Monday, September 29, 2014

International Buna (ቡና) Day

According to several sources, including Wikipedia, today is International Coffee Day. It's hard to say how widespread the observance of this day is, but the intention is to bring awareness to fair trade practices and the plight of coffee farmers worldwide. I counted 36 tweets posted so far on September 29 using the hashtag #internationalcoffeeday; however, only three of those tweets mention anything about coffee farmers. One guy wrote that he would celebrate the day by "only...looking at websites that support Java." Another person posted this lovely but apolitical image of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

According to Wikipedia again, Ethiopia observes this day along with several other countries. After all, as the birthplace of coffee, why shouldn't Ethiopia celebrate one of its gifts to the world?
At least we have evidence that someone in Norway has heard of this day.
The story goes that an Ethiopian goat herder in the ninth century noticed the stimulating effects on his goats and began experimenting with the seeds inside the berries. When the seeds (which we call beans) were thrown into a fire, the aroma unleashed an industry that is now worth over $100 billion worldwide, making coffee the second-most sought commodity after crude oil.
I haven't been drinking much coffee lately, but since it was International Coffee Day, I thought I would go down to the Oasis Cafe and have a cup or two after my morning workout. Someone had told me that a specialty at Oasis Cafe is the addition of cardamom to the coffee, so I asked Abeba to stir some into my Ethiopian decaf. (I had already had a cup at home.)
Cardamom floating in my psychedelic coffee mirror.
Coffee was probably not the best liquid to wash down this lunch.
And beware the mouthful of cardamom on the last sip.
Afterward, I asked Abeba if she takes cardamom with her coffee. "Never," she said. Instead, she flavors her coffee at home with a plant called ጤና አዳም (T'ena Adam, meaning the "health of Adam"). The species is known formally as Ruta graveolens and more commonly in English as rue or herb-of-grace. I confess to having never heard of this plant before Lulit introduced me to it a few months ago. Both Lulit and Abeba grow the plant at home.
ጤና አዳም
ጤና አዳም always flavors Lulit's coffee.
Lulit showing me her ጤና አዳም plant in her backyard.
I asked Abeba if I could try some "Health of Adam" in another cup of coffee, but she told me the cafe didn't keep any. "Why not?" I inquired. "Because no one ever asks for it," came her reply, which made me wonder two things: 1) How would anyone know to ask for rue in their coffee? and 2) How would anyone know to request cardamom either? Anyway, I didn't spend long wondering, because Abeba promised to bring some ጤና አዳም from her home and have it ready for my next visit.

Not wanting my special coffee day to end, I decided to make a coffee pudding for our evening dessert. The recipe called for one tablespoon instant espresso powder, but I substituted some coarsely-ground Ethiopian coffee beans that I had roasted myself. The final product didn't look anything like the image posted by the web chef, but I enjoyed that extra connection to Ethiopia, unrefined as it was.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Global Soul, Local Foreigner

Jan, my language acquisition coach, who lives in Des Moines, Iowa, a city energized about five years ago by a beautifully landscaped sculpture garden, invited me recently to take part in teaching an online course called "Global Citizen." The course is offered through a collaboration between Omsk University in Siberia and Webilang, a web-based platform for learning English or Russian with native speakers. I imagined that by witnessing Russian speakers learn to speak English with more confidence, I might discover strategies to improve my Amharic. The first class of the 14-week semester took place two days ago, and just hearing Jan and Joe, one of the other professors involved, encourage the adult Russian students to make lots of mistakes reminded me that learning a language should be daring and messy, not timid and neat.

One of the icebreakers for this initial class required us each to upload and explain a landmark from the city where we live. Jan chose to talk about the centerpiece of the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park.
The sculpture "Nomade" by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, in its permanent home in Des Moines.
Plensa's use of letters reminds me of Wosene Kosrof's use of the Amharic fidel.
The sculpture's title—"Nomade"—made more sense when installed in its original location on the French Riviera, looking out over the Mediterranean Sea.
I can't help thinking that this giant sculpture now in Des Moines is the perfect metaphor for my project of learning Amharic. Here I am using language to train my gaze beyond my own cultural practices in the United States and toward a distant land with very different ways of being and interacting. I often feel like a cultural nomad(e) doing this, with words and phrases from Amharic and so many other languages jumbled inside me. One of the reasons I wanted to work with Jan is precisely because I've initiated and abandoned so many linguistic efforts before. In fact, if I were the sculptor, the one alteration I would make to "Nomade" would be to include symbols from other languages I've studied that use a non-Latin script, including Japanese, Lao, and Thai. Perhaps I'd even place somewhere on the sculpture the German umlaut, the French circumflex, and the Spanish cedilla.

The main text for the Global Citizen course is Pico Iyer's book Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home, which he wrote at the turn of the millennium. In the first chapter, Iyer quotes a twelfth-century Saxon monk known as Hugo of St. Victor who sees a progression in how one should relate to the world:
“The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.” 
Being a monk, Hugo of St. Victor is most likely saying that we are all just sojourning here in this foreign land called Earth, that our true home lies in heaven, and that once we realize this truth, we will be living in a state of perfection. OK. Yet I prefer a more secular interpretation of Hugo's last phrase. What if it means that rather than attempting to find similarities in people, places, and customs around the world, we instead should strive to see the strangeness in our own habits and cultural practices, as if we're permanently living in a foreign land and continually trying to understand why we do the things we do in the way that we do them? (I imagine this as a lighthearted endeavor, in the spirit of Horace Miner's "Body Ritual among the Nacirema.")

Over the weekend, when I attended two different celebrations of እንቁጣጣሽ (EnquTaTash), Ethiopian New Year, I tried to see the strangeness in my own behaviors and expectations as well as the obvious foreignness of the Ethiopian traditions transplanted to the United States. For instance, as I struggled to remember the formal greeting for elders (I couldn't...but I now remember it's አንደምን ኖት, Indemin note), I thought how equally strange was my impulse to treat an Ethiopian elder (Professor Adugnaw Worku, who will be the topic of a separate post) as a casual friend. Or, as I became upset that music performances at the Home [away from] Home festival were running almost two hours behind, I considered how equally strange was my expectation that organizers adhere to the posted schedule, regardless of how the day unfolded organically. Or, as I watched people kissing the feet of the Ethiopian Orthodox Bishop as he walked with his entourage through Oakland's Mosswood Park, I remembered how equally strange were the actions I performed weekly during my Catholic upbringing.
 90-year old Bishop Abune Melketsedek leading a group of Ethiopian Orthodox clergy through the festival grounds.

While I did attend these two festivals to make more connections and gain more insights into my project, I also wanted to listen to rousing Ethiopian music, eat delicious food, and share the experience with Anemo and Suzanne. Of the two festivals, the EnquTaTash festival (sponsored by the Oakland Ethiopian Community and Cultural Center) on Saturday was certainly better funded, with about three dozen vendors, a powerful sound system, and a famous ማሲንቆ (masinqo) player flown in from Washington DC.
A variety of Ethiopian necklaces.
If you are traveling to Ethiopia (which I am in November...more on that soon), you can take as many blue One World indestructible soccer balls as you can carry.
Anemo had just come from his Saturday soccer game (it was a tie), so he wanted to kick one around immediately.
Here I am with Anemo and my Amharic teacher Lulit at her booth, looking a lot like Phil Dunphy.
The masinqo, incidentally, is a one-stringed bowed spike fiddle, and the performer (I'll have to find out his name) proved to be a real virtuoso as well as a dynamic singer. I could understand why they flew him out. Three dancers joined him for part of his set, and by appearances, the young woman nearest the camera might be a cultural nomad herself. Later on, I was happy to see men dancing at the event as well, especially since Anemo was about to attend his first Ethiopian dance class the following morning.

Sunday's event, the culmination of the Home [away from] Home project that I've written about previously, felt younger, hipper, more informal, and more inclusive. The festival went beyond an Ethiopian and Eritrean identity to forge an even broader East African coalition of like-minded spirits. A Sudanese organization occupied one of the vendor booths, a Kenyan artist hung her work in the Ethiopian gojo (or Eritrean adjo), and the artist/musician Zéna (a name that means "news" in Amharic) sang songs from Uganda playing a ukulele and West African kora. Cultural nomadism was unabashedly (and for the most part unselfconsciously) on display.

The event definitely felt progressive and open to all, not just because of the celebration of hybrid identities, but also because of the collective human energy needed to power the festival. A group called Rock the Bike set up twelve bicycles that festival attendees and even passersby could pedal to provide electricity for the sound system. The battery that stored the energy only had a buffer of about three minutes, so the bicycles needed to be consistently ridden. I put in an hour on a bike myself while Suzanne volunteered at the umbrella painting station. You can see people bicycling in the video of the Sudanese Sword Dance below.
Anemo takes a shift pedaling power to the stage. Each time someone got off one of the bikes, pedaling got harder. Another potent metaphor.
Anemo, Leo, and the umbrella they painted together. Leo was the only other boy in that morning's Ethiopian dance class, so Anemo and he became fast friends. As a bonus, Leo's entire adoptive family seems terrific.

There is a commercial for United Airlines currently on TV called "Your Gateway to the World." I sent the video to Jan and the rest of the Global Citizen team the other day as a potential conversation starter for a class on global vs. local perspectives. The ad features a young business man traveling all over the world trying to master the nuances of various international greetings and customs. The punch line is that he returns to the United States and orders pecan pie at a restaurant, only to be teased by the waitress for getting the regional accent wrong.

Click here to watch ad
As a global soul myself, I've been asked occasionally why I tend to adopt an international perspective instead of a national or even local one. For instance, why do we attend cultural festivals like EnquTaTash and ignore American holidays like July 4th? Why did Suzanne and I take students around the world on summer service trips instead of using the resources needed for air travel to help disadvantaged communities here in California? Or, more pertinently, why did we choose to adopt internationally from Ethiopia instead of adopting domestically or becoming parents through the foster care system?

I can provide rational answers to those questions, even if others may disagree with my answers on principle. But just the other day, the foreignness of the local came rushing at me. We had decided to donate a drum kit we owned to a seventh-grade boy from Anemo's school, so he wouldn't have to walk to his church every time he wanted to practice. As I was unloading the drums in the middle of the housing project where he lived, I wondered how I could feel so out of place less than a mile from my home. I may be a global soul, but sometimes I feel like a local foreigner.
Housing development at Baker and Sutter in San Francisco.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Enqutatash—እንቍጣጣሽ—Happy New Year!

Today is September 11, the Ethiopian New Year, called እንቍጣጣሽ (EnquTaTash). One origin story of that name is that it derives from the Queen of Sheba's Ethiopian homecoming after visiting King Solomon, when people saw the gems (እንቁ, enqu) on her fingers (ጣት, Tat). It seems like the most common greeting for this time of year is:

          መልካም አዲስ አመት!
          Melkam addis amat!
          Happy New Year!

For the expression below, Lulit wrote that "this is something we say for the new year," but I'm not sure how it translates exactly. Maybe something like "Welcome to the New Year!"

          እንቁጣጣሽ እንኳን ደህና መጣሽ!
          EnquTaTash inkwan dehna meTash!

I tried the first greeting a couple of times today when Suzanne, Anemo, and I went back to Oakland, and I think I was understood. We drove back to Eastshore Park and found the Ethiopian hut (gojo bayt) completed and an art exhibit installed inside. According to the gallery notes, each piece displayed was inspired by a story of an Ethiopian or Eritrean taxi driver.
"We believe taxi drivers represent not just East African immigrant stories, but the immigrant story more broadly: stories of displacement and reimagining, the personal acts of creation and re-creation that every human does with the questions of where you came from and where you're going."
Another clever use of Amharic letters (ፀያሐአ), with the third letter on its side.
Anemo looks through a View-Master in the exhibit.
Suzanne looks through a different View-Master.

We saw a lot of art today, and we even ran into Wosene Worke Kosrof and his wife at Studio Grand, where a big new year's event is being held from 6 PM to midnight.

We stayed for some of the spoke word acts, but obviously could not last until the wee hours of Friday morning.
As I type, Studio Grand is probably pulsing to the sounds of DJ Eden Hagos, an Eritrean-born, San Diego-based, self-proclaimed beat scenester.

Google image Eden Hagos to see her other CD cover (the one I chose not to paste here).
The event promises: "Post happy hour, we will be dancing to classics and modern tunes from home, with plenty of New Years songs to groove to!" I don't know how many New Year's songs there are, but I did learn one when I went to meet Elias Negash recently, a local Ethiopian jazz musician who lives in Oakland. I heard about him from Lulit, and he invited me over to his studio for a lesson.
Elias Negash, whose last name means "will be king," in his music studio.
The music of Ethiopia will be the subject of many future posts, I'm sure, but for now I'll share a bit of the Ethiopian New Year Song I learned on Tuesday:
Below is a clip of Elias playing the intro and the A section once.

Not exactly music to groove to, but there must be a reason why this is such a popular New Year's song (at least for a certain generation). Maybe the lyrics will provide the answer, if I can find them. Meanwhile, I am learning this and a few other songs on my keyboard.

So that's all for New Year's Day, also known as the 1st of Meskerem (መስከረም) in the Ethiopian Calendar. I also learned today that each Ethiopian year is dedicated to one of the four evangelists, in the order Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So we've just made the transition from ዘመነ ማርቆስ (period Markos) to ዘመነ ሉቃስ (period Lukas). How about that. (Oh, and due to a different reckoning of the Annunciation by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian year is now 2007.)
Happy 2007! You can see the name Lukas (ሉቃስ) written in the yellow font.
I have to make the transition to bed now, so I'll close with two more photos from the day:
Anemo modeling an Ethiopian scarf on Oakland's Grand Avenue.
Our unorthodox meal of sushi and miso soup on Ethiopian New Year.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Home [away from] Home

Suzanne, Anemo, and I took a ride over to Oakland this past Sunday afternoon to see the installation of a "pop-up" art exhibit called Home [away from] Home. The exhibit coincides with the Ethiopian and Eritrean New Year, which usually falls on September 11. This first-time experimental event is sponsored by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of its "YBCA in Community" initiative, dedicated to connecting artists and underserved communities around collaborative projects.

The Home [away from] Home project is explained on the YBCA website:
The brain child of Ethiopian American singer Meklit Hadero, Eritrean American filmmaker Sephora Woldu, and Ethiopian American musician Ellias Fullmore, Home [away from] Home explores the often transitive and evolving nature of “home” as experienced by Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in the Bay Area. The mission of the project is to serve as a metaphor for African immigrants in the diaspora trying to build a home in America while maintaining and sharing their cultural identity in the U.S.
The exhibit evokes home quite literally. The centerpiece of the art project and weekend festival will be a model of an Ethiopian mud and grass hut called a ጎጆ ቤት (gojo bayt), or family hut.
Children in front of a gojo bayt in Ethiopia. I took this photo on January 31, 2009.
A model of a gojo bayt (work-in-progress) in Oakland's Eastshore Park, with Our Lady of Lourdes Church in background.
Organizers of the event building the gojo bayt and explaining the mission of the project to onlookers.
We talked to a young man named Jon for quite a while near the hut. Jon was extremely kind and informative, and seemed to be enjoying meeting a wide array of people interested in the project. He explained that this event is meant to be inclusive of all Eritreans and Ethiopians in the Bay Area, and I can imagine that Eritreans would be more comfortable going to this event as opposed to the EnquTaTash (New Year) celebration put on by the Ethiopian Cultural Center. In fact the organizers of Home [away from] Home made sure the two events did not conflict with each other.
Jon's mother emigrated from Eritrea when she was sixteen. He understands Tigrinya but is not fluent.
Interestingly, when I asked Manna (owner of New Eritrea Restaurant) what he was doing for the new year, he did not seem that aware of it, maybe because the day would be a work day like any other. I asked Yodit (the Swedish-raised Eritrean waitress) the same question, and she wondered why I was thinking so far ahead. Apparently, it can be a political question. According to this website on the culture of Eritrea, "[u]pon gaining independence [from Ethiopia] Eritrea changed its calendar from the Julian to the Gregorian. But the reckoning of time according to the Julian calendar exists unofficially and is known as the Ge'ez calendar." Eritreans, then, individually decide which new year to celebrate—September 11 (September 12 on leap year) or January 1—probably dependent on their feelings about Ethiopia.

But Jon and everyone we talked to, including founder Meklit Hadero, whom Suzanne and Anemo had seen perform in Sonoma, seemed proud that this was an open and integrated event, welcoming Ethiopians, Eritreans, and any curious non-habesha residents of Oakland and beyond. The three of us certainly felt welcomed, and we look forward to coming to the culminating festival on Sunday, when Meklit will perform as part of the hip hop group Copperwire.
Meklit performing in Sonoma last October in a benefit concert for The Nile Project.
Next to the gojo bayt, I noticed some Amharic letters scattered about. At first I thought they were a random selection from the Amharic fidel. But when I looked closer a significant word emerged:
A clever way to express bicultural habesha identity.
The letters used to make the word HOME do not actually mean anything together in Amharic; after all, the final letter (ጠ) is written sideways. And even if the final letter were rotated, you would pronounce the word zitseheTeh, as if you were using an Italian accent to say you hate acne. But just out of curiosity, I looked in an Amharic-English dictionary online to see if there were any words that at least start with some form of ዝ and ፀ. The closest I could find is the second word in ኦሪት ዘፀአት, which means the Book of Exodus. I asked Lulit if ዘፀአት meant anything on its own, but she confessed she had never seen the word, saying instead that I asked በጣም ጥሩ ጥያቄ (beTam Tiru Tiyaqay), very good questions. She thinks it must be a word from Ge'ez, the root language of Amharic.

I know this tangent is now far-fetched and without any serious analytical merit, but I couldn't help being surprised that the only word I could find starting with ዘ and ፀ somehow indicates the Book of Exodus, a story all about finding home away from home. (The first word, ኦሪት, refers generally to the five books of Moses.) The only other new year I know of that falls in September is the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sunset on September 24 this year. Just to show the semitic language connection, the Hebrew word ראש (rosh, meaning head, as in head of the year) is similar to the Amharic word ራስ (ras), which also means head. All mildly interesting trivia to keep in mind as we head into this season of Ethiopian and Jewish New Year celebrations!
My Jewish and Ethiopian family under the gojo bayt doorway.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Wax and Gold

In my last post I included a detail of a painting by Wosene Worke Kosrof named Wax and Gold X. Here is the entire painting:
Wax and Gold X is actually available for sale at the Terra Firma Gallery.
The X in this case stands for ten. Just to prove it, here is Wax and Gold IX:
Wax and Gold IX, 2002, Mixed Media, 18 x 18 in.
So Wosene has created at least ten works with the same name. Why is he using the same title over and over? Doesn't he have any imagination in the English language? That's what I was wondering until Lulit showed me this book:
Levine's book was first published in 1965, so the writing is of that time when anthropologists made universal claims in patriarchal language, but it remains a seminal work in Ethiopian Studies.
It turns out that the phrase ሰምና ወርቅ (sam-enna warq), or wax and gold, is a fundamental concept in Amharic and, as Donald N. Levine argues in his pioneering book of the same name, in Amhara culture generally. The phrase wax and gold refers literally to the goldsmith's technique of making a clay mold around a wax model, draining the wax, and then pouring the molten gold into that mold. In Amharic poetry, the phrase has come to signify the hidden, often spiritual meaning (the gold) beneath the apparent meaning (the wax) of the language. Once the ሰም (sam) is removed, the ወርቅ (warq) can be appreciated.

Though the sam-enna warq tradition has its roots in the ancient Ge'ez language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Levine explains that it informs secular verse and even everyday Amharic conversation as well, being used to insult people or criticize authorities in a socially approved manner. Writing when Haile Selassie was still in power, Levine tells us that sam-enna warq has enabled "witty individuals to satirize the monarch himself and still live to repeat the witticism—so long as its subject was himself duly appreciative of the cleverness of the lines."
I can't help but think that if Zone 9 had engaged in a little more sam-enna warq they might still be blogging freely today. (Not that it is their fault, of course!)
Mohammad Girma, a social philosopher who has also written about the wax and gold tradition, relates a story about Aleka Gebre-Hana, a famous Ethiopian priest, who, when invited to a friend's house for dinner, sees a rat jump out of the መሶብ (mesob), the traditional breadbasket for storing injera. As the story goes, the family does not realize Gebre-Hana has seen the rat, but when it comes time for him to give the blessing after the meal, he says:
በላነው ጠጣነው ከእንጀራው ከወጡ
እግዚአብሔር ይስጥልኝ ከመሶቡ አይጡ
Belanew tetanew ke enjeraw ke wetu
Egziabeher yestelegne ke mesobu aytu
The double meaning comes in that last phrase. Aleka Gebre-Hana first says he has enjoyed the meal (the injera, or bread, and the waT, or stew) and then he prays to God (Egziabeher) that you may not lack (aytu) for your mesob. That's the wax. The gold here is that aytu also means rat, and so he subtly announces that he has indeed seen the rat, criticizing his friend for serving him unhygienic food.

Sam-enna warq, then, provides the medium for an inexhaustible supply of humor, "for the Amhara tends to regard the pun as a very high form of humor," writes Levine. Just like "the Amhara," I've always loved wordplay, and I confess that I too regard the pun as a high form of humor. I also enjoy reading and listening to poetry, anticipating that "a-ha" moment when life wisdom emerges from the precise combination of the poet's words, and rarely on the first hearing. In fact, just the other night one of the teachers in Anemo's second grade held a reading to celebrate his latest book of verse. Anhvu read his poems only once, and quickly, so it was a challenge to catch each message, but I will spend time with them later to discover what gold they contain.
Anhvu Buchanan reading at Press on 24th Street.
I wish I could jump right into the world of sam-enna warq, but I am struggling just to put together simple sentences. I need to spend a lot of time with sam before I can wax poetic with warq. In fact, Jan, my language acquisition coach, recommends I "embrace clichés" and look for common "word clusters" in Amharic. The more frequently a phrase is uttered by native speakers, the more I should know it.

I've been collecting common phrases that should help me. For instance:
በምን መንገድ (buhmin menged) = by what way (መንገድ = road)
ስለ  መነጋገር እፈልጋለሁ (sila X menegagar ifeligalew) = I want to talk about X
 X  እንዴት ይባላል (indeyt yibalal) = How do you say X?
እንደ እዚህ  or  በዚህ ዓይነት (indeh izih or bezih aynet) = like this
ጥሩ ነው (Tiru nahw) = is good (heard at the end of many sentences)
Yet even while I am absorbing the most common expressions, my ear is ready to catch words that sound similar for future punning. As Lulit and I were going through the colors, for example, a few connections came to mind.
ቢጫ (beeCHa = YELLOW) reminded me of ብቻ (bicha = ONLY)
ቀይ (qay = RED) sounded something like ቀኝ (qany = RIGHT, i.e. direction)
and ብር (birr = SILVER) is, perhaps not surprisingly, the same word for the currency.
Writing about colors reminds me that the scarf I ordered from Wosene Worke Kosrof arrived last week. Here is Suzanne wearing this "golden" accent with her "waxy" black outfit. So here is my feeble attempt at sam-enna warq: Suzanne stands on the RIGHT and the scarf is her outfit's ONLY color. I'll have to thank Wosene personally for the splash of color if I run into him at next week's Ethiopian New Year festivities. Incidentally, his middle name—Worke (ወርቄ)—means "my gold."