The Romani, Roma, Roms or Gypsies (a misnomer which has survived since Europeans thought they were Egyptians) have intrigued many a European vacationer. In the absence of a consistent narrative about the itinerant people, many Westerners who encounter Roms in their travels rely on fictional depictions of the culture, leading them to consider Roms as merely exotic entertainment or even as a minor threat. In his new book The Romani Gypsies, Yaron Matras, professor of Linguistics and editor of the journal Romani Studies, challenges the stereotypes surrounding this ostracized community throughout Europe and America. Idealized as free spirits, shunned as beggars, vilified as criminals and respected as entertainers, the Romani presented by Matras are three-dimensional figures whose culture has survived the march of time.
Descendants of Indian migrants, Roms first moved into western Europe in the 1300s, fleeing the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. Over the next few hundred years they spread throughout Europe, taking odd jobs as itinerant smiths, healers and entertainers. While throughout the centuries Roms have been enslaved, forced to settle and forcibly expelled, they have shown a remarkable resilience in the face of persecution. Matras depicts their ongoing struggle today as the Romani community strives for political recognition in ambivalent and sometimes openly hostile countries. Academic in scope, Matras’ book is an accessible and informative read for anyone traveling through countries with high populations of Romani. His text offers a perspective-shifting account of an ever-changing people with a fascinating history and uncertain future.