Anatomy of a Proverb

I had a relative who won all her arguments, thanks to her toolbox full of proverbs and parables which she used naturally and effectively. I think now, in retrospect, that for her to have won all those arguments, she must have followed techniques whereby each argument is forced to turn itself to an angle which exposes and brings to light a side she deems easily yielding to any of her weapons, then thrust one of them (proverbs) into the favorable side causing gut spilling, and paralysis affecting a final shatter on the antithesis.

People adapt to proverb and parable supported argument more readily than to one solely dependent on logic and calculation. This is so, perhaps, because it seems that proverbs are to situations what words are to language. With a single word, Book, you refer to the unlimited and inexhaustible instances of physical books here and there, now, in the past and the future, all colors, sizes and volumes included. Similarly a single proverb would refer to unlimited instances of a class of situations here, there, now, before and forever and in this context proverbs can be thought of as existential references as opposed to words thought of as descriptive and conceptual.

Proverbs are underrated and misunderstood by many in our age especially by those who take the scientific outlook and calculation as the only prism through which reality manifests itself. To those, Aldous Huxley, a 20th century British thinker and author have this to say: “Proverbs are always platitudes until you have personally experienced the truth of them”.

An expressive proverb must not only be one fitting a situation, but, it also have to do that in a style and elegance and the briefer is the more so, since a proverb, to be a proverb, must fulfill itself yielding to the adage: “Brevity is the soul of wit”.  However, One should be careful not to err and take brevity for poverty and  narrowness, and perhaps it is because of this that mystics in all cultures valued silence in the presence of the absolute as the highest form of expression. Abduljabbar Al Niffari, a Sufi mystic wrote this one thousand years ago: “where the wider is the vision, the narrower gets the expression[i]”. The evidence for this is there at arm’s length; for If that is true then the Tigrigna proverb : [ኣይኮነን ዶ ሞት እርጋን ውን’ላ[ii]] has elegantly said in a  few words almost as much as the French philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir has said in her book “The Coming of Age” in so many pages and so much words.

Proverbs are candid pointers to life aspects of peoples and societies, and in that sense, they are highly compressed variety of wisdom extracted from life experiences to form compendiums of the philosophies and life experiences of those peoples and societies. Descriptions, aspirations, hopes, apprehensions, beliefs, moods and worldviews of peoples and communities may be touched and read in their respective proverbs. like body-language and physiognomy would tell details of a man by taking notice of his features or postures, so is a proverb a telltale of oppressed news concerning the authoring society. A society which upholds the proverb “never mind death, there, even, is old-age”, for instance, is divulging its deep pessimist outlook, because if death has a higher value than any of life’s threads then it has an absolute higher or equal value over life itself. One may read in this proverb intense yearning for life and equally intense despair of achieving it at the same time. Take note here that the same mood appears in other forms of expression as this in poetry:

መንከስካን ብርክኻን ካብ ዝላገብ[iii]
 ብቐትሩ ካብ ዝብለካ ገብገብ
ካብ ኢድ ሰይቲ ወድኻ ካብ ትምገብ
ኪድ’ምበር ዓለም ዶ ትጽገብ

But the most troubling, and most revealing proverb in the Tigrigna language is that famous one which discovers high value in unconditional submission, resignation, giving-up and defeat even before a battle opens, the one which fulfills itself in this short history:

 An Eritrean or Ethiopian gentleman (I couldn’t make it out, from his name at that time), who claimed to have been serving in the Ethiopian Army during the war in Eritrea of the eighties in the capacity of a minor officer, responded to what I wrote at one time, with a long email, displaying amazement at the audacity and naiveté of Eritrean writers who seem to imply the claim of having full understanding of their people. His note showed great understanding of Eritrea as a country and many of his descriptions were fairly accurate. He told that when an Ethiopian Army contingent was coming into a village which the Eritrean Liberation forces where occupying but evacuated before the earlier arrive, the people would welcome the new arrivals with the same zeal and enthusiasm offered to the rebel Forces before them. He states that this was, a recurring case, an all-time fact with no single skip. He, at last, concluded that no one, Eritrean or non-Eritrean, is possibly in a position to say what Eritreans think and want. He thought that they (Eritreans) are: so secretive and secret worshiping people, so much so that if one of them meant to keep a secret, he would keep it including, really…really, from himself. The gentleman didn’t forget to close his opinions by affirming that this is the weirdest thing about Eritreans among many other weird descriptions.

The gentleman seemed, in my opinion, to have confused himself doubly and needlessly, first he didn’t take the circumstances of the time into consideration; was he, perhaps, expecting that the farmers behave less welcoming to the Ethiopian Army’s contingent than they were to their former guests? Farmers were butchered for much less offenses by that same army around that time! Secondly, had he have an idea of a proverb in Tigrigna which recommends doing exactly what the villagers were doing without failure as he said, he would have at hand something to ease his bewilderment: [ዝነገሰ ንጉስና ዝጸሓየት ጸሓይና፡][iv] “Z’negese nugusna, Z’ tshayet tshayna”.

Proverbs don’t dictate behavior, to the contrary, behavior is the initiator and dictator of the proverb. But saying this may not invalidate the fact that proverbs reflect the general mood, temperament and worldview of a certain culture at a given stage of its history. However, because a proverb is a prophecy in a sense, it is, like any other prophecy, subject to a condition recognized as the “Self-fulfilling-prophecy Syndrome. This phenomenon may be defined as: “when a person unknowingly causes a prediction to come true due to the simple fact that he or she expects it to come true”. A finer and more to-the-point definition is the one proceeded by the medical dictionary: A distorted prediction or statement about a person in a certain setting, which forms a substrate that ultimately leads the person to behave in the predicted manner.

This proverb of “Z’negese ….” exhibit itself in different flavors and guises, this, however, is an inherent nature of proverbs in general, typically so, perhaps, in all languages and cultures. An instance of the manifestation of this proverb in another form is the one that states: [ፈራህ ነ’ዲኡ ምለስ ][v] Ferrah N’ddi’oo ‘mlles!. Examine this form, flip and overturn it, and you will always see the other proverb “Z’negese ….” waving hands and smiling in the background as you will also see it in this queer variation: [ፈራህ  ነይሞተ ደፋር ነይሞተ ላንጋ ላንጋ ሞተ][vi]Deffar ney mote, Ferrah ney mote, langa langa mote”. A cunning, sly and fox-like proverb equating struggle to submission, just a corollary to that proverb of “Z’negese…..”, yet  dialectically pointing to its antithesis and counter-argument as expressed by the Egyptian poet Amel Dungul in the opening of his masterpiece “The last words of Spartacus”:

Glory to Satan, god of the winds[vii]
Who said no to the face of those who said “yes”
who taught Man to tear apart nothingness
He who said no, thus did not die
And remained a soul eternally in pain

The question now is if it is safe to say that this class of proverbs which exalt the value of safety and bare survival over everything else in life including freedom, dignity and honor have any moral stamp on the people? To answer this, is to decide which is prior to the other, was it first the proverb that existed as a dictator of the behavior or the behavior was the creator of the proverb as an after-the-fact residue? The answer is not hard to come by, for it is not possible to imagine that the proverb could have been there first, empty, seeking to be housed with a pattern of a behavior, it was, rather, natural and logical to assume that the pattern of the behavior was the one clamoring for a proverb to populate. And when it happened it was this proverb, one truly apologetic, pseudo-wise, dictator-friendly, and a justifier of submission, humiliation and cowardice!

Has this proverb any active effect on the people?

Of course, you may, out of love and loyalty, deny its active effect and argue in favor of its absence from the mind of the individuals. I wish I could stand by your side and deny it as much or more than you do; this is so because a skeptic bystander would wonder if the proverb is not already in the subconscious and now part and parcel of the set of the behavioral infrastructure; for what this skeptic sees all around him is the incredible, unendurable and intolerable horrors and hardships that the people’s government, deliberately designed, constructed and delivered without the people showing a sign of as little as a shy NO! In the book The Rebel, chapter one opens an argument thus:

A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. What does he mean by saying “no”? He means, for example, that “this has been going on too long,” up to this point yes, beyond it no,” “you are going too far,” or, again, “there is a limit beyond which you shall not go.” In other words, his no affirms the existence of a borderline.” 

the borderline in the case of Eritrean slaves seems to be beyond the plucking of children from their midst to be served as fuel to the pogroms and bonfires set by the regime, beyond their virtual enslavement, and beyond murder.

In December 2010 in the Tunisian backwater town of Sidi Bouzid, a street vendor, Mohammed bou-azizi, set himself on fire  protesting the confiscation of his hand drawn cart and the harassment and humiliation he suffered at the slapping hands of a policewoman, who, thanks to her membership of a law enforcing organization, was legally inaccessible to accountability. The self- immolation of the 26 years old Bou-azizi shocked the consciences of his compatriots, and in a few days, the whole country was immersed in riots the pressure of which brought about the downfall of the regime and the flight of the leadership abroad.

No matter how you translate or analyze the story of Bou-azizi you have to take one fixed and unalterable component into your account; this is empathy, the ability to imagine being in the other’s shoes! To imagine being on the receiving end of an unpleasant situation in place of the other whom you are not acquainted or know! In fact that was the most important element in the whole Tunisian self- immolation connection and its ensuing effects, and that very emotion in an individual carried for fellow humanbeings called compatriots is what makes a nation really become one. It is a feeling of unity of destiny. Those millions of Tunisians who were rioting, where doing that because every one of them had the imagination of himself in place of the unfortunate Bou-azizi in his terrible fate. It is worthwhile to observe that it is almost certain that Bou-azizi was unaware that his act of despair will attract attention the way it did…why should he expect a different outcome than his compatriot Abdussalam Trimech who only six months before him committed the same act of self immolation in the town of Monstair for almost the same reasons but went without a significant attention. Bou-azizi was, probably, protesting his personal grievances but the cruelty of his death excited his compatriots common empathy and exactly there was the message included that his death was not in vain, and his act of despair passed rightfully as an act of protest against tyranny, regardless of his intentions.

This was on December 2010.

Now, fast rewind to: June 29, 2010 when an Eritrean woman was shot dead at the Egypt-Israeli border.

The death of this unfortunate soul though succeeded in attracting some attention from the international media it, however, failed miserably to register a ping on the Eritrean conscience, and if it did there was no real evidence to it. Perhaps there followed a muffled melqes[viii] back home or somewhere in the diaspora here and there but that was about it. She was not the first Eritrean to die there the way she did, her’s was a copycat of other Eritreans’ including women and children who preceded and others, in the hundreds who succeeded her, and all went the same way: some international attention for a while and a deafening silence all along from where it matters most: their compatriots!

That woman and those who preceded her and those who copied and followed her in the deed were doing the same thing that Bou-azizi, later, following their example has done; he died of blind fire and they, too, before him, died of blind fire with one difference: Bou-azizi succeeded in exciting the common pulse in his compatriots, arising their feeling of unity in their fate. Was there, ever, and is there now something similar between Eritreans!? If it was, or, indeed there is, it has yet to show and prove itself! To add salt on injury, rich and powerful Europe who could help, activated a style of classification that excludes these poor souls by calling their acts of protest as illegal immigration. A misnomer allowing evasion of duty, dodging of responsibility and the planting of desensitization, a euphemism the type of which George Carlin sarcastically depicted, An old trick, older than time, ‘change its name and its function changes’. There is even a Tigrigna proverb describing this same creativity: [ክበልዑዎ ዝደለዩ ኣባ ጉምባሕ ዛግራ’ይሎም ይጽዉዑዎ፡]

Rich and powerful Europe know very well that its trick is a slippery road leading to participation in Murder and trafficking, or is it, perhaps, that that was what old rich Europe really wants! How else could it be explained otherwise when the prime initiator and maintainer of what it dubs Eritrean illegal-immigration is seen showered with hundreds of millions of Euros to help him keep his victims in place, locked in a pressure cooker? How is the reinforcing of the grip of a murdering hand “not-a-participation-in murder”? And wouldn’t the Euro paid elevation of pressure in the cooker lead to greater waves of exodus and more business to traffickers and traders of human misery? How is that “not-participation-in-trafficking”?

Many followed the track from Sudan and Ethiopia to the valley of death in Sinai, and more down the Mediterranean bottom. And in all cases, as before and as ever, there was some international media attention, muffled melqes sessions back home and in the Diaspora, but among the real and true owners of “Z’negese…..” proverb, the ignorant, the white haired, ruthless, cruel old men  holding fake high educational credentials , the false prophets, there was role-playing, lies, gloat, and glee becauseOf these struggles and sufferings they will never know[ix]; hyenas and vultures, they are cowardice embodied.

The proverb “z’negese….”  is now seeming a solid social culture, a source of amazement and wonder, miraculous and indeed magical in its works, for on top of its transparent and semi-transparent forms, the proverb has folds and wrinkles which help making it difficult to readily be recognizable. To understand this, one have to take notice that “Ngus (king)” is not only a man-king, for, like how the Arab saying goes that “Sleep is a Sultan[x] “, so is an obsessive idea of a king, a principle is another, taming circumstances and anything that forces you to focus on and accept what they dictate even if the diktat is not to your taste and liking is a king, acoustic and sweeping emotions are deservedly a great ‘king’ which rule realms regardless of the harms and devastation that these emotions may bring and create.

When the Eritrean  youth tragedy in Sinai was at its height and when every one of them was the target and victim of organs-harvesting gangs probably associated with the Eritrean regime, enthusiast Eritrean Diaspora members were taken away by their emotions  (i.e. their king of the day) and were hard concentrating and focusing on saving the trapped young Eritreans from the hell created by the tyrant in Eritrea without giving much thought in the process to the effect of their emotion-driven interference in mitigating the pressures on the regime of Asmara.

The Exodus was not stopped if that was the objective, and the real beneficiary of the interference may have been the regime which was the cause and initiator of the drama in the first place. The interference was certainly a noble act, an expression of empathy and nationalism, but  the Eritrean youth’s desertion of their country and the ensuing pains was not the actual disease suffered by Eritrea; that was only a symptom, a side effect and a byproduct of the actual disease that is the tyranny inside Eritrea. Treating a symptom in isolation of the disease exacerbates the disease and worsens it because it is just sedating and desensitizing the body which consequently gives advantage to the disease, after all pain is part of the defense mechanism of an ailing body. Was it, perhaps, beneficial and purposeful for Tunisia had Bou-Azizi been dissuaded from his act of protest?

René Fülöp-Miller, an Austrian author relates to his readers a story of the same nature and effect in his book “Lenin and Gandhi”. He wrote:

“in the year 1889 there appeared at a meeting of the committee for the relief of famine in Samara a young student who has been “sent down.” in the midst of an anxious and zealous discussion by the members of the committee of the measures to be taken to fight the catastrophe, which was assuming more and more alarming proportions, the unknown student rose and declared, to the general consternation, that it would be a crime to try to help the starving population, for all measures of relief would mean support for the Tsarist dominion. Any increase of the famine should, on the other hand, be welcomed, for it caused difficulties for the authorities and contributed to the overthrow of the existing regime. That was the real evil and only its destruction could once and for all put an end to future famines.”

The young student was the nineteen- year-old Vladimir Lenin.

Many of those who were saved from the Sinai debacle where not of much help to their cause or to the cause and plight of those who may follow on their tracks, in this aspect they were the perfect abiders by the proverb “Z’negese….”, they were also the alibi of the murderer in Asmara in his claim that those who flee his clench were only economic migrants, Although, to the chagrin of the ignorant at the top, the political concern inevitably, always, translates into the economic.

In summer of 2015 an European Artist set up a photo exhibition on the grounds of the Munich Main Railway station[xi], there were in this show quite a few interesting photos depicting situations in different parts of the world, but there were two outstanding photos, contradicting in content and contrasting in spirit. The first was the dramatic picture of an extremely overcrowded refugees boat in the Middle of the sea with occupants in colored but flimsy, tattered clothes, eyes shooting upwards to what seems a hovering helicopter overhead. The other contrasting picture was that of Eritrean refugee young men and woman in the process of conducting an extravagant marriage party in Tel Aviv, with a comment concerning the occasion. The two juxtaposed pictures seemed to be a right wing anti-refugee message of incitement and provocation to the welcoming European citizen, a message the ammunition of which was handed to the bigoted artist by the refugee themselves.

This was not all, recently there is a story going around of an Eritrean Refugee (ex-refugee?) in Australia who in company of his bride landed in the yard of the celebration hall aboard a rented Helicopter.

Another ex-refugee, held a legendary marriage celebration in a Turkish lavish Hotel, a copy cat of another legendary marriage that of “Muhanned and Nour” the principal characters of a Turkish T.V. soap opera which recently took Arab and Asmara viewers by a storm.

The wonders of the proverb “Z’negese….”  are numerous and difficult to enumerate, but it is easy to observe that it has striking similarities with the regime’s hyenas and vultures, one such similarity is that it feeds on tyranny and tyranny feeds on it, an ever-descending dialectic of reciprocating and alternating supply of ugliness. The spirit of this proverb is also the source of the misguided sense of the possibility of partial and individual delivery. The grip of that spirit, faithfully, represents The present Eritrean dilemma of tyranny as a spiritual and Ethical crisis engulfing the whole nation to the extent that even the man at the top -the tyrant- may possibly appear to be a victim of the same process by which the average Eritrean is cruelly suppressed, mowed and pulverized, but that may be a topic for another day.   

[i] كلما اتسعت الرؤيه ضاقت العبارة
[ii]Never mind death, there even, is old-age!
[iii] Roughly translated:
Since your chin has touched your knee
And since you shiver in the warmth of sunshine
And since you are fed by your daughter- in-law’s hands
Go, go away and perish

[iv] Rough translation: Any king who rules the day is our king, and any sun which shines is our sun>

[v] A coward returns back to his mother.
[vi] The coward doesn’t die, the bold doesn’t die…only the unresolved does.
[vii] Read the full English version here, the Arabic version is here.
[viii] lament
[ix] From the short story “The great wall of China” by F. Kafka.
[x] النوم سلطان
[xi] Later, the exhibition was moved to different European cities


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