I always liked Christmas season and I associated it with chocolate. When I was a child, every Christmas season, my father would bring us Toblerone chocolates and Pane Tone, courtesy of his Italian business associates in Asmara who distributed those goodies to their agents and distributors; I grew up thinking those goodies were made for the Italians only. I have Eritrean Christian friends who remember Ramadan very fondly: it is the secular pleasures they remember. In much the same way, I love the pleasures of Christmas. And, no, I do NOT mean shopping.
Not only chocolate, but I thought turkey was eaten on Christmas. Every Christmas season, Italians would come to my aunt’s house to buy the birds that she reared. Eritreans didn’t eat turkey; they preferred hens: they don’t even eat chicken–how could they eat the tiny chicken and leave hens and roosters? But in America, when I said hen, my children laughed at me. Since then, chicken it was–the chicken that has lost its grace, being eaten by one person for dinner when it is supposed to be parted into a dozen section and served with a lot of fanfare. Who would eat the feresenga part of the chicken when there are no more horsemen? Maybe a motorcycle rider!
Later on when I lived in the Middle East, I saw the restless young take advantage of Christmas (which they call Krismss) to hold secret parties, away from the preying eyes of the religious police, to celebrate the season with lots of home-made booze, a sort of Vodka made of rice, dates and other grains. The clandestine manufacturers of the distilled drink, with alcohol content of almost 100%, filled the drink in water bottles using syringes to keep the cap sealed tight. The brand name of the drink was simply Moyet Saha, meaning “healthy water” as any bottled potable water is known over there, regardless of its healthy or unhealthy nature. A few people still make a killing distributing Moyet Saha. These days, even large corporations are swindling people by selling tap water. Read the label and you see something like, water source from artisan well of some-exotic name, the same source that you get your tap water from. And the suckers pay for the environment polluting disposable bottle and hefty price for the same water you get from your tap. Third world countries have adopted this swindle thinking it is modernity. Happy Christmas–even if you are not shopping you are paying much.
Of course those who could afford it bought Isaias’ favorite liquor, Johnnie Walker whiskey, at exorbitant prices, ten times what it would cost in Europe.
Incidentally, I was working at the Jeddah (Saudi Arabian) port when the Stevedoring Company were unloading a sea container using a crane. Suddenly, the steel wire ropes snapped and the container dropped at the dock from twenty feet high. Immediately, something began to leak from the container: it was unmistakably liquor and the smell engulfed the entire area. Everybody fled the scene; no one wanted to be around when the police arrived. I couldn’t because I was an agent for a ship chandelling company and I had to stay with the stevedoring company supervisor.
The label on the container stated that the cargo was furniture and the consignee a notable Saudi: even the police disappeared when they found out his name. The poor Singaporean supervisor took the decision to deal with the case. He called the consignee; but he had difficulty in telling him what had just happened. Finally, he managed to break the news to him: “Sir, your furniture is leaking!” In minutes, some people came and loaded the container on a truck and left the port, in total silence.
Some twenty something years ago I was in Hong Kong during Christmas Eve and my host took me to the Volvo Club for entertainment. The music was blasting a new hit song that has resided in my brain ever since. I never bothered to check the name of the song or the band that played it, but I liked it and kept humming it. Every few minutes I would call the USA to check on my wife who was delivering our first child. Finally I was told that our baby was delivered through a cesarean section, and I talked to my wife, that is when I went back to entertain myself unhinged, to the background of the only song that played until we left after midnight. Today, I am thinking if there is a caesarian section to deliver liberty, Eritrea needs one immediately.
At any rate, a few days later I returned to Bahrain, where not more than two Eritrean families lived; all in all, there were not more that fifteen Eritreans in Bahrain, including children. There was an Amiche Eritrean girl and a cook: both worked at the Hilton Hotel; a childhood acquaintance who worked as an electrician at the then-heir apparent, now king of Bahrain; an ex-Ethiopian Airlines technician who worked for the Gulf Airlines, and few others.
Incidentally, if you want to meet someone in Bahrain, you don’t have to do anything but go to any street cafe and sit. Sooner or later the person you want will pass through: the city is so small one has to bump into every resident in a few hours. But it is a fun place to live, and its people are the best-mannered and friendly people in the entire Gulf region.
On New Year’s eve after I returned from Hong Kong, I went to the Bahrain Diplomat Hotel to celebrate with a few friends. What do you know! That same song I heard at the Volvo Club in Hong Kong was playing back to back, for hours. I didn’t mind. Still, I never knew the title of the song and it was not yet in the local market. Back then, humanity was blessed neither with google, nor youtube nor facebook.
Ten years ago, I was at a traffic stop in San Jose, California, and I had almost forgotten the song and its tune. Then I heard that same song playing on the deck of the car on my side. The traffic light went green and I literally chased the car to ask the driver for the title of the song. I failed. Now the tune was revived in my brain.
The last ten-years, I spent all Christmas and New Year in California, many were spent with Saleh Younis and Yacob, friends who live in the same California village they call a city. Saleh and Yacob have been practicing krrar and guitar respectively, for years–I think they remember to do that only in the Christmas season. Of course, once a year practice doesn’t make you perfect even if you did it for a century. And that is how I bored myself many Christmas eves.
Ironically, when I was younger, for years I tried to learn how to play the guitar to no avail. I probably owned more than five guitars and I don’t even remember where they ended up except one. The last guitar I owned was one I bought from an American radar technician in Saudi Arabia. I strummed it endless nights and I was about to give up when an Eritrean named Berhane moved in an apartment next to me. He also was involved in my type of struggle to learn; he knew some tunes. For months, he tried to teach me the two tunes and he failed. Then I asked him, maybe he needs to teach me another tune, he didn’t know any, just two tunes: Saba Sabina and Anti Gual Bilanaye.
I gave up and threw the guitar under the bed until I carried it with me to Cairo a year later and gave it to my little brother. What do you know, he mastered it in no time. And if you must have a proof for that, check Ahmed Abdulrahim and his mastery of the instrument that I failed to strum… even the Anti Gual Bilenaye, a tune that every Eritrean has tried to play. Many who failed will attest to that.
This year I think will be the first time as far as I remember that I will spend Christmas Eve on the air. I will be traveling to Australia.
A few days ago, I was having tea after eating dinner and I switched to a silly youtube clip that someone sent me. Finally, I heard that illusive song that has resided in my brain for years playing in the background of the video clip. For the first time, I caught a line in the song: “and the bells were ringing for Christmas day.” What? Was that a Christmas song? I never thought of it that way. But apparently it was, though not your usual jingle bell type of Christmas song.
Thank you google! I did some search and found the video which was posted last year. It was the song that I couldn’t locate for twenty years. I was as happy as when my father gave me Toblerone chocolate as a child. So far, I have played the song over fifty times, and by Christmas day, I will have played it five times as much.
When I lived in the Middle East, I had an Irish friend named Declan; we became close friends because we could discuss topics that no one else seemed to be interested in: the rebellion and violence going on in our respective homes. Back then, the Irish Republican Army were fighting the British while Eritreans were fighting the Ethiopian Derg. We would discuss such issues over lunch, over tea and over “orange juice” if you know what I mean. Declan introduced me to Irish folk songs that I found them very melancholic, especially the flute and guitar solos. I just immediately identified with the nostalgic Irish tunes; it is probably that which made me love the song that that eluded me for over twenty years.
The song is my Christmas present to you. It is called “The Fairytale of New York.”
I will play it for my daughter, remember the one who was born in the US when I first heard the song in Hong Kong? And I will see how she reacts, and I will tell you. I hope now you understand why Christmas has another face for me, a different face from the shopping-spree season it has become today. In protest, I will defy modern shopping celebration and I will carry a few bars of Toblerone chocolate on board the plane on my way to Australia. I will eat it as I cross the International Dateline.
See how funny this is: my seventh grade geography teacher told the class that there is an imaginary line somewhere in the Pacific, and if you cross it eastward, you lose a day, I will jump from Sunday to Tuesday, no Monday. But cross the line westward and Monday becomes 48 hours instead of 24, two Mondays. If my teacher was not from Sri Lanka which is closer to the Pacific ocean, I wouldn’t have believed him.
Traveling Eastward, I have reached as far as the Philippines, a little distance short of the imaginary dateline. This will be the first time I will cross that line after hearing about it for the first time as a child. That means, my Christmas Eve will evaporate in thin air, with no trace. No Christmas Eve for me in 2012.
Finally, this is what my daughter thinks of the song: “Dad, it is lame!” I went sentimental on her: “Honey, I heard the song for the first time in Hong Kong the moment you were born!”
It think it worked, she loved the song and I am sure it will reside in her mind. But what of she was just pretending to please me. Do you think she liked it? You tell me.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year