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Yared navigates the complexities of reuniting with his estranged mother in Ethiopia, entwined with her past as a war hero and artist.
12 minute read.
Yared pulled his BMW round a corner and swerved to avoid a small flock of sheep that had scattered beyond the control of their herder.
“Damn!” he exclaimed. His front wheel clipped a pothole and the mud flap scraped against its jagged edge. “What will it take to ban livestock? This is a capital city, for heaven’s sake!” He turned onto the ring road and picked up speed towards the airport. He was already annoyed at himself for being late, and the thought of damage to his car made this worse. He was angry that his mother had reappeared into his life after twenty years – and angry that she hadn’t appeared earlier.
Saba had been a distant, heroic figure while Yared was young. He remembered how he had felt during her visits to the communal nursery, the strange mixture of embarrassment that she was still alive and delight that this wiry, scorched figure with the exuberant afro was indeed his mother. He listened to the rumours of her bravery, even ruthlessness for the Cause. He basked in the aura which drenched stories of her battalion’s feats, and drew endless pictures of her on a tank, her head as big as the gun turret.
But now, all he wanted was to get the visit over with – the awkward airport meeting, the stilted conversations, the uncomfortable reminiscences. He knew they had to happen, but wished he could already be beyond them, back running a successful business exactly as he liked. He swerved the final roundabout into the airport, took a ticket from the car park attendant and parked his car. He ran up the steps to Arrivals, had to be reminded to show his ID to the soldier at the entrance, and fidgeted in the security gate queue. How come no one took their belt off until after they had sounded the gate alarm? Why did every man carry loose coins in at least two pockets? Why, five years since the checks had started, were his countrymen still unable to anticipate them?
By the time he was through to the main Arrivals lobby, the television screens indicated that Saba’s plane had landed fifty-seven minutes earlier. He swore quietly to himself again and looked around the concourse. She had told him she looked much as she had twenty years ago, though her hair was now short and rather grey. He moved to the crowd pressing against the Arrivals railings, then moved away to scan the vast, high hall. No one obviously waiting for a long-lost son. Another thirty minutes passed, with Yared straining to look over the crowd and through the Arrivals doors towards the baggage carousels. Several times he thought he saw someone who might be Saba, but realised he was wrong. When eventually he did, identification was immediate and physical. He could not make out her face, but knew from the brisk stride, the upright carriage that this was her. A rush of excited recognition went through him, to be followed rapidly by the more familiar sense of irritation. What had delayed her so long, when he had rushed to meet her? He forgot his own lateness, and quickly became the one offended.
He watched as she put her small case through the X-ray machine, had what appeared to be a brief argument with the Customs official and at last made her way into the Arrivals Hall, scanning scores of expectant faces for his. His hand moved to wave, half-heartedly, barely above shoulder level. Somehow, she saw it. He walked over to where the stream of passengers spread into a delta slowed by greetings and scattered with flowers. He stooped to take her case and offer a formal kiss, three times, cheek by cheek. She was tiny, her cheekbones and shoulder blades sharp, her hand lost in his.
“Those Immigration bastards!” were her first words, halting Yared in mid-platitude. “I have a valid Dutch passport, I have a visa, but still they find a way of giving me trouble!” Her Tigrinya was a little stilted. “They say: ‘Birthplace, Agordat, you must see the Supervisor’. Bastards! I fought for them! I told the supervisor – remember Ad Shirum, remember Afabet!”
Only then did she make any attempt to acknowledge her son. Her walnut-brown eyes slipped over his grey suit and polished shoes and at last engaged his.
He gestured towards the door, at once attracted by this tornado of a mother and embarrassed to continue such a conversation in public.
He had intended to drive her straight home, so that any awkward moments might be diluted among his adoptive family. Now he decided to take her to one of the new cafés near the airport, with deep Western sofas and the very best Ethiopian coffee. There was so much he still didn’t know, so much that he guessed his adoptive mother Tigist did know but had not told him. He needed a head start, a chance to piece together some of his story before its fragments cascaded out of his control.
There had been many years without contact, when Yared was brought up first by those delegated by the Movement’s nursery, then, once the struggle had ended, by Saba’s friend Tigist. She had raised him in Addis Ababa with her own son and daughter, scrounged shoes so he could join the kebele football team, guided him through his first Lenten fast, and watched him graduate with a degree in Business Studies from the University. Tigist had fought alongside Yared’s mother and always spoke warmly of her, but was circumspect when asked why Saba had left her homeland. “God knows and assists,” was her most frequent response, frustrating and oblique.
Yared could never work out if he felt abandoned. Upbringings like his were not unusual – substitute families were relatively common in the aftermath of that terrible regime, and his had been close and mostly harmonious. He sometimes wondered if it would have been better had he never known about Saba but had been raised as Tigist’s biological child. Yet his memories of his mother and Zero School were strong, even though he was only young when the school was dismantled. And then, of course, had he been deceived, the whole matter of Saba’s reappearance would have become a thousand times more complicated.
She had apparently been in contact with Tigist for three years before deciding to visit. Three years in which Tigist had received news of his own mother without telling him! It made him furious to think that all through his final exams and graduation, Tigist had been in communication with Saba, updating her on his studies, on the computer repair business he ran on the side, on his lovely first girlfriend, Lidya. He swung into a space in front of the café, and walked Saba inside, ordering dark macchiatos as they settled opposite each other on high-backed sofas.
All this time, they had barely looked at each other; now it was unavoidable. Yared took in the crows’ feet radiating energetically from Saba’s eyes and mouth. They deepened with every smile and seemed more a sign of dynamism than age. The vigour of her face was matched by the quickness of her hands, flicking and backing like cichlids in a tank. Her jacket was crisply tailored, complementing her sharp chin, but was clearly several years old. He met her eyes, surprised at how they could be simultaneously both warm and completely obdurate.
“So, what don’t you know?” was her impossibly direct opener, as the coffees arrived.
“Saba, can’t we take it a little easier?” he begged. “We’ve only just met, and I want to ask you about the flight and where you live, things like that, before anything more.”
She agreed and managed almost ten minutes on the sandstorm that had delayed them in Khartoum, on the gorse and chalk scrublands of her hometown, Hilversum, in the Netherlands, her terraced house and the loft space she used as a studio. He felt her relax as she described the huge canvasses propped in the attic, the absorption of working on the cycle of paintings that had made her name in Europe. She paused; they sipped the bitter coffee concentrate, the frothed milk, the rich leather-scented Arabica beneath.
“So?” she prompted, and this time he was ready.
“I have a few… a reasonable number of memories of you, Saba. But none of my father. It’s a blank as far as he is concerned. Just tell me something, before we go back to Tigist’s, even an outline, and you can tell me more later.”
She picked up a teaspoon, twisted it between slight fingers. “You were one of the Red Flowers, Yared, a child of two guerrilla fighters. Your father and I met in Nakfa, way up there among the cactuses and mountains in northwest Eritrea. I had trained as a nurse in Asmera, so for six months they assigned me away from my battalion, to help set up a blood bank. We needed to test the fighters’ blood groups so we could arrange transfusions quickly for those badly wounded before their evacuation up to our field hospital in Orota. Your father was a Tigrean battalion commander with a rare blood group. We met three times – once when his battalion came for blood group tests, once when he was called back to donate blood for an injured munitions expert and then for our wedding. We’d had to apply for permission to be married, and it was some months before we were given approval. Your father was released for three days from his battalion, and we sealed our marriage with two nights under the stars in Tsabra valley.”
“Six months later, we attacked the Ethiopian Nadew Front, driving them from their trenches below Nakfa towards Ad Shirum. You will have heard of this; it was the turning point of the resistance. We captured the garrison town at Afabet and knocked out an Ethiopian force twice the size of ours. Your father died in the first and most costly stage of the attack, at the foot of the Roras… they told me not to mourn but to be glad that such a man had given me a child.”
The teaspoon was balanced carefully across Saba’s saucer, the nervous fingers moved to a tiny scar over her right maxilla, and back to the collar of her jacket. She looked at Yared again with those compelling, challenging eyes.
“It’s much as I guessed, but if anything, more… more honourable,” he eventually said. He inhaled as he put his arms behind his head against the rich pyrope of the sofa back, stretched his legs straight out and exhaled theatrically.
“My God, war heroes! I’ll never live it down!” he said. Saba stiffened.
“Don’t get me wrong, I just mean I’m bound to be a bit of an ideological come-down!” But he realised he had strayed close to some undisclosed line and signalled for the bill as he pulled in his legs and arms. They walked to the car and drove in silence through the city to Tigist’s house.
Although Yared felt great relief after that conversation, the days following it were strongly coloured by a need to seek Saba’s approval. He was proud of his degree, his business and his car, and she eagerly scrutinised his yearbook and visited the office he had rented for his software development company. But behind her congratulations there was an edgy, ill-defined reserve. He realised this was related not only to her assessment of him, but to much of what she was observing around her. All she would say was that Addis Ababa was not as she had expected, but it hurt Yared to know that his life was somehow included in that statement.
The times when Saba appeared most at ease were those she spent at home with Tigist, talking through their shared and then their separate histories. When they caught up with the present, their conversations flagged and often wilted. Saba barely mentioned her life as an artist, and Tigist seemed to forget her usual worries over the price of teff or placing her daughter at a respectable secretarial college.
It took Yared several days to identify his mother’s problem as a misplaced nostalgia. Although she had carved out for herself a new life in the Netherlands, she could not allow her family or friends to do the same in Ethiopia. Her memories of the homeland were idealised, preserved in amber; the realisation that her compatriots had willingly supplanted their heritage with consumer novelties upset her more than she could articulate.
Yared chose the time and setting for their next conversation carefully. He suggested a walk high above the city along the mountain ridge from Menelik’s palace early the next Saturday morning. They drove up from the University campus through the white-shawled crowds slicking between traditional clothes shops, and on up past St Peter’s tuberculosis hospital. A crowded minibus lurched up ahead of them, twelve foam mattresses tied to its roof. They overtook and began the steepest part of the ascent, zigzagging through terraced eucalyptus forest, one mountainside of which had been recently harvested, leaving stumps bristling from angry red soil like some brutally shaved chin. Yared kept grinding from second to first gear, a burst of speed followed by a cautious crawl to avoid women coming downhill laden with branches. Eventually they arrived at Entoto Mariam where, opposite the church, a long line of jerry cans stood waiting for the standpipe.
Here, the air was cool, thin and sharp with the scents of eucalyptus and thyme. The sun was warm, but much of the trail behind the church was still in shade, carving through a tunnel of low juniper. No rain had fallen for three months, and despite a trace of dew in the air, the track was dusty. The noise and hustle of the city were half a vertical kilometre below them, and the two walked to the calls of dusky turtle doves and the vanilla scent of flowering blackthorn.
“For the first few months after Mengistu was deposed, the fighters camped up here, and battalions were sent daily down into the town – two hours’ walk each way.” It was Yared who offered this information. “People always say it was strategic, the guerrillas waiting until they were sure of the goodwill of Addis Ababans. I wonder if it was simpler than that – they probably needed time to adjust to city living again. Taps, traffic, streetlights, things like that.”
“Mmm, there were many things it was hard to get used to”, acknowledged Saba. “I found noise a problem – not necessarily loud noise, even a hum in the background. A lorry, a fridge, a radio four doors away – that irritated me for several months. Then there was the sheer reliability of everything: uninterrupted electricity, a constant supply of petrol, any food available at any time of year. I guess I missed the challenge of unpredictability. I missed people’s ingenuity.”
Yared waved her over to an outcrop of rock with a single juniper growing from it. Tiny blue craterostigma starlets speckled the grass around. Further along the ridge to the east, Yared could just make out the glint of ground-to-air missiles at the military base; below them, the city shimmered and seethed.
“Why weren’t you with Tigist during the liberation?” he asked bluntly. “I know everyone had a tough time after the regime change, but as far as I can make out, you were in the Netherlands by then. How come? Weren’t we good enough for you? Wasn’t I… ?” He twisted away from her, looked out over Mount Yerer and towards Zuqualla in the far distance.
Saba clenched her hands in her jacket pockets. “Yared, it was nothing to do with you. It’s the next, the less honourable part of the story. It’s difficult to explain.”
They sat down on a stone coated in unnaturally green lichen. “I gave birth to you, I went back to the blood bank after six weeks, the model soldier, and you were taken into the nursery. They were impressed by my work, my loyalty. They called me to join a task force to investigate ways of efficiently distilling water for a range of uses, including lab tests. We weighed up various options, and then one of our pharmacists was sent to a company in Norway, and I to Israel, to investigate another.”
“It was overwhelming to leave our wilderness life and suddenly be in the middle of Jerusalem as the guest of one of the world’s leading medical equipment companies. I coped by being aloof, by trying to stay apart like some austere automaton. Mostly, it worked, but to the company director, it seemed to act as a challenge. He had an international reputation, was always surrounded by geniuses and beautiful women, and there was I with a nursing degree from Asmara and an afro. Their solar distilling equipment was highly efficient and had survived testing under field conditions by the Israeli army. It was clearly what we needed, but both he and I knew that, as sanctions stood, he would never get a licence to supply a bunch of guerrilla fighters in Eritrea. He indicated that there were alternative routes through Yemen but that some extra commitment was required from our side.”
Saba buttoned up her coat. It was cold in the shade of the juniper. Yared picked at the lichen, struggling to find appropriate words. But she continued unprompted: “I despised the director’s superiority as he waited for me to realize there was no escape. I was simply a curiosity to him, and his interest lapsed as soon as we had become more… familiar. One month later, fifteen state-of-the-art solar distillers were delivered through Sana’a.”
She sagged against Yared, the burden of self-hatred overwhelming her reserve. Yared put his arm around her shoulders, their angularity suddenly fragile. He drew her into his chest, and a tear glanced off his trousers, landing on the rock. “I had no idea, no idea… if only I had known,” he murmured, kissing the tiny scar on her cheekbone. They sat together for several more minutes, watching a kite circle and then plunge for some unidentifiable prey. The sky was a limitless blue, the eucalyptus below them a silver-mauve haze.
“I don’t know how you square all that with how things are now,” he ventured. “As I said before, it’s almost too heroic. It makes me feel pathetic and… tarnished.”
She shifted, pulled away a little, “The Netherlands have been good for me. I arrived, a political refugee burning with pride yet sick with disgust for my country, only to find that no one had heard of Eritrea. No one knew we had been fighting for a decade. I had to get used to the struggle that had been my greatest passion being reduced to the occasional column centimetre of international news. That utter lack of recognition, though bewildering at the time, ended up helping me enormously.”
“I had thought that in Ethiopia right now, awareness of those times would be greater, that there would at least be a sense of respect. But things are such a mess that no one wants to be reminded of all that.”
Yared distractedly removed the sepals from the mauve delphinium that was rubbing against his calf. “Saba, can’t you understand? People are desperate to move forward, as far away as possible from all that brutality. But we can’t see an Ethiopian way of doing it, so we look to whatever else is out there – China, the US, India.” He wrenched the soft, fleshy stem from the ground.
Saba stood up, stepped from under the juniper to face the sun. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for progress, but based on our own heritage. It’s difficult to express in words, but after nearly twenty years’ painting in Hilversum, I thought I had some idea of how we might move forward. Then I came here and saw how far from reality I’d been living.”
She swung round and reached down for Yared’s hand, pretending to pull him from up from the rock. “Come on, let’s head back – I think I should show you my most recent exhibition catalogue.”
They were back to the car and then to Tigist’s house in a little over an hour. When they reached the small compound, they went straight to the room that had been cleared for Saba at the back of the house in the service quarters. She extracted a slender, soft-backed catalogue from the pile of books next to her bed. Yared felt its textured, matt surface and ran his hand over the generous cover flaps. The title was simple “Saba Asmerom Neketebeb 1988-2008” in Book Antiqua. He opened at random, let his gaze fall on the riotous gusts of colour: rich damson, cerulean, emerald and ochre, all streaked and deepened with gold. He turned the page, was met by swirls of sapphire, cobalt, indigo shot through with turquoise. There was something both restful and deeply invigorating about each. He turned page after page, gripped.
He looked for a label or description to one. In tiny print, at the bottom right of each picture was its title. ‘Menelik XIV’. He turned back a page ‘Menelik XII’ and ‘Menelik XIII’. He looked up questioningly at Saba, met her rich brown eyes, which were laughing at him.
“What are all the Meneliks about?” he asked.
“It’s all I’ve been able to paint – Menelik, son of the Queen of Sheba. For years I thought I was painting about what happened in Israel. But, Yared, it’s about you – they’re all about you.”
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