On the first day of this month, Romanians celebrated their “National Day”, the day Transylvania united with the rest of the country. According to the state-owned national channel TVR1, it was a day to celebrate Romanian culture and Romanian values such as “faith and family”. There was a lot of patriotic songs, folk music, dancing and nostalgic displays of affection towards Basarabia, a former region of Romania that was taken by the Russians (oh, the Russians…) during the Soviet expansion and is still rather influenced by them, nowadays known as the Republic of Moldova. It was all very positive and peaceful but I must say one thing kept bugging me: there was no mention of Hungarian, Saxon or Gipsy (confusingly also known as Romi or Romani) culture. All significant minorities in terms of number and cultural contributions to music, architecture etc.
What does nation and nationality mean anyway? The more I think about it the more it seems to me like it’s one of those words that mean such different things for different people that it loses its value as a communication device. In all the languages I know there is a difference between nationality and citizenship. The almost universal adoption of the concept of citizenship serves a rather pragmatic purpose, but the idea of nationality seems vague and abstract. Still, however loosely defined and legally irrelevant (especially in the New World), the sense of belonging and of a national identity is still an extremely relevant aspect of the human experience and many continue to wage war in its name, with people separating and killing each other on the basis of language, religion, place of birth or whatever sort of tribalistic us/them dichotomies they find.
Of course, not always does nationalism turn into bloodbath. But sometimes I wonder, doesn’t it happen often enough? Not enough to ban any sort of national identification, of course, but to at least question it more. I grew up in Brazil, a rather homogenous place in terms of national origin, with rather few first-generation immigrants at least during the period I was growing up. I only knew one foreigner before I left Brazilian soil for the first time, so it makes sense that this wasn’t the hottest topic over there. But after studying in Canada, living in Sweden for one year, in Romania for another and meeting people from all over Europe and the rest of the world, I realize that it’s not really that much of a popular subject anywhere. Unlike us Americans (i.e. people from the Americas), most Europeans have a national identity that is detached from their citizenship, but most seem to just take it for granted and don’t really question it.
“He’s Hungarian”, they say. What does that even mean? I wonder. They were born in Romania, not Hungary. They have a Romanian citizenship, not Hungarian. They speak Hungarian at home with their parents. Does that make them any less Romanian? If it does, it’s a bit confusing that the country was named Romania and it’s inhabitants granted Romanian citizenship. Especially considering that Hungarians aren’t the only non-speakers of Romania who’re nonetheless native to this land. But what about the Hungarians? Do they feel excluded? Do they want to belong in the first place? Many don’t. Some regions with a predominant population of Hungarians even want independence.
The situation with Romanians and Hungarians is particularly complicated because the Romanians see themselves as the peaceful peasants who were ruthlessly attacked by the powerful and oppressive Austro-Hungarian Empire. But now they’re the ones in power. So it’s not the typical “dominant vs. oppressed” situation as it kind of is in Brazil with the upper-class white with European background and the less privileged black of African ancestry. In Brazil the relationship of dominance and privilege has remained constant, in Romania it has reversed throughout history. But historical resentment and thirst for vengeance is one of the most dangerous phenomenons of human behavior I can think of. And it’s about time we learn this and make sure to teach it to the newer generations.
In any case, the hostility goes both ways, and blaming the other for having started it is childish and non-constructive. As an outsider I understand that Romanians have resentments and expect the Hungarians to have the initiative and be more positive about Romania. But I also have to understand if Hungarians feel excluded. How could they not?
While there’s tension with the Hungarians, the same cannot be said about the Saxons, the German speaking population. There are much fewer of them, since most left to Germany during communism, and given the prestige the German language and people have in Romania (like US-Americans or Western Europeans in general have in Brazil), I’m sure it’s no misfortune to be born a Saxon in Transylvania. To reinforce my point, it’s worth mentioning they just elected a Saxon for president, the first of “non-Romanian” ethnicity (whatever this means). In spite of all this, and of having marked their passage in the region with beautiful architecture and pittoresque cities and fortresses, they are granted no mention in the Romanian National day.
So the historical enemy and the prestigious minority get no recognition in the national day. What about the Romani? The ones at the very bottom of the social hierarchy? You guessed it. Of course not. Romania holds one of the largest populations of Romani people in Europe and one of the highest percentages in the world and, for better of for worse, are internationally known for that.
The extent to which they have influenced Romanian culture may be debatable, considering they’re not a very open and integrated group, but some influence is undeniable, a good example being in music, both traditional and contemporary. They play essential roles in cerimonies such as traditional weddings, where they’re employed as “lăutari”, a sort of “Gipsy Wedding Band” which is a characteristic element of the celebration in Eastern Europe. Their music was also a strong influence for George Enescu, considered Romania’s greatest composer. Moreover, having been a rather constant presence in the history of they country, they have naturally been often depicted by local artists. Still they get no mention in the National Day.
What are Romanians anyway? The truth is that our nationality is what we want it to be. There is no definition of Romanian, Swede or Portuguese as an ethnical group written anywhere, and even if there was nobody has the authority to rigidly define these words and protect it from change – I would use Brazilian as an example but I don’t think anybody even thinks of this word as something else other than citizenship. Certainly nobody claims there’s such a thing as “Brazilian ethnicity”. While some words are arguably “stable” and less likely to change, such as “triangle”, others are unstable, and more vulnerable to a shift in meaning. Many words have changed throughout history, it’s inevitable. The word awful, for example, used to refer to things worthy of awe. Sort of a synonym for awesome. At one point it eded up meaning horrible for some reason (check this link for more words that changed meaning). Citizenship is like triangle. It is formal, bureaucratic, clearly and legally defined. Nationality is not. It’s more like awful.
At one point black slaves didn’t have the right to citizenship in Brazil and the US, for example. They weren’t even considered the same class of people. Nowadays, although they still suffer the stigma of an oppressive history, it would be outrageous to suggest that blacks are any less Brazilian or less American. Black culture is actually largely embraced as a characteristic element of “Brazilianess”, and is heavily exploited touristically for the exotic appeal it has for Europeans.
It was interesting to see the music, dances and traditional clothing characteristic of speakers of Romanian in different regions of the country. It was disappointing not to learn anything about Gipsy, Saxon and Hungarian traditions though. Wouldn’t it be nice to have at least one song by each of these groups? Wouldn’t it help achieving a better integration of underprivileged groups at least a little bit, by lifting their self-esteem? If it worked for Jane Elliot students, why shouldn’t it work for at least some of them?
Some say the attitude is nice but doing it on the first of December would be too inflammatory because of the symbolic importance of the day both as a victory for Romanians and as a loss for Hungarians. It is a bit scary to think that things are that tense, but even if this is the case, I still think this is a goal to be aimed for the future. If intermediate steps are necessary in order to avoid a backlash, that’s fine. But just turning a blind eye and leaving the things the way they are sounds like a pretty awful idea. I’m pretty sure things can be much more awesome.