This is a continuation of the response made to comments in earlier postings either on the Awate website or by personal mail. Affirmative Action and opinions on official languages were dealt with Part VI and a special piece on languages on Part VII.
Once again I am obliged to dwell on the language issue to respond to further comments that came to my mail and thereby take care of some outstanding loose ends. I will deal with two episodes in our history: the past or “prehistory” as shabait.com put it, and the present.
Although I had advised those Highlanders who don’t believe they have strains of Arabic blood in them to check their history, some commentators have instead preferred to learn it from me. One even mocked if I had carried out a DNA test. I therefore ask those Eritreans who cared to be more initiated about Eritrea to bear with me recalling the obvious.
The Arab in Us in Our Past History
No body disputes that the original settlers or aborigines of Eritrea are the Nilotic ethnic group made up of the Kunama and the Nara. They were followed up by the Hamitic intruders who make up the present day Beja nationality. Then came the Semitic who formed the back bone of the Eritrean civilization and the rest of Abyssinia. Let us have a look at a most recent release by the Ministry of Information of the State of Eritrea on the latest colonizers:
The last comers to Eritrea were the ‘Sabaeans’, Semites who crossed the Red Sea to colonize the Plateau, where the climate and countryside closely resembled the South Arabian highlands from which they had come. The new comers brought with them some knowledge of political organization and agricultural techniques; also they had experience in commerce and boasted contacts with the civilized world which would enable them to turn it to account and [en]able them to govern the earliest settlers of the region. Those Semites intermarried with the Hamites and Nilotics in the region to give the present Tigre and Tigrinyia ethnic groups.
The same text continues to say, “… the half-caste communities of Sabaeans and Hamatic who had developed on the plateau, and who, because of their hybrid ancestry, later acquired the name of ‘Habesha’ or ‘mixed’…” That the “Arabization” of Abyssinia was a continuous civilizing process is further underlined in the following passage from The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics as follows.
There is no doubt that these Semites came to Abyssinia from Arabia. The bulk of them may have come within the last cent[urie]s B,C., but the Semitic immigration never stopped. It was rather… a ‘gradual infiltration,’ and even in our days an Arab tribe , the Rashaida has crossed to the other side of the Red Sea and is beginning to be nationalized in Africa; they still speak Arabic, but have commenced to use the Tigre language as well. The Semites have been, beyond doubt, the civilizers of, or at least the bearers of some civilization to, Abyssinia. They have founded an empire, built temples, palaces, and entire cities, as well as dams and irrigation canals; they originated and carried on the only literature Abyssinia ever had…
That we owe our civilization to our Arab heritage is also stated in the same article of the Ministry of Information cited earlier. It is not necessary to make recourse to DNA tests as my less informed commentator suggested to prove our Arab heritage because history has confirmed it. At the same time it is also to be understood that our Muslim compatriots are not any more Arabs than the rest of us – they have proved it with the ultimate price they paid for Eritrea’s independence.
The Rashaida have of recent been defined as a nationality by PFDJ. The prelude to the process of assimilation has started with the language. But that doesn’t mean they have given up Arabic as yet. It is to be recalled also that the Turks and Egyptians have been ruling parts of Eritrea where the Muslim population is now predominant. An important factor is that the external trade of Eritrea, and most of Abyssinia for that matter, since the Axumite Empire was conducted across the Red Sea with the Arab countries and Arabic was the medium in use, and that practice persists to date. It is also a fact that nearly all the merchants, business men and shop keepers until half a century ago were Muslims including in the Highlands. Our Muslim brothers use Arabic both for their religious devotion and for business. I was on several working visits to Dahlak Kebir in the mid-1990s. Whenever I asked for a receipt for purchases what I got was written in Arabic. I encountered the same when I traveled to the Western Lowlands and the interior of Northern Eritrea.
Please don’t bring the Geez parallel to down play the importance of Arabic language when it comes to religion. Geez is long dead and the Orthodox Church is increasingly giving it up. Arabic is a live and vibrant language that will live long into the future and it is not very few that train their ears to Arabic broadcasts, religious or otherwise.
The Arab in Us in Our Current History
Now let us have a look at EPLF’s (not PFDJ’s) important contributions or heritage to the present and the future of Eritrea.
1. I hope many remember the peace initiatives of President Carter in Nairobi, in which representatives from EPLF and the Dergue government met officially for the first time. The leader of the EPLF delegation, Mohammed Alamin then conducted his deliberations in Arabic. I don’t know about his English but I am sure Alamin is fluent in both Tigrinya and Tigre. The fact that he preferred Arabic may have come as a shock to many at that time. But the message of EPLF was loud and clear: Arabic is an Eritrean official language which was demoted along with Tigrigna in 1961 by the Ethiopian Government.
2. Have a look at your Eritrean ID, if you own one. The light blue card is adorned all over with the two languages which were once the official languages of Eritrea: Arabic and Tigrinya. I had lost my Eritrean ID in 1996 and applied for a new one at a government branch office at Amba Galiano. The new card issued to me had my name and particulars not only in Tigrigna but also in Arabic which unfortunately I cannot read. Nonetheless I felt comfortable all the more because I wouldn’t face a problem if faced by an Eritrean intelligence officer who may not read Tigrinya somewhere in Eritrea. My identity was doubly acknowledged.
3. The Eritrean passport is printed in three languages: Tigrigna, English and Arabic. Don’t tell me it is to facilitate travels to the Arab countries. One can travel anywhere in the world with a passport printed in the English language. Our passport was designed to facilitate to the users read the contents of the passport – and EPLF knows the composition of its literate population – and tell the rest of the world that Arabic and Tigrinya are our languages. I was one of the earliest recipients of the Eritrean passport and I traveled with it to Saudi Arabia. The Immigration official looked over the details and gazed smiling when he saw the coat of arms. He took the book over to show it to his colleagues and they spent sometime chattering over it. The camel was unique and the Arabic must have pleased them as well. Boy! Was I proud!?
4. Finally we come to the all important logo of Eritrea – the camel and the olive branches. The label below announces: “ሃገረ ኤርትራ“, “The State of Eritrea” and “دولة إرتريا،“. I hope everybody understands what a coat of arms stands for. It is a symbol that encapsulates the essence and hopes of the people owning it. Transcribed into a seal or paper head it commands authority. And Arabic is one of the media EPLF chose to transmit that message.
The EPLF did deliver us independence and offered us these three important documents: the ID, the passport and the coat of arms. The documents are not accidental but the result of contemplation, consultation on what is dearest to the Eritrean hearts – and the EPLF leadership did have time in the field to think soberly before it was caught up with the complex business of running a country. The EPLF changed its name to PFDJ to meet the new challenge and instead of infusing the best of civilian technocrats who had proved themselves in many other countries, it demoted the sanest of its own leadership and replaced them with second-rate intellectual midgets loyal to the neurotic leader who recently told the whole world: “I don’t need someone to tell me when I make a mistake.”
In order to divert attention from his failures, he had to divert the attention of the people to wars he had to instigate confrontation and wars with all of Eritrea’s neighbors, and create confusion and mistrust among the people thereby promote his policy of divide and rule. And refusing to qualify any official language is one of the confusions spewed by him and causing us to waste our energy disputing the obvious.
If you want proof of further confusion read the concluding paragraph of the article of the Ministry of Foreign affairs cited above: “The working languages in the country are Tigrinya, Arabic and English.” An official language is nothing but the working language of a country. Please don’t mind what so and so uses for a language at home or for gossiping with his friends. It is his private business and let us leave it at that and not confuse it with a working language.