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From Each According To His Bahli…


On June 2nd, awate.com’s Gedab News broke the news (you are most welcome) that the government of Qatar brokered an agreement between the governments of Eritrea and Djibouti. It took five days (June 7th) for Somaliland (Somalilandpress.com) to confirm the news,  6 days (June 8th) for Qatar and Djibouti to follow suit, and then the whole world (the AU, UN, Russia) to congratulate the two countries. On June 11th, UN Security Council said that all 15 members of the Security Council “welcome and fully support mediation efforts of the state of Qatar.” And, as of today, June 13th, the Eritrean regime has nothing to say on the subject. 

The Eritrean regime always gets paralyzed when big events occur and the people (at least those who actually look up to it) look to it for leadership. What did the Eritrean regime say when Ethiopia was saying its forces had crossed over and occupied Badme on May 12, 1998? What did it say when Ethiopia breached Eritrean defense forces and take back Badme in February 2009? What did it say when Ethiopia broke through the Barentu front in May 2000? Has it, as the various reports now indicate, agree to withdraw its forces from areas it controls? The answer is always the same and it sounds exactly like this the.kreft.net  

 

But why is this? Some Eritreans who are not familiar with how the regime functions are always mystified when it goes chirp, chirp whenever major events occur. Let me try to shed a light (you are welcome) so you are not mystified by this. 

Staying On Message

To the PFDJ, if a story does not fit its narrative, it just is not going to be reported on. It simply didn’t happen. For example, the regime has a narrative that it doesn’t need anybody; that it does everything on its own, btsif’rna. Do you think it will ever report the fact that Eritrea, on a per capita basis, has one of the highest AID to GDP ratio? Never. That it has dozens of NGOs, right now, working on the various projects it gives itself full credit for? Never. That the Ethiopian army (which, as it claims, is just a bunch of unsophisticated cannon fodder, whose most senior leaders were trained by the PFDJ) could actually break Eritrean front, that the student has excelled the teacher? Not in a million years.

But, you say, how long can it stay “on message”? Surely, sooner or later it has to break down and tell the truth. But, dear reader, you have your calendar, and PFDJ has its calendar. And its calendar is full of national rituals that must occupy our mind all year long. And any news, however dramatic, is always going to be trumped by these rituals.  And you can find a list of the rituals on shabait.com.  Of course, it helps if you speak Shabenglish (Shabait English), otherwise, you are simply going to throw up your arms in frustration when you read a headline like “Nationals Vow Enhanced Rebuff.” Let me help out (you are welcome) with the Eritrean calendar for 2010:

The Rituals

January: New Year’s Day and Lidet are “celebrated colorfully at the national level.”  We dance.

February: We celebrate colorfully at the national level Mewlid Al Nebi. We dance. We are the only country in the world which celebrates the birth of Prophet Mohammed as if it is another party (Live! From Dubai!) but that is what makes us special and if you don’t get that, you are just against Eritrean unity and I really feel sorry for you. In February, we also celebrate Operation Fenkil, the 1990 liberation of Massawa. This is another opportunity for the PFDJ to remind the poor citizens that it really paid a heavy price to give them their independence and just like it didn’t ask for their vote when it was dying in the sands of Massawa it sure as hell isn’t going to ask for their vote to run the country.

March: We celebrate colorfully at the national level International Women’s Day. Since the National Union of Eritrean Women was founded in 1979, it has had two chairwomen. That is two in 31 years. Did we tell you that women made up 30% of the fighting force of the People’s Front? You are asking why only two chairwomen in 31 years? The People’s Front has had one male head since 1987 (23 years)…So what are you, a woman-hater?

April: We celebrate colorfully at the national level Good Friday and Easter. Yes we dance. Sure, we are the only country in the world that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ as if it’s just another bachelor’s party, but we are special.

May: We celebrate colorfully (and emphasis on color) at the national level Eritrea’s Independence Day.  With choreography from North Korea and presidential speech borrowed from Cuba. This is Operation Fenkil to the power of 10. 

June: Commemorating “Martyrs’ Day”—a brief solemn occasion, followed by more dances. Sometimes we just want to bypass the “solemn” stuff and go straight to the dance: a few years ago, the PFDJ-booster and “journalist” Mike Sium used the occasion to pimp some party in Washington DC. To him, Marty’s Day was just another occasion to dance.

August: Expo. A celebration of celebration: an event entirely celebrating the days when we used to celebrate the EPLF in Bologna Italy.

September: We reluctantly (not much color) celebrate at the national level September 1, the launch of the Eritrean struggle by an entity that is not the PFDJ.  No matter, we have a creative solution to that: the Revolution, which had been steered the wrong way by the ELF, was corrected by the heroic EPLF.  We always make a point of saying that. Also in September is the celebration of the “Geez Calendar,” which used to be called Kuddus Yohannes, or Ethiopian New Year, but shush, we are at war. So now we celebrate a calendar. It is like calling New Year’s Day “Gregorian Calendar Festivities” because you don’t want to show any association between New Year’s Day and Christmas. Also in September, Mesqel is celebrated colorfully at the national level (with dances and gwyla) despite the fact that Mesqel is supposed to be a solemn Discovery of the True Cross. 

November: Celebrated colorfully at the national level this year will be Eid Aladha. One of only two holidays that all Moslems throughout the world celebrate (the famous story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son interrupted by God’s grace) but good luck finding that story in the Mufti’s sermon because he will be talking of the sacrifice of the PFDJ and then we will have to dance, dammitt.

December: Christmas, which commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, but good luck finding that story because we have to dance, preferably to tunes paying homage to the sacrifice of the Tegadalay.

So, there you have the entire calendar. Whatever earth-shattering event happens, is always going to be trumped by one of our rituals, and if we don’t have enough of them, we can always add a couple. There were a couple that didn’t quite make it: Referendum day (April) and Border Delimitation Day (also April, I think).  There isn’t much going on in July or October so a couple of Meketes have to be squeezed in.   

The PFDJ knows that it can sit out whatever mumbling people do between now and June 20th (it is only one more week) and, after that, you would not DARE talk about Djibouti while Eritrea is mourning its dead, would you? Wouldn’t you feel like a jerk, an insensitive one at that, talking about Djibouti then? If you insist on being a prick, the PFDJ will just one-up-you and tell you that it is commemorating Eritreans who were “sacrificed” in Djibouti in 2008. Then, if you insist on talking about Djibouti, it is just proof positive that you are a horrible human being who wants to mock our martyrs.  Case closed.

Politics & Politicking

Those of us who are not politicians tend to get a bit frustrated, embittered or shocked whenever the PFDJ pulls off one of its acts from its bag of “bahli hzbawi gnbar.  This is because we have yet to adjust to one basic fact: the “P” in PFDJ doesn’t stand for people but for politics. The PFDJ (its core) is not made up of noble warriors but professional politicians. Farmers farm, teachers teach…and what do politicians do?  They play a game which has no rules but just a desired outcome: WIN.

In 2002, I was talking to a senior PFDJ official who was a bit surprised (and a lot disappointed) that I was so all out in my support of the G-15. He didn’t want to go into the discussion of who was right, or who was wrong, that was so boring: to him it was a simple case of who was a better politician. He says of the people I am supporting (most of whom are now dead): “Ezom sebat ny politika mrrqaq mai  ayTeAmun” (roughly: these people know nothing about political sophistication.)

In 2004, the author Ron Suskind (The Way Of The World, The One Percent Doctrine) wrote a great article in the New York Times Magazine after he interviewed a George W Bush aide (widely suspected to be Karl Rove): 

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

So this “reality”—that the PFDJ accepted, belatedly, what it could have gotten two years ago—will be replaced by another reality by those who create it.  You have your calendar; I have mine.  You have your reality, I have my alternate reality: “President Isaias Awards An Exemplary Farmer.” “Preparations In Full Swing To Commemorate Martyr’s Day.” Now that is real. Do those of us in the Eritrean opposition have politicians with the sophistication to play and win the game? If there are, the evidence is underwhelming. There is a great deal of energy, but it is all misdirected: they can shoot, but first they insist on forming a circle.  

And when they are not shooting, they are blaming everybody else but themselves for their failure. Wouldn’t it be great if everybody just excelled in what they chose as their occupation or vocation? You chose politics? Now be a great politician and find followers who believe in you and your cause. We at awate.com chose to be the best Eritrean website: to attract great writers and artists that reflect the diversity of Eritrea. And how are we doing there?

Writers & Writing  

Lookit, kids. Here’s a mini-assignment, I promise it won’t take more than 15 minutes. Go take a look at the pages of awate.com, asmarino.com, assenna.com, dehai.org, meskerem.net, harnnet.org or whatever Eritrean website you are familiar with.   When you are done with it, go check out every frigging East African website.  When you are done with your navigation, you will come away with two irrefutable facts: (1) awate.com has more writers, and some websites have no original content and all they do is amplify content published elsewhere;  and (2) awate.com has writers that reflect the real diversity of Eritrea. Period, full stop, end of story. It ain’t bragging if it is true. 

Consider: Amanuel Sahle. This great writer could have posted his articles anywhere: he chose awate.com.   Burhan Ali. Really, read his last article (The Chieftain in the Pasha’s Palace) and I think you will agree it is one of the few where you can actually say, “I really learned something.”  Ahmed Raji, who, with his series of dispassionate articles, unveiled a great deal of the mystery behind the make up of the PFDJ. Ali Salim who, with his firm refusal to be politically correct, keeps pushing the envelope. Ghezae Hagos. Fessehaye Mebrahtu. Aklilu Zere. Mohammed Kher. Semere Habtemariam. Hamid Salman. Ismael Omar Ali. Mohammed Ahmed. Adhanom Fitwi. Semere Tesfai, and a few others I am forgetting. No offense to all the other websites, but it is not even close. We have great writers with great original content here at awate.com. And we have a great cartoonist in Nehmya.

Cartoonists & Drawing

In Mel Brooks History of The World, his character plays the prophet Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai.   He is holding three tablets and telling his people, “The Lord Jehovah has given unto you these fifteen…” and right then, he drops one of the tables and says, “Oy…Ten! Ten Commandments! For all to obey!”  It is one of the greatest movie lines. 

When Nehmya decided to satirize Isaias Afwerki as a man who writes his own laws, however arbitrary they may be, and he expects nothing but obedience, he decided to lampoon him as modern day Moses with his tablets. It was brilliant. Awate.com published it, as it has dozens of his cartoons, some of which have religious connotations. Those who have been on a campaign to paint awate.com as a “Jihadist” and “terrorist” website (and have miserably failed in their efforts to damage it) had a seizure or two but from the standpoint of the Awate Team, of which I am a proud member, the appropriate response to them has been, is and will forever be, benign neglect. 

“How do you know when art is within the bounds of decency and when it has crossed the line?” By using good old common sense and the responses we get from our readers. That cartoon drew one angry e-mail to awate.com, and it ended up being published in Fitna.net (aka, meskerem.net) in big bold red font.  “How is it that you are allowed to laugh at matters that are sacred to me but I can’t laugh at matters that are sacred to you?” Who is stopping you? Just make sure it is done artistically, like Nehmya’s was. And make the topics relevant; I will even suggest some topics for you:

The brutal “Islamist” Somali organization that calls itself “Shebab” could be drawn with a whole bunch of youth protesting the fact that they call themselves Shebab.  Or maybe a bunch of world-renowned butchers protest why the Somali “Shebab” doesn’t call itself Somali Butchers;

A cartoon of all the aging Eritrean leftists who discovered the mosque when they heard the knock of archangel Gabriel knocking on their doors;

Or this one, which was sent to me by a friend: http://saudiwoman.wordpress.com

There is rich material for a lot of subjects. If you are hypersensitive about that, it tells me that you are a dour, humorless person, or somebody who is so afraid of religion he doesn’t mind letting the extremists, like fitna.net, define it for him.  You make a rich target for cartooning.   Also a ripe target for cartooning: a character, a poor broken person who relives a few days from the 1980s, and is haunted by the ghost of Abdella Idris.  Hope you are listening, Nehmya.

Conclusion

Whenever we call the “PFDJ” a regime and not a government, some people get offended. But a government is about structure and organization—even the dictators in China have party congresses and party election—and a regime has customs or “bahli” (hzbawi gnbar nata bahli alewa.) When the leftist Americans were mad with George W Bush, they called his government a “regime” (meaning that the “Texas Mafia” had its own customs, protocol ,of doing things) and when the rightist Americans are mad with Obama (which is all the time) they refer to his government as a regime (meaning that it is run by the “Chicago style politics.”) The PFDJ is NOT made up of noble warriors but of scheming politicians who understand the fundamentals of politics—stay on message, concentrate on winning, stick to your bag of tricks from Bahli Gnbar. It so happens that these brilliant politicians are also terrible when it comes to  governing. 

The Eritrean opposition leaders, well, they too have their own bahli. They probably would be great at governing—negotiating, compromise, dialogue—but they are terrible (ok, that is too strong: what I mean is they are breathtakingly awful) at politicking. I have it on good authority that those who are in Addis Abeba now asking Uncle Meles to help them reconcile with their own fellow citizens spent half their time discussing awate.com and Ali Salim. Oh, mon dieu!

And awate.com? We have our own bahli of excellence and total allergy to being cowed or intimidated. Thank you Walt Whitman for licensing me to be immodest once in a while because, as he put it, “if you done it, it ain’t bragging.” We set out to give you timely news, diverse information, from great writers. And we have. We really are a great website, and when you are asked to make a list of great things that are provided for free, you should put awate.com on top of your list. And would it really kill you if you donated some money? Come on! No, really.

Organizations, like people, are creatures of habits.  Of customs.  The PFDJ has its own, so does the opposition, and so does awate.com.  And when we give, it is, to borrow from Marx, from each according to his bahli… 

salyounis@gmail.com This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

About Salyounis

Saleh Younis (SAAY) has been writing about Eritrea since 1994 when he published "Eritrean Exponent", a quarterly print journal. His writing has been published in several media outlets including Dehai, Eritrean Studies Review, Visafric, Asmarino and, of course, Awate where his column has appeared since the launch of the website in 2000. Focusing on political, economic, educational policies, he approaches his writing from the perspective of the individual citizens' civil liberties and how collectivist governments and overbearing organizations trample all over it in pursuit of their interests. SAAY is the president and CEO of a college with a focus in sound arts and video games and his writing often veers to music critique. He has an MBA from Golden Gate University and a BA from St Mary's College.

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