Boldness determined by spirituality

Interview of Ilko Yordanov from Open Society Institute – Sofia with Maya Steliyanova, project manager of “Voices of a Day Gone By” – the 40th anniversary project, which was approved for funding after receiving consultancy support under the Project Generation Facility, an occasion to discuss the challenges facing Roma culture and intercultural interactions in Bulgaria

Let us first of all describe the life of a young person from the „Faculteta“ suburb. What are the main challenges in front of her/him, what s/he loves to do, what s/he is dreaming about…

I have not lived in a Roma neighborhood. I was born and grew up in the city center. But that cannot be a reason for not knowing your own ethnicity, even when it is a minority, even if you were born and raised in the center of Vienna or Paris.

The attitudes have changed a lot from when I was a kid and now that I’m raising my own child. For example, that sentence that my parents used to repeat to me “You have to study twice as much to prove to the Bulgarians that you can” and I studied not twice but three times as much. Today though that’s not the way I bring up my child. I don’t blame my parents, because I know that in this hard way more than one generation of Roma children were raised. As I said the times were different then, they believed they were helping us, but today it sounds sad as an incentive, not to say pitiful.

Everyone has changed, those who live in the cities and those who live in the villages and those who live in the Roma neighborhoods, we are all different people and the cities, villages and neighborhoods are not the same, they change with us and often faster than we do. Accordingly, the dreams are not the same. Somehow they are becoming more and more material, even commercial, i.e. we have desires and less and less dreams.

I have a special relationship to dreams, first I don’t think they can be too many in this life. A dream is something you dream about and want very much, something you go to bed with and get up with, for years sometimes. It’s a love crush – a platonic one – that you hide from everyone at first, then share with the people closest to you and guard it like a child, lest they hurt it, watch over it and dream it again and again. The dream is love, then faith, it is the particle God sends us to feel ourselves valuable in this world. That’s why a dream can’t be the latest perfume, it can’t be the latest brand of car, nor can it be a new house with all its luxury in it and a big wedding, with the most fancy orchestra, it’s not. These are simply ordinary, everyday desires. Dreams do not fit into households needs, they seek daring people through whom to see their own faces out in the open, and this daring is predetermined by spirituality.

So, the people from “Fakulteta” and whichever other Roma neighborhood it may be, are not distinguished by their desires from everyone else – they want their home comfort and their dignity in life. And they achieve it somehow and in spite of everything – most of the young people and those of middle age are abroad because there are more job opportunities, because the pay is better, because they feel more valued there and last but not least because it is such conditions that create the ground for dreams.

What is the place of culture among the development priorities of young Roma?

I would like it to be first and foremost for all of us who are in Bulgaria. Nothing else can save us.

Yes, consciously, or not, we are saving ourselves in the conditions in which we live, surviving more and more and living less and less. And this regardless of our wealth status, census and education, because of failed policies, insane illicit practices and that word – forbidden as if for the prosecution in Bulgaria – corruption.

I have no criticism of the young, because first of all I am one of the people who believe in them and even more, I am convinced that each next generation is smarter, more capable and more beautiful than the previous one.

Now let’s talk about culture!

And where exactly is culture among our education and policy priorities?

Do we even think about what we have left behind or educated in this generation, and are the mistakes we attribute to them not ours own? So, we are the most failed generation that has deprived our children of spirituality to the point of outrage!

And we continue to do so with a brutal lack of criticality about our public life and institutions. That’s why the price of tickets for an actor of John Malkovich’s stature will always be compared to the price of yellow cheese, cheese, meatballs, bacon, instead of raising the issue of patronage, instead of addressing the mess in the law. So, in that sense, in the eyes of a young person, we just want to eat, we are hungry people and nothing beyond that.

A quick glimpse also at our uncritical attitude towards our public media, which in addition to informing, should educate better taste. A vivid example of the lack of aesthetics is the New Year’s program of the Bulgarian National Television /BNT/; there is no question of presenting the culture of different ethnic groups in Bulgaria. A whole cast of weathered faces, compulsively presenting their physiognomies, writhing in agony to look amusing, because to be funny is beyond their reach. Every New Year’s Eve – in an effort to get that money here – the people’s money. And where are the real actors, why don’t we see them at least on New Year’s Eve? BNT has no money to pay the fee of Marius Kurkinsky, Kamen Donev or the Bulgarian viewers do not deserve them? Let’s give them the “the same old relatives”, “Come on, let’s give them!”. The same story goes for musicians and music.

For culture to be a priority in a society, we need to know it. And here we have to ask ourselves: do our young Roma know Roma culture, which is very rich, and how do we as parents help them to do that. If you will, even in the most elementary aspects, namely, when on BNT on New Year’s Eve, someone sings ‘Ochi chernye’ a la Slavi Trifonov style, we are the ones who should clearly say – I do not know what it is, but it is not a song from my culture. When girls sway their petticoats infelicitously on the national television, we have to say clearly that this cannot be and is not a dance from our culture. And then point out, hear and see with our children what our songs and dances sound like. From here, it seems, we have to go to the knowledge of culture.

Then comes education which should stimulate the process of learning about culture and tradition and of course there should be a state policy that presents culture to the public, including Roma culture.

Finally, let’s list some interesting and significant projects in the past year, in the field of Roma culture in Bulgaria, which is significantly lagging behind with such events, compared to other European countries.

I will start with the theatrical play “The Taste of Life” by Zdrava Kamenova and the actress Natalia Tzekova. The brand new sensational album of the band “Tsingha Manga Funk” with the amazing guitarist Anel Demirev and their unusual combinations of funk, jazz and Roma folklore. A song by Neno Iliev was included in the film “Shakespeare as a Street Dog”; the Days of Roma Culture in Sliven and again there – a truly valuable photo exhibition of Roma from the Sliven region “Roma Memories through the Years” by RAKO Foundation and Stella Kostova (ed. note – developed with support from the Project Generation Facility). The initiative of a Roma culture group is gaining momentum with the ceremony of the “Romanipe” awards.

Tell us what you are about to do with the young people of the “Fakulteta” neighborhood in the capital within the framework of your last approved project in the preparation of which you partnered with the team of Project Generation Platform.

I am glad that the project “Voices of a Day Gone By” is an anniversary project for the platform, as an approved one, and I very much hope that next year it will also be one of those listed as significant in the field of Roma culture. The project is funded by Sofia Municipality and will be administered by the Student Society for the Development of Interethnic Dialogue Foundation. The project activities themselves are set as a surprise, so I will not talk about them. But I will share the names of the creative team: Lyudmila Balashikova – Zhivkova is the director, the musical part is entrusted to Neno Iliev, and I am taking care of the script. Here I will gladly share that one of our own, young, reliable and talented actress – Donka Kyoseva – is also involved in the team.

I know that there are a lot of people who believe that this cast will create a quality product, so I would like to first wish health, success and satisfaction to the entire team.

We are at the beginning of the implementation of the new Roma integration strategy. What would you like to see changed in the field of Roma culture and intercultural interactions in our country at the end of its implementation in 2030?

The new strategy is like the old one, only that it’s new.

I do not rely on the strategy and the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues at all. If they are not there, it will be the same again. I am even afraid of those who write these strategies, of those who approve them, of those who adopt them and maintain this parody that the state creates policies and works on the problems of the Roma community. I don’t want these people to touch my culture, hands off it!

By the way, the strategy in question was quite commented in the public space, it received a lot of criticism. I became familiar with it when it was proposed for public discussion and, of course, with the opinions and recommendations. And once I did, the rhymes came, nothing else. I posted them on the page that I manage, “The Colorful Horse,” and then they were sung in a rap version. So, that’s my take on the Roma strategy, and anyone who wants to read it and other unusual publications for our media landscape is welcome to the site – And your readers can follow our motto there – to become informed while having fun.

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