Thursday, August 21, 2014

Words, Words, Words.

Increasingly, more of my email interactions with Lulit, my language teacher, happen in Amharic. Lulit still needs to alert me to new vocabulary, but I can tell she's trying to make frequent use of words I already know to build my confidence. Early on, we decided to communicate using the Amharic fidel (ፊደል, "alphabet" or "letter") rather than transliterations of Amharic words.
In this email, Lulit confirms our next lesson and wishes me a happy Friday.
This is not necessarily the norm. Lulit had a student for three or four years who never learned the script. Lulit showed me a text message exchange between the two of them, with even identical Amharic words spelled differently. There is no standard system of transliteration for Amharic, so words can be rendered any number of ways in English. I've seen the word "ፊደል," for instance, spelled fidel, feedel, fidël, and fidäl, and there are probably other variations. Lulit is glad I am communicating with the ፊደል so she does not have to constantly decide how to spell the words she uses. I figure if I'm going to tax my brain anyway, I might as well do it up front and learn the script.

But even if Lulit's former student had learned the ፊደል, he could not have used it to text Lulit. While the Amharic script can be used on Apple laptops, the company does not support it for the iPhone or iPad. Lulit is starting a formal petition to get that changed, but in the meantime I sent my individual feedback (an "enhancement request") to Apple just a few days ago, asking that Amharic be readable across all its devices.
I suppose somebody at Apple gets paid to read fringe feedback like this.
Luckily, I don't need to rely on my iPhone to schedule my lessons.
When I write to Lulit on my laptop, I copy and paste individual letters from the Amharic Wikipedia page until I have my entire message. It takes quite some time. So today I finally installed the Amharic Keyboard from I was surprised that not only was it free, it also took less than a minute to install to my web browser. Ironically, you have to know the "right" transliteration of a word to get the correct spelling in Amharic. Thus, if I type the word "fidel" I get ፊደል, which is correct, but if I type "feedel," ፈእደል comes out, which is not. Nevertheless, the keyboard will save me loads of time.
This Amharic keyboard is now conveniently accessible in my Bookmarks toolbar.
During my most recent lesson with Lulit, after an absence of over five weeks, the ፊደል came up in an interesting way. I asked Lulit about the "Ethiopia Day" (ኢትዮጵያ ቀን) celebration she attended in San Jose back in early July, just as we were leaving for Curaçao. Despite having terrible seats with a view obstructed by a wall of speakers, Lulit said she enjoyed the day. A highlight for her was seeing (or at least hearing) her friend Wosene Worke Kosrof, an Ethiopian painter and sculptor who lives in Berkeley, receive an award for his body of artistic work.
According to the biographical sketch on his website, Wosene (his professional name) is
"the first contemporary Ethiopian-born artist to use the script forms – fiedel [yet another spelling!] – of his native Amharic as a core element in his paintings and sculptures. This recognizable ‘signature’ emerges from the way he elongates, distorts, dissects and reassembles Amharic symbols – not as literal words – but as images that speak for themselves in a visual language accessible to international audiences."
His visual language is certainly appealing to me. A few examples:
The Color of Jazz
Lady Liberty
Yet I am actually interested in the literal words Wosene uses, since it is a fun way to build my vocabulary and increase my fluency with the script. For instance, the painting above is clearly about New York. You can even see the word ታክሲ ("taxi") just left of center between the yellow and black checkered squares.  Written on the bridge are the words ብሩክሊን ("Brooklyn") and አዋሽ ("Awash"), which, in addition to being a river entirely within the boundaries in Ethiopia, is a popular Ethiopian restaurant in NYC. In the blue section are the words ግም ውሃ ("bad smelling water"). I wonder if Wosene is implying he prefers life in the Bay Area, since the color of the bridge seems to reference the Golden Gate Bridge rather than any bridge in New York.
Details from Lady Liberty
"The more you look, the more you see." This was a favorite expression of a colleague of mine; she used to remind her teenage students of this 'truth' all the time. Another colleague who taught art would ask his students only two questions when he showed them a painting or sculpture: one was "What do you see?"; the other was "What else do you see?" I adopted these pedagogical techniques into my own teaching over time. Wosene has also worked with adolescents for a good part of his life, teaching them "The Pleasures and Danger of Learning to See." I even think he embeds the Amharic character ሲ ("see") in many of his paintings as a bi-cultural pun.
Detail from Wax and Gold X
When Lulit brought out a book of Wosene's art during our lesson, it was fun to watch her "seeing" more and more of the words, and subtext, and political commentary as she examined this painting:
Ethiopian Grammar. 2001. Acrylic/Canvas. 19"x19"
 There are words and phrases like እናት ("mother"), ዘመን ("generation"), መሠረት ("foundation"), ሐገሬችን ("our country"), ኣብሮለማደግ ("together for to grow"), ዐንድነታችን ("our oneness") የኢትዮጵፍቅርምሳሌ (Ethiopia's love example), even መቃዠት ("to have nightmares"), which made Lulit laugh. In fact the line at the bottom reads ፊደልግርግርመቃዠት ("Fidel noisiness to have nightmares"). I can't tell if Wosene intends that as political commentary or a depiction of his own mind. But he definitely intrigued me.

When I got home from my lesson, I immediately went on Wosene's website to see what his work costs. The offset lithographs are certainly affordable in the $200-400 range but I decided to buy his limited edition silk scarf for $40 (with free shipping!). It should arrive early next week.
Perhaps this will add a splash of color to Suzanne's all-black outfits.
Then I remembered we have a silk scarf of the Amharic Fidel, so I put it up in the window. I'm facing it now as I type. I'm hoping that the more I look, the more I will ሲ.

Monday, August 4, 2014

I blog because I care

100 days.
That's how long members of the Zone 9 blogging coalition in Ethiopia have been in prison on fabricated charges of terrorism. Jan alerted me to this story back in May, and I've been following the plight of the six bloggers and three journalists ever since. Here's a quick overview of the facts from BBC News Africa:
Voices of solidarity for the imprisoned bloggers and journalists were mobilized recently to honor the unfortunate 100-day milestone, so I thought I'd add mine, regardless of its limited reach. I've been impressed with the recent public outcry beyond Ethiopia's borders. A global twitter campaign was coordinated on July 31 using the hashtag #FreeZone9Bloggers, and then on Saturday a vigil took place in Washington DC in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, where members of the Ethiopian diaspora lit 900 candles to recognize the 900 days spent collectively in detention by the "Zone9ers."
When Jan told me about the arrests of the bloggers, she suggested I track the developments via social media. She recommended familiarizing myself with the news in English initially, before switching to Amharic, just so I would get to know the vocabulary particular to the story. I decided to limit myself to Twitter, since Twitter itself limits users to 140 characters. Even so, this exercise proved more challenging than I expected. Here is a tweet that I brought to one of my Amharic lessons with Lulit:
Obviously, the name of the group appeared often in these tweets, sometimes as above—ዞን 9 (Zone 9)—and sometimes with the number spelled out—ዞን ዘጠኝ (Zone ZeTheng). Words like these that I am getting to know by sight help anchor me. The names of the bloggers also appeared often; Befekadu Hailu and Mahlet Fantahun are mentioned in the tweet above. Plus, I learned some vocabulary related to the legal system. For instance, ፍርድ ቤት (firdih bayt) means "judgment house" (i.e., courthouse) and ችሎት (chilot) means "assembly" or "court proceeding." Interestingly, Lulit had never seen the word ጦማርያን (Tomariyan) before, which she thought meant something like "members." I suppose Amharic continues to evolve in Ethiopia.

So the exercise continues to yield some linguistic benefit in that the story is helping me learn vocabulary around a theme. The word ነፃነት (netsanet), meaning freedom, shows up a lot, not surprisingly. And I learned from Lulit that her sister-in-law's ex-husband has the phrase ነፃነት ወይም ሞት ("freedom or death") tattooed on his body.

But following the story has also made me cynical about Ethiopia's civil society. I learned, for instance, that Ethiopia is the second worst jailer of journalists in Africa after Eritrea, according to Freedom House. Likewise, on the Freedom House's Map of Press Freedom (0=Best, 100=Worst), Ethiopia has the second worst Press Freedom Score (81) in Africa after Eritrea (94). Reporters Without Borders is slightly kinder to Ethiopia, ranking it #143 out of 180 countries on its 2014 World Press Freedom Index, just ahead of Cambodia and Myanmar. It puts Eritrea dead last at #180.

Zone 9 bloggers named their group indirectly after the Kaliti Prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Ironically, they argue that they are in prison just by living in Ethiopia. A Zone9er explains:
In the suburbs of Addis Ababa, there is a large prison called Kality where many political prisoners are currently being held, among them journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu. The journalists have told us a lot about the prison and its appalling conditions. Kality is divided into eight different zones, the last of which — Zone Eight — is dedicated to journalists, human right activists and dissidents.
 When we came together, we decided to create a blog for the proverbial prison in which all Ethiopians live: this is Zone Nine.
Despite the lack of political freedom, a proverbial prison is still better than an actual prison, and I hope the innocent bloggers and journalists, along with all political prisoners, are released in the very near future.
This blog post is dedicated to them.