In Saleh “Gadi” Johar’s novel, the characters and their environment are real, vivid, warm and credible above all. A thread of familiarity runs over and about the novel especially to Eritreans and to those who lived in Eritrea for a longer time. Each character and its development take a natural course drawing a smooth curve-description within its Eritrean reality of the time. No jolts and no shocks, all natural, smoothly animated, but this shouldn’t imply monotony and boredom. It only means that the characters are thorough and throughly consistent with their definitions and develop according to the factors determining that development. This is, generally speaking, expected, since the author is writing on an environment he lived in, and experienced since birth. That is also why, for this writer, and probably for many Eritreans, that reading through this novel is more like a journey in being rather than only reading, a sort of resurrection and re-enactment of a past that is fast fading and the novel, most skillfully, came as a reminder.
The famous Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, described his novel “Dead Souls”, as an epic poem in prose, and a novel in verse. Readers who have the good luck of coming across that great, but incomplete, novel and read it find that, in spite of its relatively small volume which may disqualify it from the claimed status to the genus “epic”, the author’s description of his story was in complete harmony with the work and its beauty which leaves the effect of an epic in its reader’s aftertaste.
This writer has read that Russian novel numerous times over time and has touched its beauty repeatedly, a taste which little diminished over time. However, lately, that old aftertaste in the mind was resurrected in this writer’ after a reading the novel: “Of Kings And Bandits”. The joy he felt in reading the novel justifies in his mind and rationalizes for the fairness of evaluating and rating it as a reader. Isn’t it fair that a reader, supposedly, rates the work of an author as a reader, judge it for its impress and beauty, and recommend it to other readers? Isn’t the work directed to readers? If so, the writer of this lines will not shy away or feel embarrassed to rate and judge “Of Kings And Bandits as: “a poem in prose, a novel in verse, an epic story of Eritrea and Eritreans, symbolized and represented by the provincial town of Keren and its people, as they and it, indeed, in reality, were. The writer of these lines believes that in this respect he should feel no reservation, since unlike that great man, who was rating his own work, this writer is doing that for other people’s fine and deserving art –work, that he enjoyed the most.
The town of Keren and its life are described in the novel by the narrator who relates the story as seen through the inquisitive eyes of a young boy (nine years old at the beginning of the story), Jamal, living in, feeling and counting the pulse of the town, his town, the town under a siege by a deadly, predatory plague fiercer than the plague which hit the Algerian city of “Oran “ in Alber Camus’s novel “The Plague”, setting the whole place under cordon from inside as well as from the outside.
It had not been very long since the town buried its past tragedies with the Abyssinian kings, Egyptian conquerors, Mahdists, Italians and others, and just started to look forward to a future of normalcy and sanity, hugging life and attracting people including foreigners.
Then came Janhoi!
The name Janhoi in its proper sense communicates favorability, endearment and reverence towards Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selasse I, but the author of “Kings And Bandits” keeps its full meaning and destination but changes its starting direction.
The author of “Of kings And Bandits” perceived, correctly, that when those who are at the receiving end of a bully’s cruelty loudly enumerate the excesses committed on them by their tyrant while, at the same time, raising his name high in endearing and revering terms, the bully will be redefined for what he is: undoubtedly, in the minds of observers, he will fast peel off his uniform and grow horns on the forehead, a long tail behind and a red-hot pitchfork in the hand. Thus, the author brought a powerful tool of irony for his use in revealing, Morse-code style, the superficiality and fake kindness of Janhoi. The author succeeds in flipping the sense of the word upside down, and makes it communicate terror, whim, enslavement and oppression, without explicitly redefining him.
Keren is seen through the inquisitive eyes of a young boy, Jamal, living in, feeling and counting the pulse of the town, his town, the town under a siege by of the big monster, the plague.
Janhoi was the name of the plague which hit “Keren” and struck it, putting the population under unbearable tension for very long, and many years. Janhoi came in his US gear and Israeli guns, hell-bent on having it his way or the highway. This US war gear in the hands of Janhoi confuses Jamal because he can’t make sense and align it with the US aid of wheat sacks with printed ‘hands- shaking’ on them and the powdered milk for school children, but specially because of Mr. Hugh, the American, ex-kagnew station staffer, and a volunteer whose dedication and courage was to stand out clear on providing help to injured survivors of the Ona massacre. Jamal’s mystification by this contradiction is proper and sensible, since this same mystification was expressed long time ago by the a renowned philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who marveled that there was so much kindness in the world, and so little justice, to which another sage of the twentieth century, the American Will Durant, many years later, responded by saying : “perhaps it is because kindness is a spontaneous sympathy, while justice is bound up with judgment and reason.
My way or the highway was Janhoi’s imposition! This certainly stands on the opposite side of reason. To murder people and kill men women and children for it is the absurd itself. It is real and evil emptiness. To the town it was as if it is walking, now reaching a forked highway both branches leading to the same hell…slavery! But the town thought this out and had a different option in store to surprise Janhoi with.
At the start, people were thrown to jail at Janhoi’s orders, humiliated, pushed around and forced to poverty, they then contemplated the parable of Ambess (explained below) and found its wisdom. It was the stick from heaven, a surprise to Janhoi.
The town fought back.
The young Jamal, his hopes dashed and dreams squashed, was among them: “Only those who joined the rebellion could own their dreams,” he says.
Janhoi vs. Khelifa
Khelifa, Jamal’s grandpa in the novel, is the antithesis of Janhoi. To Khelifa, Keren is his home, to Janhoi it is booty. Khelifa is from Keren, at its roots and internal; Janhoi is incidental, temporary and external. Khelifa has no military gear or guns and practices life believing that there is an authority above him, an authority with rules and balances; Janhoi believes on the fire, iron and chaos under his hand. Khelifa is as old as Janhoi but there too there is a difference: according to Jamal, Khelifa will live forever but there will be an end for Janhoi: how else would Jemal aspire to join the rebellion, when he grows older, if he did not believe in the possibility of bringing about the demise and destruction of Janhoi’s world?
Khelifa’s view of war is also in contrast to Janhoi’s who depends and ever blows on its fires by importing more troops many of whom, like Mokria, are with brains washed and heads stuffed with legends and myths of Janhoi and his celestial origin. These stories corrupt these otherwise young farmers into believing that killing in the name of their worshiped Janhoi and devastating villages like Ona in his name are virtues and acts of nationalism. Khelifa knows war also. But he atones and puts his conscience in the seat as a human being should do. Khelifa is the symbol of conscience, virtue and wisdom in completely human terms including the ignorant’s commitment to error and the enlightened’s commitment to atoning.
“We need atonement for being part in the spilling of blood,” explains Khelifa recalling his past as a soldier in the Italian colonial Army. Erring and atoning is typically human and noble.
In this face of the book, for the book is multi-sided, one may assert that, at a certain level, the book is not only about the Eritrean People, it is about people in general. The central message is one which transcends yesterday, today and tomorrow. It transcends Eritreans to extend to all humanity. The message is that injustice breeds violence and that if one pushes people around, they will, at a point, fight back. This is wisdom as good for any race of humans as it is good for Eritreans, today and tomorrow. This is specially a good advice to the tyrant and his gangs in Eritrea who may be thinking that they are living and will forever be living, free and beyond the law of gravity.
This message is repeated throughout the novel in numerous forms. In a scene describing the difficulties created by the curfew imposed on the town by Janhoi, the narrator gives an account of a developing situation wherein a cripple was to be shot by the soldiers enforcing the curfew, if he doesn’t run fast enough. The narrator says this: “In fear, and to save his dear life, even a legless person would try to outrun a Cheetah.”
This pours into the same stream of wisdom of “don’t push people around.”
Khelifa, a soft spoken, quiet Sufi, makes saddles. A saddle maker is one who makes the controls on a horse through a mechanism. A horse, in all its beauty and majesty, has been used as a symbol of freedom and imagination for a long time. Only conscience and reason limit imagination and freedom. It is reason and conscience who sit on the saddle and control the horse. Uncontrolled, imagination and freedom are only whims and caprices. Khelifa is a saddle maker. The saddle is, then, the control, and what is conscientious reason if not control and orientation towards the good according to the traditional moral standards of the peoples of Eritrea?
Khelifa would never initiate a fight but, for him, self-protection is not only a duty, it is what inevitably happens in the end anyway. He says: “A soldier shoots to protect himself and not to kill; it is that fear for life that kills the enemy. Not all that kill in a battle field know they have killed someone.”
This is only a variation of the familiar principle of “don’t lay siege on your enemy in a closed dead end with no alley to escape through.” If that happens, he, in desperation, will find the “stick from heaven” and fight back, even harder.
Signs and symbols
Khelifa, is a symbol of conscience, reason, and humanity. Janhoi is a symbol of evil, cruelty and corruption. These are not the only pointing gestures and signs in the novel. The novel is rich with symbols, sometimes taking the form of parables and metaphors. In fact, signs and symbols in the novel start very early, even before the narrator starts telling his story. It starts right at the cover! The graphic on the cover of the book including the title is indeed a complex statement, one that uses spatial relations and color between its tools of expression.
In real life, no one has the audacity to face and look at Janhoi let alone gazing back, steadily, at him. One is expected to look down bending to Janhoi’s feet in submission, if not prostrating flat on the ground. But, Jamal, in military fatigues like Janhoi, is wearing the bandits’ flag on his right arm staring straight back at Janhoi, who is also wearing his flag of the Empire on the left Arm. In Eritrean popular cultures, as in many other cultures, right and left arms have significance transcending their spatial denotations. They signify good and evil. The bandit is the king and the king is the bandit.
But this is only the beginning of symbolism, sprinkled generously around the novel. The novel itself is a symbolical narrative on the war raging since eternity, the war between Good and Evil.
Take another instance, the parable of Ambess the dog who controls the alley and persecutes Jemal. This is a double symbol in a single parable considering that the word Ambess is derived from the word Ambessa (for lion in Tigrigna/ Amharic) which is also the central icon of the imperial Ethiopian flag.
The unjust and unfair governor who scrapes a cement inscription, on which the word Justice was inscribed in Arabic, is another smart and powerful symbolic association. A female character, Betul, dying while pregnant is another symbol of hopes dashed and nipped in the bud, just how hopes of Eritrean independence were nipped in the bud and the hoped for baby ( independence) died inside it.
An important aspect of writing a novel is the characters. Characters need to be credible and authentic so that readers can relate to them in any way. A reader could hate them, love them, feel bad for them, laugh at them, cry for them, and worry about them. A good novel has characters that come to life on the pages.
A good novel is created with words that entice the reader, a hook that gets them ultimately interested in the story and what it is about. Characters are the elements which ultimately hold the story together. In “Of Kings And Bandits”, characters are familiar and real. Relatively, the novel is crowded with colorful characters. It is easy for the reader to relate to these characters and feel affinity to them.
Besides Janhoi who, like Khelifa, is omnipresent and all over the atmosphere of the novel, you have Bakri the discreet, serious, loving father, who wouldn’t authorize disciplining his son by a stick even if it was to a teacher. You meet Andom the bicycles renter who thinks America is “a giant”, an expression to which his friend Srinji responds by stating that the giant is one inflicted with trachoma. You meet Idris the ‘Maciste’ look-alike dragging his pet, a lamb. No character usually found in a provincial town is forgotten in this novel, including the misfits.
The foreigners of Keren are also not forgotten. You will meet Halim the qat chewing Yemeni who trusts no blacks because a Nigerian shaman swindled him; Dmitri the Greek clock-repairman; Gianni, a reminiscent of Doc, owner of western biological lab in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday “supplying orders of marine creatures to all the US”, except that Gianni of Keren supplied orders of exotic animals to Europe; Shlomo, the Jew who once claimed to own the know-how of making Molotov cocktails and crude bombs but chickens when he is required to deliver. Mario, the Italian loner and onions supplier who took Terhas in his service as a house-maiden, but then, he took more than she signed for and got sued for it.
You will see also Ethiopian characters: Mokria the unforgettable of them all; Colonel Welana, the butcher of Ona who wouldn’t allow the town to bury its victims for two days; and Mekonnen, the soldier who juggled his belief that Janhoi is as immovable as a wall with his practice of financing his night-life expenses by stealing Army supplies and trading them at Ahmed’s shop.
The book can be seen, at another level, as a summary of the history of Keren since its foundation by the Swiss viceroy of the Khedive of Egypt (who also was the first governor for Keren) down until and beyond Degiat’s era of Janhoy. You will read there of the arrival of the Italians and their earlier interaction with the local inhabitants of Keren. You will come in the novel across gems, usually not readily available in books about Eritrea, a glittering one such as mentioned, is the account given in the novel of the origin and establishment of Miriam Daarit, a shrine celebrated by all denominations of the area.
Perhaps it is because of the expanse of the novel that its story has to be told in a spiral and parallel flow of events rather than the customary linear narration where events are more or less chronologically serial. The broad coverage of the story needed a broader technique of telling the story, it needed a weaving of a large Persian-rag like area rather than a long thin thread segmented and colored through its length.
Stages of development of the novel are anchored to well known historical junctures and turning points in the history of Eritrea and the world, extending to early seventies of the last century: the bombing at Agordat; the assassination/suicide of General Tedla Uqbit; Martin Luther King, his “I have a dream“ speech and assassination; the assassination of John Kennedy; the Battle of Halhal; the fall of General Teshome, commander of Janhoi’s Army in Eritrea; the massacres of Besekdira and Ona; the six days Arab Israeli war, the Vietnam War.
Of all the chapters in the novel, chapter 24 stands out as a bright monument in memory of the innocent victims of the village of Ona. A monument, putting into ignorance and shame those who squandered Eritrean people’s resources erecting a monument for the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin whose irrelevance to Eritrea or even Ethiopia was recently proven, irreversibly, and his ancestor’s village of Logon was recognized as being in the north of Lake Chad, from where the great grand father was sold to slavery in Libya an ottoman province at the time, and later to Turkey and Russia.
The creation of the book “Of Kings And Bandits” would have been justified even if it had contained no other chapter except chapter 24. It was the first time, as far as this writer is concerned, that the tragedy at Ona was dramatized in detailed, graphic description.
Customs and Traditions
Customs and traditions are another protagonist in this novel. Many of them are performed along the way of development of the story. Customs pertaining to marriages and deaths are dramatized as they are practiced. The Zar cult, its rituals, the Buda possession, exorcism, midwifery, circumcision and associated rituals, Sufis and other traditions are also practiced and explained in the context. The novel documents, beautifully, these fast disappearing cultural peculiarities. An excellent reminder to younger Eritrean students aspiring to take sociology or anthropology as their fields of specializations, to orientate and direct their attention to the rich materials the old Eritrean societies offer, materials now fading rapidly and irreversibly.
There are, in many countries and languages, history books of towns and cities. There are even books in history of single structures, landmark buildings and interesting places. The novel makes a few gestures towards this fascinating subject: it refers to the Tigu fortress and Muntzinger’s house of government; it alludes to the Second World War Battle of Keren, the Italian war cemetery, the British war cemetery, and other grave yards. This could spur and stimulate some inquisitive Eritrean scholars of the future to dig into research and bring these places in line with the Eritrean history and from the Eritrean native perspective. “Of Kings and Bandits” is a good start for this tradition of historicizing places in our Eritrean environment.
The narrator of the novel, for the good luck of his readers is conspicuously obsessed with places–a fascination contagious and enough to overflow and overwhelm the reader. An instance of this is when Jemal, high at Mario’s building on the spiral stair-case overlooking the town and Teresa standing by him, goes into a trance-like state of mind and starts what this writer likes to call “painting with words taken for a brush”, he:
“…looked to the horizon beyond Megareh, to the side of the Rora Bet Gebru plateaus and the Zban range. He could see the Daari confluence with the Anseba river at Tsebab, he could see the hills of the Bambi, the Ayig mountain range and the hills of Beskdira. He could see the hills of Halib Mentel, Mt Etaaber blocking the view to the Shfshifi River and Carlo’s dead gardens. All of a sudden, the cubicle on top of the spiral felt safer. The vivid scenery imprinted in his memory, Jemal hoped it would stay there for ever as he walked home.”
This writer was unsettled, anxious to have that landscape in his memory too, in all the majesty and the vividness in Jemal’s mind. The best this writer could come up for relief was to point his browser to Google earth and bring the view Eritrea/Keren to see Daari confluence with the Anseba river and roughly interpolate where Mario’s building was and where Jamal stood mesmerized as if he was possessed.
Humor and Sarcasm
You cannot take on schizophrenia or paranoia in another man by a frontal attack to cure the disease. You fail if you try that; the paranoid will take your efforts part of the conspiracy in progress against him. The only hope is to attack side ways, indirect that is, as psychiatrists do, and bring the fallacy home to the conscience avoiding the elaborations of reason.
A related parallel condition to this is when an artist engages himself in describing and portraying a situation by making it naturally stand out. The most sensible way of doing that is also by indirect attack: taking irony, sarcasm and humor as tools in his venture, the artist takes on his object of interest side-ways and strikes his target at bull’s eye.
One of the most influential and most praised of novels is Gogol’s “Dead Souls”. Humorous, ironic, but realistic and as serious as novels can get. Take for example this scene from that novel when a swindling stranger, posing as a businessman, comes to a provincial town. After securing a room for himself and his two servants, the first thing he does is to go around the town sight-seeing and learning about the worthies of the town, among them the governor, with whom he is to meet them the next day. He comes to the town’s park to discover a deficit or two in the town’s administration. Here is how the narrator relates it:
“He also looked into the town park, which consisted of spindly trees which had not taken root properly and which were propped up from below by triangular supports very beautifully painted with green oil paint. However, though these trees were no higher than reeds, the local newspaper reporting some public fête, declared that ‘Thanks to the solicitude of our mayor, our parking have been adorned with a park of spreading, shady trees providing coolness on a hot sunny day’ and that it was very touching to observe how the hearts of the citizens were throbbing in an excesses of gratitude and pouring out floods of tears in recognition of the great services rendered them by our town governor.”
It only needs a scratch to tell the stranger about the sad conditions of the governorate and the rule of hypocrisy in the town.
Surprisingly, there is a passage in “Kings and Bandits”, strikingly similar in spirit to the Russian anecdote above, bearing the same message. Here is what Saleh Gadi Johar wrote in his novel:
“A few months earlier, the municipality had planted dozens of Neem trees on the side of the streets and most of them had become a free meal for passing goats. The worker who watered them every other day hadn’t done so for a while, and now the soil around the roots had dried and the shield of bamboo reeds, built around them as a protection from the preying animals, had been damaged. Jemal wondered how the sapling would grow on a ration of a cupful of water every other day. But a few trees had already proved him wrong. They had healthy leaves and got bushier by the day. Jemal looked up to the sky and told himself: if these trees die; the sun is responsible.”
This humorous passage is, like Gogol’s quoted above, a direct pointer to the deficit in administrating and running the town: it felt like things were left for the sky to run them.
It is possible that all the implications detailed in this essay have never passed the novelist’s mind. He may have other implications and associations in his mind while writing what he wrote. It is even possible that he may have had no implication or association whatsoever and that he was only recording the flow of his imagination. All that may be true, but it is also equally true that the implications and significations which this essay has indicated are present there and not imaginary. Creators of classics and art-works are seldom aware of the implications present in their work. The word Classic, meaning that which comes at the head of a class, points to this truth, for, how can a creator of a classic be aware of the whole class which will fall under his creation’s name as a title, in the future. A classic is one which defines a class.
There are, certainly, other implications in the novel “Of Kings And Bandits”, but that is for the readers to discover.
After saying all the good things which this novel has brought, one has to add that no human work is perfect. And what we may see as perfect is only approaching perfection to never reach it. Considering this, this novel, also, should have shortcomings. After a first read, this writer has observed no failure in the logic of the story neither in its style. However, a small lexicon at the end of the book defining local words and peculiarities would have been of great help to non-Eritrean readers. This can be easily dealt with in the second edition, and it is certain that there will be more than one in the future, although the first edition is ordinarily the holy grail of edition: it is the collector’s edition.
One last thing is that after reading the novel, one is left with the sense that what has been described in the novel in the past-tense is still with us in the present. True, Janhoi seemed to have lost the war and gave up his adventure, but the truth is that Janhoi is still with us; his only response to his defeat was changing of titles and names.
Because of the Eritrean exceptional Diaspora circumstances, Eritrean literature too has to speak in foreign tongues. While this makes it wealthier, it makes it, also, less accessible to the average Eritrean. Novels and other art works are now written in Tigrigna, Arabic, English, German, and other languages.
You have Ahmed Omar Sheikh, a novelist and a poet who writes in Arabic. He achieved fame, notability and made it to the head lines of almost all Arabic magazines and newspapers, won, so far, four major Arabic literature awards. His works were discussed in the pages of the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram; the UK based Saudi Al-hayat, the Kwaiti Al-Arabi and a dozen or more other Arabic magazines and papers.
You have also Suleiman Addonia, a young novelist, whose “The Consequences Of Love”, a novel about life and love in Saudi Arabia, was recently published and translated into 28 Languages– but Tigrigna was not one of them.
You have also, “Hamid Abubakr Kahal”, who lives in Libya. He writes in Arabic and has achieved fame and notability in the Arab world specially for his novel “African Titanics,” which portrays the saga of the African boat-people.
These Eritrean novels, though excellent are not yet translated to Tigrigna. It would be a double tragedy if “Of Kings and Bandits” goes without being translated into Arabic and Tigrigna: the novel is far superior to any of the above mentioned works, in substance and technique.
Of Kings And Bandits, 327 pages, available at:
www.negaritmedia.com www.amazon.com and Kindle-ebook