“Of Kings And Bandits” is described by its author as the story of Jemal, a young Eritrean boy who grows up in the “garrison town” of Keren, in the heart of Eritrea, in the crossfire between governmental and rebel forces. The title of the book harkens to Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, which is a story of crowded but lonely Americans, people who were dealt by fate a terrible hand, and are in search of something elusive—a piece of land, dignity, lost grandeur. Whereas the great trigger for the social unrest described in Of Mice And Men is the Great Depression, it is the launch of Eritrea’s revolution, its Armed Struggle, which triggers the series of events described in Of Kings And Bandits. It seems that mankind’s choices are universal and always the same: endure, flee, fight or perish.
Well, that is the synopsis. But how this chronicle is told depends on the author. Saleh Gadi Johar has chosen the historical novel approach to tell this story and anyone who has read any of his dozens of essays over the years will not be surprised that he has chosen Keren, the birthplace of the protagonist Jemal (and the author), to be the virtual narrator of the story. The choice of Keren as the setting is a clever ploy for a number of reasons: Firstly, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Keren was the largest town to wear the brunt of most of imperial Ethiopia’s assault on the “bandits” (the Eritrean revolutionary fighters); Second, the town is, as its natives never tire of stating, a microcosm of Eritrea and its occupiers which means it’s the story of Eritrea; and thirdly, it is a city full of, ah, colorful characters who are always handy to an author.
Narrated in the third person, “Of Kings And Bandits” has five main characters; the primary one being Jemal, whom we meet when he is 9 years old and who is in his late teens in the book’s final pages. The second character—or a set of characters, actually—is his immediate family and family friends who provide the building blocks for the character-formation of Jemal. Then there is Mokria, an Ethiopian soldier from Wehni Behr, a true believer in the legitimacy of the Ethiopian monarchy; Gebrrebi, an Eritrean university student from the village of Beskdira in the outskirts of Keren; and Ashmelash an Eritrean university student from the Eritrean highlands. The stories of the various characters are woven together through a common thread—Keren—and their interaction is the essence of the story.
A figure that looms large in Of Kings And Men (and on its cover) is the then-ruler of Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie I, who is referred to (and not affectionately) by many of his monikers: Janhoi, King of Kings, Mo’a Anbessa Ze’amnegede Yihuda (The Lion of Judah who, according to Ethiopian folklore, is the direct descendant of Israelites who returned with the Queen of Sheba after her visit to King Solomon.) Haile Selassie I –Where the “I” stands for Roman numeral 1 but is translated as the possessive noun for Rastaman everywhere– is the antagonist (King) to Jemal’s protagonist (bandit.)
The author’s derision of Haile Selassie I is perhaps the one likely to be the most controversial since, for a surprisingly large number of people, the king is a sympathetic figure. There are the Westerners who have a collage of sentiments showing the King as a sympathetic victim of fascist aggression, a well-meaning monarch trying to modernize a feudal society, a benign king who may have ruled with an iron fist, but a just one–and he had the good manners, for an African, to attend the funeral of John F. Kennedy for God’s sake. For pan-Africanists, Haile Selassie is the co-founder of the African Union, and a strong voice for the continent. Then there are the Abyssinians (“Habesha”)—i.e., Ethiopians from Shewa, Gojjam, Gonder, Tigray; as well as Eritreans from the highlands—who viewed the king as a divinely inspired figure. But to the residents of Keren, and most of the Eritrean lowlands, Haile Selassie was as monstrous as the world’s greatest ogres.
It is not uncommon to see Eritreans from that region who treat reggae music, and its deification of Haile Selassie, the same way that classical music lovers treat Wagner, who was one Hitler’s favorite musicians. I had a friend, a huge reggae fan, who used to go insane at the band Culture’s incoherent Why I Am A Rastaman song (sample lyrics: “many people see I, many people ask I, why I am a Rastaman, it’s because of the Babylon and the situation.”) Well, ok. Wonder what he would think now if he saw the Ethiopian flag with the Lion of Judah waving next to the Eritrean flag, as it does in Teddy Afro concerts and Ethiopian social events.
The author’s decision to place the tale of Mehlab, a beautifully told story of the gruesome hanging of Eritreans who were killed in battle, as chapter 1 of his book cannot be coincidental: it is the author telling his readers: this is what the king that you may admire was responsible for:
“A man brought a load of nooses from one of the trucks and laid them under the poles. Then the workers started to push the bodies and drop them to the ground from the bed of the trucks. The bodies thudded like heavy sacks and landed in awkward positions. A few soldiers went to work and placed nooses and slipknots around the necks of the bodies. Once they looped the nooses, they carried the bodies one after the other, and standing on the rungs of the ladder, hanged them on the crossbar: twenty-one bodies dangled from it. The neck of a body with bloodied British gaiters was almost severed, so they passed the noose under the armpits, while the head seemed clipped to the back in an upside down position. All the bodies had chunks of dried blood blackened by the heat of the sun.”
And if you want to argue that, as gruesome as hanging dead people may be to your senses, that was war and therefore justifiable, Johar tells the story of Ona and Beskedira—the massacre of innocent women, children and elderly civilians, by the hundreds—in the outskirts of Keren.
Now these stories have been told before: what is different in Of Kings And Bandits is that it is done from an eye-witness account, from the perspective of a young boy, and within the context of the daily grind of trying to have a normal life.
In most of the books that deal with the Eritrea-Ethiopia wars of 1961-1991, the characters are uni-dimensional: one side is cruel and evil; and the other side is good and well-meaning. In Of Kings And Bandits, the characters are more complex and fully drawn: their background and motivation is sufficiently layered that their actions, no matter how atrocious, are placed within that context. Mokria, for example, is a Tor Serawit (a regular in the Ethiopian Army) and the face of Ethiopia’s aggression and every thing he does while assigned to Keren is atrocious. But the author takes the trouble to give us his background which enables the reader to reach a conclusion different from “Mokria-is-pure-evil:”
“Mergheta Kndye promoted him to the next level; he would now study the Kebre Neggest, a book he absorbed with excitement together with a few other boys. Mergheta Kndye surrounded the Kebre Neggest with so much aura that Mokria considered it as important as the bible. The teacher didn’t show his students the difference—maybe he didn’t see any. Neither did Mokria discover any while reading the captivating stories of kings, “stories over two-thousand years old,” as Mergheta Kndye explained. His father was right. In the book, Mokria found the mythical origin of Janhoi, straight from the veins of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba…. Mokria thought it only natural that Janhoi, the present king, should belong to such a couple and such an affair…”
And while Of Kings And Bandits takes the trouble to draw out its characters by telling us about their childhood and background, it has an unflinching readiness to tell us who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, from the perspective of the narrator. First, there is the case of King of Kings Haile Selassie who presided over one of the most brutal massacres of Eritreans and, to this date, is regarded affectionately or at least respectfully by many Eritreans (many of whom STILL bestow on him the royal “they” when they speak of him.) Then there are the Commandos, the Israeli-trained and equipped commando units of Eritreans who were, until their awakening, as loyal to the Ethiopian king as any Ethiopian soldier from the heartland of Ethiopia. In Of Kings And Bandits, they are portrayed as unthinking brutes, which is a counter-narrative to the long-running exaltation of them as brave, if misguided, Eritreans. Thus, while a historical fiction, the book reads like the author had in mind a goal of setting the record straight, or at least offering a counter-narrative to the prevailing conventional wisdom jotted in the history books of Eritrea.
But what makes the book so captivating is that it manages to avoid the trap of dryness that seems to be the curse of books dealing with Eritrean history, by populating its pages with a dozen of colorful and memorable characters employed in various crafts: shopkeepers, bicycle rental providers, tea-shop owners, carpenters and of course (since this is Keren, after all) crazy people. They are classic Eritreans, which is to say that they have an opinion about everything and every country in the world which, of course, they refer to in the male singular: “America is uncontrollable when he gets angry!” Among the catalog of the colorful, there is a character named Shutuphouse who is too weird to be fictitious; Haleem, the Yemeni khat-chewing model of idleness and, my favorite, Adem, the ambulance driver, who seems to be genuinely shocked that he has to work for a living:
“Nearly out of breath and puffing, the nurse found Adem, who instantly knew he had to drive the Godforsaken ambulance to Asmera. He dropped the billiard balls in the middle of the game and the nurse briefed him about the patient on the way to the hospital, a fifteen-minute walk from almost anywhere in town. Adem hopped into the ambulance cursing the doctor, nurses and even the patient for interrupting his fun time. “Why is he still living anyway?” Adem would mutter of old patients. If it was a young patient, he blamed the doctor. “Good for nothing. He can’t cure anyone,” he whispered in disdain.”
In many parts of Of Kings And Bandits, the book reads like the author’s Negarit column at the website he established, awate.com. It is oral history set to words. The novel doesn’t follow a linear path, a timeline of events in sequence. Rather it is structured in overlapping layers with each narration set as a moral story, detailed, colorful, employing rich prose, and all leading towards a moral choice: will the boy, Jemal, decide to follow the advice of people like his grandfather, who still shudder at their role in Italian imperial wars, and choose the “path of peace”? Or will he, outraged by all that he sees, decide to join the “bandits” and raise his gun against “his” king?
In Eritrea, because one absolute ruler has been replaced by another, it is not uncommon now for many Eritreans (like all revolutionaries before them) to ask the question, “Why was this revolution even started at all? Was it worth all the blood which was shed, and all the sacrifices that were made?” Of Kings And Bandits reminds those who have forgotten, or those who don’t know, that however the goals of the revolution have been disfigured and betrayed by Eritrea’s current tyrant (and why the nation seems to go from one autocrat to another is a different book that is yet to be written), the cause of the revolution was just and, the revolution was inevitable.
As with all English-language books which tell the story of English non-speakers, Of Kings And Bandits faces the challenge of capturing the nuances of local dialect and one of the fun exercises for Eritrean and Ethiopian readers of the book will be to determine if it has met the challenge.
There are two improvements, in related areas, that the book could benefit from. Firstly, because it is not structured in a linear format, the introduction of three different characters in the first three chapters may confuse the readers prompting them with the one question an author abhors: “where are you taking me with this?” Secondly, in an effort not to retell a story often told, the author skips the familiar and by now terribly boring introduction used in most books about Eritrea (“First came the Turks, then the Egyptians, then the Italians, then the Brits….”), the reader who is not familiar with Eritrea at all may be lost, but only for a page or two. There is an easy fix for this, which is to add a preface to the book.
If you are a lover of great stories, if you want an understanding into the human condition, if you want validation that the great moral questions are universal, if you want an insight into what causes and sustains an uprising, I highly recommend Of Kings And Bandits.