The Fish That Divided The People: A Novelette

“Some people weave burlap into the fabric of our lives, and some weave gold thread. Both contribute to make the whole picture beautiful and unique” a proverb.

I do not know now, but in my time and hundreds of years back, fish was not part of the highlanders’ diet.

The whole eastern part of the country is on the coast of the Red sea, very rich in fish and other sea creatures. But the land was not a nation with clear demarcation and the people were confined to their familiar ancestral areas so it is not farfetched to say the highlanders and the western lowlanders did not know a sea existed not far beyond the plateau just a hundred miles away in the East.

Fish was first introduced to the highlanders by the Italians. The land became officially an Italian colony in 1890. Credit to the Italians, they did not interfere with the peoples’ faiths and customs. They just opened a fish market in the new city they started building from scratch which they named Asmara, a name taken from a small village that existed when they arrived. The intention of the Italians was by opening a fish market they were opening a new food source for those who were willing to try new things.

And in every society there are few, who take risks.

The highlanders, though they might have seen or heard about fish, never ate fish. There are no lakes in the highland and as such in Eritrea and every rain that falls either sinks to the soil and rocks down under or flows down to the lowland.

But they knew about fish which they call Asa, from the bible. A bible story told to them by their priests because no one was allowed to own a bible but the church. They always equated the fish to Manna and not as real everyday food that could be consumed.

The Italians did not force, coerce or brainwash the people to eat fish. They did not come to change peoples’ habits even though they might have felt empathy towards the bone skinny people, which they rightly attributed to poor diet and scarcity, and that fish could have improved their lots.

The Italians were also not experienced colonizers. Eritrea was their first colony and they captured the land with not too much resistance which they took it as cowardice on the part of the inhabitants while the inhabitants were amused by why the Italians chose that ragged place that could not even sustain the few people it held. That is why until now people of the highland call the Italians “Tsululat Talian” [crazy Italians.]

The Italian soldiers were mostly from the south of Italy and of peasant origin and from the start they did not dislike the people they saw and met.

To start with, the Italians who might have been indoctrinated back in their home about the savages they were going to conquer and change were astounded to find religious people with mosques and churches who believed in the same God they themselves believed. The Cross in the church and the Moon and Crescent in the Mosque are universal symbols that no one can miss. Instantly subconscious understanding and connectedness was established between the soldiers and the people they conquered. But as colonizers they could not rebel against the king who sent them for ulterior purposes though conversion was not one of them.

What initially repulsed the people who happened to pass by the fish market was the unusual smell.

Unusual: because it was a new smell.

It was not that the people were unfamiliar with bad smells or smells of decay. Animals died everywhere and in that rugged place, dead animals were left unburied emitting smell of decay. As children, we used to identify a corpse of an animal by smell alone. Dead donkey’s decay emitted heavy but not stringent smell while a dead goat’s decay emitted powerful pungent smell. The people just blocked their nose with their bare hand, or some sort of handkerchief and women with their Netsela  or Gulbab or just changed direction opposite the wind and there were few who were not bothered by a smell of any decay.

But: not the smell of the fish.

Those who smelled it got sick for days. Some vomited on the spot. Others complained of head aches which they swore was induced by the smell and the news travelled to the four corners of the highland. So the people continued not eating fish because they did not have to eat what they never did before. Of course the smell was the last nail on the coffin and this went on until the Italians were defeated by the British in 1941.

The British were in favor of giving away (we say), uniting (the Ethiopians say) the land and its people to be ruled by the king of Ethiopia. But some work had to be done first.

Half the people of Ethiopia were Christians of the Coptic rite. Even though the remaining half, were Moslems, they were not treated as equals in Ethiopia and unlike the people of Eritrea they had history of religious confrontation.

The king in collaboration with the smart British came up with the old idea of cozy up and annex and the first thing they utilized was the Church, because it was the same Coptic Church in both countries. So they started cozying with the church leaders in Eritrea. To be honest, the Ethiopians had advanced religious learning centers which produced knowledgeable theologians. One of the most prominent centers was in an island in Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River. In Eritrea they did not have such centers but the monks and hermits of the Monastery of Debre Bizen were the defacto leaders in church and faith affairs.

The Eritrean Coptic Church was completely cut off from the outside world unlike its counterpart in Ethiopia which made the self proclaimed leaders of Debre Bizen more conservatives and unwelcoming to new ideas.

Lake Tana is awash with fish and the Ethiopian theologians who study and teach in the seminary use fish for food. The Eritrean theology students who were sent to the seminary came back shedding their bias towards fish and started talking freely about what fish was, its taste, methods of cooking and its benefits. But like any person who learned abroad that does not go back to his village but the big city, those theologians were living in Asmara where the only fish market existed in the highland.

The Monastery of Bizen (Debre Bizen) is located atop a high mountain that was separated from the main plateau by a massive albeit narrow valley. It took days to reach the Monastery by foot before the Italians built a road and a rail road system that passes through the foot of the mountain that housed the Monastery.

There were many issues that agitated and angered the monks and hermits of Debre Bizen but a printed Bible sat atop. No one shall touch a printed Bible let alone read it, was decreed long time ago. The monks were the soul and flesh of the faith and everyone obeyed their dictum. So every priest adhered to the hand written, generation-to-generation passed Geez Bible. The spoken language of the highlanders is Tigrinya, a derivative of Geez but the Church liturgy is in Geez. Both Geez and Tigrinya use exact same alphabets.

Training to become a priest takes years to complete, starting from knowing Geez then graduating to hand writing one of the Seven Books, the main one being the Bible, followed by learning the chants and using the drum and cymbals. The hand written Books were given to new Churches built by villages and the graduates were assigned the priesthood in those villages.

The Coptic clergies, Akshishti, had dual tasks: to run village churches and be the eyes and ears of the far living monks. That way the monks were up to date on every thing but specially on the maters of faith and doctrines.

They were not happy when the Emperor ordered the Eritrean Church to send young priests and deacons for training in Lake Tana. But they respected and feared him so they consented. There was also a myth about Lake Tana that disturbed the Monks. Some theologians went so far beyond the curriculum and learned exorcism. Those few who did cross the boundary became known Debteras and were admired for their knowledge of the Book for they can recite the entire Bible by heart; feared for the power of exorcism they acquired and were also suspected of having skills in wizardry. The monks of Debre Bizen had no business with exorcism, even though they did not deny that an evil spirit can possess. Extricating the spirit was not the church’s business. The act was left asunder to people possessed by the same evil spirit.

In the highland the task of exorcism was left to men known possessed of Zar, a malicious spirit. There were also few women possessed of benign spirits known as Kerbe but those women cannot exorcise any spirits. Just like in normal society it seems there existed gender bias in the spirit world too.

For reasons unknown, in this rugged place, the benign spirit Kerbe, strikes only young married women and as such poor women. The Zar will be invited; will chat with the spirits that possessed the woman; will order a white hen’s blood to spill and will order the poor husband to buy a white dress and perfume. Once this is done immediately or promised, there will be no recurrence.

Zars always talked in the third person and were shunned from associating with any one. But I admit they were muscular, looked well fed; weirdly clad in leather skirt like Gladiators; well combed with oiled Afro hair and pierced ears with earrings and always smelled of expensive perfumes and were extremely clean. They were not allowed to attend Church and they seemed not bothered by it.

It was one thing to eat fish in private whether be a theologian or a lay person because fish was never sanctioned unclean, but it was another thing to propagate addition of a new dietary idea especially if you belong to the Church. That was the first error the new foreign trained theologians committed.

Indeed, they underestimated the monks and hermits of Debre Bizen.

The monks and hermits of Debre Bizen became more sensitive with dietary issues due to the Italian colonial presence and their dietary habits. The monks never denied the Christianity of the Italians but they also knew the Italians ate forbidden foods.

The best friends of the monks were the highland women, who embodied Christianity by body and spirit and carried the Cross in their heart and boldly tattooed it in their forehead for everyone to see and witness.

The monks were always suspicious of the highland men and did not trust them. They considered them weak spirited, less committed, wanderers and ignorant. The monks always believed that wandering feet always finds new things; wandering eye always get tempted and wondering mind always gets distracted and all these malaises afflicting only men. It was not a far fetched assessment because the monks knew that some laborers who were employed by the Italians during the rail road construction that passed at the foot of Debre Bizen were caught eating suspicious foods catered by the Italians and worse some were even smoking cigarettes and chewing tobaccos, two habits punishable by excommunication.

According to the monks, and they were not far from the truth, it was the women who were the real keepers and fierce protectors of the faith and the monks professed without those women the faith would have doomed long time ago. The women were also very respectful and kind to the monks who occasionally wandered to the villages for food while the men thought the monks were mere beggars.

The monks also reciprocated in kind. They were not only respectful to the women but also they were not strict with them when it came to many traditional issues like talking- back to their good men; wearing Netsela, a shawl from head to a little bit above the ankle (which was a no no custom wise) or religious issues like doing work (inside her home) during Holidays which violates Church rules that govern when to work and when not to work but above all they let women drink coffee which according to the monks was equivalent to tobacco and drugs and were sin to use.

In times of crises, what the monks always did was somehow inform some women of the situation and the rest shall catch fire and travel to all corners in no time. It was a double bonus if the issue was dietary issue for if the woman rejected a dietary item, success was guaranteed because first the man could not cook due to lack of skill and tradition and second by practice and tradition the house belonged to the woman: a man was a second citizen inside his house.

There was no problem with the women when it came to the Italians colonizers as long as the Italians kept their faith, food, customs and traditions to themselves, that is to say not spread it. And to be true the Italians did just that when circumstances allowed but if they deviated what they got from the women was insults and ridicule. For example if a woman was passing by the pig slaughter house she will cover her nose in such obvious way to show her disdain and of course she will say to herself why dont they slaughter the poor pig rather than push it to the boiling water tank”. Because that was what the pig butchers were doing where everyone could see. The woman might also happen to pass by a turkey farm and she will stand, look intently at the long necked bird (she named it Takin), and wondered what the Italians did with it? Do they really eat this ugly bird? How could they swallow the meat? The woman might also have encountered an Italian man and a woman kissing mouth to mouth in which case she would abruptly turn her head the other way, unconsciously utter Ewiy, ewiy, gud reana, make a cross sign, say a short prayer and could not wait to tell her friends of the bizarre act committed by what generally the women refer to the Italians: Tsadu Maakor. Other than that, the Italians did not change their behavior toward the highland women. They respected them. The Italians were their mothers’ sons and remained so wherever they went. They also found a similar woman in this highland who mothers her son and who runs the family exactly like their own mothers.

To counteract the learned theologians’ attitude and behavior concerning the fish, the monks started disseminating rumors that fish was the favored food of the turks. But the learned theologians countered not only by quoting the bible that fish was Kudus to eat but added also fish could be eaten during Lent. To the monks and hermits, this was a declaration of war, pure and simple and started the attack by accusing the theologians of heresy. Then the monks went into offence by saying the fish was caught and brought by the Italians, who did not have dietary restrictions in their religion. The theologians countered by saying “So what if the Italians caught and brought the fish?” Again a stalemate was the result.

The disdain of the monks towards the learned theologians had many causes. The monks realized and had accepted the theologians were more knowledgeable than them albeit fallible men but what angered them most was the aloofness and free talks of the theologians which was totally devoid of humility and respect towards the elders and protectors of the faith. The monks were also offended by the cleanly shaved fat faces of these theologians.

When the monks realized they were losing ground, they asked the King to interfere. The king had political aim so he did not disappoint. He selected a patriarch from one of the provinces of Ethiopia to mediate between the quarreling Church leaders. This Patriarch was more of a politician than religious and had the disadvantage of not knowing the Eritrean highland spoken language, which he did not care because the aim was to create chasm and not a bridge between the factions.

The Patriarch called a conference for the two factions to meet and debate on an issue that did not interest him. The two factions met on the set date and place called Albergo Roma, a hotel built by the Italians. Asmara was a small city; very small back then. The place where the conference was held could not be far from the fish market so a hint of fish smell was in the air.

The monks were accompanied by hermits when they arrived. It was a rare sight to see hermits, who not only hide from people but also from the solitary monks of the monastery. The issue must have awakened something hidden in their heart.

No one knew their history or when they started becoming hermits. No one knew whether they could talk or hear. Their whole body was covered with hair and their cloth was old and tattered. The unmistakable sign of their anger was their ferocious eyes and agitated body.

The learned theologians who came to the conference were few; their fat body clad in clean vests with shaved faces and seemed relaxed, a sign of unpreparedness and aloofness.

The first demand from the monks was seating arrangements: they wanted seats to the right of the theologians. The demand was strategic not a gimmick. By forcing the theologians to sit to their left they made them look and feel evil. Their demand was accepted without any question or explanation, a sign of immaturity on the side of the theologians.

The first question to the theologians also came from the monks. The monks and the hermits had decided not to look into the faces of their counterparts so the question was thrown forward as if addressed to the room. The monk who presented the first question was old and frail and he asked “Is fish a plant or an animal?”

A young and lazy looking theologian, without bothering to stand as decorum demanded, answered: “It is not a plant”. The monks were waiting if he would elaborate to no avail: because he didn’t. His behavior offended the monks more than his answer but they did not show it in any form.

The second question also came from the monks. This time the questioner was a tall and scraggy looking monk and asked “Is it then an animal or a stone?”

People utilize what they know. The highland people knew lots about stones and rocks because they lived surrounded by them. The word stone did not only refer to stone but was utilized as filler in sentences and utterances for lack of appropriate word. So what the monk meant was if fish is not a plant, what is it? And this was because the lazy looking theologian did not answer or elaborate the animal part of the initial question.

This time, a theologian who looked like a leader, answered by saying “Fish is not a stone; what a foolish question was that, but anyway, yea, fish can be an animal.”

All those times, the politician Patriarch was just listening to a language he did not understood. Many thought he was surmising. He could have requested a translator, which was very difficult to find, also he could not use one of the theologians because he did not wanted to look partial. His aim was also division not unity.

To the “not a stone, but also could be an animal” answer, a hermit rose without his turn to respond in a voice, unheard before, some said it sounded like the sound of wolf, others disagreed and said the voice was an echo and still some others said the voice could not be earthly voice, and asked “Is fish alive when out of water?” While asking, the hermit broke what was agreed among the monks not to look towards the theologians, probably as many suggested later, hermits did not know rules and thus did not abide by rules and thus did not respect rules and so his act was intentional. Others surmised he looked towards the theologians to scare them with his looks.

The hermit’s voice and demeanor seemed to arouse the Patriarch’s interest and also seemed for the first time to arouse the theologians from their neglectful sleepy attitude, because unlike before they did not answer the question lazily or hastily and for the first time they looked bit shaken in their confidence. Worry started to spread on their clean shaven fat face. They wished they were bearded like the monks and hairy like the hermits because many people noticed the changes in their faces. The Patriarch also noticed their hesitancy, a sign of lack of maturity and uneasiness but also it was not in his interest for them to raise their hand in defeat, so he recommended recess which the theologians accepted readily even though it did not bother the monks either. The monks were enjoying the debate in form and content and they were also filling their stomach with unseen and unheard of food brought to them by their supporters, women of course, who to say in fairness, did not understood the matter at hand, and also the monks were basking in Italian chairs and sofas in the stucco decorated conference room.

The monks were misunderstood and underrated for their worldly skills by everyone but the woman. Looks are misleading and these monks out of humility have hidden their wisdom inside their thin body and tattered clothes for no one to see but their God. The monks were also meticulous for they already had done their home work and by now the news of the arrival of the monks and hermits had reached the four corners of the highland. City women started flocking to the conference area to see the hermits and as soon as they saw them said in unison The end has arrived. People started to gather and joined the women in their lamentations. Seeing this opportunity of sadness and chaos, the Patriarch ordered the protagonists to resume the debate and asked the theologians to respond to the last question “Is fish alive when out of water?”

One short handsome but shy theologian stood and whispered “No”. The hermit stood in anger and demanded the responder to say it loud for everyone to hear. “No” said the theologian in an audible but timid voice. The hermit then asked “Do you slaughter the fish underwater then?” in a voice half human half alien. No theologian volunteered to answer the question.

The monks were not surprised by the behavior of the hermit who was well known and respected for his wisdom and logic in the monastery. But they never saw him angry and some monks never heard him talk before. Also who shall expect niceties or politeness from people who lived in isolation and swore for silence their whole life?

The theologians were caught by surprise because they knew only animal slaughtered while live was Kudus and anything else Haram. They were heard arguing among themselves “fish does not have blood, so slaughtering while live is not applicable?” but none of them dared to utter that argument and just sat with their head bent down: a sign of defeat.

The monks and the hermit gave the theologians ample time to think, though some women said the Monks used the lull time to humiliate the theologians, but giving up, even hermit’s patience had its limits, the same hermit, by now self proclaimed prosecutor and judge, stood, laughed a loud, guttural laughter it was, and declared “ The book disallowed eating dead animals. Eating fish is eating dead animal, the father of all sins.” Then he bowed low, kissed the floor, and asked the most senior monk, who happened to be the oldest, to prescribe punishment to the theologians and left. On his way out, women approached him for blessing while men and kids to see how he looked like. He made the sign of Cross towards heaven and just left.

In four corners of the highland, fish became the hottest news. People who saw and people who never saw fish in their life started talking and debating about fish. Simply, fish became the center of attention. People became curious to see fish, some risk-takers and wanderers, of course men, even considered to taste fish no matter how stinky it smelled. All women declared in unison “Fish in my house: over my dead body.”

But many level-headed people asked where they could see fish and the answer given was the same: “travel to Asmara to see fish.” Those who travelled before and those who never ventured out of their surrounding before decided to travel to Asmara. Women outnumbered men. Old women, women with babies in their backs, young women were the most curious and determined to make the trip. City dwellers were perplexed by the number of villagers (who they call Hagereseb), roaming the city aimlessly. “Where can I see fish” was their only question even though some said “where can I smell fish”. In disdain, the city dwellers answered “The fish market. Where else?” and continued “by the way, cover your noses.” To this advice the villagers retorted “Is the smell worse than a dead goat’s corpse.”  Some of those who were able to find the fish market and smell the fish swore and said “It smells like hell” and equated the fish market workers as Satan’s angels. All were sick to their stomach which in most induced vomit and severe headache, what the people call Merzen.

The fate of fish was sealed forever. Mothers taught their children never to eat fish. Any undesirable scent became “it smells fish”. It smells fish became “Satan’s fart”.

The theologians were given punishment appropriate to their rebellious behavior, were rehabilitated through rebaptism and they themselves became ardent warriors against any thing to do with fish.

My wife and I avoid fish but we wanted our children to get the health benefits of fish (the experts say lack of OMEGA-3 suppresses intelligence) and we always encourage them to eat fish. They always say to their mom Ok mom, cook us fish to which my dear wife will say over my dead body. To me, if I tell them to eat fish they say “why don’t you?”

Poor fish; poor people. The disdain towards fish is seamlessly passing from generations to generations thanks to the power of the woman, a woman empowered by the Monks of Debre Bizen, a monastery she is forbidden to visit because she is a woman.

I will take this opportunity to wish complete success to the upcoming historical congress in Addis.


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