Maami Babka always told me “beš banges, alje phenel vorta” (sit bent, but speak straight); in essence to always speak the truth. In our family, words were not gentle flowers, dropped lovingly and left to bloom; They were great squawking flocks of crows, cawing and flapping and tearing at the silence. We were, as outsiders called us, rowdy. There was never much quietness in our lives. Pauses were filled with stories, songs, debates, poems, music, and dancing.
Our words to others perhaps seem blunt, weighted with a heavy honesty. Our nicknames, for example, often referred to physical differences, and were certainly not ‘politically correct’. One kako was named bajušiči – little moustache – because he couldn’t grow facial hair, and another pizdino – from pizdino manuš, dwarf – because he was really short. My nicknames focused a lot on my light skin, a favourite of my Paapu’s was bradji – a joke, because it means “pail” and not “pale” and (as he often said) unless you put something in it, it’s no use to anyone – implying that I was empty-headed. My elder brother? šošojengi mačka – literally rabbit cat, for ferret – because he was always ferreting things out he shouldn’t …
We never minded these words. There was no malice behind them and we never treated them as negative aspects of ourselves. Rather, they became positive, because they were what made us different; what made us stand out from all the other Romani. Despite the appearance of a rough exterior, our communities are based on empathy – understanding and compassion are the norm, with food, money, and other support being given freely to anyone who is deemed in need. I remember my bibi handing over pot after pot of food to take over to a relative who didn’t have enough, no questions asked. No reason needed.
These spoken words became our voices – echoing the warmth and contours of our lives. Many of these words fell in orderly lines, creating poems and stories. Every evening someone told some kind of tale or other. They were implored to “vakerel avka sar hin” (tell it how it is). Most of stories were either of the pherasuno (funny) kind or the vitejziko (heroic) kind. Every single story began the same way: Sas kaj na sas, mre gule, bachtaleja the čačeja… (Once upon a time, my sweet, blessed and true… The word “God” was omitted because everyone knew that words such as “sweet”, “blessed”, and “true” could only be applied to God). My grandfather often told the same stories over, but would change key things about them depending on what had happened that day.
These stories were filled with sarcasm, laughter, sadness, happiness, courage… young boys fought dragons and evil witches; young girls outwitted the devil or evil goblins; men who tricked other Romani lost everything and women who cheated were killed. These voices permeated every moment of our lives until we were old enough to go to school.
There were other voices then – voices we didn’t understand, sharp and angry. We were told our own voices were those of animals and retards. We were told we were too angry, too loud, too feral. We had our spirits broken so that we could fit into lives that weren’t ours.
We have a saying:
t’avel gadžo ke řomeste andre kher, rodel mel. t’avel řom ke gadžeste, rodel charakteris
A gadjo visiting Roma looks for dirt, while a Roma visiting gadjo looks for character
And it is true. Non-Romani judged everything about us because of our ethnicity and culture; our words and our voices were too foreign to them, too threatening in their sometimes soft-footed, sometimes thundering way. When my uncles would meet, they’d tell raucous stories, argue, fake-fight each other. They’d tell džungalo stories, shooing me loudly away if I happened to be nearby so I wouldn’t hear their vulgarity. There are many džungale lava – forbidden words – that women especially cannot say. Yet, these have very little correlation with English. I was never very good at following the traditions and got in serious trouble more than once for being disrespectful and foul-mouthed… My grandfather always got angry and said I spoke like a boy and told me no one would want to marry such an abomination …
I think that my family (and I) have a very particular voice. The timbre and resonance of our lives shaped by the weight of cultural trauma and its legacies; The accent and beat of our lives interrupted by evictions, wrongful arrests, discrimination, intimidation, oppression; The cadence pock-marked with poverty and hunger. We sing our lives, full of woodsmoke and whiskey. Hoof beats a distant memory, echoing in each line of dukhadji gilja.
We are all at once too loud and too quiet, too sarcastic and too straightforward, too innocent and too bitter… I am all of these things and many others. My voice is wrapped in tradition and rebellion; in good daughter and bad; in silence and in screaming.
Maybe I’m not perfect, maybe I’m too emotional and too loud and too chaotic, but as my Maami said,
pal o pora prindžares čirikles, pal o lava prindžares manušes…
you recognize a bird by his feathers, a man by his words…
and for good or bad,
these are my words
these are my feathers.