Sunday, November 23, 2014

Don't Be Far

I'm writing from the Nefas Silk Lafto district of Addis Ababa. I've been here almost 48 hours, staying in a guesthouse near the roundabout that connects Egypt and Lesotho Streets. I have plenty to say about my first two days here (a Saturday and Sunday) and pictures to upload, but since I have not yet established a wifi connection for my own laptop, I will use the house computer to write about a movie I saw on the plane ride over.
It was great to be surrounded on all sides by Ethiopian families speaking Amharic.
I actually saw several movies during the five-hour flight from San Francisco to Washington DC and the thirteen-hour flight on to Addis Ababa, including 22 Jump Street, which was very funny, but because I'm engaged in a language and culture project, I made sure to watch the two Ethiopian movies featured on Ethiopian Airlines. Both were awful movies by any international standard, with terrible writing and terrible acting (save, perhaps, for the comic actor who played opposite the lead in both films), but I was interested more in matching the Amharic language to the English subtitles, as well as seeing what cultural values the films tried to promote. Ethiopian Airlines is wholly owned by the Ethiopian government, so there is surely some government official somewhere deciding which films should be shown. (The movie Difret, which I wrote about earlier, would certainly not make the cut.)

The first movie I watched was called Wede Fikir (ወደ ፍቅር), which translates as "Towards Love." It involved a tall, quiet (and rather boring) man who for some reason tells his family he's already married. So then his crazy friend tries to match him with all sorts of ill-fitting women while the hero has already fallen in love with a neighbor suffering domestic abuse from her angry, jealous husband. This film is fairly straightforward in its portrayal of philandering and domestic violence as detrimental to Ethiopian society.

The other film, called Ayrak (አይራቅ), meaning something like "Don't Be Far" or "Don't Let It Be Far," was much more interesting. It tells the story of two bright students from a rural part of Ethiopia who have professional ambitions and plan to marry after fulfilling their educational goals. However, the male student is called away to take care of a family member, and when he returns to the village two months later, his future wife has already left for the capital city. The movie takes place after seven years have passed. The man has remained in the village and become a farmer; the woman ends up running a big environmental project in Addis Ababa for the United Nations. The man hears this news and decides to track the woman down to fulfill the promise of marriage (he wears her ring around his neck).

Here's the man in Addis, fresh from the countryside, looking like an Ethiopian Burt Reynolds, about to be robbed by some street thieves before his friend rescues him. (It's a good warning about being careful with money and mindful of surroundings.) The woman he seeks is on the cover of the magazine. [Note: I had headphones on, so the sounds are the ambient conversations on the plane.]

When he finds his love in the big city, she has changed. She's now smoking, drinking, and going to clubs. He could not be more disappointed (note the acting of "disappointment"):

At the club, the country man can't stand the music and declines multiple invitations to dance. UNTIL a traditional Ethiopian song starts to play. (You can tell by the clapping.) The music makes him feel at home in this strange environment. When he starts rapidly pulsing his shoulders to the rhythm, the woman shows her approval.

The woman's big environmental project for the UN is failing because her campaign for change is somehow ignoring the values of the Ethiopian people. She complains that her countryfolk are backward and unable to adapt to new ways of thinking. As the woman drives home, she witnesses a young man give up his seat at a bus stop to an older man and then a small boy give up his seat to the young man. The epiphany makes her change her rethink her whole approach to the campaign. (It's actually a touching scene, versions of which I will be on the lookout for in the streets of Addis.)

Meanwhile, a successful yet sleazy man pursues the woman for marriage, but she ultimately chooses to chase after her first love, who has by now returned to his village. The fairytale ending implies the two will live together in rural Ethiopia, conveniently ignoring the reality of the woman abandoning her career to do so.

The title of the film, Ayrak, seems to have multiple meanings besides the obvious one of physical separation. It could be saying that Ethiopian women should not get too far from expected gender roles (this movie would certainly fail the Bechdel Test); it might also be telling Ethiopians in general not to stray from traditional values of hospitality, kindness, and ethical living while the country undergoes rapid modernization. As bad as the film was, it gave me a lot to think about. So as I am navigating the busy streets of Addis Ababa for the next two and a half weeks, far from home, I can pay attention to behaviors that indicate which values Ethiopians are holding close.


  1. Glad to know that you are enjoying at Nefas Silk Lafto district of Addis Ababa.I have heard first time about this place to be honest.But I am loving the way you are enjoying your stay there.

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