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Language and Religion In Eritrean Politics

(The following article (first published on June 29, 2011) was presented at a panel discussion under the theme “Eritrea’s Path towards Democracy: Dialogue on Constitutional Issues”. The event was held at the Universities at Shady Grove, Rockville, Maryland, on June 25, 2011; the organizers of the event assigned the topic to the presenter.)

I didn’t choose the topic; and though it seems like a dispassionate intellectual topic, I believe it is specific: language and religion as it relates to Eritrea. It is even more specific than that—for religion, read Islam and for language, read Arabic. Both remain in trial indefinitely, and the latter is treated like a suspect that needs to prove and reprove, and reprove once more that it is Eritrean. I intend to do that, for the umpteenth time not forgetting that Arabic has been in the land long before the name Eritrea entered our memory.

I will tell you a story that I probably told a dozen times because this subject keeps re-emerging in old garb and its presenters think it is original: the same tired objections, the same cynical suspicion of Islam and Arabic, and by extension, that of half the Eritrean population. I have no other way but to tell the same story over and over again. I will only stop that when the arguments change, otherwise, it will always be there.

A drunken violinist, a Wata, had an excellent day in Asmara and was returning to his village in the outskirts. On his way, he arrived at a roaring river, which he could not cross. Since the main job description of a Wata is showering everyone with songs of praise, he pleaded to the river to slow down and enable him to cross to the opposite bank. He sang: Oh dear mighty river, my honorable river, please be gracious, slow down for a while and allow me to cross! The river didn’t yield. Another stranded man noticed the Wata singing to the river and told him: “the portion that you praised moves on and a new portion follows it; you have to focus on one portion and run alongside it, singing, until it stops for you to cross!”

Like the violinist, some are doomed to repeat the same argument to new portions of the flood, new comers to the debate. It is exhausting, but no one is giving up.

And since the topic is old and politicized, I am aware that some portions of my presentation is recycled material; I cannot help but do just that.

Arabic and Muslims in “Abyssinia”

The countries known as Ethiopia and Eritrea today, are close neighbors to the Arab world. In fact Eritreans have been closer than most people would like to admit. For Muslims, they know that their Kur’an itself is called mesHaf, a word borrowed from Geez[1], metsHaf.

There is a wealth of material that explains the relations of Axumites with Arabia well before the prophet Mohammed, and it was natural for that to continue after the advent of Islam. Twenty out of the 132[2] Muslim refugees who fled Mecca to Abyssinia were Abyssinians or of Abyssinian ancestry. Among them was the Abyssinian Baraka Um Aymen[3], the prophet’s mother (by breast feeding, “wet nurse.”) The refugees lived in Abyssinia for 16 years and 14 of them died and were buried there. So, don’t be surprised if an Eritrean says that someone from those Arabs who lived in Abyssinia for 16 years is their ancestor.

The Abyssinian-Arab relations means a lot to Muslims: the maternal grandmothers of both Omer Bin Alkhatab, the second Khelifa and Omer Bin AlAas, the conqueror of Egypt, were Abyssinians. Again, Khelifa Omer was killed by an Abyssinian in Medina and so was Hamza, the prophet’s uncle who was killed by Jahash. Abyssinian are not strange to the history of Arabia, even before Islam—Abraha and the “people of the elephant” (asHab alfil) the story that is told in a surra of the Kur’an that Muslims memorize by heart. Bilal the Abyssinian and Luqman AlHakim[4] (Luqman the wise) are just two of the tens of prominent Abyssinians in Islamic history. To this day, the inner security of the Ka’aba is entrusted to people most of whom are descendants of the erstwhile Abyssinians, who until recently were eunuchs (I am not sure if they are so now.) In short, Islamic history is full of Abyssinian personalities of high stature—in the military, trade, craftsmanship, literature and Abyssinians are generally associated with beauty, piety, singing, dancing, bravery, etc. And Yemen has its long relation with Abyssinia; the migrations and cross migrations are well chronicled.

The crescent-like area extending from the Zeila (an old port around today’s border between Djibouti and Somaliland) all the way to Southern Shoa had flourished under Muslim Sultanates—seven of them are well known—and it is believed that the word Jeberti comes from one of those Sultanates of that area. Many people from those Sultanates joined Imam Ahmed Gragn in his conquest against the highland kings of Abyssinia.

Today, we find most of the suspicion of Muslims and rejection of Arabic by Eritrean Christians based on what I mentioned above—specially the conquests of Ahmed Gragn that remain alive in the psyche of many Christians though it happened six-hundred years ago. Why?

Isn’t the anti-Christian onslaught of Gragn more than matched by the anti-Muslim excesses of Prince Wube, King Tedros and King Yohannes? And if Christian Abyssinians don’t feel the need to apologize for the deeds of those kings, why should Muslims be made to feel of dual loyalty or suspect for the excesses of Gragn? And if Christian Abyssinians could move around and settle anywhere in the Eritrean and Ethiopian highlands why is the word “settler” only reserved for Muslims?

In the 19th century, the population of the Eritrean highlands was less than 300,000, most of whom were settlers who came with the waves of the invading Abyssinian armies from the South. Many villages and regions in present Eritrea are descendants of Amhara and Oromo armies sent to the Eritrean highlands to protect the trade and caravan routes from Massawa to the hinterland or to fight one war or another, or to invade and plunder. Many villages were established by followers of the many generals who raided the highlands and who remained and established themselves in present day Eritrea. Alula, Yohannes’ general, is said to have enforced many legislations to enable his soldiers and those before him, to acquire land rights. The Seraye is settled by many warrior families from Tigray and their retainers and followers. There are villages whose ancestral origin is Dembia, Gondar and Tigrai[5]. But, amazingly, “settler from Tigray,” is reserved only to Muslims.

Speaking of language and religion: Are the Jeberti in Eritrea originally from Tigray? Some are. Others have been there since time immemorial. And yes, some even came with Ahmed Gragn or were converted by him 600 years ago. There are Jeberti from every conceivable race in the region, including Arabia and beyond. That is why they try to tell people that Jeberti is not a race, but an amalgam of people with countless racial background: anyone from any place who is a Muslim and embraces the local culture is easily assimilated. It is not a race; it is a nation—again, that is why they object to being baptized Tigrigna by a government Fiat issued on the whims of Isaias and his ideologues.

But here is the biggest problem that Eritrea faces. The Beni Amer, and the Hedareb, have no problem in recognizing their cross-border relations with their kinsmen in Sudan. The Danakil tribal confederation doesn’t have a problem recognizing their kinship, the Afars in Djibouti and Ethiopia. The Bet Asghede tribes of Sahel do not have a problem recognizing their kinship with their brethren across the border in Sudan or their ancestry in Abyssinia proper. It is only in the Eritrean Highlands that people seem to have a problem recognizing their relations to Tigray and Amhara. Not the Jeberti, not the Saho speaking tribes, not the Erob and not many people who live on the border regions of the area. But as you move further from the border, you have a never-ending attempt to differentiate one’s self and to severe the racial, linguistic, and religious ties with Abyssinia, specially with Tigray!

And there is another problem caused by a twisted logic: the elite of the highlands want to decide the race, ethnic name, division, and retroactively moulding of Eritreans as per their whims. No one objects when Eritrean Highland Christians claim ancestry from personalities who lived a thousand years ago; yet never does a Muslim mention an Arab ancestry without a belittling chuckle from those same Eritreans. But let’s see: the Assawerta claim ancestry from Asawr; the TroAa from Suleiman Al-Arabi; a small section of the Jeberti claim affinity with the Arab Mekhzumis, Moroccans, and still others from Osman Bin Afan; the Beni Amer from several Arab ancestors; the Ad Mualim and Ad Shek claim Hashimi (prophets tribe) ancestry. The name Hedarb is a corruption of the word Hadarem[6] from Hadramot in Yemen. The Artega section of the Beni Amer claim ancestry from Mohammed Jemalladdin (and beyond him), an Arab who first settled in Saukin[7], and there are many more such ancestries.

Arabic Pre-dates Eritrea

“The Arabic language has not been a language of religion only, but it is also a language of life in this world, and many documents that go back to centuries, and which was kept in the Archives of the court in Massawa and Keren, attest to this fact since it was written in Arabic[8].”

There is ample proof to indicate that Arabic was a ligua franca in Massawa. Documents of inheritance, endowments (Awqaf), marriage, commercial dealings, etc, all conducted in Arabic in Massawa in the 18th and 19th centuries[9]. There are old Arabic engravings in gravestones in Dahlak Kebir, etc. It was common in Muslim towns to see inscriptions or embosed writings on top of the doors and gates of the affluent: adkhuluha bslamin amneen[10], or, ya dakhil albab sely Alanebi[11], etc.

There is also a misconception that Arabic is the choice of the Muslim elite. That is not correct, it is the choice of all Eritrean Muslims not just Muslim elites.[12]

  1. Whatever education Eritrean Muslims were getting in pre-modern Eritrea (namely khelwa, or Kur’anic studies) was in Arabic. Muslim literacy in pre-colonial Eritrea was essentially Arabic literacy. The Khelwa tradition has continued to this day. Basically, every Muslim child in Eritrea, prior to going to regular school, attends kur’anic school[13]. Modern education started less than a century ago; Eritreans have been around in that land quite a few centuries before that. That should establish the fact that Arabic, (since no one is objecting to Tigrinya) has been an indigenous Eritrean language forever. The founding fathers of modern Eritrea agreed and designated Arabic and Tigrinya as official languages of the country. That treaty is sacrosanct—any violation of that agreement bears grave consequences.
  2. The shariaa courts (family laws), and all documentation were (and are) performed in Arabic. Since time immemorial, Muslims conduct their rituals, death, marriage, inheritance, business transactions, etc. Therefore, Arabic is not limited to religious affairs as some wrongly assume.
  3. Even in religious affairs, in a country where Muslims belong to every linguistic group in the country, there was no practical way of duplicating communications and Friday sermons in all the languages. Muslims adopted Arabic as a solution to their multi-lingual reality, not because they hate their languages, but because every Muslim has a basic knowledge of Arabic from a young age ; it is therefore practical tool for their unity.

Arabic was part of life of Eritrea and Ethiopia for centuries and not just for Muslims. Unless crowned by the patriarch of Alexandria, who speaks Arabic, no Ethiopian king was considered legitimate. This is supported by the fact that the seal of many Abyssinian emperor carried Arabic inscriptions: melk mululk AlHabasha. Ras Alula is pictured wearing An Arab garb. Much of the Ethiopian religious literature was translated from Arabic. The kings’ envoys to the region and their trading emissaries were Abyssinian Muslims who were fluent in Arabic.

When the Italians came to Eritrea, they brought with them Arabic translators and spoke with the locals in that language. When a Portuguese delegation passed through Massawa in 1520, the Captain General met the chief of Hergigo and “had conversation which they held by interpreters, the Captain speaking Arabic well…”[14]. The priest of the embassy who accidentally became its registrar, refers to the local populations he met on the shores of the Red Sea as Moors. This is indicative of the fact that he didn’t see any different between them and the Arabs (Moors) who ruled the Iberian Peninsula. As recently as when I was growing up, we referred to the people from the countryside of Western Eritrea as Arab.

It is not true to say that Arabic is advanced by Muslim elites. But it is very true to say that Arabic is denied by EPLF/PFDJ elites. And the EPLF/PFDJ elites don’t even have to be highlanders or Christians to deny the historic role of Arabic in Eritrea.

In 1996, in a debate over the constitution provisions, Mussa Naib, a PFDJ functionary whose very last name is an Arabic title (similar to Viceroy, or deputy) stated to me that Arabic is a British invention in Eritrea, and we know the British came to Eritrea in 1941. Mussa was a member of the constitution commission of Eritrea that was touring the world to promote the idea of adopting mother languages (never mind the PFDJ had already decided that.) Someone asked a question: “In what language did your ancestors, the Naib’s of Massawa, correspond and in what language did they gain their primary education?” Of course, Mussa brushed the questions off. But the answer was, Arabic, and that was centuries before the British set foot in Eritrea but poor Mussa was only pushing the official PFDJ line.

For instance, let’s take the name Rasahida. In its social reengineering exercise, the PFDJ divided Eritreans into nine linguistic groups. It baptized every group by the name of the language it speaks except the Rashaida who kept their racial reference, Rashaida. This is done just to avoid referring to them as Arabs. Of course, the PFDJ wouldn’t call them Arabs when it is engaged in a futile attempt to eradicate Arabic from Eritrea.

Prejudiced Energizers

The prejudice against Arabic has its roots; Europeans missionaries and zealots have played a destructive role in the region, specially the Portuguese[15] and Jesuits. The damage can be traced to ignorant priests like Alvarez.

Many Ethiophiles after Alvarez continued the damage, and one of them wrote that the, “Tigre speakers are very largely illiterate, and those who have pretensions to literacy find Arabic a more useful means of communication.” And “The decision of the Eritreans government, in 1952, declaring Tigrnya and Arabic official languages of Eritrea is significant and augurs ill for the future of Tigre.”[16]

A respected Ethiopian scholar writes, “[the ELM] was soon eclipsed by the Muslim dominated ELF.”[17] Though it is an established fact that both the ELM and the ELF were started by Muslims with national agendas and programs, but the anti Muslim die was already caste a long time ago.

Such are the “scholarly” inputs that the PFDJ feeds from and adds its bigotry, exclusionary and dangerous policies that have relegated Muslims to the inferior citizenship status. It has happened in the fifties[18], and it is happening now[19].

Polarized Society

When the British proposed the idea of dividing Eritrea between Sudan and Haile Sellassie’s Ethiopia, it was the Muslims who fought that proposal and caused its failure. The Muslim dream for a united, peaceful Eritrea, and their commitment to it, is just there for anyone to see, provided there is honesty.

Recently, I have noticed a growing frustration among Muslims, especially those who were born or raised in the refugee camps of Sudan. Just a few weeks ago I met one of them and he was cursing Ibrahim Sultan and his colleagues who aborted the British proposal of partitioning Eritrea. The refugee told me, “what is the difference, myself and my family have been living in Sudan as refugees since 40 years, at least we would have been Sudanese and we wouldn’t have been kicked off our land.” However one tries, it is difficult to put yourself in his shoes and I felt like crying in despair. I didn’t even manage to utter enough words to console him, I felt helpless. “They betrayed us”, he said. I don’t know who he meant by THEY, but I felt as guilty as they, whoever they are.

The main culprit for the continuation and exasperation of the polarization is the PFDJ designs which was unfortunately not corrected by the constitution commission[20] when it had a chance. In its attempt to eradicate Arabic, the PFDJ has always avoided designating official languages. The result is what we see today in Eritrea: it is a unilingual, hegemonic state and “the domination of the Eritrean state by the Tigrigna ethnic is not subject of question. This is the fact and only those suffering from self-delusion can deny it.”[21]. If you do not know Tigrigna, you have no chance of getting a public employment or advancement in position regardless of the set of skills and certificates that you hold. And this fact can be illustrated by a story of another frustrated Eritrean I met in Dubai in the nineties.

A lawyer by training, he eagerly raced back to Eritrea to live there for good; no one could patronize him for not joining the struggle because of his young age. He applied for a job and was asked to take an exam for a public job; he did. One Sunday morning, he wanted to check if he passed the exam before traveling to Western Eritrea to be with his relatives for an occasion. He went to where they put the list of those who passed the exam and looked at the list on the wall. But he couldn’t read the names, it was written in Tigrigna. He stood there for a while until he saw a child of about twelve passing by. He asked him if he could read the list for him. The child went through the list and told him, yes, this is your name. He was supposed to be happy; but he was not. “That was the day I discovered I was illiterate by PFDJ standards though I carried a university degree.” He said to me with bitterness. He left Eritrea for good—even if he stayed, what awaited him was a job as an elementary school teacher like many graduates from the Middle East who can only get a teacher’s job, teaching Arabic to elementary school students simply because they do not know Tigrigna and could not be absorbed in the public employment positions. That is why after twenty years of independence, the diversity in the PFDJ employee list is warped. Worse, some people do not like Muslims complaining about that. What should they do? Keep quiet and die in agony?

The UNESCO Doctrine

I am not sure how UNESCO describes its goals and missions, but in the Eritrean context, in relation to the mother-tongue policy, I am taking the liberty to define it as follows: a doctrine that fiercely promotes the equality of languages. It promotes mother tongues as both a governing policy and as a means of education. Unwavering believers defend the doctrine as any fanatic would defend his faith.

One of the mistrust of the constitution commission by most Muslims is because they believed it will endorse the PFDJ policies. Those who should have known didn’t object, those who didn’t know the reality of Eritrea, those who never ventured outside their villages to know the rest of Eritrea, considered the issue an intellectual exercise and trampled over the rights of others[22]. As planned, the adaptation of the mother-tongue policy neither benefited the non-Tigrigna speakers, nor the Muslims who have always opted for Arabic. And the entire country is still going through a damaging journey.

After twenty years of misrule in Eritrea, we all know the language issue is not theoretical any more. The UNESCO doctrine is just another useless acrobatics.

Idris Aba-Arre

The language topic cannot be discussed without mentioning the brave Idris Aba-Arre who warned about the risks of the irresponsible and mischievous language policy. In 2001, the regime threw him in jail for his views and he disappeared in the dungeons of Isaias. Aba-Arre challenged the elite that should have known better, that exclusion of Arabic is detrimental to the cohesion of Eritreans and vital to social justice. They didn’t heed his advice. Just as he predicted, almost twenty years of mischievous application of the mother-tongue policy produced two generation of illiterate adults (about 8% high school attendance only.) The policy also effectively barred those whose educational background is Arabic from employment in the public sector.

And look around you, Muslims are excluded (or exclude themselves) because of this polarizing factor. Decade ago, just like now, individuals tried to silence people from discussing their grievances, as usual, Muslims never abandoned their call for dialogue, tirelessly they tried to explain their issues which were discouraged because the issues were considered polarizing—those who oppose Arabic with passion fail to notice that their patronizing posture is the only polarizing factor.

What Is In Arabic?

Many fail to remember that Eritreans launched an armed struggle to reinstate the official languages, flag and other symbols of Eritrean sovereignty that Ethiopia violated—the violation of Arabic was one of the main reasons. No one has the right to make a choice on behalf of anyone—paternalist posture is anti-democratic and every bleeding-heart democrat should be aware of this fact. In a free country, citizens are equal and they have equal choices.

The elite of our society has always been in the middle of all political and social unrest and today’s unelected rulers of Eritrea perpetuate the prejudices and paternal attitudes of the past. What emboldens the rulers to continue to punish the people with impunity? Why are Eritrean citizens so weakened that they cannot resist tyranny? Eritreans are so confused to strengthen mutual trust among themselves and be able to wage an effective combined national struggle to rid themselves of their present predicament.

The intensity of the regime’s obsession with systematically excluding Arabic from Eritrea is in direct contrast to the intensity with which Eritreans are determined to defend their choice. That choice should be viewed as a national, cross denominational and patriotic choice for the wellbeing of Eritrea and for keeping a genuine unity of its people.

No. I am not an Arab. But Arabic is part of the social bond that the founding fathers of Eritrea made a covenant on; and to reject or marginalize it is akin to forfeiting a bonding contract.

Thank you

Related Reading:
Of Kings And Bandits’.
You can also read his 2010 article on the language here: Like An Aged Wined
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[1] Mohammed AlTayeb Al Yousifi, Ethiopia wel Eruba Wel Islam, first edition (AlMaktaba AlMecciah, 1996), the authors mentions many words borrrowd from Abyssinian language.

[2] ibid

[3] Dr. Lapiso Dileba, Ye etipiawinet tarikawi mesertoch’ena masaryawoch, 1999.

[4] There are also a few sources that contradict that and claim he was Persian. Mohammed AlTayeb Al Yousifi believs he was Abyssinian.

[5] Alberto Polera, translated from Italian to Tigrigna by Abba Issak Gebreyesus, Deqebat Hzbtat Ertra. This book gives a through description of the origin of the present Eritrean people; though very informative, it overwhelmingly based on folktales and traditions.

[6] Andrew Paul, History Of The Beja Tribes Of Sudan, 1953

[7] ibid

[8] Mohammed Saeed Naud, the founder of the Eritrean Liberation Movement (Haraka or Mahber Shewaate) http://www.nawedbooks.com/nawed/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=293 accessed June 16, 2011.

[9] Jonathan Miran, Red Sea Citizens: Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa.

[10] ‘Enter this house in peace and trust’

[11] ‘Oh ye who enter this house, pray for the prophet’

[12] Check Chefena Hailemariam, Doctoral thesis, Language and Education in Eritrea: A case study of Language diversity policy and Practice. The book concludes from the surveys conducted in several Eritrean communities and schools that the overwhelming majority of Muslim parents (Tigre, Saho, Barya/Nara, Blin speakers) said that they prefer Arabic as the language of instruction for their children at primary schools. Similarly, the vast majority of students from those communities attending the schools covered by the survey also opted for Arabic.

[13] Kur’anic schooling usually continues a few years more, side by side with secular education, until the child completes the whole course of the Kur’an).

[14] Father Alvarez, Expedition Of Portuguese Embassy Into Abyssinia -1520 (English translation).

[15] When Alvarez was asked by the people of Debarwa to pray to God to rid the region from the locusts, he prayed that “..within three hours [the Locust] should begin to set out on their way, and go to the sea, or to the country of the Moors [Muslims], or to mountains of no profit to Christians….”

[16] Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians: introduction to country and people.

[17] Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1974

[18] Interview with Adem Melekin, a veteran of the Eritrean struggle since the fifties

[19] Refer to Ahmad Raji’s “The Lost Rainbow” series of studies (Part 1-4):
PART I (August 9, 2009)
PART II (August 15, 2009)
PART III  (August 24, 2009 )
PART IV (October 1, 2009)

[20] In his book Wounded Nation, Red Sea Press, 2011, Dr. Bereket Habte Sellase acknowledged the shortcomings with regards to the official language issue and he explains in detail the causes and risks of polarization and presents workable solution to overcome the political impasse in Eritrea.

[21] Ibid

[22] On April 14, 1997, the late Tekie Fesahatsion, member of the constitution commission wrote: “One cannot give a constitutional imprimatur to one or two of the local languages, without downgrading the other eight or seven. We are a multilingual society. The moment we designate, constitutionally, some, and not all, of our languages, we will surely be straying from the equality provision–the cornerstone-of our constitution. This we cannot do, must not do.”

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  • tes

    Dear Awatawyan,

    I found this info relevant to the on going debate and discussion on language.

    iSem: if you have any updated info on this suibject as it is coming from Ruba/Adi Toronto.


    With Greetings


    • Berhe Y

      Dear Tes,

      Actually what’s in the first page is everything that happened with that event. I saw the launch on FB but I didn’t get to attend. No the weeknd was not there.

      iSem probably was there, and I would not be surprised if he has signed up for the program.

      Actually I was quite surprised (saay, may be he was playing devil’s advocate) on the way he was bashing the Tigrina proverbs. He actually told me before and I happen to believe it to some degree and I quote “When people from Eritrea who speak Tigrina get more education, the first victim of their education is actually their language and their culture”. I notice this happens in a lot of culture how we do things the way we do, about our religion, specially the Orthodox religion, how backwards they are, about Geez, how no body understands, etc…

      I was surprised to hear iSem saying sometimes, those proverbs are actually meaningless (he didn’t say that) but he said, aboy kusto yiblu nerom… Off course, those proverbs are said by people with names, too bad we don’t know who are the people who actually said them……as suppose to Waldo said them they become valid.

      Some even going far enough to suggest that we stop learning in our language and instead we should study in English from grade 1. Really and you think you are going to get better at English weather you start at grade 1 or grade 6. How about we stop speaking as well so we don’t have “accents”.

      Just to be fair to iSem, let me tell you a story and word he actually coined (the first time I heard it). I think it was ab enda Hazen and there were “modern / asmarinos” having a conversation. And the topic about language and how Tigrina is “neQaS” and it is not fit for “romance”, this girl said. So iSem asks, what do you mean can you give an example.

      Asmarina: ትግራኛስ ነቃጽ እዩ፡ ንፍቅሊ ዝኸውን ቃንቃ አይኮነን፡፡
      iSem: Can you give me an example?
      Asmarina: ንአብነት፡ ሓደወዲ ይፈትወኪ እየ (I love you) ፡ እንተሊካስ እንታይ ኢልካ ትምልሰሉ፡፡
      iSem እዚ ደአ ቀሊል፡ አነ እንከላይ (me too).

      Shouldn’t one give credit to iSem for coining this important saying in Tigrina, or we just have to say, Hade Semere zbHal zbelo.

      I thought I throw that in..:)


      • saay7

        Hi Berhe:

        Amde coined the phrase “the living are smarter than the dead” (or something like that) and if you quoted me accuarately of things I said years ago, we have to amend Amdeism with “the young are wiser than the old.”

        Wasn’t playing devil’s advocate..well not entirely. What happened was [proverb alert] Intezeytnewneweni men metsdefeni (had you not convulsed me, I wouldn’t have fallen off the cliff.) I just do not think proverbs are all-defining of cultures. Otherwise, the Tigrinya, the Egyptians, the Americans (even the Canadians, assuming they have proverbs:) would have to be identical because sometimes they have identical proverbs. Like (proverb alert):”Wedi Serah MaEtso, Zib`Ee WeseDo” (the carpenters son is snatched by a hyena). Because carpenters fix other peoples doors and are indifferent to theirs. Kinda like mechanics and their cars.

        No credit goes to iSem because (a) there is a better example, a classic, about Eritrean lovers by the beach looking at the moon* and (b) that is entirely generational. The new generation is actually quite expressive and have, I don’t know, twice the vocabulary of my awkward generation.


        *Tell Sem to tell you the story

        • iSem

          Hi Sal and Berhe:
          Sal: Berhe is not quoting you, he is quoting iSem, he is just telling what I told him about the moment a Tigriniya speak receives some education, he sprinkles his conversation with Italian or English, not for lack of mastery of his language, but to impress and that passed to Ghedli where they say words the “gebar” would not understand and remember EPLF’s attempt to do away with the Geeze letters to make all languages equal, do you blame YG for saying the equality idea of EPLF is to take away someone’s bed make him equal to the one without bed, instead of giving the one without a bed, BY’s favorite;-)
          Also, I disagree about the new generation are more expressive, they may have more words, you from where. I think the generation of our fathers were more expressive when talking about social, wisdom, solving conflicts.

          • Hameed Al-Arabi

            Salam iSem,

            “laley wo lallena” it means it is our night. هذه الليلة ليلتنا


        • Berhe Y

          Dear Saay and all,

          iSem explained nicely and I was quoting him. I have to get him to tell me about Eritrean by the beach story.

          But I also think you were playing devils advocates, because you seem to know a lot of proverbs and use them well as needed. The other day when you said (way before the proverb article was published) you said responding to Amanuel H. “Neger dilyley betri hasewsow”, I thought that was a good comeback and made me chuckle a bit “Emma I was not taking sides”.

          Saay, this is not for you particularly but a generalized comment. May be it’s simplistic way to look at things, I tend to think some times, the learned generations, with the exception of doctors (who actually save lots of lives) and may be few engineers (who get to run / build and maintain some sophisticated machineries and building), most of use (the majority of us, we haven’t really actually achieved anything remotely close to what our forefathers have achieved.

          I can’t say there is anything scientific discover that we established, anything useful that we created, anything artistic or civilization that we changed/ affected. What exactly we did say in the last 100 or 200 years, after so much education, so much knowledge that we have acquired.
          We always think that we have done more, we know more and we are well rounded, wise and know it all. Let me give you an example,

          How did our forfathers knew how to make pots with clay…how do they know how to roast and make coffee, how do they know how to ferement Suwa, how did they know how to prepare injera (and may lafa some series chemistry), how do they know how to differentiate the grains from those poison, plough their land, raise their cattle, etc..

          Not to mention our scripts, our languages, etc..

          If we go 500 years back, I think our level of civilization was probably equal or on par to most places around the world.

          What this means is that, our people either they were inventors and explorers like other great people of their time or they travelled well to regions and places to copy / import the technology that were around, including mastery in languages, building boats and other means.

          Now looking back in the past 100 years or so, or the past 60 years of (these of arrogant bunch) that have lived our land, what exactly did we achieve. Did we come up with philosophical proverbs, any advances we made in math, science, technology. True we haven’t had peace to focus but really what’s that we have done.

          Sure we have some people who invented the type writer and some computer programs adapted geez but I can’t think of anything that we actually did. I am not confusing, knowing how to use someone technology, like driving cars, fixing computers, or assembling a factory, really doesn’t count for much invention (by the way majority of Africa and much of world).

          So the way I see it, our forefathers, the same way they adapted and invented technology of the time, they were equally wise philosophers with their contradictions and flaws. A lot of atheist can point out the contradictions of the Bible, so I think it’s natural that we have our own elders full of contradictions as well.


          • iSem

            Hi Berhe:

            Nice! How did they know how to do all the things you mentioned. Add to that how did they know how to build Hidmo? But I think you and I found the answer 10 years ago during one of the many discussions and it was lack of transfer of knowledge through “documentation” it seems the technology we use now has stopped on its tracks. A girl learns cooking from her mother without following any written things and if her mom was “wohalle” she will be one, after years of training, daily. But as Sal always reminds us society that depends on memory and verbal transfer of knowldged cannot go far. The farming tech we use in the highland with oxen is at least 4000 years (Emma, Sal, too late here, pls do not ask me my sources, it is from memory:-)

            I told you this: in Italy I noticed one thing, a farmer who plants big trees on hospitals ectc the way he put the transported trees was application of physics, only wo people, him and his under age kid were able to plant this huge tree in place. Then I imagined in our country, the whole village will be summoned for “wefferra”. With my limited Italian I asked him and he went Newton on me, pulleys and pushing vs pulling, I am serous.
            Ok, Megego, jebbena tsahli were state of the art during their time and now evniromentally friends, but it has not improved, women still tekormiyen ysnktta, the other clay things also stagnate, the tech did not improve to make them less brittle, without changing the material, am not talking about the electrically mogogo. Somewhere, something wrong happened. But this is not unique to us, may civilization have the same problem.
            In lowlands, the hut, and the miliking and every tech stopped
            No, Gheteb will say that I am married to Tigryat and MS will doute my identity and you will not know thism, SJG and Sal and MS will know, my friends Salah( Emma, it is not Saleh:-) told me a low land poem that happened hundreds of years before
            goes like this:
            ad kukuy akelietom tkuuy
            the village of Kikuuky their pots are on the fire.
            I was mesmereized , but now, I think of it like lellan gullellan, aboy fekadu:-))

            So our forethers stagnated , unable to document as you and I used to say and us regressed

            remember this from Dr.Russom:-)

            አብ ስደተይ ወሊደያ

            ደስታ ጓለይ ንዓደይ ወሲደያ

            ምስ ዓባያ አፋሊጠያ

            እንውለ ሓወቦታቲኪ

            እንዋለ ሓትኖታትኪ

            እንውለ ህዝብኺ

            እንሃለ ዕድኺ



            ጣዕሞታ ዀዕንቲ ውሲኽያ

            ንሳ ኢላትኒ ኣቦየ ፈትየዮ ኽሉ

            ግን እቲ ህድሞና ምስኮት ግበረሉ

        • Amde

          Selam Saay,

          I feel bad for saying so, but I wish to disagree with your fine amendment to the unrhymed proto-Amdeism.

          Yes, I do think on average the living are smarter than the dead. I raised it because you mentioned shintoism and ancestor worship (a very fine tradition of ours.. remember the one year, seven year tezkars etc…). In the context of our politics, the unfashionably backward ancestor worship has morphed into the hip and fashionable martyr worship. That is in fact the genesis of this particular proto-Amdeism.

          Are the young wiser than the old? I think the jury is out on that one to be honest. Da yout’ want to make their own mistakes even against advice from da’ old. But I guess that is life.


          • saay7

            Hi Amde:

            Take 2:

            If the living are smarter than the dead,
            And The old are closer to the dead,
            And not the young, so I’ve heard
            By the rules of syllogism, ipso facto
            The young are smarter than the old
            Even if my logic is cold


          • Berhe Y

            Hi saay,

            Your logic make sense but I don’t know if I agree that the young know more than the old.

            Actually I think we are in this mess because we let the young to decide our faith. Just think about, on average the young tegadeti were 20 – 23 years old when the went to meda (I mean those educated class, who started university or finished). Most of them, for the most part went to university from their homes.

            I am speaking strictly about EPLF (the Isayas group). Just look around an average 20 years old, what he can possibly know about anything let alone to be a leader of a country. At best they are a bunch of idealist who have no real life experience. And I don’t think they learned anything all these years they spend in meda, in how a society worked. There was a rEsi Akat leader with an ego and they all perfected to look and be like him, and frankly speaking nothing has changed.

            Jebha on the other hand, the leaders were civilians (teachers, family men etc) who know how society is complicated, who knew how to negotiate, how to resolve conflict etc., but that was their weakness too.
            They would have made the best democrats.


      • tes

        Dear Berhe,

        When you come to language, my knowledge is very limited, specially on proverbs. I can not recite even a very simple phrase. I usually wonder when people put proverbs or parables in their speech. And I understand that those who use proverbs or parables in their lines are mostly wise.

        Here, iSem, Saleh Younis, Saleh Johar, Hayat adem and Fanti Ghana tops all among Awate family.


  • abysinay

    This dud mast be the descendant of the Turkish and Egyptians who turned some of the tigre,and jeberti of tigrigna into Muslim..or another Osman sabe and jebha who tried to arabaise this land…arabic is not Eritrean language except for the rashaida and they come before 150 years…has no root in Eritrea of course the conquerors (turkey and egypt) use it in their courts and some eritrean learn it to coup up with their masters..that is it..THIS IS IDENTITY FOR PURCHASE..PETRO DOLAR .JUST AS SHAEBYA DID IT..I remeber shaebya introduce it in the 6th grade but it failed b/c it has no ground!

  • Solomon

    Selamat Forum,


    by: T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

    HE broad-backed hippopotamus
    Rests on his belly in the mud;
    Although he seems so firm to us
    He is merely flesh and blood.

    Flesh-and-blood is weak and frail,
    Susceptible to nervous shock;
    While the True Church can never fail
    For it is based upon a rock.

    The hippo’s feeble steps may err
    In compassing material ends,
    While the True Church need never stir
    To gather in its dividends.

    The ‘potamus can never reach
    The mango on the mango-tree;
    But fruits of pomegranate and peach
    Refresh the Church from over sea.

    At mating time the hippo’s voice
    Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
    But every week we hear rejoice
    The Church, at being one with God.

    The hippopotamus’s day
    Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
    God works in a mysterious way–
    The Church can sleep and feed at once.

    I saw the ‘potamus take wing
    Ascending from the damp savannas,
    And quiring angels round him sing
    The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

    Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
    And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
    Among the saints he shall be seen
    Performing on a harp of gold.

    He shall be washed as white as snow,
    By all the martyr’d virgins kist,
    While the True Church remains below
    Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.


  • Aron

    Hi SGJ
    I agree to some extent with your claim highlanders shun their southern kin folks, ” But here is the biggest problem that Eritrea faces. The Beni Amer, and the Hedareb, have no problem in recognizing their cross-border relations with their kinsmen in Sudan. The Danakil tribal confederation doesn’t have a problem recognizing their kinship, the Afars in Djibouti and Ethiopia. The Bet Asghede tribes of Sahel do not have a problem recognizing their kinship with their brethren across the border in Sudan or their ancestry in Abyssinia proper. It is only in the Eritrean Highlands that people seem to have a problem recognizing their relations to Tigray and Amhara. Not the Jeberti, not the Saho speaking tribes, not the Erob and not many people who live on the border regions of the area. But as you move further from the border, you have a never-ending attempt to differentiate one’s self and to severe the racial, linguistic, and religious ties with Abyssinia, specially with Tigray!, ”
    Is there any consensus as to why, what are your thoughts. Happy TG day to everyone. Aron

    • Saleh Johar

      Selam Aron,

      Sorry for the belated reply. Yesterday was heavy dinner day 🙂

      I don’t think consensus applies to such issues because generally the views are not accepted or rejected based on rational thinking. Often people become too emotional or defensive and let alone a consensus, their prejudice, fear, indecisiveness prevents them from openly accepting facts. There are empirical facts and when people ignore such facts, it is difficult to have a consensus.

      My thoughts are as follows: there is a never-ending rivalry between the the elite of the Eritrean and Ethiopian highlands (or Abyssinians). It was so between Ras Mikael and Ras Alula, between the kings and princes of the regions in that place, between the warlords , etc. THis has come to the present era as represented by the feud between the EPLF and TPLF. I think it is all about inter-Abyssinian elite rivalry.

      My perspective of the issue is explained on an article which you may read if you are interested. By the way, when I interviewed the late PM Meles Zenawi, he mentioned it to me and said I made a compelling argument. It’s difficult to accept but he was gracious about it.

      Here is the link: http://awate.com/what-ethiopian-eritreanfriendship/

  • Hameed Al-Arabi

    Salam Josef the Great,

    I think you are either from our new generation who didn’t get true Eritrean history or you are alien to Eritrea and its people. The issue of Arabic and Tigrinia began in forties of the twenties century. In 1952 our forefathers agreed and endorsed Arabic and Tigrinia as Official languages in their federal constitution .

    Today Tigrinia ethnic group gripped power, therefore, they invalidated 1952 agreement by force. Now judge my friend you seem to be a rational person: Who is creating all the mess we live in? Who is insisting reiterate same record for decades?

    • Josef the Great

      Hello Hameed,
      I will not respond to first sentence- statements don’t apply to me.
      I am of the point view there is one Eritrean nationality and different language groups.
      I really don’t want to go back 1952 or more than half-century ago.
      We had resembles of civil society in 1952 and Eritrean of that generation were reacting to reality of their world at that time- this is world of Indian/Pakistan split due to religion with its craziness, etc..
      For their time it was a wise decision to reality… It

      Fast forward 2016, we have had no civil society or anything resembling it for nearly 60+ years. You had ethiopian occupation(feudal and dictatorial), 30 years of war(where eritrean movements relied heavily on arabic countries), 20+ years of hellish/dictatorial- no civil society and no participation in global level except as refugee (remember Eritrea has been producing refugees for 50 years). If the Japanese have been producing quality cars for 50 years.. Eritrean has been producing refugee for that amount of time.. we still producing up to 2016…

      Talking about Refugees, we still have the first Eritrean refugee in Sudan from 1967(because of war)

      You question about “who is creating all the mess we live in?” I am don’t how to answer because it is not specific enough… what mess are you talking about?

      Here is country that has been successful with different language/ethnic group..


      If the topic is language usage and etc..

      In terms of Tigriina ethnic/language having power if this is case, how did it happened, what are factors that led to it, is it the ethnic group or just elites who happen to originate from that group, etc..
      General social action need to happen to adjust any disparity with appropriate social mechanism.. but that can only happen in Civil Society.

      • Hameed Al-Arabi

        Salam Josef the Great,

        Now the case is clear, you are old enough to know the mess that goes on in Eritrea from inception. The elite will not be able to move one step forward without support, same as a baby will not grow without care of his parents, but when the child becomes full man his parents can’t control him. Now the regime in Eritrea is beyond control of all Eritreans including their ethnic group.

        I think, Tigrinia ethnic group are morally responsible for what their elites are perpetrating. Please, don’t misunderstand me, I am saying morally.

        • Josef the Great

          we have said somethings but conversation is still not concrete for me. For example, what German did to minority group is clear and documented with policies and action- what is the tigrinya speaking folks morally responsible for?
          For example, should Ngbandi ethnic group be responsible for Mobutu or Shona for Mugabe, Zanki ethnic group for Julius Nyere…
          I don’t know what hindrances you are talking about? What exactly is this article spotlighting or fight back against?

          • Saleh Johar

            Hello Joseph,

            I am the author of the article and I think I should reply to your question:

            You wondered (or asked): “What exactly is this article spotlighting or fight back against?”

            I don’t know I was spotlighting anything but explaining the relations between the two cultures/regions. Fighting back against? I am fighting against ignorance, bigotry, hypocrisy, pretentious patriotism, foolishness, arrogance, and all of that, some of which you have somehow illustrated in your comments.

            My advise to you:

            Firstly, don’t pretend that you know the topic, free yourself of all preconceived perceptions. You are just a new wave in the river, yet, over-taking your knowledge base which is a hindrance to learning. You think you are ahead of yourself and and everybody else, and that will prevent you from learning. If you genuinely want to learn, you will, provided you show the right attitude–the topic has been there for a while.

            Secondly, you showed your dislike of history, but remember those who drive without a rear-view mirror are the foolish.

            And finally, be a little humble and learn instead of passing judgments from an imaginary throne. Be humble.

  • Hameed Al-Arabi

    Hayak Allah Ustaz Saleh Gadi,

    I propose to put the picture in this article as permanent picture in the front page of awate.com It reminds how many tens of thousands passed and will pass in future singing same song.

  • Ismail AA

    Hayak Allah Saleh,

    It’s fine that you have reposted this usefully interesting presentation. It adds flavor to the debates people have been having this past few weeks. Reading through the presentation makes one feel as though it is a first time reading though I read it more than once in two versions of English and Arabic. I recall that the presentation attracted wide readership and input.

    The debate on the status Arabic in the Eritrean socio-political realities should have has become a perpetually recurrent affair. The reason for this is that because it is still a pending matter. Eritreans will have to settle sooner or later because it concerns an- impossible- to-ignore segment of the population that feels self-determination has not been fully fulfilled without the finalization of this matte, which has bearing on material and spiritual interest of its member.

    Apparently the debate often takes academic dimension rather than social and political essence of the matter in the context of the post national liberation realities the ruling regime has imposed without any consultation of the population.

    Some of the elites who endorse and advocate efficacy of the existing order of things wittingly or unwittingly jump over the demand of let say half of the total population. The fact that this violates central essence of the human and political right of part of the people is conveniently ignored. It is advocated that the ruling authorities have rightly chosen for them, and have no option but to settle down, irrespective of how their material and spiritual interest may be affected, and above all how national unity and social cohesion would be impacted.


    • Solomon

      Selamat Mr. IsmaEilAA,

      I will tackle the positive uses of opium that many have equated the substance with religion. The ChirawaTTa proverb or anecdote is not only flawed within the context of our conversations, at least to yours truly at the moment, but our dear Mr. SaliH Johar Ghadi may be looking at it from a very acute angle. As I too from a less than Sixteen degrees access to the Hubble Telescope, with a much wider and obtuse 360 degrees kSHafa to our expanding AAlemat and the Heavens, will feed it with a pace dictated by a different drumers beat. Hopefully the drumers beat will make the Turles swim, run and cycle faster than the Hare. Triathlon Triathlon Triathlon.

      Bitches Brew or Kinda Blue by Miles Davis is my recommendation for your audio pleasures. I will accept and represent you a your Defense Attorney in the case against Semere Tesfay the Hippo’s Belly and Free Market here under this article.
      I will need Mr. Beyan Negash now to post Mile’s Davis above links for the fusion to commence as well as T. S. Eliot’s the Hippopotamus Belly.

      S. T. || T S (Eliot’s mirror if you will.)

      Hammien translation..


  • Stefanos Temelso

    Corrigendum: It is a well known fact that the evil regime abhorred Idris Aba Aare’s negative views about the mother language which the regime mischievously followed. Hiwever, it should be noted that Aba Are was detained because he opposed Askalu Menqerious the then minister of labor and social welfare when she labeled the G15 as traitors in a seminar she conducted one week after the detention of the G15. Aba Arae is the only brave person who openly stood with his comrades. According to witnesses of the seminar he interrupted Askalu by saying, “Don’t ever tell us any lies. These people are heroes and veterans fighters who fought for the emancipation of our people and the liberation of the country. You are saying this because the regime told you to say so and you don’t know them. I know Ogbe Abaraha, Petros Solomon, Haile Weldetensae (Duru’e) etc.I would also like to advise you people not to believe a single word of what she said. Now, you can go and tell your bosses about what I said because if you don’t do so they will imprison you.” My great friend whom I know as a principled person said this because he wanted to be imprisoned with his comrades. I wish God to protect him and his family. May the evil regime perish!

    • Hameed Al-Arabi

      Salam Stefanos Temelso,

      I have seen Idris Aba Area in the ministry of foreign affairs, he is almost very hard to move or stand. I don’t think just “a liar and tell your bosses” sent him to prison for life. What sent Aba Area to dungeons of Isaias is his un-crippled mind, his opposition to exclusion of Arabic language and Tigrinization of Eritrea and other related issues.

      • Stefanos Temelso

        Brother Hamid Ala Arabi, Let me tell you one thing. Idris opposed the language policy of the PFDJ staunchly and the regime knew this long before the G15 movement and it could have thrown him in prison by inventing any excuse. However, there is a concrete evidence that he was imprisoned because he interrupted the seminar and told the audience that what Askalu was saying was totally false.He was not imprisoned alone, Alazar Mesfun and Dr, Siraj were also imprisoned with him because they talked positively about the G15. Facts are facts brother.

        • Hameed Al-Arabi

          Brother Stefanos Temelso,

          I think Isaias would have put G15 in their beginnings of revolt but was waiting for an opportunity to put them in prison, and September 11 was a golden opportunity for Isaias. At this time as we remember the world was busy about fall of the twin towers.

  • Dr. Hassen Ahmed

    Dr. Hassen Ahmed

    Very informative as your previous articles and presentations. I admired your courage and professionalism in dealing with the “gray areas” of our society. I always find your writings as direct and practical translation of the Awate’s vision- Inform, Inspire, Embolden, Reconcile. You “Inform” Eritreans valuable and forward looking information and facts; “Inspire” them to deal with their real concerns, “Embolden” them to discuss their sensitive problems openly and show them the path of “Reconciliation” irrespective of the seriousness and complications of the issues. However I am a bit afraid if your views are reaching to all concerned due to language problems. Translating them in Arabic and Tigrigna will definitely increase the number of beneficiaries. Though I don’t how, but I wish some of your articles be aired in the Opposition Radios and TVs. I think it is not a bad idea to think about how these articles can find their way in to the Ethiopian (specially our Tigray brothers) eyes and ears, as some of our gray areas are linked to theirs.

  • Yes, this issue should be discussed openly and we need such men to put more clearly to our society. In here he has cleaned a lot of confusion, but may need more explanation for further result. I wish Meskerem and other sites read this article.

    • MyRom

      You mean Meskerem website?

  • People are terrified of necessary, but sensitive issues like brother Saleh Johar, presented. If we do not deal with these issues while we are opposition (be it organized or otherwise), it will bring friction. It appears Eritreanism “grew” on hatred, suspicion towards other religions & nations/nationalities. WHO AM I TO TELL OTHERS “WHAT THEIR ORIGIN/ IDENTITY SHOULD BE, when I have been given a fake identity, “HIZBE TIGRIGNA”. I am either Abissinyan-Eritrean or Dembiyan-Eritrean, as my father was from D´mbezan, originating from Dembiya or Tigrean of Eritrea. An AFAR IS an AFAR WHEREEVER HE/ SHE IS!!! We, the so called hizbe tigrigna deny our roots & are trying the same identity crises to the rest!!