“Çok ayıp!” I scream at the battalion of riot police, momentarily losing all semblance of journalistic objectivity. “Shame on you!” They resemble fascist astronauts with their black uniforms, white helmets, glass visors, and gas masks. Many of them are practically children. I’d finally lost my temper after a blast of pressurized water from the hulking TOMA water-cannon truck nearby soaked me and my camera and launched my phone from my hand.
A few small brain chunks are all that remain of the man on the street. My girlfriend Mahi and I walk past the lurching throng of crying Ethiopians. Myself, a thoroughly desensitized Westerner, feel only a detached curiosity, and perhaps a hint of jealousy at how emotional Ethiopians can be. If onlookers at a car accident cried in New York, Toronto, or London, they would be subjected to a flurry of bewildered and even mocking looks. This uncontrolled show of empathy contrasts sharply with the seemingly total disregard for human life one often sees in this part of the world, exhibited in the way people drive or how police beat the hoi polloi at the drop of a hat.
There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.
Addis Ababa is many different cities to many different people – the rich, the poor, men, women, locals, foreigners, the diaspora, those born in the city, and those from the provinces. Fickle Addis defies generalization. It is reliably inconsistent. One sees too many luxury amenities to call it poor, too many wretched beggars to call it wealthy; too many easy smiles to call it mean, too many menacing glares to call it friendly; too many courtly bows to call it impolite, too much street boorishness to call it respectful; too much public affection to call it cold, too much impunity and indifference to call it compassionate; too much hope and joy to call it miserable, too much despair to call it happy; too much fraternity and piety to call it selfish, too much opportunism and greed to call it generous. Xenophobia and hospitality live side by side. There is a justifiable feeling of deep pride in Ethiopia’s rich culture and glorious history, but also a bitter resentment and shame in the poverty and wars that have ravaged the country.
“So here is our little family-tribe going along searching for nourishment, when it suddenly comes across another family-tribe. What a significant movement in the history of the world, what a momentous discovery! The discovery that there are other people in the world! Until then, the members of these primal groups could live in the conviction, as they moved around in the company of 30 to 50 of their kinfolk, that they knew all the people in the world. Then it turned out that they didn’t — that other similar beings, other people, also inhabited the world! But how to behave in the face of such a revelation? What to do? What decision to make?”
It’s Tuesday evening in Addis Ababa’s garish central Bole neighbourhood. Wealthy, Westernized, and dodgy, Bole is a favourite spot for Addis’s expat population, and my most hated part of the city. Outside the rainy season is chilly and grey. The sun sets into a funereal sky stained with diesel smoke. Droves of begging children aggressively harass anyone who looks like they have money. Shoe shiners use their bare hands to polish muck-covered loafers. Bratty rich kids (‘Bole Kids’) lacing their Amharic with American English sneer at the beggars and snicker at the bug-bitten, sunburned foreigners who are running to the hideous architecture and isolated bubble worlds of their luxury hotels.
It must be an omen from God. There’s not a cloud in the sky. Impossible weather for the subtropics of Addis Ababa in late July, the height of the rainy season. The sun is preciously scarce this time of year, and a chance like this mustn’t be squandered.
Doing laundry is tough during the chilly, dark rainy season – drying the clothes is a losing battle. The best you can hope for is a cool breeze and a few minutes of sunlight filtering through the clouds, and even then it takes all day and night to dry. Then of course they must be ironed, which helps to dry and soften them, and kills any bed bugs or fleas hiding in the tucks and folds. Washing machines are rare even amongst the wealthy here, and dryers are unheard of outside of laundromats.
I softly tap the keys of the laptop perched upon my thighs, listening to Mahi’s rhythmic breathing on this cool night in Addis. Her wavy Habesha hair peeks out from under the covers and a surge of tenderness rolls through me. Love comes in waves like that.
I remember it more like a surreal, misty dream than a real memory.
Seven years ago, I was living in the most beautiful city in the world – Istanbul.
I taught English there after graduating from university in Canada. For a 23 year-old Winnipegger who had never travelled before, the city was impossibly beautiful, like something out of my childhood imagination. I felt like I had stepped into the pages of a forgotten fairy tale.
Discourse, the sweeter banquet of the mind.
– Homer, The Odyssey
One evening about a decade ago, back in undergrad, I was working on a paper due that day. This really meant I could slide it under the professor’s office door anytime before she arrived the following morning. When I was just about to finish it up, a couple of friends invited me out for drinks. I needed a short break, so I agreed, knowing I could finish the paper later that night. We got together, and did my favourite thing in the world – we talked. And talked and talked. I kept peeking at my watch, but the conversation was just too captivating to abandon. I eventually decided to hand the paper in late and accept a lower mark. I felt like I was learning a lot more from the conversation than from that class.