The Roma People in Britain: Background information when reading An Incomplete Revenge

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An Incomplete Revenge

A Maisie Dobbs Novel

by Jacqueline Winspear

An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2008, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2008, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kathy Pierson

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
The Roma People in Britain

Print Review

From the first page to the last, Winspear sympathetically portrays Maisie Dobb's acceptance of and respect for Roma people, and celebrates their spirit. Sometimes referred to pejoratively as "gypsies" in English speaking countries (a corruption of "Egyptian"), this ancient, family-centered culture is believed to have emerged from warrior classes in what is now Pakistan over a millennium ago. Migrating north and west into Europe by the 16th century, today's Roma are divided by their Indo-Iranian dialect into three general populations: the Dom of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the Lom of Central Europe, and the Rom of Western Europe.

Roma, which simply means "people" in the Romani language, now constitute the European Community's largest ethnic minority, at an estimated 8 to 12 million people (the same population as Sweden or Belgium). Nevertheless, they remain the least integrated and most persecuted ethnic group in Europe. As in Winspear's novel of 1931, Roma still experience frequent hostility throughout Europe. The BBC News calls them "one of the world's most marginalized racial groups," and the Chairman of Britain's Commission for Racial Equality describes the discrimination against Gypsies as the "last 'respectable' form of racism in Britain."

History reveals centuries of exclusion, discrimination, and intolerance against the Roma across Europe – actions which were often large-scale and state-sponsored in origin (for example, an estimated 0.5 - 1.5 million were killed by the Nazis). The roots of prejudice and oppression are tied to stereotypes about hygiene, begging, vagabondage, and other illegal activity. But there are also practical challenges that, centuries ago, made it difficult for a settled agrarian society to accommodate traveling communities; challenges that are even greater in a highly industrialized and overcrowded country such as Britain today.

Today, the population of Britain is over 60 million, compared with about 35 million in Maisie Dobb's day and 10 million in 1800. Many local authorities provide land for traveling communities, but stiff changes in land use laws and vast reductions in traditional common areas, compared with centuries past, leads to illegal squatting, which in turn increases evictions and fuels continued resentment towards traveling communities of any type - many of whom are not part of a recognized ethnic group such as the Roma but simply loosely knit groups of people who prefer not to settle.

Having said that, although the perception/prejudice of the Roma has been of traveling communities, Roma historians today argue that in fact the Roma were never typical nomads and that it was banishment, flight or trade that kept them moving on (much in the same way as the Jewish communities in Europe moved over the centuries). Today, it is estimated that perhaps 5% of Roma still travel. However, the Roma's traditional social organization, which includes a distrust for education by non-Roma, fosters their separation from the societies they live in, which tends to lead to low literacy rates, low employment rates and low levels of integration and acceptance.

In their struggles to achieve and maintain dignity and freedom, today's Roma are increasingly vocal and active about the need to offset these problems. They seek political protection to live their lives and protect their unique culture, and refuse to accept complacency in the face of anti-Roma propaganda and violence around the world.

Interesting Links
Romahistory.com
Romani.org
Beliefs and practices of the Roma

Article by Kathy Pierson

This article was originally published in March 2008, and has been updated for the November 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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