I stare at the garbled reflection, shifting shape, regiments of memory’s purchase, in full face and profile, read the riot act, novel, in the uneven mirror of an emperor’s palace as I identify myself and try to tear off a niqab.
When Leo Tolstoy heard the Kreutzer Sonata, played for the first time, it moved him to write his controversial novel by the same name. Perhaps the music of the sonata resonated with his already heightened sense of war weary inner turmoil, as though under each peaceful note fevered a conflict between the generosity of intent and the tightness of guilt and complicity. As though, it was a troubling sense of heightened anxiety, a railing against injustice, and the whole sale commoditization of humanity: a typical plea of an intellectual for truthful release from what is morally reprehensible.
Count Leo Tolstoy was a scion of an oppressive system, a vastly wealthy feudal landlord, who owned serfs and whose pedigree was older and more aristocratic then the Czar himself. Yet, he was known as a critic of the system, a social reformer, an ascetic and a moralist. He took a stand on and spoke out against every kind of humanitarian transgression from the mishandling of famines in Russia to the persecutions of dissenters and censorships by an often opaque and cruel regime. He was expected to do so, to be the voice of social conscience, by everyone in Russia: by the Progressives and the public who revered his writings and novels and considered him the counter point on moral authority.
The Kreutzer Sonata, the novel was a damning commentary on the social order of the day: the unfortunate concert and marriage between imperialism, war, poverty and famine. The very same forces that beat the drums of war and had financed war, trained militias and militaries and laid the foundation for famine, had simultaneously, played the violin of piety and pity and anointed themselves as saviors by financing food, priests and nuns to feed the hungry in those famines. The very same forces which financed sophisticated equipment and machinery for war and colonization which benefited the wealthy in filling their already overflowing coffers, simultaneously prescribed to the poor the enlistment in militaries and back breaking manual labor to earn enough to eat. These financiers were the less than one percent of the population who were the so called representatives of ethics and morality and owned fabulous amounts of wealth, while the majority the ninety nine percent lived in hunger and misery. The Kreutzer Sonata was an author’s accusation that an unjust and cruel social order was not a mysterious thing, invisible and from God, but rather, it was the creation of humans—individuals—complicit in its creation and perpetuation, whose most basic personal instincts and behavior were responsible for the larger evil in society of unsuitable wants and violence. Understandably, like the Occupation Wall Street Movement today (here and here), Tolstoy’s novel was at that time when it was published in 1889 ill received by the polite, unethical and tight elite. In the era of Queen Victoria, Tolstoy whose ancestry included Czarina Catherine the Great, was judged by the polite society of aristocrats as being mad.
The music of the Kreutzer Sonata, perhaps helped to remove the hesitation and the veneer of etiquette and decorum for Tolstoy—And in that moment the simple themes of war, peace, good, evil, beauty, love and betrayal around which he had organized his own life and about which he had narrated and mapped out elaborate complex stories, making the unpalatable, palatable, much like the Ethiopian way of conveying meaning through the devise of wax and gold —perhaps, in that moment, all the pretenses for this unraveled. And in that moment a very conflicted, broken hearted, passionate and tormented author –as authors generally perhaps are, a father of thirteen who had buried four children, a husband, a war veteran, a feudal landlord, an adored author of great novels, a social commentator, a man renouncing God and finding himself—perhaps in that moment Tolstoy, decided to say it all unvarnished. Perhaps he decided to not accuse God and not hold God responsible. Perhaps in that moment Tolstoy held men, responsible for human violence—and held himself and others like him responsible for creating the sanctity of violence in the name of God. The kind of violence that distorted religion and defined piety and salvation as meaning feeding the poor, the orphaned and the doing of charity instead of sharing resources and creating jobs. Perhaps, Tolstoy in a sublime moment of music found that the ultimate form of loving God is to leave God out of it, and to be the judge and the jury and to hold oneself responsible.
If Anna Karenina, the voluminous novel, is a wax and gold anatomy and embellishment of the realities of love, marriage and betrayal—and if the longer War and Peace is a similar gold leafing and many layered wax and gold that adds in the dimension of war’s violence—then the 78 page novel Kreutzer Sonata is the unvarnished and unembellished heart of the matter in which Tolstoy’s wife murdering protagonist claims that the source of oppression lies in the packaging and defining of lust as love. According to Tolstoy, ephemeral carnal desire—fleeting lust is caught and trapped by society by being raised up on to a redeeming and civilizing pedestal of the institution of marriage which is nothing but a rotting sexual slavery from which treacherous forms of escape are the only choices of salvation.
The Kreutzer Sonata is about a man who kills his beautiful wife the mother of his four children in a fit of jealousy suspecting her of an affair with her music teacher. The institution of marriage, here, is the ultimate unfortunate alliance of war and its justification through the definition of modernity: the accumulation of capital. And this unfortunate morality is the ultimate imperialism.
The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades (here and here), a novel by Nega Mezlekia portrays such an alliance. Nega Mezlekia tells the story of how power regardless of gender exploits for its own advancement. It is as much about the willful degradation of a young woman, as it is about divisiveness, the spoiling of the land and the culture in the small village of Mechane near Gelemso once a highway comes through it. The story is set in Ethiopia in the period 1961 through the 1990s, a period of profound change, in the country’s history: of drought, the end of monarchy, student movements, the Derg regime (military junta), famine and the revolution which brought in the Government,currently in its twentieth year. It is the story of the unfortunate downfall of Azeb a proud, beautiful, bright girl, through the pressures of social and economic change and her attraction and marriage of choice to the village bully, a sexual molester and tormentor. This story of torment and survival is set in a beautiful village in eastern Ethiopia, green and prosperous until a road is constructed through it for the purpose of miners and loggers. This causes a profound change on the small village: the exploitation and grabbing of resources by outsiders,the denuding of the forests, and even the grabbing of the villagers souls through the advent of foreign missionaries. All this deeply affects Azeb’s father an Ethiopian Orthodox priest and the ancient Christian traditions of the villagers. The story is about the breakdown of traditions and faith that cannot stand up to the juggernaut of change and the external pressures and stresses which include Azeb’s journey from proud girl–to prostitute– to running a bar and brothel– to much worse.
The religion of Azeb’s ancestors, pre Christianity and Islam, might have been Wakafanna, which is the original faith of the land of Oromia where Mechane and Gelemso are located. It is a faith that predates Christianity and Islam and believes in a unifying benevolent creator of all living things in nature and the environment. Waka means God. Wakafatha is one who believes in God. It’s a faith that practices taking only as much as you need from the earth, growing what you eat, cherishing the bounties of the earth as a gift given by the Creator. Its symbols of worship include grass, wind, trees, coffee, butter, land and water. It’s a faith to which many young educated Ethiopians are returning. And, perhaps, a belief system, which, I would like to believe, would have resonated with Tolstoy—In my opinion he would have considered himself a Wakafatha, if presented with the thought. I would like to believe it would resonate with many people today who are forcibly evicted from their lands all over the world and also with those who were evicted from Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011.
This is about reading The Kreutzer Sonata, it is about the unholy marriage of empire, it is about Leo Tolstoy, a gold embroidered Bismillah over the entrance of an emperor’s bedchamber, Ethiopian Jazz, the assassination of Graziani, terrorism, it is about the 33rd regiment, Queen Victoria, Charles Napier, Cecile Rhodes, Tippu Sultan, Emperor Tewodros, Coke, the Wall Street Journal and Googling about what else happened in 1889 when the novel The Kreutzer Sonata was published. But mostly perhaps, it’s about the shape of my heart.
This is about reading the Kreutzer Sonata in Addis Ababa and watching a documentary recently released called Tigray: Then and Now (here), which starts with: “In 1984 a devastating famine took the lives of one million Ethiopians in northern Ethiopia.” Just like that, really? Here is yet another feel good attempt that pats us all on the back for the goodness we are capable of and starts by showing Ethiopia, as it is usually portrayed, as a famine prone place in need of being saved by foreigners. The film does indeed accurately show the results in Tigray today (northern Ethiopia) of the Productive Safety Nets Program and other programs that have built up the capacity of farmers for food security and reduced environmental degradation. This is absolutely true and incredibly impressive. The Government led program supported by international assistance has reversed and arrested fifteen years of year on year deterioration in household food security and productive assets. This is an achievement, of which to be proud, for which, I applaud many of my colleagues. The problem with this documentary is right at the start. It does not mention the reasons for the famine and leaves an impression on the viewer that the famine happened because of a lack of productive approaches or some weakness in the people–a lack of knowledge of simple basic notions of irrigation or farming or the lack of lots of money. When, in fact, the drought became a famine because of the war that surrounded the Tigray region: the civil war between Ethiopia and what is now Eriteria. Conflict and its attendant realities caused problems when people who depended on the land and on agriculture—farmers, were caught up in the war and there were food shortages. Then when there were efforts made to bring in food from other parts of the country where there were surpluses or even international food aid it was stopped and used as a weapon of war. The very same international community which is now taking credit for dodging the bullet because of the good approaches to creating food security–was responsible at that time for playing a role in creating the insecurity that caused a famine in 1984. At that time they fought their proxy ideological wars through Eriteria and Ethiopia during the cold war scenario of the early 80s supporting their “teams” of ideologues and changing their support when it suited them. Who received food and who starved was also part of the weapons used. The narrative must be truthful of the clear connection on how war led to famine. And when war leads to a famine then famine is a form of genocide. Unless the man made problem is clear and the responsibility is taken and acknowledged–the problem itself of “famine” which is man-made and genocide in the form of famine is ever present.
In a taxi, its dashboard and seats covered in a synthetic red fur on a Saturday night after an evening out—- spent in a lounge full of foreigners mostly business executives, military and aid workers living in Addis or visiting from Juba, Sudan, next door and Addis’s elite: desperate women and swaggering men masters of the planet—I listen to the conversation of my companions about the front page news: In Dawro in south western Ethiopia a man set himself on fire as a form of political protest. He died. Newspapers reported that “medical records, his families and local communities confirmed Yenesew Gebre, who burned himself to death in Tercha town in Dawro Zone, to have mental illness.” In another piece of news doing the rounds the city, a flight stewardess, was severely wounded and blinded when in a fit of jealousy her husband, stabbed her in the eyes. This is the kind of news that routinely comes from Pakistan too. I stop the cab, I get out. I want to walk back to my hotel I tell my protesting companions. I pick my way in the dark on Bole Avenue on the uneven sidewalk, past the young, scantily clad beautiful girls shivering in the cold Addis night-squinting in the headlights of SUVs slowing down to check them out or pick them up. I nod a greeting to each surprised girl that I pass as respectfully as I possibly can muster. Hand on my heart a slight bow of my head. I think of the art work I have seen by the artist Zerihun Seyoum.
Past the traffic of, expensive cars, rushing by, with Addis Ababa’s rich young generation of party goers. Past the white clad bundles of, women and men, sitting on the sidewalk with babies in their laps asking for money or food. I walk as fast as I can and feel breathless, the high altitude in Addis takes some getting used to. I think about the astonishing power of the two women Ethiopian runners Firehiwote Dado and Buzunesh Deba who came in first and second in the New York City Marathon.
I keep walking until I reach my hotel. Past all this, past the older European and Arab men, who are guests in the hotel, who have entered its lobby at the same time as I do, unabashed with young beauties purchased for the night. I think of how the narrative of the Kreutzer Sonata would suggest that prostitutes, in fact, are the liberated earning women, who provide relief to their sisters, the indentured sex slave —the powerless or clueless wives of their clients who probably think that their husbands are in “Africa” saving the world. Passed all this I to sit down in my hotel room to write and listen to the sonata. In the silence of my hotel room enter my usual companions—the sounds of the azaan from a mosque and the bells striking the lengthening hours from the nearby Medhane Alem church, the BBC on mute—images of talking heads discussing the financial crisis, Greece’s and Italy’s defaults and the threat to the European Union. For what else is there to do on a Saturday evening in Addis for a single foreign woman of a certain age, part of perhaps, the new regiment of foot soldiers of Empire?
Kreutzer Sonata was originally dedicated by Beethoven to the violin virtuoso and child prodigy George Bridgetower (here and here) who came to visit him in Vienna in 1803. Beethoven even appreciated the slight change that Bridgewater made to the violin part—when they played the new piece together in its first public performance on May 24, 1803. But unfortunately not much later the two had a quarrel because Beethoven felt that Bridgewater had insulted a lady friend of his. As a result Beethoven dedicated the sonata to the violinist Rudolph Kreutzer who never played it because he felt that it had already been performed and it was too difficult to play.
Tolstoy rages against the sexual slavery embedded in marriage and sanctified by the church and doctors —a marriage in which child after child is produced as a result of satisfying a husband’s inability to control himself— Wives are subjected to endless sexual demands, while trapped into a cycle of pregnancies and births without recourse—and while pregnant or nursing or recovering are still submitting to their husband’s relentless needs—which affect their health—and remove the chances of full recovery and cause yet another pregnancy—affecting the chances of a healthy baby being carried in a body depleted by having just given birth. Tolstoy’s rage is similar to that voiced by health workers and gender specialists working in development in Africa.
While I listened to the music and read the Kreutzer Sonata, the joyous wails of the seventh billionth child announced his entrance into the world in a hut, or a tent or under the open sky or a mansion or a hospital somewhere in the world. It was reported that the baby had been born on October 31st in India though the UN expects this significant number in March 2012. Is it a child born to a poor single mother in one land destined to be adopted by a mother in another land? Is it a child born in poverty–a poverty caused by stolen wealth and rescued into wealth? Is the baby a boy? Most likely, the baby is a boy, if an ultra sound machine had been around the mother—for girl fetuses are likely to be aborted in India and China. Estimates are in millions of female infanticide and girl fetuses are aborted in preference for boys. I wondered, if that 7th billionth child was born in Ethiopia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh or in the US. The news said the baby was born in India. But how did they know? What if the child was born in the Appalachia or in Addis Ababa? Was this child born out of a fervent desire for his birth, or was she unwanted? Was he born into a poor yet happy family? Was she born because her parents wanted another child or because her parents needed another child to ensure the survival of at least a few children or was she born because her mother had no say in becoming pregnant? Was she born to a mother exposed and infected with HIV by her husband? Was this child the first or the thirteen born to her mother, or the first of many to come in quick succession to the same mother? The chances are high that this child was born in poverty. The chances are high s/he will struggle to survive hunger, sickness and the violence of his circumstances. The chances are high that this child will be a street child, homeless, landless, forced to flee out of every form of refuge: make shift lean-to hut or tent –forced to flee by security forces which threaten him but protect the rich and their properties in the fast urbanizing world that s/he is born into. The chances are high that while s/he struggles, all around her, rise and thrive, the symbols of a few people owning all the resources and living a good life, while s/he is forced to scavenge for her survival. And when and if s/he protests and they have the decency not to shoot her they will show her newly minted papers, plans and policies that make what they do, the law, and her an outlaw.
I spend the evening writing and the next morning being Sunday, I spend the day at the Ras Makonnen palace—then later, at an artist’s studio, and much later in the evening the Jazzamba lounge (here, here, here), listening to the very special Ethiopian Jazz: the mandolin player, the horns, the dimmed light of chandeliers at the renovated space at the Hotel Taitu ( more here, here, here , and background music to Broken Flowers here and the Sapranos here).
Tolstoy considers the uncontrollable appetite for sexual power as the underlying source of greed, violence, the ownership of property, poverty and of course imperialism. It is the subtext for the systematic foundation of imperialism: a certain kind of prostitution, a certain kind of purchase requiring a certain kind of victim and a rape. And yet it was a woman, Queen Victoria, in Tolstoy’s time, who, led and exemplified this uncontrollable appetite of imperialism and violence. And this century, too, has its female faces of Condelissa Rice and Hillary Clinton rattling on in the same age old manner (here lecturing the African Union leaders in Addis Ababa in June 2011 as NATO continued to bomb Libya). The cadence of her voice an unfortunate relentless drone, the tone, tone deaf and mean. There was a power failure at minute six of her speech yet she soldiered on.
The Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II and the war veteran Leo Tolstoy had much in common: their royal aristocratic blood, an orthodox Christian faith (with some differences) and a common enemy, Queen Victoria. In fact, the Emperor, the Indian king Tippu Sultan, Leo Tolstoy and the Russian Czar all had Queen Victoria as a common enemy and all had faced her representatives: the British 33rd regiment.
The former barracks of the British Raj called Abyssnia lines are along Drigh road in Karachi which leads to the airport. The history of the 33rd regiment suggests that the distance from Drigh road to Bole road that goes to the airport in Addis Ababa is short and that this history perhaps makes it one long stretch of a single road. The 33rd Regiment received from the British Empire many honors for its battles in the Crimea, in India and in Ethiopia, such as, the battle honor of Abyssnia. The Abyssnia Lines, the military barracks in Karachi, constructed during the British Raj, were named after the 33rd Regiment of the British Army, which was, for awhile, stationed there.
Reading the Kreutzer Sonata, in between the Abyssnia Lines and Ras Makonnen palace, now transformed into the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, the linkages between the two –the reasons for what brings me to Ethiopia to work on food insecurity become disconcertingly louder in tones. I have taken flights from Karachi’s Jinnah airport to get to Ethiopia to do good, to fight poverty—to bring change. The 33rd took a ship from Karachi's port in the 19th century to, also, bring change. To say that nothing has changed, where so much has changed, would be naïve, and yet power still appears to lie in the same structures which use the same means to advance its interests.
In 1867 the 33rd arrived in Ethiopia from Karachi where they were stationed at the time.The 33rd were part of an expedition led by Robert Napier which was sent to Ethiopia to free a group of Christian missionaries who had been allegedly seized by the KingTewodros II. The battle against the King Tewodros II raged on for days and finally King Tewodros II was found dead, having shot himself with a pistol. The pistol he had used to kill himself had been a gift from Queen Victoria. When his death was announced all opposition to the British ceased. The regiment later received the battle honor Abyssnia.
On the pretext of freeing European hostages, Great Britain sent the 33rd Regiment led by the son of Sir Charles Napier, Lt. General Robert Napier, to attack Ethiopia in the 19th century. Similar pretexts are underway in the region in the 21st century, however, instead of a regiment of men, now unmanned drones are employed.
Earlier, in 1799, the 33rd Regiment had a decisive part to play in the defeat of Tippu Sultan of Mysore in the Battle of Seringapatam. In that battle Tippu Sultan was killed. The regiment won a battle honor for its involvement in the action. Five decades later the 33rd fought the Russians in the Crimea war alongside the French and laid siege of Sevastopol. In 1854 Leo Tolstoy was a commissioned officer serving on the Danube front and requested transfer to Sevastopol. He fought in that war, after which, he wrote hisThe Sebastopol Sketches. Leaving the Crimea and Tolstoy, in 1857 the 33rd deployed to India and took part in the military operations against the Indian Mutiny. The rebellion against the British Empire was squashed, and the Emperor Bahadar Shah Zafar was crushed, humiliated and imprisoned in Burma.
Getting to the heart of these linkages and relationships and finding himself complicit, and powerless against his own worst instincts, proclivities and temptations— Tolstoy sought at the end of his life to remove himself from worldly temptations which to him perhaps fed and emanated from a repressive social order. As a reaction he renounced —even music and even his own novels.
The Kreutzer Sonata and Tolstoy’s earlier novels were written when the world was in a dramatic shift—evangelism was on the rise while at the same time new technologies were revolutionizing terms of engagement in communications and movement and changing hierarchies and relationships. Society was changing dramatically with the advent of the steam engine—as dramatically as the internet shifted thinking and connectivity to the world.
In 1889 the feudal order was changing. Socialism and ideas of cooperatives were catching hold. That year in 1889 idealists gathered and regrouped for the second International and declared the first of May as the International Workers Day. A social change was in the offing but the egregious folly of Imperial ambitions continued to lay the grounds for violence and famine for another century. In 1889 there were many significant milestones such as the Universal Exposition opened in Paris and the Eiffel Tower was completed. Moulin Rouge opened in Paris.
The introduction of the steam engine like the internet was a great revolution, with the widespread of railways, the intense industrialization and the reforms in laws such as the emancipation of serfs. All of these influenced Tolstoy’s novels. The train was a symbol, perhaps, of time, of history, of progress and of inevitable change. The train carrying Lenin into St. Petersburg station was still a ways away. Tolstoy took his last journey escaping his home by train and died at a train station. The Kreutzer Sonata is narrated on a train journey.
The Kreutzer Sonata was first read in 1889 by an invalid old world of a dying aristocracy which was beginning to feel its rot. In Russia whilst the wealthy feudal landlord Tolstoy, a veteran of war, was ensconced at his estate Yasnaya Polyana, hundreds of miles away in France Marcel Proust, too had served for that one year in 1889 as an enlisted soldier and was writing his Remembrance of Things Past. Proust, was soon to be confined and snug, in his invalid’s bed in Paris, having noted: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
In Great Britain the Empress of India, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was still years away but diamonds and empire were on her mind when on October 29, of 1889 she granted Cecil Rhodes, the founder of De Beers, rights to Zambezia. The edition of The Kruetzer Sonata which I read has an unforgiving Forward by Doris Lessing, the British author born in Persia, now Iran, where her ex military father worked at the Imperial Bank. She was raised in Rhodesia now Zimbabwe, where her father owned an unsuccessful farm of a thousand acres. She writes “What we have here in The Kreutzer Sonata is the power and energy but not the sanity of judgment.” She refers to Tolstoy as a fanatic. This sort of language, as we know, from recent media coverage of social activism and protest, is the typical smug sneer of the elite.
If War and Peace and Anna Karenina are the paleontology of violence and oppression then the Kreutzer Sonata unveils its source, the heart of it, unvarnished. And no wonder it was not at all well received by polite society—of course not! Tolstoy was made to explain himself and apologize. He did write an explanatory piece but he only reemphasized his views.
It was the reign of Queen Victoria that laid the foundation and sung and played the martial music loudest, of apartheid and empire, from the Crimea, to Constantinople, to Agra to Addis Ababa. In 1889 the Great Games raged on in the Horn of Africa and between Russia and Great Britain in South and Central Asia. The port town of Karachi flourished as a garrison for British troops stationed in barracks with names such as Abyssnia line. The Central Asian khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand were about to fall under the Russian Czar’ empire. In 1889 the British Raj created the Imperial troops made up of Indians to be used by the British Army in its ventures beyond India. Empress Market in Karachi, which was named after Victoria, and serviced her troops stationed in the city. It was constructed in 1889, one amongst many buildings of the British raj in the city including the port.
Wall Street Journal and Coca Cola made their debut in 1889. This seems somehow relevant in the November and December of 2011. As I write of Tolstoy’s outrage against the social order, the protestors in Zuccotti Park have been evicted. They have been protesting against the violence of greed and capitalism and have been evicted from a park. Their protest movement gathers momentum as their peaceful movement is met with force and the fury of the powerful who try their level best to vilify the movement for being violent and lacking coherence. The Pemberton Medicine Company or Coca-Cola Company, as it was later known was incorporated in Atlanta, Georgia. I have often wondered and been astonished about how while food, medicine and development assistance seem scarce and logistically difficult and costly to get from the capitals of countries to villages, the bottled sugary drink called Coca-Cola is availabile in seemingly limitless supply in the remotest and poorest corners of the planet. Messages on good nutrition, whereever they are badly needed, are non-existent on billboards but the slogan: Coke Is It is ubiquitous. Indeed Coke became “it” in its pattern of expansion and in its branding. Coke sponsored Coke Studios emerged in Pakistan to put under its logo and brand name the country’s abundant wealth of musical talent, more than a century later during the US occupation of Afghanistan. Speaking of music, in 1889, Gustav Mahlers completed his First Symphony. Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the most gifted dancers in history, the Russian ballet dancer and choreographer of Polish descent was born that year. The first jukebox was unveiled at the Palais Royale Saloon, San Francisco.
In Ethiopia in March 1889 Emperor Yohannes IV, was defeated and died in the Battle at Metema (Gallabad) against Abdallahi ibn Muhammad of Sudan. And in May the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II and Italy signed the Treaty of Wichale: “The treaty ceded territories previously part of Ethiopia, namely the provinces of Bogos, Hamasien, Akkele Guzay, Serae, and parts of Tigray to Italy. This treaty laid the foundation for these territories to become the Italian colony and modern state of Eritrea. Article 17 of the treaty was understood differently by the two sides. The Italian version of the passage stated that Ethiopia was obliged to conduct all foreign affairs through the Italian authorities. In effect, making Ethiopia an Italian protectorate, while the Amharic version of the treaty merely gave Ethiopia the option of communicating with third powers through the Italians.” In return, Italy promised financial assistance and military supplies. Disputes over Article 17 of the treaty led to the First Italo–Ethiopian War.
While this happened in Ethiopia, significant events in the history of Empire were happening in India as well. In India in 1889 Jawarlal Nehru was born. Mohammad Ali Jinnah was offered an apprenticeship with a British enterprise at the London office of Graham's Shipping and Trading Company, a business that had extensive dealings with Jinnahbhai Poonja's firm in Karachi. Both men with dubious histories in their own domestic lives were destined to assist in the tearing apart of their shared homeland.
The Ras Makonnen Palace inside the campus of the Addis Ababa University where I sat on the steps, The Kreutzer Sonata in hand, seemed far from the concerns of war and upheaval. I sat there rereading the Forward and the After Words while I waited for the museum to open. The peaceful solitude seemed multiplied given the crowds just beyond the campus gates. I had navigated my way here having walked past crowds of people waiting for blue mini bus taxis, past shoeshine boys crouching on the ground busily polishing the shoes of men and women seated on crates or stone benches, past the beggars in wheel chairs, hideously scarred or bloated with disease, past those who were new arrivals from rural areas and who looked bewildered and who with their shepards' wooden staffs and white muslin robes seemed as though they had stepped out of the old testament, past the friendly young man who hawked pirated DVDs, past another selling cell phone cards, past the mobile mechanic waiting for distress calls from stranded motorist whose cars had broken down along the avenue. Past the typical weekend hourly event of passing by motorcades of wedding processions of rented stretched Hummer limousines accompanied by rented black Mercedes Benzes filled with the wedding party: brides and bridesmaid wearing western outfit, the whole procession preceded by a pick-up truck on which a videographer was documenting the entire proud moment of borrowed, almost Texan, prosperity and pomp.
On the steps of the beautiful baroque building, the drought threatening to become a famine in the Horn of Africa this year and the wars in the neighboring countries, seemed a distant reality . There was news that the UN agency which focuses on children, UNESCO had recognized Palestine as a full member to the organization on the basis that only a full membership would allow for cultural sites in Palestine to be listed as World cultural heritage sites by UNESCO. The Unites States in response to this withheld sixty million of its dollars from UNESCO. The sounds of the sonata grew louder.
The grounds of the palace inside the Addis Ababa University were peaceful and tree lined. And an elaborate fountain directly in front of me was in need of repair: dry and empty. Here, there were no beggars or street children constantly close at hand, demanding attention and alms. I looked across towards the Palace gate in the distance, its two store figures, of the lions of Juda, which were barely visible, in turn, looked outward at the world outside the gates. Even with all the hub-hub outside the gates, it was an eerily quiet day as though the city had gone away on holiday—Large areas of the city have been emptied and cleared of residences mostly shanty homes but others as well: small businesses of shops and restaurants to make way for high rises and urban development. The juggernaut of modernity and urban development of parking lots, highways and freeways has arrived in Addis. Residents have been relocated to new low income highrise apartment blocks on the peripheries of the city. The campus, too, seemed subdued and uncharacteristic of an atmosphere where the young and the idealists congregate.
Would the seven billionth baby and its generation grow up in a world which would reverse the violence and damage of empire? Would the seventh billionth baby grow up without the damage of religious extremism and terrorism, the twin spawns which Empire has created for its pretexts for occupation and advancement? Would that new generation be freed of the deep seated sadness and violence of societies? Would they inherit a world where individual attempts at restoring and healing would have had taken root?
On the palace steps I sat under a banner which announced an event honoring the 50 years of service to Ethiopia by Richard Pankhurst, the Ethiopia scholar who was honored at the Ras Makonnen palace recently. The palace which houses the Ethiopia Institute of Studies also houses a museum and an art gallery. In Ras Makonnen Palace— its audience room has been converted into a library, with red carpeting and crystal chandeliers. There, an audience had gathered, to pay tribute to Richard Pankhurst, made up mostly of the city’s gentry—mostly aged and polite society: some royal blood and aristocracy, some former bureaucrats, academics, PhD students working on Ethiopian art in Cologne and Addis Ababa and people from foreign embassies interested in this sort of thing. The large room was filled to capacity and as is de rigeur in such circumstances a young woman fainted from the heat—covered as she was from head to toe in the newly minted and growing fashion of hijabs and abayas in Addis. Most of the audience, hadn’t noticed the incident of vapors in the back benches and had gone on listening in rapt attention to one speech after the next by honored guests including Ian Campbell, whose book The Plot to Kill Graziani had only recently been launched in this very same venue and who sat on a dais with the chief guest himself. One by one they paid tribute to and lauded the fifty years of service of Richard Pankhurst and the Pankhurst dynasty. Richard Pankhurst was noted for being the son of his mother Sylvia Pankhurst the British communist suffragette, feminist, ardent Ethiopia supporter and anti fascist.—And in his own right, her son was being honored for his work on the preservation of history and culture of the country and bringing back to Ethiopia stolen treasures from London and Rome—the Obelisk, an amulet a shield and many more.
I made my way to the girl who had been laid out in a faint outside in the hallway—I knelt down beside her on the floor fanning her face with a copy of a folded newspaper. I attempted to undo the black hijab wound tightly around her head and throat. She was thin and not more than eighteen. The moment I loosened her scarf her eyes shot open in alarm and she looked at me with an angry gaze. She went from a faint to eyes wide open with distrust. I responded with saying “I’m Muslim! Muslim! Now take this scarf off so that you can breath and cool off you silly little girl!” My appearance didn’t seem to fit my claim, I noted the surprise on her face. However, it seemed to have worked and she let me loosen the scarf and apply cold water to her forehead. I washed her feet in an attempt to revive her. She drank some water— I learnt that she had been fasting even though it was not the month for fasting. Fasting during every week is a prescribed ritual of the Orthodox Christians. Muslims fast outside of the days of Ramadan, as well, to make up, for fasts they didn’t keep during Ramadan, or for other cultural reasons. Nevertheless, I scolded her, made a fuss over her, made her drink water and a few sips of Coke for the sugar and then left her to her friends.
Here on these steps of the palace there had been an attempt to assassinate Graziani. He had survived but the two would-be assassins, from what is now Eriteria, were killed—as were thousands of residents in Addis Ababa, who were massacred on the orders of Graziani in his awful attempt to root out any insurgency against him. Their homes and neighborhoods were razed to the ground in three awful days of February 19-21, 1937.
Emperor Haile Selassie built the palace in 1930 but it was taken over by Rudolphe Graziani, as his Administration office in 1936. He was the hated Italian Viceroy, known as the Hyena of Libya for his atrocities in North Africa. The Italians occupied Ethiopia for five years from 1936-1941 and were repelled and thrown out by the Ethiopians by 1941. Haile Selassie then in exile in London was brought back by the British who assisted in ousting the Italians and reinstalling him as Emperor.
From where I sat, flanked by two baroque bronze statues carrying lamps,—I could see the flagpole— at the edge of the empty fountain. There are fourteen steps leading up to the flagstaff—each step commemorates a year of the Fascist reign of Mussolini. In the quiet campus, I sat there contemplating the forces at play today— If one were to draw a straight line from these steps to Tahrir Square in Cairo, the city, where despite the student revolution, the military remained in firm control, the distance would be of a few hundred miles as the crow flies. If one were to draw a line from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park in New York the distance was of thousands of miles yet the influence of Tahrir Square was clear and the reaction of power to having its legitimacy questioned, similar. And from these steps at Ras Makonnen palace if I were to draw a line to Pakistan as the crow flies of a few thousand miles, the threatening tone of a rise of Fascism there, in that perpetual frontline state, to America’s wars seemed imminent in the November of 2011 as Empire’ puppeteers sought to install yet another stooge in an image they preferred for Pakistan.
Over ten thousand delegates from around the planet are to converge in Addis Ababa for the 16th annual International Conference on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (ICASA). Ten thousand! Maybe, even more than that—upto 36,000 will attend! Leaders, current and former, heads of states, kings, princes, princesses and queens are expected to address the conference. Rumor has it that George W. Bush will attend. The roads will be blocked for important motorcades to rush to and fro from the airport to the hotels to the conference center. The hotels are fully booked and there is no more room at the inns even for ready money. The Ethiopian Herald has an extensive article on the conference on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases: about how important the hosting of this conference is for tourism for Ethiopia. A chance to show the world the international standard in hotels and security that Ethiopia has achieved. The newspapers also carry coverage on an event on the international day of prevention of violence against women celebrated by the UN this week. And a conference organized by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development for Eastern African countries (IGAD) was held to discuss how to militarily fight terrorism in Somalia by subsuming the militaries of Kenya and Ethiopia under something called AMISOM. War rages on in the region, drones fly. Famine threatens. Have ten thousand delegates ever gathered to stop war?
Inside the palace I stared at my widened reflection in an opulent old mirror in a large gold gilt frame which leaned, floor to ceiling, against a wall in the hallway leading into the library on the ground floor. It occurred to me in a moment of reflection, that the 33rd regiment was deployed to all the places where I too, had gone for work carrying an arsenal of silver bullets of prescriptions of policies, credit, food and cash transfers. Could it be that we were part of the same enterprise? From the foot soldier in the 33rd to Jinnah, to Haile Selassie, to lowly cogs in the great wheel such as myself–we were all linked. Reflected behind me in the mirror was a statue of the emperor and the cardboard display of the historical timeline from the time of the Palace Construction under Emperor Haile Selassie to the Italian Occupation—to the reinstatement by the British of Emperor Haile Selasie to the visit of Queen Elizabeth and—– Oh look, that photograph—isn’t that Mrs. Rose Kennedy—the wife of Joseph and the mother of John?
Around the corner and down the hallway from the mirror, a red carpeted staircase led to the three floors above—including to the bedchambers of the Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife. Above the doorway leading to the emperor’s bed chamber the curators have hung a framed Arabic verse: “In the Name of God the Beneficent and Merciful” embroidered in gold thread against a dark green background of velvet. Confused, I tried to find out what was going on. Could it be that the influence of a wealthy Saudi investor in the country led to such embellishments in return for donations for the upkeep of the museum? For Emperor Haile Selasie was not Muslim. I asked around. Ah! But the Emperor designate I learned, Ali or Lij Iyasu V of Ethiopia may have been. The circumstances surrounding his death and his burial place remain shrouded in mystery. Rumor has it that that Emperor Haile Selassie ordered his guards to kill him. Other accounts dispute this and suggest that Iyasu died of natural causes. His grandson and current Iyasuist claimant to the Ethiopian throne, Lij Girma Yohannes, claims that the Emperor designate Iyasu's body was brought to the Guenete Leul Palace (now the Ras Makonnen Palace) and buried there in secret. And perhaps, deliciously, those tending the museum are keepers of all such artifacts and secrets. They are mindful of the past. They have also to their credit located the septuagenarian manservant and restored to him his job. As a child Ato Memo tended to the tea and drinks for his Royal Highness Haile Selassie. As a result the Emperor’s chambers are still tended to by the very same manservant Ato Memo, who keeps a watchful eye on the visitors and greets them warmly—most of the visitors to the museum don’t know his provenance. The museum curators have resurrected him as well—providing him with a stipend for caring for these chambers. He is the living artifact in this museum.
An Art gallery in the museum has been established on the top floor—which includes musical instruments and 13th and 14th century Ethiopian Orthodox Christian icons. Apparently, according to their rescuers, these icons, were discarded by and rescued from numerous churches and markets all over Ethiopia. These were doomed to be destroyed from neglect or were found on garbage heaps. About 350 of these icons are in the museum’s possession, a third of them are on display. I thought I heard the sounds of a Sonata as I walked around the display cases.
In classical Ethiopian paintings, the good people are signified when they are depicted and shown with their full faces suffused in light. A face in profile signifies an evil character or a person with malicious intent. A painting in the hallway of the museum depicts Emperor Menelik II and his Empress both full faced—holding a banquet—some faces are in profile. But all the eyes in the painting are askance—as if in polite deference to each other or—as if everyone is keeping a vigilant eye on his neighbor and looking at everyone else with distrust. I am struck by the painting—the grouping of the characters at long tables—the rows upon rows of inner and outer circles, the emperor and empress looking on while the royal family sits at a table set apart.
This depiction of royal banquets and gatherings in the paintings is evocative of the participants gathered around long tables, of inner and outer circles, attending lengthy meetings at the daily conferences and seminars held routinely at lavish hotels in Ethiopia on poverty, health, conflict and development. I cannot help but note the similarity and wonder if portrayed would these be in full face?
Other Posts by Maniza Naqvi:(here)