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Ghetto.

Romanian television channels specialize in horror. News broadcasts are, in fact, reports of crime, rapes and robberies, automobile accidents where the dismembered victims, laid out along the highway, are filmed in long takes showing all the unbearable details. Here, you see wives abruptly told about the deaths of their husbands in order to film the teardrops suddenly gushing from their eyes and running down their cheeks. You see nubile girls, filmed in crude dose-ups under bright lights, asked to recount the details of how they were abused for years by their alcoholic fathers. You see the mentally ill filmed for the amusement of those lounging in front of the screen. Public displeasure is never taken into account because ratings are all that matter. But perhaps never, within this ocean of brutalization, devoid of humanity, was I affected more than recently, while watching a segment that filmed the dismemberment of a Gypsy community on the outskirts of Bucharest. The desolate industrial landscape, water towers in ruins, the skeleton of a market, piles of rusty pipes and sinks. In the middle of the weeds as tall as a man, a dozen rough shacks with the doors pulled off of them. Around one hundred Gypsies lived in these shacks for a few years, without running water, without electricity, without the bare minimum of sanitary conditions, amid clothes hung out in the sun and piles of garbage.

Talking animatedly, as if he were commenting on a football match, the anchor says that the single means of making a living for these people is by collecting scrap metal, carried along by horse-drawn carts. Now, these carts are being confiscated, masked paramilitary and policemen swarming over everything, making any sort of resistance futile. The faces of the men in the community, unshaven, their arms tattooed, register a limitless despair. "What will you do now?" a female reporter asks one man, who holds a naked little boy in his arms.

"We'll die," he answers, looking at the ground. The little boy is sucking some red pills from a yellowed bag, probably expired medicine found in the trash. Escorted by the police Volkswagens, the carts, pulled by tired little horses, line up for the long road. The Gypsies will never see them again. Then the masked men enter the shacks and pull the whole population out by force, women and children, among a choir of mourning and lamentations worthy of the tragedies of the ancient world. An old woman bursts into tears.

"Where will you go now?" the same reporter asks her, without feigning the slightest hint of compassion.

"Where are we going? We don't know where we're going!" The men are carried up into dark vans and taken to the police station for verification. She doesn't say what happened to the others. The closing commentary is in support of the raid. Another center of antisocial activity has been liquidated. Another ghetto has been closed. Throughout the prefabricated apartments communism produced during the Golden Age, pensioners can be satisfied.

Of course, the use of the word "ghetto" in Romanian was initially tied to Jews. Nineteenth-century writers described, sometimes with compassion, other times with disgust, the hallucinatory atmosphere of the old neighborhoods that were designated Jewish. Their absolute lack of protection. Their battle to obtain citizenship and civil rights. "The imaginary Jew," demonized everywhere across Europe, was for decades at a time the scapegoat of everyone swindled by those in the middle class. One of the first definitions in the Romanian dictionary of the word "ghetto" is significant: "A Yiddish neighborhood, in which Yids, not having been forced by anybody, gathered to conduct their businesses, and then later invented the idea that such neighborhoods were imposed upon them" (A. Scriban, Dictionary of the Romanian Language, Iasi, 1939). Yet in the most critical period for Romanian Jews, the period between the two world wars, when the ghettoization and the tragedy of the corresponding Nazi persecutions took place, the Jewish ghetto produced a sudden and unexpected resurrection of freedom. The most courageous and inspired literature of the avant-garde was written here. And here too, through dadaism, constructivism, and surrealism, there was an unfettering of humanity's interior freedom--the right to debate, to innovate. Tristan Tzara, Benjamin Fundoinau, Max Blecher, considered to be among the greatest Romanian writers, came from dusty, miserable Jewish neighborhoods in small provincial cities, evidence that the ghetto was not only a source of humiliation but of heroism too, of freethinking and creativity. After the war, many Jews, attracted by the internationalism predicated by the communists and likewise repulsed by fascism, entered enthusiastically into the Romanian Communist Party, where at first they occupied high-ranking positions. Disappointment came quickly, however. Soon, Jews were removed from the Party leadership, which had entered into a nationalistic phase, and as in the Soviet Union, a new wave of anti-Semitism rolled over the Jewish community. The result was that in the 1960s and '70s the majority of Jews left Romania.

The ghettos, however, remained. From 1960, the communist regime completed, through true social engineering, "the resolution of the housing problem." Within three decades, thousands of blocks of housing were constructed, quickly, with crude materials, unfinished concrete, minimal facilities. Today, these blocks irreparably damage the image of every Romanian city, regardless of how beautiful the old city-center might be. Entire neighborhoods of picturesque houses were razed to the ground and replaced with monstrous, sprawling concrete ghettos, blocks placed a hand-span apart from each other, without landscaping, without playgrounds. A population brought in primarily from the countryside was heaped into these buildings. A whole nation was forced to live in "matchboxes," as the prefabricated blocks were baptized.

I myself have lived my whole life in ghetto conditions. I was born in a little room with a cement floor where we slept, cooked, and took baths, because that room was the only one we had. I went to the depressing health clinic, with its moldings cracked and dented by hammers, its medical cross sections of a pregnant woman displayed on glass shelves. I went to a typical school in the shape of a U, same as all the others, with metal grates on the windows. Football slogans and obscenities were painted on its concrete wall. The language of the children, too, was full of dirty words, even though our parents taught us differently. We wasted whole afternoons on the steps in the back of the blocks, in the sour stink of the fields of trash. We jumped the fence to the electric wire shop to collect pieces of cut-up brass and rejected plastic fuses from the garbage in the courtyard. Ceausescu was talking on the television, on the radio, always Ceausescu. Until Ceausescu was talking even through the sewing machine and the iron. And in all this, I discovered soon enough, that there was a kind of freedom for each one of us--the pale residents of the concrete labyrinth.

For me, freedom came in the form of a neighborhood library on the ground floor of a nearby block identical to mine. Evenings, I entered the dark little room, with a sickly librarian and about three shelves of books, and I borrowed one volume after another. I was in the first year of high school when I discovered poetry. I read at that library (through what miracle had they arrived there?) Apollinaire and T. S. Eliot, Neruda, and Arghezi. Much later, I came to understand what a complicated, underground web of interior freedom was circulating through Romanian culture during this period. Many sacrifices were made to make translations of major writers and the publication of contemporary Romanian authors possible. Consumed by the desire to write poetry, I, the child of a working-class neighborhood, of empty stores and the rusting bodies of Wartburg cars abandoned on the sidewalks, attended the College of Liberal Arts. There, I came to know many others who remained free, despite the oppression of the great ghetto of Romania. I began to write a poetry of the streets, as my whole generation did, a poetry of reality, inspired by the jeremiads of Allen Ginsberg. Our books circulated underground, but when they were published they marked an innovation in the foundations of Romanian poetry. The message, undermining and troubling the officials, was the creation of a free mind, which paradoxically, resulted from the traumatizing experience of life in the ghetto. All this time, I was still living in Colentina, one of the notorious neighborhoods of the capital. But in the more than nineteen years that I lived there, I happily got to know the other side of this poor and sad world: the solidarity between people, their humanity, the true joy that sometimes shines through their troubles. The touching efforts to embellish the paltry spaces between blocks. In the same way, I came to understand that Romanians and Gypsies can live together peacefully and that their segregation is senseless. In fact, it's much worse where they live separately.

Many Romanians do not buy from Gypsy merchants, do not hire Gypsy employees, do not tolerate Gypsy neighborhoods because of their delinquency and promiscuity. In fact, disrespected, deprived of an adequate education, confronted by the disappearance of their traditional jobs, many Gypsies are driven to antisocial acts and to live a humiliating way of life. Although the whole population of Romania is poor, the Gypsy areas are entrenched in poverty and unsanitary conditions that reach truly inhumane proportions. In spite of this fact, state institutions, schools, police, and the courts are quick to take a punitive attitude towards the Roma community, further aggravating the situation.

Gypsies in cities today occupy all the places nobody else will: the abandoned ruins of the center, shanties of cardboard boxes and undulating wooden boards set up in open spaces and at the outskirts of town. Many times, I have passed by houses ready to fall at the slightest gust of wind. I have often been moved by seeing a light on in one of the floors above, filtering through the faded paper covering a window. Or the tiny outfit of a child hung on a clothesline strung across a crooked balcony. The old woman who sits all day on the sidewalk with a sack of sunflower seeds in front of her. Brash and vulgar girls, their hair dyed red, shouting something to each other from one window to another in the twilight. The crowd of people in stained clothes socializing noisily in the courtyard of a ruin, drinking from cups of enameled tiles and listening to manele, the sinister and piercing music of the Romanian ghetto. I have passed through Gypsy villages (for in the Romanian provinces, Gypsies were "slaves of the land" for hundreds of years) where the rich--not just from plundering and begging in the Occident, but from the fiddlers' art as well--have built tall, palatial pagodas with multiple roofs of glowing tiles, in stark contrast to the misery and nakedness of the majority. In Bucharest today, there are neighborhoods that have populations made up almost entirely of Gypsies--Ferentari, Giulesti, or Rahova, where the lack of opportunity, and so too the crime, reach catastrophic levels. Nowhere could the word "ghetto" be more appropriate than in the case of these gloomy back alleys. Hundreds of youths, in their stained t-shirts, with their dyed hair, dream of getting out any way they can. In the meantime, they lounge on the concrete steps, listening to a music of violence and frightening obscenities: Romanian rap, which makes the fantasies of Eminem seem like graceful madrigals. I recognize all of these bad places and I know quite well that they do not produce only shame and hate, but also values that seem somehow out of fashion in "the civilized world": heroism, a sense of honor, a joy for life. With a little opportunity, and a bit more attention from the community, these children would be able to go beyond the lack of perspective that stifles them.

In the final segment of the news broadcast that I mentioned, the microphone reaches a police officer who starts talking about the efficiency of the round-up, while in the background we hear the cries of the women being banished from their little households. Suddenly a Gypsy throws himself in front of the camera and shouts so loud that, for a moment, I can see the flap in the back of his throat: "We'll die of hunger! Give us the carts back! What will we do without them?" He is shoved violently by the officer. It draws a crowd, the camera shakes, the reporter shouts something panicked and ...

The image has changed. We find ourselves in a superb living room, with a large ornamental plant in a corner, next to a sofa where two women discuss the advantages of a certain brand of bathroom disinfectant. The old product couldn't penetrate everywhere the germs lurk. The new one, however, follows them all the way down to their darkest secret places. A cartoon shows the horrified germs fleeing in disarray from the miraculous disinfectant. Then the porcelain toilet gleams seductively, accompanied by the "ding" of a bell.

Translated by Carrie Lynn Messinger
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Title Annotation:Writings from Postcommunist Romania
Author:Cartarescu, Mircea
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EXRO
Date:Mar 22, 2010
Words:2298
Previous Article:Tip of the Day.
Next Article:Letter Home in a Foreign Language.
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