Mentorship | Roma

Evelyne Pommerat: “We have to be together with Roma people to fight against this racism”

By - 20.11.2018

Director of the Matéo Maximoff Media Library in Paris talks Roma arts and tackling discrimination.

Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights, prohibits discrimination on the basis of “national or social origin.” Nevertheless, it seems that when it comes to the Roma minority this article is constantly being violated.

The Roma are one of the largest ethnic groups in Europe, numbering around 12 million. Their origins are in the north of the Indian subcontinent with migration taking place throughout the middle ages. But despite being in Europe for over a millennium, the Roma continue to be marginalized, and in many countries are victims of segregation.

The Constitution of Kosovo also proclaims that Kosovo is a multi-ethnic society and the exercise of authority “shall be based upon the principles of equality of all individuals before the law and with full respect for internationally recognized fundamental human rights and freedoms, as well as protection of the rights and participation by all Communities and their members.”

However, the Roma minority in Kosovo is not properly represented in the civil administration, nor in other sectors of society, largely due to constant discrimination and stereotyping. This situation is also one of the factors behind the low levels of employment among the Roma community, where it is estimated that 92 percent are unemployed.

While politics have often failed to help fight prejudices against the Roma, there are those trying to fight anti-Gypsyism and stereotypes via art. The Rolling Film Festival, a festival that was held in Prishtina between November 13-16, 2018, is one such attempt. The festival tries to bring forward the rich culture of the Romani people through movies, documentaries, concerts, and art exhibitions.

One of the festival’s guests this year was Evelyne Pommerat, the director of an international library on Gypsy Studies, the Matéo Maximoff Media Library located in Paris, France. She told K2.0 that the Roma minority have helped in expanding culture in Europe, citing the example of the unknown role many Roma had in establishing early cinemas in France.

K2.0 attended the Rolling Film Festival and had the chance to meet with Evelyne Pommerat to discuss the life of Matéo Maximoff, Roma literature, and discrimination in western Europe.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

K2.0: Can you briefly describe your path toward becoming the director of the Matéo Maximoff Media Library and your interest in Roma issues?

Evelyne Pommerat: Yes of course! I have been working in the library since 1985, so a big part of my life has been dedicated to this topic.

First, it was because I hate racism. I knew that Roma people were very discriminated against so I decided to learn more about that. I discovered that there was a place dedicated to this topic in Paris, so I went there to get information. They proposed that I work at the library because I was a librarian, and until today I have been working there.

Matéo Maximoff is a French writer of Roma origin, whose work is well-known in France. However, most people in Kosovo have never heard his name before. Could you elaborate more on Matéo Maximoff, and why the library is named after him?

At the time when I started working there, the library was called Études Tsiganes (Gypsy studies), similar to the journal that has been published since the foundation of the library in 1949. The name was changed into Matéo Maximoff Media Library later on. Matéo Maximoff was one of the founders of the library so the naming was a kind of a celebration of his work with the library.

He did a lot in his life. When he was very young he managed to learn to read and write by himself, with a little help from his family, but mostly by himself. He grew up in Paris with his Roma family.

There was an event in his life which was very strange. A fight between two Roma families resulted in killings, and Matéo Maximoff ended up in jail. The appointed attorney to him, Jacques Isorni, told Matéo Maximoff to write down exactly what happened.

The attorney was astonished, as he did not know that Matéo Maximoff could write, let alone tell a story through writing as well as he could. The attorney suggested for him to continue writing and tell of his, and his Roma family’s, life, traditions, and culture.

Matéo Maximoff spent the war years in a concentration camp, similarly to many gypsy people. In France, there was a special camp for nomads, travelling people, and Matéo Maximoff wrote a book while [imprisoned there]. The book was a novel based on the lives of Roma people, their traditions and culture as well as their situation. [He hoped] that it would help him and his family to get out of the camp but the book was only published after the war.

It became well-known from the moment [it was published], and many people were interested in getting to know Maximoff’s story considering that he was one of the first Roma writers. Many media outlets were interested in him.

As well as books documenting Roma life, Matéo Maximoff also captured Roma reality through films, reports and photography, including this one taken in France. Photo: Matéo Maximoff.

In his life, Matéo published about 10 books about Roma life, including autobiographical books about his own life. He also took a lot of photographs and travelled around the world to meet other Roma. He was an activist who took part in international actions for the sake of the rights of the Roma minority. He was also involved in the Evangelist religion. He was a pastor, and translated the bible into the Romani language.

He took a lot of photos [documenting] the life of Roma people from around the world, as well as making reports, and also movies. His life is like a testimony to Roma life all around the world.

The Matéo Maximoff Media Library is focused on literature about the Roma. What can one find in the library?

The Matéo Maximoff Media Library is an international library, meaning [there is literature] about Roma people all around the world. It contains books, music, films, photos — basically all kinds of media coverage in regard to the situation of the Roma people around the world. These items are in different languages, starting from the Romani language, of course, in different dialects of Romani.

The Matéo Maximoff Media Library has a legal team that helps in publishing particular laws and court decisions that include issues regarding the Roma. The publication of judicial verdicts is not a common thing for a library. How did this come about?

We try to get exhaustive documents but sometimes it is difficult because I am alone in doing this job, but I do my best. We include different legal documents but we have focused on documenting the French situation, because the French situation is very special.

Many people, even in France, do not know that French travelers had a special legal statute. For about a century, due to being travelers, they were obliged to get a special document similar to a passport, but especially for travelers. As soon as a traveller turned 13 years old, it was obligatory for them to have an identification document.

When the Second World War began there were [police security checks] especially for travellers. As a consequence of this document, many Gypsies ended up in concentration camps because the police had all the necessary information. They knew when people were moving, and also all about these families. Having all these documents, the police could arrest these people and put them all in camps.

This was a major form of discrimination, especially considering that it happened in France, which is supposed to be the country of human rights. It was only 2 years ago that Gypsies in France were not obliged to be equipped with this special document.

As well as a source of information on Roma stories worldwide, the Matéo Maximoff Media Library also publishes a journal to help document Roma history. Photo courtesy of the Matéo Maximoff Media Library.

How important is the library for Roma people, and anybody who wants to study Roma culture, as there is no written history of Roma people?

This is our hymn. We try to give all of the available information in one place and through the internet. We have the website and catalogues and now we can use the media to spread the information. We have our journal to tell all this and to fight on this topic. We try to organize with other NGOs and to make partnerships in France and Europe.

As you mentioned, the occupation of France from Nazi Germany created an “anti-nomad” narrative, accusing the Roma nomads of being spies for the Germans. This caused many people who are ethnically Romani to be expelled from France and many to be interned, including the Maximoff family, who stayed in a camp for 31 months. Growing up in France have you had the chance to see the society slowly leaving prejudices and intolerance against the Roma minority behind, and becoming accepting towards this particular group of people? How and what changed? Because France even today is often criticized for its treatment toward minorities…

Unfortunately the situation has not changed a lot. For instance, there is this ambiguity in the case of the treatment of Roma minority. People are fascinated by ‘Gypsy life,’ by their music, and this exotic image they get from the media, without considering whether this representation is true or false.

At the same time, they do not want to have Roma people in their town. It is always the same story. Moreover, when you see [media coverage] on racism, it is noticeable that the Roma minority do not always make the headlines, especially in France. Nevertheless, the Roma minority is among the most targeted, in terms of racism.

It is very strange because actually, considering the overall population of France is around 67 million people, the Roma make up a small community. In France there are like, 500,000 Roma, a huge number, but for France it is small. It is as if they are phantasms. They are used as a scapegoat; in politics, they play this role. I think maybe this happens because other minorities are better represented in the media and society than Roma people are.

"I think books and films are full of stereotypes. Some are very bad and some are very romantic, but they are all stereotypes nonetheless."

Another good, and sad, illustration of existing intolerance in Western countries toward minorities took place in Germany, not a very long time ago. At the beginning of the 2000s, Germany saw the killing and attacks of people from minority groups, particularly of Turks and Kurds by a neo-nazi group called Nationalist-Socialist Underground. There was a lot of criticism toward Germany’s handling of hate crimes against people of different origins. Then, there is for example the intolerance in France. Even today we are witnessing another rise in right-wing populism and xenophobia in Europe. Does this show that we still haven’t learnt from mistakes and the lack of action is driving toward new suppression?

I don’t know if I want to give my opinion on this subject. I think we always have to fight, especially because now we know that the political situation in Europe is not very good. We have to be afraid about what happens, for instance, in Italy or in Hungary or in Austria with the rise of fascism and extreme-right movements.

We know that Roma people are a target. I think we have to be conscious of that and we have to be together with Roma people to fight against this racism, as well as being together with other minorities. I think we have to organize together because it is our problem. We are all concerned about this spirit of racism and we have to fight together against this spirit.

In the documentary “Matéo Maximoff – the Road Without a Caravan,” which was shown at Rolling Film Festival, one of the protagonists claims that the history of Roma people can only be fully told in the Romani language. Being the head librarian at the Matéo Maximoff Media Library, how do you see the differences between Roma storytelling and understanding of history from the western idea of history?

I prefer to speak about special situations rather than to give a generalization. I do not like this generalization; if we want to avoid stereotypical ideas we have to be able to examine everything very consciously. For example, certain authors such as Matéo Maximoff were influenced by the oral tradition — stories, or family tales that the Roma told each other — especially when he was in the camp during the war.

[In the camp], the Roma people stayed together for a long time and he had the opportunity to speak a lot with his uncles and other relatives who told him plenty of stories about his family’s roots. Even stories from one century before when his family members were held as slaves in Romania. So he has all these stories, and he managed to tell them on his way. He put this oral tradition into his novels.

While the writings of Matéo Maximoff were influenced by the Roma tradition of oral storytelling, later Roma literature has varied from this course. Photo courtesy of the Matéo Maximoff library.

But the written literature of Roma is not reducible to a single model. Even though this written literature is relatively young [around a hundred years old] today it is rich, varied and diverse. It is an emergent literature that needs to be known in these many facets. On this issue, we have to fight against stereotypes because recognizing Romani literature, does not correspond to the clichés of illiterate Roma!

The only book that I — and I know that many people here might share the same experience — have encountered a Roma is the Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, with Esmeralda being turned into the representative of magical, beautiful Gypsy woman. Critics would refer to it as a typical exoticization and portrayal of the Roma in literature. Did western literature written by non-Roma fail to give a fair representation to the Roma?

It is just a contribution to stereotypical images of Gypsies, and also women. I think books and films are full of stereotypes. Some are very bad and some are very romantic, but they are all stereotypes nonetheless. The best thing to do is to be here at Rolling Film Festival and similar events and learn the true story. I think there is a lot to learn about the true history and culture.

Stereotypes about the Roma are numerous and they inevitably lead to anti-Gypsyism. Anti-Gypsyism is a specific phenomenon, in the same way that anti-Semitism or Islamophobia are also particular forms of racism. But in all its forms, racism feeds on the ignorance of the other, and stereotypes that are made and maintained.

Anti-Gypsyism is a cancer that has ravaged society for centuries and is the cause of the death of Roma throughout Europe. I am thinking of punitive expeditions against Roma in different countries. Anti-Gypsyism can sometimes be manifested by simple indifference, or inertia on the part of politicians, the media and public opinion in the face of the intolerable situations of relegation and marginalization in which Roma families are maintained throughout Europe, including France.

The role of the Matéo Maximoff Media Library is to help in the empowerment of the Roma minority and help in killing such stereotypes and marginalizations. K

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in English.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.