Mr. Johar! Mr. Johar! It was Big Bird calling my name; I could see the bright red mouth when it opened its yellow beak. There was clamor, unusual commotion for the calm Sesame Street Show. The noise became tense, and louder. Big Bird continued calling my name: Mr. Johar. Mr. Johar!
When I opened my eyes there was a pretty face of a nurse calling my name, “Mr. Johar! Can you hear me?” I could hear her, fine. But what was she doing on the Sesame Street Show! Where did Big Bird go? I slipped back into a dark, empty tunnel, and plummeted down until I hit the bottom, a wide, bright space, and I found myself standing in front of a huge, luminous, shiny white creature staring at me with gaping mouth. Then the creature looked at a list he had and exclaimed, “You are not in the list! Who…. What, brought you here?”
I mumbled, “I am Eritrean, I travel aimlessly, I even missed Addis Ababa and ended up in Nairobi. Why are you surprised?”
The creature shook his head, “but you can’t come here on your own, you will be brought in when your time is up! Go away! NOW!” The echo of his angry “Now” scream reverberated throughout the valley and sent waves of jitters around. Then suddenly he flapped his wings and glided away to the clouds on the horizon. Someone whispered, “that angel is the gatekeeper of the afterlife”. Then there was Big Bird, calling my name, again, “Mr. Johar, Mr. Johar!”
I woke up and the pretty nurse was still looking at me. “There! We have you back,” she said, with a big smile. This time something wildly pounded inside my chest, I saw wires of different colors stuck all over my body. Beads of sweat rolled over my forehead and cheeks; my heart was racing, faster. The nurse smiled again. Then something inside my stomach bothered me. I pointed to a bucket on the table and the nurse brought it over: Hoooouuuugh! Trying to push the thick yellowish, acidic thing out, I almost threw up my guts. The nurse pierced my wrist vein with the world’s sharpest syringe and in seconds everything looked blurry, and I went to sleep. Thereafter, I stayed seven days glued to a bed, hallucinating in a place they call ICU, and three more days in a less scary room. As you might have imagined, heart attack or panic attack, I cheated death and now I am back, clean. Detoxified. I gave up on the “Knot on my life”, the stinky stuff that was glued to my lips for decades.
Such miracle is a result of the prayers of good people, (Dua’a al Saleheen) and all of you good people out there, thank you for your prayers. Thanks to the Almighty, and thanks to you all.
I was feeling guilty for not reporting about my last trip to Addis Ababa and Nairobi in November 2015. A little drama came in the way and my report was delayed. Then, after a few weeks I had to travel to Southern California to attend the GEAN meeting, see my son off on his trip to Africa for the final leg of his masters degree program, and I couldn’t make it back home from my travel in time—it took me 13 hours of grueling train ride, one more hour of driving, and I slept like it was my last sleep. The report was the first thing I wanted to write, but I couldn’t.
A day earlier I had talked to Yohannes Tikabo who wanted permission to use a Negarit edition of “Scent of Lemon: An Example Of Refined Eritrean Song” for his website. Okay, that respect of copyrights is simply an inspiring decency the Internet is not used to.
I had planned to attend Wedi Tikabo’s New Year concert in Oakland but unfortunately I couldn’t make it—I spent the night throwing up and being poked by a million sharp needles in my chest, from the inside. Then when I was about to pass out, my daughter drove me to the Emergency Room from where they immediately hauled me away in an ambulance, to the Cardiac hospital, and straight to an operating table, where I learned a new word, and a cure: stents. Three of them on three of my arteries. It was nothing serious, only someone had to shave my groin and I was not in a position to object but swallow my pride. Humiliation! Now I am sure you will excuse me for the delay of my Africa travel report (NB: I was bitten by the Western ignorance bug; Africa is one big country, not a continent!) But honestly, I really do not know what to write about Nairobi. I stayed in one hotel for a day, and a dinner in an Abyssinian restaurant, nothing special about that. The venue was in a remote village, it was fine, but no adventure, no lions or elephants, just trees and a huge building in the middle of nowhere—I can’t describe it better than a Safari video on National Geographic Channel.
I Was Terrorized!
When the Lufthansa flight I boarded in Frankfurt landed in Addis Ababa, my heart was still pounding. To my surprise, the airplane made a stopover in Jeddah though no one had told me about it! I reached for the map on the in-flight magazine and saw the flight path from Jeddah to Addis passes over Asmara, or, so I thought. I screamed and made a scene. The stewardess called the captain and I complained: “You never told me you will fly over Eritrea? What happens in an event of an emergency—maybe you want to refuel—would you land in Asmara?”
Thanks to the notorious PFDJ, the captain was well informed about Eritrea and he asked me: “are you opposition of Isaaiz Afvekhki?”
My eyes popped out: Yes!
He smiled and explained to me the flight path: “von Jeddah ve go saus, then ve tekhn vest below suvakin, then ve leave kassla to ze khite, and tessnei to ze left and ve continue saus until ve kkhoss tekezze khivekh,then ve tekhn east and finally saus to Addis Abeba. Ve do not fly ovekh Ekhitkhean aikhspace.”
Oh! I was relieved, for moments. Once airborne, I looked out of the window and towards the horizon across the Red Sea, and to the hazy amber glow of the setting sun. Tears flowed down my cheeks. What have Eritreans done to deserve this? Why am I afraid to fly over the airspace of my country? What kind of fear is ruling my beloved country? Worse, while the young leave it in droves, the rest are tormented by nostalgia and longing for our country, but yet we are afraid to even fly over it! I put the earphones as an escape from reality, the audio system played a 1988 Bobby McFerrin song, “Don’t worry. Be happy!”
The Spaghetti Eating Contest
In Addis Ababa they had a spaghetti eating contest at the hotel where I stayed and they forcefully made me sit on a chair. About a dozen Diaspora (I am not sure Ethiopians or Eritreans) contestants sat around the table. A man with a whistle stood on the side, he announced, “at the sound of the whistle, you start eating, the last three to finish will get a spaghetti eating training in Asmara, while the first to finish will get free spaghetti meals for one week: breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Piece of cake, I mean piece of spaghetti, for me. All the contestants except three tried to eat the spaghetti with spoons leaving the forks idle. They tried to load the spaghetti on the spoons and when it didn’t work, they used their fingers as forks and tried to win, over an Eritrean! Uffff, they never give up! Obviously they lost. And since then I have been praying they do not react by invading Asseb. You know, there are a few humorless Ethiopians who would threaten to invade Asseb for trivial reasons—for losing a video game, a school basketball game, any game to an Eritrean, even when they lose a spaghetti eating contest, the first revenge that comes to their mind is, “We will retake Asseb”. It is too bad for Eritreans, we cannot unlearn what the colonizers taught us, including a few other things, though I wish we could unlearn racism, arrogance and empty bravado.
But why a spaghetti competition, and why involve me? I am not sure, but I suspect it is a an attempt at a prank by a few of my Ethiopian friends who were so sure they will win. My advice to Ethiopians: stay away from spaghetti and tagliatelle. Do with other, easiet to handle types of pastas: Penne, Macaroni, Rotini, Farfalloni Ravioli, and many non-spaghetti-like long pastas.
My Friends The Mannequins
Before leaving for Nairobi, I went to the city streets to meet the bona-fide Addis Ababans: the mannequins. And now I am almost certain why the population of Addis Ababa is increasing exponentially; I suspect they counted the mannequins in the last census. So, from then on, unless I see a breakdown of the population—Diaspora people and mannequins—I will not take the census numbers at face value. Interestingly, all the mannequins are frenji, mostly blonde. At any rate, I hugged the living, paid my respects to the dead mannequins, those that died since my last visit, consoled the ones that were amputated and now relegated to the dark alleys and dumb storage spaces, the poor homeless mannequins. It was late at night when I bid them farewell, until next time: sleyachhu b’enba!
On the way back to my hotel I observed Addis Ababa has developed an impressive city ordinance; at least on things that matter: pavements and walkways. If I was not afraid some touchy-feely Ethiopians will be mad, I would have told you about the height of the walkways from the street level: one foot high on one side and 6 inches on the other. Of course, who needs standards as long as glass buildings are lined up on both sides of the street—and the limping pavement. I would have also told you of the decorative manhole covers that stand one foot above the street or walkway levels, always prominent like a trophy. These were the big achievements that really impressed me. It must be that the fine architecture of the sixties is banned together with the motif of the Axum Stelae, Lalibella, Harer—today’s architects are infatuated with monotonous 15 floors, 60 apartment glass buildings with parking space, enough for only six cars! For instance, I stayed in a 150-room hotel and it can boast of a parking space for seven cars only—including the street side. Maybe they are discouraging the use of cars, maybe people should use the light rail, even in places the rail has not reached yet, maybe it is environmental loyalty.
I Do Not Do Boletika!
Fifteen years ago, days after awate.com was launched, a relative called and chastized me for not staying away from “boletika”. I had some respect left and I reasoned out with him. He wouldn’t understand my position but kept patronizing me: “look after your children, look after yourself, worry about your work, etc.” I was not in a mood for a fight and tactfully I ended the conversation. Since that day I talked to the relative only once.
Over the last few weeks I received so many Get Well wishes from friends, colleagues and readers in text, phone calls, and emails—I am grateful. I wish I could reply to each and every message separately, but as you can imagine, the numbers are overwhelming and though I have tried to do so, I am certain I will forget to reply to a few. This time, the messages were uplifting, “get well soon, you have an unfinished job and you have to reach the finish line.” Messages that reinforce the backbone, not break it. Messages that help you tighten the belt, not loosen it. I really appreciate the positive, encouraging, and patriotic messages. I cannot express my joy and gratefulness to all those who remembered me in their prayers, those who sent me Get Well Soon messages, called my family and friends. I also thank my dear friend Saleh Younis who acted as my chaperon for a week or so, controlling my phone. But Karma is bad: in a day or two he lost his expensive phone!
I am elated there were no, “now you have done enough, get away from Boletika” type of messages. Naturally some people are genuinely concerned about my health and they actually advised me: ‘if you do not take care of your health you will not be able to continue to struggle.” I am glad that the unfortunate days of “No Boletika” craze are being replaced by assertiveness and, at least, understanding. On this occasion I would like to reemphasize the following: I do not do Boletika, I struggle for the freedom and justice for Eritreans. I believe in what I am doing; it is the right thing to do. If every conscious Eritrean would do his part in the struggle, it would be much appreciated and it will hasten the end of the nightmare Eritreans are going through. Otherwise, please be careful not to weaken the resolve of those who are doing their part. And in advance, I offer my blanket apology to all those whom I offended in the past in this regard.
Finally, the floods of messages made me worry: have you saved something for my eulogy, after a long time, InshaaAllah?