Friday, June 20, 2014

Labyrinth and Fire

Today is World Refugee Day. I just learned that the number of global refugees has topped 50 million for the first time since WWII. This figure includes internally displaced people (over 33 million) as well as international refugees.

Here on Whidbey Island in Washington, where I'm attending the fourth and final gathering of a seasonal retreat series, refugees seem far away. Yet Ethiopian refugees have been arriving since 1980 and now number at least 10,000 in the Seattle area, according to a book published just last year. One of the authors, Joseph Scott, even calls the resettlement of Ethiopians "the first significant migration of black Africans to America since slavery times."
Though I have been to the Seattle area four times in the last nine months, I have not made any connections with the Ethiopian community here. I will be back sometime to do that, hopefully through referrals from Bay Area residents. Instead, this retreat series at The Whidbey Institute has allowed me to reflect deeply about my path in life. And for the time being that path is this Amharic Project.

My path ahead is certainly not clear, but this is where I want to put my energy right now. The Whidbey retreat series has created many conditions to help me make this decision. Over the four seasonal meetings, thematically connected to the natural world, we 20 participants have read poetry and essays, written personal reflections, and engaged in meaningful discussions. But my two most significant moments came during highly structured times: walking the labyrinth and discerning next steps with a Clearness Committee.

My wife Suzanne initially introduced the idea of me studying Amharic full time. When I came to Whidbey for the spring retreat in April, I decided to test the idea by walking the beautiful labyrinth at Chinook (the name of the land on which the institute rests). Setting my intention, I started walking the path; the twists and turns helped me recognize that many obstacles would seem to block my way, and that I would often feel further away from my goal even after a lot of effort. It really was a powerful exercise, and I felt greater clarity when I got to the center.
The Labyrinth at Chinook, modeled after the one at Chartres Cathedral
Nevertheless, I still wanted to call a Clearness Committee together so I could talk through my plans, my doubts, my fears, my hopes. The function of the Clearness Committee, which comes from the Quaker tradition, is to listen to the focus person (me in this case) and ask open, honest questions about a particular issue on which the person seeks guidance. In short, members of the Committee hear the focus person "into deeper speech." Fortunately, exactly the right people showed up for my Committee. In fact, it was Pete Smith who connected me to Jan, my language acquisition coach. Had he not been part of my Committee, Jan and I would never have met.
It was great to reconnect with my Clearness Committee. (Left to right: Pete, Stan, Sarah, Victor)

Now at the final gathering, we are working metaphorically with fire, the element of summer. I spoke last night about how I am feeling a "spark" doing this project and that I feel like my work is "heating up." I'm also surprised that I'm enjoying writing about the process as much as actually learning Amharic. It's a terrific challenge to make connections across language and culture. It's as if flames are licking at different elements of my life and the kindling is starting to catch fire. I look forward to the conflagration that will illuminate everything.

I don't know much about the uses and meaning of fire (እሳት, issat) in Ethiopian culture, but I did learn recently about the Ethiopian section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located in Jerusalem's Old City. Two months ago, on the eve of Easter and just as I began this project, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians celebrated the Miracle of the Holy Fire at the Church, which is shared between six Christian denominations: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox, all of whom believe that the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus took place on that site. (Interestingly, a Sunni Muslim family has held the keys to the Church since the seventh century.)

Believers claim that a divine fire from heaven ignites the church flame to acknowledge the resurrection of Christ. The annual ritual dates back to the 4th century AD, and since that time many have tried to debunk the event. In 2005, a Greek historian of religion showed on television that candles dipped in white phosphorus could self-ignite after 20 minutes or more of contact with air. Apparently, heaven doesn't need to supply anything.

Yet when that fire is lit, the source of the inspiration doesn't matter. We put in the work, with intention and patience, and we never know how, when, or from where the "Aha" moment will come. As I learned from The Life of Pi, when the truth doesn't matter, go with the better story. In the case of the Holy Fire, the distinction between fact and fiction becomes irrelevant; it's the felt experience of the fire that is real. Regardless of the role this retreat series has played in my life, my candle is currently burning and I can feel the heat.
Ethiopian Orthodox worshipers during the Holy Fire ceremony in the Ethiopian section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on April 19, 2014. (Reuters)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Adwa Fellows

Sometimes things seem to happen for a reason.

A few posts ago, I contemplated abandoning this project, thinking that I should be applying for a teaching position instead of spending time learning Amharic. Jan thankfully talked me down from that particular ledge. Nevertheless, I halfheartedly applied for a job, and even though I did not ultimately get summoned to deliver a demo lesson, I spent time preparing one just in case. I was told the lesson needed to relate to African independence. Perfect. What a great opportunity to learn why Ethiopia has never been colonized.

That opportunity quickly took me to the Battle of Adwa.
My resources for the Battle of Adwa
The first paragraph of Raymond Jonas's book, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire, presents an excellent summary of the battle's significance and is worth quoting in full:
This is the story of a world turned upside down. On the first of March, 1896, not far from the Ethiopian town of Adwa, an African army won a spectacular victory over a European army. Africans had defeated Europeans before—at Isandlwana, for example—but these proved to be mere setbacks in the otherwise inexorable conquests. Ethiopian victory over Italy at the battle of Adwa was decisive: it brought an Italian war of conquest to an end. In an age of relentless European expansion, Ethiopia alone had successfully defended its independence.
It turns out that the Stanford History Education Group already has a decent lesson plan on the Battle of Adwa, centering on comparative historiography. Examining an event from different perspectives is certainly good teaching practice, and I thought it might be even more interesting to look at Ethiopian and Italian representations of the battle in both art and music.
An oil painting of the Battle of Adwa done by a monk around 1970.
The askari in the center with the red hat and brown skin looks directly at us.
An art teacher once told me the two questions he asks of his students when they look at art. The first question is: "What do you see?" The second question is: "What else do you see?" It's a simple and profound concept: the more you look, the more you see. Symbolism emerges from the powers of observation. One example: Ethiopians are always shown in full face while Italians are consistently depicted in profile. Whether that means the difference between good and bad, human and non-human, or something else is up for interpretation. Interestingly, the Askari (local soldiers recruited to fight for the Italians) are shown full face, as if they haven't truly defected to the colonial side. Likewise, Italians killed on the battlefield are presented with two eyes instead of one, perhaps saying that everyone can be humanized in death. Even Italians captured in battle become similarly humanized with a full face in these paintings. (In fact, since Ethiopia had no prisons in 1896, Italian "POWs" resided in the homes of officials at Emperor Menelik's court; it was kind of like an early exchange program with host families that fostered lasting friendships and even love affairs.)
St. George, the patron saint of Ethiopia, always leads the Ethiopian army. He even throws spears.
Detail of the Ethiopian army. An Italian soldier is captured at the bottom.
The battle from an Italian perspective.
There are also many songs sung about the Battle of Adwa. Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw sings a hauntingly beautiful one. Here's a well-known folk song about the battle from the 1999 documentary ADWA by Ethiopian director Haile Gerima. Lulit told me she remembers hearing this song as a kid, but she never really considered the words until I asked her to write them out for me. ቸበለው ("Chebelo"), which could be the name of the song, means something like "gallop on."
Lulit's transcription of "Chebelo"
My favorite lyric is በደም ይፈትፈት (sixth line). In translation, the enemy (mentioned in the previous line) is "drenched in blood." But the meaning is so much richer (i.e. gory and graphic) in Amharic. "Fetfet" is the name of a dish in which the injera is chopped up into little bits and mixed with sauce. So the enemy is not just drenched in blood, he is chopped up beyond recognition, mixed with blood, and metaphorically consumed. Ghastly.

I asked Anemo and his friend Yoyo to sing the song with me. They would be the chorus and supply the response to each line. I don't own a krar (ከራር, an Ethiopian lyre), so I used my mandolin instead.
Actually, we do have a non-functional, tourist version of the krar.

I love how the kids act out the soldiers as they sing. And I'm glad they've been exposed to this important event in the history of Ethiopia. It's hard to overestimate the battle's significance. It is celebrated in a huge way every March 2nd in Ethiopia. It's why the African Union meets in Addis Ababa. And it's why the Rastafari movement was able to take root. Both Anemo and Yoyo, when they are older, will be proud to be connected in some way to this historic battle.

Incidentally, I called this post "Adwa Fellows" partly because of the two young fellows who helped me sing the song about the battle. But I was also thinking about Ethiopia's similarity with the Odd Fellows. Bear with me. As I understand the Odd Fellows organization, it got its name long ago when fellows of smaller trades (an odd assortment, I suppose) banded together to form a guild of their own, achieving more economic power than they would have being separated. In significant ways, the Battle of Adwa united disparate populations into an Ethiopian nation for the first time, and that nation all of a sudden possessed power on the world stage. No ethnic group alone could have defeated the Italian army, but when Menelik II marched his diverse 100,000-member army over 500 miles north to Adwa, the Italians didn't stand a chance.

As for me, I never stood a chance in getting that teaching position (though it would have been flattering to be offered the job without really trying.) Yet so much emerged from that thwarted opportunity. I hope I have been able to show some of it. The only thing that didn't emerge, however, was an Italian song about how Italy lost the Battle of Adwa!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sexy Man

Amharic has no word for "sexy."

How I know this is curious. Recently, Anemo has been obsessively repeating a line (the only line, actually) from an Old Spice commercial. It goes like this: "Old Spice, take a look what you've done. You've made a sexy man right out of my son. Old Spice!" If you're curious about the context, you can see the ad here. [Note: neither I nor anyone I know works for Old Spice or its parent company, Procter & Gamble.]

Anemo says that a friend of his taught him this at school. At home, he has tried saying the line at different speeds and with different inflections, especially enjoying spitting out the final "Old Spice!" like the woman in the commercial (or rather like how his friend imitates the woman in the commercial). Anemo has even gotten Suzanne and I to say it, having us compete with each other to see who can say it the fastest. (I can't resist a challenge, no matter how devoid of meaning.)

You can imagine my surprise when Anemo asked me last week how to say the commercial in Amharic. Despite my not wanting to promote P&G products more than I already had, I also did not want to squander this authentic opportunity to expose Anemo to more Amharic. That is my primary mission with this project after all. (Plus, I actually do think whoever is behind the Old Spice ad campaigns is a genius, and I don't mind supporting clever talent.)

So I contacted Lulit, who told me later that she "almost fell off the chair" when she read my email request. To her credit, she took the request quite seriously, even finessing the language to make the phrases rhyme. Going beyond the call of duty, Lulit contacted her sister in Ethiopia to check her translation. Here's what she sent me:
Notice she has several ideas for a substitution of "sexy." The first (ቆንጆ) could be used to describe a beautiful day, so we ruled that out. The second (ቆንጅዬ) is used more to describe people, but it could be for someone quite petite, which wouldn't make sense in this context. We settled on the third (ዘንጋጋ), which is also the most fun to say: zengaga. The word comes from zeng, which, according to Lulit:
is a walking stick that sometimes older people will use and is very popular. Or even in the countryside they always walk with a walking stick because you would have to jump over ditches and things like that. And then they hold it sometimes on their shoulder to rest their arms. So zengaga means kind of slender and tall, like a walking stick. ...
Here is how Lulit reads her own translation:

The next step was to get Anemo to learn it. Showing interest is one thing. Following through is another. We began on Saturday afternoon. The goal was to say this, more or less:
Arogay Q'mem
Min bileh nah'w
Lijane zengaga
sah'w yadereg kah'w.
Anemo wanted to translate Old Spice (አሮጌ ቅመም), rather than say Old Spice (ኦልድ ስፓይስ). I loved that the ቅ sound allowed him to practice his 'k' ejective. We started practicing on Saturday afternoon, lying on the couch. Notice the progression in the videos. As Anemo continued to get blocked on the final line, I suggested we try again the next day. Sleeping on it really does help. You can see the difference in energy on Sunday when he knows he's got it.

On that final take Anemo emphasized the ejective ቅ. He was proud of himself for sticking with this, and he planned to share it with his friend at school. (We'll see if that happens.)

I think we each learned something from doing what initially seemed like a bizarre use of time. Anemo learned that language takes time to seep in, and that coming back to it after a break can be more beneficial than hammering it in relentlessly. I learned that words we take for granted, like "sexy," might not have an analog in another language. I knew this at some level of course, but I always assumed there would be a work-around solution in the other language, perhaps using a few extra words to approximate the same meaning. Not according to Lulit, in this case:
We don't use any type of sexual terms unless it's really vulgar. I looked up sexy in the dictionary and it was a word I've never heard, more like an anatomical term. I would never say that about a person.
Perhaps if I spoke with a someone of a younger generation, a word for "sexy" might be available. This is a hypothesis I'll have to test. In the meantime, I just have to convince Anemo that he's not ready for "man fresheners" just yet. Anyway, I'm hoping he embraces his Ethiopian roots and aims for zengaga instead of sexy.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Onward to the Past

After writing my blog post last week, I was feeling down about this Amharic Project. Jan, my language acquisition coach, recognized the telltale signs of an early-stage crisis—what she called the "terrible uncertainty of What Is Going To Happen." Jan continued her supportive email to me with obviously lived wisdom:

I hope you will keep breathing through this crisis and just live with the anxiety for a while. Don't let yourself panic because you don't have a real job lined up. Having the freedom to grow is a rare gift; don't be in a rush to shackle it, especially with something mundane and safe.

Jan's words reminded me of a quote a friend recently sent me, attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper (who had an incredible career): "A ship in port is safe, but that's not what ships are built for." I've indeed been hedging about this project and I need to muster the courage to leave sight of the shore (to invoke an other famous quote). I have been through enough in life that safety shouldn't be my primary concern. The challenge is to tolerate the unknown while I figure out what I am "built for."

I'm also trying to put safety aside in subtler ways. A couple of weeks ago, I was bumbling down a city block near the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park, looking for the apartment of Anemo's former daycare provider, an Ethiopian woman by the name of Bethlehem. I knew the apartment's approximate location, but I didn't want to ring any wrong doorbells. Fearing embarrassment, I left without accomplishing anything.

Last Thursday, though, with a feeling that my project could be in jeopardy without tangible progress, I started ringing doorbells, even encountering one woman whose disagreeable temper didn't seem to belong in San Francisco. Nevertheless, the woman did gruffly direct me to the right apartment, where Bethlehem answered the door, pausing a full 15 seconds before recognizing me. It was a terrific reunion after that, and we shared what's happened in our lives since Anemo last spent time there in the fall of 2009. (Her estranged husband passed away and her 20-year-old son recently had a baby.) Bethlehem had a new assistant from Eritrea named Senait (Sunny for short).
Senait and Bethlehem
I explained to Bethlehem my project to learn Amharic, and she agreed to help. In fact, she started right away introducing me to important vocabulary and phrases. When she wanted to show me the Amharic script, Bethlehem appealed to Senait for help since she felt rusty.
We all collaborated to recall parts of the Amharic alphabet.
Senait, who trained as a nurse, speaks Tigrinya and Amharic and very little English, so that will force me to practice my rudimentary language. I hope to have time speaking with her away from the possibility of English translation. Before I left, I agreed to return to play music for the kids in exchange for more immersion in Amharic.

I made good on that promise today, showing up with my harmonium and mandolin ready to entertain. Alganesh ("Algu" for short), a longtime aide, was there instead of Senait, and she remembered Anemo from five years ago. After a few rounds of "Twinkle, Twinkle," "Itsy Bitsy," and some other daycare classics, Alganesh sang a beautiful religious song that I recorded. Bethlehem provided the translation.
Old MacDonald had a duck, dog, cat, and cow, in that order.

Algu invited me to attend an Ethiopian church service in San Francisco some Sunday morning. (She sings in the church choir.) I look forward to that rich cultural experience. The more connections I make, the more I feel like I'm leaving the port, or the shore, or the safety of a traditional occupation. This afternoon, during our FaceTime meeting (postponed from last week), Jan said that perhaps I will create my own job instead of competing with others for jobs that already exist. It's much too early to tell what will emerge from this project, but for now I have an increasing resolve to find out.