Sunday, October 07, 2007

Broken Bridges: A Memoir

So, this is a sort-of memoir that I wrote last year, my senior year at Head Royce, for my second semester English elective. The layout can be a bit confusing at first, so I recommend a couple of go-overs. I hope you enjoy it. A special thanks to a reader of my blog for my final line.

Broken Bridges
Samra Girma

“To stomp about the world ignoring cultural differences is arrogant, to be sure, but perhaps there is another kind of arrogance in the presumption that we may ever really build a faultless bridge from one shore to another, or even know where the mist has ceded to landfall.” – Barbara Kingsolver


My father did not want to come to America.
They killed his leader,
Burned his transcripts,
Held his brother at gunpoint.
When they visited Addis Ababa University,
Machine guns rained bullets upon the students.
Mothers sifted through piles of
Corpses stacked in the streets,
Covered in red slogans.
Paint or blood?
He ran.


I am two.
My father teaches me Amharic.
I begin to stutter.
He stops. I never learn.
There have been so many
Ethiopian New Year’s,
Ethiopian weddings.
Ethiopians love to celebrate,
Dance, eat, talk.
I always sit next to my mom,
But I face her back.
She chats with a neighbor.
I sit quietly,
Watching indolently.
Others dance,
Their shoulders bouncing
Up and down with the rhythm.
I cannot Iskiste.
My fingers do not know
How to wrap injera around lentils.
It becomes soggy and crumbles.
I hear Amharic all around me,
But it sounds harsh and strange.
I do not understand this foreign language.


Kids laugh when they hear “Djibouti.”
Boys make crude jokes and
Girls huddle over maps with glittering eyes.

It never crossed my mind to laugh at “Djibouti.”
He ran to Djibouti, hidden in the trunk of a car.
He spent four days at the border,
Penned in a four by four cell.
In a dehydrated delirium he anticipated death
And used his belt buckle
To scrape a goodbye on the walls.
One day a woman’s hand descended over a wall
Offering a bowl of milk.

He was transferred to a prison.
For a month he was caged
With criminals and other refugees.
Food was communally shared in a large cauldron,
Soggy rice with bits of the butcher’s meat scraps.
Men would ravenously thrust their arms into the pot,
Their dirty hands swimming through the slush
In search of the rough bits of meat,
And smear the slop on their tongues.
He would not, could not.
Luckily, each morning they served
A piece of bread and a cup of tea.

By a miracle, he was released
And made his way to the capital.
He slept under cardboard on the streets
Until his mother sent him money to rent a shack.
A year later he left for America.

He does not remember laughing once while there,
But kids laugh when they hear “Djibouti.”
Boys make crude jokes and
Girls huddle over maps with glittering eyes.


When she was younger,
My white mom discoed to soul and Motown.
She dated the president of the BSU at UC Berkeley,
Ignoring patronizing stares and death threats.
She ran around Lake Merritt at night,
Bathing in the silence of the semi-darkness,
Passing the Black Panthers practicing their self-defense.

When I was younger,
I would pick up barbeque with my mom.
Clinging to my mom’s wrist,
I would glance warily at the black men in line.
Later I would lick my fingers,
Barbeque sauce smeared around my mouth,
And declare:
“I love barbeque,
But those black men scare me.”
My mom would laugh at me.


My parents met at a bar,
The Graduate on College Ave.
My mom wore big glasses and short skirts.
My father had an afro and a thick accent.

Now my mom is hypothyroid
And takes blood pressure medicine.
Now my father has high cholesterol
And sprinkles his Amharic with English.


My inflection is confusing.
Isn’t she black?
My mocha skin is deceiving.
Her mom is white.
I am more than one check mark on your standardized exam.

My parents tell me that I am beautiful,
But in America
I want her thin hips,
And I covet her golden hair,

And so in the past I ran from defining myself:
Black, Mixed, Ethiopian-American.
Instead I fancied myself a woman of the world.


My father writes:
“We are a generation
that was forced to leave our homeland under very difficult circumstances
and to raise our kids in all corners of the globe.
We are also a traumatized generation
that dreams of the day when our homeland will know peace instead of war.
We dream of the day when our leaders will have the wisdom
to lead with dignity and honor as their forefathers did,
instead of perpetuating a cycle of hate and disaster.
In the meantime, we yearn to share with,
and maybe pass on to our children,
a piece of this special place where we grew up
that most of us still call home.”


I always wanted to spend a year abroad.

During my freshman year my parents suggested I go to Ethiopia.
I wholeheartedly rejected their idea.
In the eyes of the Western world,
Africa is infected and tainted,
Riddled with disease, poverty, and corruption.
Africa spends every day combating AIDS and starvation
While venal governments bask in luxury and wealth.

During my sophomore year I realized race.
I watched the white girls get invited to prom by the older boys again,
Saw movies like “Bamboozled” and “Hotel Rwanda,”
Read books like Beloved and Reservation Blues,
And began to more fully understand
Racism, Hate, Ignorance, and History.
My future seemed impossibly stuck and predetermined.

During my junior year I left for Addis Ababa.
I left for buses and taxis and streets of black faces looking back at me.
I left for old men with wise wrinkles chewing chat outside of tiny souks.
I left for crusty-eyed children mobbed by flies selling Soft tissue paper at stoplights.
I left for the priests’ Ge’ez incantations gliding on the still morning air.
I left for the warm smell and hazy smoke of fresh-roasted coffee beans.
Some would say I went home.


He needs his fix.

Like the alcoholic in the smoky bar
Or the drug addict at the crack house,
He slinks off to the restaurants.
Birbire still stuck under his fingernails
He comes home drunk off of the flavors,
High and dizzy with memories.
When he kisses me goodnight
His clothes reek of spices.

He is forever addicted to Ethiopia.


Half a year has passed,
It is the last day of classes before the Winter Holiday.
My face is beaming, I am ecstatic.
I incessantly chirp,
“I’m going home tonight!”
An Ethiopian friend grins,
Looks at me hard, and says,
“Home? This is your home,”
He fervently jabs a finger at the ground.
I cannot tell whether or not he is kidding.
“Ethiopia is your home.”
He says this with passion.
And people are only ever half-joking.
I tell him that I am only half Ethiopian,
I have attended the same school for the past five years,
I have lived my entire life in Oakland, California.
I have only been in Addis for the past five months.
He does not say anything.


My father’s name “Haile” means power.
In America people butcher it:
Haley, Hail, Halle.
But it does not matter,
Because in Ethiopia his name recalls
His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, a great leader,
Haile Gebreselassie, one of the best track runners of all time.


Ethiopia gives me confidence and understanding:
I am three special bracelets that I wear on my left wrist everyday.
I am soft, smooth, arms that I love that other people love.
I am short, curly hair, a funny ear, stretch marks on my hips, and a weird lisp.
I am a fine food aficionado and a shopping addict.
I am music, movement, and knowledge.
I am loving too hard and suffering from the backlash.
I am bright colors that often feel dark.


I was intimate with Ethiopia:
I laughed at its absurdities
And suffered from its misfortunes,
Yet I still saw its undemanding beauty.
I saw it for what it is, I hated it for what it is, I loved it for what it is.

Now Addis seems so far away.
Ethiopia and California are two completely different worlds,
Separated not only by mountains and oceans and other peoples’ lives,
But by a distance that lives in my heart and my mind,
A knowledge that consumes that my body.
In Oakland, Ethiopia doesn’t seem real,
Simply another silly dream.
It’s funny how this happens,
How the past rusts and fades in my memories.
Or rather, it becomes faint whispers of something that has happened,
Maybe only something that could have happened.
When I reach out to grab them…
Well, whispers are fairly hard to catch.

And my father?
My father did not want to come to America.
Sometimes, late at night, I get up for a glass of water.
Walking past his nook, I see him sitting there,
Leaning on his desk, completely engrossed.
The lights are off, but the computer screen glows blue around him.
He devours pages of Ethiopian newspapers online,
But he especially loves the blogs:
Political blogs and personal journals,
Blogs by Ethiopian expats and European foreigners.
He craves those words,
Yearns for the images they tease into his mind
Of a past, of a home.
He searches them for hope of one day being able to return.
Silently suspended in his blue world,
Ethiopia haunts him.

But the other Ethiopian men sit together at Starbucks.
My father makes his cappuccinos at home.
His mornings are slow and lazy.
He yawns as he descends the stairs to the kitchen.
His house is modern, angular, glass,
And the morning mist recedes from the hills,
Exposing his million-dollar view.
He lounges in his bathrobe next to my mom.
They sip their cappuccinos and chat
Clients, family, dinner.
A kiss goodbye.
He showers, dresses, and drives off to work.
He will never return to Ethiopia.


Here’s to finding and redefining ourselves.


enaseb said...


Anonymous said...

... speechless, awed, deeply touched.

Anonymous said...

I randomly found your blog. Very well written. It seems that you're still in high school? I hope you follow your writing gift. It's beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Samra G;

As I read this, I am in my office at one in the morning looking at Ethiopian sites , blogs etc.

Upstairs, my kids are sleeping away while I ( just like your father )am trying to reconnect with HOME!

I wonder if most kids understand this forlorn feeling that never seems to diminish in intensity.....and so it goes!

Mama said...

8 years later, this and the other posts bring me to tears. Beautifully spoken. May you continue to follow your writing gift, as says Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Samra G, Ethiopian you are and once you breathed the air, the culture, the food, the people, you are baptized by a land that will forever be in your blood. You make us Ethiopians so proud you could pour out words that taste sweet and bitter in our minds and heart. You have used the power of the pen to touch many hearts. Thank you, Michael M