I was introduced to a young Eritrean: Vasco da Gama, was his name. Not his given name of course, but a tribute to his trek from Eritrea to the Land of Milk and Honey, crossing the length of two and half continents. Beware: the quickest way to clear a room with the Vasco da Gamas and Magellans of Eritrea is to start talking Eritrean politics, so I didn’t. Do you have the combination to the lock to the shed where the milk and honey is kept? No? Then please spare them! What can you possibly tell a 27-year old who just lived Dante’s inferno?
It is Friday and Live from Asmara (and Qatar and Keren), it is Eid Al Adha, with your host, Mufti Alamin Osman, starring Alamin Abduletif, and Wed Abbe. Eid Al Adha is one of Muslims’ two holiest days, and this being the Republic of Eritrea, Mufti Alamin Osman gave a speech that Abdella Jaber, Yemane Gebreab, or Zemehret Yohannes could have given. Eritrean Muslims and Christians have lived in peace and tranquilty, their unity must be strengthened, money must be raised for orphans, and we must eat right, exercise, recycle, refrain from smoking and drink in moderation. Or something like that. They give him the speech and he reads it: it is the secular fundamentalist’s view of what religion should preach. Anything else would be divisive, which is quite a feat because all religions are divisive; they say: our guys will go to heaven, and your guys, ah, not so much.
Then it was time to celebrate the Eritrean culture of Kuda. Followed by dancing. And, lastly, to round out the celebration of the Eritrean culture, some more Kuda. bKutaki Wellel beli… In Keren, where Alamin Abduletif still refuses to age and can still belt out his tunes. And in Qatar, where some of the Eritreans dancing don’t look like well-fed Diaspora Eritreans. They looked like the Vasco da Gamas you had met. Clearly they are from the generation which has a heart-breaking story to tell.
Oh, those, explains a recently arrived Vasco da Gama. They are Agelgelot who were sent by the Eritrean government to Qattar, on a contract, as truck drivers. I was chatting with them on yahoo this morning, he says. Oh. Then they must be what the maids were in the 1990s. The government gets their salary and then it withholds it—for their own good—and it only deducts 65% of their income. What do they get? A reprieve from rock-lifting, and helicopters and they learn the definition of work ethic—as defined by a country whose citizens (or is it subjects) do no work.
A Monument To Suffering
The suffering of Eritreans is now beyond painful—it has crossed into the epic, into the domain of Russian novelists who excelled in illuminating pain. Perfectly appropriate that Eritrea should buid a statue for the great Russian Alexander Pushkin, whose great grandfather, Hanibal Petrovich Abraham was from Lagwen, Eritrea. Or Ethiopia. Or Chad. Or Cameroon. Somewhere in the Tropic of Cancer. The Pushkin Monument in Asmara is “the first of its kind in Africa”, explained the Administrator of the Central Region, Mr. Tewelde Kelati, at an event commemorating the event. The PFDJ, which is new to the monument-building business, having dismissed it for years as something those other Africans do, reported the event in its usually stilted way–which is to say, it left out all the good parts and told us only of the driest Awet nHafash parts. For the juicy parts, you had to go to the Russian papers.
First of all, it appears that in the interest of diplomacy, the PFDJ temporarily suspended its “Bitsifrina” slogan and did not insist on being given the money for the monument and awarding it in a no-bid contract to Segen Construction. (1) The Russian sculptor Nikolai Kuznetsov-Muromsky is responsible for the statue and (2) the “architectural layout of the project was performed by Moscow architects Maria Ozherelyeva and Mikhail Sudakov.” (3) The Eritrean Orthodox Church was represented by Abune Dioskoros. Well, one of the three involved was a product of Bitsifrina.
A “capsule with soil from Pushkin’s grave” was also imported, prompting the usually stoic Tewelde Kelati to say, “Welcome to the homeland of your ancestors, dear Alexander Sergeyevich.” (Exiled Eritreans who die in foreign lands can hope to return in little capsules if they manage to get dual citizenship and become appreciated there.) This, will, no doubt, trigger a Puskhin race in Africa, with poverty-stricken countries reaching out into their meager resources to erect monuments in time for the great artist’s 200 birthday in June 2010.
An Amice tells me, “there is a Pushkin Center at Addis Abeba University….” Ok. But are Pushkin’s words translated into Amharic, huh? I ask. Yes, he says. But, are his works translated and made part of the country’s currculum like Eritrea has? Is there a Pushkin square, formerly known as Mai Jah-Jah square? Hmmm? Is he included in the Talalak Sewoch of literature and history, hmm? You guys are way behind! You better get going on that Pushkin Race.
The Amice looked at me, smiling, and then I realized: he doesn’t give a care, not one bit, about where Pushkin is from, nor about my imagined race. It is the clash of two generations: mine (the most politicized) and his (the least politicized.) How did that happen? Pushkin has no answers for me; it is Lenin via Marx, via Hegel that describes Dialectic: within the seed of every thesis is the antithesis. And that’s how the most politicized generation gave way to the least politicized. It is like going from the song lyrics of the 1960s (“tax the rich, feed the poor, till there are rich no more”) to the 1970s (“Disco, disco duck, got to have me a woman, Disco, disco duck, Oh get down mama.”) “Well,” asks Dick Clark, “why do you like the song?” Answers the clean-cut kid: “I like it because it has a good beat and you can dance to it.” And screw the lyrics.
Of course, the Pushkin Race requires you to have the good taste to NOT claim that Pushkin is from your particular neighborhood in Africa, just that you are proud he is African. To claim that he is from your part of kifle alem is to be Tihte Kifle Alemawi, which is only marginally better than being tihte hagerawi which, as we all know, is the worst sin that an upstanding secular nationalist can commit. Just ask Mufti Alamin. Learn from the great Hollywood actors and repeat after me: “This Oscar belongs to all of us, really, I am so honored just to be in the company of the other nominees.” Cry to add a fake of authenticity.
Here it is from the Master Thespian himself, in his interview with Russia’s Itar-Tass: “This action doesn’t mean at all that Eritrea is making claims of any kind to kinship with the great poet’s ancestors but it definitely testifies to the interest towards our own history and to the respect we pay to this outstanding poet.”
Of course, we Eritreans don’t have monuments to our founding fathers: Abdulkader Awate, Ibrahim Sultan, Woldeab Woldemariam, etc. But there is no insult intended by this omission: it just so happens that they have no vote at the UN, much less the veto votes that Pushkin’s accidental birthplace offers– and they just can’t help the nation now.
In due time, we shall also have monuments to Vasco Da Gama, Magellan and Columbus in honor of all the young Eritreans who are perishing in the deserts and the high seas running away from the homeland of Pushkin.
A Monument To Conquerors
The Ethiopians are not so subtle. In December 2007, they erected a monument to celebrate Ethiopia’s friendship with Cuba, and specifically Cuba’s role in helping Ethiopia defeat the Somalis (including those of the Ogaden) in 1978. Of course, at the time the Cubans were helping Ethiopia (and dying in its wars), Ethiopia was denying that there were any Cubans in Ethiopia, but then it had no reason to believe that the USSR would crumble and its secrets would be declassified and archived at The Wilson Center.
The poor Cuban ambassador to Ethiopia, Pepe, would write circulars to Havanna perplexed: Mengistu and the local papers keep insisting we are not leading the charge and dying.
Of course, when Ethiopia—with the tiny little help from Cuba—obliterated the Ogadenis and the forces of Siad Barre, its slogan was: “What has been accomplished in the South will be repeated in the North.” And in the north was not just the Eritrean revolution, but the nascent Tigrayan revolution. So the Tigrayan-dominated Ethiopian government was honoring a force that was hell-bent on destroying it 3 decades earlier.
There is also a statue of Menelik the conqueror of Oromia in the capital of Oromo Kilil. This was commissioned by Haile Selasse and it is right in Addis Abeba. This is like building a statue of Radovan Karadzic in Bosnia, but we Africans have different standards. And, let’s not forget the statue of Haile Selasse in Massawa making the point that the Red Sea belongs to Ethiopia. The Ethiopians have odd ways to win over their own people and make them feel that they are equal citizens.
A Monument To The Paranoid
A friend tells me that the makers of Motrin, an over-the-counter pain-killer that is consumed for headaches and every other ache, generate revenues of 2 billion dollars a year from the sale of their little orange pills. And those who fight its side-effects (heart, kidney, liver, stomach) spend 4 billion dollars combatting it. Thinking too much about this statistic may cause headache which requires 600 miligrams of Motrin, but that is ok because the United States has the best healthcare in the world, and I know this because Fox News told me so. Fox News and CNN are subsidiaries of Motrin, and that is why they insist on giving you headaches.
Ah, the above paragraph of Eritrean paranoia was brought to you by…Motrin. In the US, there is a common bumper-sticker that says, well, this is a family website, so let’s replace a word: Stuff Happens. Which is to say, sometimes things happen by coincidence. The Eritrean slogan is: Stuff does NOT happen. To talk to Eritrean politicians or political activists is to go away with one abiding lesson: There are no coincidences in Eritrean politics; everything is co-ordinated, planned, choreographed, and synchronized.
Really? Well, then, if that is so, how come nothing works in Eritrea. Nothing is working for the Eritrean government and absolutely nothing is working for the opposition. How do you explain that? Well, because there is a conspiracy to not make things work. The fact that things don’t work is in itself evidence that they don’t want things to work. Please, izi shitara n’Khali’ki belliyo!
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” Yossarian observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
The second best. The best is the Eritrean paranoia. We do paranoia like nobody else.
Well, of course, every national thinks his country’s politicians wallow in paranoia. Fifty years ago, American essayist Richard Hofstadter wrote about his country’s paranoia in the now-classic “The Paranoid Style In American Politics.” But Hofstadter was talking about fringe elements who greatly influence mainstream politicians in America. In Eritrea, there is no mainstream politics: it is pick your choice from Fringe Paranoid A and Fringe Paranoid B.
And I am not talking about what gets whispered around, but what actually gets published by the government and the opposition parties. According to the government, the G-15 conspired with Anthony Lake and the CIA to telegraph to the Ethiopian government the precise location of Isaias Afwerki to target him for assassination, and then gave commands to the Eritrean Defense Forces to withdraw from their fortified positions. But we cannot bring them to trial because we are still in a state of war with Ethiopia, and if we were to do so, we would tip our hands to their confederates who are still at large and not apprehended.
PS: The tens of thousands of Eritrean youth escaping are victims of human trafficker.
PPS: Everybody opposed to us is paid and bought by the CIA or Weyane. Or a regionalist. Or a jihadist.
The PFDJ practices the politics of conspiracy, but it is high grade conspiracy. It is the sort of novel you would buy at an airport. On the other hand, the politics of conspiracy of the Eritrean opposition is so low-rent, so cheap, you can only buy it at the swap-meet and flea market. Samples below:
Saleh Gadi Johar conspired with Ali Salim (which is to say he conspired with himself, because we all just know that Ali Salim is Saleh Gadi writing under a penname) and Sheik Hamed Turki (who is also Saleh Gadi Johar) to target the EDP-EPM-EPP(I actually listed the names alphabetically to spare the paranoid undue agonies) to target them ,and weaken their unity and resolve, because he was not invited to the birthday party and that is why he refused to clap loudly because that day, and I remember it like it was yesterday, because it was the 3rd of March at 3:00 PM. And when he mentions the words “christian” or “moslem” or “highland” or “lowland”, he does so without inserting a long and meandering paragraph about how these two people co-existed for centuries, thereby endangering our unity which must be fortified, unless everything is done our way, otherwise it is just a way to invite a Rwanda-style genocide, and there you have it.
Therefore, says the other side of the opposition, which is having its own conversation, the Brussels Conference, which was an IMPORTANT MEETING is a prelude to a secret elections that are planned in Eritrea in 2010, which will forever seal the fate of Eritrea and therefore I oppose it, and I am hurt, and I want the world to know I am hurt, and I am taking my ball with me and you can’t play.
But, at the Brussels Conference, they called for the immediate implementation of the final and binding Algiers Agreement and anybody who is opposed to the Conference is opposed to the implementation of the Agreement and let’s not also forget that Ethiopia is for sanctioning the Eritrean government and anybody who supports that is an agent of Ethiopia and, da Iqtrahi fil gediyya y’ani.
I used to wonder whether the PFDJ makes all its fantastic claims about all the Eritreans who are supposed to be foreign spies because it believes it genuinely or just as a means to defeat its political opponents. I am not sure, and I won’t be because I don’t talk to their senior leaders.
On the other hand, I used to wonder whether all the paranoia in the opposition as expressed by the junior cadres and party exponents is political gimmickery or reflects the heartfelt views held by its senior leadership. Recently, I received conclusive confirmation that the mindset that brings us all the absurd propositions espoused by the Internet cadres is shared by its most senior leadership. In short, the fish begins to rot at the head and all the absurdities you read are shared by the bosses.
There is one more monument needed in Eritrea: a statue to Karl L. Kahlbaum, the psychiatrist who first came up with the classification for paranoia. It would be a fine tribute to our paranoid ways. I think his great, great grandfather was from Eritrea.