The Age of Innocents
Somewhere in the USA, 1997
We were kicking back in someone's living room, replete after a full Thanksgiving Day meal. Remnants of coffee and desert littered the table, half-full wine glasses traveled the air between table and smiling lips as the chatter grew progressively loud and boisterous. We were, as per usual, conducting a heated discussion about Ethiopian politics. Many of us were young and had been witness to stages of Ethiopian history our children will never fully comprehend. I for one, remember clearly wondering why we had to dismount our car and bow to a passing limousine. I remember too, the pretty lights that lit up the streets of Addis on the Emperor's 80th birthday. I remember thinking that every plane that flew overhead carried Jan Hoi to and from wherever he was going. I also recall my brother holding up a picture of Haile Selassé, torn from the back of one of his exercise books, and poking his finger through where the deposed emperor's mouth used to be. We were baby revolutionaries. We'd looked directly into the sunken eyes of starved, emaciated people, live and on stage at our Catholic-run school, brought there for the express purpose of making us hate the very class that had birthed us. Faced with that staged reality, how could we not. The people who hired the mogzit who ironed my private girls' school uniform and who made tight braids on my tender scalp, those same people who asked me everyday what I wanted for lunch, and said "Please don't lose your koda today," with affectionate resignation - those very same people who tucked me into bed and told me that the toks outside was gonna stay out there, well, they were apparently, directly or indirectly, responsible for the collapse of my universe. My people didn't own land, but my people's people did and, it was rumored, they had ChiseNas. Had we stayed in Ethiopia, we would have grown up hating our forebears for leaving us in the embers of the fire they had started.
Still, I didn't think my aunt had any room to argue.
My grandmother came of age during the Italian invasion. Though she was the daughter of a wealthy, educated Fitawrari, he had given her away to marriage before she knew what it was to be married. Her mother was dead, so, left with no protection from the mores, dictates and accountability-free acts of the only male in her life, she was married off twice more before she met and married my grandfather at the tender age of 14. Back then, I guess she was already considered akale meTen yederesech set lij. Then the Italians invaded and she, along with her twenty-something husband escaped across the border into Sudan. She wasn't ever formally educated, so she could barely write, but she could read well enough for m'Sehaf Qidus medgem. Between her and the rest of the world was Xiabiher and she lived much of her life isuun iyetemaSenech.
My mother was born in Diré Dewa and was raised in relatively peaceful Ethiopia, travelling freely between Addis, Nazret, Dembidolo, and Diré Dewa. She went to school with her father's blessing and her mother's tenacious determination backing her. No one gave her away for marriage before she could learn what went on between men and women. In fact, she would marry of her own free will, in her early twenties, after she has earned her diploma from Commerce College. She worked hard alongside her soon to be divorced husband to help him create his own consulting firm. They had beautiful, healthy children who were cared for primarily by their grandmother and by a whole slew of serateNoch, who would, in less than a decade, learn to show their resentment at being less than their employers. At about the same time, my mother would learn that she was, by definition, an adhari. And when we reared our young heads up in the Dergue era, we would be sure to let her know we resented the station of life into which we had been bred.
But before the revolution, before the hordes of young innocents who crowded the streets to march against their own parents, before ItyoPia tiQdem became the national mantra, before the first Abiyot dictionary became necessary - the people of my mother's and aunt's generation had had the peace of mind and time to learn how to twist with Chubby Checker, walk on speel tako Chama, and shed their Abesha Qemis for the bouffant and mini skirts worn by Liz Taylor and her ilk. Their fun and sunny memories were captured in full color and mounted in albums for posterity. And into this near picture-perfect world the generation of my particular class was introduced. It was not long before the picture began to burn and disintegrate before our very eyes.
I was born in Addis at a time when modernization was not a process but a way of life - indoor baNo bets, modern cars, telephones, high rises and mothers working outside the home. Even then I knew we were not strictly rich, although we were connected loosely to bluebloods. My mother was a working woman who owned and drove her own car to and from the office everyday, so we called our grandmother, Imama. We had a serateNa and a mogzit, even when we lived in this dilapidated rental in a less than reputable area of the city. My mother built a home and moved us to Bolé before the landlady's son, BeleTe, could corrupt my brother into a duriyé. That was a year into the revolution and we were becoming accustomed to and frightened of the news of toks and gidiya. When the passing vendor outside our fence called out: "Assa, Assa, Assa!!" we yelled back, "Ye mété missa, ye ghered abessa!!" and fell down in gales of laughter. Oh, those Adharis. They sure had it coming to them!
I remember my mother driving us back from school and urging us to hit the floor when shooting started. Memories of that is jumbled in with memories of the Italian man who was killed in his home after he had held off dozens of soldiers. He lived within earshot of our new home in Bolé so we were treated to the echoing sound effects of his government-sanctioned termination. No one was really clear on the why of the whole thing, only that it had happened. Some were even pleased. Rumors were that he had refused to let the Dergue army requisition his villa as a military facility. Others said that he'd refused to give up his money. Still others insisted that he had refused to leave Ethiopia. After the ordeal was over, my brothers regained their w'né enough to make gun-shot sounds before they were frowned down by my grandmother. They were making fun of death. She knew better.
The day we went to the photographer to get our passport pictures done, traffic was tied up a little more than usual. Then, suddenly, next to us, a real live enormous, gray tank rolled up on it's chained wheels and I waved up at the uniformed wotader who looked down at me from his twenty-something eyes and flexed his hand on the gun he held. He mouthed the evil word: Adhari and I recoiled into the backseat of my mother's car, into the comfort of the mogzit's arms and came face to face with my proscribed station in life. Adhari. To my seven year-old mind, it was the dirtiest word in Amharic. Still, we were able to escape while everyone else was made to face the music as neCH shibir turned slowly into Qey shibir. Largely because of our station in life, our middle class status, our lineage, some politically savvy marriages and the grace of God, we flew out of the country one quiet day while Ethiopia was going to war with Somalia. I had lived less than eight years in Ethiopia, much of which were spent fearing those who hated me because my mother owned a car, or because my father was rich, or because my aunt owned land, or because my uncle was Ras So-and-so. And when I was not worrying about being punished for being related to the wrong people at the wrong time, I was left to wonder if our mogzit was secretly spying on us for the Qebelé Cadré, and whether or not the soldiers who came into our home for fitesha would find the comedino CherQ, which my grandmother had hastily hidden because it bore the picture of the now dead Emperor.
Even on our last day, as we were waiting for our flight, we felt like marked people, for, posted on the front glass doors of the airport, were the names and photos of people wanted by the Dergue. Amongst them were the names of my cousins who had escaped into Kenya after their father had become one of the first 60 to be sacrificed to the hungry hordes of the revolution (their mother was in Kerchele with her daughters - their sisters - and there the women would spend all but 2 years of the Dergue's 17 years of terrorism). And we finally understood why we had to leave because one of the names of the wanted Adhari was our father's, a self-made man who was related to the wrong names.
Which brings us back to why I really didn't think my aunt had room to talk.
My aunt is a woman who came of age in peaceful Ethiopia. She came from a humble geTeré background and was eventually assisted by her aunt who lived in Addis. She went to school, earned her diploma and was even educated overseas. She came back home, got a teaching position, married, built a lovely home, hired serateNas and mogzits to help her raise her children and made enough money to send them to private schools when they came of age. Life was good there for a while. In retrospect, you really wouldn't put her into the Adhari category, but by appearance alone, she was defined as one. Well-fed, well-housed, well-educated, well-married, she was part of the burgeoning strata of the Ethiopian working middle-class that would soon be swallowed whole by the Abyot. Or else flee.
Which is how we all ended up talking politics over glasses of mild, aromatic Merlot on Thanksgiving Day in the US. No one really dissects the Dergue era; no one really argues over Meghistu and his cohorts. They came, they stayed, they destroyed. It was that simple. That complicated. That heinous. We are all survivors of an African holocaust because we got out before the scourge of the revolutionary firestorm made us all y'sat-i'rat. And we still suffer - some of us, anyway - from survivor's guilt. We are often overcome by the need to do something, anything and find ourselves looking for solutions in various dirigits, giving them our time, our money, and expecting miracles. I spent my very early twenties trying to decipher the Ethiopian dirigit alphabet soup. It took me several years before I stopped pretending I knew what they stood for, both literally and ideologically. I now confine myself to armchair politics, openly acknowledging that I'm equipped neither mentally nor financially to do what needs to be done - not that we've ever been able to figure out exactly what needs to be done. I now belong to a whole new, ever growing, class of émigrés dubbed the Ethiopian Diaspora who have scattered to the four corners of the globe and wait, largely in silence, for Ethiopia's rebirth. Now, when Ethiopians leave, the last thing they want to do is go back. Not like our parents, who, when they went abroad, simply couldn't wait to get back to mother Ethiopia.
Which is why I always find it strange when we skip over the still fresh wound of the Dergue era and attack the Haile Selassé regime, condemning him for letting us fall into the jaws of the Hyena. Now, don't get me wrong: I am not a monarchist. I do, however, strongly believe that the generation which enjoyed the longest period of prosperity and peace was that of our parents, those who were born shortly after the Italian occupation and came of age during aSé Haile Selassé's reign. Our grandparents were refugees themselves, or victims of the misguided Italian invasion. Our generation saw the slow death and destruction of what was a quickly - perhaps too quickly - modernizing nation. So, really, it was our parents' generation, that lucky generation which came of age somewhere between 1950 and 1960, that really reaped the benefits of a war well fought and won. They were raised in relative peace, without having to fear for their lives; educated if they had the money, assisted by the government if they did not; able to marry, have and raise children, build, live, prosper.... And it was those who came of political age sometime between 1960 and 1970, who didn't know better than to rush change in, instead of cultivating it, who marched against their own Adhari parents, and who watched as the world crumbled all around us, crushing some, killing others...destroying us all.
Which is how, on a lazy November evening, after an American Thanksgiving meal, we were all raucously disparaging one regime or the other, leading me to indite my mother and my aunt for belonging to the luckiest generation in Ethiopian history, one which had the bad graces to leave the rest of us wanting...full of regrets, recriminations...belonging to no one, but our fast-fading memories of a time that could have been and that may now never be.
I figure, they cannot condemn Menghistu and that era too much or too often because they were an integral part of it and continued discussions might lead to certain accountabilities they are not yet willing to face. I doubt that they will claim responsibility, ever, even those who know they have pulled the triggers of guns aimed mercilessly at the heart of a former best friend. So what is left to do? Blame someone else, anyone else. And the most likely candidate is the man who became emperor who reigned for 60 years and still let us fall into an abyss. Yeah, blame him, why not? And I will blame you. As I know my children will some day be born, grow up and blame me for letting go, when the best thing would have been to hold on for the love of a country they may never know, for the love of a country I cannot forget, nor fully siphon out of the marrow of my soul.
The next day, on my way to work, stopped briefly at a traffic light, I dug around my car to find a dollar to give to the weather-beaten white man who was holding up a sign, scrawled in black ink: Homeless. Please Help. God Bless!
Something clawed at the back of my throat - something like affinity with this man whom I couldn't possibly know - and I swallowed it down ruthlessly. He took my dollar, nodded quietly and moved on to the next car. And, released, I drove away. But to this day, his scrawled words still echo eerily in my life: Homeless. Please Help. God Bless!