Subject: Note from an Arriviste…
Dear Ante Sew:
Watch it guy, I know higher-ups in the SELEDA secret underground machine, and I have had assurances that the slightest misbehavior on your part, and the Tor serawit will accompany you to Literary Purgatory. So, behave.
It’s 6:30 a.m., and I am in the office eyeing my in-box, which is cracking under a pile of work I have been avoiding for the past few days. It was a valiant effort on my part to come in this early to catch up on stuff, but here I am, instead, easily distracted… and nodding off. (The coffee stand downstairs does not open until 7:00 a.m., and despite having to put up with the curmudgeon barrista who once barked at me for telling her how to make an Americano, I have happily become one of her best customers.)
I had to work late yesterday… unexpectedly. Which meant that I had to cancel on dinner plans with some friends of mine who were going to an Ethiopian restaurant in town which has a very elaborate coffee ceremony… From what I hear, a very elaborate, sit-around-in-a-circle-and-breath-in-the-bean-fumes coffee ceremony.
I had to call and cancel, because, I told my friend, I had to go work at the Stadium. I was conscripted at the very last minute to help with a marketing function and assist in the corporate suite of the company I work for. After all, we can’t leave high-powered executives and clients to their own devices. What would happen if they got lost going to the bathroom? Who will be left to conduct billion-dollar mergers on the corporate jet? Besides, the edict came in from higher-ups, and, it would have been a serious CLM (Career Limiting Move) if I even blinked an eye in protest.
As I peevishly mouthed the words of my excuse to my friend, I realized, "Be Lideta Mariam! What has become of me?" I used to readily vilify those in the corporate world who, armed with Palm Pilot IIIs and several cell phones and pagers, would go off on bi-coastal meetings and conduct conference calls.
"You realize what you are saying," my friend demurred, his voice relishing the moment. "You are giving up an Ethiopian coffee ceremony for American baseball."
He allowed for the right pregnant pause just to make sure that his words had truly cut the right heart veins, and chiseled at my self-esteem. I stammered. I fuddled around for the right words.
"Yehewilih, ye-enjera neger hono eko new," I finally whimpered pretty pathetically. But make no bones about it, I was effectively put in my place!
After I hung up the phone I realized that I was once a free spirit. I had no permanent address. I traveled at will, lived in a farm house one summer, flirted with the idea of being a ski bum another winter, and held up various waitressing positions to support my spastic income as a freelance writer. I might have fed my soul with such a Bohemian existence, but it came at a price. My brother had to take on the brunt of responsibility when it came to family matters, as I was busy flittering in and out of the real world.
I guess there are paths we are all destined to take. Mine was a little circuitous, but I am finally home.
My coming around full circle actually dawned about a year ago at my brother’s wedding, where I realized just how far removed from the Ethiopian community I was. My family and a few close friends were the only things that connected me to the homeland.
During my brother’s wedding, after the church ceremony where the happy couple is serenaded in zayma, I realized I didn’t know any Amarigna wedding songs. But all of a sudden I felt this… giant, dormant emotion being awoken in me by the sight of my brother beaming down at his new wife. The love I had for him came bubbling to the forefront, from whence no one knows. "I am singing at this wedding," I heard myself think as if I had all the right in the world.
I proceeded to listen carefully as my cousin, prolific in everything, came up with the kind of giTim that would make even the staunchest wonde laTT’e want to run-not-walk down the aisle.
I practiced a little bit internally… "da… da.. Amoraw.. hum.. dum…nebo atinadefi…". I finally settled for the easiest song, and started to compile the names of the relatives I would mention.
After carefully planning all this in my mind, I seized the moment after one of my sister-in-law’s zemed had done a beautiful number. And so I went. Calling the names of relatives here and back home, clapping deliriously, and singing with the kind of fervor that I thought had long died in me after being ruthlessly cut down in fifth grade by a particularly vicious music teacher. There! I had done it! And it was all on videotape for posterity. L’il ol’me.
A little later, as I breathlessly recounted my trepidation-turned-euphoric triumph and savvy to my cousin, he subtly pointed out that instead of "Amoraw Besemay Si’yaYEH WaLE…" and then "Ye- [insert relative’s name] aydelehhim eyale", I was crooning "Amoraw ke semay siyayISH wale", followed by a righteous "Ye- [insert our side of the family relative’s name] aydeliSHIM eyale".
So, here is what must have gone through people’s mind:
- Wow! Such guts! She just publicly changed family allegiances, at a wedding no less, when the Ethiopian tradition of sending out friendly family fire is a tad more accented.
- From my sister-in-law’s family: "Who are all these people we don’t know this shenkorit just mentioned?"
- From my mother: "Maybe I should have taken my children to more weddings".
- From my extended family: "You know…she was dropped on the head a couple of times as a child."
- From my younger sister: "Hmmm. I don’t know what’s wrong with this scenario, but somethin’s verrry wrong. People are either sporting a look of horror or a look of resigned hopelessness."
- From my younger brothers: "OooKK. We’re outta here."
- From the policeman nearby, "OK, people. Move along. Move along. Nothin’ to see. Freak show is over."
And it’s all on videotape for posterity. But here is the clincher. My cousin looks intensely in my eyes, furrows his brows, grabs my elbow in sympathy, and says reassuringly, "Gin eko, lanchi mechase… Tiru new." Ohhhhhhhhh!
Besemeab! OK, fast forward to today…
Not that I am claiming to be a m’hur, n’uud, liQ, weg aTbaqi of any sort, but I can guarantee you, that day a year and some months ago seems like another lifetime. Like the prodigal son, I have come back to the fold, although I don’t see no feast being prepared in my honor. (Memo to myself: check the New Testament.)
My circle of friends now includes Ethiopians who have also recently had the same epiphany. We’ve set up a little dinner club/reading session, where we read Amharic books, and Ethiopian history. (We are even trying to do it in settings that don’t scream out yuppie ET’s… no more excursions on our friend’s boat… instead we take lawn clippings as a substitute for guzg’waz and disconnect the smoke detector to allow for the e’Tan to billow freely.)
We try to catch the tail end of a "quiet revolution" of young Ethiopians trying to connect to home without extremism or self-importance. We are trying to approach the subject of giving back to the community in practical ways… mentoring young Ethiopians, stepping up recruiting efforts at our respective workplaces, and focusing on practical ways to assist those in the Diaspora who are going through what we went through when we first landed in this country. I was greatly inspired by the very first Life Diarists in SELEDA, "Rahel", who had just finished sponsoring an Ethiopian student through his undergraduate studies. That is such a direct impact, and a few of us here are trying to set up a similar initiative.
Er.., listen, as a matter of interest, you might want to know that if I even think someone is listening I could very easily ende abujedi meterter. You need to tell me know when I spin off into galaxy X.
Well, no matter how much I have tikur b’ye stared at my in-box, it has failed to disappear. I must, reluctantly, go and earn my salary. Listen, if you even dare try to kutara-like debase my perfect l’il "Look at me, Ms. Happy Ethiopia" story, you will force me to unleash vocabulary on you that will wither the last few ICS-educated brain cells you’ve managed to retain. Don’t say you have not been warned.
I know you probably missed Jerry Springer to read this. (Do you do the "Go Jerry!" chant in Amharic also???") That was not a taunt, it was a question!
From: S’ewyew Blaten
Subject: Addis yemeTa ayn aweTa... the arriviste tells the permanent fixture... "Move over, I’m the one who always hangs here"... What gives???
Literary purgatory... yene emebet, I already own a VIP cubicle with my initials carved on the VIP desk smack in the heart of literary purgatory ... negarit eyasmetahu... be SELEDA Tor serawit tajibbe setet sil... past SELEDA-offenders racing down the purgatory aisle to genuflect at the hooves of my seggar beqlo... imagine the fan fare and the richit and the ‘enkwan dehna meTu Blaten’... and you will know why I am not worried...
Ehem... now wait a minute ... I think here’s where I’m supposed to break the neger and hateta and fake yekebere yegzer selamta... so, here goes the standard Ethiopian-letter-head greeting: ye s’may riqetun... ye kewakibt bizatun... no, mine is: ye Qera gimatun, ye Gebrel-meda sifatun, ye Geedo-washa tilqetun yahil endet kermeshal...? back to hateta....
6:30am… Let’s see... that’s RIGHT AFTER I de-clawed the lion, and de-horned the rhino and swirled the tiger by its tail and tossed it right down to entorotos... right before I awoke to the sound of what seemed like a rookie SELEDA serawit marching to a fast-beat drum... dilliq dilliq ... guwa! dilliq dilliq guwa! It takes a few seconds of rusty morning cerebral cycles to process the sound as that of my upstairs neighbor up and marching about in heavy-soled-boots... I tell ya, this thing is so loud and heavy, it sends scraps of paint peeling down from my ceiling right into my half-sealed eyes.
On some days, such starts my cranky toss and turn to unglue yedeqeqe gonayen from the warm sheets... a squinting-unbespecatacled-one-eyed peek makes out familiar figures from the fiery blur on the radio alarm... without this crucial move, and with the dingy cave lighting of my basement apartment, I wouldn’t have a freaking clue it were 2pm in the afternoon or 5am in the morning or my normal time to be up [and you thought I’d tell, huh?].
"What? No cocks to crow?... no cows to moo? no ye dur arrawit to usher in the morning with a roar...," were my reactions upon arrival at the US customs office armed without the radio alarm that’s since become the mercury for my mood-swing-o-meter.
In my book, the 6:30am traffic is meant by divine design only for leneggabet stray hyena limping back to the cave... or an ET man of the night staggering back from zigubign or for... [well, ‘ya recall the familiar saying back home, unfit for cyber consumption? Anchi! it’s ‘yene beeTe’ in PC and CHewa circles.]... But, I digress...
As you sit there wasted by friction in the cranial veins caused by lack of caffeine lubrication, lamenting the unwieldiness of your teshkerkary zuffan for brisk quarter-circle swings, and the miskin look of your overloaded in-box qirchat and the telalaki who seems more sluggish than ever, I want you to note in your diary of "newly found random Ethiopian wisdom" the fact that it’s in such states of caffeine-lessness that one ironically justifies opting for the stadium over a coffee ceremony by saying ‘ye enjera neger hono new’... a major double-CLM = a Clearly Logic-alba Mels + a Culturally Lacking Move. It should say so somewhere in the section of "Guided-tours through the Ethiopian custom and tradition" you received as part of the arriviste package.
Speaking of the arriviste, the green-carded and naturalized prodigal sons and daughters of Ethiopia seem to have stolen the show while the self-proclaimed perpetual abeshas with a regal swagger on their feet and a swollen pride in their heart are relegated to the stands. They are pushed off the alga, down to the medeb and from the medeb right down to the amed every time the prodigal children of Ethiopia resurface hugging their ski poles and dragging their sailing gear and freely flaunting their free-spiriting-minds while disrespecting our elders with ‘ante’ and ‘anchi’. While you sit at the gebeta armed with a fork and knife, and donning a napkin uniform, munching close-mouthed on the fat of the Tebbot that we wasted our youth herding out in the field, we sit in the guada and ogle even as we cut a piece of the be-berbere-enna-zeyt-yetashe-eddary-enjera and stash it into our cheeks and roll it side to side until we salivate enough to lubricate it down the esophagus slide.
Wasn’t it you, my arriviste friend, who couldn’t sit still on our first flight to the US, humming and fretting ‘enkwan wede Etyoppia limmelles, wede Etyoppia zoraem alshena’... and wasn’t it me who you kept snickering at, the fellow at the window seat, who silently sobbed shielding his face away with his hands, catching his last view of Addis as a tiny panoramic blur warped through tear droplets.
But, please let me not interrupt the feast... as you keep on chewing the fat of the lamb, I’ll just keep on chewing the fat... off line! Besides, I see credits rolling up on my TV screen... and guess who’s up next... yep! Jerrrrrrrrrry! ‘Heeeeed Jerry Heeeeeed!’... hmmmm... wait, THAT may be what you say to diablos... or is that ‘wegeed! ?’
With one foot out on the dejjaf, lemme tell ya three of the things I miss most about home that don’t betray my ebdet. I’ll save the rest for our next cowwwrespondence, by which time I will appropriately insist that you call me Guddu-Kassa:
... the smell of cooking in the guada, with a late morning sun slanting through a half open window.
... shadows cast by a golden mid afternoon sun on a dark-brown earth in the elementary school yard.
... the levitating sensation behind the thick veil of incense smoke and the fume of bunna roasting on a mankeshkesha accompanied by narrations of dramatic buda enna TenQuay anecdotes that my grandmother and her neighbor would kick back and forth for an hour with complete oblivion to a six-year-old’s intense joro-Tebeennet.
Aman yawulen eyalku echiralehu...