Fernanda Eberstadt

In 1998, author Fernanda Eberstadt moved with her family from New York to Perpignan, a small city in the extreme southern end of France, near the Spanish border, with
one of the largest Gypsy populations in western Europe. There her
lifelong fascination with these elusive people was rekindled by
the haunting music of the local Gypsy rumba band Tekameli. She gained
privileged access not only to the musicians, but to their extended
network of family, friends, and business partners. Eberstadt arrived
at a time when this remarkably resilient and insular culture was
experiencing the social upheaval that seems the fate of tradition-bound
societies around the world. From her friendships with Gypsy families
comes Little Money Street: In Search of Gypsies and Their Music
in the South of France
, a book few of those friends may read,
as Perpignan’s Gypsies are largely illiterate.

Eberstadt lived among the Gypsies of the St. Jacques
region of Perpignan in southern France, where a Gypsy presence goes
back to the Middle Ages and politicians take care to court the Gypsy
vote, even if by fraudulent means. They speak a mixture of French
and gitan, itself a mixture of Catalan and a Spanish dialect of
Romany. No longer nomadic (the Vichy government outlawed nomadism
during the Second World War), most Gypsies make their living from
a combination of odd jobs and state subsidies. Few have much formal
education, and those that break with tradition to pursue degrees
or professional positions often meet with stern opposition. Last
year, hostilities between Gypsies and Arabs in Perpignan helped
fuel the riots that later swept the banlieux of Paris.
Perhaps the most famous man to hail from Perpignan is Zacarias Moussaoui.

I knew Fernanda Eberstadt primarily for her novel
The Furies, about the failed marriage between Gwen and
Gideon, an upper-class career woman and a struggling Jewish puppeteer.
The couple are pulled apart not only by their many differences of
upbringing and temperament, but by the stresses of modern American
marriage and childrearing. Throughout the novel, Eberstadt seems
to hold out the possibility of a different kind of family, a way
of life somehow more healthy, more compatible with the human heart.
Even in idyllic southern France, she is still navigating between
the comfort of tradition and the lure of modern possibility.

Our series of email and phone conversations ranged
over Gypsy culture and its complement among French Muslims, domestic
surveillance in the United States, bombings in the London subway,
and the dizzying pace of construction around my Shanghai apartment.

 

In Little Money Street, Eberstadt sets out
to document a particular group of Gypsies and does so with meticulous
attention to regional detail. Given that the people known collectively
as “Gypsies” live all over the world, speak a variety
of languages, and belong to a number of different faiths, does it
even make sense to think of “Gypsies” as a unified ethnic
group? She answered by reminiscing about a group of Gypsy neighbors
she would observe living in an Upper West Side brownstone. “The
women didn’t wear long multicolored skirts and gold-hoop earrings;
the children didn’t beg; they didn’t do anything you
traditionally associate with Gypsies the world over,” and
yet she felt certain they were Gypsies, a belief she later confirmed
with one of the family.

“Having observed for several years this band
of Upper West Side Gypsies, I asked myself, What is it that makes
Gypsies so instantly recognizable, even after they’ve given
up their nomadism and their tribal gear?” Though they were
superficially indistinguishable for any number of other New York
ethnic groups, “it seemed to me that Gypsydom lay in a certain
defiance towards outsiders and the larger, non-Gypsy culture, a
lawlessness about conventional time, a permanent provisionality.
When my Gypsy friend Diane calls my son Theodore ‘un vrai
gitan
,’ what she means is that he’s headstrong,
insubordinate, ungovernable, and likes to thumb his nose at authority.”

Pervasive, negative stereotypes about Gypsies have
origins as old and apocryphal the Gypsies themselves. Eberstadt
dismisses some of these—her friends do not steal—while
others are grudgingly accepted—her friends are unreliable
about appointments and debts. Though Little Money Street
is obviously affectionate, Eberstadt does not deny that Gypsy society
is marked by widespread illiteracy, poverty, and startling sexual
inequalities. “People have such contempt for Gypsies and such
ignorance of them that I felt obliged to be pretty scrupulous about
telling what in my experience was true and not true . . . That they
are generous and kind and unfailingly hospitable, that there is
nobody you’d rather go to if you were down-hearted or in trouble.
That Gypsy society is in some ways dysfunctional, but that Gypsy
modernity would be a wonderful thing.” Yes, Gypsies fall short
of various educational or economic markers, but “I think I
wanted people to recognize that there are other sets of values than
our current ruling ones.”

A number of more admiring Gypsy stereotypes prove
to be equally false. Eberstadt explains in Little Money Street
that “Gypsy life is not ‘free,’ but on the contrary
far more hierarchical and prohibition-bound than that of secular
Westerners.”

Women, in particular, are hemmed in by a system of
prohibitions so strict that those Gypsy women who have run away
to marry Arab Muslim men revel in their newfound freedom. Gypsy
parents keep their daughters out of school not only to keep them
away from boys, but with the fear, in the words of one mother, that
“if my daughter learns to read, she will escape.” This
sexism is “pure social habit”—not only groundless
(there is no written scripture supporting these cultural practices)
but totally one-sided, as there are no restrictions whatsoever on
the behavior of men. As for the French officials, “they feel
like the worse it is for women, the more likely they are to escape.”
Indeed, the dissatisfaction of women is perhaps the single biggest
contributor to cultural erosion through intermarriage.

“The Gypsies I know,” Eberstadt explains,
“live according to rules designed to keep women imprisoned.
Certain recent social changes, such as more generous welfare programs,
have made Gypsy women’s lives even more circumscribed. The
grandmothers I know all had to earn money outside the home: they
worked the markets, they put on puppet-shows in the square . . .
Now most Gypsy women I know are stuck at home.” The roving,
rootless Gypsy of countless myths is little like Eberstadt’s
descriptions of “women who from the windows of their project
can see the icy slopes of Canigou, the highest mountain in the Mediterranean
Pyrenees, but who have never in their lives touched snow.”

Before the past century, most French Gypsies were
Catholic. They worshipped in French among non-Gypsy parishioners,
the church a window on a larger world. In the fifties and sixties,
southern French Gypsies were still partially nomadic, traveling
from market to market throughout France, Belgium, and the Netherlands,
where they encountered French Pentecostalist preachers. This “Flannery
O’Connor, big tent experience” led to a large-scale
Gypsy conversion from Catholic to Protestant, to a Pentecostal faith
“much more immediate . . . more emotive and popular”
than Catholicism. Surely the natural Gypsy aversion to authority
played some part in the move from a state-sponsored Catholicism
to a minority religion for Gypsies alone. Today, worship services
are in gitan and exclusively Gypsy. An already provincial
people — women in particular — are thereby isolated from one of
the few truly “multicultural” experiences of their ancestors.

In perhaps the most frustrating section of the book,
Eberstadt attends a conference on Gypsy education at Collège
Jean Moulin, St. Jacques’ junior high school. A group of professionals
debate ways to convince Gypsy children to stay in school, including
offering night courses (Gypsy children regularly stay up until two
in the morning and then sleep all day) and courses in traditional
Gypsy trades like shoeing horses. When the student spokesperson,
thirteen-year-old Samuel Cargol, is asked about his grades, it is
clear that he was not even aware that grades were given out at school.
Imagining a Gypsy night school with a lesson plan of blacksmithing
and repairing carts, I couldn’t help but remember my childhood
in the California public school system, where Diversity Week required
students to sing a native song or share a foreign food, reducing
individual cultural experience to a dance, a dish, a costume. Now
in France, too, well-meaning but paternalistic people fret over
diversity, hoping that superficial alterations to the school system
can assimilate a “completely different attitude towards work,
family, free time, landscape,” in Eberstadt’s words.

“What you see beginning to happen now in France
is what’s already happened in America: the death of an ideal
of assimilation, in which immigrants—or, in the Gypsy case, ethnic
minorities—were expected to suppress their home culture and integrate,
in exchange supposedly for all the benefits of citizenship. It didn’t
work, partly because there was too much ingrained racism for those
benefits to be forthcoming. But it was still a good idea. It’s
been replaced by multiculturalism . . . The old system was brutally
insensitive to difference; the new one is fake-sensitive to differences
it defines.”

“The only way Gypsies can succeed is by learning
how to use computers, not how to shoe horses. But one curious thing
I found was that the savvier and more educated Gypsies I met were
the ones who were most interested in Gypsy culture, Gypsy tradition.
That suggests there is such a possibility as ‘Gypsy modernity.’”

 

It’s impossible to read about attempts to integrate
Gypsies and the “French” (a term Gypsies apply to outsiders,
but not to themselves) and not think of the failed integration of
Muslim immigrants into French life, the unease personified in Little
Money Street
by Hajiba Mohib, a Moroccan immigrant caught between
the traditional allegiances of faith and family and the French expectation
of total cultural immersion. “The old French model,”
Eberstadt explains somewhat wistfully, “was a citizen before
all, religious and ethnic particularities behind closed doors. That
was the ideal.” How is this new multiculturalism different?
“It is kind of selfish and divisive. There is a break down
of political conviction, of political action, everyone is enjoying
their own lifestyle. Multiculturalism is an extension of that.”

I couldn’t help but draw a connection to present
day China, where increased economic freedom exists alongside draconian
restrictions on political liberty. New shopping malls are being
built on every block, but limitations on speech remain firmly embedded.
Eberstadt was quick to find parallels in our own country, including
“the lack of public outrage” at domestic surveillance
and the torture of prisoners. “There is a breakdown of civic
convictions,” she concludes. “We are post-politics,
post-political consciousness. Everyone is involved in their private
life,” while governments here and abroad are “buying
political acceptance with consumer goods.”

I asked Eberstadt whether she had been in southern
France for the much-publicized riots that occurred over four weeks
in October and November of last year. Eberstadt informed me that
the riots really started in Perpignan. In May 2005, weeklong riots
followed the murder of an Arab by gang of Gypsies who beat the youth
to death with baseball bats when he tried to prevent a fourteen-year-old
Gypsy boy from stealing his car radio. In the days that followed,
Eberstadt recalls French Arab kids running through the streets,
riot police being called in, and front page headlines every day.
It was clear the French government had no idea what to do.

“Everyone is examining their own model of assimilation.
Everyone has had their own shock this year,” she concludes,
not only with the riots in France but with the London train bombings
and the failed U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina. 2005 will go
down as “a year of exploding ethnic misery and violence.”

“What I recognized in the course of writing
Little Money Street is that writing about Gypsies was a
way of writing about outsiders, about poor people in the modern
world who are caught between tradition and consumerism. It’s
a weirdly widespread phenomenon that I’ve come across in the
slums of Palermo or shantytowns of Istanbul. Lots of people around
the world are living in a split-screen of what I describe as 'biblical-archaic
and strip-mall modern': boys who wear Adidas track-suits, listen
to hip-hop, eat Big Macs, but when they marry, expect their mothers
to pick them a virgin from a good family.”

“Gypsies,” Eberstadt writes in her book,
“are peculiarly vulnerable to the smallpox of consumerism,
in which people are persuaded to express their love for their children
through the acquisition of crappy goods they can’t afford
. . . The feeling of unworthiness if you don’t spend money
you don’t have on junk you don’t need is not peculiar
to Gypsies: the American economy is based on this particular pathology
. . . But people whose sense of self-worth is not strong, who feel
stigmatized by strangers, are especially vulnerable to the lure
of consumption.” Gypsy children are “gargantuanly spoiled”
and tend to obesity. Yet Gypsies “want to consume American
culture . . . but they don’t want to be American,
because being American implies a willful amnesia, a loss of inherited
familial and societal values, a preference for individualism over
solidarity.”

For Gypsies, “it’s unthinkable to move
away from your family.” She compares this to the similar attitude
of the French Arabs and remembers Hajiba’s reaction to her
Catalan husband’s elderly relative dying in a nursing home,
something his wife found “disgusting, absolutely inhuman.”
The Arab reliance on family is to large degree for security, defense
against a wider world that is often hostile or at best, indifferent.
But it is also “human, natural, kindly.”

Hearing Eberstadt speak of what is natural and kind,
I am reminded again of the sense of loss and confusion that permeates
her last work, where educated Manhattan mothers look at childbirth
as something monstrous. “Gypsies are completely dysfunctional
but there is something cozy about it:” girls have babies early,
but with the support of an extended family of grandparents, aunts,
and cousins. It’s not the “horrible, terrifying responsibility”
many educated U.S. women feel it to be.

Eberstadt is the first to admit that there are no
easy answers. Idealizing Gypsy society for its attitude towards
family is no different, no more accurate than the idealized roving
Gypsies of the past. For Americans, “there is so much freedom,
so much choice, but there’s a lot of anxiety that comes with
it . . . We put work first—and it’s stimulating, it’s
exciting—but the love-life, the marriage side, the children side
is completely screwed up as a result.” Alternative family
structures and modern medical practices have led to a world where
“everything becomes a kind of lab experiment—everything is
possible, but nothing is natural.” We believe in “entitlement
without consequences,” where aging, illness, infertility,
and death are seen as even more unnatural and alien than childrearing.
What is the future of a society where “instead of ingenuity
and enterprise, what people value here is neighborliness, respect,
stability, leisure”?

 

“If it wasn’t for the music, they would
just be welfare cases,” Eberstadt explains, and Little
Money Street
another dour sociological treatise on poverty,
obesity, or racism. Since their earliest traceable beginnings in
North India, music has been a fundamental part of Gypsy heritage,
a sound “intense, unmistakably, distinctively their own.”
In every country, Gypsy musicians adapt local sounds and instruments,
but the flamenco-inflected strains of southern French Gypsy music
are “absolutely emotional, heartbreaking, despairing, this
kind of wail.” It is best described in spiritually charged
language, “a music that seemed to express the perverse vagaries
of a soul yearning for union with God.” Flamenco is “the
art of desperate measures, the winning of a fugitive grace from
failure, bankruptcy, shame. It’s this spirit of sly abasement,
of antinomian reversals and tear-soaked triumphs that makes it so
inherently religious.”

The fate of Tekameli, quite possibly the greatest
Gypsy band in western Europe, is typical. The music—deeply spiritual,
deeply personal—exists for its own sake and even the most well-meaning
attempts to commercialize their extraordinary sound go awry. The
most gifted musicians are stubborn, lazy, and scared to travel.
They won’t rehearse, fail to show up for concerts—one
guitarist sold his guitar strings the night before he went on tour.
The very unstudied casualness that makes their sound so raw and
so affecting guarantees no one outside of Perpignan is likely to
ever hear it.

 

Is it possible to pick and choose values? To accept
the comparative gender equality of the modern world, for example,
but eschew its materialism? “You’ve got to be smart
to do it. You need to take a little more responsibility for your
own destiny.” For those Gypsies who have intermarried and
moved away, “I hope they can keep a foot in each camp,”
she concludes, though even in the course of our conversation, Eberstadt
seems to vacillate between an optimistic belief in the possibility
of “Gypsy modernity” and a more bleak view. “My
own belief is that the Gypsies of St. Jacques are history. Their
real estate is just too valuable for them to hang on, and their
birthrate is only just above replacement. In ten years, the storefront
church where today Gypsies sing flamenco hymns will be a Occitane
store selling lavender oil.”

At one time, Gypsy culture seems to be disappearing
into the mainstream—Eberstadt predicts gitan will be extinct
in just a few generations—while at the same time she warns of a
society increasingly blinkered and resistant to change. The pressures
of the outside world seem designed to draw away those Gypsies most
educated, open-minded, and eager to embrace new things, while leaving
behind a hardened group of those least educated and most traditional.
What’s the future of alternative ways of living? Eberstadt
fears that “few governments today challenge the idea that
American-style, free-market capitalism is the only way forward,
and if this means losing everything a society cherishes.”

“After the two murders in May, there was a
real sense of crisis, that things have gone too far.” During
the riots, Eberstadt recalls Gypsies barricading themselves inside
their apartments. Police raids revealed substantial arsenals of
everything from submachine guns to baseball bats. The sight of these
panicked stockpiles was a wake-up call to the Gypsy community, shocked
at “how ugly, how weird” their own communities had become.
“There was a time when Gypsies could think they had a lot
more fun than everybody else.” Now Gypsies view the fun of
the outside world with varying degrees of envy and mistrust.

The question for Eberstadt is, “Can the ones
that get away retain some gypsy-ness?” For young people, the
motto is becoming “adapt or die,” though no one is yet
sure what that means.

“My private conviction is that our own social
economy is getting more ‘Gypsified’—that the older
agrarian/commercial ethic that prizes hard work, thrift, sobriety,
trustiness, has been replaced by a new intensely mobile, rootless
society of conspicuous consumption, of people with throwaway jobs,
living on credit. The difference between our culture and Gypsy culture
is Gypsies aren’t aiming to get rich.”

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