the traveller gypsies

July 16, 2008
By fatou dia, Springfield, VA

The Traveler Gypsies is a book of social anthropology written by Judith Okely and published in 1983 that exposes the daily life of Gypsies and their struggle under the oppression of a bigger society. The study takes place in England during the 1960’s. Throughout history, Gypsies have always been nomadic people wandering around freely, yet as Okely described in her book, the Gypsies living in Britain in the 60’s have to deal with numerous laws imposed by the government that restrict their mobility and keep them from their true identity.

The author consistently teaches us new things about Gypsy life that we were previously unaware of, but the first half of the book is really the part that covers in explicit details the values of the Gypsies and the reason behind their segregation from the rest of the British population Gypsies have lived in Britain for centuries but they are easily pointed as the outcasts of the British population because they live differently. Gypsies for the most part do not own houses, they instead own caravans that they work with, travel with, and sleep in. a caravan is everything to a Gypsy because it is primarily their only mean of transportation. A long time ago, riding a horse was the most popular way of travelling for a Gypsy but as time went by, Gypsies realized that motor driven vehicles were more adequate for their needs and consequentially replaced the horses with the caravans. Caravans have since been one of the most symbolic identities of Gypsies even though they weren’t even originally Gypsy’s creation.

It seems that Gypsies have been slowly building their identity over time because some of their cultural traits have been established centuries ago like their adventurous nature, whereas some other cultural traits are more recent and purposefully meant to be divergent to the Gorgios’ morals as a form of resistance to Gorgios’ cultural domination. Gypsies like to think of themselves as superior to Gorgios and so whatever Gorgios do, Gypsies do the opposite. Gypsies don’t live in houses, they live in caravans. They enjoy short term jobs with flexible working hours whereas Gorgios have specific professions with shifts dictated by the clock. Gorgios like their habitat clean whereas Gypsies have another conception of hygiene. For them, there is a difference between your inner body and the outer body and only the inner body should be kept clean: this is why Gypsies have such disregard for apparent hygiene however, they are outstandingly clean when it comes to things that will eventually end up inside their body. Buckets, soap and gloves used to wash clothes cannot be used to do the dishes because it is considered “mochadi”, and if a Gypsy is caught doing so, not that they would even think of it, the dishes have to be immediately thrown away and replayed with new and unsoiled ones.

Gypsy people are very strict about inner cleanliness and even Gypsy children are reluctant to accepting food from strangers because they are aware of the fact that Gorgio people don’t take the proper precautions when it comes to preparing food. The list of impure things in the eyes of the Gypsy is very long and even animals are classified between pure and mochadi (impure): horses are the purest animal to exist according to Gypsies because they only drink clean water and cats are the most mochadi because they lick their fur thus polluting their inner body by mingling it with impurities from the outer body. Dogs are considered acceptable because even though they don’t give particular attention to the food they consume, they at least don’t lick their fur like cats and on top of that, they are of some usefulness to Gypsies because they are good hunters.

Just like Gypsies think of themselves as the superior race, Gorgios believe that Gypsies are second class citizens. They think of Gypsies as tramps who are way too lazy to try and improve their living conditions, they also think of Gypsy men as kidnappers and thieves and to them, a Gypsy woman is the epitome of an easy girl. Pretty much all negative attributes are given to the Gypsies and since these ones represent the minority group in England, they are being reclused by the whole society, including the government, because of their lifestyles and also because of the fear instigated by the negative labels put on them by the same society. One would think that the government would at least stand against discrimination toward Gypsies but the reality is that the government actually bends to the will of Gorgios when Gypsies are concerned so that it will gain more popularity. Political parties make it clear that they won’t stand up for Gypsies because these ones don’t care about politics at all: “It would be a waste of energy, money, and time, to help Gypsies that won’t vote for us or support us in return… however, promise a Gorgio that you will keep Gypsies away from his neighborhood and he will most likely vote for you” that was pretty much the way most politicians during the 1960s and 70s in England thought.

In 1959, the government passed the Highway Act which allowed anyone but Gypsies to camp on highways. These ones where unhappy about this but they had no body to complain to and so they respected the rule except for some few minor incidents. In 1968 however, the government passed the Caravan Sites Act which ordered for all caravans owners to obtain a planning permission or a site license. Needless to say these ones weren’t too happy with these arrangements. Even before 1968, the government had encouraged harassment toward the Gypsies but never, had they gone too far in the Gypsies eyes because never before did they really try to take away their freedom. Because of the Caravan Site Act, all Gypsies in England with caravans were moved to official sites specifically built for Gypsies. Gypsies who resisted were arrested by the police and put in jail for going against the law and people who went to get a planning permission or a site license were immediately turned down. It was quite obvious that the Caravan Site Act was a disguised plan for the government to assimilate the unwilling Gypsies into the sedentary community by keeping them in controlled sites. It certainly worked up to some point because in 1965, 15000 individuals owned caravans whereas in the late 1970s, only 8528 people still owned caravans. So in a way, the government succeeded into changing one aspect of the Gypsy culture but Gypsies certainly did put up a good fight and most of them still are doing so. Not only did they sabotage the official sites by rendering them completely filthy, but in 1975, the Gypsy Council and two other organizations that sympathize with Gypsies were also put in order. These ones were led by Gypsy intellectuals that had the power to denounce abuse of power from the police toward Gypsy people, punish discrimination against Gypsies and improve Gypsies living conditions. If such organizations didn’t exist, Gypsies would still pay fines or get evicted for not having their car clean enough or for making firewood out of old door frames or, even more ridiculous than that, for buying two milk bottles from a Gorgio man that did not make the bottles himself.
I would recommend this book to anybody who is curious about Gypsies and wants to get a better understanding of their culture and lifestyle. It gives you insights on how Gypsies have been discriminated for centuries and how they are still being dominated by the society they live in. the book is very detailed when it comes to Gypsies beliefs and practices and it also provides dozens of demographic charts to emphasize on the changes brought by the government’s involvement in Gypsies’ affairs.

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