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So se o Romanipen? – What is Romanipen?

So se o Romanipen? – What is Romanipen?


What does Romanipen mean?

This is a question that I am often asked when I give talks about Romani culture, and aside from the simple definition of the word (culturally accepted Romani-ness), it’s quite a hard one to answer, and even means slightly different things to different people. So, here are my thoughts on what Romanipen means to me:

Blood. In the main, Romanipen requires authentic heredity; but there are occasional exceptions made to this. One, that is seen in many if not most tribes (especially in the old days), is that infants of non-Romani blood could be adopted into the tribe and raised as Roma; our love for children and unwillingness to let a child suffer has always been well-known, and very commonly, gàdjia with infants that they didn’t want or could not care for would abandon them near the closest Romani encampment knowing that they would be cared for. In the days before social services existed, this provided a very humane solution and saved many lives. Such children would, of course, be raised as Roma even though they were gàdje, and in due course would marry a partner within the tribe, and so they have been the source of much of the European blood that has gradually entered into some tribes over the centuries. Secondly, a number of tribes will occasionally permit an adult (usually a woman) to marry into the tribe on the condition of entirely adopting Romani culture and language, and in fact I had a gàdji ancestress five generations back who “ran away with the Roma” and was “adopted” in this way, making me 3% Irish by blood.

Language. This is, of course, contentious – because nowadays, not everyone with Romani heredity still speaks Romani. But many, many native Romani speakers contend that if you don’t speak Romani you can’t be truly Rom or Romni; we use the word kashtale, or in my dialect kàshtune, (literally, „wooden ones”) to mean people of Romani blood but who can’t speak Romani (and I strongly suspect that most Romani speakers would say that Angloromani, i phanghiadi chib [the broken language], doesn’t count as Romani because it’s something like 80% English). Myself, I would at least go as far as to say that our language is a critical and beautiful part of our identity, our history and our culture, for all that I think that the so-callled “dialect wars” that often break out are dishonorable and stupid – and I’m not going to express any opinion either way on Angloromani; although I’m a native Romani speaker, having lived in England for many years I have a good many Angloromani-speaking friends and I respect them. It is far better that we respect our diversity than to argue about who has the “best” or “purest” dialect of Romani – that is a false and divisive argument in any case; I have friends who speak a number of different dialects of Romani and in my experience, most native speakers manage to understand each other without too much difficulty, given a little while to acclimatize to an unfamiliar dialect. The only serious difficulty arises with unfamiliar loanwords.

In my view, preserving our language in all of its thousands of different dialects and teaching it to the next generation so that it does not die out is of critical importance; this preservation of the things which make us who we are is a key part of Romanipen and something that I devote a great deal of my time and effort to.

Culture. This is the soul and centre of Romanipen, in my view. Of course, in the XXI century I don’t mean that we should all live in horse-drawn varde and travel from place to place (much as I would love to live like that; during my travelling days I used a motor caravan, regrettably); some families have been settled for centuries and some Roma have managed to make their way very successfully in the world of the gàdje. Instead, it’s about basic values and traditions; respect, honour, morality, the family and clan, elders being the holders of experience and knowledge, and keeping our old ways alive as far as possible in the modern world.

Decency and modesty are also key values of our culture, now sadly being lost in some quarters; all too often I have seen young Romnia conducting themselves in ways that honestly shock and disgust me, dressing immodestly, dancing provocatively (our traditional dance styles are beautiful and elegant but not sexually provocative), and all in all acting like total lubnia [whores] (and don’t even get me started on their actual sexual behaviour); I expect to see such lubnipen from gàdjia, but not from Romnia. We should be above such disgusting antics. To abandon the standards of decent behaviour is also to abandon one’s Romanipen, in my view.

Another central part of Romanipen is remembering that there are more important things in life than the acquisition of wealth and power (this is a personal red rag for me, I consider the conspicuous displays of wealth indulged in by some Roma to be tasteless and bipativale [dishonorable] in the extreme; call me a stick-in-the-mud if you like!) and that such is not the route to happiness, but instead is the poison of the gàdje and wherever it touches our culture it contaminates it. And, of course, maintaining our traditions of music, song, dance and story too: they do far more than simply providing entertainment, they are the “glue” that binds our culture together and passes our values, beliefs and cultural knowledge down from one generation to the next, something indispensable in a culture that is still mostly an oral one.

Religion and magic. This is often a source of contention. Nowadays, the majority of Roma in the north and west of the diaspora are Christian, with a significant Moslem population in the south-east. But, despite what some people may try to claim, it was not always so; for centuries, our ancestors who lived in close contact with gàdje (mostly those living a settled lifestyle) found it convenient to pay lip-service to the local gàdjikano religion but in truth retained the phuro pachipen or Old Faith, our original belief system which came with us from India and is a blend of a simplified version of archaic (Vedic/Puranic-era) Hinduism – simplified because our ancestors were illiterate and had no scriptures – mixed with even older animistic/Pagan beliefs. In much of western Europe, and most certainly in Britain, gross violence was perpetrated by the gàdje in an attempt to destroy our culture and especially the phuro pachipen and to enforce Christianization; in England, thousands of Roma were tortured, burned or hanged under accusations of witchcraft; even so, there were still many who had not converted as late as the XIX century. My own Romanichal ancestors, who had arrived in England circa 1500 CE, very quickly fled to the far south-west of Ireland, which was effectively out of reach of the English persecutors (and was Gaelic-speaking, avoiding the linguistic toxicity that English has to the Romani language), remaining there until the early XX century, and so were able to retain both our language and the phuro pachipen, which I still follow.

So, as regards religion and Romanipen, what I would say is that we are deeply spiritual people, but it doesn’t matter which particular faith we follow, so long as it teaches love and kindness. It is also a very old principle amongst us that we accept each other no matter that we may follow different paths of faith; this comes from the old Indian concept of there being “many Paths to know Spirit”. Recently, I am very sad to say, a form of very intolerant evangelical Christianity that is totally alien to traditional Romani values has “jumped” from gàdjikano culture into Romani culture (probably as a matter of deliberate recruitment policy by gàdje evangelists, initially), and has proved extremely destructive where it has been adopted; its adherents are of the view that they, and only they, are on the “right path”, everyone else is damned, they even deny that Roma were ever anything other than Christian or that we ever had any magical/”witchcraft” traditions – which is just plain crazy as it flies in the face of the facts; and they are extremely hostile to those of us who retain the phuro pachipen and the old magical traditions.

As for magical traditions, again I would say that these should be seen as part of true Romanipen, and losing them rips away part of the true heart of our being. As a Chovahàni/Dravengri/Sastimeskri myself (in the proper traditional meaning of the term chovahàni, being a healer, prognosticator, worker of useful magic and general „wise-woman”, and certainly not the stereotypical evil hag invented by the Christians), it saddens me hugely when I see how many Roma have either lost the magical traditions entirely or have reduced them to the status of fairground side-shows or a kind of hokhapen [trickery/scam], suitable only to relieve gullible gàdje of a few dollars and not to perform actual magic. Incidentally, this is the source of the prohibition that many clans have on performing any form of dukeripen [prognostics, fortune-telling] for other Roma: among those of us who retain true magical abilities and the training to use them properly (which is by no means trivial), the first call on our abilities is for our own people, the only restriction is of course that our abilities are given freely and not charged for (there’s no rule against charging gàdje for our services as healers or workers of magic, naturally).

Who has Romanipen? There is not, and never has been, any central authority to grant Romanipen. It is recognised on a collective basis by other Roma, based more-or-less on the criteria that I have described. However, in very recent time, there has been an attempt by at least one NGO, founded by a couple of people whose own claims to Romanipen are extremely questionable (to the extent that one of them is white and a non-Romani-speaker, while the other is known to have lied totally about his background), to appoint themselves as an „official arbiter” of who, coming into „their” country, has Romanipen. This is absolutely wrong and flies in the face of all Romani tradition; it is nothing less than corruption and empire-building, and is a prime example of what happens when corrupt gàdjikano ideas get into our society.

It is also possible to lose one’s Romanipen, if one commits a sufficiently awful offence against Romani traditional law. Such punishments would be meted out either by a Kris (tribal court) in tribes that have one, or an equivalent convocation of elders otherwise (Romani traditional justice is based very much upon consensus). If a judgement of life-long màkhadipen is handed down, this amounts to being ejected from Romani tribe and society (and some tribes, mine included, actually have a formal judgement of loss of Romanipen reserved as the ultimate punishment); either way, the word goes out that the guilty party is now persona non grata and everyone shuns them, under pain of themselves being declared màkhade if they fail to follow the judgement. For traditional travelling Roma especially, this is a tremendously severe punishment; rejected by both the house-dwellers and their own people, the guilty person finds they are totally shunned and alone for the rest of their life, and for a Rom or Romni who has been used to the close company and support of a large extended family and clan around them, this is punishment indeed.


(sursa foto: din arhiva personală a Nataliei Ivend)

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