Saturday, January 12, 2019

Begging the Question

“Varför tigger romer?” (Why do the Roma beg?) is a controversial book by Stanislav Emirov, a priest in the Calvinist Church in Sweden. Roma or Romani people is the “official” designation of the ethnic group (or perhaps cluster of groups) popularly known as Gypsies. Many Gypsies from Romania and Bulgaria regularly travel to Sweden in order to beg in the streets and on the commuter trains. Most are strictly speaking illegal aliens, but the police do nothing since the Swedish establishment doesn´t care. Emirov has interviewed beggars, former beggars, and Roma activists in an attempt to understand the underlying problems. His book contains material from several European nations, although the emphasis is on Sweden.

The book feels disjointed and contradictory, more like a draft than a finished product. It´s peculiar in some ways. Emirov claims that the Calvinist Church has a special “team” aiding beggars in Stockholm, but their aid is never specified. Instead I get the impression that they served as the author´s intelligence operatives, mapping the beggar underworld. Emirov does come across as very critical, even hostile, to Gypsy culture which raises the question why the Roma wanted to talk to him (and his team) at all? Perhaps the author became progressively more skeptical to the Gypsies during his travels around Europe. “Varför tigger romer?” has been loudly denounced as “anti-ziganist” (i.e. anti-Gypsy) in the left-leaning parts of the Swedish media, while conservative daily Svenska Dagbladet has given it positive coverage.

Most controversially, Emirov reaches the conclusion that the Roma beg because they are Roma. Begging is one of the traditional Roma “trades”, and is always an option for any Roma who can´t get enough income from some other source. While begging is of course connected to poverty in most cases, other poor groups don´t beg, which to Emirov indicates that begging among the Roma is a culturally conditioned response to destitution. The fact that some Roma are rich but beg anyway also points to a cultural component. Emirov further argues that the Gypsies actually prefer poverty to assimilation. They obviously don´t *want* to be poor, but their hostility and paranoia towards majority society forces them to separate from it, both physically and mentally. To many Gypsies, any form of integration into, or accommodation with, non-Gypsy society is really assimilation and hence unclean by definition. Today, this separatist strategy has become dysfunctional: traditional Gypsy trades such as entertainment, peddling, horse-trading and certain handicrafts have either disappeared or been taken over by non-Gypsies. This forces separatist Gypsies to take up begging and other kinds of criminal activity.

But what should be done about the problem? Emirov advances several different perspectives on the problem of Roma begging, and these are not easily reconciled. When at his best libertarian-capitalist mood, Emirov proposes that begging is a trade like any other. Indeed, begging can be seen as a rational choice for some people. It can be compared to charities asking (begging!) people for a donation. The beggar simply eliminates the charitable institution as a middle-man, taking money directly from citizens in the street. This is also good for the giver, who thus gets some kind of choice in the matter of whom she should give to. Logically, Emirov should therefore call for the wholesale legalization of begging. However, he rather proposes that begging should be regulated by the state according to a quota system and that all beggars be forced to buy a license. The police will make sure that the regulations are followed by more frequent controls. The explicit purpose is to discourage Gypsies (who hate being regulated and registered) from begging, or entering the country at all. Emirov calls this the “nice way” in contrast to the “hard way”, which entails border controls of a more classical type.

However, in a later section, the author also proposes what he calls “the only right way”. This turns out to be a very peculiar “Austro-Marxist” proposal to give the Romani people status as an extra-territorial or non-territorial member-state of the European Union. All Roma (and presumably similar groups) around Europe should become “citizens” of this extra-territorial state, which would have representatives at different levels of the EU hierarchy. In this way, Emirov believes, the Gypsies will gradually become more positive towards the idea of integration. I consider this proposal to be unrealistic in the extreme, but above all, it´s faulty even on the basis of the author´s own premises. Thus, Emirov believes that Romanians and Bulgarians will remain racist towards the Gypsies for the foreseeable future. But if so, why should Romania and Bulgaria accept a non-territorial Gypsy political entity supported by Brussels on their territories? Further, Emirov claims that the only way to stop Gypsy begging without repression is to give them ample welfare payments. Apparently, 80% of all able-bodied Gypsies in Sweden are unemployed and hence live off the tax-payer. If so, the only way to stop Gypsies from the Balkans to beg, in Sweden or elsewhere, is to give *them* generous welfare payments, too. But what makes Emirov think that European tax-payers will accept such a solution? There are literally millions of Romani in Europe, and the Balkan republics are hardly the only places where you can find anti-ziganism.

The Gypsy cultural autonomy proposed by the author would simply become an enormous drain on the EU resources – or so it will seem to many EU citizens. The final objection is that even such an autonomous organization would probably be seen by the Roma themselves as a form of assimilation (perhaps the subtlest one yet). The initiative to form it, after all, comes from the unclean EU. It´s integrated into the EU´s structures. And Emirov says himself that “integration” is the ultimate goal, and on his own premises, this will be interpreted as racist “assimilation” by those whom it chiefly concern. Emirov´s liberal “pro-ziganist” opponents also have a problem, however. They really are integrationist, and have attacked “Varför tigger romer?” precisely for its “separatist” tendencies. I happen to agree with Emirov that opposition to majority society is strong among many Gypsies, guaranteeing that only small elite groups willing to interact with mainstream society will be attracted to the liberal perspective. I almost suspect that the welfare money is a way of hiding the fact that most Roma are still fundamentally Roma (for good or for worse).

As for Emirov, he closes his book by describing Moldova and Russia. Moldova is the only nation in Europe where the Romani population *does* intermarry to a relatively large degree with the majority, but the author sees this as a situation unlikely to be introduced anywhere else. In Russia, there is a truce or modus vivendi between Gypsies and Russians, the latter having a romantic picture of the former, something the former use to their advantage. Here the book ends, with the somewhat counter-intuitive statement that Putin´s Russia of all places might be the best place for the Romani people.

Despite everything, “Varför tigger romer?” is an interesting work, if seen as the journalistic report of one man. It does give a sneak peek into the world of beggars (including non-Gypsy ones). That being said, some of the author´s interpretations of Romani culture strike me as weird on the face of it (and I´m certainly no expert). Thus, why does Emirov constantly claim that Gypsies “can´t plan ahead”, “live from day to day”, and so on. His own book proves that those who beg *do* organize their work well in advance – as well they might. How else are they able to compete with all the non-Gypsy beggars? The same with those who form Gypsy associations in order to receive grant money from the state, and so on. Since Gypsies don’t like the prying eyes of unclean gadjos, has it never struck Emirov that the fatalistic and indifferent attitude towards life espoused by many of his interviewees is really a trick to make him, the annoying Calvinist busy-body, loose interest and go away? 

I´m also surprised by the author´s claim that most Gypsies lack a religion! If so, they would be the only people (before the modern era) to do so, a sensational claim that surely calls for a more extensive discussion. My guess is that Emirov construes “religion” and “supernatural” very narrowly. I´ve been informed by a Catholic priest from Slovakia that while most Gypsies are indeed indifferent to the central tenets of Catholicism (except baptism), they do believe in curses and look upon the priest with considerable awe, in the belief that “rasha” is a conduit of supernatural power. Why isn´t this a kind of religion, I wonder?

With these, perhaps somewhat disjointed remarks, I close my review of “Varför tigger romer?”.

1 comment:

  1. Some info on this "oppressed" minority group.