19 May 2019

The blonde angel of Farsala and the butterfly effect


1538: In The dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght, produced in England, there are a couple of entries in the “Z ante I” section:
  • Zigari, people, whyche we doo calle Egyptians, that wander about in euery royalme and be horrible theues.
  • Zigarum, the contray from whens the said people doo come.


Act I (andante ovvio, allegro doloroso)

A contemporary modest house in Farsala, in Central Greece

In October, 2013, the Greek police entered a neighborhood in the city of Farsala.

More than five years ago, already? Yes, the precise day to remember is Wednesday, October 16th, 2013. Many police agents are combing a Roma neighborhood (a.k.a. a Gypsy camp) in Farsala, in central Greece, purportedly looking for drugs and guns. A group of them enters the home of Elephteria and Hristos; they look all over the place, finding no drugs or guns. In a bed, a police officer lifts a blanket, where a small child is hiding from the commotion and the fear that police causes among the Roma. The girl is very blond, with an extremely clear skin, almost white. She squints at the scene, as the light bothers her. Elephteria and Hristos are dark-skinned and dark-haired. We do not know what went through the mind of the state prosecutor overseeing the raid, but we do know that she decided to take the girl away as she could not possibly be the biological daughter of the people of the home. Elephteria tells her that she is not the biological mother, and that, as a very young baby, the girl was given to her by the child's birth mother, a poor migrant woman from Bulgaria. The prosecutor does not believe her, and decides to take the girl away. It is not known if anybody was crying, screaming, pushing, pulling. What is known is that, in the next few days, many other people in the world were also negatively affected by that prosecutor's decision.

We don’t know where is today little Maria. Is she still called Maria? But the intention of this article is not to examine the lives of Maria, Hristos, Eleptheria or that Roma neighborhood of the town of Farsala where this family lives. It is about how the Western world carried out, saw and interpreted this relatively minuscule and painful event.

Language usage was clear. The fact: a girl is snatched by the police from a Roma household in a neighborhood of Farsala, in the ancient region of Thessaly. The reports: the Greek police rescues a beautiful, blonde, four-year old girl found hiding in a Gypsy camp in Farsala.

The initial reports are informed by what everybody knows about those bad Gypsies. The authorities order a genetic test, and it corroborates what Elephteria said: the child is not her biological daughter. The girl is promptly labeled as a “mystery girl” and starts being referred to as “the blonde angel of Farsala.” Maria is a treasure: she was found, discovered, rescued… Gypsies kidnapping an angel, those devils!

Item – Opera Il Trovatore (1853) based on El trovador (1836), a play by Antonio García Gutiérrez

In this very well-known, beautiful and often performed opera by Verdi, the plot has its origin in the bad deed of a Gypsy woman who had been accused of a terrible crime: casting a curse on a child of a noble man. The woman is described by other characters as the most horrible of people (Abbietta zingara, fosca vegliarda! / Abject and dark old Gypsy woman). She had been burned at the stake, but not before asking her daughter Azucena for revenge. Azucena exacted the vendetta by kidnapping (there we go!) the son of the noble man… Set in Northern Spain, the opera's depiction of the Gypsies includes a number of prejudices and stereotypes: baby snatching, Gypsy camps, sorcery, dancing, singing… Abject Gypsies.
Ergo…


Act II (andante allarmante)

Ρομά αρπάζουν μωράκια! [Romá arpázoun morákia!] (Espresso, Saturday October 19th, 1 PM)

ROMA snatch babies! That was the headline that covered with large black letters most of the front page of the Greek tabloid Espresso. No quantifiers or qualifiers needed: some Roma people, two people that are Roma..., no, nothing like that is needed in Greece or in most of Europe and possibly the whole Western world. Everybody knows that all, most, many, whatever, Gypsies, that now they call Roma, are bad people that do terrible things, like witchcraft, singing in the streets, picking pockets in plazas, reading your fortune, not ever working, living off welfare, selling drugs and just being disgustingly there, those vagrant, dirty Gypsies.

And they are so passionate! Great musicians, amazing dancers, and the freedom they have, you know, going from one place to the next, the true freedom of the road, damn social conventions! Oh, who could be a free Gypsy!

Notwithstanding nevertheless and however, they are no good: thieves, ignorant, lazy, welfare addicts, drug addicts, drug traffickers, child traffickers, and baby snatchers, of course; everybody knows that.
Item – Operetta Zigeunerliebe (Gypsy Love), 1910, by Franz Lehár
The story is about the romantic love dream of Zorika, the freedom-loving daughter of Dragotin, a rich Romanian boyar, and Józsi, a Gypsy musician. In one scene, Dragotin threatens to hit a Gypsy woman, and Zorika intervenes telling him not to hit them, but Dragotin replies: “Hitting them, that’s what you do with Gypsies.” Later in the operetta, he repeats those words, possibly coming from the times when Gypsies were slaves in that part of Europe.


Athens. Press conference setting.
Enter Mr. Kostas Giannopoulos, director of the institution that received Maria 

The well-known and recognized director of the award-winner private child protection institution Χαμόγελο του παιδιού (Chamógelo tou paidioú, Smile of the Child), Mr. Giannopoulos told The Guardian that “This case has reinforced our suspicions of Roma involvement in child trafficking. We have discovered how easy it is for anyone to register children as their own.” Those sentences were quoted verbatim, unquestioned, in media all over the globe. The Guardian is a reliable source, of course.

Mr. Giannopoulos was talking about or, rather, judging Gypsies, from the mindset of many, possibly most, non-Gypsy Europeans; not as the well-meaning charitable man he is known to be. Without recurring to chiromancy, cartomancy, or necromancy, he also advanced to the BBC, matter-of-factly, what would happen to little Maria had not she been taken away from the house where she lived: “They will use this little girl in the streets to beg because she was blonde and cute.” No mention if Elephteria, Hristos or their other children had ever been begging in the streets. But everybody knows, of course. The good Mr. Giannopoulos could not stop the common European in him to come forward.

Centuries of mutual distrust and tension, including slavery of Roma people until the mid 1800s in the Balkans, have built an almost organic prejudice barrier between most non-Gypsy Europeans and the comparatively quite small but widely distributed Rom, Gypsy, Calé, Tsigan, Ashkali, Zigeuner, Sinti, Manouche, Gitano, Cigano, Romani people, most of them with their own language or dialect among many, followers of Christian or Muslim European religions, traders, crafters, musicians, dancers and, quite often, almost always, the poorest among the poor of Europe, most of them. They are, mainly and foremost, them. Always were. All 2 million, or perhaps 14 million, who knows, living among the other 700 million Europeans.

The stake is always at the ready, the wood in the pyre is always dry; it’s easy to start the fire. The conditions are perfect for the butterfly to flap its wings and begin the proverbial hurricane.


Act III (allegro alla marcia, in crescendo)

All over the place

October 19, 2013.
Reuters distributes the news about what happened in Farsala. New York’s Daily News titles it “Roma gypsy couple accused of kidnapping blond-haired, blue-eyed girl.” “Roma” is politically correct; “gypsy” is there so people will understand they are writing about those other people. Several photographs of the 4, 5, or 6 year-old are included, along with images showing the “Gypsy camp” with the brick house where Maria was “found,” and another captioned “Roma people stand in a Roma settlement in Farsala.” The latter shows a woman carrying a clearly happy toddler, and some playful kids hanging around a very nice, possibly public building. That’s the camp.

The whole Western world and its satellites get really excited about the plea of the obviously kidnapped beautiful girl. A widely quoted Greek police officer said that the girl was possibly Scandinavian or Bulgarian.

It becomes imperative to find the real parents of Maria. The picture of the squinting blonde angel of Farsala is distributed urbi et orbi by Interpol.

October 20, 2013.
In the United States, a news anchor of NBC’s morning show Today speaks “about this girl. She was found neglected, living in terrible conditions.” For more details, she connects with Duncan Golestani, a correspondent from London, who starts persuasively, in a sad, almost dramatic, tone of voice: “When you look at that girl, you understand why the police were suspicious of her living with a Roma Gypsy family in Greece.” Yep, he said just that: looking at the girl is enough to be suspicious of her being where she was. “It was María’s blond hair and pale skin that led to her rescue.” Golestani, who we assume is a journalist, said that. One could be incensed about the reference to hair and skin tone as enough “evidence.” But, for this writer, the word “rescue” resonates as an ugly justification for doing anything to those Gypsy people. After all, Golestani is not even blond or light skinned.

In the afternoon, the widely viewed Nightly News of NBC also includes a segment about Maria. Brian Williams, the newscast anchor, reads: “Now to the mystery of Maria, a little girl with blond hair who was found by Greek police last week." Reporter Michelle Kosinski, in Greece, adds: "Police raiding this Roma or Gypsy camp […] found her” [a street is shown with kids playing, and other people: not a single tent or trailer]. “She was living in bad conditions, but there was no sign of abuse. […] [The Roma people said that the girl] was given to the couple by her Bulgarian mother in 2009.” Maria, of course, was living in the same conditions of most other residents in that relatively poor neighborhood.


(Cambio di tempo: andante alla farfalle, piutosto triste)

October 20, 2013
Dublin, Ireland
After learning in the news of the blonde angel of Greece, an immigrant from Eastern Europe—where there is a large population of Roma people—sends a message to the Facebook account of the TV program “Paul Connolly investigates,” stating (with a written accent, like yours truly): “Hi Paul. Today was on the news that blond child found in Roma camp in Greece. There is also little girl living in Roma house in Tallaght and she is blond and blue eyes. Her name…”

October 21
Dublin
1:10 AM Paul Connolly passes the information to The Guard of the Peace (An Garda Síochána, the poetically and Gaelically named Irish national police). The Roma family was known to a case worker, to the school, and they all vouched for the family. Nonetheless, the Garda went into action or, more precisely, into the house of the Roma family, saw the blonde 7-year old girl, asked the parents for certificates and such , not finding the produced documents convincing. At 5 PM, they decided to take the girl with them to be put under the care of the Health Services.

October 21, 2013
In Kansas City, Missouri, Channel 5 (KCTV, a CBS affiliate) reports:
“Authorities in Europe and across the world are working to determine the identity of an abducted girl found in Greece. […] The FBI and Greek authorities will work to determine that the child isn't that (sic) of missing Kansas City toddler Lisa Irwin as well as other missing children. Known as Baby Lisa, the infant was almost a year old when she went missing in early October 2011.”

October 22, 2013
In Athlone, a city in the center of Ireland, pop. 21K, the Gardaí strike again. This time, a two-year old blond boy is removed from a Gypsy household. The press reports that “[c]oncerns had been raised over the toddler’s identity, as he has fair hair and features, in contrast with the rest of the family.” It seems that it’s unfair for non-fair people to have fair children.

Coda of the first week: A nuanced article in The Daily Beast asks “Why was the world so captivated by the picture of blond Maria with the dark-skinned Roma?” The author, Tunku Varadarajan, focuses on the blondness of Maria as the prime reason for her to be singled out. With flair, he writes: “As Greek police searched the family’s squalid home in pursuit of an unrelated criminal matter, they found Maria, flaxen-haired as the refulgent sun, underweight, unwashed, and so unconvincing as a gypsy child …” Squalid house, refulgent hair, underweight, unwashed: Besides the refulgent hair, the other adjectives seem to be there to build towards the last paragraphs. To show the implicit racism of the whole affair, he asks rhetorically about the other children of the family, and then reaches the conclusion: “Maria, for her part, is blessed. She was rescued by racism. But at least she was rescued.” Rescued by racism.

Item: c. 1608. In the pamphlet Lanthorne and candle-light. Or, The bell-mans second nights-walke In which he brings to light, a brood of more strange villanies than ener [sic] were till this yeare discouered, the Londoner Thomas Dekker describes some detestable beings.
Moone men.
A discouery of a strange wild people, very dangerous to townes and country villages.
[…]
They are a people more scattred then Iewes, and more hated: beggerly in apparell, barbarous in condition, beastly in behauior: and bloudy if they meete aduātage. A man that sees them would sweare they had all the yellow Iawndis, or that they were Tawny Moores bastardes, for no Red-oaker man caries a face of a more filthy complexion, yet are they not borne so, neither has the Sunne burnt them so, but they are painted so, yet they are not good painters neither: for they do not make faces, but marre faces. By a by name they are called Gipsies, they call themselues Egiptians, others in mockery call them Moone-men.
More than five centuries, already? Yes, many more. There is not a precise century to mark the arrival of Romani people in Europe. Many centuries, indeed, perhaps as many as a millennium, have passed since Romani people spread into nearly every corner of Europe. As Dekker noted in 1608, they are more scattered than Jews, and more hated.

Pause.

A recap of some of the October, 2013 week-long events here described:
  • Wednesday October 16th: Greek police raid a neighborhood of the town of Farsala, looking for drugs and guns. In a house, they see a small girl—pale skin, blond hair, blue or green eyes—who looks very different from the rest of the family living there. When asked about the girl, the purported mother says that she is not the biological mother, and that a very poor Bulgarian woman gave her in an informal adoption. For some reason, the prosecutor overseeing the raid decides to take the girl away from the only family she has known.
  • Thursday 17th, and Friday 18th: In contacts with the press, police spokespeople and leaders of the private child protection agency that was entrusted with Maria’s care, clearly imply that Maria is the victim of child trafficking. Meanwhile, the couple that took care of Maria are sent to jail under suspicions of child trafficking.
  • Saturday 19th: A blonde girl’s image is now haunting Europe and the rest of the Western world. Clearly assuming that the girl had been kidnapped, her photo is shown in most of the Western media of every persuasion, purportedly to see if she could be recognized by her true parents. Interpol gets involved and sends the picture to police stations everywhere. The Blonde Angel of Greece. Who are her parents?
  • Sunday 20th: In Dublin, an Easter European immigrant sends a message to a journalist about a blonde girl living with a non-blond Roma family. On Monday, the police takes the girl away from the family, not convinced by the documents the purported parents produce.
  • Tuesday 22nd: In Athlone, also in Ireland, a two-year old blond boy is removed from a non-blond Roma family’s house.
From Wednesday to Tuesday, judgments were thrown all over the place. Very explicit biases against Gypsies were now, again, openly justified.


Act IV (allegro dubbioso)

Shifting European locations

Second week (it will be short, and possibly endless).
Wednesday October 23rd: Day of the abducted Roma children

Athlone, Ireland. After consulting with social services, members of the community, nurses and others, it is clearly determined that the blonde toddler is really the child of the Roma couple, even before obtaining the results of the DNA tests. After having spent the night with foster parents, the child is returned at 11:30 AM to his distressed parents. (Case closed? Well, not quite: that afternoon, the reunited family went to a town nearby, where somebody saw them and called the Garda, again, to report “a young boy with fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair in the company of members of the Roma community.” The Garda this time did not act.)

In Dublin, at 6 PM, the DNA results arrived, showing that the blonde Roma girl was actually the daughter of the Roma parents. After having spent two days with foster parents, she is immediately returned to her family.

In Nikolaevo, Bulgaria, a man called Atanas and/or a woman called Sasha see in a television newscast a photo of Maria, the blonde angel “discovered” in Greece. They believe her to be the daughter they left in Farsala. She’s blonde like several of their other nine children, because Atanas carries an albino gene. Atanas and Sasha are Roma, very poor. They live in a very poor area outside of Nikolaevo, a city in a poor region of Bulgaria, the poorest country of the European Union.

October 24th: After the apparently required DNA tests, the world learns that Maria the blonde angel is a Roma child born in Greece to Bulgarian parents Sasha and Atanas, who had decided to leave her with a Greek Roma family who could better take care of her.

October 25th. Just a week after advancing his judgement on Maria’s situation, The Guardian quotes again Mr. Kostas Giannopoulos, the director of The Smile of the Child NGO, who implicitly recognizes that what happened to Maria was not in her best interest: "What this case has taught us is that we shouldn't assume anything. […] From the beginning it was wrong to assume she was kidnapped or illegally adopted, even if an illegal act took place that was against the dignity of the child." An implicit apology of sorts.

October 30: Bulgarian authorities announce they will take seven of the other nine minor children of Sasha and Atanas, and put four of them under foster care, two at a state institution, and one with relatives. Sasha says that she will hang herself if they take her children.

Coda (andante sostenuto con crudeltá)

Maria? She’s never again referred to as an angel. She was never returned to any of her Roma families. She had been born, after all, in January of 2009, so she was not yet five years old when taken away, confirming the information Elephteria gave initially to the police. She was not especially small for her age nor malnourished.

The Greek former adoptive parents of Maria were then accused of improperly registering several children to gather state benefits. They may still be in jail

The Bulgarian family is as poor as ever. Apparently, the Bulgarian government did not act on their threat to take the children of Sasha and Atanas.


Finale (a piacere)

Now what? I hope the reader was not expecting a magic solution.

So, I will instead submit some “Frequently Proposed Answers” that many a European person would suggest to address the “Gypsy problem.”

  • Gypsies are in a situation of their own making
  • Gypsies should assimilate and stop being robbers and traffickers and what not
  • Gypsies should go back to India
  • Gypsies this and Gypsies that…

The astute reader may have noticed that most of the proposed “solutions” are for Gypsies to act upon themselves. It is their problem, not “ours.” Very convenient, but none of those “solutions” would have addressed the abduction of the one, two, three blonde angels by the police. That is our problem.

* * *


Postlude


  1. A confession from this writer. Ever since Maria was taken away from her adoptive family in October 16th, 2013, I thought I would/ I should write about this. I read and collected all the news I could get; I even got in touch with one of the lawyers of Hristos and Elephteria. In these years, I changed many times the outline of what I would write. It would have been relatively easy and possibly poignant to focus on how all this has hurt so many people across the world… But I really do not know and have not talked or communicated with any of the Romani people involved, so that taking that avenue would have meant one more gadjo (i.e. non Romani, or non Gypsy) trying to speak for people that I know only through literature, the news and very few e-mails. The obvious route then came to put order in the original idea: the Roma people in Greece, Ireland, Bulgaria and all of Europe did nothing to start this butterfly effect: it was all in the European culture and “tradition” of treating Gypsies, which is the term embedded in European culture: the term used to discriminate, marginalize, and romanticize the people of Romani cultures and languages. If the reader still thinks that this article is about Roma people, please read again and hopefully you will understand that this is about common European perceptions and treatment of what they usually call Gypsies.
  2. The names used in the article are all real. The surnames of private people are not necessary.
  3. The quotations are all from the press, some (badly) translated.
  4. The press, especially at the beginning, showed almost no respect for the privacy of the Roma people, or for the presumption of their innocence.
  5. The references to opera are not meant to chastise one of the most complex and beautiful artistic forms of European culture. It simply happens that opera is a living art form, in many cases based on old European stories that very frequently show stereotypes and prejudices that are less tolerated today, albeit very much alive, as this article has tried to make manifest.
Domingo Martínez Castilla