“I Want To Be A Sailor…”

This short essay was written sometime in 2004.  

If what we knew were the only guideposts for reality, the innocent knowledge before knowing the ugly truths and other side of the coin would be it. That other side hosts the grotesque, the depressing, the confusing, the deleterious…  

“In Middle Ages—‘MaEkelay Zemen’—people used to believe the earth was flat. They were scared to travel lest they reach the shore of the earth and fall off the cliff to the bottomless abyss. It was crazy. So funny. It was dark times.” 

Tedros was taken aback to the days of ‘Black’ Death, witches, crusades, goblins, half-skin-headed friars and Pope Alexander the sixth. Or to the days of Saladin, Umayyad, Abbasids, and Ibn Batuta in Beijing. Or to the nights of Genghis, Kublai Khan, Halagu Khan in Baghdad and Timur in Herat. Or to the days of Bejas, Lalibelas, Wene We Mupta. Or to Aztecs, Incas, Mayas and Machu Piccu.

“Which one?”

“Middle ages? What middle ages? Rather whose middle ages?” I ask in rhetorical tone.

“What? What do you mean? There is only one middle age.” Teddy answers.


Teddy as affectionately called by the hood boyz, was a master story teller. We grew up together in the rundown houses at the center of ‘Edaga-Hamus’ in the 80s. He was a hood scholar by sheer power of self-teaching. He knew a great deal of world history and politics. He frequently mentioned, European, Asian, African and Arab leaders and by that their politics. I didn’t know when exactly he developed that fondness —-yet at some point there it was. I used to see him, walking on the populous road to Akrya, running parallel to “TsaeDa Xirgiya of Aba-Shawel” always leaning his head to the left side, always carrying this magazine—usually Ethiopian newspapers, or translated books of Mamo W’dneh.

Teddy loved to talk, by way of critique and fun of the woes of Africa. He was never judgmental though. I guess his greatest talent lied in remembering names and their specific follies; recounted by the way of matter-of-factedly. “Bocassa crowned himself a king. Do you know that he was a son of…Idi-Amin was funny. He forced some Brits to carry his throne reminding them his ancestors carried their ancestors. It is the Israelis who out did him” Then as raw and unrefined knowledge would go, he added, “he used to eat fleshes of children and put them in the Freezer.”

When Teddy mentioned the ‘daring operations’ of the Mossad, you could see him get slowly nostalgic as if he were one of the agents. I think he was reading too much of and into Mamo Wudneh’s translations of Leon Uris or Frederick Forsyth.

Teddy never doubted his assessments. Never double-checked his facts.  It was as if he was a sibyl given a unique disclosure into what happened in world history. He could routinely pinpoint where Hitler failed in Europe as Japan did in the Pacific Rim. He would single out the assassin of JFK. He was confident and comfortable in his tales.  He was not particularly into the west but more of an admirer of the East. As most people back home, he didn’t catch up with the Gulag monstrosity. He thought KGB was the best spy agency ever—I remember his words, “the Americans were buying information with dollars. The Russians use their agents and their women. People in KGB were more motivated and determined. That is why the Stalin was not surprised to learn of the Atomic bomb when Roosevelt mentioned it before it was used in Hiroshima. He already knew it.”

I think Teddy meant ideology over money.

Like a true non-aligned citizen though, he didn’t have any devout loyalty to any group. “East/ west are all the same. They are both after power.” He coldly observed.  That explained away why he was not bothered by contradictions created say by showering equal praise for KGB and the Mossad. He thought, the CIA and FBI were not doing a great job in intelligence because they were not complimenting with each other; they were not collaborating enough —I am not kidding: that was way before 911 Commission’s Report. That would have made him a visionary. A sibyl.

For Teddy, the world that truly fascinated him that of individuals—the leaders, the actors. To him, not the political theories or ideologies that matter—but the individuals. The love that revolves around the sun and other stars was people.  I think he should have worked for UN. Closest as you can get to person with a cosmopolitan world view.  In a sense, his approach was similar to that of old Eritrean story-tellers and myth-lovers. You didn’t care of the political consequences but the every day achievements of these famous people. There were heroes in both sides—Alexander the Great- Abiy- was truly a warrior—Bonaparte criss-crossed Europe like no one else, Cleopatra’s nose, Attila’s horses, Julius Caesar’s strategy, Hannibal’s elephants, the Pharaohs’ Pyramids, Hanging Gardens of Nebuchadnezzar …


Like a true story teller would tell, Teddy considered all these were just human beings, neither conquerors nor tyrants, with the deeds and misdeeds as the mission of their life. He didn’t seem to categorize them according to their national affiliations, ideological persuasions, racial affinity, or religious conviction. They were just people. Leaders of nations and makers of history. He never passes any verdict. He just recounts the facts; raw, dour facts.


If what we knew were the only guideposts for reality, the innocent knowledge before knowing the ugly truths and other side of the coin would be it. That other side hosts the grotesque, the depressing, the confusing, the deleterious…


The Great Wall would be amazing structure until one remembered the millions that died to make it so. Who knew Dante’s divine comedy was a rip-off Arabic writer. No, that is not funny. Christopher Columbus would be a passable encounter-er (forget discoverer) had he not been a savage precursor for genocidal minds. Henry Morton Stanley would be a great expeditionary who gave us the memorable phrase “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”… Then the heart of darkness would unveil him as one of the architects of Congolese Holocaust at the turn of last century. John Newton would be the singer of the best known song in Western Christendom, “Amazing Grace” though you never would know he was a slave trader whose ship was responsible for deaths of thousands of Africans and enslavement of the rest. Robinson Crusoe would be a “Bahregna K’kewN  Em’ne” An inspiration that sent to us, the kids of Edaga-Hamus in mid 1980s, to a tiny lake, Mai Anbessa, in the hope of learning how to swim…“I want to be a sailor”…


 …And his great friend Friday. Oh then a certain Toni Morrison would excavate from our dormancy that Friday was renamed and christened as he was just a ‘savage animal’ and the white man burden’s fall on Crusoe…Why didn’t Crusoe ask his sidekick-friend his name?  Why should he presume he had none? Who gave him that mandate? Middle ages may be ‘dark times’ for Europe but it was golden age for Arabs. The Mongols ruled from China to Iraq, the largest empire so far, much bigger than empires of Alexander the Great and the Romans. Large civilizations (Mayas, Incas, Aztecs) flourished in the Americas. Certainly it was better age to Africans than the age that followed the ‘European Renaissance.’ European Enlightenment was the contemporary of trans-Atlantic slave trade at its zenith an you count up to 20 million, yes people?; Needless to add it was the darkest and most gruesome period for Africans.


Bottom-line: Perspectives matter. The knowledge and language before Orientalism was the language of bigotry and half-truths. Had a field day for centuries before the arrival of the deconstruct-ors like Edward Said, Ahmed Iqbal, Zinn, Chomsky. Even those only tried to scratch the tip of the iceberg.   

The pure, unquestioned, knowledge of Teddy was massive, linear, euro-centric. Aristocratic in its origin, it was full of history as written by winners. The gist was not just political incorrectness, yet worse historical incorrectness. Unbeknownst to Teddy, the Eritrean sibyl, the history lover, that deceptively eluded him was the real History itself.

Yet his sweetly unsuspecting comprehension disarms his detractors. His clairvoyant towards the past comes off as genuinely exciting, innocuous. He was unrelenting with his harmless pieces of stories, “Did you know Stalin was expelled from the Seminary because he had Marx’s Das Capital hidden beneath his mattress?” “O! Get this! Marx had a bastard baby from his maid? Funny huh?”  “Napoleon was afraid of guess what cats!” “Israelis put hidden camera in Jamal Abdul Nasser’s bathroom.”  “Did you know Yelstin once was about to visit Ireland but when he was too drunk on the trip, his plane was returned to Moscow while the officials of Ireland were waiting to welcome him?”

“Did you know that Khrushchev used his shoe to capture the attention of UN members? He hit the podium with his shoe…”

Probably, he could make a great Secretary General of the United Nations—Teddy. Probably, he needed a bit of formal education and refinement. I believed he could easily pass political science and history exams. All he needed to do was to get registered at some University.

Teddy registered in the fall of 1996 in Asmara University, social science faculty. He was expelled, just after one semester, by late December, with a “D” in most exams. When I learned he got a “D” in the freshman course of Introduction to Political Science and a flat “F” in Introduction to World History, I had a very good reason to stop believing in formal education.


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