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Book contrasts Eastern and Western European approaches to Roma

23.1.2014 11:37, (Romano Voďi)
The cover for the Czech edition of
The cover for the Czech edition of "Poor Roma, Evil Gypsies"

Last September a book by German author Norbert Mappes-Niediek, Arme Roma, böse Zigeuner (Czech title Chudáci Romové, zlí Cikáni - "Poor Roma, Evil Gypsies") was released in Czech translation by the Host publishing house. Even though at first glance it might seem to be yet another simplifying publication on this topic (such books are a dime a dozen), it is actually a very instructive and refreshing read. 

Mappes-Niediek is a long-term correspondent on southeastern Europe and his approach to this issue is a different one - he does not attempt to awaken our compassion or embarrass our consciences. He takes a pragmatic approach:  Until we call this problem by its right name, it won't be possible to solve it.  

The author asks unpleasant questions in this book, but while the answers to them are not so simple, they can be so surprising as to take your breath away. One of the first topics the author covers is the different attitudes toward Romani people in Eastern and Western Europe. 

These attitudes differ in their justifications for why Romani people are not managing to become incorporated into society. The East blames this on the culture and nature of Romani people themselves, while the West points to discrimination, which is the alleged cause of all problems today.

The author believes both of these reasons are just "pious lies" that have a far-ranging impact. In the East, he says most people talk about the culture, the insufficient intelligence, or the specific mentality of Romani people.   

These factors are given as the reasons for why Romani people don't want to work, why their children are sent to "special schools", why they are impoverished - in short, they are themselves to blame. This majority-society logic orders the Roma to try harder, to work more, to do their best to get out of the ghetto and out of poverty.

Here, however, Mappes-Niediek introduces the thesis that this "logic" only functions in wealthy economies. There also exists an economy of poverty.

In that economy, efforts to improve the situation, all of the striving and self-denial of those living below the poverty line, produce only negligible results. To simplify the argument greatly, if you portion your food so as to have just a little to eat each day, you will also suffer from hunger every day.

Isn't it therefore more logical to eat until one is full and escape that neediness, if only for one day? The economy of poverty is irrational only from the perspective of those who do not live in it.

Mappes-Niediek says the West sees the unequal position of Romani people as a result of discrimination. That is why it is necessary to provide Romani people with equal opportunities, perhaps with even better opportunities than others have on a temporary basis.

The West sees this issue as purely a Romani one. The European Union is investing into an inexhaustible number of programs to address this, the "Decade of Roma Inclusion" was announced in 2005, etc.

These efforts will not address this problem - rather, they will just make it worse. Why?

In the first place, this money will flow into areas where all of the inhabitants are impoverished, and complaints will be raised that Romani people are being privileged. Moreover, the European Union is primarily serving the interests of the Western states through this policy.  

After the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, Romani people began flowing into the West, fleeing their bad conditions at home. The Western states want to stop this influx, not just with programs (i.e., money transfers), but also by reprimanding the East European states that they should address their own problems themselves. 

Mappes-Niediek reveals the horrible practices of some Balkan states which make it impossible for their Romani citizens to exit the country and even enforce such measures through a law which makes it possible to punish anyone who helps such a person leave - such as bus drivers who transport Romani passengers across borders. However, one of the most interesting observations of the book applies to Europe as a whole, and that is his conclusion that the approach that focuses solely on eliminating discrimination is distracting attention away from the main problem, which is poverty.   

This doesn't mean discrimination doesn't exist, but the "nitty-gritty" of the issue lies elsewhere. The problem is generally high unemployment, poorly-run schools, insufficient infrastructure, and overall poverty in the region.  

As the author says, "This is a conflict between those who have nothing and those who have little." The European Union is packaging these real problems as the "Romani problem" because these problems are simply the most visible among Romani people. 

Instead of a Decade of Roma Inclusion, officials in Brussels should create a working group against poverty and focus on the problems of education, infrastructure and overgrown bureaucracies. As the author says, "For most problems, concepts and ideas exist for how to get out of them. They are solvable. Only the 'Romani problem' is unsolvable. That's why it's such a favorite." 

The book primarily presents a completely different view of this frequently-discussed topic. Despite its title, it really isn't much about Roma.

The book is primarily about our basic lack of understanding of those who live in the poverty of ghettos and slums, and it doesn't matter whether that is in the north of Bohemia, in Romanian Transylvania or in a suburb of Buenos Aires. Mappes-Niediek makes his argument in a very readable form, explaining and documenting his thesis with graphic examples.  

In addition to the areas already mentioned, the book also focuses on the question of whether Romani people comprise a nation, whether there exists a typical Romani criminality, and confronts us with Romani people's history as slaves on the territory of what is today Romania, as well as many other things. If those reading this review have the feeling Mappes-Niediek has hit the nail on the head, then they should definitely read his book - and if you don't, that is all the more reason to read it.  

Norbert Mappes-Niediek was born in 1953. Since 1992 he has worked as a freelance correspondent reporting on Austria and South-Eastern Europe. From 1994–1995 he worked as an adviser to Yasushi Akashi, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Yugoslavia. He writes for many global periodicals. His 2012 book Arme Roma, böse Zigeuner is his first book translated into Czech.

Norbert Mappes-Niediek. Chudáci Romové, zlí Cikáni. Nakladatelství Host, September 2013. 250 pages. Translated by Veronika Patočková. ISBN 978-80-7294-869-7.


Zuzana Schwarzová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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