They carry the name of Heracles, and they live in Stratford, east London. The Herak family are Romani people, or Roma: not Romanians – which is an ethnonym derived from the ancient Romans – but Roma, a word with a Sanskrit root, and which can mean ‘husbands’, ‘Romani people’ or simply ‘us’. Over the past thousand years the Roma have gone by whole directories of other names, some merely misnomers (Egyptians – whence ‘Gypsies’ – and Turks), and some, at least originally, blunt and vile (Tsiggánoi, Çigany, Zigeuner: all of which share the root meaning ‘Untouchable Ones’). But if the name ‘Roma’ and, to whatever degree, those people who call themselves Roma, are of sometime Indian heritage, then why would such a family, ambling along a footbridge in twenty-first-century England, bear a Greek-derived name, when they aren’t even from Greece?
There are many answers. Most Roma, whatever their far-flung ancestry, are Europeans going back tens of generations. And though there are still families, like my own, who have only lately begun to move off ‘the road’, large numbers of so-called Gypsies come from families who have not been nomadic for several hundreds of years. They are often deeply rooted in the countries in which they live, sometimes with medieval provenance there.
The Heraks, for instance, hail in recent generations from Slovakia. They speak three languages at home: Slovak, English and a Slovak dialect of the Romani language. That is to say, three Indo-European languages, of which Romani is the most recent arrival in Europe, thoroughly influenced by centuries of life here and, prior to that, in the Caucasus and Persia. Then there is the land of the divine hero Heracles: Greece itself – specifically, the Byzantine Empire into which the Roma arrived, their forebears having set out westward from India around the year ad 1000. Greece became one of the crucibles of an evolving Romani culture, a sort of second motherland. As a result, the Romani language is strewn with Greek words – alongside Armenian and Persian ones. Scholars like to call them ‘lexical items’ and ‘borrowings’, as if they were physical, or somehow in short supply: as if, by taking them on their journey, the Roma had left their original owners bereft. This traffic in vocabulary worked in both directions, though, and Romani words from India have been left behind wherever the Roma have lived, from Tehran to Helsinki.
Britain has a long-established Romani presence, stretching back to a probable first arrival in late-fifteenth-century Scotland: many of the country’s Traveller families are descended from these early migrations. In addition, there are perhaps as many as 200,000 Romani people in the UK whose families moved here in recent decades from continental Europe. Few take after the popular image of Gypsies. Almost all recent Romani immigrants, like the Heraks, live in brick-and-mortar housing, and are quietly getting on with regular jobs and uncontroversial lifestyles. If anything makes them stand out, it might be their appreciation of the fact that, in British schools, Roma children aren’t put into separate teaching groups for children with less potential. In 2015 the European Commission initiated proceedings against Slovakia because of this practice, apparently with little effect. Five years later, in 2020, the Ministry of Education of the Slovak Republic wrote to the Commission acknowledging the continued existence of racially segregated education, while quibbling over how it should be defined, and UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring team have found that, as of this year, the country’s Romani children are still frequently taught in classes apart, with few chances to shine.
In Romani families’ photographs there always seem to be signals of a taste for the resplendent. The Heraks’ photographs are no different.