BURY ME STANDING

BURY ME STANDING - the Gypsies and Their Journey, 1995, Vintage Books, 322 pages 

A fascinating report, and a uniquely intimate look at a diaspora culture that has for centuries baffled outsiders. Through painstaking research — extensive footnotes are appended — and in depth interviews, Ms Fonseca uncovers astounding findings. These sometimes include facts that Romany people themselves ignore, and even deny. But ‘interview’ barely describes the techniques she used, and the degree to which she embedded herself into the lives of actual Rom during a four year period. The truth is often elusive.

 

“ 'Never ask questions and don't wear short skirts.’ That was the best advice I got before I set out, from an anthropologist who had studied Gypsies in Madrid... ‘Asking is no way to get answers.’ " 

“ 'You will never learn our language,’ a Gypsy activist — and teacher of Romany — proudly told me on a bus in Bucharest. He didn't mean that I had a wooden ear. ‘For every word you record in your little notebook, we have another one — a synonym, which we use and which you can never know. Oh, you might learn these; but you won't get how to use them, or what nuances they carry. We don't want you to know.’"

Not for a moment romanticised or simplistic, Fonseca describes with a penetrating style the various fates of a people who may be the most despised in the history of Western civilisation. Historians estimate that between 220,000 and 500,000 Romani were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators—from 25% to more than 50% of their total population in Europe at the time. And yet, 

“It was only after the 1986 resignation of President Elie Wiesel, the survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who had opposed Gypsy representation, that one Gypsy was invited onto the (U.S. Holocaust Memorial) council.”

“In May of 2008 in Ponticelli, outside Naples, a mob torched to the ground the large Gypsy settlement there (the area helpfully evacuated first by police and then belatedly visited by the fire department, and eventually by the politicians). The motive? ‘Gypsy crime’, we were told, including that old standby, the alleged Gypsy theft of a white baby. It didn’t matter -– it never matters -– that there was no jump in the crime statistics: the assertion is always enough.”

Fonseca's writing is extremely nuanced, and illuminates conflicting emotions that even the author experiences: 

"...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 were they deserved each other.

"She of course maintains her empathy, and resolutely plows on.

Bury me Standing focuses mostly on eastern Europe, where the largest concentrations of unassimilated Rom still dwell. One learns about the communist period as well as the Perestroika years, and, what may surprise some, the horrific persecution that befell many Rom soon after the Soviet dictatorships toppled. Whatever your particular angle may be, this is a gripping read. Its vividness and urgency might even spur you to reread, as I did, soon after finishing it. 

 

Will Douglas

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