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Returning to Ethiopia

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Boundaries of Nations: Exile had long since ceased to be a temporary condition, but what I hadn’t known was that, like love, it could deepen with time.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/ethiopian-prayer-book_TOP-min.jpg
Zämänfäs Qeddus, The debtor who lived in a far country paying the creditor from where he was, from the Gondar Homiliary. Late 17th century. Ink and pigments on parchment. Image source: The Walters Art Museum.

Growing up, we had strange bedtime rituals. In Peoria, Illinois, when my sister and I were very young, my father would sit between our beds and tell us stories of animals who fought, lied, and cheated their way through the jungle world he invented for us. There were dense forests, green hills, and rivers. There were lions, crocodiles, zebras, giraffes, and laughing hyenas, which my father, in his raspy scarred voice, would imitate. The heroes of the stories were always two mischievous monkeys who could cheat all the other animals who, while taller, stronger, and more ferocious than them, lacked their wit. In the end the monkeys always found refuge at the top of the tallest trees—a vantage point from which, in retrospect, they would have had a clear view of all the havoc they had caused.

As a child, I didn’t think of the stories as being particularly related to Ethiopia, or, on a broader scale, Africa. I didn’t think about where this landscape, with trees that, according to my father, were larger than anything I could imagine, came from, or what these animals, whom my father spoke of as if real intimates, were doing in the crowded and deeply divided bedroom my sister and I shared. They were ordinary fictions, bedtime tales invented wholesale each night, sprung effortlessly from my father’s mind like a long, deep breath. And so there he is, in both memory and imagination, straddling the narrow space between our beds with these stories that my sister and I were both desperate to hear, clueless as to how far they had traveled to wash up, as if by accident, in Middle America.

My father, of course, eventually stopped with the stories. He might have done so because we no longer asked him to tell us them, or because we were old enough to read on our own, or because it was the mid-1980s, and Caterpillar, where my father worked, was going through a round of layoffs that would bankrupt my parents’ plans of buying their first home. Or perhaps he stopped because suddenly, everywhere we turned, Ethiopia, or one tragic version of it, was staring back at us. There it was on the evening news, dying of hunger, and there it was in the well-intentioned questions of strangers who must have been baffled to hear my father declare that he was a political exile, one who had fled a civil war, the same one that was helping cause the famine. I became conscious around then of my father’s politics and that growing consciousness meant eschewing childish things. I saw how he read and watched the news with an almost religious devotion. I remember him voting for Reagan as a newly minted US citizen, because Reagan, like my father, hated the communists, both in Russia and the ones who had taken over Ethiopia. I remember staying up past my bedtime to watch the news of the US bombing of Libya. It was a strangely celebratory mood in our apartment—my father applauding the president as he spoke from the Oval Office, and then, later, calling the White House to share his overwhelming, wholehearted support. The Libyans weren’t communists, but Gaddafi was a tyrant, just like Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam. On the scale of things, Tripoli wasn’t that far from Addis Ababa, and now, after that evening, who knew where in Africa America’s bombs might land next.

My father was certainly a political man before fleeing Ethiopia in 1978 while on a business trip to Italy. He came from a prominent family, had a good corporate job working with Ethiopian Airlines, and had imagined himself in politics once he was more established. He told me that when he left Ethiopia, he always imagined it wouldn’t be for long; he expected the communist government that had taken over in 1974 to quickly fail, and when it did, he, like thousands of other refugees in exile the world over, would rush back home to save the country. When my mother, sister, and I arrived in Peoria in 1980, he must have already begun to learn to live by a different narrative. We were digging our heels deeper into America, but time and even distance were irrelevant when it came to the politics of home. By the time we moved to the suburbs of Chicago seven years later, I had thoroughly absorbed my father’s secular faith. At nine years old, I considered myself a conservative, a Reagan-loving Republican. I wore sweater vests to school and on Sunday mornings sat through the morning news shows as American foreign policy, which was what my father loved most, was debated. In the evenings, my father and I developed a new bedtime ritual. We traded in the amoral, mischievous monkeys for issues of US News and World Report. I read about foreign and domestic policy over my father’s shoulder, ignoring what I didn’t understand, trying hard to commit to memory what I did.

*

In all that time, from Peoria to Chicago, I rarely heard anyone speak directly of what was happening day to day, year to year in Ethiopia. I heard my parents say they couldn’t go back so long as the communist regime remained in power: that power was its own frontier—as long as it remained, very little existed on either side. There was little talk in our house of what came before the regime, or what could possibly come next. In the bedtime stories my father told, Ethiopia was never named as backdrop. When my father spoke of his brother’s death during the early blood years of the revolution, it existed almost outside of space and time—a myth that shaped everything in his world and yet didn’t belong to it. What’s obvious now is that it was in those absences—in the strange silent spaces that couldn’t be named or described—that Ethiopia was most fully alive and perhaps best understood.

*

On May 21, 1991, the military dictatorship that had ruled Ethiopia for seventeen years was forced out of power. I heard the news on the radio while driving through a shopping mall parking lot in Forest Park, Illinois. My father clapped, cheered, smacked the steering wheel. He said, repeatedly, as we pulled out of the lot and onto Roosevelt Avenue, something along the lines of, “This means we [I] can go back,” or, “Now we can go back home.” This is memory, though, so it’s possible that my father had already heard the news, and had waited until we were driving to tell me, and it’s equally possible that my father wasn’t even in the car, and that I’ve unintentionally imposed those words on him. My father had been away from Ethiopia longer than I had been alive, and the longing that distance brought had bled through the generations. I remember for certain that I felt something significant was happening to my relationship with the world when I heard the news. I remember thinking that it felt right to think of Ethiopia as home, because just as I had adopted my father’s politics, I had assumed his nostalgia as well. I had pictures of Ethiopia on my bedroom wall; I wore the ornate Coptic cross around my neck, and now that the government was gone, spent large portions of each day imagining what it would be like to return.

While I remained suspicious of his memories, it was this beautiful version of Ethiopia that I imagined myself walking across.

With the government gone, my father moved beyond fables and grief. He told me about the endless tracts of land his family had once owned before the “bastard communists” stripped them away—land that, of course, bore a resemblance to the animal-rich landscape of his stories. While I remained suspicious of his memories, it was this beautiful version of Ethiopia that I imagined myself walking across.

*

One of the great post-Cold War miracles was the brief moment when millions of people like my father believed they were finally able to go back home. The Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union was dissolved, and deeply oppressive and isolating regimes that had made their borders nearly impregnable crumbled, as if all that fear and terror had been just a terrible, terrible mistake. In the wake of the Ethiopian government’s collapse, the pastoral beauty of my father’s stories took on new meaning and shape. At night and on the weekends, I watched as he spent hours on conference calls with men living in California, Washington, DC, New Jersey, London. They organized meetings, formed committees, raised money, hired a DC lobbyist, and established a hierarchy of power in exile. My father, naturally, played a prominent role, just as he had once dreamed of doing. He had multiple titles; he gave freely of his time, but perhaps his most important contributions to the imaginary, fledgling state hatching in suburban backyards across America were the position papers and speeches that he wrote by hand on a series of white legal notepads that piled up on his nightstand. He wrote these in Amharic, and often, when he was finished, he would tell me that he wished I could read them. That was where he now stored all of his dreams of Ethiopia. He was proud of his work, certainly, but even more important than that, wasn’t this precisely what we had been preparing for all these years—this strange gathering of fiction, politics, and imagination?

*

I eventually asked my father to describe in detail the country he had grown up in. I came home for vacations and holidays, first from college and then from graduate school, still imagining, along with my father, what home looked like. I listened to his descriptions with equal parts admiration and skepticism. I assumed the horses he said he had ridden on daily, like the hyenas that had stalked the farm animals at night, were dramatic extensions of a well-told story, and why not? Another decade had passed, and none of us had returned. I was now far from conservative, and while I still remained invested in politics, I believed more deeply in the value and necessity of fiction. I began to think the same was true of my father, who, along with hundreds of other men, persisted, year in and year out, in building a version of Ethiopia that included them. I heard my father speak once again of not being able to go back to Ethiopia. He believed the new government—increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of dissent—would make it difficult for someone like him. Exile had long since ceased to be a temporary condition, but what I hadn’t known was that like love, it could deepen with time. It was a state, one with its own increasingly entrenched borders that made it difficult, perhaps even impossible, to see what was on the other side. The conference calls and meetings had grown to include protests outside the Ethiopian embassy in DC, and now in conversations both direct and overheard my father spoke of the future of Ethiopia in the bleakest terms.

*

It was twenty-five years, almost to the date, when I finally returned to Ethiopia. A year earlier, during the country’s first elections, soldiers opened fire on hundreds of unarmed protesters demonstrating against the deeply flawed election results; an indefinite number were killed, thousands were arrested. When I arrived in Addis Ababa, the capital, anger at the government seemed universal, but life had otherwise returned to normal. My aunt, who had never left Ethiopia, mocked our understanding of the post-election violence.

“You see things in American and you think everything is finished,” she said. “We stayed home for five, six days. Then that was it. We went back to work.”

I carried with me the contact information for my father’s closest friends and family, many of whom he hadn’t seen in almost thirty years. I have rarely laughed as often with strangers as I did with my father’s friends, all of whom told me to deliver the same message: Come home. Life here is better than you can imagine.

Even before we reached the valley, I knew how wrong I was to think my father had invented the landscape.

A week before leaving Ethiopia, I met, almost by accident, a first cousin of my father’s, a man whom, until the day we shook hands, I didn’t even know existed. Three decades earlier, he and my father had split over political differences, and despite growing up like brothers, had never spoken since. On my last week in Ethiopia, he brought me to the countryside where he and my father were raised. Even before we reached the valley, I knew how wrong I was to think my father had invented the landscape. After driving for one, maybe two hours, we stopped abruptly on the side of the road and were greeted by men with horses. We rode on horseback for another hour, up perfect green hills, over tumbling streams, until we reached the tree where my father was born. Even the exaggerated grandeur that can come with memory falls short in describing it, so perhaps it’s best to simply say that it was larger, and older, and more beautiful than any tree I’ve ever seen.

On our way back to the car, my cousin explained to me that all this was about to change. Roads were being built, more families were leaving, and this type of rural farming wasn’t sustainable any longer. There were hardly even any wild animals left, he said. Nothing at all like when they were children. We left the village just before the sun set, and whether it was real or not, I will swear unto my final breath that as we pulled away, a skulking pair of hunch-backed hyenas stopped in the middle of the road, only a few feet away from our car, as if daring us to leave.

G

Dinaw Mengestu is the award-winning author of How to Read the Air and All Our Names. His debut novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, garnered critical acclaim for its haunting depiction of the immigrant experience in America, earning him comparisons to Fitzgerald and BABEL alum V.S. Naipaul. The recipient of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” award, The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” award, The Guardian First Book Award, and a MacArthur “genius” grant, Mengestu was born in Ethiopia and immigrated to the US at the age of two. A graduate of Georgetown University and Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction, Mengestu’s articles have appeared in Harper’s, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker.

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