Countries & Regions


Sofiya Zahova

Romani Literature in the Balkan States: An Overview

Why ‘Balkan’ Romani Literature?

What do we mean when we use the term ‘Balkan’ in relation to Romani literature? We consider the Balkans a geographic area where many different peoples, religions, languages and cultures have coexisted and influenced one another for centuries, resulting in common historical, political and cultural characteristics.

The term ‘Balkan’, although sometimes contested because of its ‘orientalisation’ in the European imagination, is widely accepted today in both scientific and public discourse. Thus, when we want to express the idea of common linguistic and cultural features of all communities, we speak of Balkan ethno-culture, the Balkan Linguistic League, Balkan music, Balkan diaspora and also of Balkan Roma groups.

The Romani way of life and culture of Roma in the Balkans were influenced by the Ottoman Empire period, specifically by the impact of Islam and Muslim culture. Roma were present in almost all settlements through the ages and lived in ethnically and/or religiously distinct communities in neighbourhoods called mahalla (in the case of Roma, these were called ‘Gypsy mahala’ by the majority). For centuries they coexisted and constantly interacted with the communities (Turkish, Christian, Jewish, Armenian, etc.) from all the other Mahallas.

As modern independent states, most of the Balkan countries together with their Romani communities experienced similar historical processes: their emergence as ethnic nation states in the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century; their experience of Soviet-influenced East European communism in the second half of the twentieth century; the post-socialist transition to democracy; war refugee and labour migrations to the West, and endeavours for EU integration.

There is a long tradition of well-educated Balkan Romani writers.

The majority of Balkan Roma have led settled lives for many centuries and participated in all socio-cultural processes, historical events and the institutional life of their nation states. During the socialist period many Roma received an education, resulting in a main difference between Balkan (and generally East European) authors and Roma writers from the West. There is a long tradition of well-educated Balkan Romani writers, many of them with university degrees. These authors belong to a certain Romani group, most of them grew up in a Romani mahalla and shared the destiny and values of their Romani community.

This overview covers the period from the mid-nineteenth century to 2017, and the countries considered in detail are Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and all other state formations in which these countries were included historically (e.g. the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia).

Neither young nor undeveloped

The history of the development of Balkan Romani literature goes against the mainstream view that sees Romani literature as a ‘young’, ‘undeveloped’, ‘belated’ or unparalleled phenomenon. Indeed, the transition from the oral to the written form of Romani language took place later than for most other European languages, although Roma in the Balkans were themselves already calling for a written language in the nineteenth century. Despite the fact that these demands were far from being realised, they are a sign that processes among the elites in Romani communities were greatly influenced by general developments in the region in which they lived, since this was the period when endeavours towards national emancipation began, i.e., the elite-led formation of nation states for ethnic communities living on the territory of what was then the Ottoman Empire.

In this regard we should mention that the first Romani literature texts in the Balkans were folklore material, repeating the well-known pattern of ethno-national states in nineteenth-century South-Eastern and Central Europe. They followed the Herderian model of national emancipation through the collection and publication of a wide range of folklore material, dictionaries, narratives about customs and traditional songs representing the national spirit. Thus, in earlier historical periods, collections of Romani folklore appeared parallel to folklore collections of the respective ethno-national states.

Thus, the development of Romani literature repeats the pattern whereby European languages transformed from oral to written languages.

Take, for example, the Romani folklore tales collected and published by Barbu Constantinescu in Romania in the late nineteenth century or Naiden Sheitanov’s records of the Sofia Erli dialect in Bulgaria in the first half of the twentieth century. Very often the same people, such as, for example, the Bosnian scholar Rade Uhlik, collected and published Romani folklore and made Romani translations of Bible texts. Thus, the development of Romani literature repeats the pattern whereby European languages transformed from oral to written languages – here the first corpuses of written texts were folklore narratives collected and published by folklorists and translators of Bible texts into Romani.

The development of Balkan Romani literature might be called belated only if we compare it with the written traditions of the communities and languages that already had their own nation state. However, compared with the written culture and literary development of other state-less ethnic and linguistic communities in the Balkans (such as the so-called Aromanians or Vlachs, Istro-Romanians, etc.) or in other parts of Europe (the Saami, for example), we see that Romani literature was actually published in a ‘normal’ timeframe. The folklore traditions of all these communities, like those of the Roma groups, were recorded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while fiction only started to be written after World War II. Furthermore, we can see how rich and ‘over-developed’ Romani literature appears when compared with the literatures of other Balkan minorities without a national state of their own.

‘Ačhel o por maj zoralo e xanrrestar’ (‘The pen remains always mightier than the sword’)

Ian Hancock, 1989

Many, if not most Romani authors in the Balkans are educated Roma from diverse backgrounds. They engage in activism to make Romani culture visible, improve the status of Roma, break stereotypes and preserve the Romani heritage. They are usually participants in the Romani movement nationally and internationally.

With rare exceptions, they are mostly intellectuals, often called ‘Roma intelligentsia’ in Eastern Europe. The same people are often activists (in the field of human rights, education, language, etc.), collectors of folklore, educators, linguists, scholars or artists in the general sense as well as writers. Thus, in their literary or any kind of work about Romani issues, they express their ideas about Romani culture and, in the absence of a standardised history, they apply and promote ideas within the Romani movement about Roma in general, just as any national narrative would do about the history of a nation.

Why is more Romani literature produced in some Balkan countries than in others?

Why is more Romani literature produced in some Balkan countries than in others? Romani literary output and culture in general often depend on the national policies towards Roma in the respective state and period, and lately also on international policies regarding minority rights, Romani issues, etc.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, Balkan Romani publishing was limited to folklore publications, Bible translations and some periodicals published by Roma in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and in Romania (in the languages of the majority). Original fiction published by Roma appeared only after 1945. The most productive writers were Romani authors in Yugoslavia, because in the multi-national federation political conditions were created that supported Romani culture and Romani activism. At the same time, in all other Balkan countries (Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Romania, Turkey), the states developed a strong ethno-national perspective, pursuing policies that were restrictive towards minority cultures and languages.

Since the 1980s, when the issue of Roma children’s education and Romani culture was first raised by European institutions, and especially since the fall of the Iron Curtain, there has been a boom in Romani literature in the Balkans, and in the decades after 1989, the number of Romani publications in all countries has been unprecedented. Since that time, Balkan authors have begun to network quite actively, especially in the area of former Yugoslavia, regardless of their place of residence (as many live, write and publish as migrants in Western Europe).


If we divide Romani literature into genres, traditional folklore and oral stories, tales, myths or beliefs would have a leading place. They have either been published as folklore material by Romani or non-Romani researchers with annotations, comments and information about the narrator; or they are published by Roma, who may as authors also transform them into their own creations.

The boundary between folklore tales and short stories is fluid, since authors sometimes publish traditional folklore stories as authorised short stories, or else they take an element from oral folklore that is authorised and shifted, thus becoming a new story. Although most of the short stories published are inspired by traditional oral folklore and narratives, Jovan Nikolić and Alija Krasnići are two authors who write original contemporary works in this genre.

Alija Krasnići (Ali Krasniqi) was born in the village of Crkvena Vodica, near the town of Obilić, Kosovo (at the time a Serbian province of …

Sofiya Zahova | Interview with Alija Krasnići | Non Fiction | Serbia | Sept. 12, 2017 | lit_00121

Poetry continues to be a genre favoured by Roma authors, and many Romani activists and artists have published books of poetry. The rich poetry production in the Balkans has led to compilations of anthologies of Romani poetry in all Balkan states.

Although in Western Europe many Romani publications fall into the categories of autobiography, biography and memoirs, in the Balkans this genre remains underdeveloped. While speakers shared their biographies and memoirs orally among relatives and friends as part of their oral cultural heritage, it was only in the 2000s that Romani authors started writing their autobiographically inspired memoirs and essays for the general public. Bulgarian Romani authors seem to have been more active in producing biographies and memoirs since 1989. Examples are Lilyana Kovatcheva, and the two memoirs by Gospodin Kolev, a Bulgarian Rom who held a position in the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party.

The novellas and novels are still the sparsest genre in the Balkans. Akile Eminova and Georgi Parushev are examples of Balkan novelists. While in all other genres Romani authors write primarily in Romani or publish their texts in bilingual editions, novellas and novels are generally published in the majority languages of the countries where the authors live. Alija Krasnići has written a novel in Romani, but it was still unpublished as of 2017.

Akile Eminova (Акиле Еминова, born 1961) is a Romni from the so-called esnaf community in Štip, Macedonia who writes in Macedonian. She has …

Sofiya Zahova | Interview with Akile Eminova | Non Fiction | Macedonia | Sept. 9, 2017 - 2017-09 | lit_00117

Children’s literature is a key genre in all Balkan countries, because of its importance for the acquisition of Romani languages and the learning process. There are editions of tales for children, verse and translations of world classics.

Subject matter

Some of the most important recurring motifs and themes in Balkan Romani literature and its relation to Romani identity are:

  • Mirroring of customs and influence of folklore, as many of the works are either based on folklore or are folklore narratives
  • Identity, affirmation and self-referentiality regarding what it means to be a Rom (many Roma poets have a poem called Me sem Rom – ‘I am a Rom’ or discuss being kale (‘black’) in a world of parne (‘white’)
  • The idea of lack of place and belonging, which is most explicitly stated in the poem by Rajko Djurić ‘Without Home, Without Grave’
  • Rom-Gadje relations
  • Narratives about the origin of Roma – both historical (about India) and folklore beliefs and myths about Roma origins (Roma creation myths);
  • Narratives about the suffering of Roma in Jasenovac, Auschwitz and Kosovo.

Rights held by: Sofiya Zahova | Licensed by: Sofiya Zahova| Licensed under: CC-BY-NC 3.0 Germany | Provided by: RomArchive