Eritrea: The Suppression of God
Collected thoughts here and unfinished ideas there; quoted materials saved somewhere in the hard drive or somewhere in some thumb drives long abandoned. The mind furiously searches for those items whose time has come for developing into one readable note or perhaps into one piece worth contemplating for. Ismail Omer Ali’s and Amnauel Hidrat’s recent articles are both triggering this mad dash to the memory storage outside the brain and the brain is now trying hard to remember where these pieces are stored, to no avail – ok, not completely. Some are unearthed all right but how does one make them relevant. So, this piece is about unearthing, reflecting, contemplating, assessing, taking stock, and evaluating matters of the mainland from a remote land while at the same time narrating the self’s long winded life in exile which has left an imprint in my personhood in all sorts of ways.
Forget about the external hard drive, thoughts concocted from impressions upon reading articles here and others’ ideas there. How about an-honest-to-goodness-and-from-the-heart reflection, assessment, and the impact of Eritrea’s sociopolitical landscape to my person for a change, instead of looking in the outer world for an answer? Fourteen years before independence and 22 years post-independence and still counting – 36 years’ worth of marginalization; 36 years’ worth of emasculation; 36 years’ worth of imposed suppression of one’s identity, religion, culture, tradition, and heritage – that is one whopping parameter to wrap one’s head around when attempting to rectify the damage that was inflicted in. Before one begins to speak of unified opposition, one must evaluate, assess, and reflect what this all means to the personal self, to the national self, and the robust societal implication in the suppression of God. So, brace yourself reader: this is a personal journey, tour de force, in retrospect, if you will, which will show the complexity of one particular generation that left Eritrea and multiply that to several generations who have their unique stories that is part and parcel of Eritrea’s tragic history and without such reflection for a context, we will be doomed to misrepresent and misdiagnose our shortcomings. It is incumbent upon each and every Eritrean generation to take lock, stock, and barrel assessment of the personal self before it can be translated to the national self that can unify the opposition.
It all began when I learned that my soccer teammate was planning to leave with his cousin for Sudan in several days. I, in turn, told my other friend of the plan. We had only fasted about a week of Ramadan, barely finishing our seventh grade and were about to start eighth grade soon, but times were dire. Rumors were abounding that Derg was planning to enlist and conscript young Eritrean men like myself and put us to its military reconnaissance for possible collateral damage and become its ostensible casualties during Qay Shibbr. (Red Terror)
Accompanied by mother and three other friend, one early morning on September 9th, 1977, we took a bus toward the Blocco that would take us to the city of Keren. Four young men clueless about what the future held, but determined to save our lives from what would lie ahead if we stayed homebound. Of course, our options were limited. Fleeing seemed the best option given the circumstances and the present danger that lied ahead was more ominous. However, upon approaching my plan of leaving, my parents sat me down to say that they were thinking of the same thing, but felt rude and crude to tell their own son to leave home, possibly for good, to never see them again. And, so they both gave me their blessings and my mother made sure we reached Keren safely, and we did. She then went back to Asmara to bring the needed money for my friends (from their parents) and for me as well – reason for staying nine days in Keren so arrangements were made in the plan of action leaving Keren for Sudan. After nine days of stay in Keren we were able to find a man who would help us accomplish the task. Arrived in Aqurdat three nights later at which point there was a lorry that was going to transport us to Kassala. My life was not eventful; things seemed to work in my favor with the exception of one attack that I knew nothing about. While in Kasala, one of my friends decided to join Eritrea’s fighting forces. He made the arduous journey of three nights walking and riding on a Camel’s back, two at a time, because there were only two Camels available for the four of us. So, the fourth friend came all the way to Kasala to only join the fight in the end. Eritrea claimed him several months later as Kasala’s mosquitos seemed to want to do the same; suddenly, it seemed to me at the time I was feeling chill, fever and shiver. In that God forsaken hot weather I was feeling cold, it did not make sense. But as it turned out the mosquitos that wouldn’t dare show up to face the blazing sun during the day were doing their numbers on me in the evening as they buzzed and hissed in my ears while I curled and slept. Luckily, an Eritrean nurse gave me an injection that made me stand upright in no time. After only three weeks of stay in Kassala, I went to Khartoum where my older brother had already been staying for several months. Six months later I found myself arriving in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where my oldest brother was working and living. Three months later, my brother decided that I was too young to become a casualty of petrodollar, thus, promptly sent me to Cairo for an education. Three good years later of my stay in Cairo America was calling on me from Rome and did just that.
But, all through these rapid movements something that stayed consistent was in how inadequate I was made to feel about my religion. All of the fronts’ offices were advancing the idea that any disposition to religion was synonymous to backwardness and that believing in God was an antithesis to the liberation movement. So, the necklaces that had any symbols of religion were promptly removed. Apartments where young Eritreans lived in had no symbols of religion and were adorned by Eritrean maps or any patriotic posters depicting tegadeltis. Essentially, the ELF office replaced the Mosque and the EPLF office replaced the Church, save for the minority who transgressed that pattern – by and large, EPLF’s constituencies were Christians and ELF’s office catered to Muslim constituencies. Any which way it was sliced, there was no place for the Providence. The only way that Eritrea was going to be salvaged, it seemed, was by suppressing God. Therefore, praying openly became a taboo. The inadequacy one felt was so deep that I have very vague memories of the times I went for Friday prayers during my three years stay in Cairo. Coming to the West was even far more convenient to forget about God, because the God that I believed in was nowhere to be found here. Mosques were rare and far between. Fasting became spotty at best. A Muslim Eritrean would not openly say he is going to the Friday prayers and the same went for the Christian Eritrean, one seldom heard the mentioning of a Sunday Church Services. And so it was: life caught between what the Eritrean sociopolitical dynamism demanded and one’s belief going head-to-head in a tug of war and outwardly the former seemed to have won the battle, but not the inward war.
With the demise of the ELF from the field, a crisis of personal sorts began to emerge, because of the leadership vacuum that was created in the absence of ELF, its adherents were left clamoring to rediscover their God, their culture, their language, their heritage, thereby, slowly but surely thus began a retreat toward one’s own. The Jebertis found comfort in their own kind, the Sahos the same, the Tigres no different. This default alignment continued unabated until 1991 when Eritrea became independent. But, the systematic exclusion of Eritreans who did not subscribe to the EPLF’s political views helped maintain the defaulted alignment of each groups aforementioned, at least abroad.
After three decades of trying to call on unified opposition, it is like asking those who retreated into their respective trenches to come out of their cocoons, an impossible endeavor to accomplish. What is the incentive for each group to align with anyone, especially, those who have marginalized them for all these years? So, going back to basics may save the day. What does this mean you wonder, well hold your thoughts and I shall come back to this in due course. First thing first: some concepts on reflection.
One delves into reflective mode in hopes of finding a viable solution to the matter that is perplexing. Dewey’s philosophical definition of reflection as he offers it is “as a specialized form of thinking that is precipitated by a state of doubt or perplexity, leading to active and purposeful inquiry” (p. 178). The purpose of reflection, according to Dewey, is “to transform a situation in which there is experienced obscurity, doubt, conflict, disturbance of some sort, into a situation that is clear, coherent, settled, harmonious’” ( as quoted by Pine, Pp. 100-101). Therefore, one can easily surmise that there is more to reflection than meets the eye; that reflection is far deeper than we commonly give credence to, which is to say that when one encounters an event or a tragedy like Lampedusa’s, for example, the immediate reaction is not reflection but to go to the deep end from within where emotions begin to wreak havoc on the individual; and then wallowing in it without any conceivable corollary to what may follow because when tragedy of this magnitude befalls on humanity there is no chance for reflection save the few who do not understand what grieving looks like – they have no inkling ounce of human flesh to feel others’ pains – sympathy and empathy is not in their parlance let alone in their flesh and bone.
But hope is not lost because Pine asserts that though reflection is incepted “with observation made by oneself or others in a directly experienced situation, [t]hese observations, in turn, suggest possible courses of action” (p. 179). What is captivating to note here is that these reflections do bore their own “paradox[es]”, which “is that while observing situations puzzles us, causing suggestions for action, immediate direct action is withheld until the suggested actions are treated as hypotheses to be tested by mental elaboration or reasoning before action is taken” (p. 178). Reflections that Awatawyan have been engaging run the gamut. Of particular interest that captures the essence of reflection that Feldman advances in which the “autobiographical reflection, collaborative reflection, communal reflection, and existential reflection”. Now, here is the rub. At a personal level, one may arrive through one’s own personal reflections at some lofty ideals that can save us all from the political brinksmanship that we see now playing out in Egypt and Syria. However, no matter how perfect these lofty ideals maybe, if the Eritrean population is not ready to accept it, then, it shall remain that: lofty idea without ground to operate on.
The above reflection serving as a backdrop, I, too, find myself in that space between Amanuel’s and Ismail’s where I want to ponder issues of a third space as I anchor my thoughts in their ideas and reflect off of their challenging thought processes. A universe preoccupied by binaries, such as dark/light, black/white, male/female, majority/minority, Islam/Christianity, and region/nation will forever remain in a tug-of-war with its humanity, where one or the other will preponderate in matters of political power, social milieus, and thus economic empowerment shall remain in the hands of the victor or the domineering sector. Both Ismail & Amanuel seem to realize that literature is in a unique position to unearth and explicate these dichotomies through the written word. The language of the narrative in this case is the language of reflection. Amanuel, for example, frames Eritrea as being built, brick by brick, through its “ethnic identities” and therefore arrives to the conclusion that any “social grievances should be framed by ethnic grievances rather than by cultural grievances (such as religion)” because he adds that “Our endogenous social groups with their inherent cultures do exist in Eritrea long before the expansion and introduction of the two major religions. It is evident then, religion becomes an additional cultural value to the overall cultural expression for all our social groups. So our politics could be only framed from the interest of our social groups and hence their “social grievances” when their interest is not addressed properly.”
The thing is that ethnic grievances can still remain in the background and come forth to the foreground in the form of religious grievance. What then would be the solution? Whichever way the grievances come forth, one has to be able to address in its proper context. Consider; for example, if all ethnicities who subscribe to Islam come forward as one cohesive group who want their issues addressed under one umbrella, wouldn’t it even be far more manageable than if they were to come under each group. Similarly, what if the Eritrean highlanders were to forego their implicit regional differences and come as one cohesive unit to march forward with national affairs? Wouldn’t that make the dialogue between the two groups easier to handle than if they were to come under each region? One even can foresee where these two groups could come together and forming a robust opposition group that may call itself Highland-Lowland Democratic Movement (HLDM) whereby, the concerns of each group becomes the central platform by which they can abide by. Consider how Ismail takes his readers through reasoned, much as that of Amanuel’s, ideas using notions of democracy; whereas implicit in Ismail’s approach is that through democratic principles a nation can have some semblance of fairness that all can live by. For example, Ismail states that “There are two overarching concepts I [Ismail] believe that make democracy a worthy goal and a recurring motif in human history. First is the concept of equality. Second is the fact of human diversity. Belief that all humans are inherently equal necessitates a corresponding belief that they should have equal rights (not in absolute terms but in terms of opportunity). And if we believe that all humans deserve equal rights and opportunities, the question then devolves to: what is the most equitable way of managing those differences or conflicting interests? At the most fundamental level, there are only two ways of resolving conflicts: consensual and nonconsensual. The first is what democracies are all about; the second defines dictatorship.”
What I am coming away from all of the reflections alluded to above as interspersed with that of Ismail and Amanuel is this: No matter how lofty the ideas that we want to propound, be it liberal democracy or radical democracy, it will mean not much if we do not ground them to the reality on the ground of where we are in such a trajectory. Therefore, the aim is not about my individual belief, which may turn out to be incongruent with the public at large. Therefore, I must come down from my high horse and accept the realities as they exist. As much as I want us to rid ourselves from the dichotomies and binaries that were alluded to earlier I am absolutely convinced that one way to narrow down our internal differences – what is it now, some 33 political opposition groups? – is by finding a mechanism that will dwindle that number to less than five. Imagine – Eritrean Muslims finding a common thread that binds them together (and there are plenty that can be made to a socio-politically empowering platform); and Eritrean Christians find a common thread that binds them together (and there are plenty that can be made to a socio-politically empowering platform), thereby, diminishing the number of opposition groups to the bare and robust minimum possible. Of course, a generation that has been made to believe religion was Eritrea’s culprit and should by all means be kept at bay while the communist utopian mantra was the be all and end all, which has left certain Eritrean generations in a perpetual state of confusion to this day. I think that it is about time we come to the basics of how our ancestors dealt with one another in an amicably respectful manner. I can foresee a big convention taking place this year that will bring all Eritreans into one big tent, under which we can all have a conversation, a dialogue, one that will lead to a deeper understanding of one another’s concerns, trepidations, and in the end, one that can lead to a triumphant brotherly national camaraderie, fellowship, and friendliness that would outlast us all.