The inspiration for this topic came from Ali Salim who mentioned it in his last article and considers it responsible (wholly or partially) for today’s “demeaning” attitude of Christians towards Muslims. Whether we agree with such an assessment or not, there is no denying of course that such seemingly innocuous traditional sayings can sometimes lead to animosities and can have far reaching consequences in terms of the perception they create in the minds of people who often divorce it from its contextual and historical setting.
Traditional sayings we must note, though often insightful, do not by themselves carry authority unless they can successfully pass the acid test of contemporary objective reality. In other words, such proverbs or sayings have value only to the extent they accord to the binding dictates of reason and insofar as they remain relevant to our contemporary society or population. If they don’t or cannot (and this saying does not), then they are of interest to us only as a passing historical phenomenon.
But what should such a saying mean to us today. What can we infer from it? Was the person who uttered those words a Muslim basher bent on depriving Muslims of their rights to land ownership among other things or was he/she simply making an innocent remark?
If we are to understand the proverb we have to ask, first of all, whether the saying itself was factually accurate within the particular historical setting or context in which it was made. Like many sayings of this genre, we will of course never know who first uttered them and why. But I think it would be reasonable to assume that he was a farmer (a wizened old fellow perhaps) who seasonally and regularly cultivated a piece of land he called his own for a living. He sees yonder his Muslim compatriot serenely roving about from one area to another never settling in one place. What is he to make of it? Wouldn’t you come to the same conclusion?
Who would care to deny that for a substantial number of Eritrean Muslims, Pastoralism, trade, or a nomadic lifestyle had been a way of life for centuries; that though they have freely roamed the Eritrean landscape for eons and generations, they owned very little of the land that they grew upon or of the pastures their herds grazed from. This presented no problem in the distant past but as settlements grew with the march of modernity, the need to settle and claim land became necessary. Faced with this predicament, Muslims started claiming their lands making them officially their own. Today, many Muslims own land and have settled permanently. So, the saying has lost its relevance.
“Semai andi yeblun”, the second part of the proverb, is just another way of saying that the universe is unfathomable and has no discernible limits or pillars. No scientist would find fault with such an observation. For this reason, I am inclined to believe that the speaker (the originator of the saying) was simply making an innocent but factually accurate observation (contextually speaking.)
But even if we assume that the originator of the phrase was a conniving devil who intensely and passionately hated Muslims, can we really take him/her to be representative of the general sentiments or views of that segment of our population? In other words, would it really make sense to take the saying as the collective manifesto of Tigrigna speaking Christian highlands? If we cannot (and most certainly we cannot), then why mention it at all, why taunt or tease the innocent among them?
I am all for condemning Isayas (PFDJ) and all those who collaborate with him overtly or covertly but I can find no justification for across-the-board denunciation of the entire Tigrigna speaking Christians in the highlands. There is much to be said about collective guilt and punishment but that will have to wait.
But if all the above considerations fail to dissuade us from judging “people by the worst men in it”, dear brothers and sisters, or if it appears to you that I am just trying to ingratiate myself to Christians, perhaps a hard look at our own recent experience with stereotyping when we were at the receiving end may help us understand how others might feel.
Have we really forgotten so quickly? Of all people, we Muslims should know what it feels like to be blamed for what the worst among us did or were accused of doing. Since September 11, we were hounded globally and collectively indicted. Our scholars were blamed for their indifference and silence (not unlike what we are accusing Christian highlanders of); our men and women were cruelly harassed; our privacy was violated and even our religion was ridiculed and attacked. And to this day, mosques are crawling with all sorts of secret agents. This experience should teach us how damaging stereotyping or profiling can be and how devastating “guilt by association” is.
Hence, we must all refrain from wholesale condemnation of any group of people and should resolutely fight all forms of group stereotyping however tempting it may be to our elemental impulses. The danger comes from the fact that such stereotypical perceptions tend to metastasize rapidly into hazardous forms that tantalizingly feed us with the rationalization we need to commit all kinds of atrocities against the group we feel deserves our total and indiscriminate condemnation. Now allow me to divert slightly into other related issues.
I once wrote:
Eritrea that gave birth to so warped a “genius” as Isayas is certainly capable of spawning several copycat Isayas wannabes. This becomes all the more likely when we consider the existence of all those individuals Isayas had been grooming for so many, many, many years. In fact, it is not altogether improbable that among the opposition, there may be some that fit this very description and that are hankering for just such an opportunity (with apologies to the sincere majority in their ranks!).
The above remarks are not very different from what Ali has said (or might have said) on the subject. So, I think he would generally agree with the above statements. The challenge is to make him agree to the following balancing ideas I wrote in the same article:
But the deep well of Eritrean history that brought forth the likes of Isayas also abounds -mercifully – with innumerable men and women of high caliber and sterling character. Therein lies Eritrea’s greatest potential for success. But if we are to draw upon that potential and get rid of the nemesis that is holding our country hostage, we must somehow put more and more of our energies into uniting our ranks and cleaning our acts. This is not a time to scatter energies in different directions nor is this a time to indulge in regional, tribal, and racial demands when the delivery mechanism (democracy) has yet to be secured.
Ali would not fully endorse the above. For him, democracy is too impractical, too wishy-washy to be of any use and he is all for ethno-tribal empowerment. At least that is what I understood from his articles. This qualification is needed because with all due respect to him, Ali can be maddeningly elusive at times leading us to think he is championing the cause of lowlanders in one place and then assuring us that he was in fact airing Muslim grievances within the same article. He would boldly assert that the Sahos and Jebertis are “functionally” lowlanders and then freely use the term “lowlander” and “Muslims” interchangeably as if they were synonyms.
Be that as it may, Ali Salim’s views are shared by many lowlanders and a lot of others and therefore must be taken earnestly. Moreover, beneath these seemingly incompatible assertions, a central message emerges that we would be fools not to take seriously.
And the central message is or Ali Salim is in effect telling us (if I can paraphrase it somehow) that we must begin our journey towards freedom on a firm foundation of justice and fairness and that any talk of “equal opportunity” and even of “democracy” will be meaningless if some of us start this journey severely crippled (landless) and others fully empowered. To that extent, his diagnosis is irreproachable. It is his prescription that worries me because among other things he hints on splitting the nation in some manner (though he did not elaborate) so I will forbear commenting on it prematurely until he does so clearly and unambiguously.
In his last article, Ali Salim stated:
I don’t think it is a good idea to count on the hope that Lowlanders might be tutored into believing that the robbery of their land and identity that are going on in broad daylight and the nightmares that keep haunting them are imaginary hallucinations detached from reality.
Let us make sure (for a change) that this September 18th marks a new beginning for a different journey!
The big question is where are we headed? If democracy is a pipe dream (as Ali Salim contends) and constitution building a fool’s errand, where do we go from here? What is our destination? Are we to duke it out until one of us emerges a victor and let might be the final arbiter of our affairs? If so, how is that different from our current predicament where might already reigns supreme?
A related question: Is Noah’s (Ali’s) ark ready to sail and if so, who will be on the passenger list? The ship started we may imagine with the lowlanders already onboard and we can rule out that the “baboon and his monkeys” (to borrow Ali’s colorful metaphor) will not be invited. The Sahos and Jebertis have been invited. I think Ali would gladly make an exception to include the Semeres, Amanuels, other awate writers, and a few others. And the list will continue to grow I am sure …
That is why I am optimistic that as Ali keeps expanding the list of passengers, more inclusions will follow (perhaps in his upcoming plans and models?) which will hopefully lead him to the conclusion that collective guilt is not the way to go; that it is not the most effective way to air grievances; and that a better way exists; that we must cull out the good from all segments of our society as best we can and take them aboard our ship while simultaneously focusing on the real task at hand: the pursuit of justice and freedom.
Easy or difficult, the quest for justice and fairness must be an ongoing process that the entire nation takes part in. If we can faithfully adhere to the principle of inclusion and can ensure the participation of all segments of our society in the national discourse, we can rest assured that our children and grandchildren will bear the fruits of our long struggle as a nation and we will all live in peace and prosperity …. happily ever after (J)
This is not “in our dreams” Ya Ali! Mightier leaders and nations have fallen! From Napoleon to Hitler, czars to commissars to Hitlers and Mussolinis and in recent times, we saw it happen to Haile Selassie, the Derge, and Sadaam Hussein to name only a few of the notorious ones.
Dictators exude such an aura of invincibility and impregnability while still in power that it is hard to envision their downfall. That is why when the ax finally falls it takes both their supporters and enemies by a complete surprise. But no one feels the all-encompassing horror of the final tremor more than the dictator himself who had become accustomed to triumph over his enemies.
Isayas, like all despots that preceded him, and like all that may follow him will sure meet his end in total disgrace. And if internal dissent continues to fester at its current pace and if the widespread discontent Eritreans are feeling continues to mount, there is no power on earth or heaven that can protect Isayas and his associates from crushing down hard under the collective weight of our people.
Of course, a post-Isayas era will not automatically usher a nirvana but if we conduct ourselves prudently as a people, there is no reason not to hope for better days—if not for a free, robust and vibrant nation at least for a peaceful, freer, and more stable Eritrea. Is that really a utopian dream? Has constant frustration of our aspirations as a people turned us into such eternal pessimists that we cannot even yearn for or envision a future Eritrea with rudiments of peace and stability?
 Of course,we exaggerate here but a person who almost single-handedly transformed a small band of ragtag militia into one of the most formidable military machines in the region and who subsequently managed to keep many of our so-called intellectuals under his beck and call and who has kept multitudes of our people under a deep hypnotic spell for so long is certainly no baboon!