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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

A Review of

Bury Me Standing:
The Gypsies and Their Journey

by Isabel Fonseca

 

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Summary

Bury Me Standing details the lives and hardships of the Rroma of Eastern Europe. Most of the book is set in Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, and Germany. Cover

 

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Fact Sheet

Title

Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey

Author

Isabel Fonseca

ISBN

0-679-40678-6

Publisher

Vintage Books (both U.S. and U.K.)

Category

Non-Fiction: Culture

Rating

StarStarStar

Number of Pages

309

Published In

1995

 

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Description

Note: when referring to an ethnic group, it's impossible to find a word that will please everybody. I have chosen to use the word "Rroma" to refer to the people that have been historically known as the Gypsies. Among many people the word "Gypsy" has taken on very, very negative connotations as a vicious racial slur. I acknowledge that not all Gypsies are Rroma - some are Sinti, Dom, or Lom. I also acknowledge that some prefer to use the word "Gypsy" instead of Rroma. But I needed to use something, so I opted for the word with less inflammatory connotations. If you want to read more about why many Gypsies prefer to be called Rom, see the article Please Call Me Rom on Kajira Djoumahna's web site.

This book addresses the history, the modern-day lives, and outlook for the future of the Rroma (Gypsies). The historical information focuses on the Middle Ages through the present, and the information presented is almost entirely focused on the experience of the Rroma in Europe. There is very little information about the era when they lived in the Middle Eastern countries.

In conducting her research, Fonseca travels to various countries to spend time living among the Roma and observing their lifestyle. She begins by traveling to Albania and spending the summer with the Dukas family. She describes the living quarters, the food, the neighborhood, the people, and more.

In the next section, she talks about the history of the Rroma, including their origins in India, their journey west, and their diaspora.

In chapter three, Fonseca describes her visit to Bulgaria. She explores the anti-Gypsy racism of Bulgaria, and the living conditions in which they survive.

Chapter four begins with a very sad story of how an entire neighborhood of 175 Rroma is burned down in Romania in retaliation for a pair of Rroma brothers killing an ethnic Romanian. The mayor himself was a spectator at this burning, and on his orders the fire trucks stayed away. And so begins the chapter describing the persecution experienced by the Rroma living in Romania. This chapter includes detailed information about the era of the Rroma being held in slavery.

From here, the author goes on in subsequent chapters to examine the situation in Poland and Germany. She describes the German rejection of the idea the Rroma could be refugees, and exposes the extermination of thousands of them in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

The book closes with a description of the efforts of the Rroma to organize and lobby world governments on behalf of their people.

This is a painful book to read. It is a story of poverty, slavery, persecution, displacement, and even genocide faced by an entire race of people. Anyone who has ever dreamed of the "romance of the Gypsy trail" needs to read this book. The notion of camping outdoors around an open fire becomes much less romantic when you realize that the reason for doing so is because a mob of local town people have just burned down someone's house with all its belongings in the dead of winter. Romantic? I don't think so. The bleakest aspect of reading this book is reaching the realization that these events continue to occur today, and it's very likely they will continue into the future.

 

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Is It Right for You?

 

You Will Probably Enjoy This Book If...

  • You would like to learn about the ethnic group typically known as the Gypsies.
  • You want to cut through romanticized fantasies of the Rroma and learn factual historical and political realities.
  • You have a strong interest in eastern Europe.

 

This Book Probably Isn't Right for You If...

  • You're looking for a resource that focuses on those Gypsies who lived in the Middle East or North Africa.
  • You find it difficult to read of human rights abuses.

 

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What I Liked, What I Didn't

 

What I Liked:

  • This book is very readable. Fonseca uses comfortable everyday language (as opposed to scholarly jargon) to discuss her topic.
  • Bury Me Standing is very informational and well researched.
  • The extensive bibliography at the end provides many recommendations for further reading.
  • The book is multi-layered. It isn't just a history, just a snapshot of how an ethnic group lives, or just social commentary. It is all three.
  • By describing the lives and stories of individual people, the author introduces a powerful human element to her book. Although she supports her assertions with statistics and references to other published works, descriptions of actual people's lives bring the book to life.
  • There are a large number of black and white photographs throughout the book. These photographs complement the text very well.
  • When describing the social issues faced by modern-day Rroma, Fonseca effectively portrays the viewpoints of various factions. She maintains a balanced, fair perspective. When discussing issues that confront the Rroma today, she often quotes people with opposing viewpoints, providing enough information to let readers draw our own conclusions.

 

What I Didn't Like:

  • This is not a good book for relaxing. The painful circumstances of the people it describes are very intense, and I find I can only read a bit at a time before needing to put it aside.
  • I normally finish a book of this length within about 2 weeks, but this one took me about 3 months to read because there's only so much hardship and suffering I can take at one sitting.
  • I wonder whether all the Rroma see their lives as being as bleak as what Fonseca portrays. While reading, I kept looking for moments of joy or delight in her profiles of individual families, and there were very, very few. It makes me wonder whether the book provides a balanced view.
  • Because I have a passion for the folk music and dance forms of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, I was hoping the book would have information on the folk arts of the Rroma. To my disappointment, it does not. Instead, the book focuses on their struggle to survive in a world that is against them.

 

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Conclusion

Bury Me Standing actually has nothing to do with Middle Eastern dance or culture. However, many devotees of Middle Eastern dance have taken a strong interest in the Rroma, because their path led through Iran, Iraq, and Turkey on their way to Eastern Europe, and their dance traditions serve as a source of creative inspiration to dance artists today. That's why a review of this book appears on this web site.

Everyone who wants to embrace "Gypsy dance" should read this book to understand what it really means to be a member of this ethnic group. It probably won't change the way you dance, but it probably will change the way you think about the people you are looking to for inspiration.

This book is not entertaining to read, but I'm glad I read it. The writing style makes me care about these people. Their story is that of an ethnic minority being subjected to flagrant human rights abuses that show no sign of ending in the foreseeable future.

The book was recommended to me by a Rromany friend who said it provides a realistic view of Gypsy culture and modern-day struggles to survive. From what my friend has told me, I feel this book is a credible source.

 

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Disclosures

There is nothing to disclose. I have never had any contact with anybody involved with this book.

 

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