Eritrea Does Not Allow for anyone to Unbound

Human rights lawyer vs. trained healer

My Sundays begin at dawn, not with reading newspapers, but with listening to one of my favorite National Public Radio (NPR) programs, This American Life. I enjoy listening because it brings stories that one wouldn’t hear anywhere in the mainstream media and one cannot find anything better than this program if one wants to stay as far away from anything Eritrean; this definitely would be the last place where one would hear of Eritrean stories. So I thought. What I heard this morning, however, blew me away; it was tigrinya interspersed with English as the translator was trying to keep up with the person who was speaking on the other end of the line. It took few seconds to realize that I was not losing it and that there was no running away from Eritrea – even in the last refuge where I hear stories that nurture my American side, my sanctuary was no more – there is no escaping Eritrea, Eritreanness, Eritreans because our dire plight and our collective tragic stories are being disseminated like a plague the world over. Eritrea does not allow any room for anyone to unbind. Normally, this one hour radio show is segmented into four episodes and each episode carries independent mini-story but each is linked with the rest of the segments through themes. This time however the entire hour was dedicated to this harrowing human tragedy as it unfolded in the Sinai desert in which 29 Eritrean hostages were being tortured and the listener is hooked for the duration of the hour to listen to this unbelievable tragedy right to one’s ear drums, especially, when the ear piece is plugged right into one’s ear.

The entire Sunday I am left feeling like a zombie. I try to stick to my routines, but I just cannot bring myself into doing anything else, not even that homemade and mindless café-latte making, I just couldn’t bring myself to make; it had to wait until I finish listening to this. There is no distractions from any of my family members until around 9am, at which point my son, invariably, wakes up and asks how my morning was with a quick follow up that comes in quadruple successive and  predictable variations: “can I watch Netflix? Can I do the Wii? Can I do X-Box? Can I play on your laptop? And, I am privy to remind him in how I wish he would say something like, “can I do my reading daddy?” He gives me that sly smile of his as he walks toward the living room and says, “That comes after, daddy.” And so I am left alone in my study room to deal with the disturbing story I heard on the radio this morning. This is nothing like when one goes to Eritrean websites, one is prepared, and the mindset is there to handle any bad news with the psychological defensive mechanism to absorb it. But, this one was coming at me from an unlikely source that is what makes this story quite unnerving.

My mind races back and forth – the things I read in the past come galloping to the fore, in no particular order, mind you; thusly, an impetus to write forges forward, the only refuge I know when such uniquely Eritrean maladies strike and my center is about to refuse to hold, ah, but Yeats comes to the rescue: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”  Indeed, “mere anarchy” would be “loosed upon” my world if my personal gravitas, my inward is destabilized and does not comport with my emotional wellbeing, “things” indeed will “fall apart” as they seem to have done exactly that and much, much-more, to the only woman among the 29 individual Eritreans held hostage in the deserts of Sinai. Some died and some physically, emotionally, and psychologically scarred, perhaps, for life, and Semhar seems to have gotten all conceivable scars and brunt put together – she lost her mental faculties was the last piece I heard on that radio; but hoping against hope, I just hope that she will ostensibly regain it. But how does one even regain one’s mental faculties in places like Israel where refugees are treated as ‘untouchables’ of India with no health care facilities being available to them?

So, the musings and recollections continue and I try to put some semblance of order in my recollection, but they refuse, they just forge and surge forward and I comply. But there must be a way of relating all these recollections, there has to be order to this madness, a pattern, a metapattern, a theme. Something. So, I begin to muse, recollect, and relate between what I had read, as it were, to find a theme, much as my favorite radio program tries to do week-in-week-out. Something must give, and it ain’t going to be at the expense my sanity, that much I knew. What begins to emerge after contemplating what I have read in the entire summer and beyond is now finding a culminating point at the center of which rests what was supposed to be  the “city on the hill,” the beacon of hope that was supposed to serve as paradigm par excellence in the Horn of Africa.

What has unleashed instead is this unimaginably atrocious two decades that defies any imagination. Edgar Allen Poe’s Prince Prospero, at least, attempts to salvage a thousand of his subjects in the midst of a plague that has ravished the land. In desperate attempt to defy death the Prince comes up with what he thought was an ingenuous way of deflecting the plague. Edgar Allan Poe’s story grapples with the notion of how a prince struggles to slow down a plague that is ravishing his country, of which the prince is the ruler. Given the publication date of the story (1842), having no modern medical technology at his disposal, after losing half of the population, the Prince decides to save about a thousand people he deems savable subjects, by inviting them to his mansion where no plague can possibly enter. Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” addresses the furtiveness of life as humans will fight for dear life by devising meticulous mechanisms to fight a plague, before it holds its sway over their existence and renders them extinct. What of Eritrean plague you say? What of our Prince of Darkness you wonder?

Indeed, what of our prince of darkness, what does he do? He makes the country so unbearable to inhabit, he hallows out the nation of its youths to only make them become preys of human predators that no one knew existed. Prince Prospero, however foolish his attempts, tries as he might to keep death at arm’s length, whereas our Prince of Darkness makes venues available for the predators to harvest organs of young Eritrean men and women to the highest bidder; to a point now in Asmara there is an area with state of the art villas known as enda kulit. The public, apparently, knows some of these owners of these villas bought these properties from illegally harvested kidneys. This is the ultimate and the height of betrayal that no one can match.

It is to these monumental obstacles that Eritreans in the opposition attempt to make sense out of. Some resort to verses in the bible, to the divine intervention, as it were, to God, to “good and evil” as they try to find some comfort and solace in it as Aklilu Zerai attempts to do in his last piece. The challenge to the Eritreans’ God is that it stays static; it is not as dynamic as that of American God. The American God begins (minus Native Indians one) with the arrival of the Puritans. The Puritans had concrete idea of God, a God that they dragged, metaphorically speaking, with them across the Atlantic Ocean from the Calvinists mold, where God is in charge of everything on earth and beyond. The inherently bad or evil mankind deserves God’s wrath because there is natural disposition toward depravity of man.  Mankind’s life is predestined, hence for the doctrine of grace, where God’s forgiveness is bestowed upon humanity. Not necessarily to all humanity, for God chooses whom to rein His grace or wrath upon.

The Enlightenments ups the ante in reverse direction – i.e., they diffuse the concept of God quite a bit from that of the Puritans. Here, these enlightened Americans begin to believe and shift the focus to the world of here and now and how to solve its practical problems, therefore, soften the image of God as the benevolent one, as it were, a rational God who is commensurate with scientific laws.  Therefore, the Enlightenment era brings forth concepts of shared humanity, progress oriented world view, education/self-improvement, and the advance of print technology which helps in the perpetuation and dissemination of such beliefs. The evolving of God does not end there.

Enter a new era of Transcendentalism, a world of Waldo Emerson’s Natural Man and Natural God. The seamless evolution of God seems to down-spiral (depending on one’s perspective). Transcendentalist movement in the U.S. as ushered by Emerson and Romantic Movement in Britain, nudge the idea of God from the two concepts mentioned above to one that is a personal God – God in tune with Divinity and Nature. Thusly, the revelation of God comes to mankind through Nature and that mankind must make his own mind up about God. In other words, mankind should be left alone to have personal relations with his own God and arrive at his own understanding of what God is.  The following tidbits from Emerson’s “Nature” summarize the essence of his thought and about God/Nature:

The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? […] [W]hy should we grope among the dry bones of the past? […] There are new lands, new men, [and] new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship […] [N]ature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design.  Let us inquire, to what end it nature? […] Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf (Emerson, 1106-7).

It is in the above spirit and the lens through which one should attempt to see new ideas, ideas that are seemingly intractable today will be spot on in the future when viewed from proceeding generations who will live to see our era as an era of tumult but an era no less of great deal of soul searching, deeply probing to find solutions to the trouble the nation was placed in by its misguided leaders who placed it in great peril. Of course, the likes of Emerson who resigned from ministry to philosophize as he greatly influenced many more Americans to think –agree or disagree- nevertheless to think of the future of their new nation that must chart a future that is uniquely their own, and indeed they have.

Seen in such spirit one can easily see what some other Eritreans who decide to write are doing. For example, other writer want to find some semblance of rationality and reason in quantitative and qualitative world as Sal tried to do recently. Quantifying emotions, trepidations, and human spirit is hard to do, but trying nevertheless Sal did. Similarly, Tewelde Estifanos attempts to lift the spirit of Eritreans can-do-attitude as he delves to the positive territories of Eritreanity he thought, but one tangential introductory note changes the dynamic of the conversation that ensued, which mangled his otherwise lucid message beyond recognition. The search for answers to Eritrean maladies must continue unabated.

To find coherent meaning to the plight that’s plaguing Eritrea’s sociopolitical landscape vis-a-vis “politico-psychology,” Amanuel Hidrat resourcefully patches myriad concepts together. I would be remiss if did not include Anderson’s notion of “the political power of nationalism vs. their philosophical poverty and even incoherence. In other words, unlike most other isms, nationalism has never produced its own grand thinkers: No Hobbeses, Tocquevilles, Marxes, or Webers. This emptiness easily gives rise, among cosmopolitan and polylingual intellectuals, to a certain condescension” (Introduction). Anderson does not stop there; he quotes others who are known for their professed understanding of nationalism, by extension one can suppose its adherents, such as Tom Nairn who state the following:

“Nationalism” is the pathology of modern developmental history, as inescapable as “neurosis” in the individual, with much the same essential ambiguity attaching to it, a similar built-in capacity for descent into dementia, rooted in the dilemmas of helplessness thrust upon most of the world (the equivalent of infantilism for societies) and largely incurable” (The Break-up of Britain, p. 359).

This is an interesting challenge to those who have strong attachment to the notion of nationalism. A paradigm shift is being demanded take place here, one that would stomp-out nationalism from its ideological baggage where it does not belong to one akin of “kinship and religion” as opposed to where it now belongs: “liberalism or fascism” (Introduction). Irrespective of where nationalism belongs, issues of identity will come barreling to see to it they be addressed. And that’s where Yosief Gebrehiwot’s (YG”s) grapples seem to center in.

At the core of what makes us humans lies our identity and YG attempts to dig ever deeper into what lies beneath the names we name our kids as it can be gathered from his latest article. Personal narratives are not absolved from scrutiny as Gabriel G. elucidates using tea-pot as the proverbial story inducer. Stories do not end there. There is Zekere Lebona’s, amidst the desert disaster stories, in light of harrowing stories told in the NPR piece of this morning (well now it is yesterday morning), Zekere found an angle in our national anthem to lambast at the core of what ails us. Agree or disagree these story weavers are trying to make sense of what seems irreconcilably difficult world Eritreans inhabit today. It is all for one Imagined Community that Benedict Anderson who in the introduction states, “the end of the era of nationalism, so long prophesied, is not remotely in sight. Indeed, nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time.”  Anderson delves into the history and cultural artifacts that spawned and spurned “nationalism and nation-ness.” He stipulates that “to understand them [nationalism and nation-ness] we need to consider carefully how they have come into historical being, in what ways their meanings have changed over time, and why, today, they command such profound emotional legitimacy…[and] have aroused such deep attachments” (Introduction).  A host of events amalgamate to create a nation, some of which that Anderson mentions are “self-consciousness, social terrains merge and be merged, political and ideological constellations” as eyed through historical lenses and they “arouse deep attachments” as eyed through “cultural artifacts”. It is at this juncture of culture and history where Awate and Asmarino approach to activism show sharp contrasts.

For an observer looking in, it would not be that difficult to see the warring factions that exist between two Eritrean virtual sites. The ideological struggle can be narrowed to two trajectories between and the former is holding the status quo ante that had fed the Eritrean conscience since the inception of when Eritreans chose the struggle for Eritrea’s independence. The latter seems to bask into this revisionist notion of history of remaking, reassessing, thusly reshaping a new mindset that wants to see Eritrea’s history through a new lens. Interestingly, at the heart of both sites lie clear purposes: to contribute the end to the suffering of so many innocent Eritreans by the regime in Asmara. Now, philosophical or ideological debates as we know never end and Tsigereda and Amanuel Hidrat and some others have been advocating that all opposition camps retool and repurpose their energy into one and only one: to rid the brute regime in Asmara, thusly, alleviate the suffering of Eritreans in Eritrea. Using all arms of social sciences to disarm the current regime is one thing, but amidst existential threats that exist back home to attempt to write revisionist history as Girmay Yebio does, a shoddy one at that, is totally another. To be fair to the man herein follow some the gist of the criticism that one can level at Yebio’s piece.

Girmay Yebio’s “Part III – Independent Eritrea, a crumbling nation and a tragedy:” ‘The Architects of Destruction’” as posted in on Monday, 24 June 2013 attempts to offer a nuanced sociopolitical dynamics that existed among colonial powers of Italy and England in the twentieth century Eritrea and the national identity issues that were brewing within Eritrea as it relates to Ethiopia. More specifically, the article seeks to unravel the conflation of identities, including the associations between Ethiopian national identity and that of Eritrea, essentially, being purely of Ethiopian heritage. In his effort to de-couple these linkages, Yebio argues that the meanings of ethnic identity and nationhood in the Horn as not only malleable but also contingent upon local and spatial circumstances. Through an examination of two historical periods – the 40s and the 50s (he considers the historical lynchpin) on the one hand and the 60s and 70s (he argues was the ghedli concocted propaganda history), on the other – Yebio brings as illustration as he attempts to show how local conditions informed conflicts about the meanings of nationhood in the region. The Italian and British conquest of Eritrea transformed both the geopolitical and cultural boundaries between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Yebio believes that the Union Party of Eritrea had already sealed the deal in its desire to unite with Ethiopia, but that foreign influence fanned the nationalistic flames into the Eritrean Muslims such that of Abdulkadir Kebire and Ibrahim Sultan by stoking religious sentiments that were akin to becoming swallowed by a Christian nation of Ethiopia. Therefore, such sentiments, Yebio believes did not only derail the terms for the incorporation of Eritrea into Ethiopia’s fold, but also recast Eritrean and Ethiopian conceptions of the relationship as a case of colonialism of Ethiopia on Eritrean nation.

Thus, whereas mid-twentieth-century Eritrea could have developed a relatively inclusive conception of national identity based on national heritage with its genealogical trajectories traceable to Ethiopia, but the issue was made to be one of national sovereignty that excluded Ethiopia from the menu; these competing visions of national sovereignty by Eritreans cast ominous aspersion on Eritreans ever since., according to Yebio, bringing forth a ghedli generation that Eritrean public never had a say in. Yebio’s article prompts several questions that merit answering. The questions are:

What conceivable positive outcome could revisionist history such as his serve at this junction of Eritrea’s history? Suppose all in the opposition camp, including those inside Eritrea now accept the premise as advanced by Yebio, that we all trace, in some shape or form, our historical heritage to Ethiopia, therefore, what? How do these kinds of arguments serve any useful purpose in alleviating the present despair and pain of Eritreans within Eritrea’s proper and those from without? Can anyone think of any positive contributions these historical and sociopolitical issues serve? Why the sense of urgency for such divulgence of our history – positive or negative – now? These questions are being raised not necessarily in order to proffer answers to them, but merely for us to collectively address, contemplate, introspect, and eventually find a happy medium from which to operate collaboratively in the struggle, and out of which we would ostensibly find a modicum of reconciling points to operate from.

All efforts that were advanced – be it – by Haile Selassie or Mengistu’s Dergue, to place Eritreans and Eritrea into the Ethiopian tent were met with adamant refusal by Eritreans from all walks of life irrespective of its right-headedness or wrong-headedness. Therefore, this ex post facto and retrospective ideas that dwell on what could’ve been, what might’ve been, or what it should’ve been and had to have been is too little too late. What must be done now with the existing existential threat which would invariably lead to what will need to be done, at which point Eritreans can discuss and have dialogue about the future and sociopolitical project of Eritrea?

Beyan Negash


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