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Bridging the Intellectual Gap

In a book review article authored by Dr. Bereket Habteselasse and published in on August 11, 2017, Dr. Bereket concludes his book review with the following appeal:

“I also issue a personal appeal to Eritrean scholars, particularly Muslim Eritreans, to write biographies of Ibrahim Sultan Ali, Abdulkadir Kebire, Idris Awate and other great leaders who, like Woldeab, led the fight for our independence. In case some have done the job in Arabic, then we need these translated into English.”

Dr. Bereket’s appeal, in my understanding, isn’t a call for Muslims and Christians to write their own history, rather it is a call to all Eritrean intellectuals of all stripes to share their knowledge and to contribute towards the development of an inclusive and broad-based Eritrean history. Further, his appeal, perhaps, is a partial recognition of an intellectual gap that exists within the Eritrean intellectual community. Most of the literature written by early Eritrean writers are either written in Arabic or Tigrinya and few in English. Authors naturally write in the languages of their education and reference, mostly, sources authored in languages of their familiarity. Referential limitations can easily be observed by surveying the bibliography of the many books written in any of these three languages on Eritrea. This limitation has unfortunately created an intellectual gap, with some negative intellectual outcomes. Limitation of scope and the emergence of “intellectual enclaves” that perpetuates certain myths are some of the evident negative outcomes.

This intellectual gap could possibly be traced back to the early days of the birth of Eritrean national discourse. In those early days, most of the Muslim intellectuals received their education either in countries such as Sudan or Egypt or local traditional Quranic and Arabic learning institutions. Similarly, many Christian intellectuals received their education in European missionary schools or local church-based learning institutions. With the influx of Eritreans to neighboring countries, thousands were enrolled in various universities in Arab countries while many others were enrolled in Addis Ababa or Western universities. These graduates naturally produced their publications in the languages of their education, leading to a widening gap between the two groups of intellectuals.

Within the early Eritrean nationalist camp, the articles of intellectuals such as Woldeab Weldemarian and others in Semunaweyt Gazetta (Eritrean Weekly News) or Hanti Eritrea (one Eritrea) were mostly read by Tigrinya speaking intellectuals while on the other hand the writings of intellectuals such as Yassin Batouq in Sawt Al-Rabitta (Voice of the league) were mostly read by Arabic speaking intellectuals. Until today that deficiency continues, even among contemporary writers who in some ways fail to provide a comprehensive view of Eritrean history due to limitations of language and reference. Dr. Joseph L. Venosa, noted that deficiency when he observed in his book: Paths toward the Nation, Pg. 21

“With few exceptions, the Muslim league’s publications and related literature have remained almost completely neglected in much of the scholarship. This neglect has obscured the organizations ideological and political relevance during the period in question”

The league was a major player in contemporary Eritrean history, most of its publications were in Arabic. Failing to reference its large sum of publications and documents would certainly be a major gap in studying Eritrean history.

Within our contemporary context, there are many valuable writings in all of the three languages and failing to cross-reference them has created in many cases a one-sided view of history. The Arabic writings of authors such as Nawd, Sabe, Alyous, Abubaker, Turki, Jalaladeen, Azaz and others, as well the literary works of Ahmed Saad, Haji Jaber, Sekab, and Madani remain mostly confined to the Arabic speaking intellectuals. Similarly, the writings of Dawit Mesfin, B.Habteselasse, Tesfazion Medhanie, Alemsegede, H. Tedla Bairu, Tekeste Negash, Ghirmai Negash and others remain mostly confined to Tigrinya and English speaking intellectuals.

It is true that intellectual gaps are not created by language limitations only, there are many other factors as well. Sectarian and political affiliations are also important factors. These type of gaps are, however, intentional. Intellectuals of these sorts, shut their minds to other perspectives, selectively reference what fits their pre-conceived sectarian and political sentiments and choose to think within the confines of their own partisan enclaves. Gaps of this nature are difficult to erase; the purpose of this article, however, is not to address this type of self-imposed “gaps”, rather it is only intended to address the unintentional gap that emanates from language and familiarity limitations.

There is no doubt that the intellectual output of Eritrean writers is on the rise in all of the 3 main languages; Arabic, Tigrinya, and English. But unfortunately, the readership of these books seems to be limited in scope. Recently, the valuable book of Almseged “Ainefelale” was translated to Arabic and I believe it has provided a perspective on Eritrean history that wasn’t readily available for Arabic readers. Translating his following books from Tigrinya to Arabic will certainly add great value to a broader understanding of Eritrean history. A new book was recently published by Dr. Idris Abubaker in Arabic* where he provides historical analysis on the Islamist political movement in Eritrea. The book is a valuable resource for understanding one of the key trends in Eritrea and the role it played in shaping current reality. It is a book that would help create a better forum for dialogue and meaningful exchange, but its readership remains limited to Arabic speakers. Another valuable resource is the book of Ghirmai Negash, A history of Tigrinya Literature. This book read along with Saeed Nawd and Osman Abubaker’s books on the deep roots of Arabic language in Eritrea would certainly help in addressing language issues in a more factual and objective way. But again readership of these books remain limited within certain spheres.

As noted by Dr. Bereket, perhaps it is time to make concerted efforts to translate key books on Eritrea across languages. A commendable effort was undertaken under Osman Sabe’s leadership in the 70s and 80s where a good number of Italian and English books were translated to Arabic, such as Eritrea a Colony in Transition by Trevaskis and many others. This effort, however, was short-lived. Certainly, references are not limited to what Eritreans have written; there are many classical writing on Eritrea in Arabic, Turkish, Italian, Amharic etc. The more these resources are available in common languages the better.

As the Arabic saying goes, a person is a foe of what he is ignorant of. To create a healthy dialogue, a better appreciation of opposing viewpoints, to combat intellectual phobias and create common grounds these “intellectual enclaves” need to be dismantled. Many of the issues that seem to be contentious can easily be addressed with better and more inclusive information. “Seek to understand before you seek to be understood” is one Covey’s seven dictums of highly successful people. Better informed readers and writer are keys to building a bridge of understanding and dismantling intellectual enclave.

* Book title: الحركة الإسلامية الإرترية – ((1973 – 2012

About Ismael Ibraheem Al-Mukhtar

Ismael Al-Mukhtar is a scholar, a mentor, and and Eritrean writer. He lives in Canada

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  • Mez

    Good day Hope,

    When one sees this topic from another angle, it looks to be an entitlement request ( i/ or my community shall get this or that…) rather than a national language problem or challenge.


  • Beyan

    merHaba Hope,

    You put too much hope on me Hope. I may come across in the optics as such, but here is where you got me wrong. My Arabic is limited to the spoken version. On the written word of Arabic, even severely limited. I can name several from awatawyan who can capably navigate these three languages in addition to Tigrayit. Suffice it to say, however, I will certainly try, trying however won’t cut it for what the AT has in mind. I can certainly play a role in advancing such an idea as bridging the gap.

    As I was putting the final touch on my analysis of Dr. Ghirmai and Dr. Awet’s book to have it posted here, to my delight the piece in question popped up leaving me too excited to contain myself. So, why not start the conversation here and now. At any rate, with the new optics capability that awate has now, where the visual and the audio can become part and parcel of this august virtual space, I conceive of there being a bi-weekly or weekly audio/visual program.

    A team can be comprised of individuals who can navigate the three languages such as Saleh Gadi, Dr. Khaled Beshir, Dr. Mohammed Kheir, Zein Shokai, Dr. Kemal Ibrahim, Ustaz Ismael Mukhtar, Sheikh Yassir Ibrahim Fazaga, and infinitely more who can help in the bridging of the gap. Notice I have not mentioned Saleh Younis whose Arabic capacity I am not sure of, whether he falls in my category than the above ones, but, there is no mistaking it, he will be one huge elixir that would get this intellectual ballgame rolling – The same goes for Ismail AA and Mahmoud Saleh. Not to belabor and repeat the obvious, I have not mentioned any Tigrinya and English fluent individuals, because, to be honest about it, there is a surplus in this regard that we would have no problem finding people who can play critical role in moving this forward. The limitation rests in those who can bring the Arabic speaking crowd into the fold so we may begin to talk to one another instead of past one another.

    Incidentally, since we are talking about language and books and the intellectual gap thereof, well, here is another individual who goes by a pen-name Peace who may know the three languages, but I don’t know for sure since I only him through the written word in this virtual space. But in a different thread last weekend he said the following that I think is worth copying and pasting here:

    “…By the grace of Allah I had many good friends, but with time we were separated as we pursued better opportunities in life. One friend, however, stayed with me every where I went; his name is a “book”! If you haven’t made a friendship with this companion, I encourage you to do it now. Here are few suggestion on how to make the best of this friendship:
    “1- Fiction vs real: fiction books are like the spices of the food, real books are the meat of the food. Spices make food taste nice, but you can’t survive on them. Read fiction intermitantly to relax you mind, but don’t make them your main reading.
    “2- Core vs analytical: core books provide you with core knowledge and bare facts, analytical books take core facts and dissect them. Core without analysis is like uncooked raw food; analytics without core is like a dish cooked with no food in it. Both types of reading are important.
    “3- Acedemic vs activist: Acdemic writing are calm and evidential; activist writing are passionate and full of hype. Acedemic readings talk to your mind, activist reading talk your emotions. You are both and you need both.
    “What you read will shape your mind and your outlook. The best way to read is to balance your reading and be be consistent. – Sheikh Ismael Mukhtar”

    • Mez

      Dear Beyan,

      1) Making litrature available on a digital medium to lend itself ready for “Google translator” may help a lot; at least as the first iteration of translation. Especially, from Arabic to English–both ways. I read a lot of Middle eastern news this way. Some times the translation is “off the hook”, but it helps a lot.
      2) Most of the time, one reward for writing a book in an area of profession–and paying all the printing costs–is the hope of selling the products and get a finnancial reward beyond covering of the expenses. As a result, it give sense to plan, in the early stage, the final output as a three-lingual product over a given period of publication.


      • Beyan

        Dear Mez,
        This is one of those that one tries to keep a mental note on thinking to come back to when time permits and is completely forgotten. I had told a friend about a week or so ago to read this article. He told me he read it and we were talking about using parts of the article for a WhatsApp group, so I quickly glanced over the comments, sure enough yours was there that I was planning to test out.

        Finally though, I tried the google translator for the first time. What an impressive job she does. There is even an audio version that one can use. She even does Amharic, I tried your note above in Amharic that I am sharing just for the fun of it. She is good, man! She certainly does a better job than I can in translating to Amharic. Wish she learns Tigrinya soon though. I think this is a great starting point,. Here is yours in Amharic:

        ውድ ቤየን,

        1) ለ “Google ተርጓሚ” ዝግጁ ለማድረግ የዲጂታል ንጽጽር ማዘጋጀት ብዙ ሊያግዝ ይችላል; ቢያንስ እንደ ትርጉሙ መጀመሪያ ላይ. በተለይም ከአረብኛ ወደ እንግሊዝኛ – ሁለቱም መንገዶች. ብዙ የምዕራብ ምሥራቅ ዜናዎችን በዚህ መንገድ አነባለሁ. አንዳንድ ጊዜ ትርጉሙ “ጠለፋው” ነው, ግን ብዙ ይረዳል.
        2) አብዛኛውን ጊዜ, በሙያ አካባቢ ውስጥ መጽሐፍን በመጻፍ እና ሁሉንም የህትመት ወጪዎች በመክፈል ምርቶቹን መሸጥ እና የገንዘብ ወጪዎችን መሸፈን ሳይሆን የገንዘቡ ሽልማት ነው. ስለሆነም በመጀመሪያ ደረጃ ውጤቱን በአንድ እትም ጊዜ ውስጥ ሶስት ጊዜያዊ እቃዎችን ለማቀድ እቅድ ማውጣቱ አስፈላጊ ይሆናል.


        • Mez

          Dear Beyan,

          What a surprise with the amharic translation!

          Thank you

  • Beyan

    Dear AT,

    Thank you for raising this important issue of the voids in communication that persist between Eritrean intelligentsia at the scholarly level; as well, the same gap continues to perpetuate across the Eritrean sociopolitical landscape. Towards the latter, at least, awate is taking it as its task to narrow that gap by bringing three languages into one fold. Whether the former will come forth to help in the hybridization of the needed synthesis and analysis based on what is posted on a regular basis will remain to be seen. The conversation at the scholarly level, however, seems to have gotten started in earnest.

    Consider, the recent book, namely, that of Ghirmai Negash & Awet Woldemichael’s (2018), “African liberation theology: Intergenerational conversations on Eritrea’s futures. It is very rich in the variance of its source, but more importantly, it frames Eritrea’s historical trajectory to its rightful place, as the victim of colonial project gone awry, no different than any other African countries. By historicizing Eritrea’s narrative to its imperial and colonial end, the authors successfully put Eritrea in the map of Africa. For example, the authors state that. “[b]efore the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the overwhelming brute force and ruthlessness of the various colonial rulers suppressed these tendencies to rebel against authority and largely undermined traditional mechanisms of justice” (p. 1). This is precisely what the regime at the helm of power in Asmara is doing to its own people, much to our chagrin, this is what post colonies in Africa had done to their own people, mimicking their former colonizers.

    But, wait, intellectual gap is what we are talking about, one might wonder aloud. Exactly the point, such intellectual gap between and among Eritreans at every junction exists. This book recognizes that and is playing crucial role in narrowing that gap, because these two scholars are an embodiment of intergenerational conversation, albeit, it is being done at scholarly level. This kind of conversation needs to trickle down to all sectors of our society. Your point about how “[a]uthors naturally write in the languages of their education and reference, mostly, sources authored in languages of their familiarity. Referential limitations can easily be observed by surveying the bibliography of the many books written in any of these three languages on Eritrea” is prudent one, one that I found utterly exciting about this book. This book transcends that hurdle, for the most part, because Dr. Awet’s knowledge of Arabic language and Dr. Ghirmai’s vast knowledge of African scholars and intellectuals helped usher a new way of theorizing and conceptualizing. So, all hope is not lost, the conversation, in my estimate, has begun at a level where it critically matters most.


    • Ismail AA

      Dear Dr. Beyan,

      Perhaps I would not be mistaken if I state without hesitation that the issue you and Hope are raising is a formidable concern to us as Eritreans on many levels -starting from national unity to specific details such as pursuits for intellectual and aesthetic values . It’s, in fact, one of, if not most, important matters that is potent with intrinsic energy that could harmonize or disrupt our cohesion of our society.

      For the brothers who found this web site are overseeing its development, the issue of narrowing and closing the language gap has been probably their daily worry. Simply put, the ambitious mission they had set for themselves shall not achieve its target without fulfilling this objective.

      In retrospect, one of the background problems was the damage educational set up in Eritrea had suffered under ruler who had come and gone. I belong to the last group of who went through primary school in Arabic (grade 4 i.e.) while my friends in town went to Tigrigna school. A few went to an Italian school. After the de-hoisting of the Eritrean flag in 1958, we were handed over to Amharic teachers, and a year later, there was no sign of Arabic or Tigrigna schools left. Those of us who passed to Middle School levels thought we were lucky because we needed not learn in Amharic since the medium for both former Tigrigna and Arabic students was English. We could tolerate with stubborn resistance Amharic for 45-minutes session in a week. From that point on, students like myselcontinued to shape their educational-intellectual upbringing in English. Ismail AA, thus, is a product of that system and happens to fall in your category – spoken and rudimentary writing skills in Arabic.

      As regards to the future, I think awareness has been slowly winning ground as state and nation building asset that the narrowing and eventually closing the gab constitutes. The two learned compatriots you have mentioned comes (in my mind) as worthy beginning in this crucial endeavor.

      Actually, the source of language gab or disparity is, by and large, political which was exasperated by elitist interests. The unionist in the 40s and 50s used Arabic as scare tactic by intentionally associating it with religion, while Isayas and his associates used the tactic as pan-Arab tool for penetrating the Eritrean cultural (Tigrigna) set up. But, the verdict of the destiny that had been forced on the Eritreans by geopolitics and foreign powers cannot rules Eritrea’s unity and progress in peace under just governance system cannot be imagined without bi-lingual citizenry that harmoniously combine the national with the subnational in preserving with pride pride their cultural and social diversities.

      It’s at this point, compatriots like our own Aman H. would relish sigh of relief and celebrate the transformation of current worrisome diversity to a force of unit and social solidarity.

    • Josef Says

      Hello Beyan,
      Thanks for sharing I will see that book.
      We have educated people and scholars but I wish some of these authors and scholar would make their work more accessible to most Eritrean at least in diaspora.
      It would love to see a short presentation or dialogue or interview between these two authors on youtube or vimeo on topic. A small scale TED talk.

      They can reach so many Eritrean and not ones that purchase or read the book. It can help a lot Eritrean make some sense of their predicament…

      Fortunately, this is not Eritrea one radio one TV and one thought…

      It would be nice to have some “thought leaders” in our community.. we need to break some of insularity of Eritrean community…

      • Beyan

        selam Joseph,
        That’s so on the mark! You see presenters on TED Talk doing their pitch in less than 18 minutes, an impeccable one at that, one that tells a complete story. The publisher of the books that these authors produce their work could some such promotional pieces. Perhaps, for the purposes of the overhauled awate page, there can be our version of TED Talk, call it AWATE Talk with a twist in that the presentation cannot and ought not to exceed 10 minutes. Topics can range but they need to be compelling narratives.

        Be forewarned, this 10 minute mark might have more to do with my own fidgetiness when listening or watching any video clips that come inundated my WhatsApp. Anything over 8 minutes, more often than not, I won’t finish it. Of course, I can read all day long, no problem there. But, you get the gist of where I am getting at here. The optics need to be exploited. Awate has done a marvelous job for the last seventeen years giving us the written word at its best. It’s time it evolves into this new way of disseminating knowledge.

        Thanks for sharing the links. I have no problem watching TED Talks, especially, when they are recommended to me. So, I will watch.


        • Josef Says

          Selam Beyan,
          I agree with you Awate has played an important role with regards to creating space for Eritrean discuss some of issues facing Eritrea and Eritrean community. Although I would like to see the Awate Pledge somewhere on the website.

          If Eritrea’s political situation changes tomorrow- I am sure members of Awate team who have been doing this for 17+ years would be part of Eritrean newspaper landscape so why not set the bar high now and let everyone know you have rules and standard. it is something most healthy civil societies have…

          I disagree with you when it comes to the two author waiting for their publisher to do promotional video.
          I believe as community more than ever Eritrean need active and articulate intellectuals/scholar sharing their ideas. During the Gedhli generation the solidier or warrior became the center stage of Eritrea idea of Gobez- the soldier became the idol for 30+ years.
          Name me one famous Eritrean scientist, intellectual of international renown, engineer.. the intellectual became shadow in the mind of average Eritrean.. when all African countries open new university Eritrea closes them? National service indefinite… message you can only be solider and follow order…

          We Eritrean in diaspora we have to fight this closing of Eritrean mind or perception of intellectual or scholar as ineffective and bookish…. or someone we need to show reverence like the priest of old days.. the role of intellectual or scholar is to educate, engage, challenge, criticize and provide a vision… etc..
          The old saying is “In the time of change, the learner will inherit the future” (the learned will become fossil)
          I am not talking about just politics. We need to play that role when we someone says “Gobez” .. the Eritrean mind goes to scientist, intellectual, political scientist, entrepreneur, and not just solider…

          When someone says “Gobez” we have an image of Critical Thinker, Creative Thinker, Effective Communicator, etc..

          This sort attitude is only way we are going to be successful in the 21st century! Otherwise we will be like the gypsies and insular and backward community….

          That is why I feel it is important for those two Gobez that wrote the book to take to it to next level and share the content of their research and cognitive talent via video.

          You can call it Gobez Dialogue… because it takes a Gobez to have healthy and constructive dialogue… it is a Gobez to be an effective communicator… it is Gobez to share and enlighten your people…

          My Five stage to Wisdom and Power

          Stage 1: Start with information( information by itself is useless)
          Stage 2: When you make connection between solid information you get knowledge
          Stage 3: Once you have knowledge and you apply it and get feedback you have Applied knowledge
          Stage 4: Wisdom is applied knowledge
          Stage 5: Applied Knowledge is Power (that is why village elders are respected and powerful)

          My question is at what stage do modern Eritrean intellectual show the most activity?

          • Beyan

            merHaba Josef,

            I was nodding my head in agreement until you started using the word “Gobez”. Thereafter, every time I encountered the great ideas you were advancing it was being met with this: What if this “Gobez” (I counted five more times) happens to be a woman, what might Josef’s word be to give the all deserved accolade to our women. Believe you me, I am not trying to change the subject on you, but the masculine way of expressing knowledge, criticality, I found it a bit unsettling. Other than that, I am with you a 110 % including your on-point of “Five stage to Wisdom and Power”. Well said!


          • Josef Says

            Hello Beyan,
            I am using Gobez for a person not just man- I know traditionally it is associated with men.
            But I look at term Gobez in context of an Eritrean cultural notion of excellence.
            I believe it is similar to the Greek notion of Arete.

            The ancient Greek had a different culture than modern Greek and in there world Excellence played significant role that is the West still talks about Aristotle, Plato, Archimedes, Euclid, etc.. these people in search of excellence pushed the bounds of human activity and knowledge..

            I am using Gobez in the Arete or Excellence sense- not in terms of manhood…

  • Nitricc

    HI All; this is the truth; i hope all Ethiopians know the truth. I wonder what the TPLF-Melles crowed will say?

    • Teodros Alem

      Selam G Nitricc
      The realty on the ground in ethiopia r tigrai is not the same poor like most ethiopian region it is worse poor .i know what i know i have i colse friends of mine(non tigraians) who wetness it. Most of the houses and buildings r empty b/c the owners don’t live in tograi.
      But what i don’t understand it is why they lie about it?
      By the way this ababa guy is a new recruit working for them now.

  • Josef Says

    Hello all,
    I like this article it brings up an interesting discussion. I did most my reading and research about Eritrean history from Red Sea Press.. during the golden days.. I admired what the publisher was able to achieve.. he saw a need for books about Africa and African history and created a business and thru those authors and his publication Eritrea found its way on intellectual map..

    My question is are intellectuals publishing anything? or anything relevant? Do we have culture that values books and reading? Growing up in diaspora maybe it is my circle but I didn’t see any culture emphasis intellectual prowess?

    I know in old days it was expensive to publish books but I think it is different nowadays. You just need PDF maker and translation service is fairly cheap…

    I don’t even know how many people read regularly unless for school. I think what would be better and more current to bridge the gap is podcast or youtube lectures by intellectuals.
    I mean quality educational material and not gossip or hearsay type of stuff..

    It can be self-funded… via patreon

    • saay7

      Josef Says:

      Here’s one man’s* effort to give a 9-minute video history of Eritrea, and another man’s** effort to supplement it.

      * video is “Geography Now” which is a youtube series.
      ** saay

      • Kokhob Selam

        Dear Saay7,

        How nice,,,good !!! Let us put the link in Jebena page..


      • Josef Says

        Thanks but I have seen the video and like the additional material..
        I was thinking more of Eritrean intellectual using youtube or other medium to give presentation and share the topic.
        The reality is we are not living in country of one radio and TV station… making video and presentation doesn’t require much money…