Monday, January 24, 2005

Travelogue 60 – January 24

The day after Temket happens to be Eid-al-Adha this year. The muezzin across the street warbles with more enthusiasm, if no more talent. As a bonus, they mike the prayer, making the whole thing sound about as sophisticated as my kindergarteners when they march around the courtyard arm in arm, singing some nursery ditty over and over. Somewhere, Mohammed is cringing.

As they do around any holiday, the beggars swarm. You see it in the monthly cycle at the churches. Almost every day has a patron saint. They gather in front of the church corresponding to the saint whose day is celebrated, along with peddlers. They lay out blankets and pet their babies, wave their hands pathetically for money, send their toddlers out to follow passers-by.

My heart sinks when I return home that afternoon, and see the horde in front of my gate. I steel myself for running the gauntlet. I hear, “Faranj, faranj,” like a whispered wind among grass. They start to circle, putting on their most tragic demeanors. I’m reminded of a zombie movie. Most are garbed in country rags, like burlap, all following a three-color scheme: mud, moss, and midnight purple. Most women have the traditional hairstyle of tight braids on top, abandoned halfway down to leave a kind of frizzy shelf on the back of the head. They all have a baby in a blanket on their backs, like part of a beggar’s kit.

It’s no big deal. You have to figure that, on any given day, I probably interact with far more beggars than anyone else, -- students, friends, co-workers, servant, -- by a huge factor. It’s a consequence of my decision to stay “on the street.” So after a cumulative six plus months in Ethiopia, I have my defenses in place. I wade through and knock on the gate. They swarm while I wait.

You never get comfortable with them. A moralist would say “good,” but then I wonder is it isn’t the moralist who would become the cruelest in practice, overwhelmed by the scale. It does funny things to you. Despite yourself, you become a tyrant. On bad days, you find yourself stopping and staring down an old man in tatters with a small boy on his shoulders. A moment later, you may give to a grown, healthy man out of guilt. You make up systems: “I’ll just give to children because they’re the most needy.” Maybe it’s old people. Maybe it’s the disabled. If you’re honest, you’ll admit the rules are arbitrary and calculated to salvage some impression of yourself as thoughtful and good-hearted.

As near as I can tell, the Abasha give as the appeal coincides with sentiment. They aren’t mobbed the way faranji are, of course, but they get their chances. I believe a lot of giving is motivated by religion, something I’ve begun to take a dim view of, since it fetishizes the poor, making them convenient opportunities for scoring points toward heaven. Poverty becomes part of God’s plan. I’m not sure it doesn’t make the beggars themselves complacent. I don’t blame anyone. There are no options. But I wonder if the culture doesn’t explain itself too neatly.

Some of you have asked about Jack. He’s growing fast, a little too quickly in the gut, I’d say. No matter how sparing I try to be with food, the servant comes along and spoils him. He’s turning into a little butterball. After she’s washed and fed him, he’s like a butterscotch ball of fur scooting around underfoot on his stubby legs, looking for something to chew on. He does a dance when I eat. He’s gotten good at balancing on his hind paws. He pricks up his ears and stares with eager, round eyes, and I have little choice but to toss him a piece of injera. He’s all Abasha. He likes the spongy bread. We sing “Allahu Jackbar” with the muezzin.

Notice: in a few weeks, I finally head out of town, for a trip to eastern Ethiopia, to Harar!

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Travelogue 59 – January 18
One Year

Today is one year since my first arrival in Addis Ababa. It was a lovely day, warm with high, white clouds. I strolled all around my corner of town. Here are the day’s favorites sights.

I stopped in one fashionable café in Bole to do some writing, the Café Paradiso. The conversation behind me, half on cell phones, half between the two men sitting there, moves seamlessly between Italian and Amharic. I’m enjoying listening. I enjoy looking, too. They look like “half-castes,” as they like to call themselves here: half Italian and half Abasha. There are quite a few of those. Many of the Italian places in town are owned and operated by them. There’s a restaurant in Bole called San Remo where the mama cooking looks like she should be sitting on a park bench in Roma. Her son is John Turturro with extra melanin. Anyway, these two are fun to observe. The larger of the two is Mafia, I’m sure. He’s dressed immaculately in a black suit. He has curly, greased hair. His eyes are light brown, his face kind of leonine. He chain smokes. He even has that patented, Mafia, nonchalant shrug inside his clothes. It’s a chic place. He seems to know everyone of importance coming in. Important Abasha dress like Americans, down to the polo shirts and sneakers; it’s strange. I turn to speak to these two, though I know it’s at risk of my miserable existence. They confirm they’re “half-castes.” The big guy has a charming smile, and he indulges my conversation briefly. The smaller guy is friendly. He runs another café in town, and was co-founder of one of the nightclubs. After I admit I’ve been to Roma, and admit it’s the greatest town in the world when the big guy presses me on the point, the latter loses interest. When I ask what he’s doing in town, he evades the question. He’s getting a sour look on his face. I know I’m pushing my luck, so I bow out of the conversation.

On my out, I say hello to the security guard in the parking lot. I like security guards here. Often, they’re older men. They’re very respectful, and very happy when you say hello. They start up out of their chairs and hold up both hands. This one salutes. Is it because I’m American? I look anything but military now. My lady friends here like my hair and refuse to let me cut it. I figure it’s worth looking shaggy to get petted once in a while.

I get a different salute a few blocks down. A barefoot man in a tattered sports coat and shorts gives me a big, yellow grin and greets me, “Hello.” He holds up a condom and says, “Good!” And the ubiquitous thumb’s up -- it’s hell being an American abroad. I continue down the road. Another man, in an even more tattered coat, is running alongside the road, brandishing a stick like the shepherds do as they run alongside their sheep. But there are no sheep. He shouts and waves his stick, and I realize he’s herding the cars. A few more blocks, and there are sheep. I’m treated to one of my favorite spectacles: sheep being herded across a pedestrian bridge. It’s a sublime and ludicrous sight – all the little legs going as they climb the stairs, the tight clump of them crossing above the road, all with forlorn faces.

As evening approaches, I’m having a beer outdoors. A small parade comes creeping along the street. It’s religious; there are people singing and chanting. I ask the hotel staff. They tell me it’s Temket. It starts today. Temket is Epiphany, the day Jesus got baptized. It’s one of Ethiopian Christians’ biggest holidays. Every church in town breaks out their “tabot,” or facsimile of the Ten Commandments, and a priest carries it on his head all the way to a field on the north side of town, not far from our school. Tomorrow, the priests will gather together, all the tabots on their heads. There is lots of dancing and singing and baptizing going on. I was there last year. Sure enough, there he is, among the crowd, the priest in sumptuous gowns and the tabot swathed in colorful cloths on his head, so it looks like he’s wearing an elaborate headdress. His companions hold up colorful umbrellas. Ahead of him, a couple people are carrying a cheesy, Orthodox print of the Madonna, sheltering it with the beautiful umbrellas. It takes them about twenty minutes just to pass the hotel, and they have a long way to go. They’ll be walking all night. No one can tell me what the tabot has to do with Jesus getting baptized, but it makes for a beautiful ceremony.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Travelogue 58 – January 12

I forgot to report that I saw my first hyena a few weeks ago. It was one night when I was walking back from class. Heading down the Ring Road, (otherwise known as the “China Road” because the Chinese built it,) between Bole and Gurgi, I pass one of those crazy fields. This is where I saw him, just a flash of his wide, hairy back as he scurried down a drainage ditch that crosses under the road. He was a big one, more small bear than big dog. I had heard that hyenas roam the streets at night. Supposedly they can be dangerous, but will most likely run before fight. The big, persistent ones, the cops will hunt. If he’s killed, someone will skin him before the night is up to make a triumphal cloak of his hide.

That’s the field that’s closest to home, through which one of the city’s sad rivers wends its oily way. An Addis Ababa river: narrow, stinky, piled high on its banks with trash, its water black and bubbling or a sickly, detergent blue-green. Some farmers have squatted in the field, having dug a rudimentary irrigation system from the river. Presently, you can see haystacks out there, and men digging and cutting down plants. The watermelon men have an outpost near the road. It looks like a little dugout or stockade. They’ve piled the watermelons like sandbags and thrown up a tarp canopy overhead. I’ve passed them at 5:30 am, running. They sleep beside their precious commodity.

That’s the field where I spot the ibises gathered around the muddy pools of irrigated river water. They are a spooky looking bird. I understand why they took on mystic significance for the ancient Egyptians. Their god Thoth, has an ibis head. He’s the god of history and writing, as I recall, the record-keeper. They’re big birds with white bodies and black markings. In particular, their heads are black. They have tiny, beady eyes that you can’t see from a distance against the black of their heads. Their bills are long and curve downward. They have a distinct call when they fly.

I saw Sanbat the other day, the homeless girl I saw so often last spring. I didn’t recognize her at first. The country families gather at the same spots around the city. When the ragged little children run after me, I barely notice anymore. This one was persistent. I looked closely and asked her name. She’s grown taller. Her face is longer. The sunny smile has faded a bit. She’s grown some hair, though it’s still short. She’s lost or outgrown the felt dress. She’s in a scruffy sweatshirt now, and a colorless old skirt. I ask her what she wants in my rough Amharic. She just says, “Dabbo.” Bread. She shows something of her old elfin charm. I used to carry bread for her. Today, I have to settle for giving money. There’s no reason I should feel good that she remembered me. I’m faranj; I stand out; her reasons for remembering me aren’t the noblest. But I do feel good. And melancholy: when one of them gets a name, she has a future.

In the same neighborhood, I saw one of the Pentes from Sami’s café. He remembers me. He wants to walk along with me a ways. “Last year,” he says, “you come in the morning. You eat and eat and you read. Every day you read.” Yeah, that’s me. I can’t remember his name. “I like to read. I read English stories,” he says. But I remember him. He told me all this and more last year. He likes to write stories. He wanted to show me pictures of his dad, who apparently was a high official in Haile’s time, and then disappeared into America. He has found him through some web site. Some day, he had said, he’ll write to him. Today, he’s waiting for a visit from his uncle and aunt. He’s been waiting all day. Are they coming from far away, I ask. He names a neighborhood that’s two taxis away. Okay, he says, and heads back to wait.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Travelogue 57 – January 6
Bugs in Heaven

As Ethiopian Christmas approaches, there’s the familiar rush for livestock. You see truckloads of sheep coasting by, and the men of the house walking home with live chickens dangling by their legs from either hand. There will be a mass bloodletting tonight or tomorrow, and many souls of innocent sheep will be drifting toward their cousins, the woolly clouds. Except, there haven’t been clouds sighted over Addis in nearly a week. It’s going to be a hot Christmas. With each passing day, the haze thickens. Some of it is the morning smoke from household trash fires. You can smell them when you get up. The haze has become so dense that when you approach the hills, they emerge from the glaring haze, looking like some medieval Chinese print.

Both my Christmas and New Year’s, by the European calendar, I spent in the offices of Fortune Newspaper. It’s the largest English newspaper in circulation here. There are a few of them, believe it or not, but when I say largest, it’s like comparing a gnat to an ant. I believe total circulation of all newspapers here, Amharic or English is about 200,000 per week. This place is not conducive to print media. Costs are prohibitive; literacy is low; no language is universal enough in the country; and even the 25 cents or so for the newspaper can be a lot for most people. Anyway, there I was, working as an editor for the business weekly. Right: I know. If they only knew who they had taken on to edit business news, circulation would drop immediately.

I’m doing a favor for this Brit who is their regular editor. He wanted to go home for the holidays. He wanted to see his kids. And his wife had to get her shrapnel checked out. It seems that some time around last Easter they went to a café and a disgruntled ex-military man came in with a grenade. He pulled the pin next very close to them. Four people died. She took some metal in the leg and rump. He got away with a few pieces in his leather jacket. Their friend just about lost his liver, and his life.

So I enter the trenches for him. Looking back, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have rather taken the shrapnel. Nowhere is the newspaper business known for tidiness and efficiency, of course, but now I have seen true chaos. The second weekend in particular is the nightmare. When I report in on Friday morning, I’m informed that we have to try to finish preparing the paper today, because our slot at the one state-owned printing press that handles all orders for major newspapers is early. Usually Friday is about twelve hours of work, and Saturday sixteen, (it’s a Sunday paper,) so I’m wondering how this will be managed. I needn’t have worried, because it wasn’t managed at all. Items drifted in during the day Friday —if anything, at a slower pace than normal. By evening, I’m nearly alone in the building. The owner has run off to the gala at the Sheraton. There’s one responsible editor left, Baharu, a conscientious young man who hasn’t been there long. He begs me to stay and keep working. I do, a little while.

My decision to leave the previous evening is justified the next morning, when I see there was nothing new turned in after I left. Baharu is haggard and upset. So upset, he walks out. The other editors come in at about ten, the owner after that. I get an item here, an item there. By four, Saturday afternoon, I’ve edited four news stories. I decide to question the owner. He’s an interesting man, young and dynamic, ready with a rational and convincing line of discourse about journalism. He founded the newspaper and has led it for ten years. I don’t get far into my query. When he hears I’ve seen four news stories, he runs screaming out of the office. He stops in every room in the building, yelling. After a lengthy and vitriolic series of insults, another editor gets canned. Within a half hour, the building is teeming. The owner runs with stories he’s found off the internet. Writers are improvising right up until midnight. I’m flooded with work for a while. But by 1am, it’s slowed down. One writer is still going. Proofs are coming infrequently. I’m exhausted and disgusted. I exit for a long walk home. Fortune, I notice, is the last paper out on Sunday.

Did I mention that the nights have been very chilly? I made the mistake of telling my new servant that I’d like my blankets cleaned some time. When I arrived home Friday night, there wasn’t a blanket to be found. I got a few hours sleep, fully clothed. Saturday night, the night of the newspaper debacle, ditto. Fa-la-la-la-la….