Of Kings And Bandits: Honoring The Author

On Saturday, November 13, 2010, Eritreans in the San Francisco Bay Area organized an event to honor Saleh “Gadi” Johar’s and to celebrate the publishing “Of Kings And Bandits.”  Commencing as scheduled at 5:00 PM, the festival, which had a theme of “A Reflection Of Our True Hstory”, was held at La Quinta Hotel in Berekeley, CA with a celebratory feel. It was attended by over 200 Eritreans.

After an invocation delivered by an Eritrean elder, the festival was opened by addresses given by three Eritren youth who spoke of the book’s impact on their understanding of Eritrea and, more importantly, how it helped them relate better to the lives of their parents who lived the stories told in the pages of the book.

One of the youth who spoke was Adal, the 18 year old son of the author who spoke of Saleh not the activist, the publisher or author but as the father who is driven by one overwhelming objective: justice.

Huda, 21,  touched on the theme of the book and focused on the importance of elders and how their guidance should not be taken for granted.

Aman, 19, spoke of the contrast between fleeing a country because of oppression and injustice and, yet, yearning to return to the same place from which one escaped. He encouraged people to make the most of the freedom in their new adopted countries.

Following the addresses by the youth, Saleh Younis, a colleague and friend of the author showed a PowerPoint presentation on the life and work of Saleh Johar. At the conclusion of his presentation, he introduced the author who was welcomed by a standing ovation and sustained applause by the attendants.

A visibly moved Saleh Johar took to the podium and told the audience that he had always made fun of people who tear up when they get emotional and that he has a better appreciation for their responses now.

He spoke of the genesis of the book: that he had always gravitated to the company of Eritrean elders and found great enjoyment in listening to their stories. He said that he had always found it sad that Eritrean history makers were going to meet their Maker without leaving behind a chronicle of their contributions. He added that in all the history books written about Eritrea, he had never found his story and the story of his audience and that this was his primary motivation for writing the book.  As a bonus for motivation, he said that he the exaltation of Emperor Haile Selasse as a benevolent despot when, in fact, to people of his generation and background he was a personification of evil, was all the added push he needed to embark on a 3-year journey to write the book.

After Saleh Johar’s speech, a buffet dinner was served. New and old friends took the occasion to socialize  in a relaxed setting.

Following the dinner, the author was invited back to take center stage and answer questions from the audience.  The author fielded several questions and comments including the following:

  1. A question from a young Eritrean (asked in Tigrigna): Are there plans to translate the book in other Eritrean languages? Did you have readers in Eritrea, what other plans do you have for the future? Answer: Not into all Eritrean languages because it would not be feasible. But I am working on translating it into Arabic and I am waiting for certain licenses to have it printed in the Middle East. I also have plans to print it in Tigrgna… but obviously that will take a while to do. Eritrea is off limits to me as you know but I don’t know how anyone would carry the book to Eritrea, for many reasons…but if you can help with that, I would appreciate it. 
  2. From a 13-year old (question asked in English): How did you get the ideas in the book and how did the idea of writing the book occur ? Answer: As we live, we observe our surroundings and experiences and if you certainly have experiences that you are going through and down the road, if you reflect on your experiences, you will find that you go through important events and they have an impact on you. For example you were just 11 when Obama became a president. That is an important event because he is the first black American president. If years from now you want to share your experience or story, you can recollect it and write about it. And a book is a way of sharing your story with others. 
  3. A young man asked: Emotionally, what was the most difficult chapter to write? Answer: I think the death of Betul was very difficult because it touches me more personally and it was my first real experience with death. But obviously writing the Ona and Halhal chapters were the most agonizing.  
  4. A man asked in Arabic: Eritreans suffered from the rule of Haile Sellasie; do you think that rule left a legacy and how do you describe it?
    Answer: Indeed, the Haile Sellasie rule left a destructive legacy and we are still suffering from it. Today Eritreans are suffering from the same divisive, elitist and exclusionary behaviors that he ingrained. We are living in a sort of that kind of absolutist rule with an Eritrean strain.
  5. Another woman commented: When a friend presented the book to me and asked if I would like to buy it, I said to myself, ‘why is she giving me a book with Haile Sellasie picture in it’ and threw the book not willing to read it. But when I read it, I found something I didn’t expect.  Thank you for writing our story.
  6. A woman asked: Reading the book, I forgot the dishes on the burner and they got burned, I had to finish the book before I put it down., when are you going to write another?
    Answer: I am elated you like the book that much…but time is the main factor in writing a book, and God willing, I will keep writing whenever I find the time.
  7. Another woman asked: Who is the boy on cover book?It is an image of the a child I imagined and drew.
    Answer: the image of the boy in the cover is a a Photoshop compilation of three individuals.  The chin is mine, from my childhood photo. The eyes, forehead and hair belong to one young boy; the nose and mouth abelong to another. ..I hand painted the picture of Haile Sellasie which I then sent to my friend the renowned Eritrean artist Mahmoud Debrom who enhanced it with oil and acrylic paints and made it look like an oil painting.
  8. A reader who said she is not used to the format of the book asked: Why did you write the book in a story format and not a regular history book?
    Answer: I find history written in textbook format very dry and I don’t think people enjoy reading textbooks as they do with novels. I didn’t want my book to read like a classroom assignment. I wanted readers to read the book in a relaxed mode. I love storytelling and I though it would be better to offer history in that format without the boring details of well known dates but preferred to do away with the  usual template of chronicles of the Eritrean history.

At the conclusion of the question and answer session, there was a book signing ceremony.   All the books that were brought for the occasion were sold out.


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