Friday, July 03, 2015

asunder, a city


Today, as with any other day, having paused in the afternoon bustle of Piassa to browse the book titles laid out for purchase, two young men passing by –

faranj nech.

ay, habesha nech.

they argue with one another, peering back over their shoulders at me as they walk on. If not used to it, at least no longer surprised, I just shake my head and laugh to myself in reply.


I am not a stranger here. I am an immigrant in my father’s land. Which, if we are honest, may still be his land, but is no longer his home. He left (t)his home long, long ago. 

At work, I learn about Gurage jokes, qe’ne, and apples from Arba Minch. I pick up Amharic, and start to recognize Tigrinya, Oromifa, and Somali. When I return from the tsegur bet with yekremt sheruba (“ewnet habesha nesh! betam yamral!”), everyone advises me to take a photo in habesha libs to send my dad. Occasionally, I sneak out with A from Ireland for a mid-morning shay ena bonbolino. He tells me about his research, and stories of the Troubles.

Dinner at the best tibs bet in town: Mebrat tefa. A long moment of darkness following the hum of power winding down, the generator kicks in. It roars in the background during our dimly lit dinner, and J, yeney de’ro gwadegna, wise as ever, is sometimes hard to hear. We sit close. The space of nine years does not exist. Talk of life, talk of dreams, talk of politics, talk of aging and being young. “Sometimes,” he says, “the scope of things can only be seen when looking back, not ahead.”

Talk of Addis, our Addis, this beautifully jarring city. Where and how we are respectively at home in it, why we have both come back. “Expats, who are actually immigrants…,” he says, and I am startled, jolted with pleasure to hear another acknowledge what I’ve been knowing. I confide in him my recent discomfort upon visiting the Alliance Fran├žaise and the British Council for the Addis Film Festival. They felt to me like spaces severed from the city, spaces seceded from the city, and in opposition to the city. Ignoring the city, ignorant of their surrounds, dreaming of lands elsewhere.

Entering such spaces to watch international documentary films stirred conflicted feelings in me. I was happy to leave the Alliance. In the brief twilight, the cobblestone street up to the main road, which leads to the mosque and on to Piassa, bathed in dim-blue, people passed by as if floating through the air with the evening call to prayer. I was in an Orientalist’s dream, when, a few moments later, the sight of a few young men running round the roundabout with mattresses wobbling high on their heads pulled me out of my reverie.

Ayyyy, Etyopiya…

Talk of religion. I tell him how confused people are when I tell them that I study religion. It’s as if religion isn’t for study, and certainly for someone like me, but is just part of life. What is “religion” after all? He tells me about his multi-religious upbringing, reading the Qu’ran and the Bible as a kid trying to have a conversation with the universe.

After dinner, J takes me to a favorite spot of his, in the hills above my aunt’s house, with a view of the city stretching to its limits, and beyond. To get perspective, he says, to see the city reduced to light. And dark, I now think. And with the silhouette of eucalyptus trees in the foreground, their leaves rustling hushedly in the midnight breeze, I think of the view of the Bay from the Eucalyptus-filled hills above my parents’ home, the perspective and the peace of mind that it has given me. The view of a place from above and on high, the order that appears from a distance, the beauty and simplicity of light…

That land has fed and filled and nourished me. And yet, after years among the White Pines, Hemlocks and Red Maples of Massachusetts, that view no longer represents my home. I am brown to the bone. Neither red nor blue, neither white nor black.

Ayyyy, Etyopiya… not faranj, and not habesha… both, somehow, neither and both.

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