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Negarit 61: Are We Sabeans?

Some people believe belonging to a certain race makes them superior to others. Unfortunately, that racist and bigoted outlook of humanity is the basis for the inflated perception of self-worth. Sadly, living in ignorance under brutal warlords for ages, the psyche of certain races is thus shaped and it has religiously maintained an isolationist fenced culture.

Extremely conservative culture blocks the mind from exploring the cultures in their neighborhood, let alone cultures outside their fences. Though repeated for many years, such challenges to look inward critically, annoys a few who do not want to leave their comfort zone. They always want to hold to the illusion of superiority by remaining loyal to the empty views spiced with bravados.

It’s the 21st century and views established centuries ago are now archaic; one can build of their positive aspects, but staying loyal to a reactionary, anti-modernity culture, is akin to preferring to walk on a muddy road where one stays stuck and remains behind as the world moves forward.

I am doing this because the bigotry and the ignorance in our culture is deplorable. For example, last time I explained the relations of Arabic to our culture. Sadly, even those who know nothing about history have been up in arms since then. I blame the so called pseudo-intellectuals who pump bravado into the empty minds.

Last time I mentioned that Tigrinya doesn’t satiate my intellectual curiosity. And few weeks ago someone posted a list of available Tigrinya books; they were a few dozen titles—most of them are a production of the last two decades, proverbs, biographies, and struggle-era related anecdotes. But yet, even if we went a century back we can only find only  a meagre collection of books written in Tigrinya. With the exception of a few, most of the books are of no literary value, or science, or philosophy, or critical work. They are mostly personal experiences—of little literary value. Here, being a history buff, I can exclude a few authors worthy of the title: Alemseghed Tesfai, Hailesellasie Woldu, a few Arabic writers like Abubaker Kahal and the up and coming Hajji Jabir, and a few others.

If you live in a walled room without a roof, you wouldn’t know that space (the sky) is limitless. You wouldn’t know that mountains, rivers, animals, and people exist. If you do not read and learn, you will remain ignorant of many topics. The best (and humble) thing to do is recognize that shortcoming and work to overcome it.

So, it is with that in mind that, in this episode I will discuss the MUSNED FIDEL, the SABEAN MUSNED alphabets. I am not yet there, but recently I have started to learn it and find for myself. So far, I learned  its relation to the Geez alphabet that we use in our region. I believe that will help us understand we are part of the region and not a people living in the PFDJ test-tube, who should be guarded and distanced from any connection to our region’s civilization, culture, and value system–and to the world’s beyond.

It is important to realize that we will know nothing unless we learn something. And that something cannot be all mythologies and feel-good folktales. That is because such knowledge prevents us from elevating our discourse beyond barroom-like chats—and that is not an enlightened debate. Insults are not traits of enlightenment, regardless of how loudly you scream them. Racism is not a sign of enlightenment, Bigotry is not. Violence is not. Staying stuck in time is not. I hope the guys who boast too much and confidently belittle other cultures would stop sounding like clowns. I do not know how many other cultures they know or read about, but I hope they realize Tigrinya is not the “source of civilization”!

Today’s episode may possibly serve the unfortunate Tigrinya supremacists, (both In Tigrai and Eritrea) and here are some helpful facts.

1. According to Sergew Hable Sellassie says, the oldest Geez inscription at Matara, Eritrea, dates to the 3rd century A.D. “It’s not know when Geez became a language.”

2. There are also other Geez inscriptions that date (5th century BC), in consonants only. Vowel was added to the consonants in the 4th century AD during the reign of King Ezana. The Sabean Musned developed into Geez, and later vowels (Chret) were added to make is vocalized—I have not seen any other language that added vowels to the Musned except Geez, maybe the dots and Teshkeel in Arabic are a similar improvement.

3. Aleqa Taye, holds that  Geez, with 26 consonantal alphabets, was first adapted in Axum around 1300 BC.

4. Sabean was written in MiHrath pattern (like ploughing) first line right to left, and the next line left to right, and so on. The second line is a mirror shape of the right to left. It’s called Musned and gave birth to many characters in the region.

5. Tigrinya is traced back to a time of the Zagwe dynasty in the 13th century—about 750 years ago.

6. “The first work in Tigrinya, by Dabtera Matewos, was published in 1866 by Isenberg, in Basle, Switzerland, and it was a translation of the Four Gospels of the bible. The bible was translated into Tigrait in 1889 in a printing press at Um-Kulu.

 7. Geez is related to ancient South Arabian languages, including its script, and writing method, which is derived from the Mesned/Musned writing—this could be the origin of word Sened (document), etc. which is similar to Arabic.

8. Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali added dots on Arabic to differentiate the consonants because without dots many alphabets were the same (Nun, baa, taa, thaathat are differentiated by dots only).

9. Another governor, Al Hajaj AlTheqefi (around 700 AD), is also credited with adding the diacritical marks on the Arabic Rasm like Lijam (dots) added in later Arabic to distinguish consonant letters. And Harakat  to indicate short vowels which have been used in the Quran, but not in most written Arabic.

References: Several Internet sources

About Saleh "Gadi" Johar

Born and raised in Keren, Eritrea, now a US citizen residing in California, Mr. Saleh “Gadi” Johar is founder and publisher of Author of Miriam was Here, Of Kings and Bandits, and Simply Echoes. Saleh is acclaimed for his wealth of experience and knowledge in the history and politics of the Horn of Africa. A prominent public speaker and a researcher specializing on the Horn of Africa, he has given many distinguished lectures and participated in numerous seminars and conferences around the world. Activism was founded by Saleh “Gadi” Johar and is administered by the Awate Team and a group of volunteers who serve as the website’s advisory committee. The mission of is to provide Eritreans and friends of Eritrea with information that is hidden by the Eritrean regime and its surrogates; to provide a platform for information dissemination and opinion sharing; to inspire Eritreans, to embolden them into taking action, and finally, to lay the groundwork for reconciliation whose pillars are the truth. Miriam Was Here This book that was launched on August 16, 2013, is based on true stories; in writing it, Saleh has interviewed dozens of victims and eye-witnesses of Human trafficking, Eritrea, human rights, forced labor.and researched hundreds of pages of materials. The novel describes the ordeal of a nation, its youth, women and parents. It focuses on violation of human rights of the citizens and a country whose youth have become victims of slave labor, human trafficking, hostage taking, and human organ harvesting--all a result of bad governance. The main character of the story is Miriam, a young Eritrean woman; her father Zerom Bahta Hadgembes, a veteran of the struggle who resides in America and her childhood friend Senay who wanted to marry her but ended up being conscripted. Kings and Bandits Saleh “Gadi” Johar tells a powerful story that is never told: that many "child warriors" to whom we are asked to offer sympathies befitting helpless victims and hostages are actually premature adults who have made a conscious decision to stand up against brutality and oppression, and actually deserve our admiration. And that many of those whom we instinctively feel sympathetic towards, like the Ethiopian king Emperor Haile Sellassie, were actually world-class tyrants whose transgressions would normally be cases in the World Court. Simply Echoes A collection of romantic, political observations and travel poems; a reflection of the euphoric years that followed Eritrean Independence in 1991.

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  • Abrehet Yosief

    Selam Ustaaz,
    When you drew the map of the world, I stood up cheered you on and applauded.

    I had the fortune to discuss the geez alphabet with a monk a few decades ago. I forgot exactly who the group of intellectuals he mentioned were, but he mentioned the group had to come up with a solution to the issue of writing without vowels. They were using only the “geez” fidels without the “anabebti” or vowels. You pronounce the word right, only if you knew it. The group came up with the solution by borrowing two Greek symbols “o micron” and “iota”. o micron is the small “qalebiet” we add to produce the “hams” sounds (5th sound of the alphabets). the “iota” is the small “cheret” added to elongate one leg or another of the “geez” word to make the sounds “ka’ib” 2nd sound and “sab’e” 7th zound. a combination of iotas or a combination of iota and o-mircron is used to make the other sounds. Always there are exceptions to the rule. That is all I remember.
    Are you familiar with work of Dr. Bokre (you tube Bokre Culture & History)? I find him to be a wealth of knowledge.

  • Haile S.

    Selam Saleh GJ,

    When people are deprived of their forward drive, they tend to look backwards, dig and reshape & try to solidify their roots to make sure they are still standing. Going as far as Saba dynasty, ነገደ ዮቅጣን, ኣግኣዝያን etc is okay as long as it is not used to over-pump the chest and push others over the cliff saying ትኽተር ዶ ትምተር. Unfortunately these mythologies have been used for exactly that purpose. Instead of taking the mythology side lightly just for the fun of it and try to understand scientifically its historical side, it has become a Habesha culture (borrowing Gheteb’s current culprit) to build hate on it for all the wrong reasons. All this chest blowing empty bravado and drive for vengeance is killing us.

    Saleh, there is also modern mythology. I know you don’t mind being called Habesha like me, but are you tigraway (ትግራዋይ)? I am not a ትግራዋይ, not that I hate to be (nothing against being), but I don’t want to simply receive, without protesting, the sharpened baton (ሻፎ) that is falling on my back in the form of a name ትግራዋይ, a name used as an instrument of torture by those who claim to belong to it. No one accepts getting designated with a hate coated finger “you were this, you are this, you will be this” thrown by someone for the sole reason of dominating and satisfying his/her empty ego and ultimately his dream of undoing ERITREA. Such are also the modern mythologies fabricated to shoot at Eritrea. The other day I was listening to a Tigrai media interview. The guest was an Eritrean. The program ርክብ ህዝብታት ትግራይን ኤርትራን with subtitle ሓድነት ትግራይን ኤርትራን. The first question asked by the host was “a dirty ረሳሕ bomb ቦምባ” that somewhat goes like this. “ብዙሓት ምሁራት ኤርትራውያን፡ ኤርትራ ትበሃል ሃገር እምበር፡ ኤርትራ ዝበሃል ዘርኢ ከምዘየሎ እዮም ዝኣምኑ። ሓደ ሓደ ምሁራት ኤርትራውያን ግና ኣለዉ ኤርትራ ዘርኢ ከምዘሎ ዝኣምኑ….” The host created out of the blue ኤርትራዊ ዘርኢ, a really dirty bomb, whose only usage was to hit at Eritrean elites. ዘርኢ refers to clan, lineage, breed or genealogy. No one claimed of the existence of Eritropis ኤርትሮጲስ who gave birth to all Eritrean’s diverse population in Eritrea. Curiously enough, those who employed the word ኤርትራዊ ዘርኢ were allegedly the elite Eritreans! Pathetic, unnecessary, below the waist! The host employed Schopenhauer’s 5th theorem ‘The False Proposition’ from The art of being right. You bring a completely untrue statement in order to disprove it. Is this reconciling or creating more deep wedge among the “two people”, ህዝብታት ትግራይን ኤርትራ? By using old forgotten and newly created hateful mythology? No Way!

    • Saleh Johar

      Haile S,
      I understand your comment from context, though you didn’t specify where you agree or disagree with me.

      Indeed, when we see or feel a void in our identity, we tend to look back to pull some strings that makes us feel good. And Eritreans are going through such a trying time that is confusing us. I hope you understand my going back into history has two dimensions (1. to help people contemplate, 2) to debunk mythology as a political argument). As you know, faith in anything is impossible to prove right or wrong. However, we have been and are suffering from mythology and belief driven politics and human beings do not have similar mythologies and beliefs–therefore, we never meet on those grounds. I believe that we have to think in terms of modernity, and what best solution than Liberal Democracy though it’s sad –(Testimony: some Traz Neteq students of mine are corrupting it:-).

      I do not mind calling myself Habesha, because I am. That is how my psyche is shaped. And NO. I am not Tgraway, I am Eritrean Habesha It’s only that some think the term is exclusive to them based on mythology and upbringing. I like your expression “Hate coated finger”. Brilliant.

      Bad politicians revert to archaic mindset and arouse the naive among a population by whipping emotional rhetoric and we have see it at play since 1970 (in the Eritrean context) and for centuries in the Ethiopian Solomonic context. It’s a lack of a modern view that makes rulers use such rhetoric to bring the herds behind them and it has worked for them in pour region. It’s time to engage in a serious social critiquing endeavor. This backward culture of our needs to be scrutinized and exposed of its weaknesses if we are to advance as a people. We cannot be bogged down in mythologies and folktales. So, in a way, that is my aim: to shake the people to realize how backward we are. Rosy description of a culture doesn’t help it become civilized.

      Of course you see groups making statements of superiority, and right to shape history (and revise it) at will. But they do not support their claim by anything except bravado and “I told you so and it’s a fact you do not have to question.” I did the Sabean link purposely to challenge those who believe our history starts and ends with Axum and we have no other connection except that connection that is presented as our umbilical cord. Even our connection with the Sabean civilization is revised, made to appear a local myth with its separate God, separate developments, an isolated experience. Its repercussions are all found in the Solomonic bigoted rhetoric that has crippled us for centuries.

      I understand your frustration when people want to explain modern nation states in genealogical (tribal or ethnic) aspects–they are two different things. It’s dumb–I wish I could find an uglier term for it 🙂 It’s Schopenhauer, but since I am sure he doesn’t know who Schopenhauer (or philosophy is) he is unknowingly pursuing a Machiavellian strategy, and every ruler in our region knows Machiavellian tactics even they do not know Machiavelli.

      My friend, all I can do it provoke people to think, that is one of the things I can do to shake the foolish people to get out of their slumber . Thank you

      • Haile S.

        Selamat Saleh,

        Indeed you provoke people and you provoked me. I absolutely agree with you. I didn’t state it thinking it was evident from what I was saying. Please continue provoking us, ይወጸልና እኳ!