Letter from Ethiopia - January 29, 2003

Tizibt Mezgebu

Dear Readers:

On a narrow street that winds from the old Mosvold building in Piazza to the St. George Church here in Addis Ababa, there is a popular coffee place that serves a fine fresh Mango juice along with a good collection of tasty pastries. Recently, on a rather unusually warm mid-day around the Timqet holiday, I had taken a friend to some jewelry shopping in the Piazza jewelry district. After the shopping, I decided to pick some new books and magazines from an old book store near the Ras Mekonnen Bridge on the way to Arat Kilo.  It was after this modest shopping that I walked to this small cafι to savor a few minutes of leisure and some good coffee along with a quick review of some of the books that I had picked.

Absorbed in my own small world of books and a jolting coffee, I hadn’t noticed the other customers enjoying sunshine on the verandah of this coffee place. It was only when I turned my head – more as an exercise than anything else – that I noticed a group of three young men dressed casually but very well sitting around a table only a few meters away from me. During the Gena and Timqet holidays, for us Addis Ababans, it is an easy exercise to tell whether a person is a visitor or local Ethiopian just by looking at how they are dressed and how they carry themselves in conversation and social places. Therefore, just after a glance I had concluded that these young men looked like visiting Ethiopians enjoying a pleasant but slightly warm day in this city of ours.

As I enjoyed my time flipping through the pages of some of the books, it was perhaps a small surprise when one of them pointed to a book in the middle of my pile and said rather abruptly but in a very shy voice: “Are you?”. That is all he asked assuming that somehow I understood what he meant. Eager to know what he thought I was, I said, “I am ..what?”.

“Bete Israel”, he answered as his friends suddenly got interested in the conversation.

Frankly, I was taken back and didn’t know whether these young men were being just men starting a small conversation or if they were actually interested in this rather unusual conversation. It took my mind literally minutes to look at the pile of books that I had just bought and realize that the title of one of them was perhaps what caught the attention of these men. A book by one Memhir Asres Yayeh entitled “Bete Israel Be-Ethiopia” was among the few books that I had picked thinking that it may be an interesting reading. It is very difficult these days to get a good Ethiopian book of some creative artistic work and one needs to be willing to look at topics of all sorts to get entertained and perhaps get educated as well. It is this book that has apparently caught their attention.

“No, I am not. But I am interested in this book”, I replied hoping that they will steal a glance to the big cross I wear around my neck and the wedding ring as well – just in case they got wrong ideas. “But are you guys bete-Israel? I asked. It was rather a natural response as everyone in Ethiopia knows there is no any particular facial feature that distinguishes one as a bete-Israel.

“We are. We are here on a visit for a few weeks. When we saw the book, we thought you were a bete-Israel as well and wanted to chat”, was their answer.

For almost half-an-hour, we talked and I was surprised to be reminded about the vast stories that Addis Ababa is carrying which go un-noticed. These young men – according to them - had left Ethiopia almost 10 years ago and had missed its natural beauty, the people and the food and were here on a short vacation. Two of them have actually studied in a university in Israel and have most of their family members in Israel. They narrated how the past few weeks in Gonder and Addis Ababa have been among the best times of their lives. They were particularly pleased that things were peaceful and the conflicts in their new homeland seemed so far away. I tried to explain that things were relative as only 2 kilometers away from where we were students were arrested at the university; but I am not sure if they heard me or tried to ignore my explanation. At any rate, we talked perhaps for about 30 minutes or so - they trying to understand my world of Addis Ababa and I trying to imagine what it felt like being a "bete-israel".

As I got up to catch a taxi to take me to the National Theatre area, I reminded my new found friends something like, “Wherever you go and whatever you do, do not forget Ethiopia.” They said they were going back to Israel in a few days and wished me also the best.

They laughed when I could not resist the temptation and said jokingly (I swear it was a joke), “So who among you is – Yegna sew be-demasqo?”

“May be all of us……” said the youngest one. I hoped he was joking. I was impressed, nonetheless, that they had read Mamo Widneh.

I later narrated the story to my husband who was more curious than me and in fact complained, "How come you meet all these interesting people? All I meet in my day of work is some of the sleeziest and laziest people the city has produced!"

Curiously enough, however, what transpired in the Ethiopia media right around that time is what inspired me to write you today's story. We were told that the Israeli foreign minister was in town and that after 10 years of indecision, both governments have finally agreed that the almost 10,000 bete-Israel (called Felasha-Mura) who had camped in Addis were now granted permission to immigrate to Israel. To tell you the truth, almost everyone I know in the city is very pleased that the suffering of these  people of ours was finally over and they get to go to the country of their choice. The rather contented life that the young bete-israel men I met a few days ago seems to support that. But from the public point of view, this was not considered a big news. Yes, we know that money will change hands - money that can not be traced. If Colonel Mengistu's story is an indication, then our prime minister and some people around him will naturally be suspected of being personally monetarily compensated. It is an ideal opportunity for a quick grab few government people will ignore.

Beyond the headlines and the public's suspicion of money changing hands, however, I am afraid there are bigger geopolitical issues that we Ethiopians have to worry about. Ethiopia lives in a dangerous neighborhood and to survive - in our long History we have come to realize that - we should depend on no one else but ourselves. Numerous times, we have been betrayed and left to hang out dry both by superpowers and small nations alike. The lesson, therefore, is to have a friendly relationship with all the players in our region and beyond. When necessary, we should also play all our political cards even if it involved playing one group of players against the other. I am not very well educated in this area, but it seems to me that this is what everyone else including the self-proclaimed civilizations of the Western World exercise routinely; rather adeptly and at times openly, some may argue.

I have some ideas on how we can accomplish some of this. For example, we all know that both our current president, Lt. Girma and the previous president Dr. Negasso Gidada have some health issues and they have preferred to go to Saudi Arabia for treatment.  In fact, the old man - Lt. Girma goes to Saudi Arabia almost every six months for medical check-up. Now, I think this is an opportunity where we could introduce some kind of balance and symmetry in our foreign relationships as it relates to the Arab nations and Israel. I suggest that, to achieve a balance, every time we send President Girma to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, we should consider requiring Prime Minister Meles to travel to Israel for a compulsory medical check-up. The prime minister may be fit - thanks to his exercise on the ground tennis court - but he will have to realize that part of his duty is also to promote Ethiopia's interest, voluntarily or otherwise. The concept of promoting Ethiopia's interest may be very difficult to swallow for the PM, my readers may argue, but he has to be assured that he will not be required to make stopovers in some sea-ports like Assab- geographical locations he loathes. I am sure the Israelis will respect our gesture and treat our PM with the utmost care. Frankly, we will not be worried if they practice some procedures that may endanger his well-being as long as they keep it quiet. But at least, the whole world will see that we are friends with everyone.

We have also heard that some of our African brothers and sisters are not comfortable to see fellow black people such as the "bet-Israel' leave the continent through a claim that they actually originated from the Middle East. For us Ethiopians, this is an extremely serious issue that we have to nip in the bud before it threatens the unique position that our country has held in the minds and hearts of the African continent and beyond. I am certain that my readers will remember that when Bob Marley sings of Zion and Exodus his mind, heart and imagination are about a place on the Horn of Africa and no where else. So, how do we handle this sensitive issue? The idea I would like to put forward is - once again - along the suggestions of maintaining balance and symmetry. Due to our unique locations on the eastern gates of Africa, over the past several thousands of years, Ethiopia has entertained migrations from Arabia, the Somali plains and the Bantu regions of present day Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. If people complain that we have been one-sided in encouraging reverse-migration of Ethiopians of Israel origin, then we should allow a similar magnitude of reverse-migration of Ethiopians of Arabic origin back to Arabia. For example, Yemen and Saudi Arabia could be considered as potential destinations for our reverse-migrants. Many years ago, we were told that our PM had reportedly claimed a Yemeni origin. If this allegation is true, then our PM can set a trend by leading a reverse-migration of a token say 5000 Ethiopians back to Yemen. I think the PM will be forever remembered for this voluntary departure.

Well, my readers, I suppose you get the idea. I wish the three young men I met a fortnight ago all the best and hope that they will always remember Ethiopia.

be-selam qoyu

Tizibt Mezgebu (Saris, Addis Ababa)

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