on January 1, 2007, and the admittance of Romania turned Romanians into European citizens; thus the Rom, who were Romanian citizens in Romania, became European citizens as well. Meanwhile, as an aside, let me say that here in Italy, a civilized country, gypsies are largely stateless—they are denied Italian citizenship and their rights are ignored.I say gypsies. That is, the Rom. For some time, newspapers and politicians have labored under a self-imposed linguistic taboo: Gypsies are not to be called by that name. Journalists never write gypsies; they write “nomads,” Rom, or even Slavs. The same is true on television. More recently, “Romanian” has become the preferred term, meant to include the Rom as well. It may be useful to make clear that Rom and Romanian are not synonymous. The Rom are to Romanians as our gypsies (who are Rom, or Sinti) are to Italians.Gypsies, the Rom, and other groups with still other names, arrived in Europe from India during the Middle Ages. They were already present in Italy in the fifteenth century. They were itinerant tinkers; later, they became horse traders. In eastern Europe, they are musicians who play at weddings and other festivities. Some have become skilled interpreters. But the vast majority has never assimilated, never mind been integrated: not in Italy, not in other European countries, and not on the other continents where their nomadism has carried them (North Africa, the United States). A certain number of gypsies have created permanent settlements, but the vast majority remains nomadic. In the spring, their campers take to the road again, following well traveled routes. In the past, horses led these caravans, but the itineraries haven’t changed. The freedom of the gypsy people was declaimed in Spain by Cervantes (in his splendid La Gitanilla) and García Lorca, by Victor Hugo in France, and by Ion Budai-Deleanu in Romania, in much the way Tolstoy celebrated the Chechens.

Are gypsies thieves? Are they dangerous? Sometimes, yes. But as Guido Ceronetti wrote regarding the gypsies in Sole 24Ore (May 11, 2008): the manner in which the law’s “iron fist” falls cannot be separated “from an understanding of the spiritual mystery that has always accompanied the races maudites of our strange planet.” Just to underscore the obvious, I would add that it cannot be separated from fundamental human rights either.

Though Ion Mailat, a Romanian gypsy, killed a woman on October 31, 2007 in Tor di Quinto, a neighborhood in the north of Rome, we cannot permit ourselves to say that all gypsies are murderers. We know that Mailat acted alone, without accomplices, and we know that his crime was reported to police by another gypsy from Mailat’s own encampment. But in the public imagination (a sensibility either feared or shared by many politicians), Mailat’s actions have become the crime, emblematic of the presence of the Rom and of Romanians in Italy. It is a sin that requires the punishment not of an individual, but of an entire nation.

In its report describing the status of the Romanian Rom in Italy, the Community of Sant’Egidio, the influential, Rome-based lay-Christian community, reminds us that, in the 1950s, juvenile court judges in Switzerland debated the elevated number of crimes committed by young Italians. “As a result,” reads one of the sources quoted in the report, “one may well ask whether there is not a cultural propensity toward thievery among the Italian people. Such an idea is corroborated in much European literature.”

The debate died out as soon as Italians began to open stores and restaurants and acquired improved social standing. Italian crime diminished, but the identical suspicions were quickly aimed at subsequent newcomers: the Portuguese, then Yugoslavians, and finally the Turkish.

We don’t know whether Romanians, both Rom and non-Rom, will ever improve their social standing (today often marginal) in Italy, or whether, as is being contemplated, they’ll be expelled first. If that should come to pass, the only thing left to wonder is who will be next in meeting the same fate.

We might also wonder, however, what action Italy took in the face of the arrival—well anticipated—of thousands of Romanian gypsies after January 1, 2007. As was revealed in discussions between Italy and Romania following the Mailat murder, Italy had never even applied for the European funding that is available to member nations to assist gypsies. Six months later, it appears, the City of Genoa is still considering ways to provide housing for the Romanian Rom in its area—using European funds assigned to … Romania. It fell to Dana Varga, the Romanian Undersecretary for the “Rom question” (she is herself Rom), to remind the authorities in Liguria that European funding exists and is available to Italy for just this purpose.

In the interest of fairness, we might also recall that, even before the arrival of the recent anti-Rom decrees, the basic rights of Romanian gypsies had been violated repeatedly in Italy. Between 2007 and 2008, in Rome, in Milan, and, I fear, in many other civilized Italian cities, bulldozers were deployed to eliminate Rom encampments. In Milan, after the Bovisasca encampment was destroyed, gypsies were pursued and scattered, just as has happened in other places. Were it not for the protests of the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Tettamanzi, the news would never have made it off the local pages of the newspapers.

So are we the first—we European Italians in the twenty-first century—to persecute a people that has lived among us for at least six centuries? The first in the new century, certainly, but not the first in absolute terms. In 1933, Nazi Germany deprived the gypsies of all rights and then consigned them to the crematory ovens where, it appears, some five hundred thousand perished.

“Rom,” in the Indoeuropean language of the gypsies, means “man.” Do you recall Primo Levi’s words? “If this is a man.…”

Lorenzo Renzi is Professor of Romance Philology, University of Padua. English trans. by Wendell Ricketts.

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