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