Berlin’s Romani rabble-rouser

Performer, activist, troublemaker; proud Roma and father Hamze Bytyçi is arguably one of the most recognisable and personable faces of Berlin’s Roma community, and is inviting all Berliners to “come out” in celebration of International Roma Day.

Image for Berlin's Romani rabble-rouser

Photo by Nihad Nino Pušija

Performer, activist, troublemaker; proud Roma and father… “And don’t forget I’m politically queer!” he likes to add. Hamze Bytyçi is arguably one of the most recognisable and personable faces of Berlin’s Roma community. This month, he’s inviting all Berliners to “come out” in celebration of International Roma Day at Gorki’s first-ever Roma Biennale (Apr 7-10).

After years of being avoided by official community representatives for his brazen outspokenness and unruly ways (including crashing Merkel’s unveiling of Germany’s Sinti and Roma Memorial), Bytyçi has become the go-to Roma when things turn sour. When he’s not mediating between fellow Roma, police and lefty protestors or combating Antiziganismus in schools, he’s running for local office on Die Linke’s ticket. Or he’s on the Gorki Theater stage donning a wedding gown and a pair of fake lashes as part of Roma Armee.

We met in a tiny office on Leipziger Straße, from which Bytyçi and partner Veronika Patočková run the cultural and political advocacy non-profit RomaTrial.

RomaTrial is only the most recent of the Roma-related organisations you’ve founded over the past 12 years. Berlin has plenty of Sinti and Roma groups, Germany has the Roma Central Council (Zentralrat)… Why did you feel there was a need for more?

You’re right, there are too many out there, we should just get rid of them! [laughs]. It’s good they are there: the more, the better. But you need to understand that those organisations were involved with the German Sinti and Roma minorities. There has been almost nothing for Roma refugees, all those people who, like me, came from the Balkans decades ago, or the new ones who keep coming – the Zentralrat was actually afraid that those migrants had a negative impact on their image.

So why did you decide to start Amaro Drom in 2005?

I founded it with the mother of my son, when I realised how little she knew about my culture. I would be like, “Oh damn, I can’t cut my nails, the sun is down!” And she: “What?!” So it was a stupid thing – nails! – but she actually motivated me to explain my culture to her. And I thought, if we don’t make the effort, it’ll all be lost for the next generation…

Was it also about explaining your culture to your own son? Does he know it’s bad luck to cut one’s nails when the sun’s down?

Yes, and now he does it on purpose! So he definitely knows, and he’s found his own way of acknowledging his Roma culture [laughs]. Meanwhile, he has long hair, painted fingernails, and wears pink and purple – which totally freaks out his Roma grandparents, they think he’s so incredibly queer! He so doesn’t give a damn… But I think he cares a lot. The other day he was offered Ziegeunersoße [tomato paprika sauce] on his hamburger, and he was shocked – “Gypsy sauce?! Isn’t it forbidden to call it that?”

You arrived in Germany in 1989, at age seven – do you remember?

I totally remember! The refugee camps and that Christmas in 1991 when we sang the Weih- nachtsgedichte in the Kirchenasyl – it was a new world! We moved from Heim to Heim before finding a proper home in Freiburg. We got Duldung [“tolerance”] status in 1998, and thanks to an ex-girlfriend who let me marry her for the papers, I could stay in Germany. Finally I got a German passport in October 2011. I’m lucky – some people live here for 30 years and still get deported.

Like Selami Prizreni, the rapper who got deported last year after growing up in Essen his whole life. He was even born here, right?

Yes, we actually included the story of the three Prizreni brothers in Hilton 437. At some point during the show, we called for volunteers among the audience to marry him for the papers. It worked out for the performance; not in reality, unfortunately. The second brother, Hikmet, will be deported soon, too.

Duldung is a special status in German law, a mere “tolerance” to stay that can be revoked anytime. And most of the people affected are Roma minorities from Serbia or Kosovo…

In Berlin, it’s mainly people from Serbia – we work to help them. Actual deportations depend on individual German states, and Berlin is not the worst. But with that federal law that made countries like Kosovo and Serbia “safe countries”, Roma refugees are systematically turned down.

You decried the German refugee policy that distinguishes between “good” asylum seekers and “bad” migrants, with minorities from the Balkans in the latter category…

There will be more and more “bad ones”. In a way, we all are “bad ones” and we shouldn’t compete. Whether they were in the Kosovo or Syria war was not the refugees’ decision. And now with my “best friend” [CSU politician Horst] Seehofer at the Interior Ministry, it’s gonna get worse. We have 94 AfD MPs in the Bundestag, but that only speaks for how much our society has changed. Remember the [1992] Rostock attacks against refugees: it was a huge national outcry. And now? There were 27 attacks against mosques this year, and the first thing Seehofer does when he comes to office is to declare that “Islam isn’t part of Germany!” The man is an official represen- tative of Germany! For me, that’s a lot more worrying than the AfD.

So you think that in this political climate, discrimination against Roma is also getting worse?

Are attacks against Roma even tracked? There’s a new category in the police system, since 2017. But people don’t really report it. It’s difficult to prove. What we know, though, is that in Germany institutional racism is real and there’s discrimination at every level. Meanwhile people like Romani Rose, the head of the Sinti community, didn’t recognise the term “antiziganism” until yesterday, because he didn’t like the word “Zigeuner” (“gypsy”). But pushing the concept under the carpet doesn’t solve the problem!

Growing up here, did you witness antiziganism at any point?

From both sides! At school, if someone stole something, he’d immediately be called a “gypsy”, but I was mostly called “gypsy” by other migrants – the Balkan refugees, the Serbians; Germans wouldn’t know if I’m a Turk, an Afghan or a Peruvian! To this day, on a train, I’m the first one to be checked… and the controller will ask for my ID card, not my ticket. In a weird way, I enjoy it; I flirt with it. I like the idea that they’re taking the wrong man. So, I turned it into a game: I make it last, I pretend I can’t find my ID until they get ready to call for reinforcements, and then, “Oh sorry, here it was!”

Few people recognise that during the Holocaust, Roma and Sinti were persecuted as much as the Jews…

Yes, we were considered worse than the Jews. Jews were supposed to be exterminated, but they were recognised as humans. We weren’t. Gypsies are the ultimate outcasts… Even for the most socially excluded, the poorest among poorest, there’s always the reassurance you’re not “that”. Antiziganism is so old and so universal. To this day, in countries like France or England, our people are not allowed to exist. We’re attacked in Italy. Can you believe that until just recently they had a pig farm on the location of a former Roma concentration camp in the Czech Republic? Could you imagine the same if it were a Jewish camp? It’s unthinkable!

You’ve worked a lot in schools; how much do German kids know about Roma?

It mostly depends on the parents, because our history isn’t in the German curriculum, besides a one-liner: “BTW, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma got exterminated too.” So what they know are the beggars in the streets and what they read in papers about pickpockets. And with Bulgaria and Romania joining the EU in 2007, they started to see a lot of them. By 2009, our parks were full of Roma – that’s when we youth activists, who were mostly dealing with culture back then, got involved in social and political work.

One critical moment came in 2010, when Roma families occupied Görlitzer Park and the situation came close to escalation – how did you get involved?

As simple as a cold call from the integration office: “Hey, they are in the park, you need to do something!” So I go there and I witness the mess. On one side the Jugendamt and Ordnungsamt; on the other the lefties chanting “You’re Nazis, you want to send them back to the gas chambers”. We tried to mediate but the situation was absolute chaos, with each of the families’ heads appointing themselves as spokesperson, and the journalists and the activists turning the whole thing into a circus! The question is always: who’s entitled to speak for whom? So many times they battle over us, but we’re not invited to the discussion table! Take the Roma and Sinti Holocaust Memorial, I once crashed a meeting to ask, “Hey you’re talking about us here!” They laughed because I was always that strange loud activist who shouts and provokes. I guess that’s why they didn’t invite me to the unveiling of the memorial…

Image for Berlin's Romani rabble-rouser

Photo by Ute Langkafel

But you invited yourself to the unveiling ceremony, right?

I crashed the Memorial and called out Merkel over the deportations: it’s a beautiful grave, thanks a lot, but what about the Roma suffering happening now?”

Well, there were 600 guests there to mourn the dead and no one to raise the issue of alive and breathing Roma refugees who live here! So we – the freshly founded BundesRomaVerband – crashed the party and called out Merkel over the deportations: it’s a beautiful grave, thanks a lot, but what about the suffering happening now of those kids uprooted from the country they call home after decades living here?

How did Merkel react?

She’s fantastic! Stone-faced, looking right in your eyes, she tells you it’s not her decision; she can do nothing. Chancellor Merkel totally helpless about the deportation of Roma in today’s Germany! Then I was dismissed nicely: thank you very much, it’s an important question, but not the right time. They hated me for that long after; I’d spoiled a beautiful moment.

Why choose to enter politics with Die Linke?

When I see the paternalism from the left, I realise that they don’t give us space to speak for ourselves. So I thought I should get involved in a party… I didn’t want the Greens because Joschka Fischer joined the Nato airstrikes in Kosovo, and they also supported the “safe state” ruling ending asylum rights for Balkan Roma. So Die Linke was more of a last resort.

So what are you trying to do now as a Die Linke board member? Halt the deportations?

We can’t overturn the “safe state” thing; that’s over. Right now we’re mainly working to draft a contract to empower Berlin’s Roma as a recognised minority. But our main task is to get our “rainbow” community to work together.

That’s your ultimate goal: a rainbow Romani coalition?

That was my motivation from the beginning, but even the Roma can’t agree between themselves! Take my parents – my dad comes from the Ashkalija, the Albanian-speaking Roma minority in Kosovo, said to be descending from Egyptians; my mum comes from Turkish Roma. Both are very proud of their own origins and they’d fight about it all the time – my dad would joke about my mum being “second-class Romani”. So ultimately it’s our own fault, our selbstverschuldete Unmündigkeit as we say in German. We Roma always try to find what differentiates ourselves from the other instead of finding unifying features.

Unity was a grand dream of Damian Le Bas, who passed away unexpectedly in December before he could see the culmination of the Biennale you worked on together. What was he to you?

Damian was our President of Romanistan, the originator of Gypsy Dada, an extraordinary artist. For Damian, borders were not obstacles. He tore them down with a pen on the maps that were just a screen to him. He was always ahead of his time, a bit out of control sometimes – but it all came from the heart. Since we met in 2012, he was my friend and biggest idol. With the Roma Biennale, Delaine [Le Bas, Damian’s widow] and I are carrying on his work… This time we’re focusing on the “coming out” idea – what does it mean to be coming out as a Roma, to be visible?

It raises the prejudice issue both ways, right? It’s hard to be a Roma in society at large, but also not easy to be gay within Romani society… no?

Yes, but the idea also is that everyone has to come out about something. We all have our closet. If all of us come out, we are the majority. That’s the wishful thinking behind it!

How does your acting career fit in all this? Is cross-dressing on stage okay by Romani parents’ standards?

When I told my dad that I wanted to act, he told me, “Well, you’ll either turn gay or become a drug addict.” But now they’re proud. In Roma Armee I wear a wedding dress and somehow it’s a bit of a fantasy come true for my mother, who always wanted a daughter. My dad was only half right: I’m not sexually gay, I’m politically gay. [Laughs]

Aren’t you preaching to the choir, to Gorki audiences?

I know for some jealous people, RomaTrial is a premium agency for posh art and politics shit [laughs]. But we’ve got no choice: we’ve got to mark April 8, International Roma Day – the anniversary of our first world congress. In 1971 a bunch of Roma people from all over met in England and agreed – on calling themselves “Romani”, on a flag and an anthem. That’s so amazing that it deserves to be celebrated! So Roma from nine countries will be at Gorki to perform and celebrate. It was never done before, and it might never happen again. It was Damian’s clout and aura – he was the one who got us together.

So, will there ever be a new president of Romanistan?

No, he’s not replaceable. He’ll remain the king of our utopian Gypsyland Europe, as he called it. Anyone can be part of that land. Everyone is welcome!

Created by Hamze Bytyçi with British Roma “outsider artist” couple Damian and Delaine Le Bas, the four-day Roma Biennale includes an art exhibition; a Roma Day parade (Apr 8, 13:00, beginning at the Roma and Sinti Holocaust Memorial); a “Long Night of Coming Out”; performances of Hilton 437 and Roma Armee, and much more. Apr 7-10, Gorki Theatre.

Born 1982 in Prizren, Kosovo, Hamze Bytyçi came to Germany as a refugee with his parents and older brother in 1989. They eventually settled in Freiburg, where Bytyçi studied acting and founded Roma youth organisation Amaro Drom (Our Way) in 2006. He moved to Berlin the following year, where he founded the organisations Amaro Foro (Our City, 2010), RomaTrial (2012) and BundesRomaVerband (Federal Council of Roma, 2012) as well as performing in and directing productions at Ballhaus Naunynstraße and the Maxim Gorki Theater, among them the interactive performance Hilton 437 (2013) and last year’s Roma Armee. Since 2017, he has served on the Berlin executive board for Die Linke.