The Time of The Gypsies. Or Not.

Does Albania have a sizeable population of Middle Eastern origin? Official terminology suggests so and regularly confuses an international audience. What may be a local peculiarity highlights the need for scientifically robust terminology when talking about ethnic or national minorities and goes to show that policies protecting their rights aren’t always as simple as they seem.

Brisilda Taco from the Albanian NGO Rromano Kham is on point: „They do not consider themselves Roma. And they certainly don’t want to be called Gypsies“.

We had been talking about why official Albanian documents and Romani activists like herself always referred to „Roma and Egyptians“ in Albania.

Egyptians in Albania?

It’s not like the country had been a hot spot for immigration in living memory and much beyond – much like pretty much any other country on the Balkan peninsula.

Officially, there are a little over 3.000 people in Albania who referred to themselves als Egjiptianet or Jevgs in the 2011 census. This literally translates as Egyptians.

This is only the official number. Actual figures are likely to be many times that.

As they are a Romani minority, it is not so attractive to officially identify as a member.

Anticiganism is widespread and open on the Balkans. Albania is no exception, though some would say it is better there than in other places.

„Egyptian“ representatives claim that the number is somewhere between 200.000 and 250.000.

This statement is somewhat disputed.

There also people defined as Egyptians in various local languages and idioms in the neighboring countries, the greatest official number being in Kosovo which gives the figure to be a little over 20.000.

Egyptians Who Are Not Egyptians

While they call themselves and are referred to as Egyptians even in official translations, they are not in any meaningful sense Egyptians.

They are members of the national group most often called Romani which comprises among others Roma as the biggest ethnic group or tribe among them and Sinti and Lovara.

For once it is appropriate to describe this in colloquial though not necessarily politically correct English: The group of ethnicities called Gypsies.

This term should be avoided, true.

Yet, in this very particular case it fits like a glove.

The term „Gypsy“ and „Egyptian“ actually mean the same thing. As does the French term „Gitan“: Someone coming from Egypt.

In the Middle Ages it was believed that Romani peoples and tribes or at least some of them had emigrated from the Nile, possibly even at Biblical times.

In Albania, there are some other versions of the story as well, including the claim of a descendence from Coptics in the 4th century or actual Egyptian slaves as recent the 19th century.

(For more details see HERE).

There is no historical evidence for any of these claims.

Nations Are Narrations

As, for that matter, there is little or sometimes no historical evidence for the claims about the origins of many tribes, peoples and nations, be they minorities or majority populations.

Nations are narrations.

Which does not make them entirely arbitrary, however.

As soon as a sufficient number of people identifies with a narration and internalizes it, the product of the narration becomes a social and thus a political reality.

Deconstructing these narrations is more difficult than many woke philosophers would have us believe.

Usually it takes an outside force to transform a people into a new people or merge it with another – be it technological progress, famine, migration, wars or revolutions.

Once nations are there they are hard to get rid of.

Internal Divisions

International bodies sometimes use the terminology Egyptians in the English translation and sometimes avoid it, preferring local terms like Jevgs.

This not only due to the fact that for many outsiders the notion of a sizeable Egyptian minority in Albania is somewhat confusing.

It’s also that the conflict around the terminology highlights the conflicts within the Romani community in Albania as well as the dispute Jevgs have with Albanian authorities over the nature of their very existence.

Unified terminology would help here. It would probably be better to formally adopt the term Jevgs rather than Egyptians.

Jevgs claim that they are not a part of the Romani family of ethnicities and nations.

Albanian authorities say they are.

While what little scientific evidence there is seems to be more on the side of Albanian authorities, there is no definitive proof for either statement.

Jevgs have assmiliated into the Albanian majority society and, at least for the most, use Albanian as their colloquial language.

What Is Romanes?

Albanian Roma generally have their local Romanes idiom as their first language, Albanian being their second language.

Romanes is the umbrella term for the idioms, dialects and languages Romani peoples and tribes all over the world speak.

It is a Indoeuropean language originating from India where Romani have originally emigrated from in several waves.

Generally, the idioms, dialects and languages that are defined as Romanes contain a varying degree of local vocabulary, comparably to Yddish or Ladino, which is also called Judeo-Spanish.

For the most, these tongues are mutally intelligible, though sometimes with difficulty.

Alongside parts of the vocabulary, pronounciations vary considerably and according to local conditions.

The degree of variation also reflects the fact that Romanes was „only“ an oral language for most of its history and still is in many parts of the world.

This is a direct result of the constant discrimination Romani experienced and very often still experience throughout their history.

The discrimination mostly included and often still includes denying them education.

So, while there is a considerable body of poems and epics in Romanes, little has been written down today and most of it exists as oral tradition, always threatened by the pressure on Romani to assimilate.

Of True and False Scotsmen

That Romani groups in a country or region do not fully intermingle is not unusual, nor is it a Romani peculiarity.

Scots and English do not consider each other one and the same although, with few exceptions, by now they have the same mother tongue.

There are historical and cultural differences among them, though they have been watered down considerably by mutual migration.

In that sense, there actually is true and false Scotsmen, at least in the non-proverbial sense – although the latter probably would rather call themselves English. Or whatever else.

(Which begs the question: Would the third generation son of an Indian immigrant in Glasgow be considered a true Scotsman? If not, how useful is distinguishing between Scots and „other inhabitants“ of Scotland, anyhow?)

This also shows how painfully difficult it is to define groups.

In Austria, the native country of this author, nationalist Turks for instance have put forward the demand that Turks should be recognised as a national minority in Austria.

This would give them a number of collective rights.

One of the many questions associated with this is who is to be considered Turkish and who gets to decide this.

Turks are a nation that is less than a century old.

Basically, it is a term Kemal Atatürk used after the Turkish war of independence for all Muslim inhabitants of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire now called Republic of Turkey. Many non-Muslims were more or less forcefully coopted into this national identity as well.

So, the term Turks as used by nationalist Turks refers to Turk-speaking people with roots in modern day Turkey, Turk-speaking people living on the territory of the former Ottoman Empire, Kurds, Lazes, Armenians, Bosnjaks, Muslim Bulgarians living in modern day Turkey, Tartarians living in modern day Turkey and many, many others.

The Romani Have Many Names

Quite often Romani were divided into new groups by pressure of the majority populations.

Many terms individual groups go by are actually the terms for the profession or specialisation prevalent in the group decades or sometimes a century or more ago.

In Central Europe the classic example would be that of the Lovara, which translates as horse traders.

Depending on the region, Lovara may consider themselves to be distinct from or to be a subgroup of Roma.

Of course, the everyday needs of Roma and Jevgs and other Romani groups in Albania – or the entire Balkans, for that matter – are more pressing than these considerations.

Discrimination and Poverty

All of these groups are disproportionally affected by manifest poverty, unemployment, increased mortality, high drop out rates in the educational system and other adverse conditions that are results of discrimination.

(A rather drastic example was told in THIS story.)

Also, housing generally is markedly worse than for the majority population.

To date, Romani are often forced to live on the periphery of towns and cities, regularly without plumbing or electricity.

These conditions form a vicious circle that make it hard, if not impossible, for most to escape.

It is these material conditions that need to be addressed before any consideration can be given as to whether one policy of cultural support can be applied to all groups or not.

But then again, if parts of one group, such as the fairly assimilated Jevgs, do not want to have anything to do with the others, policies improving material conditions may be more difficult to implement.

Whether or not we want it, we all have fully internalized the various national narratives we have grown up in.

We all distinguish between „our“ group and „the others“ – though to what degree varies considerably, as does the importance which we attribute to it.

For many of us it is possible to put groups under similar social and economic conditions – i.e. class – before whatever national or ethnic collective we live in or are a member of.

For many of us, unfortunately, it is not.

So it is with Romani and Jevgs in Albania.

Many cooperate fruitfully. Some do not.

The latter should not and must not be an excuse for better off people not to give them the support and solidarity they need.

If you want to find out more about Roma and Jevgs in Albania or how to support these marginalized groups, you can contact the NGO Rromano Kham.

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