Adam Malakin: His Non-militant, Non-public Other Side

Human rights lawyer vs. trained healer

Adam Malakin, a prominent figure in the struggle for Eritrean statehood, passed away in May 2013 in Melbourne, Australia. Up until his sudden death following brief hospitalisation, Adam Malakin appeared healthy and sound. Adam Malakin, or simply A’m[1] Adam as he came to be endearingly known, was octogenarian.

The purpose of this note is to try to highlight what I have come to view as the “other side” to Adam Malakin’s personality, a side which I believe has so far gone largely un(der)reported. Accordingly, I have opted to reflect on this Eritrean icon’s life not from the perspective of his role in the nationalist struggle[2] but on his personal life on a more human level. My initiative is of a supplementary nature hence, and concerns itself with the requirement of enabling a fuller reading of the life story of Adam Malakin. In focussing on the private A’m Adam, I will be exclusively relying on my own individual impressions and judgements.[3] However, since the political almost always has bearings on the personal, following is a brief remark as I perceive instrumental to my agenda – a kind of unwilled, not to say unfair, abridgement of a very prodigious and detailed public self.

A youthful insurrectionary Adam Malakin

As a youngster, Adam Malakin lived and worked in the Eritrean capital Asmara. While employed in the court system, he doubled as underground agent for the incipient Eritrean nationalist movement. His role at the time amounted to that of urban guerrilla – a person tasked with the most intrepid of missions in the service of a political cause and for whom the odds of capture and death were an amplified daily reality. A’m Adam was a staunch partisan, an invaluable urban liaison and a precious asset as such. Unlike his rurally-operating counterpart who intermittently faces the enemy from across a mostly delineated battle front, the clandestine urban combatant fights from within the ‘belly of the beast’. Male or female, this individual proves to be the embodiment of certain specific and often rare attributes (acumen, intuition, nerve, stealth, culture, urbanity …) that in turn render him/her competent of undertaking covert action. So, in line with the demands of the insurrectionist life, typically A’m Adam must have cultivated a range of survivalist skills, of which subterfuge comes foremost to the mind. One imagines him as a master of disguise in relation to physical appearance and possibly in other ways too. Yet, he got busted at the end, and for a time following his arrest and imprisonment he was made to endure the incertitudes of what might become of his fate. However, as the prosecution could not present a single shred of incriminating evidence against him, A’m Adam was able to walk free. Fearing for his life, he subsequently went into exile and it was Nasser’s Egypt, that unfailing ally of the African and world revolution, which offered him political asylum. He lived in Cairo for decades till he was finally resettled in Australia in the 1990s and spent the remainder of his life. So this being a (brief) history of his political life, what about A’m Adam’s “other side”?

Humanising a radical: Parameters of a stellar life

As an individual, Adam Malakin evinced a set of personal characteristics which won him wide admiration, including due appreciation from this author. Furthermore, his distinctive personal qualities came to the fore as expressions of his broader understanding of the essence of human life. Why and for what ends he was born, how he had to live his life throughout, and how he had to conduct himself in the final hour, all this was a reflection and a pertinent verification of the type of outlook he consciously adopted.

The A’m Adam known to me and to many others was very elegant, well-groomed and the most sophisticated of men. Well into his mid-80s and up to his last moments, he never lost his zest for life. Anyone looking at the many photos and other vignettes of this cinematic star looker-like will begin to develop a sense of how expansive A’m Adam’s lifestyle had been. But appearances often belie reality, perhaps even more so in the case of Adam Malakin. Despite the formal manners about him (couth presentation, notably where dress code goes) deep down A’m Adam remained highly unceremonious, that is, truly defiant of accepted norms and practices. In a word, his formal exterior descriptions were in sharp contrast to his casually-effected free inner spirit.

Beyond any manifestly conventional outward features, A’m Adam’s life seemed to have been informed by a different, more relaxed and often unorthodox approach – a mode that apparently resulted in him being quite discerning of the meaning of life. His informal and formal facets, while seemingly incongruous, sat well in one person. Underpinning that ‘composite’ poise of his was what appeared to be a healthy dose of libertarianism, whereupon the individual is supposed to carve his/her own path in life in a way that validates one’s personal experience. To me, A’m Adam came across as someone who had managed to forge his ideas and life actions in sync with the principles of that philosophy. As always, he rebelled against easy unenlightened articulations of the purposes of life, all the more so about the place and role of individuals in the wider scheme of things. Neither his advanced age, nor the kind of pressure deriving from conservative traditional beliefs and values, impeded him from enjoying his chosen pursuits. It is in that sense, and with a sincere attitude and a genuine spirit of veneration, that I characterise A’m Adam as “not your average tame senior”. The man was extraordinary in many ways. Politically, for example, he was very savvy and deciphering as to whether or not certain arguments carried merit. He was a pleasantly astute interlocutor, and was highly effective in arguing his point. Most significant, A’m Adam was unimpressed with, indeed scornful of, the political naivety and idealism characteristic of those in leadership positions. For A’m Adam, the winning motto apparently went: ‘We walk by walking”! And there was nothing ad hoc or artificial about him at all.

Although certainly a believer, A’m Adam’s perspectives on religion assumed more of a personalised type of uptake as opposed to centring his awareness around a collectivist influence or else reductionist interpretation of spirituality. Contrary to the readily predictable patterns so common among his peers (and many more who are not-so-old!), A’m Adam’s daily routines were defined by a thorough appreciation of the significance of temporal activities as well. Where others appear to have disproportionately devoted their time to ministering to their ‘other worldly’ needs and concerns, A’m Adam’s daily schedule featured and fitted in miscellaneous interests and activities. He was fiercely independent and had the habit of being ‘out and about’, a wont that could be credited for his excellent health. One routinely saw A’m Adam plying the coffee shops of inner west Melbourne. The memory of him sipping his cappuccino while puffing his favourite cigarette will last for a long time to come.[4]

A product of his era, the momentous and exhilarating social milieu spanning the 1950s and 1960s and which seemed to have promised infinite possibilities and dreams, it is perhaps not surprising that Adam Malakin would be destined to evolve into the A’m Adam that he turned out to be. The cosmopolitan and revolutionary ambience that was the Asmara and the Cairo of half century ago surely left its indelible imprints on the life of this unassuming gentle human being. And as to coming to terms with his own mortality, heroes, such as the likes of A’m Adam, who tend to opt for a ‘career’ wherein one’s life hangs on the balance, must have confronted death many times while alive, thereby accepting its inevitably with relative ease. How else could A’m Adam’s stoic posture be understood the instance his medical doctors divulged the news of his imminent departure? Ironically, it was the dying A’m Adam who kept giving solace and morale to the tearful assembly of family and friends gathered around his bed. That well-publicised message of his day, of el Che – Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome – found a receptive ear in the person of Adam Malakin. He was a trail blazer and he seemed to live a fulfilled life free of regrets.  Echoing Nelson Mandela, I think that were Shafa (as he was also known) to ever be reincarnated, I have no doubt in my mind that he would have chosen the same life course. As his adoring niece succinctly put it, A’m Adam was ahead of his time, a man “out of this world”!

Adam Malakin you will be sorely missed, and may your soul rest in peace.


[1] In the Arabic language, A’m corresponds to “uncle”.
[2] As far as the life story of Adam Malakin goes, make no mistake of the significance of the public role he played in his home country’s quest for self-determination. As I indicate, the focus agenda is the introduction of an aspect of this man’s life which is least remarked on. From various sources, by now most of us would have been able to piece together the kind of political life that Adam Malakin has led.
[3] As such I don’t expect all to agree with my notations.
[4] I am for taking coffee in moderation but not smoking


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