From: Misrate Kristos
Subject: My Adwa
Hola Salem !
My sincerest apologies for the length of this. If I understand SELEDA’s MO correctly, last letter. I must confess I received messages to avoid Haile's film as well. I take wicked delight not only in saying I ignored them but also challenged the messenger's reasoning. (Yes I am a bad, bad person.)
I am glad I saw the film. It would have been silly not to have gone and decided for myself what was good or bad about it. I would hate to think of myself as "hard wired" in such things. Besides I would have missed the valuable opportunity to sanctimoniously walk on water and criticize.
Your #3 found me agreeably returned from the Thanksgiving holiday and a diet of Tej and Turkey(plagiarized rather shamelessly from our editor, I lack originality, bury me)! I am partial to Shiro and Kik (especially AterKik the way they make it in Wember Mariam at the foot of Mount ZiqWala. Yummy! "Gedam asgebugn!" biye neber. After they saw the five helpings of Ater Kik I was downing, I think they realized my minena was more running towards the Kik than leaving the world behind. They and kicked me out.
I do love my uncle’s paintings and poetry, and get lost in the richness of his skills: the mixing of allegory with pigment to lay bare dimensional existence and present time, space and other hitherto undiscovered realms.
One only has to close one's eyes at an Ethiopian Orthodox service to listen to the voices of the priests as they weave in and out like shemane, weaving the fabric of our being; the very same fabric Atse Menelik and his Nobles clothed themselves in the morning of the battle of Adwa.
Marvel too at Ato TekleTsadik Mekuria's and Dedjazmatch Zewde Gabreselassie's detailed and factual accounts preserving our history, accounting both for the things we can admire and the things we can improve on. I have personally been also privileged in having a father who lived to inspire. The abstract is not just "art" for Ethiopians, but in our lives, our Injera, the shemma, the zimare, the complicated debating formulae, the customs, the sem-inna-worq. It is in the shadow of such giants and in the face of cultural and historical splendor of millennia that any Ethiopian or Ethiopian-American who does not defer or balance his western inculcated "interpretive" hubris with our tradition invites my sympathy.
I was at the Adwa premire, and I thought I would share my impressions...
I recognized amongst those who stood up to honor the memory of their forefathers, not the strange unfamiliar chanting, the children of those who fought on those far away battlefields. It struck me as the first time ever the descendants of all those great men and women were under the same roof. Last time we were all together under the same roof, we brought Roman Legions to their knees. What will we do next. Haile's Adwa though was far from any expectations I could have for it.
Adwa is no abstract matter: it is a living being, its life's blood, the blood of those that gave up their lives for it. If one can not do the best possible job it would behoove one to wait. Did Haile expend the resources or energy he expended on "Sankofa"? Was that more deserving ?
Overall, I felt Haile presumes both Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians are as unaware of Adwa as his generation. It is nice that "Ya Tewlid", or at least Haile, is finally re-evaluating its heritage. By and large, though, the generations assumptive growing-up in the Ethiopia Haile's generation crafted, learned their way was not ours and choosing the generation prior to their as our example learned our history and forged our own path.
The role of Itege Taytu was done very little justice, she was relegated to the role of suggesting the Mekelle strategy and firing her own cannon.
Empress Taytu was not only the reason for the abrogation of the treaty of Wuchale, but also the fire in the normally patient and kindly Atse's warlike stance and not only his stalwart adviser, but the conqueror of Mekelle, which had resisted, charge after charge of the Imperial Army during the first battle. In actual fact, the strategy of the Imperial Army undergoes a radical transformation after the second successful Battle and subsequent surrender of Mekelle.
The Imperial Army pursued Taitu's wise strategy of encircling and isolating the Italians. If the waters of the Mereb had cooperated, the history of Adwa would have been of Italian defeat in the whole of East Africa. Her Majesty had her own cannoneers comprising of 6 Hotchkiss cannons. For the first battle of Mekelle she commanded her own Army but for the second she was the overall Abegaz of the campaign.
Atse Menelik proved not only a capable monarch but also a very wise one, in his willingness for his consort to contribute and even outshine him in the areas of her obvious strengths.
Taytu commanded the Covenant of Mary be carriedout into battle at Adwa and she along with the priests and her troop not only protected it but were also in the vanguard.
While I enjoyed listening to the Literati that narrated parts of the story, the presence and the reason for importance given to Professor Endreas Eshete really escaped me. Endreas is a philosopher not in any way an authority on Ethiopian history.
His being featured was an insult to myself and those others whose grandfathers fought on that field and others with a man that insulted their memory and their names in his every utterings since 1991. Sad this gentleman is being helped "Sankofate" albeit at our expense. That underscores better than most things what I meant about Adwa being a living being. Endrea’s baleful words of yesteryear in calling our grandfathers and Atse Menelik names like "Chauvnist" belie his "Adwa is an African victory".
"My" Adwa is the Adwa on the battlefield that day, if Haile’s is the one that goes through artistic and interpretive convulsions in order to embrace its detractors why is anyone surprised I said what I said. It would sadden me even more if Ato Haile or others saw my comments as maltreatment of his effort. One thing I, and others of my generation, perhaps to date the only thing, learned from Haile's is not to make the mistakes they made.
I have tried to be true to the words, "..Life demands carefully selected gifts of ourselves to others...", especially in regards to our beloved communities. I am also, however ever mindful that we are, in the words of a noteworthy older friend, "...the generation who have inherited nothing, who have in fact survived the destruction of everything, and from whom in turn, everything will be expected...". In regards to my comments on Haile's film, though you flatter me in thinking me an "art critic", my outlook should have little weight save as that of an individual. I had already stipulated to as much earlier, though little anticipating such attention.. I lack, as you noted, the rigorous grounding in Art History though I hold my own as an amateur historian. If I as an amateur can point these out, imagine how much Ato Tekle Tsadik would have been able to point out had he given them more screen time.
It was with the above in mind that I penned a very carefully thought-out piece after discarding two others before and making a point of qualifying my contribution as a personal one, one of many to come, I imagine. If Ato Haile sees what I wrote more for what it isn't than what it is, any good that could come from it (for him) will be lost and he will have proven, to me at least, that he is as good an Africanist as he was a Garibaldisti.
In an interview with Ethioguide.com, Haile turns the blame to the Peace Corps for the disconnect he felt growing up. I don't agree with his assignment of blame.. Americans are not our gatekeepers, we are. The responsibility of balancing what was taught with what he knew and learning more was Haile's. Mean spirited Marxist lads of the Ethiopian, Russian, French, Palestinian, Cuban, Chinese, Vietnamese and American stripe failed to make countless other Ethiopian lads abandon their heritage. We read the books on Marx because we had to, "Teyik: Termamaj Mezgebe Kalat" was essential for scholastic survival, but we fulfilled our responsibility to vet that with the Fetha Negest, Sinkisar and Abu-Shahir. We were filled with wonder at our 800-year-old "laws" and detailed religious examination and discussion of the mysteries of faith, detailed study of the skies in the ancient charts of the rare "Abu-Shahir".
We read tracts to answer questions as to Che Guevara's life and times, Mao's Cultural Revolution. But we read Chris Sandford's, "The Lion of Judah Hath Prevailed", "Tikur Anbessa", Mockler's "Haile Selassie's War to find reference to find where we had been and what we had accomplished. Our entertainment was "Ye Fiyel WeTeTe" and movies in which the Soviets always won the War, we sought out, "Tobia", and the "Jano Menzuma" of Sheikh Hussein Gibril and zimare in the mother Church about timeless compassion, mercy and the need for reflection and circumspection to keep us on an even keel.
In all these, we came away humbled and resolved to do more for, not dismiss, our ancient culture. Am I wrong in wondering how Haile failed to be exposed to at least some of what I and other youngsters were exposed to, isn't what he is saying akin to running in the rain while avoiding all the raindrops ?
I believe that Ethiopians need to strive both as individuals and as a community both here and at home. That the essential qualities of gibre gebinet i.e. melkam sine migbar, halafinet, fitih wedadinet, beIras metemamen, amagn ina, tamaGninet, iwnetegnanet, manifest themselves at the gileseb, mahbereseb, hibreteseb, bihereseb and hagereseb levels valuing these tenets and others our forefathers raised us in would help us move forward. In as much as we teach each and every child ".. first and foremost be a good person, then be a good Ethiopian..."(corny but sincere).
I am glad as you noted that we are seeing an artistic revival amongst our people. We are an artistic, idealistic people. You only have to look at the churches of Lalibela, the Palaces in Gondar, Stelae of Axum and the temple/church at Yeha, the burial monuments in Arusi to realize how artistic we are.
As you well know, there has not been much time to reflect on this and I fear I must close this and send it to you if you are to read and respond by tomorrow.
I hope this finds you well.
Subject: I Have an Adwa, too.
After the hullabaloo of Thanksgiving, I am glad to get back to normal life and to finishing these entries. From your last entry, I sense a serious disenchantment with the people of my generation and our disconnection with our history. I certainly understand it, given that we did cause a lot of pain and suffering which is not over yet. But, if I may speak for myself, (and I am sure I am sticking the proverbial foot in my mouth or opening Pandora's Box - take your pick) I think we were and still are merely a product of our time, a time of grand visions and mass movements, a time when we thought we were makers of history. Delusional, perhaps. Unpatriotic, never!
I read your "personal take" of "Adwa: An African Victory" with great interest and awe at your knowledge of the details of that history. I am envious. I grew up with snippets about Adwa and more about WWII in which my immediate family was involved and directly affected. I think our biggest tragedy is that the schools we went to never taught us Ethiopian history until we arrived in college at which time many of us left for elsewhere. So the unfortunate ones whose families did not insist on filling us with a good dose of our history never got it from school!
You should be proud that you had the good fortune to have the breadth of knowledge of the participants as well as to continue to be motivated enough to keep up with this profoundly important and intricately detailed history.
That said, I am encouraged to see that you spent a good many words to critique Adwa, its director and the presentation in D.C. I think all interested individuals who have seen this film should express their opinions about it since we all have personal investment in how this story is told.
For me, it was the event of the century to see the premiere at the Lincoln Theatre that Saturday night. The preciousness of the sight of hundreds of Ethiopians, other Africans, African Americans and many friends of Ethiopia pouring into the theatre, selling out the 1200-seat may not be easily graspable. It is a victory for the organizers, for Ethiopian and African filmmakers.
Sharing this event with such a large number of Ethiopians was another milestone for me. I have never before sat in such a majestic theatre outside of Ethiopia, with a packed Ethiopian audience, to witness the excitement of the victory of Adwa on film. That in itself was enough of a reward. Not only did I feel great about being an Ethiopian, I felt proud to be an African strutting my proud history smack in the center of the world's most racist nation. For me, the atmosphere was intoxicating.
I also learned a great deal about how inclusiveness can work. It won the war in Adwa. I find it a lot more compelling than the current trend of divisiveness. Adwa showed us the example that 'dirr biyabir, anbessa yassir.' Adwa the film also strived to show this example. Much time was spent on who participated, and how, from around the nation.
Again, I am sure that not everyone of note may have been mentioned. But enough people from all around were included, representing the true magnificence of the unified resistance resulting in the glorious victory. I think that was a remarkable achievement in a documentary. Ethiopia's struggle against colonization is not unique. There were other struggles against colonial efforts all over the African continent. The victory is unique and the only reason Ethiopia was able to win its war was because of the brilliance of Taitu's and Menelik's success in rallying the various groups toward one goal.
That said, I want to offer a few words about your take on this film. You have written with great fervor and included so much information that I feel overwhelmed (my perennial lament!) with lack of historical expertise to address most of it. What I will try to do is to comment, as a filmmaker, about how I view your criticism.
First is that I don't think that the film was made just for Ethiopian audiences. We have to be realistic with this business. I will include myself as I speak about how we who live here make films and who we think are our audiences. The mere fact that we are making the films here, regardless of where they are shot, demands that we make them accessible to audiences beyond Ethiopians. We get funding, not from Ethiopians, but from foundations and television interests that require us to make films that will appeal to diverse audiences. This could mean that we have to paint with broad strokes. But sometimes it is just not possible to present intricate details of history in a documentary film designed to be consumed by a variety of audiences.
Your disappointment with the lack of detail in Adwa is a lament, which always accompanies documentary film's endeavor to "write" history. As someone who has attempted to subdue the story of the Red Terror into an hour and found how unwieldy history can be (especially ones that were not televised!! 1896, no movie cameras, no news crews!!), I can tell you that my sympathies are squarely with Haile.
To begin with, let us not forget that this is the first truly professional effort to capture the experience of Adwa on film. Hopefully, it will not be the last. Unless you want to sit and watch hours of "talking heads" droning on, the kind of detail which you wish to have seen in Adwa the film could not have been achieved in any one hour and half film. Perhaps in a series, such as the 10-hour long "New York" which cost millions of dollars and whose producers had access to a staggering amount of visual material, can one hope to approximate what you wish to see. To tell you the truth, the minutiae of that series proved to be a real impediment to my viewing pleasure. Historical detail is not something that film does best and one that audiences will remember most. Without compelling visuals, there is no film. As it was, the Adwa we saw suffered severely from lack of visual variety. I think Haile did admirably with what he was able to assemble. How many times can one see the same mountains, the same photographs, the same paintings, etc?
I share in your criticism of how Empress Taitu was insufficiently portrayed. In some ways, I see the difficulty of representing such a larger-than-life but long dead figure, primarily because there are so few images of her available. She is one major victim of our masculinist historical view. Until Chris Prouty published "Empress Taitu and Menelik II", the only book about Empress Taitu that I knew of was that little 101 page book, "Taitu Bitul" (6 1/2" X 4 1/2") by Kegnazmach Tadesse Zewolde. If others were around, I don't know about them. A few years ago, some friends in Addis who founded "SELMA", an advertising and video production company, were making a short documentary about Empress Taitu and I was privy to their struggle to find visuals with which to tell her story. So, part of the blame for her marginalization belongs to all of us. And Haile is a product of this history. But I also second the gentleman who asked Haile why he neglected to include women in the interviews. If I were to make a film about this history, I would do it from Taitu's point of view.
On the point of imposing one's ideology on any work, whether one makes films or writes books, I believe that there is no getting away from it. There is no escaping from ones own point of view. In fact, the strongest texts, whether film or plays or even books, are those that do not pretend to be objective, or try to hide behind the facade of objectivity, because, by now, I hope that everyone has been disabused of the notion that objectivity is possible.
There are facts, but facts are subject to interpretation. As long as the interpretation does not alter the basic facts, I am not disturbed by how they are seen from many different vantagepoints. The brilliant strategists, Taitu and Menelik, with the help of thousands of patriots, defeated a mighty European power and preserved the sovereignty of our nation. That is their legacy. It is not that the details are unimportant. Depending on who you are, the scale of their importance will vary. But their presentation can be arranged in many different ways, multi-layered and multi-faceted so that audiences coming in with varying levels of knowledge of this history can access it from where they are. Also, films like these are not made to replace books, but to create enough excitement in the subject so that people will want to go and read for more information. Films cannot, and should never be allowed to replace books. So, my brother, what I will say to you is that you should seriously embark on the project of writing your personal take on this history. Judging from the glimpse you have given me, you seem quite well poised to do it.
As for the choices Haile made for his interview subjects, I was quite impressed by the variety of the "griots" who appeared in the film, including the everyday people they met on their way to Adwa, as well as the experts such as Ato Tekle Tsadik Mekuria, Merigeta Alemu, Fitawrari Gebre Hiwot. I found their oral recounting as well as researched histories enriching and their presence in the film compelling. I did feel that Andreas was given too much screen time, not necessarily because he is not known as a historian, but because he broke the hold of the Amharic language which had me under its spell. But I think his contribution toward contextualizing the global importance of Adwa was very important and it gave me a sense of pride that it wasn't just Ethiopians who celebrate this glory. I think he spoke eloquently on this subject and I particularly enjoyed his comment on how even the recently conquered members from the south enthusiastically rose to defend the nation. I do have my sympathies with Andreas about choosing English to express himself. I find that my Amharic fails me when I have to discuss serious subjects extemporaneously and I catch myself borrowing so many English words that it would be better to use English. As the bible says, let the one without sin throw the first stone (there goes my religious upbringing!)
Finally, a few words about opening with a West African ceremony: Initially, I was puzzled as well about why Haile chose to employ a "foreign" ritual to open an Ethiopian event. Then I thought, okay, let's say that he used an Orthodox priest to mebarek, then he would have to either invite the Muslim Imam, the Oromo Irecha, etc. and/or offend this group or that by whatever choice he would have made. Or, we would spend a couple of hours just engaging in a politically correct maneuvers. The West African ritual comes off as a good way of avoiding this madness as well as a way of being expansive. And why not? This ritual is African, we are African and it doesn't take one iota from the Ethiopianness of the event. It was an African victory and as we all know now Africans were also made very proud by it.
Well, it has been an interesting trip and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I have. Wishing you a very happy holiday season, I remain yours in the struggle.