July 4 2020
In Search of my Identity in the Diaspora
I contend, before the 1966 E.C. heretic revolution, mainstream Ethiopians had several things in common. They were predominantly God-fearing, loyal (particularly to Emperor Haile Selassie I), patriotic and knew their identity much better than the post-revolution society.
I don't know how many of my fellow Ethiopians would agree with me but we now have close to nothing that we will readily and passionately die or kill for. I don't mean the Diaspora Ethiopians alone; I mean everybody from Entoto to Toronto. Don't even try to bring the heroic patriotism the new generation of Ethiopians displayed in the latest war with our gorebet hager. However, it doesn't mean we, the generation who are between their early 20's and early 40's have something we call our own.
Really! Should we call the green, gold (yellow) and red flag ours? If so, which one? The one with the Lion of Judah, the plain one, the one Derg/ISEPA/E.P.D.R (Popular Democratic Republic of Ethiopia) came up with in the early 80's E.C. or the EPRDF/TPLF flag with that blue star in the middle? We don't have a flag that invokes a sense of identity because in our age, we have seen at least four different kinds of flags competing for our souls.
What then do we have as a symbol of our identity? We don't have a national anthem we long to sing passionately. I know many of us never liked the imperial anthem, never cared for Etiopia, Etiopia, Ethiopia k'demi and HibreSebawinet; I don't know the latest one. Especially, for those of us who are living besidet hager. I know we jump and shout when we are at Ethiopian concerts with the mention of Etiopia or yebole lij, yekera lij, yeharer lij, yeminits, ... but is that it? Lately, even humanitarian calls for the causes of hunger, war, democracy, human rights, AIDS and the likes don't seem to bring or give us a common identity. What is our motivation, then?
Personally, in search of this identity issue, I came a long way and traveled miles (at least behasab) and arrived at one aspect of it while I was living in the Diaspora Be-America. The identity issue I resolved was my ambiguity on religion and how it could help me become a better Ethiopian. Wait! Don't leave yet. Hear my story.
I was born in Addis Ababa in the 1960'sE.C. when everything Ethiopian seemed under scrutiny and at issue. If the revolutionaries couldn't manipulate the issue to their own gain, nothing was spared from humiliation. I grew up in that environment just like most of you. One of the many things the revolution and Abiyotawi Jegnoch didn't appreciate and wanted to live without was religion. Their ideological father, Marx, told them hymanot adenzaj itse ne'w and must be eliminated. Hence, abiyotegnochu replaced the gibre'geb class with ye-poletica science. Just like some of us back then, I detested poleticahttp because our teachers insisted on atheism.
Hence, I started my religious journey as a candidate to atheism. I remember at times when I used to think, "What if they are right? When I was in middle school, my oldest brother joined both the Qebelé weTatoch mahiber and a Western Protestant religion of the time. As a young devotee, I attempted to do everything he did. When he was required to write mefek'r and draw graphs (to show the success of Meserete Timhrt), I was there with him helping. When, at the same breath, he was singing, studying the Bible and praying, I was there, too. After a while, he delved into the religion completely. As a younger brother, I went along with him. In the weekdays, he would go to prayer groups, Bible study and more. On Saturdays, he would go to services. When invited to accompany my older brother, I would go to these events and always come back with something to ponder. My mind was torn at that tender age between, atheism and religion. At the same time, when my father occasionally demanded it, I would go to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on Sundays.
When I was in junior high, my brother left the country. As a teenager, frightened by everything, I was at a loss, not knowing which direction I should follow. Soon after, it seemed clear that the Protestant Christianity would out-weigh the others. I rejected the political science and the abiyot's ideology. I rejected the Orthodox Church and vowed to never again go to church and kiss the ding'ay. I became an astute student of Luther's Church. I started using words which I thought were harmless. However, they provoked anger from the rest of my family and friends. I was not concerned. At one time, I told an Ethiopian Orthodox Church priest that I wouldn't kiss his mesQel because it was just a piece of wood. I became hostile to my mother Church although my knowledge of the religion was shallow. My father was oblivious to what was going on. Had he noticed, being a devout follower of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, he would have been very upset with me. Yet, my struggle within never left me. Although I thought I found the truth, I was still unhappy with my religious identity. I was too dismayed. I was also fed petrifying cataclysmic outlooks of this world, the earthly life.
In high school, I fell in love with a girl that I was too afraid to touch or even look at. It was my first hand at love. However, the tenderness of being in love was extraordinary. I said, "this life, too, is beautiful!" I started enjoying life as an ordinary teenager. After high school, two of my cousins joined another faction of the Protestant Church and brought more confusion into my life. Since they lived with me, I could not escape their incessant admonition. I, always fearful of God, went along with their cajoling and started studying with them. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, at this moment of my life, was completely nonexistent. Actually, with reasons I can't put my hands on, I detested it. Hated it. Aside from my occasional rebellious escapades to things alemawi, I remained loyal to the two Western teachings I was apportioned to in my primal age.
After I came to the United States, I decided to start on a fresh slate and focused on my education and future. In college, in the early 1990's, when Malcolm X, with the release of Spike Lee's film, became the symbol of the time, I even wanted to be like that honorable man. I studied with some black Muslims friends. I flirted with Black Nationalism. Yet, I wasn't fulfilled then either. I wanted more, something closer to home. Something that doesn't relegate my Etiopiawinet just to make me a better human being. I didn't want to go to heaven half-Ethiopian. I didn't want to be ordinarily Ethiopian, either (shouting or screaming during concerts with no sense of duty). The one thing I was very much committed to and grew in me evermore daily, was my commitment to everything Ethiopian. I don't know why but once you leave that country, no matter how well you are clothed, fed, and nourished with material things, the love for Ethiopia seems to grow immeasurably. I believe that burning desire for Etiopiawinet is the reason my search to a truer identity took me back to the Church I disrespected and the faith I didn't comprehend.
My first real encounter with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in America came right after my father passed away. My siblings and I had to go to le'arba and semaniaya metasebia. Then, long after I was detached from anything religious, going back to the dingay or ye'my'geba QuanQwa was not that difficult. I noticed my bitterness had left me. A few months later, I had to accompany an Ethiopian friend of mine, who was born and raised in America, to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church. She was doing a paper for class on the history of the Church and she wanted to speak with a priest. She wanted to make sure what she researched at the library was consistent with the Church's official version.
For two and a half hours, this young Kahn mesmerized us. He was very eloquent and knowledgeable on both the histories of the Church and the wengel. During our meeting, he intertwined the inseparable history of the Church, arguably the oldest in the world, with the social, literal, political, economical and every other aspects of the Ethiopian national fabric. He insisted that the majority of Ethiopians, irrespective of their religious background, don't understand the Church; consequently, we don't understand both the fabric and the garment of true Ethiopiawinet. During our conversation, he alerted us, with great despair, how so many Ethiopians sit idly while our language, Ge'ez is facing extinction. He ironically asked if one has to be a follower of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to care for what happens to Ge'ez and every other national treasures built by our forefathers?
That encounter with that intelligent young priest left an indelible mark in my mind. After a while, I began going to the church where he teaches. I soon found myself longing for the sweet scent of the iTan in the middle of the week. The Qidassé or the priests giving sermons never fail to pray for Ethiopia. They passionately preach unity, love and respect to the multi-ethnic congregation.
After a couple of years, the Church became my life. Why did it take me this long? Well, I had to give in to the "take thy shoes off," and other sir'at the Church would like to see as the measurement of humility. I started asking my brothers in Ethiopia to send me books and materials, particularly in Amharic, published by the Church, to read. I have been studying and researching for the past two years. I learned a great deal on what Etiopiawinet should mean to me. I'm even familiarizing myself with Qidassé in Ge'ez.
A reader might ask, what benefit does your belief in the teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church have to an Ethiopian Muslim, Atheist, Naturalist, Mormon…? To respond, I would offer the example of the work of an architect. Doesn't studying about the churches of Lalibela and Tigray help an architect become better at his/her job? Didn't the Egyptian pyramids inspire someone to build the Luxor in Las Vegas? I would also offer the example of a musician. Aren't you tired of listening to Ethiopian songs in Reggae beats? Shouldn't our music composers learn a thing or two from the Ethiopian genius Kidus Yared? (Maybe then one maestro could give us a national anthem we would cherish). Do you not think that if we read the thousands of manuscripts in the churches, gedams, islands, foreign libraries and bete-mengistoch we might actually find answers to some important heavenly and earthly questions (be it medicinal or philosophical)? We might even put the above-mentioned flag issue to rest.
This is my last word, for different and at times, cruel reasons, we have made the Church and the gabbi-lebash-kahn, qes, diaQon, debtera... the butt of our jokes. Not knowing we were exterminating our own. Maybe it's high time for us to rethink, reassess and use resources the Church possesses for our social and national good. Particularly, those of us in the western world are in a better position and have great advantage to utilize the depth of knowledge and resources. If you choose to take a purely religious voyage, (to use a boxing analogy) pound per pound, the faith itself is second to none. Try it.