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.
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.
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.
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.