We Hungarians cherish a special affection for the by turns heart-rending and humorous gypsy melodies of our culture. Yet we are only too happy to overlook the vast and enduring contribution made by the Roma to our language and culture outside that limited sphere, allowing ourselves to be blinded by crime statistics into using our by and large underprivileged fellow citizens as scapegoats for all our woes and tribulations.
Negative stereotypes often dominate the headlines, further compounding misconceptions and prejudices concerning the Roma both at home and abroad. The intellectuals, writers, artists and poets, whose great talents enrich our daily lives, are largely overlooked, chronically neglected by the media. Sadly, their role is in many cases confined to that of perpetuating our assumptions rather than questioning them.
In an effort to dispel clichéd notions of the Roma as uneducated illiterates, I sought out one of the country's foremost authorities on the media, Ilona Varga (born in 1960 in Kecskemét)—to whose stamina and pioneering vision we owe an inestimable debt in terms of public awareness of Roma life, politics and culture—meeting her for an interview in the HQ of Hungarian Radio in Sándor Bródy Street.
Central Europe Review: Could you please introduce yourself briefly for the benefit of the readers and tell us a little about your connection with the Roma in Hungary?
Ilona Varga: My name is Ilona Varga and I work at Hungarian Radio, where I am the editor-in-chief of the program entitled Roma Half Hour, which started up in 1988. From 1989 onwards, it was broadcast once a fortnight, and from January 1991, once a week, a rate of production we have maintained ever since. I always make a point of calling attention to this, because I feel that one half an hour slot per week is precious little time for us to be able to report on all the events of the preceding seven days. All the more so since the process of setting up Roma organisations has speeded up considerably since the 1990s.
Initially, there were six such organisations, then eight, and then 20 and currently we have reached a figure in excess of 300. The creation of the Minority Self-Governments and other representative bodies has led to a situation in which we could easily devote the entire half hour to discussing their activities, but we have one further important task, which is to present our culture and traditions.
There is more than ample material for a half hour in other words, though it cannot be identical in format to a programme like Krónika [the news bulletin on Kossuth Rádió], not because the Roma or our listeners in general are stupid, but because we need to provide background information as well, and this is why the type of news item that would take up one minute in Krónika takes over two minutes in our programme, as the subject matter is quite different to what our listeners are accustomed to hearing on a day to day basis.
First of all, I have to get my customary lament off my chest: for about seven to eight years now I have been trying to attain the aim of our being allowed to broadcast one further half hour, and thus far my efforts have all been in vain.
Perhaps I should say a few more words about myself. Before I ended up working in radio, I was a teacher for six years. I came to Budapest from Pécs with a teaching diploma. Whilst I began working at the radio, I thought to myself that this work really should only be done if it is done well, because we only have half an hour and the programme is about people who are regarded through the filter of massive prejudice and this programme has to sound just like any other when you switch on the radio during the day. It might deal with different topics, but its quality must be the same.
When in 1994 ELTE [Eötvös Lóránd Tudomány Egyetem, the Eötvös Lóránd University of the Sciences, the Hungarian equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge] launched a training course for media experts, I immediately enrolled and completed it successfully. Since I was a student in the Department of Sociology in any case, as that was the Department in which the course was organised, I also completed a degree in sociology there.
What I am planning to do now—I don't know whether I will succeed in this undertaking, as there are many obstacles apart from simply time and money—is to learn the English language. My mother tongue is beás Romany , though I can only really get along using it at home. I reckon that learning English is extremely important, doing so requires a great deal. I have the ambition and the textbooks, though not the time to spend on it! I think that is more than enough about myself.
CER: What kind of discrimination have you suffered as a Roma and as a woman?
IV: I am not sure whether the discrimination I have experienced is attributable to me being a woman or being a Roma, because in Hungary the two blur and merge. Perhaps you ought to ask a Roma man the same question, because I honestly don't know whether I was discriminated against as a woman, but I do know that I have been discriminated against as a Roma.
When I obtained my first diploma as a teacher of Hungarian and culture [a qualification from this faculty would entitle the holder to run a Community Centre or a public library, to name but two examples] in 1988, what I really wanted was to get a job in the cultural field proper. That had been my dream since I turned 15, but it became clear that this career was closed to me even in the event of my working my way up to five diplomas.
As a general rule, the following chain of events unfolded when I tried to get anywhere, which goes to prove that prejudice was at play here: I would make enquiries for a post by telephone. On the one hand, my name is Varga [a standard Hungarian name in other words, not a traditionally Roma one], whilst on the other they could not detect the merest hint of an accent in my voice. I was either in my third year as an undergraduate in those days or I had only just graduated and they were always very happy to hear from me, waiting for me to turn up for an interview in person.
Whenever we actually did get around to the meeting itself, the vacancy had always been filled already. This happened on at least five occasions before it dawned on me that it simply was not to be and I was forced to give up. There were other charming incidents, which my elder sister, whose entire education amounts to four years in primary school, would not have noticed. Imagine that we were queuing up in an office and when it was my turn the official in charge addresses me as follows: "What do you want little darling?" My sister would have perceived this as the woman in question being pleasant to her.
As far as I was concerned, though, there was not the remotest vestige of kindness about her attitude. Similar kinds of occurrence happened to me every step of the way and I came to realise that my qualifications had made me more sensitive to them. Prejudice does not even have to be expressed in words; a single gesture is enough to let me know that I have no business in a given place. My schooling has helped me to pick up on these minute subtleties.
CER: József Krasznai [self-appointed leader of the Roma of Zámoly in Strasbourg] has accused the Roma intellectual elite of refusing to take the lead in defending the Roma cause. What is your response to this?
IV: I don't know whether it is possible to take more of a lead than by producing the Roma programme. I am not much of a political animal, by the way, because you need to have the stomach for politics, or at least you need to lead life in a different way to the way I do. I wouldn't like to become a politician by changing along those lines. Of course, making the programme involves politicising, but as a journalist, as the head of the programme I always endeavour to evince the utmost objectivity.
Please allow me to cite one example. The ORTT [Országos Rádió és Televízió Testület, the National Radio and Television Board], which is the supervisory body for all output in these forms of media, received a complaint from a listener about one of my programmes for the first time in twelve years. A demonstration had been held on Kossuth Square [immediately in front of the Hungarian Parliament] to protest against poverty and evictions. Eminent Roma leaders and politicians made speeches encapsulating their thoughts. I recorded the speeches and I must confess that, in my opinion, every single contribution was true.
The contents of the programme were as follows: I explained that I had attended this event, that I would report on it and stated that a number of speakers would be heard one after the other. I then mentioned the relevant individual's name and occupation: sociologist, for example, representative of the Roma Parliament and so on and so forth. The various speeches followed and it was clearly the speeches that incurred the displeasure of the listener concerned.
The ORTT, naturally, requested the cassette, listened to it and the upshot was that they objected to my not having invited the other side to present its views at the demonstration. I would have thought that it is a fairly apparent to anyone, who has ever actually attended a demonstration that the other side is usually not represented. I was fortunate, however, as there was one individual on the committee, who said that the assignment of such programmes is to report on events of this type and that my conduct as lead presenter had been impeccable.
On countless occasions I feel as if I am walking on shaky ground, but at the same time I am aware that many people have to be informed about these issues, since not everyone is in a position to go to Kossuth Square in person to listen to what is going on there. If another demonstration were to be held and the same things were to be said, I would transmit exactly the same again, even in the full knowledge that I had been reported once for doing so, because I sincerely believe that people need to know about these matters.
CER: It sounds almost like a form of censorship. Would it be fair to describe it as such?
IV: Yes, but fortunately it took place afterwards. It was also lucky that there were serious-minded individuals in the ranks of the committee. Obviously, what it boils down to is that almost every speaker criticised Fidesz [Alliance of Young Democrats], the party now in government, for failing to do its job well. Countless numbers of people have been turfed out on to the streets, there are plans underway to evict goodness knows how many hundred families from their homes, and this is something that the government and its experts didn't like to see publicised.
CER: What does the Roma identity consist of?
IV: In answering this question, let me point out that 71 to 75 per cent of all the Roma living in Hungary do not speak any variant of Romany. If we were to ask them about it, they would say that they are Roma, but they would also say that they do not speak the language and if we were to ask them which language their father or grandfather spoke, they would not be able to remember that either. They have assimilated to such an extent that they cannot even remember which language they used to speak.
Then there is the group comprising some 25 per cent of the Roma, who speak two clearly distinct languages. One of these groups speaks the lovári language, the other the beás language. As far as I am concerned, culture derives from the knowledge or lack of knowledge of a language. The majority of those who do not speak Romany, are musicians and businessmen.
Many different trades and professions could be listed as typical of lovári speakers in the past, ranging from buying and selling horses through metalworking, as they were responsible for making horseshoes at one stage as well as the special types of nail used to fit them, whilst the beás Roma carried out manual labour such as basket-weaving and carving long wooden tubs [traditionally used either for washing clothes or storing meat].
Clearly, each of the three groups has its own particular interests. I have heard the 75 per cent group of non-Romany speakers talking about playing a role in government, about the law on minorities and that traditions and folklore have to be cultivated. How can non-Romany speakers nurture traditions and language? The manner in which the issue is raised is that they feel the remaining 25 per cent are subsidised to death whilst they do not enjoy a share in the support given.
And why should the children of a Roma, who has Hungarian as a mother-tongue not be allowed to learn English? Why is that child forced to learn lovári or beás with the money provided? The object of rivalry between bilinguals, between the lovári and beás speakers in other words, centres on which one of them is the authentic Roma. At times like that I think—and I feel rather embittered about the whole thing—that if we discriminate against ourselves in this fashion, then how can we dare to expect that Hungarian society at large not draw similar distinctions?
Because if someone takes a look at me, he clearly takes me for a Roma. For outsiders, who do not form part of the group, there is no way of knowing whether I am a Hungarian Roma or whether I speak another language. The discrimination applies as much to me as it does to members of the other two groups. So how can we have the gall to draw distinctions? I don't know whether my slant on the issue is correct, but it makes my blood boil. This discrimination exists on the inside as well.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 24 November 2000
With special thanks to Ilona Varga. If you would like further information about the Roma Half Hour and Ilona Varga's proposal to preserve the unique cultural archive that her programme represents or perhaps even sponsor her preservation work, please click here.
This interview is an extract from the complete interview, which will appear in full in Gusztáv Kosztolányi's forthcoming e-book on the Roma in Hungary, to be published on the CER site early in the New Year.
- Read Gusztáv Kosztolányi's ebook on the great Hungarian oil scandals
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language print books on Hungary through CER
- Return to CER front page
1. There are three principle groups of Roma in Hungary, referred to as the zenész cigányok or musical gypsies, the oláh or Romanian and the beás from the Indian sub-continent. It is to this latter group that the interviewee belongs and refers. Please note that the Hungarian word cigány, literally translated as gypsy, does not in itself have any pejorative connotations but is value neutral. It can be used disparagingly, but that depends entirely on the context and the speaker. I have consciously chosen to render the Hungarian cigány with the English Roma throughout, even at the risk of losing certain nuances for the sake of consistency.