by: Liyu Ambar
You are looking at Addis Abeba from EnToTo. Way up on that escarpment. You are looking south, and you see, on the horizon, the flatlands leading to the glorious seven lakes of Bishoftu, only fifty kilometers away from the city centre. Bring your vision forward by some thirty kilometers, almost to the foot of EnToTo, and you see a landmark that is both obscene and monumental. Its futuristic design, both eye-catching yet repulsive, was built in the late ’60’s, to house what was meant to embody what many saw as the role of Addis Abeba: the capital city of burgeoning Africa-- The municipality building of Addis Abeba.
For most it stood majestic and colossal compared to even the statue of Charles de Gaulle alongside an aptly chosen mayor of the city, who, atypically for an Ethiopian, stood shoulder to shoulder with the six-foot-six French leader. The diminutive Emperor was not to be seen because he had been written out of the investiture ceremony of freedom of the city.
Under the right armpit of the building, just a shout away, there is a statue of Abune Petros, the man of the cloth who willingly went to the wall to face Mussolini’s executioners’ firing squad, after refusing, amongst many other things, to condone Italy’s forceful annexation of his country into the Roman Empire. He is looking to the east, as befits a man of his stature and theological leanings, and towards Jerusalem, the Holy City.
It is not known, however, whether he does this to also face away from a one-storied building running almost a whole block on his left. This row of shop fronts is the home of an establishment that has been both the bane and font of Ethiopian journalism.
It is not known what the Abune would have thought of the institution. He would have given it a hasty blessing, no doubt, if for nothing else but for its spirited attitude to life, and how unfair life is to all its children. And spirited is the operative word. The frown he permanently wears must also be because of the goings on within its four walls and its quasi cellar. The blessings he bestows, quickly become prayers of absolution.
The place is simply known as Jimma. Its full name, if it needs recounting, is The Jimma Bar. In Capital Letters, mind you, and if you please.
No one knows its opening or even closing hours. It is always open to its customers. The regulars can count on the fact that they will never be swept out with the dust, spent corks, bottle caps, cigarette ends or any other kind of rubbish. Not that many would know the difference. They’ll wake up and carry on regardless.
It is not just drinks that are served. Many a brooding writer will sing praises of its kitchen, too. Its egg sandwich is second to none. You’ll pay up to and beyond 75 of the new Birr elsewhere, but you can get it for something under a tenth of that at Jimma. And they use real eggs too.
Not forgetting the specialty of the house: fried kidney, smothered in sautéed onions. It is to kill for, and many a sheep can testify to that on a daily basis.
As for the booze: well, that is taken seriously here; very seriously indeed. What is it about writers and their like, the really creative ones, that they have to bolster their lives with alcohol? Jimma, in this respect, resembles an amalgam of the Left Bank in Paris with its cafés and wineries; Fleet Street with all its booze-up palaces in London, and yes, even 18th Street, and its smattering of watering holes in Washington DC.
But, Jimma is unique in that it is just one establishment. There is no other. All manner of writers, print journalists, radio and TV people end up in Jimma, sooner or later. Deadlines are met, columns written, interviewees grilled and stuffed, editors mollified; THEN the serious part of life starts: having a tipple with your colleagues at the end of the day. Or night. Nobody looks to the 24-hour clock as would mere mortals. Their body clock is different, very different.
The story goes that someone going into Jimma for the first time -and anytime thereafter even- almost always collapses from the fumes in the room. It is intoxicating. You do not have to imbibe anything else. You will stumble into a chair, circa 1950 with its complementary table (all made in Italy), carrying your now very heavy head in your hands. The waiter will ooze his way to you. He’s been there some thirty-five years, and you better be on your best behavior. Otherwise he will whack you across the head with his tray, made from the heaviest wrought iron money can buy, made in Italy, too, circa 1960, for one of the Italian aperitifs.
And yes, the din. You’ve not yet heard of such noise as goes on in Jimma. There is the shouting of the regulars and of the waiters as they call in their orders. Then there is the noise of what at first sounds like breaking of bones... just the crack, coming from what passes for a cellar. It is of billiard balls being thrown on slate, and of one ivory ball hitting another. The hold-over from an Italian pastime. Billiards without cues: bowling on a billiard table.
How can you hate such a place? Most, if not all Ethiopian literati have been incubated at Jimma. They were, one and all, weaned on the milk that runs as plenty. It is a badge of honor to have been processed there. There have been futile attempts to close it down, or even ban people from entering. Writers, journalists and painters have supported themselves, their families and Jimma Bar, and not necessarily in that order, for decades.
They were halcyon days, they were. And this was at the time when a minister, one of the Emperor’s own ministers, was turned away from entering the Palace because he had forgotten to dress correctly. The Palace aficionados knew who he was, of course. But they would not let him in, because proper attire was never an option if you were to attend a function in the palace.
(Today, we can see baseball caps, yes Almaze dear, dear lady, even floppy caps as would have made one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs happy , worn into a parliamentary session. The only thing not yet seen worn is a balaclava hat with holes for the eyes, nose and mouth; worn to state dinners. But there’s still time yet for that. But that is another story altogether.)
So what did the minister do? He went home and changed into something more suitable. He was allowed in, whereupon, once seated with his colleagues at a table reserved for his rank, he covered his suit with the best that the Emperor’s cooks had served up for the guests’ culinary delight.
All looked to the minister aghast. Why had he covered his suit with the weT and aliCHa and injera and salad he should be eating, he was asked? Simple, he retorted . As he saw it, it was the SUIT that had been invited to the dinner, and not he. So, why not feed the suit instead?
Why not, indeed. He, too, was a great writer, although it was not known whether he frequented Jimma. No surprise if he had. In its own right, Jimma was as much an imperial abode as the one inhabited by the kings and queens of the realm up on the hill.
Ah, the glory days. This was the intellectual stuff that defines the times. Journalism was made up of people who were either bon vivants, poets, writers, men of letters, painters or raconteurs. Or, pure heaven, a single person would be a mixture of all these attributes. Not too uncommon a phenomenon. Such was the caliber then, such was what was on offer. Such was a generation. On such is this generation built. Hardy stuff.
Court jesters lived and entertained in your living room, if you knew the right person. Not too difficult. The singers, the beloved azmari were on offer with their masinqo or krar. He, and yes, there were some women, would be invited to a sitting room, where a bottle of their favorite plonk would be placed in front of them…and you would have the evening of your life with your betters. The only distraction would be the irrTib sgga.
JIMMA, HELLO JIMMA: CAN YOU HEAR ME?
Jimma Bar 2015
“Is that thing on?”
“It better be. I’ve taken umpteen lessons trying to record something. The last time...”
“Not interested. Don’t want to hear it. Get off the stage. By the way, should three needles be moving on that thing?”
“Serf! That’s my nicotine stained finger. You’ll have to speak up. Can’t hear a thing with the kerembolla as background. Much prefer the steaming coffee machine. THAT makes enough noise to drown out traffic.”
“And who said buildings are not soundproofed in Addis? Is that why there seems that look of utter concern on all faces: that you have to shout to be heard?”
“No. That look is of pain inflicted the previous 24 hours on themselves by themselves. Enatina Lij induced; Garden Gin induced.”
“The one time I saw actual smiles instead of pain was when someone unearthed six bottles of Melotti cognac. After the initial grimace-you knew where they had come from, and who had distilled them-all was forgiven. Until the last drop had been ceremoniously lapped up in a saucer. Like the cats do.”
“That was when we had that great bottle breaking party wasn’t it? There were some tears, I remember. For the cognac. Nostalgia did NOT rear its ugly head. Even for Melotti, the turd.”
“Apropos nothing: Remember that story we chased down to near the Somali- Ethiopian border in ’77? Great floods, with everything awash. And the laugh we had at that: awash. It was the river Awash that had been the culprit. And our editor-bless him-saying no awash Awash. Please. No corporal would understand. And he would shout for all to hear: And they were shooting people for less!”
“I keep on wondering why they managed not to string you up.”
“Serf! Ah, there’s Wendimu. Come on over. I’ve a tape running, so feel free to incriminate yourself. Anything you want to put down on record?”
“Yes, there is. Can I finish off your glass...what is it? Never mind. Hope it has a little kick to it. The hair of the dog. Ah…That was good. Feel much better.”
“Your payment is an anecdote. And speak into this mike. Hold your spitting to a minimum, please.”
“Droll. Very droll. So, here goes.”
“It was at the time when all and sundry were writing and distributing leaflets. Early ’73, or thereabouts. It was government workers one minute, then shoeshine boys the next. Some leaflets were clever and funny. The others were self-serving in the extreme. The best of the lot were the leaflets that were discovered one morning that extolled the virtues of the, um, the prostitutes of Addis Ababa. You want to hear more?’
“You are making it up.”
“So help me, I am not. Any of you remember the great Sammy of TV fame? It was his idea. At first, nobody wanted anything to do with it. And not because of fear. THAT had not settled in at that time. Red Terror was still a lifetime away. No, it had to do with---the why-bother-syndrome? Let others do the work attitude.”
“You mean there were no ladies involved in the leaflets? No, you know, …no ladies of the night writing their hearts out before calling it a day, or night, or whatever…?”
“That is what I am telling you. Sammy’s idea was this: we had then in TV one of the fastest typist in the Amharic language. Was he fast! Nothing would ruffle him-not even an eleven hour day, and there were many of those, believe me.”
“I had a woman…..”
“No, its not that kind of story, dolt. Sammy had us all in his office, and he told us what he had in mind. He said: ‘Most of you have known a lady down on Bishoftu Road, one way or another. Put yourself in her shoes: in her knickers, if you have to. What would she want- demand, even? We are in the midst of something or someWHEN, where everybody is demanding something from the government. What would Bishoftu Road want? What would the lady say she needs most?’”
“Well, I have this yearning…”
“Down, boy. Down, I say.”
“This was a time of euphoria, when everything seemed possible. Just a day before, the urchins that sell lottery tickets had gone out by their hundreds, demanding more commission for their efforts. The movement fell flat when someone told them to just sell more tickets. They had no rejoinder for that. The idiots.”
“So, yes, the ladies? Back to them, please.”
“Yes. Well, Sammy went round the table asking for ideas. And they started coming in, of course. Slowly, to be begin with, but the pace picked up as inhibitions went by the wayside.”
“And this is what we came up with: the women wanted a surcharge for the drinks they sold; a 50 cents increase in the price of beer, and at least a dollar increase for the stronger stuff – whiskey and brandy and so on. Fifty cents and a dollar seem quite small today. But remember the ‘revolution’ was started because of a 25cent increase in the price of petrol! And to top it all, they wanted the basic price for a, er, shot, to be 15 dollars, instead of the then prevailing 5 dollars. A 300 per cent increase, if you will: higher starting price for their efforts.”
“Something seems to be stirring in my memory bank, now that you mention it.”
“Memory? What memory? You see just fog. Distilled fog, at that!”
“Move along, IF you don’t mind.”
“Yes, well, after a while, we had something like a 100 leaflets typed (no Xerox in them days, old fogies) and those who had cars were asked to take some and told to “lose” them as they drove home, or wherever. I was going to dinner--yes at that late hour of the day, night-- so I knew what I was going to do with my lot.
When I got there, to my surprise, I found that one of the guests was the political correspondent of a world wide radio service, whose name shall remain forever withheld from you nefarious characters.”
“What long words we use. What does the word mean, though? Really.”
“Oh shut up! Anyway, I was in a hurry to tell my story. How was I going to all of a sudden say…look you guys, guess what I came across… without arousing too much suspicion? As it was, my friend, the one holding the dinner party in honor of the foreign correspondent as it turned out, started talking about the leaflets littering the city. And I had my chance, and I jumped in.
Strange you should have mentioned that, said I, innocently enough I hoped: because I came across these leaflets, purported to have been written by the ladies on Bishoftu Road. John, do you want to do the honors and do the translating? Please? For your guest?
I could see the foreign correspondent salivating, almost. Poor sod. He took it in, hook, line and sinker. I remember he asked some questions or two, but he wasn’t really interested in what I had to say. MY friend gave me a looooong look that almost did me in. But I held my lie. I refused to meet his or anybody’s eye for the rest of the evening. I went home early, if I remember correctly, complaining of something in my eye. In my eye, my eye! But no remorse. Stick to your guns, I told myself.
Of course, I could not, and did not hold it for long. I had to tell someone. And it was to my friend who had given the dinner that I finally owned up to. That it had been a hoax. And that it had been concocted and not over a bottle of anything even, but that it had been done as a lark.”
“Was that the end of the story?”
“You know me, my friend. I don’t tell stories that just fall flat. Not yet, I don’t, that is. This story had an ending. What it signifies, I leave to you buffoons to fathom. As for me, I am glad I took part. Would I do it again? You bet your life I would. Was it a way of letting off steam? Of course it was. Anything else? Yes there is.
You see, that story, made up on the spur of the moment, leaky as a sieve and as stupid as they come, did nonetheless make the headlines across the world on international radio. It was the first headline-imagine, the FIRST headline- in a world news bulletin.
You know the drill. Deep voice, authoritative, and nasal: ‘Following a spate of leaflets dropping in the capital city of Addis Abeba, it is now the turn of Ethiopian prostitutes to demand an increase in their basic….asking price, er, pay.’”
“Barman, where is our ORDER? What’s holding it up? And make it the bottle. No! Make it TWO bottles. And don’t point that tray at me, if you want to live longer, dammit!”