Saturday, July 11, 2015
Gestures of Piety
Which translates roughly into: “Rather than the fitfit, the face.”
In transmitting this proverbial gem, my Amharic teacher sets an everyday scene, so familiar to the fabric of life in Ethiopia: a plate of firfir, or any food, and an invitation to eat.
Enebla, let’s eat! the kids at work say to me whenever they happen to have food at the center. Even the toddlers graciously try to feed me (anchi, bi! girl, eat!) crumbs at their lips, their tiny brown fingers clutching bread and waving in my face. The children at this center live on the streets of Addis, the babies being born to single mothers 24 years of age at the oldest. Most have left home for the Capital seeking economic opportunities.
Ne, bunna t’et’ash, come, drink coffee! a stranger will call out to me, seated along the road in rest after the lunch hour somewhere – a café, a souk, a doorstoop, a corner.
As I understand it, then, kefitfitu fitu, rather than the firfir the face, means that what is important is not the fact of the food, but the face as a gesture. The gesture is an invitation. It is an open face, one of welcoming, of sharing. Although it is the firfir, the fitfit, being shared, it is the fact that the fitfit is offered from one to another that matters. It is conduct, one’s mode of conduct with others that matters. By extending an invitation to another to sit down and share a meal, we appreciate being together rather than other. We gesture in generosity, in a mode of giving, recognizing our need to sustain ourselves, to nourish ourselves with the food and companionship that we offer, together.
And yet again, it’s not the gesture that is important, but the intention. Rather than the gesture of hospitality and goodwill, it is the sincerity apparent in the face, the eyes, the posture of the person with firfir before them. They offer the firfir in truth, and the genuine spirit is tangible in their demeanor, energetically. There are no strings attached. They give in gladness.
In general, I have been struck by these gestures of piety during my time in Addis Ababa. Sometimes they are explicitly religious. In the taxi, on the street, whenever passing a church, people will look and turn their bodies in the building’s direction, nodding their head and crossing themselves – the head, the heart, the left, the right – three times, for the Trinity.
Sometimes the church is not even visible. But the landscape of the city is dotted with such sacred spaces, and people know where they are: down that dirt road; up that cobblestoned hill; behind those trees. On my commute from home to work each day, I have learned that there are at least three churches. Though I can’t always see them, people’s bodies of devotion indicate their presence.
And whatever devotion looks like, or means, across the spectrum of Orthodoxy, varies. Some people, usually women, utter brief prayers under their breath as we pass a church in the taxivan and they cross themselves. Others simply turn their heads slightly and seem to nod a few times. And the once I took the Anbessa bus to Arat Kilo, the cheapest travel option in town, it seemed that everyone on board crossed themselves, whereas on some taxi rides no one even turns to look.
Such religious gestures of piety that I have witnessed have taken others shapes as well: the undulating symmetry of a row of women knelt in prayer outside of the mosque in Piassa; the rhythm of the sequence of prostrations at each door of the church in Arat Kilo, followed by their forehead and a kiss, their forehead and a kiss, their forehead and a kiss. I myself find these displays of devotion moving, profoundly touching, beautiful, but my friend A shakes his head not only in dismissal, but also in disapproval and dispute. “God is everywhere,” he says, which I think is exactly point.
For me these gestures of piety are not only religious, as such. They are evidenced in the greeting of an elder, when you stand, you bow slightly, and several times, as you extend your right hand to shake theirs, your left arm bent and your hand at your right elbow. And they are evidenced in greetings in general, the long-winded questioning after your interlocutor’s health, the health of each person in their family, praising to God, their health again and how they passed the night or the morning or the day, further praises, and so on… Amen, amen.
People will laugh and joke about such a process of greeting – not derisively, but in a playful good nature – and I find that even this self-reflexivity is a gesture of piety. For what I finally mean by this phrase is a quality of consciousness, a self-consciousness that is aware of the realm of the world upon one’s skin. This is a pure awareness, not weighted with fear or anger or resentment of the world, of society, of customs impinging upon one’s being. Not sullied with psychological conflict, it is a self-awareness free and open enough to laugh at its own self.
By this I don’t mean to idolize a so-called African communalism over and against a so-called Western individualism. I find that such a distinction, while it may have its truth, is too easy to make. Rather, what I mean to point to as valuable is a way of recognizing self and other.
For example, my Amharic teacher is Muslim, which is visible on her person, for she wears her religious identity in her dress. Every afternoon we have met since Ramadan commenced, the waitress at the café at which we are regulars, a small, dark-skinned woman with a sweet smile, asks my teacher: tsom endet newo? how is fasting? The simplicity of her question is what I like. Not Muslim herself, for sometimes the small cross she wears around her neck slips out from beneath the collar of her uniform, she asks simply, sincerely, with a lightness, tsom endet newo? A small gesture of piety, of concern and curiosity for another’s life, their well-being, their day-in, and their day-out.
Now I have taken to asking taxi drivers, tsom endet newo, a presumptuous question on my part. Not to assume that a taxi driver is Muslim, but to assume that they are indeed fasting, and to then take it upon myself to ask them how their fast is going. Religion is not discreet here, and taxis are plastered with religious bumper stickers. A sociological observation I have made is that I have yet to be in a taxivan with Muslim stickers. The minibuses are always covered with biblical quotes in Amharic and stickers of a fair-skinned Jesus. Only in contract taxis have I noticed calligraphic stickers in Arabic, or stickers in Amharic praising Allah. So I will ask: muslim nih? are you Muslim? And he will respond, nodding, smiling: awo. yes.
As is so often the case with stories, words, A gave me another interpretation of this saying, slightly different. He said that when you are approached by someone offering you fitfit with a sad face for having to share their food with you; or by someone with no fitfit but a smiling face and a happy posture; the latter is best.
I share the new saying I’ve learned with my friends at work over a tsom lunch[i]. Everyone is glad, and everyone is proud, expressing pleasure. And then, E, endlessly riffing on old jokes with a drawn face, deadpan, remarks soberly, ke-cake-u fitu. He swings his thumb a few times in the direction of G, who recently had a birthday but failed to follow tradition and bring cake to work. The lunch-room burst out laughing. And even G laughed, shyly, as he does.
[i] Tsom means ‘fasting’ in Amharic. The Ethiopian Orthodox Christian calendar observes regular fasting days on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. There are also longer periods of daily fasting, like the current period of 40 days following Fasika, Easter. Orthodox fasting food is vegan – no meat or other animal products, such as eggs and q’ibe butter. When fasting, some will also abstain from any food or drink, including water, until after 3 p.m. As there is a range of performance of religious observance, fasting food is not always prepared at my work place, or it is prepared especially, just as special meals are prepared for those who dislike pasta.