Romani people in Albania

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Albania houses a large population of Romani, who are part of the larger Romani diaspora.

Subgroupings and Terminology

In Albania they are divided mainly into two groups, the "Jevgs" (Jevgj), who speak only Albanian and are more assimilated, and the "Gabels", who are bilingual, and live more according to Roma tradition.[1] Jevgs claim Egyptian descent,[2] but are considered as magjup by the Albanian majority, the same category used to include the Gabels.[3] Others divide the Roma in four groups (urban/rural, assimilated/un-assimilated).[4] Ethnic Albanians have historically used various different names to refer to Romani people, most of them today being considered offensive, including:

  • Gabel ("stranger", the word coming from a Latin root), occasionally used to distinguish the traditionally nomadic and less assimilated Roma as opposed to the Jevgs who live in cities and typically speak Albanian
  • Evgjit (from the plural form of Jevg: Jevgjit)
  • Magjup (related to the supposed origin in Egypt),
  • Arixhi (bear tamer, previously an occupation also taken by Roma in Romania) predominantly used in Southern dialects,
  • Kurbat (referring to emigration and used around Korça),
  • Qifto (of Greek origin and typically used in Gjirokaster), and Cergetar/Cergar (of Turkish origin and meaning "tent-dweller").[5]

Among Roma, ethnic Albanians, in addition to being ‘’gadjo’’, may be referred to as “whites”.[6] "White hand" may also be used by Gabels and Jevgs to refer to Albanians as well as non-Roma minorities such as Greeks, Aromanians and Slavs.[7][8] Jevgs may occasionally be derogatorily referred to as gadjo (non-Roma) due to their greater level of assimilation, and are also called sir ("garlic") by Gabels.[9] Albanians, meanwhile, may refer to Jevgs and Gabels as "blacks" conversely, although this may be considered offensive.[10] Using the phrase tsigan to refer to Roma is considered extremely offensive and should be avoided.

The Jevgs and Gabels share common genetic history[clarification needed].[2] Even though they share similar genetic history a recent study showed that Jevgs and Gabels have different dna. With Jevgs being very close to Portuguese and Spanish roma,suggesting Balkan and Albanian admixture in recent years.[11]

Jevgs find it very offensive when they compare them to Roma since they consider themselves very different than the Romani population and they like to identify simple as Albanians.

Roma are occasionally held to share the "faith" (fe) of Aromanians in Albania, not for religious reasons (Roma are mostly Muslim but Aromanians are mostly Christian), but because of their historic shared nomadic lifestyle,[12] although in the case of Albania many Roma had long been settled.[13]



The Romani people originate from Northern India,[14][15][16][17][18][19] presumably from the northwestern Indian states Rajasthan[18][19] and Punjab.[18]

The linguistic evidence has indisputably shown that roots of Romani language lie in India: the language has grammatical characteristics of Indian languages and shares with them a big part of the basic lexicon, for example, body parts or daily routines.[20]

More exactly, Romani shares the basic lexicon with Hindi and Punjabi. It shares many phonetic features with Marwari, while its grammar is closest to Bengali.[21]

Genetic findings in 2012 suggest the Romani originated in northwestern India and migrated as a group.[15][16][22] According to a genetic study in 2012, the ancestors of present scheduled tribes and scheduled caste populations of northern India, traditionally referred to collectively as the Ḍoma, are the likely ancestral populations of the modern European Roma.[23]

In February 2016, during the International Roma Conference, the Indian Minister of External Affairs stated that the people of the Roma community were children of India. The conference ended with a recommendation to the Government of India to recognize the Roma community spread across 30 countries as a part of the Indian diaspora.[24]

The Jevgs have asserted origins of being Coptic migrants from Egypt in the fourth century, or of Egyptian slaves who escaped from Greece to Albania during the period of Egyptian intervention in the Greek War of Independence, but the authenticity of their proposed Egyptian origins is widely questioned by others in Albania.[5][25]

Migration to Albania

The oldest attestation of Romani people in Albania is from 1635, and they may have been present since the 12th and 13th centuries.[26]

Ottoman Era

The Ottoman era saw the conversion of most Roma populations in Albania as well as the surrounding territories to Islam. Ottoman rule set up a millet system by which the right of Christians to practice their religion was legally protected, but they were given second class citizenship with higher taxes, inability to bear witness against Muslims, inability to bear arms or have horses, restrictions on church building, forbidden from proselytizing, and various other restrictions, factors which ultimately induced conversions to Islam . Additionally, responding to seasonal rebellions, there were episodes where regional governors in Albanian territories coerced conversions,[27][28] despite such compulsion being traditionally prohibited by Islamic and Ottoman law. For these reasons, the majority of Roma in Albania and most neighboring regions converted to Islam,[29] as did much of the surrounding Albanian and Slavic populations with the exception of certain regions.

Under certain Ottoman rulers, Muslim Roma were considered to not be proper Muslims because of certain ritual differences, and they were taxed and discriminated against in similar ways to Christians. Under Mehmed IV, a tax was placed on dead Roma that would continue to be paid until enough had been gathered from living Roma to replace their supposed dues, while other rulers made attempts to “reeducate” Roma.[5][30] There were also cases where the presence of Roma was forbidden in mosques or cemeteries.[5][31]

In the late Ottoman Empire, Aromanians, Albanians and Roma shared an "oppressed" position of being socioeconomically disadvantaged minority populations inhabiting a crumbling state.[32] In this way, the Ottoman era has been considered one of relative "equality" for the Roma and gadjo populations in Albania, with the two populations typically living peacefully in harmony, with Roma camps typically being located on the outskirts of Albanian cities.[33]

Early Independence Era

In the late 19th and early 20th century, many Roma, mostly Muslim ones, fled areas that were newly independent from the Ottomans, where as Muslims they were identified as "Ottoman collaborators". Roma came to Albania especially from Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia.[5] Roma also fled to Albania from Romania where they had recently been enslaved, to settle in Albania and other territories still under Ottoman control.[34]

Even after Albania itself achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire, the Roma had a better situation than in Yugoslavia,[35] but they were still treated with contempt,[5] with large socioeconomic gaps between Roma and Albanians, segregated neighborhoods, and "practically no intermarriages between Roma and non-Roma"[36]

During World War II

Unlike in many Eastern European countries, but more similarly to Jews in Albania, Roma were not harshly persecuted and/or sent to death camps in Albania during the Second World War.[5] For most of the duration of the war, Albania was under the control of an Italian puppet regime. Roma did participate in the war, with many fighting in the Albanian military, and were Roma in Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo were typically supportive of the Italians and the Albanian authorities.[37] However, although left mostly untouched by both the Italians and by Albanian nationalists, the Roma were persecuted during the brief German occupation of Albania in 1943, although the shortness of the German presence limited the damage they were able to wreak upon the Roma population.[38]

Under Communism

Enver Hoxha imposed a harsh Stalinist regime upon Albania, attempting to homogenize the population by repressing religious and cultural differences.[5] Although as a minority the Roma were supposedly accorded benefits and protections, in reality this was not always the case, and in 1960, Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu tried to ban Roma from entering Albanian towns.[39]

After Communism

Despite inequalities and suppression during the communist era, the collapse of communism brought more misfortune to Roma, as they were the first to be heavily unemployed and rapidly fell to the bottom of society; as a result may Roma today are nostalgic for the days of communism.[5]

In the late 1990s, Roma began temporarily migrating to Greece where they found more employment opportunities, beginning a recurrent pattern of seasonal Roma migration to Greece from Albania.[40] Migration to Greece was also experienced by all the other major ethnic groups of Southern Albania, also including Greeks, Vlachs, a small number of Slavic Macedonians, and of course ethnic Albanians.[citation needed]


According to Robert Elsie, the Romani number between 60,000 and 100,000 people.[1] A 1994 estimation put the number at 95,000 Roma in Albania.[41] The ERRC estimates 120,000 Roma in Albania.[42] The most recent 2011 census counted 8301 Romani in Albania [43] but it has been accused of drastically undercounting the number of Romani in the country,[44] drawing criticism from the Council of Europe.[45]

Roma people live all over the country, but some of the biggest communities can be found around the capital, Tirana, the cities of Fier, Berat and Gjirokaster, and around the town of Korça. The distribution of Jevgs ("Egyptians") is much less, numbering at most 10,000 people who are concentrated in and around the capital city of Tirana.[5]


The poverty rate among Roma in Albania is particularly high (78%), in relation to the majority (22%).[46]

Contrary to the expectations of many foreignors, investigations have found that discrimination against Roma in Albania is typically subtle rather than overt, and Roma typically do not face any open discrimination.[47] In some cases, relations between Roma on one hand and the Albanian majority and other "gadjo" groups on the other is often quite cordial in the rural, traditional and "non-profit life" [5] and both the majority of the Albanian intelligentsia and the working class are said to typically have positive views of Roma, who rarely if ever are cast as an "ethnic enemy". On the other hand, "gadjos" may be reluctant to accept Roma as equals in the urban and "profit-making life".[48][5] However, Roma may suffer from the refusal to recognize the distinctness of their identity and traditions [49][50] while Roma complain that although Albanians do not openly express derision, they may view Roma as poor, dirty, stupid, noisy and involved in theft, and as a result they are widely but tacitly discriminated against in the job market.[5]

During the communist period, Roma of Gjirokastra, Korça, Tirana and Berati worked in handcraft enterprises. However, eventually demand for their products declined, and the enterprises were mostly shut down as Albania transitioned away from communism.[51]

In 2007, it was written by a Roma organization that about 90% of Roma are unemployed, 40% of Roma have bad living conditions, 20% don't have the resources necessary to buy medicine, 40% of Roma families ask their kids to work rather than complete education to fulfill primary familial needs, and that the literacy rate of Roma has fallen since the end of communism, and is now 47.6%, with more women illiterate than men, with all these problems being attributed to a "bustle for racism".[52]


Romani people in Albania speak the Balkan variant of the Romani language and Vlax Romani.

Although Balkan Romani is endangered overall, it is relatively healthy in Albania. Of Roma ‘’Gabel’’ families, in 2005 it was written that 65% reported speaking only Romani at home, while 29% spoke a mix of Romani and Albanian at home, while only 6% speak only Albanian, with those 6% mainly being cases where of intermarriage between Roma (Gabels) and Albanians, or Gabels and Jevgs (“Egyptians”). While the Gabels widely speak their language, Jevgs speak only Albanian, as there was a language shift from Roma to Albanian awhile ago. Polls have shown that nearly all Gabels view language as an important factor in the ethnic differentiation between Albanians and Roma, although the same is not true of the majority of Jevgs [53]

On the other hand, currently there is no schooling for Roma in their native language [54]


Roma culture is distinguishable from the culture of the ethnic Albanian majority, as well as those of other minorities such as Aromanians and Greeks, in a number of ways.

Both Roma and Jevgs make a sharp distinction between themselves. There is seldom intermarriage or contact of any significant kind between them (US Department of State Report, 1993:695). On the one hand, Roma strongly deny a common identity with the Jevgs. It considers the Jevgs as being rich and even of having some millionaires among them (ERRC Report, 1997:12). One of the millionaires, Maksude Kasemi, was of Jevg origin. He was involved in the pyramid investment schemes, which dramatically collapsed in early 1997 and had drawn the whole Albanian society into a turmoil. Jevgs are ironically called “sir” in Romani slang, meaning “garlic” (Courthiades,1990s:31). They are even considered gadjo by the Roma, since they intermarry with Albanians and other ethnic groups and speak Albanian, and not Romani.

On the other hand, Jevgs distinguish themselves from the Roma, too. To call a Jevg a “Tsigan” (Gypsy) is the worst possible insult (Courthiades citing Stuart Mann, 14 1990s:31).[55]

An important distinction is made between the Roma individual and the gadjo, a non-Roma, with a Roma necessarily being someone of Roma blood and/or someone who consistently demonstrates membership in and solidarity with the Roma people—in this way, although in the Carpathian Mountains the definition of Roma is strictly based on blood, in Albania and surrounding Balkan areas, a child of gadjo blood who was raised in a Roma family and in Roma culture and demonstrates consistent solidarity with the Roma is viewed as a proper Rom individual, whereas a Roma who has abandoned their roots is not, while the identification of "half-breed Roma" as either Roma or gadjo is done solely based on their adherence to Roma values.[56][57]

Gender relations are patriarchal, as is also true among Albanians, but patriarchal values have been described as much stricter among the Roma than among ethnic Albanians, although this could be because of recent cultural change among the ethnic Albanian population. Sexual mores among the Roma have similarly been described as much more "puritan" than among Albanians.[58]

Roma public life has been described as very communal, with most things considered to be belonging to the community rather than the individual.[59][60]

The Fis

Roma social order revolves around the ‘’fis’’, a borrowed Albanian word that in the Roma context refers to a “tribe” based on close familial kinship.[61]


It has long been taboo for Roma to marry non-Roma, and indeed the large majority of Gabels and the majority of Jevgs both prefer to marry Gabels and Jevgs respectively, rather than with the other major Roma group. Roma marriages were in fact typically done within the same fis, although some members of the youngest generation are now disregarding this custom.[62]

The virginity of the female before marriage is considered to be of utmost importance, and a marriage may be called off if it is discovered that the female is not in fact a virgin. Partly for this reason, girls are typically married young, between the ages of 13 and 15, while males are married between the ages of 16 and 18. Although the desires of the teenage spouses are rarely taken into account, if a son says he is in love with a particular Roma girl, his feelings may be considered, although the same is rarely true for girls. A husband-less girl who has reached 20 is often thought to be doomed to be left at home unmarried. Matchmaking for marriages is typically carried out without the consent of the two spouses, and orchestrated by a matchmaker who is experienced in matchmaking. When wishing to make a proposal on behalf of his son, a father customarily goes to the house of the desired wife, and states “we have come to seek a piece of bread”. Weddings, meanwhile, typically consist of feasts, dancing and music, and take place on Saturday or Sunday. They are often not recognized because the spouses are typically below the Albanian legal age of marriage. Roma rarely if ever have religious leaders preside over weddings.[63]

Adultery is almost unheard of among Roma women but is found among the men. Roma men may marry many times over the course of their lives although subsequent weddings are not celebrated in the same way as the first one. The remarriage rate of both Jevgs and Gabels is much higher than that of Albanians, but the rate of the Jevgs is higher than that of the Gabels despite them otherwise being somewhat Albanized.[64][65]


The majority of Roma in Albania are Muslim, having converted during the Ottoman era due to an array of coercive and non-coercive pressures, in particular to escape the high taxes leveled on the non-Muslim population. The surrounding ethnic Albanian majority as well as some regional Slavic populations also converted in most areas for similar reasons. In the modern era, there has been a trend of conversion of Muslim Roma to Christianity.[5] Both Muslims and Christians employ a degree of syncretism with traditional religious practices.

Although the ‘’Gabels’’ were historically almost entirely Muslim in Albania (before more recent conversions to Orthodox Christianity), the ‘’Jevgs’’ have been divided between Muslims and Orthodox Christians.[66]

The feast of Saint George, celebrated on the sixth of May, is an occasion of paramount importance for Muslim and Christian Roma alike, and Saint George is seen as the symbol of the Roma people.[66]


The traditional dress of Roma is starkly different from that of Albanians, and is perceived by Roma as a major symbol of their identity and their differentiation from ethnic Albanians, and it is said that the dress of Roma woman can make her stand out even amongst 500 Albanians, with Roma women typically wearing blouses with printed flowers and embroidered gold threads. At weddings and other traditional events, women wear dressed decorated with gold thread and rose, older men wear dark red suits, and younger men wear flower-printed shirts.[67]

Handcrafts have also long been an important part of the economic culture of Roma, with 15% of Gabels and 10% of Jevgs being involved in their production as of 2005. Handcraft production used to be a major part of the Roma economy, but with the collapse of communism, many Roma handcraft enterprises also floundered, and conditions of dire poverty created situation where it was difficult for Roma to pass down their traditional handcraft making customs.[68]

Roma folkdances and music are considered an important part of Roma culture and another distinguishing factor. The majority of Roma neighborhoods have individuals who are professional musicians present. Roma musicians acknowledge in particular notable Turkish and Greek influences on their music, with Greek pop music more recently being very influential due to the regular immigration to Greece, so much so that it is accused of “eroding Roma culture” in some quarters. although Roma musicians have contributed to the development of the Albanian majority’s music scene as in other European countries.[69]

Although traditional Roma folktales had long been passed down through the generations, today this custom is eroding as only a minority of Roma, both Gabels and Jevgs, remember their folktales, with Gabels remembering more than Jevgs. In attempt to stem this cultural loss, publications have been made of the local Roma folklore, but they are made in Albanian, not in the Romani language.[70]

See also


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  • Anthropological Journal on European Cultures. European Centre for Traditional and Regional Cultures. 1993.

Further reading

  • Hermine G. De Soto; Sabine Beddies; Ilir Gedeshi (1 January 2005). Roma and Egyptians in Albania: From Social Exclusion to Social Inclusion. World Bank Publications. ISBN 978-0-8213-6171-9.
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