Of Kings And Bandits: A Book Review

Author:  Saleh “Gadi” Johar
Negarit Media, 2010, 327 pages

As the title of the book insinuates, “Of Kings And Bandits” is a story – actually many artfully crafted stories – seemingly set to challenge the conventional wisdom and debunk widely accepted versions of history of Abysinia, by exploring tales and legends of “great kings” who ascend to power illegitimately, of viceroys and their lackeys who invade, pillage and kill; and of course, of bandits who are royalty in the hearts of their people. One people’s bandit is another’s freedom fighter. In this historical fiction, Saleh “Gadi” Johar painstakingly creates a context in which the reader can ascertain that, in the face of injustice, violent resistance is as inevitable as any natural law; and children – especially children – find it very hard to reconcile how things are with how they ought to be.  In cultures such as Eritrea’s, where learning oral history is the rite of passage of every child, cultural and religious values are ingrained in young minds; and when they witness the indignity and slaying of their community, these children are burdened with reversing the situation.

Such is the scourge of war; and the story of the Eritrean Revolution is the story of several communities and their children raising arms against Emperor Haile Selassie’s invading army. Except it was a bit more complicated than that. The King, a living legend during his reign, used the Orthodox religion and mysticism and even kinship to the biblical King Solomon on one section of the Eritrean society and brute force on the other.  Janhoi (a term of endearment used by those who revered him) was a shrewd King but astuteness does not hide the fact that he used bombastic account of his personal history to ascend to the Ethiopian throne and stay there and his army unleashed massacre and brutality especially in the lowlands of Eritrea.

“Of Kings And Bandits” is the coming of age of a child and his too-fast-a-transition to a warrior. In a way, it is also the story of birth of a nation. On one side is Janhoi and his quest to annex Eritrea and turn it into a 14th province of Ethiopia; on the other is a boy warrior who had no viable option left except to fight and defend his family, his hometown, his culture and his way of life.

The author does a remarkable job, setting the stage for this David vs. Goliath story and in the process explaining what the illustration on the front cover of the book is all about. A daring young man stares at Janhoi’s eyes and His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, elect of God, conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah (his actual title!) stares back.  We know how that contest ends. Eritrea and Eritreans eventually triumph and the war in Eritrea contributes to Janhoi’s undoing and the end of dynasty in Ethiopia.

This historical fiction is set against the backdrop of the early years of the Eritrean Revolution (circa mid 1960s), a few years after the independence movement turned into an armed insurgency. Through the eyes of Jemal, a boy who barely understands what is happening around him, Saleh Johar leads us to the signs and symptoms of historical, religious, familial and cultural ramifications of a community torn apart as it is once again caught in the whirlwinds of change.

But what makes this book a delight to read is not that; it’s what the author filled the gaps with. Well known for his activism, Johar has written hundreds of articles over the years and his unique writing style is what elevates this book in to a class of its own.  Instead of delving into chronological events and facts and figures as history books tend to do, he tells us stories – tales that humanize the actual history. And when it comes to storytelling, Saleh Johar is arguably one of the best Eritrean writers around with a special knack for describing a scenery so well that you feel like you are watching a movie, not just reading words in a book.

Most of the story is set in Keren, the author’s hometown, which gives the book an aura of authenticity and perhaps autobiographical quality as well. Johar describes Keren of the 1960s as “a military camp with a violent past pretending to be a civilian town”.  He then exquisitely provides tidbits of its rich history which somehow is packed with tales of battles of Keren – the cemeteries for Italian, British, Indian, Sudanese and Persian soldiers serving as footprints of its violent history.

But Keren is not just a military garrison; it is also a bustling town. As if affixing a video camera on little Jemal’s forehead, Saleh Johar takes the reader on a guided tour of Keren –not just the historical and factual aspects but the sights and smells of the town also.  There is a chapter entitled “Incense Road”, where Jemal walks thorough a short route that he found “scenic and lively”.  Everything our main protagonist lays his innocent eyes on are described in palpable details that one can almost smell the myrrh and sulfur “letting out thick fumes of incense” from the mobokorria…quintessential Saleh “Gadi” Johar at his best, especially when he takes his time. Scenic and lively, indeed.

Johar’s unconventional style and mastery of words allows you to enjoy reading every page and every chapter without necessarily agreeing with him.  He seems to be more interested in telling a story than preaching a point of view; he trusts the reader to make up her/his own mind. It’s a history book that reads like a novel; though it is also a work of fiction. There are gruesome details of actual massacres and learning the character of the people, their values and fears is a stark reminder that this is not just history but stories of real people from not-so-distant past.  By the time you read the last page of the book, you will definitely feel the triumph of the human spirit and dignity, even when it is staring at an overwhelming rival.

Take the story of Norai, the retired mason, and what transpires when Janhoi’s soldiers came for him.

His blood boiled with anger…[he] run to his room and picked the sword that he carried in social ceremonies. He unsheathed the sword and rushed to the door.  His terrified wife and daughters shouted at him: “Shetan Awwez Abu Ismael! Oh, father of Ismael, Resist the devil’s urge!”

The Father of Ismael wouldn’t. He refused to be humiliated in front of his wife and daughters.  He would rather die.

That fighting spirit is what motivates and energizes Jemal, the child warrior; to avenge the death of his loved ones, restore his people’s dignity and right a lot of wrongs.  It is also a story of redemption and of people of different backgrounds destined to live together.  Intertwined stories that will have you pan from Keren to the Arat Kilo campus of Addis Ababa University, back to Keren, off to a village in central Ethiopia, and of course back to Keren. Yes, the book is “Of Kings and Bandits”, but it is about more than that. It’s also of Saddle makers and Jinnis; of Elbises and Deqi Hdrtna; of Qletuni scams and bad women who cry “Yawoooy!” when their customers don’t pay.

I recommend reading this book and keeping it for re-reading and reference.  Readers who just like to enjoy a well written book about the lives of ordinary people will find this book very gratifying.  Students of history who wants to delve into the precursors of the Eritrean revolution will find a chock-full of illuminating information. Hopefully, among the myths that will be debunked is the notion that the armed resistance for independence was imposed by outsiders or rebel leaders.  It was indeed an organic people’s resistance. The ensuing Ghedli period may need to be deromanicized, but Saleh “Gadi” Johar has greatly contributed to our understanding of what it was like to be caught in the eye of the first storm. Rarely is the African story told by the very people who lived it and as such it makes this book an instant classic.

Buy this book, read it, keep it. You will not be disappointed.

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