Tuesday, March 21, 2006

All Semitics are Equal

The term “antisemitism” is artificial. It does not encompass hatred of all Semitic peoples. Rather, it's a euphemism for “hatred of the Jews”. No Arabs or Ethiopians are included as objects of antisemitism.

Yet, one morning in Ethiopia, I discovered that there is such a thing as “Arch-Antisemitism”. Or maybe I should call it “fair and balanced” Antisemitism?.
Well, here is what happened. One day during my visit to Addis Abeba, I found myself walking in the center of town, when I stumbled on a sign pointing to a small museum on top of a small hill. I approached the gate and started to climb slowly, since Addis Abeba is located on a high plateau. It looked like I was the only person going up to the museum. As I got to the top of the hill, I saw an old wooden building with a lovely garden and a coffee area. Coffee is an extremely important element in Ethiopian culture and I saw at once the typical straw seats around a bed of fragrant burning coal with the traditional coffee pot in the middle. A tiny gift-shop was open and the place was empty, but for two Ethiopian women, and three Germans.

Yes, I must admit, I am usually quite good at spotting them. Besides the general Germanic look, they're easily identified by their body language, by the design of their glasses and by their gear. The three men were sitting, having coffee which was served by the younger of the two women, who were both in traditional white dresses.
I was dying for a cup of coffee, but decided to wait them out so I went into the museum first. I took my time looking at the exhibit, which mainly shows the history of Addis Abeba from its foundation. There's a lot to learn there, and I did. But the most eye-opening lesson was still waiting for me.

When I returned to the garden, the three Germans were still there. They had long finished the coffee and were talking to the lady. I took a seat. Soon enough, seeing another white visitor, the men asked me where I came from. The one who did most of the talking was the eldest. They were a film-crew and they'd been working in Western Africa, in Cameroon. It turned out that Lufthansa had had some problem and instead of flying to Frankfurt, they were flown to Ethiopia and were to take a flight to Europe the next day. So they had a day and a half to burn in an unexpected place. They had followed the word “museum” somewhere and found themselves on the little hill in middle of the strange thin-aired capital. They said they were looking for Lucy, which is the nickname of the famous humanoid on display at the National Museum of Ethiopia, elsewhere in the city. 3.2 million year-old Lucy is referred to as “the mother of the human race”, and is one of the earliest ancestors of humans.

The oldest German asked me where I was from, and when he learned I was Israeli he asked me whether I was Jewish or Muslim. He told me his wife knows Biblical Hebrew and teaches theology as a Protestant Pastor. Then he went on to the usual issues: “When is all the mess over there going to end?”, the type of questions any Israeli faces when he travels abroad.
I asked the man, who seemed in his mid-fifties, whether he'd been in Israel. He told that he had, many years before.
“Now it's impossible”, he said.
“Why?”, I asked.
“All that violence. I couldn't visit Nazareth now”
“Nazareth? I was there just a few weeks ago, what's the problem?”, I said, quite astonished.
“Ah, with Intifada and occupation... too dangerous.”
“You must mean Bethlehem”, I answered, wondering whether he was on speaking terms with the theologist wife. “Bethlehem is controlled by the Palestinians, so you can visit freely. In fact, if anyone here can't go there it's me, as an Israeli.”
He decided to change the angle of his attack:
“Anyway, it's impossible, they stamp you passport at the airport and then you can't go to many places.”
“You mean to Arab countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia, or to Iran.”
“We filmed in Syria, so it's a problem if you have an Israeli stamp.”, he said.
I retorted: “You can ask the control at the airport to add a loose form and stamp it so you're passport remains intact, and they even advise you of the option.”
At that point, I was granted a break. After a few minutes, he tried to be matter-of-fact:
“So, they say the Ethiopian emperors go back a long time.”
Now it was the turn of the Ethiopian lady to intervene:
“Yes, all the way to Queen Sheba and King Solomon”, she said in perfect English.
“What? King Solomon from the Bible?” He seemed slightly shocked.

When the lady and I nodded, ironically trying to comfort the man, he decided my respite was over:
“So tell me, you as a Jew”, he aimed his cannon, “as a Jew, here, since you also are Semitic, like them here”, he had loaded the charge - “Do you, being Jewish, feel a connection to Ethiopia, maybe something familiar?”
I smiled: “Yes indeed. The Ethiopians are a very proud people, very knowledgeable of their past and their heritage, and very religious.” I too had my ammo: “And they very Christian and close to the Christian text, since their Church predates anything in Europe, Catholic or Orthodox, not to mention the Protestant variant.”
The man was unhappy. I proceeded:
“So yes, we're close both in our original link to the Bible and in our Semitic identity, mainly in the fact that our languages are both Semitic, though very different.”

Suddenly, a cellphone rang. The older Ethiopian woman got up and moved away to take the call. The Germans accepted more coffee from the young assistant. I overheard some of the telephone conversation and realized it was not in Amharic. I couldn't contain myself, and when it was over I asked the lady. She confirmed my suspicions: it was Tigrinya, a language from Northern Ethiopia. Struck by my mind having responded to the sound, I told the Germans:
“Here you have an example. The lady was speaking in Tigrinya and I understood most of what she said because it's Semitic and close enough to some Southern Arabic dialects.”

It turned out that she was the director of the museum. Since I wanted to buy some souvenirs, I asked her to show me some and quote the prices in Tigrinya. Within a minute we were haggling in “Semitic”, having no problem communicating. A feeling of a bond both strange and close.

In the German, too, was not disappointed in the Semitic union I had tidily defined for him. The Germans were getting ready to leave. They offered to pay for the coffee and the director of the museum graciously dismissed the idea: “It's our pleasure, you are a guest here.”

The three men got up and without having visited the museum asked whether they could find a taxi to take them to the “main” National Museum. The Mother of the Human Race was still waiting for them.
“Of course”, said the Ethiopian lady. “We'll show you the way”.
She then turned to her assistant, and told her, in Tigrinya:
“Take them down the long way and see to it that they go away.”

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Marvelous story that already passed into your literary filter!

ingerid said...

Lovely story! Wise semitics quietly prevailing over dumb righteous (and noisy) white Westeners (Germans, the worst kind!)!...

Anonymous said...

Seems all Semitics (you and the Ethiopian Lady) are not only equal but also unique in their ability to spot out racism, both open- and underlying, once it occurs.
Who says Ethiopian ladies do not have a sense of humor when dealing with stupidity?:)

Ilana

Petina Gappah said...

What a great story, and fantastic writing. I am enjoying your blog, thanks again for stopping by mine!