BY: M. TOMOSKI
Near the Kosovo border, north of the Macedonian capital Skopje, lies an unusual town with unlikely inhabitants. Considered a slum by many in the country, this community has something that very few slumtowns around the world receive: legitimacy. Officially the municipality of Shuto Orizari is a part of Greater Skopje. Unofficially, Shutka is the Gypsy capital of the world.
Considered a slum by many in the country, this community has something that very few slumtowns around the world receive: legitimacy.
The Roma people, known to many as Gypsies, have a long and sordid history with established European society. Europe has been the home of the majority of Roma people, of whom there are 12 million around the world, since the 10th century. As reported in Cell Biology, the Roma are of northern Indian descent and set out on their westward march 1,500 years ago.
Since then they have been the victims of discrimination, slavery, ethnic cleansing and a general misunderstanding and rejection of their culture
Since then they have been the victims of discrimination, slavery, ethnic cleansing and a general misunderstanding and rejection of their culture. Despite this, the Roma have adapted to their surroundings showing incredible resilience through a lifestyle based on survival.
Their harsh treatment in Europe comes as a result of the clash between two vastly different cultures. Many cultural practices, such as teenage marriage, within the Roma community have clashed with traditional European norms and have raised concerns over criminal activity and potential human trafficking. Several attempts have been made by European governments to assimilate the Roma into modern society, but they have continually fought against any unwelcome changes in their lifestyle.
Unfortunately, fewer attempts have been made to reconcile these two worlds than to tear them apart. In recent years France expelled thousands of Roma from the country, bulldozing their makeshift homes and sending the families to Eastern European countries like Romania, where the Roma had been victims of slavery up until the 19th century.
For a continent founded by Europeans fleeing the bigotry of their own lands, North Americans have been reluctant to accept the Roma as well. According to The Globe and Mail Canada, a country which prides itself on its multiculturalism, imposed visa restrictions on the Czech Republic due to the large number of Roma refugees seeking asylum.
“We Roma don’t need a state, we have the whole world.”
But while much of that world has turned them away, Shutka is a place they can really call their own. It is a town of 22,000 where they make up nearly 80 per cent of the population. Despite Shutka’s poor conditions – it was built on the location of a former city dump – large houses have replaced the familiar steel huts that are often seen in Roma settlements. The town is largely left to govern itself – their mayor, Elvis Bajram, is a local Roma whose father is a member of parliament. But the government of Macedonia has also invested millions of Euros in order to build a school and soup kitchen.
Still, the most important thing Shutka has to offer is a chance for the Roma to preserve, rather than defend, their culture. It is the only place in the world where the Romani language is an official language and taught in its primary school. The charka, a wheel which is the Romani national symbol, can be seen throughout the streets and on the town’s official flag.
In many ways Shutka is like a country within a country, but the traditions that are practiced there make the town seem more like a whole other world.
Originally Roma are believed to have practiced Hinduism, which is a far cry from the crystal ball caricatures they are known for, but after several hundred years of wandering within Western society, the majority has adopted Muslim and Christian beliefs to which they have added their own unique interpretation. Some hold a firm belief in vampires and spirits known as genies, which can either harm or gift the people they possess.
But the spirit that ultimately rules over Roma culture is one of community and competition. Weddings in Shutka are a public spectacle, a parade of music and colour. Though most of the town’s residents survive daily life with the help of social assistance, everyone gives what they can to make the wedding a success, and the one who gives most is the champion.
But the spirit that ultimately rules over Roma culture is one of community and competition.
Shutka is the home of champions: champion boxers, champion goose fighters, champions of fashion, dance, and most importantly champions of music. Most titles of champion seem to be self-awarded, but there is no doubt that music plays a central role in Roma culture.
Esma Redzepova, a native of Shutka, is considered the Queen of Gypsy music and even represented Macedonia in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Music is also the biggest sport in Shutka. The town hosts an annual tournament for collectors of cassette tapes and vinyl records that feature Turkish folk music. Points are awarded for song choice and sound quality, but the winners are often those who can manage to get the crowd to dance or — for bonus points — to cry.
Though their persecution has lead the Roma people to a nomadic lifestyle, they know that they are always welcome at their home in Skopje. After all, as Severdzan says, while they may dream of going elsewhere, “Shutka is the only place where you can be a champion.”