When I was a child, I discovered the history of Django Reinhardt. It was in a movie I guess, or maybe in a Comic Book. Though I don’t remember where or when I discovered the history of the most brilliant guitar player of all times, he remained in my mind as an idol as I knew he was Roma. The creator of what people now know as Jazz Manouche, Jean “Django” Reinhardt was the first important European jazz musician who made major contributions to the development of the genre. After his third and fourth fingers were paralyzed when he suffered burns from a fire in his caravan, Uncle Django used only the index and middle fingers of his left hand on his solos and invented an entirely new and brilliant style of jazz guitar technique.
Spanish Roma call ourselves Kalos, but I knew from movies and from Comics that other Roma call themselves different terms. In my mind the word Manouche will be always related with Django Reinhardt , so when I knew we were going to meet Manouches eventually, I was very excited and happy.
To discover the richness of Roma is something that makes my life go on, and rises my soul.
The word Manouche (pronounced Manush) comes from Sanskrit, the old Indo-European mother language of Romanes, the same word derivated in the English word man and the Romani word Manush, and refers to the human male, but also to humankind. So the Manouche in France and Belgium call themselves Human beings. They spoke Manouche, basically Romani Words with Old french grammar and some other contributions, just like Spanish Kalos use Kalo, mixing Romani words with Spanish grammar.
But even though I was willing to meet and to share with the Manouches, I was concerned. Will they understand me as one of them? Will they accept me as their equal? Taking in account that I did not know a single fact about Manouche history and that I’m not able to speak a single word of french or Manouche I felt very naked, but I had the hope that somehow we could connect.
After spending the morning with some children in a workshop, playing with them, we wander a bit through the camp where they were living. I saw the clothes and the faces of the beautiful young women, and I said to myself, Oh God they look exactly like Kalos!
We found a man called Kenny, a young a brilliant man who talked with us for a while; later on we asked him if we could visit him and he agreed.
Once in their small house, door to door to his caravan, the wife of Kenny who was giving a bath to her small baby child offer us a coffee. After a few minutes trying to explain who we are, and Bekah translating me, Kenny opened the door. He took a chair and came close to us. We started to talk about my history, trying to explain to them that even if I look like a student I am a total disaster and I don’t even have a first degree, but that somehow I have traveled all over Europe.
Rebekah is translating and that’s how I discover the history of Kenny. Coming from a family that suffered many tragedies and a constant instability, the Gospel saved him from the world of alcohol and drugs. This is the history of many Manouches, I would later come to know, while as they don’t know yet it is also the history of many Spanish Roma.
Here a first topic is destroyed, a first myth deconstructed. People tend to think we are really isolated, they don’t understand that what Roma make today in Spain, Roma in the Balkans will do it by instinct the next day and vice versa. We are all connected, even if it’s hard to explain. Today Roma are mostly evangelical, not just in Spain but also in France, especially the younger generations. The rate of conversions is very high, and in fact the social change in our communities is possible thanks to the evangelical Church.
Kenny spoke to me about Vie et Lumière, his denomination in France, as I told him about Filadelfia, my church of origin. We talked about Clement Le Cossec, a single man, engineer of roads, who was convinced after WWII that God called him to bring the Gospel to Roma. The narration ended by my confession to him that I believe strongly in God, that he saved me many times from myself and from many things, and that I am truly thankful for it.
While we are discussing, more and more people enter into the small house. This time it’s Isai, Kennys friend; both of them confess to me that even they don’t have anything, they will love to bring Gospel to everybody, gadjos and Roma equally, because world needs a change desperately.
I argue a bit with them, remarking that we are different, that even in Gadjo churches there’s racism, that we just have ourselves. By that time they accept me more and more as one of them, being very amazed of my presence, they look at me as somebody sent by Gods providence.
I share with them some words of Kalo, and find that they use some of the same words; I decide to open myself, and to share some traditions to see if they do the same.
The first that I tell them is about the tradition to bury the belongings of people who died outside of the camp, and I explained to them how my father took all the things of my grandfather when he died and came with me to the outside of the town to burn them. When I asked my father why, he just told me ‘we do this because we are Kalos,’ but he did not give me single explanation!
Kenny and Isai listen to me, and the wife of Kenny stops moving around the house and took a place close to us. Indeed, they confess, we do the same. They look surprised, taken aback by how similar we are.
Then I share with them another custom Gadjos don’t know, a custom I often share to learn if Roma are really Roma or Romanoids. When gadjos come to our house it is a real trauma. We hide, we run, we close all the doors and even if we offer food or look very open and happy and hospitable, inside of us we are praying to God for the Gadjo to leave us in peace! We are very afraid of them, so when he leaves all of us search for the glass he was drinking from, the glass none of us will ever, ever use, and automatically throw it in the garbage.
As Rebekah is translating, and she is Gadji, they start to laugh; and they confess between laughs, yes indeed they do the same.
Observing and comparing how they know and live according the traditions my parents taught me makes my heart feel very happy. I feel at home, with my people, while they are still with open mouths looking at one another, surprised that we are so similar. Because even knowing about Spanish Roma, they never went together to put on the table if we are so similar as it seems or not.
While I am still sharing, I decided to talk about 2 points which are very polemic and controversial to see if they are also shared. One of them is the rituals of purity concerning weddings. When they listen to me they understand what I’m talking about, and at this moment even without a word of French or Manouche they realize I am one of them, for the amount of details and things I know that nobody else can know.
But the last point is very risky, and a total madness for most of Romanoids or activists. I confess to them that I don’t believe we came from India but from Israel, because all this traditions I shared with them, the customs we all share, the only place where you can find them is in the Old Testament!
A man suddenly opens the door, with a small dog who doesn’t enter the house. He is a brother of Kenny. He comes to me, looks at me and says:
“So you are searching for Manouches? Do you know why people hate us all? Because we are the people of God, that’s why they hate us and persecute us as the Jews, because we are the same.”
It will be very difficult for them or for me to think from this moment on that we Roma are not the same people. We shared so much, not a single difference of importance. Even the theories and the narratives are the same, even the traditional jobs, the tales, the sense of humour and epic.
We talk largely about the church, the politicians, the activism, the hard life of the Manouches forced to move by the French law and suffering a horrible discrimination. They want for their children a better life but authorities don’t give them even normal French citizenship rights, as they have a “special” anthropometric ID.
We spend some time following the debate, share with them how difficoult is to convince Roma to gather together to raise our voice. I tell them it is sometimes truly discouraging. They gave me their support, talking to me about Gedeon who felt he was not worthy but who God chose for his purpose. My Manouche brothers gave me their support, which meant everything to me.
Before we leave, they invite us to stay with them for some days; they offer us food, hosting, everything. The brother of Kenny just told me, look we are family in the flesh and family in the spirit, we are all the same: Gitanos, Manouches, Roma.
Then he came close and look at me smyling and whispering:
“If some day you came for party or anything in this area this is your home, just call me!”
Kenny and Isai are laughing, they try to stop the conversation by saying that we are all evangelicals we dont party anymore! But I guess somethings fortunately will never change.
We are all laughing. Some of the comments the brother of Kenny makes are so honest that for gadjos they could be inappropriate, but according to our sense of humour, to say these terrible things about gadjos are a very funny way to joke since we know we are the most harmless people on earth. We just celebrate the difference, laughing at ourselves much of the time.
Before we leave, they all come with us till the door, we all hug each others like brothers, Isai gives me a tone of books and essays about the Bible, and Kenny and I take a picture together. They are both close to tears for saying goodbye to us. This kind of moment gives us all hope that some day, Roma, we will all gather together for defending our brothers and sisters. I have hope.