Friday, February 8, 2019

The journey of the Swedish Travelers

Bo Hazell´s “Resandefolket: Från tattare till Traveller” was published in 2002. The book deals with Swedish and Norwegian Travelers from a sympathetic, pro-Traveler perspective. It´s probably still the most widely accessible work in Swedish on this particular ethnic or social minority group. The author is a Swedish “buro” (non-Traveler) and journalist with a long-standing interest in Travelers and similar groups. The book contains chapters on Traveler history, persecution, culture, language, family values and – somewhat surprisingly – blood feuds. Surprisingly, since Hazell in general views the Traveler lifestyle as unproblematic, blaming majority society for the historically bad relations between them and the “buros”. Many interviews with Travelers have been included. In a concluding chapter, Hazell discusses Irish, English, Dutch and French Travelers, who are somewhat different from their Swedish and Norwegian counterparts (and from each other). The book doesn´t deal with the groups usually called “Gypsies”, such as Kalderash, Lovari and so on. It does mention the Kale and the Sinti in passing, since some Scandinavian Travelers may be related to these “Gypsy” groups. There is also a peculiar interview with stand up comedienne Anna-Lena Brundin, who is *not* a Traveler!

The exact origin of the Traveler community in Sweden is still a matter of some controversy, including among the Travelers themselves. Like the author, I originally assumed that the “tattare” (the derogatory term for Travelers) weren´t an actual ethnic minority, but rather a social outcast group with the same ethnic make-up as the majority. This seems to have been the official view of the Swedish authorities during the decades after World War II. It replaced an earlier view, based on race biology, that the “tattare” were an alien and degenerate racial element, probably a mixture of Gypsies and lower class Swedes. Thus, the “segregationist” view was replaced by a seemingly more progressive “assimilationist” ditto. The Travelers themselves felt oppressed under both systems. Today, Travelers have been recognized as a ethnic minority group in Sweden, while at the same time being lumped together with the Gypsies under the “Roma” designation, which some of them accept, while others don´t.

Hazell doesn´t take sides in the infected conflicts over Traveler origins. He seems to favor the view that Travelers aren´t homogenous. Some may indeed be “Gypsies”, but this too isn´t clear-cut, since the Gypsy groups from northwest India aren´t necessarily related either, having left India or the territory today called Pakistan at different times in the past. As already indicated, the self-consciously Roma Travelers claim affinity with the Kale and the Sinti. Conversely, many Roma from the Balkans regard the Finnish Kale as a completely different people altogether, so by implication, they probably wouldn´t accept Swedish Travelers either. Other Travelers may be descended from Russian or German soldiers serving in the Swedish armies during the “Great Power Period”, or ethnically Swedish poor peasants forced to take to the roads when land and labor got scarce during the 18th century. Some speculations about Traveler origins combine the options above. Thus, many Travelers believe that the warrior-king Karl XII (Charles XII) recruited Roma to the Swedish army during its prolonged stay in the Balkans. The Traveler language, Svensk Rommani, is based on the “Gypsy” language Romanès but has a Swedish grammatical structure. (Many common Swedish slang words actually come from Svensk Rommani, most notably “tjej” for “girl”.)

A large portion of “Resandefolket” deal with the way majority society until recently segregated or downright persecuted the “tattare”. The preferred methods in Sweden were forced sterilization of adults and removal of Traveler children into Swedish foster care. The Travelers often lived in segregated communities – in Snarsmon, in literal holes in the ground. Violence between Swedes and Travelers was common, dubbed “ethnic cleansing” by the author. In Norway, Travelers were sent to a virtual labor camp at Svanviken, the “re-education” facility being operated by a Norwegian Church “mission”. The camp existed from 1908 to 1978, and was supported by the national government. For these and other reasons, many Travelers are wary about revealing their true group identity or volunteer information to “buros”. I´m somewhat surprised that Hazell got so much information as he did. He seems to have been tested by the Travelers at a kind of meetings of denunciation, and apparently passed the test!

The most fascinating piece of information concerns the Traveler religion. Some Travelers claim to have access to an ancient religious tradition, according to which there are two gods, known as Alakoh and Devel. Alakoh is the moon god and is depicted as compassionate and full of grace – after all, the moon lits up the night so Travelers can travel safely. Devel is the stern god of inflexible justice and sinless perfection, associated with the sun, and isn´t worshipped. The rites of Alakoh are secret and only performed by the tribal elders, although Hazell witnessed a prayer to Alakoh at a Traveler memorial ceremony in Norway. In a footnote, Hazell reveals that he met one Traveler who claimed that the Alakoh cult is fake and was invented by his family during the 20th century! According to the same tradition, the Travelers´ original homeland is “Assas in Assaria”, perhaps a garbled reference to Assur and Assyria.

Today, many Traveler groups around the world have converted to charismatic Christianity, and the most popular Pentecostal preachers at Traveler revival meetings are themselves Travelers. Perhaps the out-going and slightly rowdy character of Pentecostalism appeals to Travelers? Hazell´s book contain an interview with a Dutch Traveler who claims that the Bible contains a prophecy about Travelers being converted to Christ. This is connected to an apocalyptic perspective in which the Jews were the first people to hear the Gospel, while the Traveler communities are the last. A Norwegian Traveler told Hazell that according to his understanding, Travelers are descended from Abraham through Keturah and her children.

Otherwise, I was struck by the similarities between “Gypsy” and Traveler culture as described in the book. Both groups prefer a nomadic lifestyle and have traditionally made a living from handicrafts, peddling, the breeding and selling of horses, and begging. Both groups often dress as people from high society. Travelers take the names of distinguished people or heroic characters from folktales. This seems to be a way of establishing a higher status (at least in their own minds) to that of the surrounding peasant population. Traveler domestic life is surrounded by taboos and purity laws, and their family values are patriarchal and conservative – this latter fact is probably galling today, when Swedes are extremely equalitarian. In passing, Hazell also mentions that Travelers frequently boast about how they are able to cheat “buros” – another common trait with Gypsies, as I hear. The constant clan feuds are another important factor in Traveler life. The main difference between Swedish Travelers and Gypsies is that the former often hide their true identity after centuries of conflict with majority society, while Gypsies flaunt it. The degree of Traveler-buro intermarriage also seems to be higher than Gypsy-gadjo ditto, although still relatively low overall.

One problem with “Resandefolket” is that the author sometimes conflates historical fact with Traveler claims about the same. Thus, Hazell´s only source for the claim that Karl XII was pro-Traveler are Traveler stories. More seriously, his only source for the claim that Vidkun Quisling and the Nazis wanted to send the Norwegian Travelers to the death camps are Traveler tales claiming this is so. Maybe it is (the Nazis did exterminate Gypsies), but what historical sources backs this up? The Travelers claim to know that a very special train was already prepared for the occasion, but the whole operation had to be cancelled due to the Allied liberation of Norway…

That being said, I nevertheless recommend “Resandefolket” to everyone who speaks the buro language of Swedish and wants to commence his or her own research into this particular topic.

ADDED 2019-02-16

Hans Christian Andersen mentions the cult of Alakoh and Devel in "To be or not to be", published in 1857, so obviously the tradition is older than the 20th century. In his version, Alako (spelled without the "h") is a lunar god said to have incarnated as a man to reveal the Law after which he ascended to the Moon, his kingdom. He is depicted as a man holding a pencil and a sword, an image supposedly in the possession of all Gypsy chiefs. In the novel, a Gypsy woman also carries the image on a stone. One day, Alako will lead his people (the Gypsies) back to Assas in Assyria, which Andersen believes is really Assam in India! 

Viktor Rydberg mentions Alako in "Singoalla", published in 1865. Here, too, Alako is pictured on a small stone, just as in H C Andersen´s version. 

In a second edition of "Resandefolket", published in 2011, Hazell drops the claim that the Alakoh cult is a 20th century invention. 

ADDED 2019-02-17

I removed some amateurish personal speculations about the Sanskrit origins of "Alakoh" from the post. "Devel" is clearly Sanskrit, however: it´s of course derived from "deva", the Sanskrit word usually translated "god" (with a smaller-case "g"). The origins of the name or word Alakoh seem to be unknown... 

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