Saturday, December 30, 2006

Travelogue 167 – December 30

Today is a Muslim holiday. I’m reminded immediately, as I try to make my way to Bole in the morning. The roads are clogged with veiled women and men in white, walking home from the stadium, where they gather together by the thousands on important holidays.

It’s Eid al Adha, or Arafa, when Muslims celebrate the day Abraham brought his son to the mountain for sacrifice. But in the Muslim version, it’s Ishmael, not Isaac, who was offered up to the irascible Middle Eastern god. Apparently, a fair amount of effort has been dedicated to proving the Koran right and the Bible mistaken on this point. Count the days, count the years, I’ve been told, and you’ll find Ishmael was the right age for the story, while Isaac was still a babe. I don’t know; I haven’t tried.

I make it to my appointment in Bole, but only because I had set out early in hopes of coffee beforehand. Instead, I languish in the sun-side window seat of a taxi minibus while hundreds of the devout stream by. At least there’s a pleasant variety of costume. The traditional costume of the Orthodox has become ‘hager libs’, or the picture of traditional Ethiopia. Muslim costume is more international, with touches of north African, Somali, Arabian, Palestinian influence.

The appointment is a waste of time, as most are here that have any pretense of business. I’ve been trying to reach out in past weeks, see what kind of partnerships I can forge. I prefer working with others. But invariably this kind of exploratory meeting decays into purple tales of woe, abuse, and crimes suffered by my interlocutor. I try to commiserate, and I bear suspicious gazes until the meeting ends, at which time I’m encouraged to call back with more ideas. Somehow, I don’t have the heart to.

I had high hopes for this meeting because it was a faranj, a Brit who has been fairly successful here. But it isn’t long before the tales of woe appear, like bubbles of air that cannot be repressed.

It’s all a bit Gothic for my taste. I can’t take it seriously. I laugh when I should shake my head. I shake my head when I should affirm, “Yes, you’re absolutely right.” I leave without a deal, and thankful. The business climate is permanently set at ‘hot-house’ and I don’t think I’ll get too far. These delicate creatures will devour me, given the chance. When the bones are picked clean, the melancholic bards will weave their story.

I arrive at Eman’s family’s just as a sheep is being slaughtered. One man holds the still-kicking legs. One saws through its neck with a long knife. It’s chance that my shoes aren’t splattered with blood. I look at the pool of blood. It’s a brighter color than seems right. The sheep’s head lolls to one side. Its hind legs still twitch.

There are guests inside, a couple from Yemen. Rukeia was once married to a Yemeni. She struck up a conversation with this couple today and found out they had nowhere to go for the holiday. They were in town for business, and – pay attention; unpredictable plot twist here – they were cheated out of a quarter million by their Ethiopian business associates.

They seem serene enough now, despite their travails. He’s smoking, gulping down tea, and chewing ch’at, reminding me of the bright-eyed Kuwaitis and their demanding daily regimen of stimulants. The couple speaks only Arabic, so Ali fills the conversational space with one of his disquisitions, telling me how the Yemeni and Ethiopies are historically related and were once both classified as ‘Habash’. This appetite for ch’at is one of those last palpable threads of brotherhood. The Yemeni nods, and with a feral spark in his eye – an eye and a face distinctly Arab, and bearing no resemblance to the gentler contours and coloring of Ethiopian physiognomy, -- he offers me a stalk of ch’at. I’m advised to reply with a sincere ‘shukran’. I do. I tell him I want to see Sana’a. He invites me with a wide, tobacco-stained grin.

As it happens, they – and who the they are is a sensitive question – have executed Saddam today, on the morning of a major Muslim holy day. Al-Jazeera will not let it go. For hours, they broadcast the same video loop of Saddam’s history, with many a noble shot of him among his people, and endless rapid-fire commentary in Arabic. Occasionally there’s a new clip of bootleg-style video slipped in, video from the execution itself: the old man led toward the gallows, fierce glint in his eye. Finally, there’s a brief shot, like footage from the moon landing, of the body in its bag, head revealed, and its red neck.

My hosts and companions are by turns outraged and heart-broken. The cycling video strikes the intended emotional notes every time. Eman’s mother wants me to know that this is Bush’s doing. Ali explains how this is a message to all Muslims. “Yes, yes. Tsk, tsk,”: what do I say? It’s hard for me to work up much sympathy for Saddam or to become truly alarmed about a world-wide conspiracy against Islam, but I was never a fan of this war, of Bush, or of the death penalty, anyway, so a part of me is with them. The other part squirms with familiar discomfort on account of patriae. But I’m safe. I’m an honorary Muslim when I visit this house.

Oddly enough, later the same day, this is what happens to me. I’m on the way to class in Mercato. A woman in a black hijab gets on the taxi and sits next to me. She tries a few words in Arabic with me. When I’m not too responsive, she asks me, “Arabic or English?” Despite my answer, she talks to me in Amharic. She tells me I look like I could be Saudi. Something around the eyes. I’m speechless. Saudi? As soon as I can, I check a mirror. Ishmael, is that you? Have you survived your trip to the mountain?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Travelogue 166 – December 20

Hey everybody, I got my green card! I’m legal! Time for a party. I’ve got the house for it now. We’ll eat lots of injera and sauce, drink local beer out of the bottle, and dance the skista. With enough beers down, we might invite the next door Pentes over for some blessed moaning and Twister. God will smile on us.

But I’ve got other plans tonight. I’m off to Mercato for the evening. I’ve opened a little class for English language, the launch of a business empire to boggle the minds of generations to come. Much like Alexander’s empire, mine issues from humble beginnings. Mercato is my Macedonia, an unforgiving land of hardy folk.

Notorious among Addis Ababans, notable as Addis’ s preeminent tourist attraction, Mercato has largely escaped my own worthy notice for almost three years. That’s because there really isn’t reason to go but to shop. Now, you can study English – at Jarvis Language, the only language center in the district. Please stop by. If you’re spending time on this blog, chances are your language skills aren’t too sophisticated. We can help.

It’ll be fun. But be prepared. There’s nowhere like Mercato. Maybe we can say it’s Ethiopia to a highly distilled degree. If you think Arat Kilo is crowded, prepare. If you think Piassa is noisy, prepare. If you think Meganagna is dirty and chaotic – and I’ve heard all your complaints about Addis urban life – prepare yourself.

First, on the taxi, secure everything. Where’s your wallet? Where’s your phone. Button and zip all pockets and bags and keep a hand on anything loose. Ready? Disembark!

(Note: I had an interesting criminal encounter last week. I was walking with Graham in the Ambassador neighborhood. A couple tall teens seem to be roughhousing. As we pass, they jostle into us. One grabs me around the knees, seemingly in a playful way. The other starts frisking. All I do is put a hand on my wallet, just as the boy’s fingers find it. As suddenly as they came, they roll away, running across the busy street. So easily foiled, so quickly passed, Graham has barely broken stride.)

Disembark! It’s best if you’ve ridden in on the most packed taxi possible so when you do disembark, you roll like a commando into the crowds. It’s also best if you have a ten year-old boy near to the surface of your psyche, or at least can easily summon up the Mission Impossible theme (and who can’t?) Be in a hurry, even if you’re not.

It’s a lot more fun than Times Square or the Fourth of July, weaving among bustling crowds on narrow streets, among crowds who have shed their customary courtesies. Okay, now add taxis and trucks that sway beneath massive loads, usually with a man or two perched precariously atop. Add dollies, donkeys, and men bent forward under bags packed with twice a man’s mass. None of these creatures looks where they’re going. Add frequent clusters of yelling men unloading trucks, paying no mind to pedestrians. Add clouds of dust and oppressive sun. O’Hare with a twenty-minute connection? Please.

If you have no mission, let alone an impossible one, you might find Mercato boring. Lots of merchants’ stalls, but mostly household goods: bland clothes, shoes, kitchen items, luggage, and the ubiquitous foam mattresses – and not much variety from stall to stall.

My advice in those circumstances: take a few hours, choose some item at random, and enjoy one of my favorite pastimes in this part of the world, bargaining. Nothing here matches my fond memories of Istanbul in this respect – the luxury and timelessness of the ritual. But there’s still the magic of ready service and easy smiles amid the chaos. Still the gentle and human art of negotiation – the careless offer, the laugh and cocky dismissal. Your counter, a tsk-tsk and some fabricated flaws, the better deals down the street, the I-know-better cock of the head. Your last price, his scoff, the reluctant exit. Mercato merchants are the best, friendly but hard-bitten.

Afterward, come down to Jarvis Language at about sunset and watch the day’s last frenzy. We’re on the third floor and there’s no wall or railing on our balcony. Stand at the edge and watch the whole mad drama, block upon block of it to where it fades into Piassa. You can see much of the city from here, looking east, all the way to the hills. But you’ll always be drawn back to observing the clamor below. There’s something endlessly fascinating about it.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Travelogue 165 – December 15
The Gibi

I’ve got a new house. Still northside. I’m in a neighborhood called ‘Addisu Gebiya’, which means something like the New Market. Still up against the mountains, but a little more city than Shiro Meda. It’s just off the main road north out of town.

To an untrained eye, things may not appear so different, except that my new neighborhood isn’t so pretty. The mountains and the trees don’t rise so scenically around us. Things are flatter. I’m closer to transport. There are more houses with walls and gates. When I go to a shop or cafĂ©, fewer people are startled or delighted by the sight of faranj. That I like. As near anonymity as I can get in Addis Ababa.

Ride in the taxi up from Piassa. Quickly you pass the Italian Cultural Center and the Samen Hotel. The latter lends its name to the district between Piassa and mine. So further on you’ll pass the Semen Chapel – which might only be an unfortunate transliteration. Hard to say: the hardcore Protestants are making a fierce play for this country. Listen to their services, as anyone within blocks is obliged to do, and one might wonder what all the moaning is about.

I have some ‘Pentes’, as they are called, next door at my new place. We share a wall. They get to chanting and moaning sometimes. I toss in a Hallefuckinglujah, just because I hate to be left out of anything involving God and moaning. I think it makes them happy because there’s a pause afterward.

Continue up the long, slow grade. You’ll pass the Guinean embassy. The road jogs to the left, and when you see the ‘Full Dose’ bar, you’ll call out ‘waraj alla’, signaling your stop. I’m a block away. You can take the busy road, alive with markets and butchers and traffic. Or you can take the quiet one with bridge over a stream loaded with trash and excrement. I prefer the latter route.

The prime asset of my little house is the gibi, the quiet, clean square of concrete behind high walls, bright with sunshine, where I sit and read or throw the ball for Jackie. She’s more interested in the abundant cats that patrol the local walls and roofs. Even more abundant are the doves and crows and falcon-like kites that trade perches and glide overhead and whistle and croak and coo.

Two sides of the gibi are walls. Along the third side are the old-style kitchen and two small rooms commonly called servants’ quarters. On the fourth side is the house proper, relatively small, though my Abasha friends are impressed. Saba finds me a magisterial dining room set for the salon, or the Pente room. Bakalech enjoys serving me there. She’s disappointed when I prefer to eat my meal on a stool in the sun.

Every move has its mishaps, every house its foibles. But my charming new manor presents more than the usual. My first night, there’s no electricity. The next two days, there’s no water. For the odd day that I have running water, I have a little water-heater for the shower – a big step up in the world. But the experience is marred by the acrid smoke from behind the electrical plug panel. Something about that makes me uneasy. Then there are the two doors into the house that both jam and never open without a struggle. One dark night, I almost break a knuckle pushing the back door open, and I bleed all over the hall. ‘Hallefuckinglujah,’ I shout, and I sense sympathy in the rustling behind the Pente wall. God loves me. Why else would I suffer? I think I’m getting the hang of religious logic. I’ll just have to pray over the bloody wound, anyway, since there’s no water.

But the stars are shining in the gibi.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Travelogue 164 – December 1
Like New

I run out of fuel midday. I’m on my way back to the computer after a break, a working break – pan and paper and coffee. I can’t do it. I veer from my path, turning into the Hotel Taitu – founded a hundred years ago by the Empress Taitu herself. Through the lobby I go -- it murmurs with CNN – and out the back door onto the small, terraced patio with the long view. I spend a very long time sipping tea. I refuse to think about a thing. Thought is like a strong, nurturing sun, and underneath it, weed-like details and problems are flourishing. I can’t tend to them anymore.

The sky is an ideal mixture of blue and white. When the heat is too much, a cloud comes to cool you off. The eye and the imagination are drawn out past the city by the hills. You’re in Africa. You’re nowhere. A breeze transports you to Rome.

The several other faranjis on the patio are solidly in Africa. An elderly British lady reads a guide book. When a young Korean comes to sit with her, she recounts a visit to a medieval church, a retelling complete with her opinions about religion. “Nevertheless, I found it quite intriguing,” is the summary for a fortunate Ethiopia. A Midwestern redhead arrives to announce that the bus is ready. The windows are clean. A tall, muscular man in his fifties, with the standard Celtic chain tattooed around one bicep, emerges from his room, bent forward, hawkish face intense. Africa is in his sights.

I have to get back to work. The day doesn’t get any better. That night, I’m escaping to another hotel, this time to the Samen Hotel north of Piassa, on the road that eventually surmounts the mountains and winds off toward Bahir Dar. On the top floor is a nice, quiet bar. Out the big windows, there’s no sky; there’s Addis Ababa in lights, stretching one way through Mercato to blackness, another way south, through Piassa and Bole to a further, softer blackness.

Teddy has gone missing for nearly two weeks. I asked Saba to check up on him. Teddy is one of our new kids at Tsegereda. He’s an unremarkable boy – quiet, chubby, not dazzlingly cute like some of them are. Most days he comes in a square and heavy little plaid suit coat that you know his mother or grandmother is very proud of.

I’m supposed to meet Graham here, but he’s late. In this way, he has adapted well to Ethiopia. He’ll arrive in a flurry of smiles, apologies, and patter about his day in his beautiful London accent. He’ll charm the waitress and any other lady within a reasonable radius. And I’ll enjoy it. But I’m grateful he’s late tonight. I need this time with darkness. One nice thing about this bar is the rare opportunity it provides for seating away from the ubiquitous TV sets. They flicker and buzz in three corners of the bar – CNN, ETV, football – far enough for a relative silence.

I sit by the window, in the dimmest light, at a high table with stools. I can watch the quiet entrances and exits at the elevator. Couples, men in suits and women in tight pink pants. Two well-fed men. The one in a suit has a face like a shark. He leads his friend in a prayer before they taste their soft drinks. He watches his friend pray. His eyes are dark and unforgiving.

Teddy has been to the hospital, Saba finds out. They discover that Teddy has HIV. That’s all I know so far. Saba told me an hour ago.

That’s how pain is, always a surprise. You know it’s coming: you go for a long and hilly run; you work with children at risk. When the pain arrives, it’s new.