Hearts Like Birds: Romantics Like Romance

Hearts Like Birds: An Alleged Book Review

Diversity is the norm in nature.  The best naturalists and astronomers and geologist and anthropologists are able to share with us how truly, mind-bogglingly diverse this universe is.  In one passage in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, naturalist and Pulitzer prize winning Annie Dillard, who immersed herself in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia for a year, is so overwhelmed with God’s immense creation, such as the fact that a mature elm tree has six million intricate and distinct leaves, observes that the Creator “goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font” and concludes that “God is a maniac.” To which the God of Islam answers: “The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?”  So, diversity is the norm in nature; but is it really desirable and good in artificial things like the State? And how well can it be managed?  Semere Habtemariam explains how it is managed in Eritrea in his new book “Hearts Like Birds.”

Now, before we get to Semere’s book, it is perhaps necessary, for the sake of context, that we place his book within the 50-year-long conversation we have been having about diversity in Eritrea.   There is one school of thought which says that what is required is a melting pot where diverse Eritreans are compelled to know each other by having the rough edges of what make them different (language, religion, culture) sanded and sculpted out of them and, after a while, let them loose and the output will be one people with different tongues but one heart: call them “Hearts Like One.”  There is another school of thought which says that the various ethnic groups and major religions in Eritrea had peaceful existence because they largely led isolated lives and interacted with each other rarely, if ever.  And the way to restore and sustain that peaceful co-existence is to create a federation of states with each locality having maximum say in how it organizes and administers itself. An organism with many hearts, all necessary to its existence: call them “Hearts Like Squids.” (squids and octopuses have multiple hearts.)  There is another school of thought which says that the sanding and sculpting was performed organically over a period of a millennium by Eritreans who have internalized it in their culture: restore and safeguard that and you have managed their diversity.  And that is the theme behind “Hearts Like Birds.”  (The Federalists, power de-centralizers and, lately, Herui Tedla Bairou with his “Adi Strategy” are either from “Hearts Like Birds” or “Hearts Like Squids.”)

Now, I suppose this is the part where the reviewer must disclose his relationship with the subject.  I have known Semere since 1995—through Dehai.   If you are thinking how is a guy who is in his early 40s so traditional and religious—how did he dodge the Revolution Chic?–well, he was just as traditional and religious 16 years ago.  In fact, I had a satire “show” back then, and Semere was one of the easier ones to satirize: he knew stuff he had no business in knowing for a dude his age.

Hearts Like Birds is the story of Abdurrahman, as narrated by his friend Yonas.  Both are Eritreans, a Muslim and a Christian, respectively, and first generation Americans who have been assimilated (or joined the American mosaic) successfully.   Their pleasant life is jolted by the detention and interrogation of Abdurrahman Beyan (AB to his friends) on suspicion that his charitable donations are being diverted to terrorist organizations.   This gets Abdurrahman and Yonas to get into an introspective on where they are and where they were or, rather, where they came from.  What life was like for their ancestors in Eritrea and how they dealt with hardship, feuds, extremism, and diversity.

It is an ambitious book written for two audiences: Americans and Eritreans.  Through his characters, the author is telling the United States, particularly right-wing United States, not to fear Islam; at the same time, he is sharing with Eritreans the secret recipe behind the harmonious relationship between Christian and Muslim Eritreans.

To do this, the author humanizes the Muslim by representing him by the pious but altogether decent AB.  We are told that AB is a successful businessman who is kind, generous and temperate.  He removes the other-worldliness of AB by detailing his mixed ancestry—christian and Muslim—and his ease and comfort with Christians and Christianity.  And, lastly, the book strips down the teachings of Islam and Christianity to convey their common denominator: the path to God is through righteousness: “hearts like birds.”

It is in the latter that the book excels.   The author has an astonishing depth of knowledge when it comes to Islamic teaching: both the quran AND the Hadith.

Let me detour here a bit.

It’s Ramadan and one of my American friends sends me one of those 50-times-forwarded emails that were jokes at some point of origin but, by the time they hit your mailbox, they are so stale that it is a chore to read them and you only do so because the sender keeps reminding you: did you read the email I sent you?   Here’s the “joke”:

Two guys lost in the Sahara desert, one is David and the other is Michael. They were dying of hunger and thirst when they suddenly came upon an oasis, with what looked like an emirates with a mosque in the middle.

David said to Michael: “look, let’s pretend we’re Muslims, otherwise we’ll not get any food or drink. I’m going to call myself “Mohammed”. Michael refused to change his name, he said: “My name is Michael, and I won’t pretend to be other than but what I am…Michael.”

The Imam of the mosque received both well and asked about their names, David said: “my name is Mohammed” Michael said: “my name is Michael” The Imam turned to the helpers of the mosque and said:

“Please bring some food and water for Michael only”  Then he turned to the other and said: “Marhaba Mohammed, Ramadan Kareem!”

Ha ha ha.  But… this joke would work better if the jokester had chosen a different name for Michael: for Michael is the name of the archangel not just in the Bible, but also in the Koran! Oops.   That’s where I would stop, but Semere has more to teach me in his book:

St. Michael is an angel of God, like Gabriel….Gabriel brings messages from Allah, and Michael is the protector of holy places.   On one occasion, the Prophet said that ‘he has two friends in heaven: Michael and Gabriel…”

So one great thing about the book is that you will learn something: not only about the religion of your compatriots, but most likely your own religion.  Not only about the tradition of your compatriots, but your own tradition and culture.  And once you learn that The Other is not as alien as you thought, you will be more likely to be understanding and tolerant.

But for those turned off by words like “learn”, be assured: this is not a preachy book, or how-to-book: it is written with the prose of an accomplished writer who has a great deal of love for his subject: Eritrean tradition and how it’s practiced, by wise men and women, who managed to create a space for diverse Eritreans to live in harmony.

The book, then, is a rebuttal to the separatists (“Hearts like squids”) who say that lasting peace and justice in Eritrea can only come via the creation of autonomous regions—people kept at a distance.  It is also a rebuttal to the higdefites who say that unity in Eritrea can only be maintained via the “visionary” leadership of the PFDJ (“hearts like one.”)  It is also a tutorial to the frightened souls who think that every Muslim house hangs a Jihad verse on its wall when, in fact, the most common verse that hangs on the wall of Muslim houses throughout the world (I didn’t take a poll) regardless of their cultural differences is Ayat Alkursi 2: 255 (google it.)

Taken as a book, a novel, Hearts Like Birds is an enjoyable one: a pleasant trip down memory lane for the over 40 crowd, and a new journey for the young ones.  It achieves its mission and then some: if you know nothing about Islam or Eritrea, you should add this book to your list of must-haves.

And that concludes this book review.  Hearts Like Birds is available on and

And now for the rest of my comments, following this short intermission.

[You can hum the theme to jeopardy, if you like.   Or you can answer a math puzzle: If Yemane Gebreab is at a restaurant/bar, and he is being “accompanied” to his hotel room by young Eritreans, and the distance from the restaurant/bar to the hotel is 200 feet, how fast is his heart beating? This version of Al Nahda is brought to you by google ads who are trying to sell you things are probably not interested in buying.  Thank you for shopping, come again.]

As for those of us who want more, who demand polemical arguments EVEN from works of fiction, those of us who know Semere Habtemariam…

Detour.   We are in The Netherlands.  “We” are 13 Eritreans (why is it always 13, anyway?) and we call ourselves Citizen’s Initiative for the Salvation of Eritrea, CISE for short.  You can pile the initiative in the “good intentions, but bad execution” department.  Here’s the only reason I mention it: when the meeting starts, Semere says that he wants the introductions to be real: he doesn’t want “I am so and so and I traveled from such and such place.”  He wants to know our names, our parents name, our ancestry, what village we came from.  That’s Semere: his comfort zone is somewhere between blunt and brutally honest: I dare you to find a book cover where the author tells you exactly what village he was born in (“weki dba, Hamasien…a christian village.”)  So, as a great tribute to him, I will be as blunt as I can:

We know the problem with the arguments of  “hearts like squids”: if you want to have a federal system that devolves power to the micro level, what is to stop someone from demanding that it devolve to the infinitesimal level?

We know the problem with the arguments of “hearts like one”: how long is PFDJ, or a PFDJ-like organization, required to socially engineer and sculpt and mold us? How much power is it to be granted to do so—indefinite conscription? Why does this melting pot, regardless of the recipe mix, always produce the same product?  And if you are pointing to a bridge and telling me how durable and well-built it is, and how it will outlast the pyramids, should I take you seriously when you tell me, “Move! Move! What are you trying to do, collapse the bridge?”)

But Hearts Like Birds presents us with the weaknesses of those who argue that culture and religion, as practiced in Eritrea, are the secret ingredient for our unity and they will stand the test of time.  I would like to take you to 2005, and introduce you to Professor Said Samatar.  This is what he said to argue that Islamic fundamentalism would never take root in Somalia:

Militant Islam is highly unlikely to cause any political mischief in Somalia… the ideology of self-sacrifice essential for the rise of a great grassroots movement is alien to his psyche. No Somali, for example, will ever blow himself up for the cause of al-Islam. A classic Somali adage holds that “ Ilaah iyo ‘Atoosh baa nego degaallamaya, dhankii ‘Atoosh baannuna u liicaynaa: once upon a time, Allah and a warrior chieftain named ‘Atoosh began to wage a terrific fight over us(Somalis), and we forthwith went with the chief against Allah, because the chief could deliver the goods faster than Allah.” That is, a Somali would promptly go against the law of Allah, if doing so turns out to be in his material interest.

Of course, we now know otherwise: and the Somali culture had no defense really for ideological Islam.  I am not saying this to ridicule Professor Said Samatar who is one of my favorite people, and a Somali who lives up to the title of intellectual, i.e., one who is unburdened by any flag-waving and will lambaste his people if they deserve it.  He is the ultimate provocateur:  at one panel discussion he was on, he kept asking (with a twinkle in his eyes): why has India taken off and Pakistan, which gained statehood around the same time, been left in the dust?   I don’t know Professor: why does Bangladesh have a better record when it comes to women’s rights compared to Pakistan?  Its complicated.

The appeals to the alleged permanence of a culture and tradition and religion are imperfect.   Those of us who see culture and tradition as shackles which have to be bent or broken; those of us who see that pride in your heritage and ancestry is unearned and based on useless chromosome counting are always prone to the appeals of grand ideologies that transcend stationary and stagnant things like culture and tradition, which is why (guilty as charged) some of us supported the concept of time-defined national service.

Based on what I have shared with you about my friend Semere, I expected a book that pulled no punches at all. The one criticism I have of the book is that it does pull its punches.   I could be wrong, and I would love to be corrected but I don’t remember a single bad guy in the book. Every person in the book is tolerant and wise; every religious figure is conversant in both religions; every culture is ok with mixed marriages.  I am not that much older than Semere, but that’s not the Eritrea I grew up in. The Eritrea I know is one where the religious elders, far from knowing the religious doctrines of their compatriots, know only the bare minimum of their own.  It is a country where cross-ethncity (much less cross-religious) matrimonies are frowned upon.  It is a polite culture; it is a civil culture; but it ain’t a tolerant culture.   And some of its solutions—of forcing a girl to marry her rapist, for example–are not exactly “solutions” I would like to sustain.

The book I wanted Semere to write is one that says the following: listen up, diversity appears in abundance in nature, but it is a pain in the neck when it comes to administering States.  Diversity is beautiful—if by beauty you mean an expo of watching different dances and attires of different cultures or you are designing a tourist brochure.  But it is hardly helpful in state-building.  The solutions provided by the multiple-hearts nation risk diffusing and polarizing the problem—instead of potentially having one dictator, we may end up having multiples of mini dictators.   The solutions provided by the “One People One Heart” people are disastrous—Isaias Afwerki is either a Chairman Mao or a Marshall Tito—his coerced, compulsory unity will either outlive him, or it won’t: but either way, the price being paid to get there is too steep.   So, the solutions provided by “Hearts Like Birds” are the best alternative—relying on enlightened culture of tolerance and wisdom: but let’s not get overboard and romanticize our culture and traditions.   Culture and tradition are great things–if they are flexible enough to evolve and change.

PS: Everybody loses.  We had a test to see if anybody would pick up the extra “a” in the AlNahda icon (it is actually written Alnahada). Nobody did, so nobody picks up the award: a Grecian urn.  “Beauty is truth, truth beauty…”


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