Interview with Adrian Schiop

Adrian Schiop (born in 1973) is writer and independent journalist. He published three novels and has a doctoral degree in manele music, a genre that is rather associated with Roma people and lower social class and rarely finds its place in the academic environment. Adrian has a fine anthropological eye, sensitive to social changes of the generations and on how impact of economic changes on the society and individuals. His latest novel ‘Soldații. Poveste de Ferentari’ [The Soldiers. Story of Ferentari], partly an auto-biographic story about a gay love, is taking place in Ferenatari Neighborhood – a ghetto of Bucharest that seems like stucked in the ‘90, a social universe full of taboos and complex social relations of what can be considered the periphery of the society.

When did the transition begin and how long did it take?

It took place between 1990 and 2007, it was transition until Romania joined the European Union.

And afterwards did you feel it was different?

Yes, the situation has certainly become more stable. Institutions begin to function… even the judicial branch begins functioning independently later… but you no longer get the same amount of rip-offs and scams like it used to, that’s my perception.

And to you the transition period is the time when a lot of rip-offs took place?

Yes, naturally. Industries of all kinds have been bankrupted and stolen. The whole communist industry was stolen. I mean, it was happening at all the society’s levels, from the highest to the lowest. A lot of people ripped off the state and bankrupted state enterprises for personal gains… simple citizens would also get ripped off in masses, especially in the early 1990s when people didn’t have the right economic education. Like that pyramid scheme which tricked people to invest money with the promise of getting rich.

On a personal level, how did you live during the transition?

In poverty. First of all, poverty… when I decided to leave for the New Zeeland, it wasn’t for being oppressed, or other social reasons, it was strictly an economic decision. Meaning that I used to work as a high school teacher, live in a dorm room in the campus… and I would live in that small room because I couldn’t afford paying rent for an apartment. Of course, I was also lazy because I could also tutor students and give private classes for extra money? My subject was Romanian language and literature. But I didn’t like teaching in private, so I had to live off the salary.

And back than there were that soft drink Frutti Fresh [fizzy beverage with fruit flavor, one of the cheapest of its kind] if you remember. I was already working for the fourth year as teacher. And everything was going down, less and less money, everything was becoming more expensive, inflation, whatever. The recession was at its peak, and the next year I couldn’t even afford to buy that bottle of Frutti Fresh. That’s why it was so much “fun” and I said to myself “Fuck this country” if I can’t even afford a shitty chemical soft drink. And that was when I decided to migrate.

That was the hardest burden of them all: poverty. On the other hand, everybody was equal in poverty. At least, as students. As students, we were all poor, very few had money. For example, none of us owned a car. Nowadays if you walk around student campuses you see lots of good and expensive cars. Back when I was a student, there barely was anything to create material differences between us. Students didn’t have cars, and only a few more fortunate wore better clothes, that was the whole difference. But since people didn’t really have money and we were all equal in poverty, we also didn’t have relations based on competition, you see?

 During which period were you abroad?

At the beginning of the 2000s, I think it was 2001 or early 2002. What was interesting about it was that I left in what seemed to me as a maximum level of poverty, when it all seemed to go downhill in terms of living standards. And when I returned in 2003, thinks were starting to get better. People would complain “Oh no, it’s worse than last year” and I would say “Definitely not!”. That’s what leaving for a while means, you clearly and more objectively see the differences. I was away just when the situation was transitioning from its lowest point and facing an improvement.

You had an interesting perspective about Romanians, and especially immigrant Romanians from more developed countries, who aren’t critical at all about the situation of poverty. They consider poverty to be somewhat of a temporary situation and think that whoever is in poverty is guilty.

Yeah, they have this meritocratic discourse with slightly fascist ideas, some sort of social fascism. But in reality they have no empathy or considerations for the poor, and generally it still is a problem in Romania. This is also a problem that wasn’t overcome yet. And the reason it wasn’t overcome is that we didn’t get to have a second bourgeois generation, because the first generation that makes the money considers that they started from a low point and have a sense of entitlement and self-worth for their efforts. And this discourse of a person who made it by oneself, this enriched person who say they knew how to make it on top… they think that the poor person next to them should also do it. Why doesn’t he/she? It must be that they’re lazy, right? And in the case of immigration, it has further developed this feeling of merit because they left when they were very poor in Romania… When you leave Romania with a salary of 10 million [approximately 220 euro] and arrive in a place where you’re paid at least 1000 euro, you think you are God-blessed. If you get a loan from the bank and start exhibiting a higher social status, you already start saying “I’ve picked myself up and reached a different social status”. And that’s where we get this meritocratic discourse from. It marginalizes and excludes the poor and heads towards an area of social fascism. It has a lot more depth than one might think.

Is this happening among the middle class only?

It’s among anybody who’s made money, do you understand? It’s not about the middle class and maybe that thugs will say the same words if you ask them. Mobs say the same too. “It’s his/her fault if they didn’t have the right mindset or weren’t smart enough to get as rich as I”. But, of course, there’s also the never-ending excuse of not being fortunate enough, but anyway, people who made money have this meritocratic viewpoint. We need to switch to the next generation to develop that sense of guilt and consciousness. Because, if you look towards Western states, you see a lot of education in this direction. As a bourgeois, you are induced with this feeling of guilt, which is socially-beneficial if you ask me. The whole concept of the guilty person’s consciousness was also developed among the bourgeois. It’s this sense of guilt that the second generation feels “Look at me, I’m privileged, I was raised in a really good family, I have everything I need, I went to university, and never had to try too hard to get something. That poor guy has a harder time reaching the top.” We don’t have this kind of mentality in Romania, or at least it’s underdeveloped… this conscience of the privileged to acknowledge that you were privileged since you were brought into this world and had access to what others could only dream of. And this is how the guilty consciousness is born: “That poor guy isn’t guilty for the family he was born in”.

But how are the poor perceived?

Well, it’s the same situation. I think it’s practically a depression. They have developed a lot of complexes and they perceive their poverty as a shame. They are shamed for what they don’t have for reasons they aren’t responsible for.

How did you perceive the change from communism to the new democratic regime?

Well, I have to acknowledge, I was 17 around the time when communism fell and I felt very, very happy. The system was oppressive, Ceaușescu was an idiot… I mean he wasn’t the brightest communist leader.

And how do you position yourself now in relation to communism?

Right now? My positioning is much more nuanced, there was oppression… but how should I put it? It was a cost-benefit situation: the cost was the oppression. Otherwise, the society was very organized. We had a functional society under communism. To whomever disagrees, I have to say that it wasn’t a dictatorship, but a functional society. After the transition, society and the whole body structure of the society have been a mess, Romania has become a dysfunctional state during the transition. Which, again, is a matter of costs and benefits.

Returning to communism, it was a functional system, but the dictatorship costs were too high. What the elders say: you had a job guaranteed; they [the state] would give you a house, holiday through the union, and stuff like that. You had no movement of freedom, you had no free speech… but there were some gains.

Do you perceive the nowadays Romanian society as more functional?

Now, yes. It is more functional. Less democracy now than in the ‘90s. but this is because of there is a tendency nowadays to restrain the liberties. This is in all the Occident and in America. In the moment when a society is functional one needs to be become responsible for own deeds. You need to get responsible for what you do, what you say. In transition everyone was careless because everything could be solved/ bribed.

Why do you say there is less democracy?

There is more surveillance. There is much more supervised society. Police was not functional in the ‘90s. Secret services, no one was caring about them. Justice was not functioning. Now phones are listened, you are under surveillance if you done something wrong.

How do you position yourself in relation to the older generations, given the fact that you lived the transition from communism to democracy in your teenage years? How do you view communism in comparison to your parents?

I feel less nostalgic about communism, even though I do have some small degree of nostalgia. I think I feel anarchy. I mean, the older ones aren’t capable of anarchy. The younger generations that are growing up right now aren’t capable of it either, they seem to be more obedient than we were. We, those who lived our youth in the 1990s, were bigger anarchists. But the feeling is starting to get weaker and rarer in newer generations. I look around and see that the youth are drinking less. Okay, now they have access to more drugs and sometimes they just smoke a joint instead, okay… and after that they drink a couple of beers or take a pill on weekend days. But they no longer have that drive we had, they’re not as self-destructive as we were. They’re healthier and more aware about their lives. “I better not start smoking, oh my God it’s bad if I smoke and only losers do it”. Anyway, right now I’m talking about a middle-class zone. I’m not sure to which extent I can extrapolate other social categories, but in this bourgeois area there is a contrast with what used to be before, as well as with what I think comes next. This anarchic and self-subtle feeling that I want to drink until I pass out under the table, that I don’t care about anything… that’s something that fades. It faded in communism by force because you were being watched, and now you have to act properly and be responsible. It’s a movement that starts to work. You can no longer “fuck everything” like in the 1990s. You could do it in the 1990s, now it’s getting harder.

Why are the 1990s your favorite era?

First of all, it’s because that’s when I was young and secondly… there was a lot more liberty than now. There was less responsibility, I mean why would you enjoy being responsible? Could you please tell me what is the pleasure in responsibility? Let me answer that for you: there is none. There was this kind of liberty in which you could not care about anything and could do anything you would think. No you can no longer do it… you used to be able to tell anything, it was all allowed. It was anarchy!

There is these saying used by elderly people ‘that there’s too much democracy or that democracy has gotten to your head’…

Something like that, in the 1990s there really was too much freedom. But it couldn’t go on like this, you couldn’t build a society on the foundations of everybody not giving a damn, everybody stealing one way or another, nobody doing anything, do you understand? It just wasn’t possible. The problem is that you don’t have solidarity among larger bodies of social classes, and there isn’t solidarity above the middle class. We have this problem among the wealthy. I mean, let’s solidarize ourselves a little bit, shall we? You don’t have this kind of solidarity which is essential to form a society among ourselves. If we keep it like this, at some point it will seem impossible and unconceivable to build this solidarity.

And from the perspective of citizens’ rights and minority rights, what do you think is the situation now as compared to the situation during the transition? What about the situation now as compared to communism?

[Sigh] Let’s refer to communism… as compared to communism, of course you enjoy more liberties. I mean as a citizen, or as a minority and… in comparison with the transition? The transition was cool because nobody knew, in the sense that nobody spoke about taboo subjects [such as being gay]… and people were not aware of this thing.

But wasn’t there a negative attitude towards the gay people?

There was, but nobody could tell who was gay and who wasn’t… it was a very abstract thing. They were subject of jokes, it wasn’t… like in the case of the Roma people towards whom there was a lot of racism because the majoritarian population could distinguish them. Who acknowledged being a homosexual, anyway? Let’s get real about it. In the 1990s nobody would come out of the closet and it was a non-existent category. But what was good about the situation… in a way it was great that you could express yourself and manifest your feelings, and people wouldn’t realize that you were gay. You could hit on a guy whom you thought to be either straight or gay and see how they were surprised and confused. Now people are much more aware “Ah, that guy’s a queer”… they get it when you’re acting differently. I’m trying to describe a filter that tells who is gay and who isn’t. However, nowadays they are trying to establish more freedoms and it’s great. I know that in the 1990s or the beginning of the 2000s we had some parties in Cluj [one of the top largest Romanian cities in West of Romania], every 2 weeks. This happened before article 200 [decriminalizing homosexuality by removing its actions from the penal code]. And I think it was awful until 1995 or 1996, that’s when it was harder to be gay. It was before activists from abroad came in and said “Leave them alone, don’t be a bunch of morons. Cool down!”. And back to the story: even though it was the year 1999 or 2000, the parties would take place across the street from the police station. Cops would come to check once in a while, but they never shut down the bar and didn’t ever arrest anybody. There was this tacit toleration, and I think there were higher orders by police officials after the mid-1990s to tell everyone to leave the gay alone. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me.

Until 1993, I think, there were people who would get punished with time in jail.

Oh yes, that’s when we had the biggest problems regarding human rights and the gay community – locked-up gay people. I told you, up until that case with the handball or basketball female player who became famous on national television, it was a lot worse. And people started to get it “Wait a minute, she’s with the green and red lights, we can’t burn her anymore”.

Could you please tell more about that case?

It was a scandal with a female basketball player, who went to a colleague at the gym, and her colleague turned her in for being gay or they got caught, I can’t remember exactly. Anyway, this basketball player ended up doing 5 years of jail time. That was when a proto version of the Accept association [the largest pro LGBTQI+ rights organization in Romania] emerged; activists felt enraged by this scandal and took matters into their own hands.

What was your experience with peoples about you being gay?

In the countryside, people isolate and marginalize you… nowadays we at least have some demographic niches where we, as gay people, can breathe. In central Bucharest, among hipsters, among corporate employee… do you get my point? You can breathe relaxed. But if you start descending the social ladder and scrutinize among the lower classes, problems start to appear. When you head towards the working class, or people who are less educated in general among which you can find the people from rural areas and the underclass… then the beautiful story about tolerance ends there. They wouldn’t even listen to people. Well, personally I have encountered violent reactions due to the fact that I openly expressed my sexuality, you see? However, I’ve more often encountered isolation. I’m talking about people who put it plainly “Okay, we understand, you like penises. Don’t tell me about it because I’m not interested to hear it.”. And these people don’t feel in the mood to have a drink with you or do any other social activities. I feel a little disappointed about the situation, but I’ve also noticed a certain degree of fear to be considered gay when you talk to somebody who is openly gay. People are afraid others will start asking “Why are these two staying together?” So a lot of regular persons decide to just stay away and avoid any conversation longer than a few words. The men in my village do not talk much to me because this thing [being gay] is known.

And from 2007 and up to the present day, did you have you feel an evolution in regards to other people’s perception towards you?

Yes, you can feel that. They become much more aware, more tolerant. You can tell that this is being associated with Western ideas and culture, and people want to be hip. It’s in the snobbish nature of the Romanian to try to appear open and avoid looking foolish or backwards thinking. “You have to understand gay people”… but yes, you can feel progresses from one year to the other. When you start watching television, please tell me which channel is openly homophobic. Is there any?

To make a parallel: Why do you think that the gay community benefits from a better image and has made more progresses in comparison with the Roma community?

It’s because gay people come from all social classes. First of all, you don’t really see them and I think that in this country only about 1000 people are openly gay in the way they dress and act in public. The rest of them are much more reserved. Conversely, the Roma community is associated with poverty and that’s the end of the story. That’s where the problem is in people’s minds: poverty. It’s the same with people from Moldova. Poverty is stigmatized. Gay people cannot be associated with poverty; they’re just about different sexual preferences.

As this is one of your strongest field of expertise: how is the transition reflected in the manele music [a genre of Turkish, Balkan influence often associated with lower social class]? Were there traces before the Revolution about what the music would shape up to become?

During the communist era, manele was the first so called “polluted” folkloric cultural movement. Since the communist days, manele have had a capitalist discourse: people envy you for what you have; it’s all about the money… It was about this kind of hustle and swag since the communist period. But no, the wording was a little different and I couldn’t identify the word “șmecherie” [tricks, swindle] in any of the lyrics from the time. It’s all about people who envy you and human relations based on competition, you know? It’s all about being wealthy, not trusting anybody due to your privileged status, and putting money in the center of it all. Even in communist days, this was the music of “entrepreneurs”. In those cases, the entrepreneurs were illegal smugglers. Who could be an entrepreneur in a time with so many restrictions? Petty salesmen of smuggled goods who were conducting illegal activities. And their music has to reflect their views about life and that’s when an early form of manele shapes up.

And how did manele evolve in the transition period?

They gained more depth, in the sense that they were brought forward to the public. In communism, manele were a part of the prisoners’ folklore and part of the orchestration draws inspiration from those times. But very few artists or “muses” for their songs about illegal activities had the distinction of exceptionality. But after the 1990s, we were exposed to this capitalist discourse with hustling, the fetishization of money, women as porno mistresses, this kind of grey economy where only money matter and the moral principles are irrelevant. Moral principles are limited to own family but not further than that.

And how do you see the relations during the transition in relation to the capitalist discourse? Does it become to strengthen its roots in capitalism? Do manele start containing a criticism of capitalism?

No, not even for a second. They’re not critics of capitalism, not even critics of poverty… it’s all about the American dream: “I either want to get rich or I’m already rich”. They always talk about a past when they were poor, but never write song lyrics about currently being poor. It’s all about “I used to be poor, but I’ve made a lot of money through my own efforts”, like in the American dream.

Interview: Irina Ilisei

Translation: Vlad Costea

December 2016