Tomáš Bystrý: The Czech national anthem gives me chills
The ARA ART organization is organizing celebrations of this year's International Romani Day in the Czech Republic and has chosen to focus on the theme of romipen (the Romani world view). Because identity is something that we are all engaged with, this year we will be interviewing people to ask how they perceive their own identity.
We will be asking various people what their understanding of the meaning of the word "romipen" is - and indirectly, the meaning of čechipen (Romanes for Czech identity or world view). We are beginning with Tomáš Bystrý.
Tomáš Bystrý graduated in journalism from the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University and in media studies from Metropolitan University Prague. His dream has come true - he makes his living as a journalist.
For me he became a significant figure during his studies, when I invited him to talk with students at the Faculty of Humanities at Charles University. At the end of the talk they asked him whether he wants to dedicate his journalistic work to Romani subject matter as well.
Having just spent an hour speaking to them about how he dislikes distinguishing between non-Roma and Roma, the question evidently angered him. "You know what I have to say to that? I just want to be a good journalist, not a Romani journalist," he said.
The students just stared at him and that was the end of the talk. I am very glad we can continue that debate today in this interview.
Q: What does romipen mean to you and in what situations have you experienced it or are you experiencing it?
A: To conceptualize the meaning of the term "romipen" is terribly complicated. The way I perceive it, or the way it is seen by those around me or how I have read about it, means it is defined as a set of ethical and, let's say, societal norms that apply inside of Romani society. However, I would emphasize that's at the most general level. At the same time it is something that is really very intimate for me and there I see the paradox of what it means. As I say, on the one hand it is an individual, intimate matter, that can be perceived by each of us in very different ways, but paradoxically it is also something that we call or that I am calling a group identity.
Q: Could you try to give us an example?
A: Well exactly - that's not really feasible, but what seems important to me is its close connection to identity. However, I also perceive it as closely linked to paťiv, which is basically esteem towards those who are your elders, for example, That is displayed in different ways. What is typical, for example, of many Romani people, me included, is that we cannot imagine putting our parents into a retirement home. If I were to greatly exaggerate, I would say that if my Mom or Grandma says something, then I can think what I like about it in my own mind, I do not have to uncritically accept absolutely all they say, but I respect what they say and I show that it is important to me what the older person is saying. However, it is true that sometimes I don't hold back, I lecture even people who are more experienced or older than me, very often, and I do my best to convince them of my own truth. In daily, regular life it would be unimaginable to me that I would take the tram and not offer my seat to an older woman, for example. I would be ashamed of myself if I failed to do that. So it's also paťiv, or, let's just say polite behavior. However, naturally there are many model situations that are directly related to Romani traditions. These are, in my opinion, inseparable components of romipen, but it does not mean they are all there is to it. Here's an example: If I visit my mother and my sister- in-law comes in, I will not be walking around in my undershorts, because that is just not acceptable. While we are talking about this, though, I am asking myself whether that's not just romipen but maybe čechipen too? What do you think?
Q: Are Romani traditions important to you?
A: I consider myself a modern young person, but yes, they are, they constantly reconnect me with my roots and are essential to my identity. However, I am not able to agree with all of the Romani traditions, even if some people believe they are components of romipen. Despite some people upholding these traditions, basically I exclude them from my concept of what romipen is, paradoxically. I will give you an example. I know that when a child is born into a Romani family, one of the first questions Romani people will frequently ask each other is whether the child is dark-skinned or white. If the child is white, then it is - here I exaggerate a bit - placed a bit higher up in the hierarchy than if the child is white. For many people the child will even be considered more beautiful. That contravenes romipen, because such a reaction references the fact that it is considered best for a child to not be visibly Romani. On the other hand, naturally this is connected with our societal situation. Romani people are pragmatic, so they say to themselves that a white child will have an easier future. There are many other moments that are paradoxical for me. The relationship some Romani people have toward homosexuals, for example. In some families it is still the case that such people are excommunicated, or if not then they are served food on "special" dishes, or that the dish they eat from will be thrown away after they have used it. Basically, I absolutely have no idea whether that is or is not a component of romipen, but It is not paťiv, esteem for others. Naturally there are also gadje [non-Romani] families where the reception of homosexuality is not exactly brilliant either, but the dining restrictions and social status inside the Romani community are probably worse, especially because for many Romani people their family solidarity is immeasurably important. I have forgotten to mention one more thing that is part of romipen for me, and that is a kind of magical experience that is typical of Romani people - I don't want to romanticize us here, though. I will try to explain. My Czech friends, for example, would probably not understand if I were to say that one week after somebody in my family died I received a visit from that person, and that I know I was visited because the door suddenly slammed for no reason. If they were to tell me something like that, I would have much more understanding for it than other people might.
Q: What is čechipen to you and in which situations do you experience it?
A: In my opinion each of us can have a million identities, and čechipen is undoubtedly a component of my identity - just like romipen is. As a young child, if you are Romani, you perceive that you are different from the others, I have the bad luck or the good luck of looking different, I see this with my father - not as much with my Mom, she is light-skinned. I began to feel what romipen is, to perceive and understand it, rather late in life. It was probably during the second half of puberty, around age 14. Until then I had not learned one word of the Romanes language, I could not understand it, maybe somebody won't like this comparison but I essentially lived a gadje life, which means that until then I had no Romani friends basically, except for people in my family. That ended at 15, and in that my life is intertwined with my profession. I came to romipen thanks to what I began doing. I had always wanted to do media and I began to follow the Romani media, I began to like Romani songs, I began to buy books about Romani culture and history, I really admired Romani journalists, and that was my path to romipen. That was how I came to know my own self, how I got to basically perceiving my own identity. However, I did know - and it still applies to this day - that I love the Czech Republic, I love Prague, and I love my Czech friends. Whenever I hear the Czech national anthem it gives me chills. I must admit that I don't always feel that when I hear "Gelem, gelem" [the international Romani anthem], but at the same time a Romani halgat will bring me to tears. That means I feel romipen, but it doesn't somehow replace the čechipen that is simply part of who I am.
Q: Is romipen/čechipen something that aids us with coexistence, can it be (and in what situations), or is it rather something that distances us from each other?
A: I think both situations apply. There are matters that are incompatible with what we are calling čechipen, but at the same time there are many intersections between čechipen and romipen where we are connected. Those are exactly those ethical or moral principles, or societal norms that all people have in common. It doesn't matter if this is čechipen, romipen, vietnamipen or some other neologism – maďaripen. Simply put, we are just people - and it is good to remind ourselves of that now and again.
Q: If we could travel to the future and if you had a dream about how the comprehension of these words would change, which direction would that evolve in? What would that look like?
A: I am pragmatic in many matters, so I do not desire for these discussions to move in any direction during the next 10 years. I do wish that 10 years from now we will not be living separately, but together - this is a terribly nice, often-repeated phrase, but it would be fine if we could encounter each other more, if Romani women were hired to sell things in shops, if that would be a customary thing. I sometimes catch myself being amazed when a Romani man serves me in a restaurant or when I meet a local police officer on the street who is Romani, but I do not want to see that as something exceptional, I would like it to be so customary that I wouldn't even notice it. That, in my opinion, is the best integration project. Non-Romani people in the Czech Republic have too few personal experiences with Romani people - or they emphasize just the bad ones. I hear this from my non-Romani acquaintances, colleagues, friends - "Come take a look at our town and what it looks like there." However, at the same time those same people will then say: "I had a Romani classmate, Pepa was super, I miss him, I used to go over to his house and his parents were great." I would wish for that kind of story to not be the exception. That goes both ways. I also want to tell my children about my best friend in high school and what we got up to together, and I want it to be all the same whether that person was Romani or not.
Thanks for the interview.
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