July 5 2020
Isti Wedih Hedesh... Wedya Temeleshi
The impatient look in her eyes belied her agitation with the words that were thickening a circle around me: "Malete, yelebeshiw neger yamral..." I smiled with uncertainty following the trail of her voice. "Gin, inne bihon... alaregewim" alech ferTim bila.
I sensed her reaching a place of comfort within, an orderly place of defined parameters. She extended her sense of well-being generously and began again: "You really have guts... indih lebsesh lemewTat."
The setting was a dimly lit bathroom in a Washington, D. C. hotspot sometime in the early 90s. My friends and I were out for an evening of reminiscing and new adventures. They were all dressed to dazzling delight in the unwritten D.C. dress code, and had already garnered appreciative glances of speculation. Accomplished, intelligent, witty and wonderful, my friends took this in stride, moving and mingling with mercurial fluency. We chattered and joked, talking simultaneously with warmth drawn from years of knowing.
None of them had remarked on my brightly striped Sidama top coupled with my Teferi Qidd pants. The latter, one of my prize possessions, was the beautiful composition of a certain farmer in Debre Sina. Much to the secret amusement of my grandmother, I had been a loyal customer of this man, her neighbor, who, in his generosity, would sometimes interrupt his weeding season to accommodate my rush orders. My more recent venture, a hager libs with multi-color Tilet sewn in the particulars of a West African boubou had started a trend in Debre Sina, inundating my tailor with more requests than he could possibly handle.
Outwardly scandalized, my grandmother never suspected I would go to such lengths as to wear these clothes out in public - much less without apparent calling. Sighing plaintively, her deft fingers would rope the coal black silk threads that strung my ashenkitab jewels from between her toes and comment, "Ayi... ahun litaregiw new yihenin?"
It began when I was nine, this avaricious appetite for collecting clothes considered country. My mother, who had friends that traveled around Ethiopia for research, would humor me with gifts of dresses from Gonder or Wello, a pant set from Walaita or an aged, smoky silver head-dress from Harer. Their arrival was an event of some solemnity for me. I would spend considerable time touching their texture, absorbing their scent and willing their presence into my reality.
The Arrivants1 seldom had redeeming qualities for urban tastes. No convenient waistbands or flattering fit, they came one sleeve too tight or with the Tilet circling three fourths of the dress instead of the usual back half - as though the maker had second thoughts about leaving worldly pleasures behind2. With the Arrivants came combinations of astounding aesthetics. They effused the improvised creativity of something loved to imperfection. As they inhabited my closet with their particular accents, I imagined them quietly overcoming initial difficulties with my skimpy mini-skirts and Bermuda shorts. Peace reigned with the perfect possibility that one or another of these pieces would set the pace for any given day.
My appearance at school with such attire was usually met with surprise and some confusion. My teachers would tactfully inquire if it was a holiday they had hastily overlooked. Once when I was twelve, I had been especially inspired by a bright Sunday to wear my Raya dress with its shimmering silver beads and accompany my mother to the airport. An excited photographer ran up to inquire if I was from the National Tourism Office. His bewilderment at my response (that the sunshine had demanded my adornment), matched mine at his query.
I later discovered that my sense of smell and sound had joined the mix of colors and textures with the combined effect of rendering a mood for the given moment. Flowery, dusky, somber or playful fragrances had their corresponding festive, dreamy, brooding and buoyant colors. The spiritual buffing I received from stripes of red, black and yellow once found me presenting at an academic conference clad in Welaita clothes, facing a largely strenuous and somewhat perturbed audience. I proceeded unaware. A concerned group cornered me soon afterwards with comments: "We had no idea," began an older man, "that you were a presenter. We thought when you kept changing Ethiopian clothes...you know, the dri'ya... the hager libs... and now...," he floundered, disoriented. Another quipped daringly, "We thought you were an usher... you know, a host for the event."
They were claiming me in their own way - giving me some space in their volatile world of expectations. I took no offense. "I needed the colors," I explained weakly, knowing how inadequate it must have sounded.
It was only when explanations were overtly or covertly demanded that I awoke as though startled from a hypnotic Odyssey, to take stock of the ever-present context. My sub-textual world failed to surface under the glaring light of directed attention. There was an unconditional embrace assured with the colors and textures I picked for my day. A slow, familiar reconfiguration would take place that rendered me sharper, brighter, more engaged when I needed it. I would unabashedly surrender myself to the invitation. Compared to the many intricacies of coffee drinks, whose caffeine contents invariably made me sleepy, my vices were simplistic. Colors and sounds never failed to bring me into the dance, or gently settle me into a gathered rhythm of togetherness.
Back in the bathroom, I assembled my parts for a response. "Yene imebet..." I started, "anchi yelebeshiwim yamral." I glanced appreciatively at her brief skirt and shapely shoes. I saw no discontinuity. "Gin, yihem iko yanchiw new... hulunim mehon yichalal."
"Ayi... yiQirta... bizu tenagernku meselegn!" I felt her withdrawing, engulfed by the potential chaos my words invited.
Quickly, I reached across the divide which threatened to keep us forever apart. "Ihitish negn... yafelegshiwin litiyign tichiyalesh."
Without warning, the floodgates opened and she sobbed her tumbling words into the imagined impasse. "Izih ager kemeTahu ihitish negn yalegn yelem," her tear-stained voice intoned. I hugged her instinctively, willing away the pain and fear that held us all hostage from our own reflection.
As she quieted down, I looked up into the mirror and met the eyes of my friend emerging from the stalls.
"TewaweQachihu inde?" she asked innocently.
"Awon..." we answered in unison, "TewaweQin."
1This term is borrowed from a book by the same title by Kamau Brathwaite, a distinguished Caribbean poet and teacher.
2It has often been said that the Tilet of a dress is set to border the back half of the dress symbolizing a sense of leaving behind the colorful beckoning of the secular world and stepping through the front embroidery of the cross to the spiritual world.