Sometimes a truth is revealed more by its absence than its presence. So it is with the Gypsy, or Roma, people, whose circumstances tell us more about the broad social and political functions of nationalism than one at first might think.
The Roma are at the bottom of the European ethnic heap, under-housed, undereducated, underemployed, underserved, underrepresented and actively discriminated against by landlords, employers, school administrators and governments. Their fate differs from country to country; Roma appear to be better integrated and more content in Spain, for example, than in Romania.1 But nowhere is their situation good.
At the core of the Roma’s troubles is the fact that they are a people without a land—but with a twist. To say that a people is without a land can mean at least three things. It can mean that, for one reason or another, a people does not in the main live in the land with which it is historically associated. That was true, of course, of the Jews for most of the past 2,000 years. But it has been true, too, for what are sometimes called projection states—states defined by the fact that more members of a particular group live outside their homeland than within it. That was the case for Greeks during much of the 19th century, and it is true for Lebanese and Armenians today.
For a people to be without a land can also refer to a lack of sovereign control over a territory or country in which, in fact, most of the national group does live. That is the case today for the many peoples, including the Kurds, Puerto Ricans, Berber, Baloch, Palestinians, Basques, Aymara and Quechua.
But the Roma are different, if not unique.2 The Roma are “without a land”, and thus by definition without a state, not only because they have no history of attachment to a particular territory, but because Gypsy culture does not value attachment to place.
That is why if you think you know, or if you want to know, where the Roma “really” came from, you are revealing yourself as a Gazo—a non-Gypsy. The first substantive attempt to discover their origin came in 1783, when Heinrich Grellmann of the University of Göttingen demonstrated the similarity of the principal family of Gypsy languages, Romani, to Sanskrit. Other Roma languages are Slavic, but linguistic analysis of languages in the Romani group indicates that Gypsies originated in or around Kashmir or the Punjab. Genetic studies in recent years have substantiated this evidence by demonstrating that, although Gypsies have intermarried as freely as other peoples, most of Europe’s Roma groups can trace an ancestral line to the Subcontinent.
This information has not excited much...