I am pleased to post a few excerpts from Held at a Distance that should give a sense of the book.

The first excerpt is from the introductory chapter, in which I tell the story of how my father was nearly killed by Derg soldiers after the 1974 revolution and of how my family got out of Ethiopia afterwards. I also describe my feelings of trepidation and anticipation as I prepared to go “home” for the first time in twenty-five years.

The second selection comes from Part One of the book, which focuses on people and places in Addis Ababa that are important to me. The excerpt appears at the end of an essay about visiting my 90 plus year old grandmother (no one knows her age for sure), who still lives, by herself, in the house where my mother was born and raised. I don’t think I could have reconnected with Ethiopia and Ethiopian culture as I did without the embrace of family members who remain in Ethiopia. My grandmother is a powerful symbol of that enduring connection.

The third and fourth selections are taken from Part Two of the book, from essays based on visits I made to the northern city of Axum and to the monasteries of Lake Tana in Gondar. I wanted to write about the extraordinary history and beauty of such sites because people generally know little about this side of Ethiopia. I also tried to explore what significance and meaning these historic sites have for the modern nation.


From Introduction: Held at a Distance

"I want the two of you to pack some clothes tonight because this weekend we're going to drive to Nazareth town to visit Ababa Haile and Temete. If we don't do that, we will probably take a plane to join your mother and father in America."

With those casual words, my aunt Mimi tried to prepare my sister Sossina and me to leave Ethiopia, even as she downplayed the voyage by equating it with a Sunday drive to my grandparents' home in the country. Mimi dared not promise us the trip to the United States, much less name a specific date. Those were unpredictable days in Ethiopia-days when people who disagreed with the regime didn't know whether they would see the sun rise the following morning, days when, my uncle Tadesse swore, you couldn't trust your own shadow. By then, government soldiers had nearly killed my father, and my parents had fled the country. How could my aunt and uncle assure us that no one would block our family's reunion?

Now, twenty-five years after those final tense days, I am on an overnight flight back to Addis Ababa. I am sitting next to my husband, Jean, staring restlessly out the window at the inky ground below. As we cross from eastern Sudan into northern Ethiopia, an hour or so before we are to land, the horizon finally begins to lighten. Soon, the sky over the vast highland plateau is awash in a deep, clay red. Jetlagged and on edge, uncertain what to expect from the country I am not sure I can still call home, I am grateful for this beautiful prologue to the month that lies ahead.

From A Monday Afternoon

Lunch at my grandmother's house ended with one last echo of those Sunday afternoons. Dessert had come from Enrico's café, the Italian pastry shop near St. Giyorgis church, where years ago my parents had regularly purchased pizzas, cakes and cookies to add to my grandmother's traditional table. My aunt and I had stopped at the café earlier that morning, and although the place was sadly run-down, and although the owner despaired of the regulars who no longer came by for espressos and macchiatos, I was delighted that it was still in business. Enrico's was the only city establishment I remembered by name, and the café was as tangible a tie to memory as my grandmother's house. Now, on my aunt's cue, I blew out a single candle and cut the layered yellow cake we had selected, as if I were a child celebrating a birthday. The cake and pastries were as good as I remembered, and I savored this sweet taste of the past between sips of strong, hot, Ethiopian coffee.

I have always equated the changes wrought by the revolution with loss, an equation not easily recalibrated by a traditional gathering at my grandmother's house or several weeks among my remaining family in Ethiopia. Whether or not I have idealized them in memory, the simplicity and sheer fun of those Sunday afternoon gatherings are pleasures I will not know again, just as I will never know the other pieces and promises of the pre-revolutionary life I associate with my extended family. For my grandmother, however, anchored as she is in her faith, her neighborhood, her remaining family and in a way of being that predates the events that defined my Addis Ababa childhood, these same changes appear so much less fundamental. I have associated the life we lost most directly with her, and yet she has accepted our dispersal and carried on, maintaining her old home and keeping to her lifelong habits. My grandmother's constancy and resilience thus open to me at least the possibility that my loss may not be as complete as I've imagined it to be. Pieces of that past remain in reach, vibrant and accessible.

From Remains of an Empire

It was a little past 7 a.m., and the dusty streets of Axum were slowly coming to life. Schoolchildren in neat uniforms walked arm-in-arm while men and women unlocked storefronts, carried produce to market and drove livestock down the town's main avenue. Garis, open flatbed carts harnessed to horses or mules, clattered back and forth, ferrying passengers and hauling goods. Drivers and pedestrians exchanged greetings and shouted warnings in Tigrinya, the regional language. At the west end of town, Jean stopped to photograph a lone gari at an Agip petrol station. The driver had climbed down to fill a dented red jerry can with gasoline, and his mule stood right in front of the pump with its head and ears drooping in a line perpendicular to the dirt lot, creating an irresistibly funny picture. Past the Agip station, the town's morning bustle died down, and soon we were alone on the westward road toward Gondar. To the south stretched unbroken flat brown fields; to the north, hills dotted with trees and shrubs rose gently from the gravel road. Behind us, in the distance, we could just make out "King Ezana's" obelisk, piercing the sky over the town's low buildings.

My family left Ethiopia before I had a chance to visit any of the great historic sites of the north, and I was determined to get to all of them on this trip home. Each of these places-Lalibela, Gondar, Lake Tana and, above all, the city of Axum-represents an important piece of Ethiopian history. Lalibela is home to massive monolithic churches that eleventh century masons extracted from solid mountainsides; Lake Tana has atmospheric monasteries that depict multiple facets of an age-old Church; and in Gondar are medieval palaces where kings, courtiers and early Portuguese explorers plotted royal intrigues. Axum, the oldest and most important of these places, is also the hardest to categorize. As I would discover, the city is home to an extraordinary mix of ancient ruins, historic churches and present-day tensions that reveals a complex and unsettling picture of nation and national identity.

From The Moon Over Lake Tana

The Zege churches, Narga Selassie, Kibran Gabriel-in each case, at each stop, I felt the pull of the Church's history and culture. My chest tightened with pride at the beauty of each church and painting and cross and crown, and I left each sacred site wanting to proclaim to the world Ethiopia's accomplishments. I could see how this legacy had captured my father's heart, and how it had helped create the foundation of my parents' religious conviction. I claimed these cultural contributions as a part of my own national and personal history.

And yet, at the end of the long day on the lake, I'd also come home to a basic truth: none of what I'd seen could ever be completely mine. As a daughter of my parents and of the country, I defend my right to walk undisturbed through the Zege woods, whether I walk in search of greater understanding of nation or family or in search of spiritual clarity or personal peace. But I have not been raised in this Church and I have not taken the leap that faith requires. My admiration for the Church's cultural contributions is tempered by my despair over the Church's anachronisms and leadership in modern times. I have far too many questions and far too many doubts ever to come home to this Church. I am left to envy my parents and others for the world-ordering framework that Orthodox Christianity provides them, even as I chafe at that framework's limitations. For me, the Church is indeed a part of Ethiopia-familiar and fundamental, but not entirely mine.

Copyright © Rebecca Haile 2008
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