Community Development through Trade
Gypsy Kings and Rag Pickers
Inside the Roma Caste System
by Chuck Todaro
Initiation Gypsy Has a House
Gypsy Has a House
Arranged Marriage Gone Wrong:it happens sometimes
Meet the Gabors
Back in the early days when I was still exploring the uncharted depths of Roma society I met my first family of Roma traditionalist. That alone is “baro-shukar” – “a big deal” in Romani language - since the Traditionalist belong to that unpredictable class of Gypsy situated at the very top of the Roma tribal system – the so-called Brahmin, the self-proclaimed chosen people, superciliously keeping the “polluted” riff-raff (you, me and everyone else, Gypsy included) outside their gates. They are the kind that greet you through a crack in the door with a grimace – and that’s usually about as close as they let you get.
They look at you suspiciously like you are some kind of thief – and why not? – that’s exactly the meaning of the label “gadjo”, though they won’t admit it, they’ll say, – “oh, no, it just means you’re not Roma, that’s all”, but there’s a deeper, darker, subliminal meaning to the label that only they understand. It’s their “n-word” and from this point on I will refer to it as such, the “g-word”.
They’re a hard group to penetrate, alright, though worth the trouble since those able to get close enough have a window view into the past to when mystical Roma had “snakes wound around them, and they would tell one person that he was born under an evil star, and the other under a lucky star; and they would also prophesy about forthcoming good and ill fortunes." (*1) Back then, in the Middle Ages they called them “Atsinganoi” after a cult of sorcerers who wouldn’t allow themselves to be touched by others. They were like wild animals that wouldn’t accept food unless it had been placed on the ground and the human had stepped away.
Gabor - behind the vail
One day I met this guy in the street who told me about this tribe of Roma traditionalist in Transylvania known as Gabor. Gabor means Gabriel in Hungarian; it’s the name of the tribe as well as about 80% member surnames and which isn’t so uncommon once you think about it since surnames were historically put in place as an identifier and it’s why we have so many Bakers, Hunters, Johnsons (son of John) in this world, but what’s really odd about the Gabors is their obsession with the name so it quite often doubles up as also first names passed down the family line from father to son to grandchildren till you call out “Gaby” in a crowd of Gabor and virtually all heads turn; that’s a slice of ancestral worship in action…
Tzigania Project is sadly no longer able to freely offer our exclusive research online due to plagiarism and other unconsented usage of our material.
I found the Gabor home and pulled off to the side of the road to gauge the surroundings before turning in because once going in I knew there was no turning back; I was already a little ill at ease, after all, this was only a couple months since the great “hakk’ni– panki” (*2). The Gabor home was a large and lofty place that stood high and mighty over the quaint village homes like a fortress. Curled metal décor along the peripheral lines of the big house and a surrounding spiked iron fence intensified its presence like a Dracula’s castle. Roma architectural design is a product of the nomadic, “come-and-go” lifestyle; it emphasizes the exclamation point; they mean to impress, of which power and wealth are the intentions.
noisily pulled into the driveway bringing mustachioed mechanic Gaby Gabor out
of his garage whipping his greasy hands over an equally greasy rag. He greeted me
with the motion of a hand shake that suddenly turned downward offering me instead
just his wrist which set me back – way back – to the “do not touch me” Atsinganoi era, and I began to fret, thinking
to myself “oh boy, this is going to be difficult” when the old man, the family
patriarch, who had been working at his anvil making nails with the repetitive
strike of the hammer, one at a time, followed his son and put out his hand,
taking mine firmly in his man vise - and everything was back to the present.
"The early days"
I was explaining myself to the family leaders when the creaking door turned my attention to a sudden burst of Gypsy colors beaming off a young woman leaning out through the open space dumping the contents of her dust pan. Her braided hair weighted down by an extravagant red bow slid over the curve of her shoulder swinging side to side like a pendulum. She glanced up to me, flashed a pearly white smile interrupted by a centered gap then stepping back inside, the door shut - and I realized then that this was not the home of any simple mechanic; it was the Roma front lines where societies clash, where the old customs were struggling to survive within a brave new world.
I was shown inside and offered a seat at the long centering kitchen table. A welcoming cup of coffee and tall glass of brandy was immediately brought to me by the busy women as they swooshed about in their loosely fitting Roma costumes, chattering all the while as they go in meandering pitches of Romani like choo-choo trains. The kitchen is the women’s workplace – but not in a belittling housewife sense of the word. These women are more than mothers, cleaners and cookers but the core of the family unit and it’s this gravitational force of their busy-like-a-bee carrying out of the daily rituals that both physically and spiritually holds the family together; they are the priestesses of the Roma religion, and this house, the sacred Roma house, is their church.
How to explain these people isn’t easy because there is nobody else like them; they are the ultra-orthodox Jews of Roma society, though even that comparison has leaks. The most comprehensive comparison is an association to the medieval era when a united church and state were the authority. At that time the king ruled the land while the church set the guidelines. Securing the order at home is the job of the Roma women, the priestesses....
Rebel in a Gypsy Dress
The maiden with the gaudy red ribbons and infectious Lauren Hutton smile who caught my eye at the door sat down and joined me at the table. I knew the girl’s marital status the moment her braided hair slid off the curve of her shoulder because Roma consider the woman’s hair as one of the most sensual parts of the body; it’s covered as part of the wedding day “I do” ritual and there remains concealed beneath the bonnet for the rest of her life. It’s a ring almost everywhere else in the world yet Roma show a female’s availability loud and clear so you can see it almost a mile away and there is no mistake about it. A wedding for the Roma has more significance than simply the union between male and female; it’s also....
i. Roma generally have two names: the legal name, or gadjo name, that shows up on all official documents (license, passport, contracts, bills,) and which they use when communicating outside the community (not surprisingly, they usually.....
There is also a third, more clandestine name whispered into the baby’s ear .....
Rank and File
There are theories floating around out there in the open-ended field of Roma history that the early Roma came to Europe linked to the invading Mongol – Tatar invasion as either their labor or, some go so far as to suggest as a fighting unit. The theory has taken a lot of heat as an attempt by Romani advocates to inflate the defeated Gypsy self-esteem by claiming descendants of “warriors”. The incredible lack of information about Roma before Europe both defends and contradict....
Next in line are the tradesmen, the nation’s precious skilled labor that call themselves “Gabor cu ciocan” (Gabor with hammer). They are metalworkers, the cavalry, so to speak, and their weapon, the hammer, is.....
An Arranged marriage Gone Wrong
it happens sometimes
A year later I went back to visit my old friends the Gabors….
END of Excerpt
Gabor Male Dress Code
Elegance is the underlining feature of the Gabor dress code. The body is covered from the neck to the polished footwear. There are no short sleeves in the apparel and shorts are absolutely out of the question especially since the knee is thought to be one of the most indecent parts of the human body. Colors and patterns are characteristically somber, made up of generally solid colors: black, brown, grays with little or no pattern – all very “yin” to the female’s “yang” of bright and flashy apparel.
The dark colored trousers worn by the male are loose and baggy in the Turkish style. They wear traditional shoes, no sneakers; the shoes are regularly polished.
The dress shirt, generally light in color in contrast to the generally dark colored trousers is covered by a leather vest. The many deep pockets of the vest offer a practical purpose by holding the tools of the trade.
The face is clean shaven, sporting the trademark, thick Gabor mustache, while the head is topped with the wide brimmed Gabor hat.
Gabor Female Dress Code
The woman’s appearance is flowery, sparkling and overwhelmingly ostentatious from the tip of their heads to their rainbow socks. They stand out in a crowd like the shiniest star in the sky.
The dress is divided into 2 parts which represents the Roma ideology of dualism and features of pure and impure. The multi-colored, flowery dress wrapped around the waist is covered by a separate apron. The apron is not in place for practical purposes of keeping the dress clean from kitchen and other household work. (Though it has its practical purposes: its pockets and as a covering of the single large pocket in the dress just over the crotch where money and other valuables are kept). The apron acts as a metaphysical shield blocking the female macramé (contaminations) emitting from the female genitalia. It is a virtual lead shield protecting the family from the female’s “radioactive poisons”.
The blouse is similarly loud, colorful, flashy with less traditional restrictions then the dress and therefore often ornamented with lace, rhinestone, and other glossy fabrics
The women, like the males, are fully covered. The only exposed skin allowed is hands and face.
The clothing is worn loose and baggy, yet still showing off the woman’s hourglass shape. Unlike the western perception of beauty as the skinny female, Roma like a shapely figure with meat on the bone.
* Roma squared. Profound joke made by Gypsy of lower caste referring to Gabor as “doubly Roma”
*1 Canonist Theodore Balsamon (1204): The Gypsies in the Byzantine Empire and the Balkans in the Late Middle Ages, George C. Soulis. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 15 (1961). P146
*2…. “hakk’ni– panki” – swindle: see previous chapter 1. Initiation