February 10, 2007

From Kenya with Love: Barack Hussein Obama

Senator Barack Obama's decision this morning to throw his hat in the presidential race is a significant moment in this nation's history. In MLK, Jr., Ethiopia, and Protest Politics, we honored the work and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., and in so doing, recognized the numerous legislative and judicial victories scored by African-Americans in the last century (to name a few, voting rights, access to education, health care, housing, public benefits, employment, and affirmative action). The African-American struggle for equality clearly made America live up to the promises of liberty and justice its founders promised to the governed in 1787.

Beyond the historic significance of Obama’s announcement, the Illinois senator’s candidacy will allow registered African-American voters (including Ethiopia-Americans) in the Democratic Party a clear alternative to the carpet-bagging junior senator from our favorite state in the Union. Yes, Hillary Clinton and her arrogant and demeaning posture vis-à-vis African-American voters is back and managing to convince, yet again, many in the African-American community that she, like her husband, is "black" and deserving of their support. (When, by the way, will African-American voters stop giving their vote lock, stock, and barrel to the Democratic Party?)

This is not a posting that throws its support behind Obama's campaign—we simply find the candidate to be compelling and one who reconciles the dreams and aspirations of African-American voters, be they descendants of slaves or the recently arrived. In her recent comments, writer Stephanie Molkins opined that the meaning of Black History month "has far exceeded the hopes of its founder [Carter G. Woodson]. It not only highlights the impact of African-Americans on society. It also helps people remember the danger of racial and socio-economic oppression which effect more than just blacks. This month helps everyone see the importance of human rights for all people and is the reason why it should always be celebrated."

In continuing to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., Black History Month, and the importance of today’s announcement to American history, we sign-off with one of our favorite passages from Obama's book Dreams of My Father (2004):

I have seen, the desperation and disorder of the powerless: how it twists the lives of children on the streets of Jakarta or Nairobi in much the same way as it does the lives of children on Chicago's South Side, how narrow the path is for them between humiliation and untrammeled fury, how easily they slip into violence and despair. I know that the response of the powerful to this disorder—alternating as it does between a dull complacency and, when the disorder spills out of its proscribed confines, a steady, unthinking application of force, of longer prison sentences and more sophisticated military hardware—is inadequate to the task. I know that the hardening of lines, the embrace of fundamentalism and tribe, dooms us all.

January 30, 2007

Bealu Girma: Now, at this Moment

He came to class reeking of the brothel where he had spent the night and of the undistilled Katikala that still swam in his body. He was a drunk fool, my Amharic teacher, a man small in stature and in mind and prone to hurling insults at his students in the cruelest words he could conjure in the Amharic language. He was unashamed to discharge audible bodily vapors so putrid those of us condemned to his class learned to hate our own language.

But then there were those rare moments of sobriety that more than made up for the daily gaseous inferno. A lucid clear-eyed man would bounce from the door to his desk in his heavy platform shoes and bark a perky "endimin aderachuh!" to a room of adolescents uncertain how to deal with the malevolent moods of an alcoholic teacher. A torturous gilmicha (glare-filled) roll-call later, the tiny man would ceremoniously reach for a crumpled paperback from his equally crumpled jacket. He would then launch into a dramatic reading from Oromay, the recently published novel by Bealu Girma.

He told us he read Bealu Girma "for both content and form" ("le fere negeruna l'aTaTalu.") The year was 1983 and the teacher's occasional reading of possibly the most controversial Ethiopian novel of all time kept his students who were no more than fifteen years of age, riveted. As we sat lost in Bealu's tempestuous world of love and war, none of us knew the novel had already unleashed forces that ultimately took from Ethiopia's literary scene a writer whom Reidulf Molvaer, contemporary chronicler of Ethiopia's writers, describes as "the most consistently good writer Ethiopia has produced." (Black Lions: The Creative Lives of Modern Ethiopia's Literary Giants, 1997).

I have always wanted to write about Bealu Girma—my favorite Ethiopian novelist—but found writing about him extremely challenging. For starters, out his six novels (Kadmas Bashager (Beyond the Horizon), Yehilina Dewel (The Bell of Consciousness), Yeqey Kokeb Teri (The Call of the Red Star), Haddis, Derasiw (The Author), and Oromay ("Now, at this Moment"), I have only read three—Kadmas, Haddis, and Oromay. Second, the novelist's personal life and work deserve separate volumes of their own. Bealu's life and death are of Shakespearean proportions: Julius Caesar comes to mind—much like the Roman emperor's unprecedented expansion of his empire by his sheer ability to bend the will of men, the Ethiopian author reached the apogee of creativity by his ability to gain almost a cult following that allowed him survive unscathed through much of his career despite his persistently harsh criticism of the societies in which he lived. (In addition to his novels, Bealu Girma served as editor for newspapers and magazines including Menen, Addis Reporter, Addis Zemen, Yezareyitu Ityopia, and The Ethiopian Herald , much of this while serving as a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Information). Also, like the conqueror of Gaul, Bealu was murdered by erstwhile admirers and colleagues. And who can ever forget Almaz? Much like Calpurnia, Caesar's beautiful wife who foresaw the emperor's death, Bealu's wife, Almaz, known to be of striking beauty, had warned her husband to stay home on the day of his abduction and disappearance in February 1984.

His fascinating biography is recounted in Molvaer's Black Lions. Bealu Girma was born in 1938 or 1939 in the province of Illubabor, Bealu's natural father was an Indian carpenter from Gujirat, India, who remained in Ethiopia after he fell in love with an Ethiopian woman, Bealu's mother. Bealu's father returned to India when Bealu was very young but a determined mother ensured that her son received an excellent education, first in Illubabor and subsequently in Addis Ababa, at Princess Zenebework Secondary School. Bealu's excellent grades earned him a scholarship at General Wingate Secondary School. He went on to graduate from Addis Ababa University and then moved to the United States where he earned a masters degree in journalism. In the early 1960s he returned to Ethiopia and soon thereafter joined the Ethiopian Ministry of Information.

While his work as editor of some of the most respected papers and magazines earned him respect as a journalist, it was at the Ministry of Information where Bealu found a lifelong career as a civil servant. His high-ranking position at the ministry allowed him to gain powerful allies and enemies, including Ethiopia's dictator Mengistu Hailemariam. Throughout his career, Bealu's associations with his allies and admirers allowed him to write critically and uncensored during both the Haile Selassie and Mengistu regimes, and it was through his association with these allies that Oromay was subsequently born.

The novel that led to his untimely death in the hands of the Derg (he was only 45) has its progeny in his earlier and critically acclaimed novel, Haddis . The word Oromay, uttered by an Ethiopian of Eritrean descent in Haddis means a questo punto—Italian for "now at this moment." The moment in Oromay was 1982, during the planning and execution of the Red Star Campaign ( yeqey kokeb zemecha)—the Derg's most sustained offensive in Eritrea planned jointly by Soviet and Ethiopian generals. The naming of the campaign "Red Star" was after Bealu's earlier novel of the same name. In an effort to project an image of force and finality, Mengistu had taken his entire senior military apparatus and cabinet level ministers to Asmara for several months in marathon planning and conference sessions. Bealu, who was invited to Asmara, remained in the city for three months where he was granted interviews with several high ranking Derg officials.

According to Molvaer, Mengistu Hailemariam granted Bealu several interviews and may have even read and approved earlier manuscripts of the novel. He must have because the book starts with a prologue by Mengistu himself in which the dictator states that the book was written in the spirit of making Ethiopia's revolution complete and the realization of a Worker's Party in Ethiopia. Mengistu signed his foreword with his standard shibboleth Ye Ityopya Abyot le zelalem yenur! ("may Ethiopia's revolution live forever!")

With Mengistu's introductory praise for the book, one would expect writing that hails the life and work of the dictator. But what pours forth in next 370 pages (Kuraz Publishers, 1st Edition) led to Bealu's murder in the hands of Mengistu's security apparatus, all editors at Kuraz Publishers sacked, and the book pulled from every bookseller in the country. According to Molvaer, officials were even snatching the book from anyone seen with it. (In our class, my teacher stopped reading from the novel, but to his credit, switched to Kadmas Bashager). In Oromay, Bealu identified members of the Derg under altered names yet whose identities were readily apparent to most readers at the time. Bealu's mockery of Mengistu whom he identifies as "the Comrade Chairman" and refers to as The Man (Sewiyew), and whose Asmara speech he reproduced with subtle parodic alterations was astounding and many are convinced Bealu made an error in judgment to believe the former dictator would tolerate the author's vituperations. The novel's protagonist's (Tsegaye Hailemariam) impressions when he first saw Sewiyew in the Addis Ababa-Asmara flight sets the author's sardonic tone vis-à-vis the dictator (all translations mine):

The protocol officer loudly announced "the Comrade Chairman!" All racket, chatter, and whispering in the plane came to a sudden hush. One could have heard a needle falling. A voice of a man's man. A smile that comes from the heart and strikes like lightning. Extreme politeness that almost breaks the spirit . . . The Man! He wore a lovely military uniform. When I saw him, I was washed with feelings of strength and self-confidence. Even though men who lead nations are mere mortal beings, I am always surprised by their ability to make men respect, love, and fear them. I see them as larger than life. Perhaps it is because they have their people's consent to be their protectors or maybe because they carry on their shoulders the pride of their people. I don't know. But in any event, for these or other reasons, I tend to respect people in power. And my colleagues who have observed this in me talk about me behind my back and say, "there he goes wagging his tail when he sees a person in power." May God curse them! I'm not a person who wags his tail! Even though I don't know much about myself, I know I don't wag my tail! (Oromay, 18).

The novel is an excellent read and its underlying story of its protagonist's love for two women ("Tsegereda Me'akel Hager" (Rose of the Central Land) and "Key Kokeb" (Red Star) set in the background of the military campaign, and his ultimate loss of both women recounted a recurrent theme in Bealu Girma's novels about the recklessness of man not just in the affairs of the heart but also in his inability to rule wisely.

Bealu's disappearance in February 1984 was preceded by the abrupt withdrawal of the book from the market and its subsequent banning in Ethiopia. Bealu's liquidation in the hands of Mengistu's security agents was confirmed after the downfall of the Derg and reading about it in Mengistu's own words is downright chilling (See Seifu Negussie's interview in Chewata, January 2003).

Hands down, Bealu Girma is Ethiopia's best creative writer. It is difficult to summarize Bealu's work within the parameters of this short piece but I can say that three of his novels I have read unravel intricately spun narratives without being convoluted; complex yet accessible characters that are deeply flawed but are almost never beyond redemption. And rare among Ethiopia's novelists, Bealu took great pains to create multidimensional female characters that are never two-sided or subservient to the whims of men or the situations in which a male-dominated society places them. Bealu Girma's novels are unquestionable labors of love created by a man who left us enduring tomes of Ethiopic literature.

A celebration of Bealu's work and achievements is timely. Writers, whether they are journalists or creative writers, are able to put into words the hopes and aspirations of the generation in which they live. Bealu did just that. He has single-handedly inspired hundreds of Ethiopian writers to test Ethiopia's ability to tolerate dissent and its willingness to respect the freedom of expression—the foundation on which the altar of democracy is built. Like him, many have paid with their lives. Bealu Girma left us six incredible novels but more important, a legacy of defiance, courage, and opposition to tyranny. I am reminded of James Baldwin's comment "the obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only ways societies change."


  • A first draft of this posting (our 40th) appeared in the [first] November 2006 issue of The Big Issue Ethiopia. Special thanks to Andrew Heavens of Meskel Square for inviting me to write for a promising magazine and a wonderful idea to get kids to “work and not beg.”
  • A short ETV interview with Bealu Girma can be seen on youtube here.
  • I am grateful to one of my favorite bloggers, Yagerlig of Redeem Ethiopia, for his help on this piece (Molvaer's account was indispensable--thanks for sharing it).
  • We miss the Wonqette. The internet is a vapid region without her prolific writing. Her blog inspired us to create Carpe Diem Ethiopia.
  • Very much obliged to Fikru Halebo for linking our previous positing in his awesome blog Enset. His writing and blog inspires us to keep our “eyes on the prize.”

December 30, 2006

The Republic of Fear

It's easy to get lost in the numbers—no less than two million Iraqis died under Saddam Hussien’s watch. Images of Kurdish children lying prostrate, dead on the spot they breathed Saddam’s deadly mustard gas—the same biological weapon used by fascist Italy against Ethiopian villagers in 1935—show one of the most horrific acts of brutality known to mankind. The Butcher of Bagdad’s 1986-88 chemical and biological weapon attacks on thousands of innocent Iraqis in Halabja and al-Anfal are only a few examples of his systematic campaign to exterminate opposition to his brutal twenty-five year rule.

In various postings, we have stated our support for the war on terror. We are convinced that the dictator’s quarter-century rule needed to come to an end. In the long run, his removal from power will allow Iraqis the opportunity to build a nation based on tolerance and respect for the rule of law. We are further convinced that despite the US-led coalition’s failure to secure the peace following the regime’s downfall as well as the ensuing sectarian violence that may inflame the country and the region in further bloodshed, the powerful ideals of democracy and representative government have found their way into the hearts and minds of the governed all across the Middle East.

International lawyers and commentators will be debating the fairness of the political and judicial process that led to the dictator’s execution early this morning. Some of the questions will concern the removal of judges during the trials and whether the in- and out-of-court statements made by the Iraqi cabinet compromised the former defendant’s due process rights. The latter possibility is disconcerting—we have stated in past postings on the treason trials against the leaders of the CUD that improper political interference in judicial affairs is a primary indicator of a government’s use of its courts to determine a political as opposed to a just outcome.

Beyond issues of fairness is also the appropriateness of Saddam Hussein’s execution before other cases were heard, especially the trials on the massacre of Kurds. In our view, the need to create a meticulous record of the killings with the primary architect facing the charges and the victims’ families in court was compelling; such trials would have also shown to the world the horrors of chemical and biological warfare. We further believe such trials would have helped bolster the Bush administration’s claim of Saddam Hussein’s possession of and willingness to use weapons of mass destruction.

What we nevertheless take from this incredible day in history is a reaffirmation of the notion that heads of states will answer for the crimes they commit against their people. Saddam Hussein’s conviction by the Iraq tribunal comes in the heels of the Rwanda and former Yugoslavia tribunal verdicts against individuals who participated in genocides against their people and goes a long way in sending a powerful message to those who engage in terror and extermination that such acts of impunity will not go unpunished.

Notwithstanding this powerful and timely lesson; however, we regret Saddam Hussein’s execution today. We agree with Richard Dicker, Human Rights Watch’s Director of the International Justice Program, that “the test of a government’s commitment to human rights is measured by the way it treats its worst offenders.” We categorically reject the use of the death penalty even when imposed by a properly constituted court. In our view, an execution, whether carried out by Saddam Hussein against hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians or by a properly constituted court is the same: it is wrong. It is evil. Amnesty International states it best: the death penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights.

The man who created the Republic of Fear is gone for good. On this day, our thoughts and prayers are with Saddam Hussein's victims and with the people of Iraq who must find a way to create a viable system that will allow them and their children to live in peace.

November 12, 2006


May 29, 2006

Seconding ETW: With Gratitude

On this Memorial Day, to America and Americans: thanks for teaching the world that a government is by its very nature suspect and that its powers must be limited. Á salute to the fallen.

April 23, 2006

Holiest of the Holies

Biete Mariam Church, Lalibela. Permission granted by Michael Abbot

Prayer in the Western Cluster

We thank Mr. Abbot for allowing us to use his photography. Please check his website for more breathtaking photography of Ethiopia, South Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Europe, and North and South America.

Melkam Fasika.

January 07, 2006

ewnetem tarik tessera

LITTLE ETHIOPIA New Year’s Eve 6:00 p.m.
It was strange to see my bride gushing at another man. It was also strange I felt okay about it. Hey, it was Teddy, okay, the man responsible for the best thing that has happened to Ethiopian music since Muluken "hodenew Telatish” Melese!
Polite to the hilt Tewodros Kassahun interrupted his conversation with friends at a restaurant near Little Ethiopia, stood up, and allowed this otherwise reserved and thousand times better half of mine to give him a hug. When my turn came, I was at a loss for words. What do you say to a man whose music we’ve played all summer and laughed our heads off as our tiny off-springs neigh whenever Balderasu (altegeram wey feresu?) comes on?
“Teddy . . . um, um, um, um, beTam beTam gobez neh . . . jegna, jegna, gobez neh!”
He flashed a smile that apparently came easy and brought me in for the shoulder hug. I was surprised by how short he was. “BeTam amesegenalu” were his only words and bowed low to send us back to our table. Kelik yalefe tehutenet.
I mumbled something like, “see you all in a few hours” and headed to the Tibs that waited for us at our table. Barely a make-up gursha down, one of his retinue came to me and said that the concert was cancelled that night. “It was on the DC radio, haven’t you heard? Where have you been?” He almost sneered. Damn. What DC radio?
Too much had been invested in this trip. We could barely afford another night at the Crystal City hotel with our meager state government incomes. We had no alternative but to stay another night for the Tarik Tessera concert.
POPSICLE TOES New Year’s Day 7:00 p.m.
I told her to wear something warm but she opted for the sexaay. I worried about her bare toes that peeked unprotected through those things she called shoes. She would soon regret her decision.
A mob scene awaited us at the Hyatt. Arlington County police were screaming into their bullhorns threatening to arrest hundreds of Ethiops (and I understand Eritreans) of all ages and skin color. We must be the most law abiding immigrants in America: within minutes hundreds of ticket carrying folk found the sidewalk 20ft from the hotel. Some had traveled from as far as California. Others had bought scalper tickets minutes before Virginia’s finest were dispatched. A couple clutched each other and their prized “VIP” tickets, presumably to watch Teddy up close and personal at “Uliena Arina.” (Yep, stupid me should've looked that up before buying the tickets (just google it).
Hundreds waited outside hoping desperately against hope. But all we got were mi esposa’s frozen toes.
Eventually somone close to the promoters came out to speak with the crowd that refused to thin. A pissed off nerdy looking fellow turned warrior (what do you expect, he was a fellow Nueva Yorkian) began yelling almost uncontrollably at the people who apparently sold thousands of tickets for the Uliena venue without obtaining requisite fire department clearance in DC. The following summarizes their conversation sans expletives:

"You guys are a bunch of incompetents, you can’t even get a fire department permit before organizing a concert for someone as big as Teddy?”

"Hey, hey, hey, teregaga! Why don’t you first ask what happened before yelling at me?”

“Oh, Ok. What happened?”

“Look, this is something that will soon come out. Something, someone is behind this shit. YeIhadeg ij alebet, eshi?”

"Oh, Puhlease!"

It would've been nice to watch and hear Teddy singing addis negus enji lewt mech meTa. It wasn't meant to be. But I wonder, when will we ever learn to own up to our mistakes?

A cherished collection. Grateful to len'Abegazu for Muluken's volume 1, eagerly awaiting 2 (krestian mechem tesfa ayQortem).

January 01, 2006

The Texture of Dreams

Published in 2005 by Chicago-based Nyala Publishing, Fasil Yitbarek’s Texture of Dreams is a story about a young Ethiopian who immigrates to New York City in the last days of the Derg. The novel takes its main character Yosef Temesgen through various hurdles in New York City and a story of an Ethiopian Horatio Alger unfolds. In that sense, the book is a journey forward. However, the character’s frequent lucid and incoherent dreams return him to Dessie and Addis Ababa, unveiling his childhood, puberty, and adulthood in a country he finds mostly in his dreams. The transcendental aspects of the novel may explain the author’s title selection.
Thousands of Ethiopians lucky enough to obtain exit visas from an erstwhile friendlier U.S. Embassy staff have sniffled their way into Boeing 767s in the days of the Derg uncertain if they would ever see their country and loved ones again. Farewells to the old and sick were particularly difficult—forcefully separated embraces were common and the Bole scene frequently resembled a veritable lekso. Fasil’s opening chapter brilliantly captures the Bole rapture for many Ethiopians.
Yosef exits JFK airport clad in a thick sweater and coat in the middle of a sweltering 90° New York summer ready to begin the long process of becoming an American. He wades through rough New York seas thanks to his resilient and anchored personality cultivated in large part by his loving mother, a father whose morning prayers reverberate in his waking and slumber moments, by Abba Tsedalu—his Ge’ez teacher, his friends, and his neighbors in Dessie, and his experiences at Addis Ababa University. Indeed, what makes Fasil's work a great read is the constant juxtaposition it draws between modernity and nostalgia, each gracefully weaved into the narrative and told in prose reminiscent of great contemporary American writers such as Langston Hughes, Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth.
Yosef’s ability to revisit Ethiopia in his mind’s eye come at most unexpected times. Even wet snow triggers memories of the dry terrain of his childhood. Fasil’s seamless tale of an Ethiopian immigrant’s late-life struggles with the American intonation, securing employment, equal rights at the workplace, housing, alienation, loneliness, new friendships, love, romance, and sex are a pleasure to read. His character's ability to accept his awkwardness, regret his judgment calls, and also, relish his rare lucky breaks through self-deprecating humor allows us to simultaneously laugh and commiserate without end.
I couldn’t end this note without quoting Fasil’s tribute to the pains of Ethiopian motherhood:

I am lying in my bed, wide-awake, thinking of the many mothers I knew in Dessie. There is no holiday for them, no Mother’s Day to pay homage to their selfless love and endless toil. What is life to a mother in the dust-choked,poverty-stricken town of Dessie? Work and pregnancy. Planned, unplanned. Wanted and unwanted conception of life through enjoyed, tolerated and often suffered union. Back to back pregnancies, some desired and others inflicted by the blind lust of a selfish husband who, indifferent to her failing health, their grinding poverty and the still unweaned infant, ignored her plea to be careful. Pregnancy. Morning sickness carefully concealed and discreetly born until the fetus expands, distending her belly like a taunt balloon, slowing her down despite the perpetual urgency of her chores. No reprieve to rest and tenderly stroke her life-encapsulating bulge because there is endless work and no else to do it. Life growing inside her, draining her sap through the navel chord, while the infant milks her dry. Nursing two helpless ones. Sweating for the man and the grown children. Work and pregnancy. Risking miscarriage from straining to life a bag of wheat to take to the mill. Work and work while the unborn kicks and its siblings wails on her back. Anguish and heartbreak whenever infant death snatches one for every survivor that defies it. Incessant abuse, verbal and physical, if the man is a travesty of humanity who thinks he deserves better than her. Work, pain, tears. Work, heartbreak, illness and despair! Work work work work until death comes to the rescue. Only when she is gone does the sorry ingrate finally discover her worth as his home begins to fall apart before she is cold in her grave. (Yitbarek, page 261-62).

Read Fasil's work to laugh (sometimes out loud), read it to cry (not always a bad thing), read it to pay homage to a country we left and one we embraced, read it for its Kidase, if anything, read it for its incredible prose.

For cuz B

October 13, 2005

Starting my blog with a standing prayer for Ethiopia and Ethiopians