Inside Cinema Odeon in Asmara, no one stood at the marble and mirrored espresso bar. Three students sat amidst the two dozen gold formica and stainless steel tables and chairs in the deco lobby with posters of lurid Italian bodice-ripping movies on one end and 90s American action films on the other. Wasn’t my lecture on “Literature, Power, Translation, and Eritrea” scheduled to begin in five minutes? I walked outside again and saw my friend, Berhane, who anticipated my “what’s happening?” – meaning where was everybody? – by whispering the major news story of that cool Asmara Monday morning in late July: the beloved Eritrean film director and writer, Isayas Tsegai, had a stroke and died, aged 56, during the night. Most of the people, especially the writers, who would have come to my lecture would be at his house with his family. We would go to his funeral at noon the next day. I remembered the first stanza of one his poems that Ghirmai Negash and I had translated:
When I saw the world didn’t care
If I was stripped of everything,
Even my dignity,
And beaten like a slave
Less than human,
I lost all sense of peace except in saying
I am also a person. I’m an Eritrean. (1)
I had witnessed and had been writing for the last fifteen years about the centrality of literature and orature in Eritrea – and had seen many western eyes glaze over as a result. My lecture that morning and the next would provide further variations, but my time to talk was over for now.
Once more, I would listen – look and learn, taste and see. Such a role is the most important a non-native speaker can ever play, excluding no one. Without it, any knowledge of Eritrea, or the Horn, or of Africa dooms itself to misinformation: working from the outside in rather from the inside out.
Another reason for my being in Asmara that day was to launch my new memoir, Joining Africa, the last two thirds of which focuses on Eritrea. Chinua Achebe, shocking western sensibilities in 1977, criticized Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness for reducing Africa to a mere “setting and backdrop” for white consciousness to act out its “metaphysical battlefield,”(2) and I realized the conundrum, perhaps even the paradox, of writing my memoir focusing on Africa. The book, however, emphasized an ironic transformation of someone choosing not to look and listen, but eventually being compelled to: relegating myself to the background as much as possible, or a listening role, while making Africa the foreground. Thus, as I concluded on Joining Africa’s second page, recalling an Eritrean cultural festival where traditional Eritrean poets were reciting their work and I, too, was reading, “I was not important,” and again now, in the sudden and tumultuous wake of Isayas Tsegai’s death, “I was not important.” By then, I had had a lot of practice in this role. As Achebe implied, and as the funeral of Isayas Tsegai demonstrated and powerfully confirmed, what better role was there than listening and not being important for someone not from Africa, not from the Horn, not from Eritrea?
I could lecture and publish ad infinitum about the centrality of literature in Eritrea: about its being written on ancient stele millennia ago to the 20th century battlefields where Eritrea fought and won its independence; about the vast quantities of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and more that had to accumulate over such a long period of time, written and/or oral. How could it not be there (although most, like Eritrea’s archaeology, still remained buried)? Where there is language, there is literature and orature. If in Eritrea there are at least nine languages or more, there are similarly nine or more. Yet this is only to speak about Eritrea. Who would deny as strong a voice to anyplace in the Horn?
But after learning the first critical lesson of a non-native speaker in the Horn – listening not talking – the second most important is that the power and centrality of literature, written and oral, remain and continue regardless of any outsider’s recognition. Join if you want, that is, if you desire and/or if you lack – you can even help. But the literature and orature remain indomitably self-sufficient, where even armies and empires last hardly longer than highland clouds, Red Sea foam, or water in the scorching Sahel. Again the funeral of Isayas Tsegai spectacularly embodied this critical premise.
A little more than a day after the news of his unexpected death, more than six thousand men and women gathered before an Orthodox chapel under the flag of Eritrea to form a long procession following a hearse, a black minivan, to the Asmara Patriots Cemetery. The men in western clothes and the women in traditional, long brightly embroidered white gauzy dresses and shawls walked in separate groups, mingling only at the end. At the grave, a din of weeping and wailing competed with a eulogy piped through crackling loudspeakers so that chaos and a prospect of resting in peace seemed interchangeable. The wind, the sun and the ground felt equally cold and hard. Half a dozen graves had been opened, Isayas Tsegai’s overshadowed by a near house-size pile of flowers. As young people whom he had nurtured for years in a children’s theater group broke through the crowd to throw themselves in his grave, orthodox priests in shimmering day-glo vestments waving censors and chanting demonstratively still could not be heard. Mourners packed every restaurant in Asmara for the remainder of the afternoon.
Into such a context, enter Ali Jimale Ahmed’s new book of poetry, When Donkeys Give Birth to Calves and Ghirmai Negash’s translation into English of The Conscript, written by Ghebreyesus Hailu in Tigrinya – for most readers, no doubt, unknowns, but no worse for that. These two literary works connect to and resonate within a near timeless and vast literary world of the Horn, which readers outside of it, even in Africa and beyond, are only beginning to recognize and join, its utter substantiality and not to be underestimated imperviousness notwithstanding.
Ali Jimale Ahmed is uniquely at home on both sides of this divide. This might be a subliminal message hidden in the dynamic title of his new book of poems: When Donkeys Give Birth to Calves, translating an axiomatic conundrum in Somali, Dameerraa weylo dhalay, which is similar to saying in English, “if pigs could fly.” The intent of attributing such impossibilities to the animals in question is, of course, to characterize the limited capacities of the human animal. Is being equally at home in and outside the Horn similarly unlikely? Yet another interpretation of what has to be one of the all-time most provocative titles of a book of poems might invoke the traditional distinction in Ethiopian literature between a “gold” or hidden meaning and a “wax” or superficial meaning, except that nothing in this writer’s substantial oeuvre could ever be deemed superficial or, if it seems to be, caveat lector, as in following lines on a “Ceramic Ladle”:
Too difficult to make out the
…barely legible reads:
Empires come, empires go
Even when meaning becomes illegible, the Somali poet finds “cinders tell our story” (“Atmospheric Spirits”) – an observation from a poem and a microscopic description of the work of the Somali novelist, Nuruddin Farah, to whom the poem is dedicated. A similar dual reality, or sense of reality within unreality, and vice versa, cannot be escaped, but on the contrary remains omnipresent also in the poem “An Oasis of Love” with its “recuperative spell” of “trickling water.” The waxing welcome of such a moment notwithstanding, “Beware of a noose hidden / In the rind of a palm tree." For Ahmed, however, the “oasis” need not be literal, look like or even be Somalia, which is precisely why, again, he is uniquely at home both inside and outside the Horn, and uniquely humorous about it, as “[i]n America,” where “we love things big”:
Big guns to win us
Big houses with
Big things for my family and
Big things for my country…
I like big
I think big
Believe me, big!
…give me a big hug
A bear hug
A big bear hug
See, no big deal
Incorrigible, unaggrieved, “no big deal,” at home in the “cinders” of Somalia and the American dream – what is a source for such a sense of security, confidence, resolve, and self-sufficiency? As an answer, the first poem in Ahmed’s book, “The Word,” makes a statement, issues a declaration, and asserts a mini-manifesto. “The word is…a tool of expression” with
Still, the poet concludes, the word “first must hibernate.” And “hibernate” where? A western sensibility, at least this one, might point to the self, thought, inner reflection, a place of little or no disturbance – certainly not the place where the speaker in Isayas Tsegai’s poem finds himself: “stripped of everything… / even dignity… / beaten like a slave… / Less than human” and “having lost all sense of peace.” Such an unfortunate condition, of course, is hardly unique to the Eritrea Tsegai was writing about and might be located most anywhere in the Horn – most readily these days, perhaps, in Somalia. Still, Tsegai’s minimal “I am also a person. I am an Eritrean” prevails, and it even becomes triumphant.
Amidst such horror, again, what is a source for such an abiding sense of security, confidence, resolve, and self-sufficiency? In the case of Eritrea, it is commonly attributed to that nation’s revolutionary fervor: its indomitable nationalism and its unprecedented struggle to triumph in winning independence. But surely that does not come out of a vacuum. The “winds of change” sweeping other African nations in the third quarter of the 20th century towards independence as well as popular Marxist insurgencies and revolutions worldwide certainly provide some context and inspiration for the Eritrean struggle. But what else?
Focusing on the entire region of the Horn, and not only on one of its countries, Ahmed provides an answer: “In the Horn of Africa catastrophes may abound, [yet] the calamity that besets this region can equally be explained through its antiphony: the perseverance and cosmic, albeit cautious, optimism of its people. A horn, after all, is also a way of making music.”(3) A history of such “perseverance and… [the] optimism of its people,” furthermore, can be recognized as reaching back to the origins of the gods, as Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin observes, of the Torah, the Koran, the Old and the New Testament, and more, who all emerge from the Red Sea.(4) Thus, Ahmed can contend
that much of the strife and bloodshed that has plagued the Horn of Africa and synecdochically the whole continent, is best crystallized and articulated in the expressive arts of the people. The trajectory of Africa’s development or lack thereof is best gauged by studying the literatures of the continent….we propose that we examine the pain, the joys, and the inchoate aspirations of the people of the Horn through the prism of their literatures.(5)
What nation, region or continent can ever be known without its literature being known?(6) Furthermore, is a nation or region even conceivable, or little beyond that, without its literature, both for its inhabitants and for anyone else who would recognize it?
Ghirmai Negash is without peer in revealing the source of Eritrea’s survival and its independence, exemplified in Isayas Tsegai’s penultimate cri de coeur and cosmically amplified in his funeral, “through the prism of… [its] literature.” Negash’s first book, A History of Tigrinya Literature in Eritrea, subtitled “The oral and the written, 1890-1991” (1999), the pioneering and thus far only book of its kind on the subject, is a model of what can and should be done for the literature of any African language in any African nation or region. Yet now another monumental achievement by Negash has dawned: one that will rewrite African literary history of the 20th century. He has translated The Conscript, a novel written in Tigrinya by Ghebreyesus Hailu, initially in 1927, and first published in 1950. The novel is remarkable, and its translation is momentous.
The translation is the first in English. The story presents an Eritrean soldier whom the Italian colonial army conscripts and sends to Libya to quell a colonial uprising in that country. Focusing on his thoughts and ruminations about his involvement in this colonial project, the plot involves his eventually refusing to fight against Libya’s Arab freedom fighters, based on a realization that the colonized should not fight against the colonized but instead should resist the oppression of their colonizers, in this case the Italians, together.
The book is a postcolonial novella avant la lettre and written in an indigenous African language – two colossal firsts in light of modern African literature history. This cannot be stressed enough. How many times has Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), written in English, been called the first modern African novel? This is one of the most basic premises of 20th and 21st-century African literary study. No more. Hailu writes The Conscript in Tigrinya over thirty years before, predating the publication of Things Fall Apart by almost a decade. Time to replace inaccurate old knowledge with more accurate new knowledge.
The arc of The Conscript’s narrative is strong: from an early sentimental home life in Asmara, to a gradual shift in the scenery that mirrors the spirits of the main character, Tuquabo, as he travels to hot and dusty Massawa to board a ship to Ethiopia. He embarks on a journey to hell, into a heart of darkness. Passing two horrific days in the Libyan desert and taking part in an even more horrific battle, he survives to almost die of thirst, which dominates an entire chapter, before he returns to his homeland as a forsaken and guilt ridden shadow – or rather, a mature version – of the man who is met at the story’s beginning. The course of the story also includes a proto-anthropological study of Libyan Arab culture in contrast to Habesha. For example, Tuquabo is endearing, engaging, charming, and shrewd, yet entirely credible in his general reticence, nearly always communicating through understatement.
Tuquabo is like Achebe’s Okonkwo, a central character who embodies and typifies a crucible for the culture from which he emerges, but he differs from Achebe’s creation in that Tuquabo’s disenchantment and resistance against the empire lead to his meaningful rebellion and self-preservation rather than his self-destruction. Tuquabo does not exhibit either an Okonkwo-like obsession with tradition that he fashions into a mask and an illusion of his manly prowess or a sense of self and cultural exceptionalism as the thwarted hero of his people. Instead, The Conscript’s hero is a kind of everyman, while distinctly Eritrean, too: caught up in the winds of his time, yet an acute observer and even at times poet: someone who knows and quotes Leopardi, with keen yet patient, at times mournful powers of observation, recognition, and reflection. For example, he recalls growing up:
They were a rich family with abundant cattle, and they hired a Moslem family to look after them. Sometimes Tuquabo and his father would go to the Saho Moslem family overnight…. When they traveled, Tuquabo, more than anything else, loved the mule ride, when his father sang and told stories, and the rhythmic motion of the mule, smoothly floating on the plains, carried them along, like water running on the ground. As a child, Tuquabo was riveted by the sudden movement of flying birds, and shuffling sounds in the bush would make his heart throb. As they rode by, they might see a flock of baboons, and Tuquabo would laugh at the sight of a monkey’s swift jump away from them. In his young heart, he wondered about why the baboons, so strong in numbers, were running away from them, but he kept such thoughts to himself. After reaching their destination, to be entertained with milk and porridge by their Saho Moslem friends, they would enjoy themselves under a full moon and listen to the chewing of the cattle.
Hailu is no less lyrical when Tuquabo recalls his and his fellow conscripts’ first sight of the Libyan desert, where all but a few of them will die.
They were all silent; except for whispers and unfinished sentences, not even one song or meaningful word was heard in the entire group. The sense of shock, sadness, hopelessness, and regret was clearly visible on their faces. The view of the desert was overwhelming. There was not a single tree or blade of grass, not to speak of water. One could not possibly move in any direction – left, right, front, or back – for one found oneself always surrounded by sand, stone, gravel, and heaps of dust. It was an expanse like the sea, but a more hostile one. In the sea you can see fish and listen to the sound of the waves. Not even a single chirping bird was heard, nor was a bird in flight seen in the desert. With the open cloudless sky….[and] the nausea created by the permanent blaze and the absence of breeze…[was] one in the land of life or death [?]…. All the conscripts were now saying, “I deserve this, for wanting to come here!”
The Conscript’s third chapter, which this passage begins, has an epigraph from Leopardi’s famous ode, “To Italy” (1818), lamenting the dilemma of “He who fights on a foreign soil another man’s war / Not for his family or his country’s honor / And when he lies dying...”
The chapter, however, might as readily unfold under an epigraph from T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” (1920), only instead of reflecting historically on the foreboding decay of European culture after World War I, the dynamic becomes the descent of an indigenous, comparatively prelapsarian Eritrean reality into a colonial aftermath.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. (7)
The Conscript and Ghirmai Negash’s translation are as important as any work of fiction that has ever come from Africa, especially in the 20th century. Readily accessible to students, scholars, and general readers, the book can be read and enjoyed for generations to come, in and outside Africa. Ghebreyesus Hailu produces an unforgettable and timeless thing of beauty: of things Eritrean, of things of the Horn and of Africa, yet of things of the entire world, and consummately literary.
(1) Isayas Tsegai, “I Am Also a Person,” in Who Needs a Story? Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre, and Arabic, translated and edited by Charles Cantalupo and Ghirmai Negash (Asmara, Eritrea: Hdri Publishers, 2005), 9.
(2) Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Massachusetts Review, 18.4 (1977), 78.
(3) Ali Jimale Ahmed, “An Evening of Poetry from the Horn of Africa, http://alwanforthearts.org/event/838, 31 October 2012.
(4) Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin, Collision of Altars, in Modern African Drama, edited by Biodun Jeyifo (1977; New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2002), 570.
(5) Ali Jimale Ahmed, The Road Less Traveled: Reflections on the Literatures of the Horn of Africa, “Introduction: Understanding the Horn through the Literatures of its People,” edited by Ali Jimale Ahmed and Taddesse Adera (Trenton: The Red Sea Press, 2008), 4.
(6) Cf. Charles Cantalupo, War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Literature (Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 2009), 115.
(7) T. S. Eliot, Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1952), 22.
Charles Cantalupo’s new memoir, Joining Africa – From Anthills to Asmara (Michigan State University Press), documents his years of literary work in the Africa, particularly in Eritrea. His translations include three books of Eritrean poetry, We Have Our Voice: Selected Poetry of Reesom Haile (Red Sea Press), We Invented the Wheel (Red Sea Press), and Who Needs a Story? – Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic (Hdri Publishers). His monograph, War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry (Mkuki na Nyota) analyzes the poetry in Who Needs a Story? With major grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, the World Bank, and the Norwegian Agency for Development, Cantalupo co-chaired Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century, a seven-day conference and festival devoted to African languages and literatures, held in Asmara, Eritrea. He is the writer and director of the documentary Against All Odds (African Books Collective, 2007) and a co-author of the historic “Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures.” Also the author of books on Ngugi wa Thiong’o, on Thomas Hobbes, and two collections of poetry – Anima/l Woman and Other Spirits (Spectacular Diseases) and Light the Lights (Red Sea Press), Cantalupo is Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and African Studies at Penn State University.