THE MUSLIM ROMA IN GREEK THRACE

In northern-eastern Greece, near the Greek-Turkish borders, in the area of Thrace exists a Muslim minority (100.000 people) consisting of Turkish-speaking, Pomac-speaking and Romani-speaking populations.

The Gypsies (self-appellation Roma) have lived in Greek lands for centuries. Most historians think that the first big settlements of Gypsies on the Balkans (or Hemus peninsula), and more specifically in Thrace, can be dated back to the beginning of the 9th century. Abundant historical evidence points to the presence of Gypsies in the Byzantine Empire and their entry into Serbia, Wallahia and Moldova in the period 11th-14th century.

There is a wealth of information about Gypsy presence in Thrace (Greek, Bulgarian and Turkish parts) at the time of Ottoman Empire. They were mentioned in many laws and other official documents, mostly tax registers, under the names Cengene or Kipti. Gypsies in the Ottoman Empire were actively setting in towns and villages. A new type of semi nomadic way of life was established too- the Gypsies had a permanent winter residence and an active nomadic season in the respective region. Often some Gypsies would break away from the traditional Gypsy occupations and take up farming or menial labour in the cities.

Gypsies had a special place in the overall social and administrative organization of the Ottoman Empire. They were differentiated according to the ethnic principle (some rather unusual for the Ottoman Empire), with no sharp differentiation between Muslims and Christians in social status. There were some small privileges for Muslim Gypsies of taxes payment.

The Muslim Romas of the Greek Thrace are a remarkable exception worldwide, as since 1923 judging by the religion, they have legally belonged to the homo-religious Muslim community, that has a totally different language (Turkish) and different cultural characteristics.

The education provided to the Muslim community overall, according to Greek-Turkish agreements, obliges the Gypsies to learn a foreign language (Turkish) apart from the official state language which is Greek.

The Gypsies today are roughly numbered in 20.000 people and in their vast majority they use the Turkish language and only a mere percentage of 10-15% actually uses the Gypsy language, (Romani). The two basic cores of the gypsy language in the Greek Thrace is the quarter at the end of Andrianoupoleos street in Komotini and in the village Drosero in Xanthi. In quite a big extent the gypsy language is familiar to the generation that is around forty years old, however it is less and less used in the community, whereas their children mainly speak Turkish, since they attend classes in Turkish in the schools of the minority where they are taught both Greek and Turkish.

The dwellers of the two settlements mentioned above have been permanently situated in the area during the 20th century and still maintain many aspects of their former nomadic life. However their permanent habitation had serious social and financial consequences. All their traditional occupations gradually became extinct and together with that came the loss of the freedom they had when they had been wandering around. This decay has reflected upon the language as well. The Gypsy songs and tales were gradually replaced by the Turkish and Greek ones. Moreover they lost their self-respect, as a result of the social and financial exclusion they were subjected to, and some of them even felt shame to declare in public their own identity and found it preferable to often borrow foreign identities, such as the ones of the coreligionist Turks.

In those quarters quite often certain attempts are made towards the recording of the language. Such an attempt of great importance is the publication of the first Gypsy dictionary in 1998. It is a recording of about 1500 words that have survived and their origins can be traced down to the Indian dialects. Of course in their everyday life they tend to use a lot of Greek and Turkish words. Their language is basically used in their quarters whereas on the outside they speak Greek and Turkish. The dictionary was accepted in a very positive way, even though the majority of the population is illiterate and thus cannot read it. The fact that the dictionary was presented in a positive way from the media supported their appreciation for it.

Towards the same direction of supporting the language is the broadcasting in the Romani language, named Romano Give, once a week in a private radio station of Komotini. The initial reaction to the hearing of their language for the first time on the air was surprise. As time went by, they all realized that their language was not to be looked upon and that it also has its own part in the lingual mosaic of the region. It was touching that people of all ages had the opportunity to communicate using their language through a platform of public communication, when up until then they were reluctant even to speak on the telephone, as they werent fluent speakers of either Greek or Turkish. In the broadcast, Gypsy music of all Balkan countries as well as news concerning the Gypsies are heard, and the audience can express their views live and devote songs to their beloved persons. The spokespeople of the broadcast are young Gypsies.

In the city of Komotini there has been established a Gypsy cultural club called Rom that has a significant social and educational role. In 1999 this cultural association presented a performance of shadow-theatre in the Gypsy language in a cultural hall in Komotini. For the first time their humble language was uttered in such a place packed with people. There was a mixed audience, consisting both of Muslim Gypsies and Christian Greeks. This event was a major expression of the support and enhancement of the language. Despite that fact it was never repeated in the future due to financial reasons, yet it was written down deeply in the hearts and minds of the habitants of the certain region.

The football association called Roma is also a creation of the recent years and has successfully participated in the football championships achieving remarkable results. The team unites all youngsters of the quarters, others as football-players and others as fans, who devotedly follow the team to all the matches of the season. The dwellers, although they have very low incomes, support their team financially as much as they can, so that all expenses are covered.

One of the basic aims of the association was the establishment of a primary school inside the limits of the quarter where Gypsy pupils would be able to attend. The total of 280 families in the year 1999 signed a text of request addressing to the local educational and political authorities and claiming the establishment of a state primary school, so that the children wouldnt be obliged to go to other schools far away from their quarters. Their request was not taken into consideration at all as quite paradoxically such an action would be regarded as an action against the interests of the Turkish speaking Muslims and would consequently cause political reactions against the elected Christian local authorities. The representatives of the association have constantly put the issue forward to the local authorities. But they were always dealt with indifference and promises. The political situation in the area has prevented until today the foundation of the school. Thus the habitants are obliged to send their children to nearby schools, where either Christian students or Muslim students attend, and as a result the Gypsy children are often victims of discrimination. Such attitudes discourage them from regular attendance and in combination with the bad social conditions they live in they drop out of school.

A remarkable percentage of 20-25% of the little children do not go to school, whereas from the rest a vast majority will never finish school. The problems are even more intense among the girls who usually get married in an early age, between 14 and 17 years old. No student from the Gypsy quarter has ever continued his studies to upper high school (lyceum) and naturally no one has ever studied in university.

The constant change of residence of their parents at certain periods of time makes the attendance at school even more difficult. Furthermore, many children go to school in a higher age than appropriate and as a result additional problems are created concerning their relations with their schoolmates that are children of lower ages. The educators are obliged to teach them in faster pace some basic knowledge and then put them in classes according to their age.

However all parents agree that there should be classes with mere Gypsy children, at least for a number of years, as only in this way will the children be able to gain adequate knowledge. This is the reason why they claim a primary school in their own, so that their children will be able to exist in a familiar environment and not stick out from the rest of their fellow-students for the way they dress or other typical expressions of poverty. It appears that such a view actually finds support among the educators themselves. A similar view is expressed by a principle of a primary school in Athens, Ano Liosia), who in an interview he gave stated: Before I came here to the Gypsy neighborhood to witness myself the actual situation it seemed absurd tome that solemnly Gypsy classes could exist. Something like that might sound racist in a way and it would seem that it makes the problem of the exclusion of the Gypsies more intense. However, my experience showed me that the creation of such classes is necessary. Only through those classes the Gypsy children will gain some knowledge even though they didnt start school on time, without being a hindrance to the education of the children who attend classes regularly.

In the Gypsy quarter itself a peculiar situation exists as far as the knowledge gained is concerned, since others attend Muslim and others Christian schools. The experience that the children have and the level of their knowledge is quite different. Anyway their attendance in both cases faces serious problems.

Another request of the habitants is the operation of a kindergarten and a nursery school that will lead the way towards primary education. In the late nineties a kindergarten was established, which was unfortunately outside the neighborhood and as a consequence had very poor attendance. Despite this fact, during the two years of its operation, there were positive results to be presented, both in the socialization of the children and in the initiation of the basic hygiene rules. That was a private initiative and having no support by any instrumentality it stopped.

Although in a cultural level a group of Gypsies started getting organized, yet this isnt the case in the political level. There is no form of political organizing, and no Gypsy candidate has ever been elected in an important post. From time to time some members of the local council have been elected, but they come from a Gypsy quarter where they do not accept their descent and so there is a great difficulty of political co-operation with those who are self-determined as Gypsies. Anyway, it is a fact in Europe as well that the number of those who are self-determined as Gypsies is much smaller than the actual number of the existing Gypsies.

The cultural club Rom has been a member of the Hellenic Association of Gypsies that was founded in the mid-nineties, and contributes with its small power to the evolution of the Gypsy movement. It is the first club of Muslim Gypsies that was politically attached to the Christian Gypsies of Greece (around 200.000 people). But the Rom club represents only that part of the Muslim Gypsies of Thrace that accept their Gypsy identity, and not the ones that are self- as Muslims, as either Greek or Turkish Muslims. Even though among the later ones there is a move towards their unification with the Greek Gipsy movement, yet the conditions are not mature enough for such a development. This withdrawal is a hindrance to the exploitation of the positive measures taken by the Greek state, such as the provision of loans to homeless Gypsies.

In general, during the last years the policy of the Greek state towards the Gypsy populations has changed. The Gypsies themselves in co-ordination with the state and the local authorities take part meaningfully in the actual design of the policies and the projects that are of their interest. There are several development projects in process and Greece beyond the money given by the European Union provides money from the national account as well. The municipalities of Greece where Gypsy communities live have created a net in order to co-operate and solve the arising problems.

A serious hindrance to the development of a Gypsy movement among the Gypsies living in Thrace is the political conflict between Turkey and Greece. Turkey promotes the social and lingual unification of the Gypsies with the rest of the Muslim minority, the encouragement of the procedure of amplification of the Turkish influence, so that the population of the Muslim minority will increase and its political role in the region will be reinforced. As a consequence those Gypsies who attempt the promotion of their identity face hostility and even threats, officially or unofficially. Every move towards the conservation and promotion of the Gypsy identity is considered to be an anti-Turkish act, aiming to the tearing apart of the Muslim community and is dealt accordingly.

On the other side Greece refuses to take any kind of initiative in order to avoid reactions by the part of Turkey. So the defence of the Gypsy language and culture is left to the hands of private initiators and is subjected to failure since there is no political or financial reinforcement. The most important initiative in the field of the Gypsies is the one taken by a Greek businessman,

Mr Prodromos Emfietzoglou, who since 1996 has given a boost to the promotion and recognition of the Gypsy inheritance. He has been the main sponsor of a number of cultural events as well as social mediation particularly in the field of hygiene and children protection.

Representatives of the Greek state when suggesting Thrace as a model of peaceful co-operation between Christians and Muslims avoid any reference to the Gypsies. Even the over-estimated multi-cultural education excludes the Gypsies, who due to the designs of the two neighboring countries do not have the chance to be recognized as a special cultural group, with a language to become extinct. Information concerning the recording of the Gypsy language in other countries and the writing of educative books are pitiful.

As an aftermath to the Rom club establishment, followed the establishment of another Gypsy club called The Friendship of the Roma in a region about 10 km outside Komotini. However because of the reasons mentioned above it encountered many hindrances and reactions and practically put its works off.

The Rom club aims to its connection with the Gypsy movement in the rest of Greece that is quite developed. Actually the Christian Gypsies have established the association of Gypsy clubs of Greece. The Rom club actually participates as a founder member of the Association and is trying through these actions to reinforce its position in the particular, from a political point of view, area of Thrace.

 

 

 

Dr Antonis Liapis

Komotini, Greece

 

(Mercator Conference, Holland, 23-25/11/2004)