Most of my stories are included in my book “Of Kings and Bandits”
Today’s episode is more of a story aba Zarti, Qole, and my experience with it.
Now let me say something to my readers who seem to be offended by my repeated mention of the term fascists”. They think I am insulting when I say fascists, but I think I am describing a phenomenon. Maybe it’s because the way we say things can be considered a description or an insult, depending on the tone, on how we say it. If I say “you Hgdef!” It is an insult. But if I say “long live hgdef”, it is positive. If I say “hgdef issued a new directive”, it’s neutral.
Mebrahtu was hit by a car, is compassionate. If I say “you cripple!”, it’s an insult. And if I say, “I saw a truck loaded with bicycles for the handicapped, it’s neutral.
Therefore, I call people who believe in an authoritarian system based on racial and any other social distinction, a fascist, it’s a description. And I describing those who believe in such a system, with their own admission, it is a description, not an insult.
Fascists address raw nerves: we are great and we have to recreate our greatness, however illusionary it is. Our language is superior, someone even said Latin was created from Geez, it is the best language ever developed by man… at the same time spewing hate to others, though not very cleverly. It’s the despicable walk on the edges of fascism.
Besides, I am also an activist and I use the term to empower the victims of the fascists, to provide them with tools to argue with, and position the struggle as one waged by progressive activists against fascists.
To achieve that goal, since they use antiquated arguments, I sometimes use antiquated methods that they can understand. I pity them, I despise them, and I feel sorry for them… all at the same time. So, I believe they are inflicted by Zar demons, a fascist spirit, and I will try to exorcise them—mche zeriga. That’s is why we need Abba Zarti help us cure them.
That much should do it to explain why I use the term fascists.
Now let me tell you what abba Zarti is, (the exorcist) and what I personally know about it by narrating two main stories;
I. Zar party and Bashai Surur
Close to where I grew up there was a zar place, a mud house in the neighborhood of the “Warda Filo”, the corrupted version of guardia di filo. One time I was passing by and heard drums. I came close and found boys peeping through a hole beside the door and I peeked inside.
Two women were beating drums while others clapped behind a wata, the traditional violin. There was Bashai Surur, the famouse Aba Zarti, a sort of an exorcist. It was the fist experience implanted in my memory. Before that I only remember hazy voodoo ceremonies in weddings in the neighborhood.
But the major scene I saw is from a wedding of my uncle; my grandmother (Abeshay) had made all the arrangements for the wedding of her youngest son. Together with her friends she had smuggled a traditional violinist into the party tent. He sang emotionally with his eyes closed. Abeshay’s friends had also smuggled a zar master, a man who they said controlled spirits. My gradfather, Khelifa Abdella would never approve of either the singer or the zar master in a women’s party, if he knew. He sat far from the tent in the neighbor’s house with the men. He only heared the faint wata tune a few times and asked, “What is that, wata?”
“No. It is just a tape recorder,” someone made an excuse.
Khelifa followed strict codes; he considered music and dancing a distraction of a pious life.
Inside the tent, the women swayed passionately to the heavy drums and danced with frenzy. I spotted children standing on the corner and clapping. Right then the wata music and the heavy drums aroused the demons of some women. The zar spirits fully possessed them. The drums got louder, and I began to clap harder.
Only a dancing session satisfied zar demons. For most women, a wedding party is the only opportunity they get to dance and appease the demons. The possessed are known as horses of the demons that ride their bodies and control them. But I never saw possessed men, but now I was looking at the famous Bashay, the zar master.
When the demons became unruly only zar masters can straighten them up. Bashay commanded respect among the junior demons because he dealt with their superiors and jinnis of lesser status submitted and obeyed him.
Spoiled demons are too demanding. They demand things through the mouth of the horses: candies, bright colored clothes, perfumes, frequent coffee ceremonies and incense burning. If they don’t get what they want, the horses get sick and moody—only a dancing party would relax the horses and make them feel better.
Bashay closed his eyes and ordered everybody to clap harder. I began to clap, just like the other children.
Dressed in brownish leather shrara, a kilt, and a whip in his grip, Bashay performed the zar session by burning sandalwood and incense in the smoky, suffocating and noisy room. Drumbeats, ululations and singing aroused the jinnis. The much feared Bashay managed the session strictly. “Even the tough and unrelenting jinnis are afraid of him,” a woman said.
Bashay jumped and swerved in the middle of the room whipping the air haphazardly. The drums went louder, and songs of incantations went off. The excited horses went into frenzied dance for hours, all the time sweating and screaming. Then they went into a trance shaking and swaying. Jemal saw a frail veiled newly wed young woman wrestling three bigger women and overpowering them. “What a tough jinni,” a woman complained. Then the tiny woman went into some sort of an epileptic seizure.
Bashay ordered the women to talk to the jinni to go easy and have mercy on the horse. The women pleaded, praising the spirit with songs and poetry. They promised incense and colorful candies, but the jinni remained defiant. “What can we do for you, master?” Bashay asked the demon in a persuasive tone.
“I need English perfume,” replied the jinni, talking through the horse.
“I will get you the best perfume,” an old woman promised.
Bashay came closer and asked, “Are you satisfied?”
The demon, a demanding jinni riding the frail young woman, didn’t reply. Bashay cracked his whip landing it on the woman’s shoulders. She trembled violently and swayed to the side, no emotions on her blank face. The angry Bashay thundered, “I will not allow a junior mche like you to disobey me; remember I deal with your superior mche zerigas!”
He was about to strike again but suddenly stopped when the horse defiantly said, “I am a master myself, a brave knight.”
Bashay whipped her repeatedly until he couldn’t do it anymore.
“Alright, just get me the perfume,” the horse said and collapsed; the junior jinni must have submitted to Bashay.
Now Bashay was jumping and dancing, reeking with sweat, he made sharp and swift swerves cracking his whip and abruptly stopped in the middle of the tent, motionless. All the hysterical dancers, the horses, relaxed and everything went quiet. Abeshay rolled up the side of the tent and let the late afternoon sunlight and fresh air in. Satisfied, the possessed women sat calmly by the side as if nothing happened and then the Zar master, the Wata and most of the women had already left.
Why do the demons target mostly women? Could it be an excuse to have fun, or an escape from the grinding role imposed on them by tradition and society? Maybe the jinni scare was the only way to coerce the husbands to buy them clothes and perfume?
Now we have small fascists acting like macho men, like tigers when they are puppies, trying to scare us with theier Ohhhhhhh—I will kill you all, I will eradicate you, I will force you to speak my language and assimilate in my culture—there is no nation called Eritrea…we will estabslish our racial state on its debris.
The mysteries of the jinnis fascinated Jemal, especially Deqi Hdrtna, fairies, whom Abeshay said are responsible for Shuka-Shuku—sleepwalking!
As a child, a few times I had sleepwalked out in the middle of the night. Often his parents awoke to the sound of the latch on the gate and found me wandering in the street unconsciously. To prevent that from happening, they put another latch on the door and locked the room where I slept from the outside. From then on, I would struggle with the door until my parents were alerted and they would come to the rescue. I would be disoriented and feel that someone woke me up from a deep sleep.
Abeshay had diagnosed his condition as a case of Shuka-Shuku caused by Deqi Hdrtna, fairies from the jinni world that made people sleepwalk to far places. I think the fascsts need a rough awakening, shuku-shuka, they are sleep-walking, they don’t know where they are heading.
Now I will tell you the second story,
2. Aunt Lemlem and the Demon
Abeshay Lemlem and Ustaz Mahmoud Moha’d Saleh… Hanji-menji,
I liked the Hawliya, a yearly event that attracted busloads of people who came from all places. After sunset, Sufis sang hymns, recited poetry and played Jebajib—a spectacular chant with inspiring tambourine beats. I stayed there until well after midnight and returned to his home the same way he came. I had planned to go in through Aisha’s door that I left supported by a brick and then jump over the wall to his house and go to bed pretending I had been there all night. It was pitch dark and with a beret on, I could hardly see anything when I pushed the door. Half my body and a stick I held were in, when I peeked in to identify a noise I heard. Aisha had suddenly appeared a few meters from me as she returned to her room from the outhouse. I froze there motionless hoping Lemlem would not see me. But she imagined she had seen a monster and screamed in terror throwing away the jar that she held, banged the door to her room and slammed it shut. Her terrified husband tried to calm her: “sheitan aw’zi Aisha!” A spell to ward off evil spirits. I sneaked in, locked the door and jumped the wall and went to my room. But he couldn’t sleep knowing that I scared poor Lemlem.
A few hours later I woke to a clamor, noises coming from across fence, Lemlem’s’s house. Soon my mother came to wake me up and she looked worried. “Is everything all right?” I asked.
“A devil came to your aunt Lemlem this morning. She is unconscious and the whole neighborhood is watching over her. She might die.”
“She saw a devil?” I asked, a glint of guilt on my face.
“Yes a one-legged devil!” my mother said almost trembling with fear. “your aunt Lemlem said he had long horns and fiery red eyes!”
“A one-legged devil!”
“He held a glowing spear on his hand,” My mother said picking my clothes from the floor, “the devil entered through the locked door and almost grabbed her!”
“Glowing spear? Almost grabbed her!”
“Yes. Maybe the devil lives in that possessed Gaba tree,” She said.
I had an urge to smile but resisted it, remembering the story I heard about the devil that jumped off the same tree and handed Ustaz a cigarette!
My uncle had caught my cousin Ustaz Mahmoud in the middle of a shameful act: holding a cigarette. “A jinni dropped from the Gaba Tree in the dark and gave it to me; he then climbed back to the tree and started to play drums and lyre.” Ustaz told my uncle.
“I was afraid to say no to the devil!” Ustaz Mahmoud emphasized.
My uncle, a product of an age when people took such pronouncements at face value, didn’t ask interrogative questions but prayed to God to rid the neighborhood of the devils that resided on the tree. “A’ouzu billah,” he had repeated seeking refuge in the protection of God. “You should avoid walking under that possessed tree in the dark,” Ayay ordered.
From then on, Ustaz was supposed to be home before the night creatures descended the tree. Jinnis had camped there and everyone had to avoid the alley after dark. But the story lived on and neighbors recounted it with certainty until it grew to mythical proportions. And I grew up believing that story. Some people even claimed they heard drums and lyres played in the treetop.
Ustaz Mahmoud had been in the ranks of Jebha for almost seven years and no one claimed a close encounter with a devil until aunt Lemlem imagined my silhouette was the devil that she feared. Her husband had enough and insisted on cutting down the tree—he didn’t want to host the devils in front of his house anymore.
Aunt Lemlem was sick in bed because of me. People who came to visit her recounted endless stories of benign devils and evil ones who slapped people so hard their chins were twisted. Now aunt Lemlem was afraid the jinnis were not benign anymore, she also wanted the tree cut down. Nothing can change an eyewitness’s account.
I contemplated confessing but I couldn’t, fearing no one would believe me. But what if they did? Then I would be in big trouble. What if aunt Lemlem died? I didn’t know what the punishment for that would be but the thought made me tremble with fear and apprehension.
I visited aunt Lemlem, always praying that she would get better. She told me her story and described the devil in much detail. She would shine with happiness when I showed up; I could have been the best listener she knew at that time, she must have felt that I believed her wholeheartedly. And I knew she was telling the truth because I knew the real story. That is why she found me very receptive and a good listener.
Finally, thanks to the several visits by local healers, aunt Lemlem was up. On the weekend, her husband sacrificed a goat under the tree. Now thanks to me, the tree was condemned; they finally axed it and uprooted its stump.
When people grow up with superstitions, being told stories inspired by bigotry, hate, ignorance and rivalry, the stories become a reality to some, as it is in the perception of our fascists. That is why I want to shake them up until they awaken from their illusion. But since they are not accustomed to rational thinking, superstitious treatments are the best remedy. We have to get them in a hall, all 150 of them, and hold an exorcism ceremony.