December 13 2019
The Sweetest of Sounds by B.
It was the sweetest of sounds… the chirpy, melodious sound of my niece crying as she entered this world. I was outside the delivery room of a hospital on the east coast. It was Ethiopian Christmas, and we were given the best present yet… a gorgeous baby girl.
She cried with the ferocity, passion and defiance of her father, my brother. She kept crying, the timber of her voice getting stronger as her lungs inhaled the air of her new home, accompanied by my mother's soft "illilta".
She was finally here… the first generation Ethiopian-American in our family. I looked at my cousin and, inexplicably, I started to cry, my short breaths matching my niece's. She was finally here. The new link of women who would carry on the name and legacy of our family.
When I held her against me, her stunning eyes looked straight into mine. "I'm here," they said to me quietly. "I'm here." I kept looking at her small figure wrapped securely in a blanket. "I see you," I said to her. "I see you, anjetay."
She was a symbol of a beginning and an end. The beginning of the new, lithe blood surging through the old veins of our foremothers and fathers. And also the end of a line of Ethiopians who grew up breathing and sometimes choking on the wonton air of the land we both fled and yearn for.
For the first time in my life I felt "Diasporized". Sidet was never an issue with me. When I left Ethiopia, the psyche was such that staying there after high school was unfathomable. My last months were a flurry of I-20s, college essays, visas. The fact that I never hesitated a second about leaving home, Home- the land, the people- only now strikes me as profound.
How did that happen, I asked myself, as my niece nuzzled in my neck. How did we, our parents, our elders let it happen? How did we let aversion to our country become chic?
In college, the father of a good friend of mine died. She was extremely close to him and was trying to get him to the States on medical emergency. He was waiting for a visa when his liver collapsed. He died the next day, with his first daughter unaware of how gravely ill he was.
She was told the merdo after she came back from working a third shift as a waitress. We mourned her loss in a studio apartment in New York. She couldn't go back home to bury her father because her political asylum papers had not yet been processed. We huddled with her wondering how many of our relatives we would hear had died while we waited for our Green Cards. How many births will we never see? How many hands will we never hold?
The next day my friend had to go to work because she couldn't get anyone to cover her shift, and she was putting her sister through college, and rent was due, and she had to send money to her brother who was in a refugee camp in Sudan. Her uniform for work was all black except for a turquoise tie. She told her boss that she had forgotten her tie and wore all black for one night to mourn her father.
Even then we never thought of ourselves as sidetegNoch. We just thought it was par for the course for the privilege of coming to America. We were never angry at the circumstances and we never let ourselves stop to think why "it" happened in the first place. It was just… life.
It was just life that we let ourselves cower under tyranny. It was just life that we stepped over bodies on the way to school. It was just life that we paid for the bullets that killed our sisters and brothers. It was just life that we let our spirit get suffocated and hung out for vultures to pick it down to its last fiber. And it was just life that we had to keep silent, bow in deference and hope playing dead will help us alive one more hour.
Our silence was deafening. It muffled the "iyay-yay"s of our great grandfathers and great grandmothers as they witnessed from their graves the hemorrhaging to death of the Ethiopian spirit.
We pretended then not to hear the gunshots that snuffed out a whole generation, and we continue to pretend now by pretending to forget the past even as we hear our parents cry themselves to sleep at night. We pretend we were too young or too old to do anything. And in our new world where we pretend "it"-the Red Terror- was an aberration, we relegate it to "past history" status or as a horrendous coincidence, a distant memory not to be regurgitated. We then go back to watching it happen again in Sierra Leon and Burundi on CNN. And the wound abscesses, and abscesses, and abscesses as we watch it pass on to a new generation.
Sidet, I have come to understand, is payback for being passive. It is revenge exacted on us by our ancestors for defiling their legacy. And payback is a… well, you know.
My niece will be two next January. "An'ed… hulet… shosht…" she says when she climbs up stairs. "Waa-an…two… free!" she squeals when she climbs down.
I wonder if she will ever feel the same pang of pain deep in the pit for her stomach for a country that is both beautiful and scarring; I wonder if she will ever love Ethiopia the way I love Ethiopia. I wonder if hers will be the generation to love Ethiopia unconditionally. My country, good or bad. I look at my niece and try to imagine if she will feel any visceral connection when she visits her great grandmother's grave at Bolé Mikael; if she will come to terms with the turmoil of the past and give it a proper burial.
I wonder if her generation will be the one to finally make peace with our ancestors and thereby give the rest of us salvation.
Salvation… the sweetest of sounds.