Saturday, May 27, 2006

Giracha Kachiloch (Grey Bells) Amharic novel By Adam Reta Shama Books, June 2005 467 pages, Price 25 birr Adam Reta is no stranger to the Ethiopian literary scene. He has produced a number of well-crafted short stories including Mahlet and Izabel that had received wide acclaim by the literary circle. He is probably of limited interest to anyone who hasn’t yet felt the subtle, precise charm of his short stories but it is considerable appeal for anyone who has. Giracha Kachiloch (Grey Bells), his first novel, also seems to be a rousing departure from the conventional narrative novels dominating the Ethiopian literary landscape. It is set in pre- and post - revolution Ethiopia of the 1974. The protagonist and narrator of the novel, who is introspective, explores various happenings, personages and sites in his tiny village named Nefasmewcha. It is this village that forms the backdrop to the story. The entire novel is about the life, his isolation, his young unrequited love, and his exploration of the various nooks and crannies of his village, how he copes with the tragedies and his awakening. We feel that he is a perceptive mind, but his reactions to experience are still elementary as befits his undeveloped state. He spends a great deal of his time wandering in the town’s streets or sitting under a telephone pole in a certain hillside, doing little more than thinking, reminiscing and walking about on the road. The narrator’s name is Mezgebu Dubale, a name that he never liked, and it meant ‘his record’. He claimed that he is God’s record. He said, ‘it was me who was hurting a lot and keeping record of everything.’ (p.11) But it was his father’s name that amused him most and he even said, ‘if I had a name like that, I would flee away to Khartoum, or to the nearest place.’ (p.9) According to Mezgebu, it will be him who will be called as a witness when God sits with the people of Nefasmewcha on judgment day. He says, for example, that there wasn’t a soul in the village except him who knows the ‘sinful things’ Hailegnaw, the schoolteacher and Ribka, his neighbor girl, did. But one could sense that there might be an exaggeration here. Mezgebu lost his mother while he was three and this must be one of the most traumatic events in his life. His father, who was a barber, (probably the only barber in the village) was a remote and uncaring figure. He would call him only when he wants to send him on errands to buy Tela (a traditional malt). Mezgebu’s stepmother happened to be an odious woman who made his life hell. She used to tell the child that he was cursed at his birth and used to accuse him of ‘causing troubles’ for the family. He says: “When she goes to hell, God will bring a charge against her on what she did to me, standing on the fire, she will surely say... it is that ‘evil, trouble causer’ who led me here. She likes putting the blame on others.” (p.9) In much of the novel, Adam Reta makes use of the stream of consciousness technique rather than conventional narration. There is no description of a character of action outside of the way the character sees himself and the events in which he is involved. There is no selection of incident for the core of climax it might have contained. Whatever happens derives its value from the mere fact of the central character’s awareness and interest. Mezgebu begins his day proper rising from his bed early in the morning (even before the grey bells of Medhaniyalem Church, the Church of the Saviour of the World, begins to ring) and making his way to his usual seat in the hillside, a place that he has always considered his own territory. He sits there for hours on a moist stone, watching and observing around him. He has little desire to take part in everything that is going on around him, he simply absorbs both good and bad. Mezgebu’s account of his sickness of walking in his sleep is aching, though it was told calmly. There were nights when he gets up from his bed while he was asleep and wander in their compound. It took quite a while for his father, stepmother and stepsister to know this. One night his stepsister, who was afraid of going to the outhouse, was urinating in the garden, being sure that none was around. She was filled with indignation when she found out Mezgebu was sitting there cutting flowers. She informed angrily this to her mother; but, according to Mezgebu, what made her angry was not what happened to the flowers but her embarrassment at being seen while urinating in the garden. His stepmother unsurprisingly made a big fuss about it and has been accusing him for destroying the whole garden, even long after this happened. Mezgebu’s respite from the solitude and the constant turmoil around him was when he was in the company of his favorite fiction book Chereka Sitiweta (When The Moon Comes Out) written by Berhanu Zerihun. He hasn’t read many books but this one that he borrowed from his schoolmate had become the staple of his bedtime reading. He often wondered how one could write such a wonderful book and he even called the author a magician. One hot noontime, when he was noticing with pleasure naked young women washing their bodies in the river, Mezgebu remembers the characters in the book and starts wondering if Berhanu wrote the book after watching these kinds of women. He makes a point of asking people, especially those who look educated, if they had read the book and he was stunned and disappointed to hear none of them did. Taking his lover to Entoto Mountain in a clear night when the moon was out became his constant fixation during the latter part of the novel. Here also one could question how much reliable is what he tells us about the book. Is it really that good or a delusive impression of a person who has just read one book? To be sure, Mezgebu’s portrait of Wosenyelesh, his childhood fascination and dream girl, carries the greatest emotional impact. He says he was attracted to her after he saw her surrounded by heavenly light in Meskel celebration, the alleged finding of Christ’s cross by queen Ellena. He says on that day that Nefasmewcha was ablaze with the little yellow daisy and score of people who come with torchlight to light the big Meskel bonfire. After the service was over, and the flaming torch turned into ashes, children start gathering around the ashes. It was then that he saw Wosenyelesh, who was wearing a splendid Kuta, (an open weave cotton wrap worn as a shawl) and he says when she sat next to the fire, her eyes were gleaming like a fire. He says he liked the sight of her face that was quite and tranquil. Thereafter, she has become on obsession with him, though it was unrequited love. But what he did one day seemed downright silly. One morning he came across Wosenyelesh on his way to his errands and stopped her and asked her to dance with him right away. She was bewildered and frightened and told him she would cry for help if he doesn’t get out of the way. Towards the end of the novel, Mezgebu tells us about the ebb and flow of his passion with Genet. His new found love and support from her seemed to have a redemptive power. There he gains confidence and self-respect. Genet nurses his dying spirit and transforms it to celebrate the joy that has always been his to claim. Despite all he has gone through, there is still colour in the world, which makes his story remarkable. Perhaps Adam Reta’s greatest strength is his lyrical eye for detail; his descriptions of emotions and physical features and simply brilliant. This book deserves a read and re-reads. A thorough understanding of the book makes us think, try to find Mezgebu’s characteristics in our selves and avoid the mistakes that he commits.

The 11th Hour- A New Amharic Movie

This new Amharic film with English Sub-title directed and produced by Zelalem Welde Mariam explores the trials and triumphs of a single father who does whatever it will take to keep his daughter alive, though at the eleventh hour.Ephrem (Solomon Bogale) a young photographer who works for an advertising and modeling agency loses his beautiful model wife in an automotive accident ( crssing a zebraroad) and to make matter worse, his daughter is diagnosed with the heart problem and needed an emergency heart then plant operation available only abroad and can’t afford.Contrary to sentimental love recurent in most Amharic films, the 11th Hour chose to depict the love and sacrifiece of a father for his daughter,a risky venture in terms of financial gain. The film was said to be the first big budget film to have been produced in Ethiopia. President Girma Woldegorgis’s appearance at appearance at the inauguration on May 18, at Sheraton Addis have stunned many. Wile the material forming the basis for the 11th hour can’t make any claim of originality and quality; it is an interesting and poignant movie to come out in recent years. The opening scene takes us to Hamar,one of the country's attractions, where Ephrem is hunting down l Hammer girls for a shot or two. He manages to find one but also Genet (Danawit G/Ebregzabher ) , a pretty and nice-looking girl who was there on a visit. And that becomes an encounter that later leads to a marital relationship. The images of Hammer with nude women and erected breasts leaves you not so much exhilarated as exhausted.The viewer is likely to question the relevance of the theme of the story -until he sees the gruesome murder that the phtogrhaper captures in his camera. For the next thirty minutes, the production tricks us into believing that it’s nothing more uninspired romance. There ore overly sentiments moments when the couple spend time with their lively daughter Nani (Bersabeh Melaku) who I find is natural and believable. However, when Genet loses her life in a terrible road accident, things started to take a nasty turn. Ephraim and Nani find it hard to accept. Especially the father starts to fight internal demons from old memories of his lost wife, to alcohol and depression. And forging a sympathetic link to them is crucial for the remainder of the picture to have the desired impact. Replacing his wife’s absence Nani becomes his world. When this realization of his daughter heart failure and the doctor ,he was at a loss.Though he makes a good living from his photography work, getting 300,000 birr is a next- to- impossible task. He makes every effort to raise the money. The struggles in the story could be experienced by many Ethiopians, where around 500,000 children are born annually with the heart problem.This is where the film looks a dramatic advertisement for the Children Heart Foundation whose cardiac hospital is still in limbo. The movie has much resemblance to John Q, a 2002 Hollywood movie starring Denzel Washington, a father and husband whose son is diagnosed with an enlarged heart and then finds out he can’t receive a transplant because his can’t cover it. The movie veers from slapstick to tragedy to shimmering – of- life euphoria All in all it is a very interesting and watchabe film. The centers the of the film that people will do whatever is necessary to protect what is dear to them is conveyed in a moving and singularly effective manner.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Raman's Love Trap

I was just thinking ... Raman's Love Trap Susheela Raman, a British vocalist of Indian Origin, gave a concert in Addis some two years ago. It was one of the best concerts that I had attended to. But I didn't know her CD was in the market in Addis till I came across it last week in Irie music shop. Well, I bought the CD and I should say I was pleasantly surprised. Love Trap, the title song and the pinnacle of the recording is a jazzy rendering of Mohammud Ahmed's 'yefikir wotmed' . He must have been flattered. And one of the line of the lyrics expresses 'I don't care what other say but I just want to make love to you' message. Don't you think this is an indication of Ethiopian influence? After all, this what-will-they-say mentality is prevalent in our society. There are some other ten songs with all kinds of sounds and instruments and Raman delivers on inspiring performance in all the tunes. Most of them are in her native Indian, which reminded one of the Indian films I had watched as a child.Give her a try,if you haven't so far.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A Tale of Taxi Drivers

"Setchnto, A Tale of Ethiopian Cab Drivers in America" P.257 Have you ever thought of what life is like for taxi drivers? Do they find their job tough or easy? What sort of incidents would they encounter? Perhaps the people who are in a best position to respond to these questions are the taxi drivers themselves. Unfortunately, most taxi drivers don't write and most writers don't write about taxi drivers. We must have missed tales and accounts from the front seat that otherwise would have been an interesting and refreshing read. However, the new Amharic book by Birhane moges, ' Setchnto, A Tale of Ethiopian Cab Drivers in America" is an exception. Sethchnto is an Italian word for sixty and that how taxis were known in this country ever since their coming form Italy, carrying that model number. The author himself a taxi driver in New York City listened to tales told by his friends and acquaintances and wrote this vastly entertaining work, connecting themes of belonging in America, immigrant experience, and multiculturalism. With rare sense of humor and honesty, this book shows us that taxi driving in America (probably anywhere) is more than a job; it is a life style and a medium of expression. But also one of the hardest and the most risky profession. Ethiopians who are driving taxi in major American cities have the toughest of jobs, working twelve hours shifts, for not much more than the minimum wage. They are harassed by police and passengers and are subject to stiff fines for minor offences. But it is not a bitter book, rather a highly entertaining tale focusing on funny incidents of the taxi drivers. It is not a big-statement book - it doesn't have the intellectual heft of a 'globalization and immigration' study kind of work. But in a sophisticated, breezy way, it does pose 'Is it worth it?' question for those of us who are dreaming nothing but America.

Friday, May 05, 2006

What Has Pity got to do With it?

What Has Pity Got To Do With It? He is in his mid-twenties. Tall and handsome. He is a singer, he chooses to call himself an artist, and using that word about himself he considers being his greatest achievement. Girls are never in short supply; wherever he goes he feels their stares. He wears dark glasses as a form of chic and also to disguise his identity. In the stage, he is a shaken, tearful figure lamenting about losses, his pitiful state .He complains about not finding the right partner, repeating the phrase 'alasazinim wey? (Don't you pity me?). Obviously, this is not the story of his life, but that is the kind of music he makes: the kind that he has always been hearing. He had released his album three months ago, it wasn't a financial success and he was inclined to blame the recording studio for bringing it on a wrong time and the FM Addis DJS for not giving it enough coverage (though one of his music was on air almost everyday) The person described above is purely a product of imagination but I contend he could represent many here. Whether financially successful or not, in many of contemporary Ethiopian songs, such messages of bewailing are prevalent. Young and old singers alike have been producing works full of complaint and personalized lament, a deliberate or not a not-so- deliberate attempt of provoking sympathy. Sentimental portrait of the lonely, the dumped, the desperate, the love-lorn are rife in the Ethiopian music scene. Of course, the works vary all over the map, some are fabulous, some are a mess but there is a striking similarity in their messages, she left for Beirut leaving him alone, he no longer trusts women after what she did to him, what good is it to her if he dies of love misery or, why didn’t she tell him she had another lover before? How long will he survive being starved for love? At times, they remind me of the Alkash women who sings laments for the dead, invoking sadness and tears in those attending the funeral. This description may seem exaggerated, but only because some would prefer to regard it as such. Why should people want to hear the trouble of someone whose lover has gone to Jeddah, Beirut or America? Is this worth telling? Can’t they think of something warm, bright and positive? Why anyone should waste his money to hear someone wailing and weeping blaming his misfortune on the whims of fate? I am not saying that their tone and voice is unappealing .A great number of them have such captivating voices that, one would find it hard not to like them. In many instances the beauty of their sound leads you to conclude that you need not bother about the meaning. But it is said that words are powerful and tyrannical, they exist for their meanings and if you will not pay attention to these, you cannot pay attention at all. Hama Tuma, an Ethiopian writer in Diaspora, says such wor are popular because our conditions are so desperate, our consciousness so trampled upon by loss of hope that we are easy victims to a rendition of the present and the future in unchangeable sad and somber terms. While, I agree, songs of unrequited love with the themes of unfullfilment, disappointments and frustration of people could be good material for any work of art, their unduly repeation can't be a healthy sign. It might give the impression that it is the only kind of art that existed .However, the truth is there has always been works of music that managed to captivate and fascinate music lovers continentally and globally expressing the joy of loving and being loved, the delights of romantic encounters and lovemaking, intimate description of our everyday life, devotion, harmony and beauty, truth and hope. Bob Marley is a timeless singer that will always be remembered for the positive message and optimistic outlooks on life. No matter what mood you may be in, he will be sure to uplift your spirits anger will change to peace, sadness shall evolve into ecstasy, joy will transform into bliss. The underlying messages f his themes are making the world a peaceful place, standing up for what you believe in, and enjoying life to the fullest. In his “Three Little Birds’, Marley sings “This is my message to you, don’t worry, about a thing _cause every little thing gonna be alright ‘ In ‘No Woman, No Cry’ he sings ‘Good friends we have, Oh, good friends we have lost, Along the way, In this great future, you can’t forget your past. So dry your tears, I say.' I believe artists should venture into types of art with positive message though they might themselves amidst the encircling gloom. Messages that renew our hope when things get dark. There are many people with successful love stories and a great number of people are not betraying each other. Hence their stories should deserve equal consideration too. I wish to hear music that reflects those who managed to overcome the bitter side of life. Messages that communicate the refusal to give up on life, the celebration of hope amidst ruins. An art that triumphs despite an endless defeat, a message in the words of Hama Tuma, that would ‘weave beautiful tapestry out of the sadness of what is and the bright colors of what should be.'

A Tale of Friends

I was just thinking ... Tale of Friends Life at the Addis Ababa University wasn't always a bed of rose. Lessons at times got boring and money was often in short supply. But, mostly, you would encounter notions that didn't fit with the assumptions and beliefs that you grew up with. Of course, there were courses that are sources of pleasure and beneficial but most are the kind you cram to earn good grade in order to accumulate for final graduation. It was a system that encouraged students to become grade collectors. Some of the courses are designed in such a way as to occupy you, not to liberate you but if you are lucky, train you. Few got their choice of study and in the department where you are assigned, you'll see a handful of students who excel you in courses that sound exotic and in the curriculums that hold little interest to you and all this is happening while you are trying to shape your own maninet, your body is changing and you emotions are running wild. For me, one of the few things I have cherished most was friendship. A set of friends provided a sense of security, as belonging to any group does. In a place like these where friendship network was dense and interlocked, if you are not connected to your peers, you could have one hell of askeyami life. At the beginning life could be reckless and unsettling. I didn't have steady friends then and, I was just trying to be friendly to every body. This was changed during the second year, as I made acquaintances whose friendships and loyalty stands to this day. We were best buds and felt comfortable around each other. We were four, except for those coming on and off. I am not sure on what grounds we admitted others as friends but ours was based on common interest, desire and respect for each other. We used to tell each other every thing, even when we disagreed, we respected each other. We flocked together like sheep in groups and tended to follow the whims of the group, which I feel today, were not always right. Most of us were popular, but I don't know exactly how. Perhaps we defined ourselves in relation to the upper class and to all the other below us, the Gedjas, the nerds, the findatas, the disenfranchised, the misfits, and the stupid ones. There was a set of careful and cruel distinctions. Whatever the sociology of our group, it was large enough to absorb new comers and to permit trading best friends. As A used to say, we had to make the time pass, of its own accord. At dusk after having an early supper at the café, we would head to sit in the platform, in the shade of an old oak tree at Dibab, in the red-darkening time just above sunset, watching the passerby, mostly the girls. It was a nice place to watch and being watched by others. In such self-contained micro universe, every thing you do revolves around girls and everywhere you walk around the campus, you have the radar to notice the entire hot specimen. It must be annoying for the girls to be under constant scrutiny though I can't say there was always cruelty and malice towards them. R who is good-looking and enjoys throwing some fitting remarks at passing girls liked this place. He had such away of making Lekefa a not- unpleasant experience, though he never managed to turn such encounters to lasting friendship. There underneath , we sat, idled, smoked and talked and we were so bored that we made a virtue of being so bored. We talked about achievements, about the best paying job we would have when we go out, about our dream girls, electronic gadget, the books we have read, and the movies we have seen, blah blah. Sure, we influenced each other in our tastes of cinema, books and music. S, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of films, had a big impact on my movie tastes. He often passionately talked about Casablanca, The God Father, La Vita Dolche, Don Juan, that later became my all time favorites. There was also drink, with hindsight; I believe was a rite of passage. On Friday night we would go to Country, a small hugely popular bar around 5 kilo where we drink and dance all night long .It was a place to be seen with cool tunes and a good meeting place. We drank draft and gin, and we liked it because it made us feel like someone else, perhaps some one more confident and cheerful. And, no one was consumed by it, it was just for fun. The next morning, we would be at the gate of Kennedy waiting for its opening hour. I was an erratic student. I was undisciplined. And I hadn't caught onto the rules of the game: why work hard in a class that didn't grab my fancy? I just wander around through the shelves and read every title. I flipped through paperbacks, scanned jackets, and memorized names: The Making of the Four Masterpieces, Hemingway, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Albert Camus, Death of A Salesman, Dostovesky, Beloved, History of Jazz.It was a time, during which I absorbed an awful lot of information, long lists of titles, snippets of philosophy, and name that seemed misspellings- Goethe, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard .Now this is hardly the stuff of deep understanding. But it was an introduction, a phrase book, and it felt good at the time to know all these words and to share yemakabed evening, talk that talk. Now I feel that I have one thing to be grateful for AAU, for these friends I that have made. What we had was positive influence on each other. Without them I wouldn't have all that fun.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A Trip To Dire Dawa ...

A Trip to DireDawa It was a pedagogical training course program for French instructors in Ethiopia organized by the French Embassy for the fourth time. There were 65 participants; most of them Ethiopians, some French and other nationals drawn from various colleges, universities, community and private schools and international organizations. There was a festive atmosphere at the Lycee Guebre Mariam when the large Marco polo bus loaded at around 6.30 on Saturday, March 25, 2006. The banner that hangs in the front of the bus reads “TV.5”, the famous French T.V station that sponsored the event. We left Addis at around 7.00. It was a long and arduous journey especially after passing Awash but the unusual cloudy and rainy weather was comforting. Some of the passengers were looking through the window to try to get a glimpse of any sight that might interest them. There was this “WOW” sound every time we encountered crushed vehicles. One would be as astounded by the number of accidents seen in the road. But our driver was driving with a moderate speed as if to create the semblance of order in a naturally chaotic situation. I personally felt I was on a pilgrimage or participating in a trip home for the holidays. It was in fact a trip home for some, including Gash Elyas, a senior French teacher of Addis’s Alliance Ethio-Frances who had been born an brought up in Dire Dawa. He has had tremendous years of teaching experiences here and abroad and I was struck by the number of language he speaks: Amharic, Oromifia, French, Arabic and Spanish. He turned to be a perfect traveling companion. His broad smile and his pleasant conversations made the trip much more interesting than it otherwise would have been. We stopped for lunch at Asebe Teferi, unattractive town for its culinary pleasures but the green and fresh chat was a source of consolation for some of the group who wasted no time to purchase. We arrived in Dire Dawa of around 6.30and headed to Alliance Ethio- Frances where we received a warm welcome. Later, we were assigned to our hotels. Anyone who is visiting this town should plan walking at night in the streets of Kezira. It is a part of a town where the past is still present in the evocative buildings and lined trees. DireDawans enjoy walking the streets in the evening, though it was raining little on that day. We were not there on a tourist visit but rather to attend week-long French training courses. The French connection remains strong there, where the language is still spoken. This has probably to do with its proximity to Djibouti and its base to chemin de Fer Franco-Ethiopian. The Alliance Ethio-Francaise, though not as big as the one in Addis, was established in 1908 and is one of the first and foremost French language teaching centers. It has made tremendous contributions to the education of Francophone Ethiopians who become the elite of the country’s notional administration. On Sunday morning, we all met of Alliance. It was hot but the town had a cool, fresh, early morning smell and we had breakfast there. At around 11, we got into a hall and there were some brief welcoming speech first by Mohammed Abdi, FSP Project Coordinator and Alain Zorzutti, Cooperation Attaché for Education of the French Embassy. Both of them said that the training courses would be an occasion for strengthening the existing methodology within the teaching of French as a foreign Language, led by Mrs. Sylvie Liziard of the University of Rouen, France, preparation of the students to the DELE/DALF examination, led by Mrs. Annie Coutelle from CIEP of Sevres, France and using drama to teach French as foreign language led by Mr. Alberto Crespo, as Spanish teacher and a former actor at Lycee Guebremariam M Addis Ababa. In the afternoon, we headed to Harar, which was a delightful surprise. On the road, the scenery was one of the most beautiful and the view was glorious. We took to visit Rimbaud’s house, where the famous French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud’s memory is kept. He is no Balzac but the French consider him as one of the most glamorous poet. It was said that Rimbaud spent the last ten years of his life as a trader and gunrunner along the north and East African coast. The house that carry his name has been restored by the French government and the Harari people’s Regional state and it has a museum, documentation center and community multimedia. The house is believed to have been a French school of which Rimbaud taught. Rimbaud, who wrote the poem, “The Drunken Boat”, that was translated into Amharic by Dr Berhanu, Abebe, apparently remained in Harer for a year buying and selling coffee and hides. Mme Sylvie Liziard, a professor in the University of France, who was visiting with us, said it was a strange feeling for her to in the trace of Rimbaud in a place for from home. She said it helped her to imagine the adventures life the poet led. “He went through lots of hardship, as he was working for an Indian merchant. He couldn’t have lived here. The house we see now is a bourgeoisie house”, she concluded. I was told by the guide that there are many researchers who come to use the library mainly from Alamaya University and young people from Harar to use the internet. During our two hours stay in Harar we shopped like mad and took a look of some beautifully kept old buildings. Though it was Sunday and most of them were closed, there are countless shopping centers in the town. At around 5.30, we come back to DireDawa. During the trip, I kept a daily diary, writing in French on one side and in English on the other. Of course, my English side was usually longer, but it helped my French to write a bit. One Monday morning, we started the actual training course, divided in to three groups. In our group, we began with drama lesson and our trainer, Mr. Alberto Crespo, is a tall Spanish man how could speak French impeccably. He understood the limitations of the time but he did his utmost to equip us with basic skills. He was gentle and precise and he never made any unkind remark when even we were making intolerable mistakes during the drama practices. We did some voice trainings which some of us found amusing. The group was exchanging classes and on the following day, we were in the class, where Mrs. Annie Coutelle was teaching on best practices and methods of teaching French that would eventually prepare for the standard and recognized examinations called DECF/DALF. On Tuesday evening, there was a film screening at Alliance compound. The film displayed was Les Miserables, which was turned in to a film from one of French’s classic novel by Victor Hugo. The story is quite famous in Ethiopia, as it was translated into Amharic twice by two different people and even narrated in the radio. Jean Val jean, a Frenchman imprisoned for stealing bread, must flee a police officer named Javier. The pursuit consumes both men’s lives, and soon Val jean finds himself in the midst of the students’ revolution in France. The film is too long that we had to watch the second part next day. On Thursday morning, we had an amusing and unforgettable game. It was planned in such a way that it made us discover parts of the town. Two persons would be assigned and travel in a horse-cart or Gari to find signs and names written or posted in various parts of the town. The contestants were not supposed to know the area but should read the instruction carefully and tell the Bale Gari to take them there. The instruction was written in literary French that required careful attention and through understanding, Garis are not allowed in the major roads of the town but the BaleGaleries were so skilled that they took us to places we asked using the small roads before the time we expected. After finding the names in area, and come up with a magic phrase. My seatmate and I were fortunate enough to find all the places but not the magic phrase. The game was amusing all the some. It got coverage in the local F.M and Dire people were as much cooperative as always. Thursday evening was full of emotion and anxiety for some of us. We were readying ourselves to play segments of plays we have studied with Mr. Alberto Crespo. There wasn’t enough time to practice and Alberto admitted he’s never done this before. Anyway, the small stage was prepared and ‘the actors’ were waiting with some unpredictable feelings. Of course, there weren’t long monologues and operatic battle scenes but there was skillful blend of dialogues. Most of them acted quite nicely and there was lengthy laughter from the audience now and then. Mr. Alberto was ravaged by the success and of the end, we all left together to the near- by bar and restaurant, where we dined, drank and sang. It must have been a rare occasion for the place to entertain such large crowd, speaking and singing in French. All in all, it was a wonderful experience for all of us who made the trip. Just as important as the language and cultural exposure, was the chance to discover new places and meet new people.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Darker side of His Imperial Majesty

Impressions on Kapuscinski’s The Emperor, Downfall of an Autocrat Vintage International, page 163,1989 By Arefaynie Fantahun There was this French documentary film that I saw at the Alliance few years back on King Haile sellassie that portrayed him as rather exotic, gallant monarch, distinguished by indefatigable energy, a sharp mind, and profound sensitivity, a man who made a stand against Mussolini, recovered his Empire and his throne, and had ambitions of developing his country and playing an important role in the world. However, Ryszard Kaputhinskis’s ’ The Emperor, Down Fall of an Autocrat’(164 p ages), was a far cry from what was described in the film. The book told in a series of clandestine/anonymous interviews portray the monarch as a ruler committed to defending his power at any cost, a man who was above all a great demagogue and a theatrical paternalist who used words and gestures to mask the corruption and servility of a ruling elite that he created and coddled. The polish journalist’s renditions of what the Emperor’s servant’s and closest associates told him seems an unforgiving criticism of a power hungry king who thrived in the fear and mistrust he created among his subjects and the status- quo. The Emperor is defined by the closed nature of the circle within which he operates, with all decision making from the top and being the highest person in the state, who was above the law, and not subject to any of its norms and regulations. And he is described as an enigmatic and impenetrable man who ruled for a half a century by manipulating others and using unclear and ambiguous words when he did not want to take a definite stand on a matter that required his opinion. The Majesty we see here is a complex and ambivalent personality with a taste for décor and les courisian A man with artificial decorum and austere style of life, the thin and feeble monarch who gets up every morning with his most important task of ‘laying out strategies and tactics, to solve the puzzles of personality, to plan his next move on the chessboard of power.’ It was a world of fantasy where the Palace’s intelligence service and the private informers network competing to get the Emperor’s ear. Honest information almost never traveling upwards to reach him. The abuse of power turns amusing and appalling as the narration gets along with the description of a consuming passion for intrigue, conspiracy, and suspicions of everyone, coteries, subterfuges, and maneuverings. The Emperor wanted ‘basic order with a margin of disorder on which his monarchial gentleness could exert itself’ in his palace. According to Kapusciniski, the single principle by which His Majesty guided himself when raising people or casting them down was the principle of loyalty. It was with pain in my heart that I read how one of the most perverse, corrupt, repulsive personality, Walde Giorgis,The Minister of Pen, enjoyed enormous power just because of his loyalty. And how Prince Emru, who was perhaps the most outstanding individual among the elite, a man deserving of the highest honors and positions paid the price for violating this principle when he gave some of his lands to the peasants with out informing the Emperor. ‘His benevolent Highness, who had been preparing a supremely honorable office for the Prince, had to exile him from the country for twenty years’. Something more serious happened to TekleHawaryat, an outstanding patriot and a leader of the partisans in the war against Mussolini, who was ill disposed toward the emperor when he refused to accept graciously tendered gifts, refused special privileges, ‘His Charitable Majesty had him imprisoned for many years, and then cut his head of.’ Is this an accurate representation of the emperor or a deliberate diminutisations of one of Ethiopia’s hero? What do other historians say about Haile Silassie? Harold G. Marcus in his book Haile Sellassie I, The Formative Years, 1892-1936 made the introductory remark that HaileSellasie was a political icon to some, a monster to others and to all a legend. Marcus contends that Haile Sellasie always worked behind the scenes, manipulating actors and events to his advantages .His political goals were obvious, even if his tactics were concealed. According to Marcus, he was always involved, though always proclaiming his innocence, his inaction, and his isolation from events. He never admitted his nature as a politician but posed as a tool of fate, ready to do God’s will or the will of the people. Kapusciniski at one place says both these images were correct. Haile Sellasie had a complex personality; to some he was full of charm while among others he provoked hatred. Some adored him, while others cursed him. He ruled a country that knew only The cruelest methods of fighting power (or of keeping it) in which free elections were replaced by poison, discussions by shooting and the gallows. He fell into demagoguery, into ceremony, into speeches about development –all so very empty in this country of oppressive misery and ignorance. He was a most amiable personage, a shrewd politician, a tragic father, a pathological miser. He condemned innocence to death and pardoned guilt. Whims of power, labyrinths of Palace politics, ambiguity, darkness that no one could penetrate. Is this a view point shared by other historians? A certain reviewer said that the Emperor might more appropriately be read as a thinly-veiled message to Kaputhiniski’s fellow Poles about the transitory nature and inherent weaknesses of tyrannical regimes. Note that the title and subtitle of the book--The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat--suggest the universality of the events related, rather than referring specifically to Ethiopia's experience. If that is the case, how did Kaputhiniski choose Haile Sellasie to make an instance of an absolute monarchist? There was a point when Kaputhiniski made a sweeping statement on the national character of Ethiopia, saying the Ethiopians are deeply distrustful and found it hard to believe the sincerity of his intentions when he was trying to interview people on the Haile Sellasies. Well, he was not the first one, in fact his statement one of the commonest theme in the western Ethiopinist discourse that identified Ethiopians as closed, hostile and distrustful and xenophobic. Teshale Tibebu in his book ‘ The making of Modern Ethiopia ‘ (1896-1974) argued that attempting to understand a people by referring to its so-called national character leads to a blind alley. He asks how can one study about Italians the Mafia as the national character of Italians? Is committing crime second nature to Italians? Teshale further argued that in this Orientalist Semitics construction of Ethiopian identity, it was the West that was the defining subject, and Ethiopian the defined object. He also quoted Edward Said who wrote:” The West is the actor, the Orient a passive reactor, the judge and jury, of every facet of Oriental behavior”(Orientalism. New York. 1979) Whether or not the facts in the book are accurate or not, the Emperor provides a griping digest on one of the most controversial figure in this country. king ...