BRATISLAVA – The Romani people are Europe’s largest minority – and also its most marginalized. Much is written about their persecution, both historic and contemporary, especially in Central Europe today. Yet Jud Nirenberg trammels new terrain, as editor of the newly published book, “Gypsy Sexuality: Romani and Outsider Perspectives on Intimacy.” (I was delighted to contribute two chapters: one on the lack of sex education among Bulgarian Roma; the other, early-teen marriage among Kalderash Roma in Romania.)
Via email, I interviewed Nirenberg, 39, who managed to produce this book while also working as associate director of the U.S. Association for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
MJ: How did you first become interested in Roma issues?
JN: I’m an American of mixed Romani and Jewish descent, grew up in Massachusetts and had a fairly assimilated childhood, which isn’t really the norm for Romani Americans. There are, of course, Americans whose parents were Romani immigrants from Europe and whose lives resemble any other first-generation Americans. A lot of Roma came in the 50s from Hungary, for example. But there is a larger community of Romani Americans who are more often the subject of writing (and who are the focus of one part of this book), whose families came a long time ago and yet who live very much apart from mainstream America.
I started working on Romani community issues in college, as an intern in London helping immigrant Roma and as a tutor at a Washington, DC Romani church. After graduating, I went to work in Prague for ROI, the Czech Romani political party. I spent a couple of years in Prague, working under Emil Scuka, whose name is remembered by people who’ve been studying or working with Roma since ye olden times. In 1997, George Soros established an office within the European headquarters of his network of foundations to give grants and management training to Romani leaders. I went to work there, in Budapest and ended up heading the office when its first director and my first boss there, Rudko Kawczynski, left. This was a great way to work closely with Romani community leaders all over Europe.
I ended up working for more than a decade within the Romani rights world and becoming the first executive officer of the European Roma and Travellers’ Forum, which is the largest Romani organization in Europe, an umbrella group that seeks a voice at the international level and has, as its members, most of the other international Romani NGOs that people may have heard of, like the Roma National Congress and International Romani Union. I still work on bringing attention to Romani issues and activists in various ways, such as guest lectures at universities, the State Dept, UN Association events, etc., through writing and through cooperation with different NGOs.
MJ: How would you describe the genres of Roma-related books already in existence? What topics dominate? What topics are lacking? Why?
JN: Let’s start with what’s out there. There’s a lot, from history books to anthropological examinations of one Romani sub-group (I recommend Carol Miller, who’s terrific and who has a chapter in Gypsy Sexuality), to books on contemporary politics and religion. There are a few books (like Fonseca’s “Bury Me Standing”) written for a mass market, narrative style, fun reading for the beach with minimal information and plenty of factual errors along the way. There are lots of books written as though someone published a PhD thesis without making any effort to make it coherent or relevant to a wider body of readers.
But this book is very rare. Firstly, it is suitable reading both for the aspiring expert on Roma, and for the reader who is totally unfamiliar with Roma, minority rights or the politics of civil rights in Eastern Europe. It’s interesting for gender-issues students, but also for people who may never have picked up a book of that kind before. And it is addressing very important human-rights questions that other books have completely overlooked. It is bringing together the words of Romani activists and non-Romani writers, women and men, highly educated Roma and women on the street. That’s hard to find.
MJ: How is this book different from the others? What does this contribute to the oeuvre? Why?
JN: One important contribution is an exploration of where certain stereotypes come from and why they endure. The book provides interesting ideas about the history and present of notions of the Gypsy as a wild, free spirit who is poor because she won’t conform, who is uneducated because she’s too passionate for sitting in school, who is a teen mother because Gypsies are fire-filled creatures. It looks at both the stereotypes that outsiders have about Roma, but also – and this is very unusual – at the stereotypes that Roma have about each other, Vlax about Romungro, one tribe about another. It looks at how Romani women see their interactions with men both in the household and in professional or political settings. And, as the title suggests, it looks at how some Roma interact with both Roma and non-Roma in the bedroom. That’s not done in order to be fun or goofy, but as a window onto other issues. This is not the first publication to look at how public policy relates to Romani people’s sexual and reproductive health, but it’s the first to tie it to family life, to European cultural history and to a larger picture.
MJ: What inspired you to produce a book specifically on “Gypsy Sexuality”?
JN: In the end, I don’t think my original intent matters, because I’m one of many contributing writers and the book reflects a mix of intentions. But I had, at least at first, a Romani reader in mind. I wanted to remind the reader that there are Romani cultures, not a Romani culture. No two families, no two people see the world exactly the same way. We need to get past a simplistic understanding in which there is a traditional and assimilationist answer to every life choice.
Go and eavesdrop at any conference or setting where Roma from different countries come together. People are explaining to one another how Roma do things. “That project of yours wouldn’t work in my community because we’re Roma and that’s not how we do things.” Even when the meeting stops for lunch, it goes on. Have some bread with that, my friend. Roma like bread. Roma coming from different countries, religions, educational backgrounds all mingle often, yet they continually work with the assumption that there is one Romani way of thinking and doing. The book looks at people from rural and urban areas, from Central Europe, the Balkans and South America. It finds that even within one city in eastern Slovakia, attitudes vary greatly. Is it OK for a Romani woman to wear pants – as opposed to a skirt? And the book reminds us that a silly question is attached to, and influences, bigger questions.
Roma can’t be comfortable with their lives, with modern life and with success if they allow someone else to tell them, if they allow themselves to believe that “real Roma” don’t eat sushi, wear pants, or whatever it is. Each of us needs to define the parts of tradition that we will keep and what we will put on a shelf, respected history rather than upheld dogma. I want to remember the tradition of putting the bedsheet out after the wedding (see the book) but don’t want it on my own wedding night. I respect that some families keep certain traditions alive and I expect the same respect myself, as there are also traditions that Roma in West have preserved and that people in the East are forgetting, or choosing to drop.
It’s not only important that Roma see the tradition vs. assimilation question is a more complex way. It’s also important in combating discrimination that OTHER people get it; Roma cannot be treated as equals if non-Roma are allowed to treat Roma as a curio. If the “real Roma” are the ones who live up to your stereotypes, then poverty is OK because it’s not your society’s barriers that cause the poverty. It’s authentic Romani life. Roma are poor, it’s their way of life. If we allow the idea that Roma are a certain way, if we allow oversimplified understandings of culture, then teen marriage isn’t about poverty and discrimination, it’s just Romani culture. Of course, if you define culture as the way that people lived 100 years ago, then you’re right. But by that definition, teen marriage is Greek, Romanian and Russian culture. If you wrote about a family of Greeks who married off their daughter, pressured her into a marriage, at 14 you would never claim that this is the Greek way. It isn’t. Most Roma do not pressure 14 year olds to marry and yet there’s no fuss when the public discourse handles a case by blaming “their culture.”
MJ: Why did you choose the format you did – with both Romani and non-Romani contributors?
JN: The goal explains the format. You can’t show diversity of views and opinions, you can’t explore how what’s taboo to one person is another person’s topic of choice, without having multiple authors and not without bringing in people from different sides.
MJ: What’s the most important thing about Roma you learned from assembling this book? Why?
JN: I learned that many of the stereotypes are the same everywhere and that these beliefs can lead to the same policies or behaviors, even in very different contexts. For me, the lesson taken away is frightening. I look at the comments that political leaders are making today in some countries and have to worry that forms of abuse we thought to be in human history could easily happen again.
MJ:What’s the most interesting thing you think readers will glean from reading this book? Why?
JN: Europe’s self-view is currently very dishonest. You can’t boast of a public health system that is accessible to all without addressing coercive sterilization of Romani women. But I think people who don’t care about a very large population living in poverty and facing unequal treatment from public employees in hospitals, schools and elsewhere should still be interested in the book just because there are some very powerful stories in it. Some of the writers have really opened up and given something of themselves.
MJ: Why do you think readers should monitor the fate of Europe’s Roma?
JN: The question isn’t whether they should monitor. They do. The question is what they should recognize as a result rather than a cause when they monitor. The question is not why Roma marry young. The question is why Roma are placed into segregated schools. If someone drops out of a quasi-educational system at fifteen, begins adult life as an unskilled manual worker or benefits-recipient at fifteen then why not have a baby at sixteen?
MJ: Do you have any other Roma-related projects planned for the future?
JN: I’m not planning another Roma-oriented writing project just yet, but am in touch with activists in a few countries to explore possible topics. It’s hard to hold a job, to take care of one’s family responsibilities and to work on a book. But there are several topics I’d love to see someone cover and wouldn’t mind being part of the effort. I’d like to work on something that collects the experiences of Romani rights activists and political campaigners in very new democracies, especially those who worked in a context of foreign military presence. Romani political organizers in nominally Muslim communities like Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere have learned a lot of lessons that people in other parts of the world might enjoy right now. Of course, a project like that need to be translated and probably made accessible in unusual ways so it’s not a normal publication.