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Love of Mother, Glory of Crown

ISSUE:  Winter 2010
To be of the Middle World is to have . . . left “home” for good (or for worse) whilst carrying all of it with you . . . Sensing too, that one has now fatally lost the place you may have wanted to run back to . . .
Breyten Breytenbach, Notes from the Middle World
A light gray obelisk rises from a thin base. It is wider than it is deep, tapering slightly as it rises. The top is rounded. The front has a repeating pattern of scalloped indentations and window-like rectangles. It's surrounded by grass that's turned various shades of brown. Behind it is a stone-covered hillside and a small rock-walled compound.
Online Creative Media / iStockphoto

I arrive in Addis on Fasika, the Ethiopian Easter. It’s a cool, cloudless day. The little shops are shuttered, their owners in church contemplating the miracles and resurrections that make earthly life here, in the third-poorest country in the world, tolerable. Ephrem Gezehegn, my driver and new friend, shoots around rotaries in the boxy blue Lada he’s borrowed from his uncle, tooting his horn amiably for no apparent reason. At the first red light the windows fill up with street kids. They seem reasonably healthy by Addis standards, in that they appear to have all of their limbs.

Fazer, give me money, fazer,” they chant in a jaded, mechanical way, as if running down the rules of an all-too-familiar game. “You got money, fazer?”

I nod congenially—of course I have money. The kids press against the glass, curious about this big, nervous-looking farenji in the passenger seat. Ephrem rolls down the window, scolds them playfully, tosses out some coins, and then the light changes.

Downtown Addis lies drowsy and quiet under its tattered blue blanket of haze. The homeless and destitute who populate the sidewalks appear to be sleeping in this morning, curled up on squares of flattened cardboard; feral dogs wander among them, nosing around. Many of the billboards are AIDS-related—a blindfolded couple strolling cheerfully off a cliff; happy young people in caps and gowns (Graduate With Positive A’s, Not With HIV/AIDS); ads for Hiwot Trust and Sensation Condoms (Value Your Life, Value Your Culture)—which is sobering and impressive and, after a while, numbing. Women in white traditional dress stream from the churches, brandishing candy-striped umbrellas against the sun. The men wear webs of yellow string over their scalps, halo-style; it’s as if they’re all ensnared in one great golden net.

We drive around Meskel Square, the massive Soviet-style concrete plaza that dominates the city center, ringed by what would be sixteen lanes of impenetrable traffic if anyone observed the lane markings. The square lies empty. Flags from the country’s eleven far-flung, highly contentious regions dangle from their poles. An enormous satellite projection screen, like the face of some grinning and beneficent god, looms overhead, waiting for tonight’s soccer match, Manchester United versus Some Other Team. Ethiopia, like the rest of the world, is mad for Manchester United. Meanwhile, Ephrem, for reasons he’s powerless to explain, roots for Liverpool.

“Why not root for the Ethiopian teams?” I ask.

“Ethiopian teams are not so good, I think. Liverpool is better.”

“You realize of course the Brits don’t even know you guys are out here watching.”

Ephrem ignores this, as if it’s merely an academic, tree-falls-in-the-forest issue, easily dismissed. He points out the flashy new Millennium 2000 lightboard the government has put up since my last visit, high atop the new Millennium Wall. Banners flap in the breeze, emblazoned with patriotic slogans: The New Millennium: A New Era of Ethiopia’s Rebirth; In the New Millennium, We Will Unify and Work Diligently to Eradicate Poverty and HIV-AIDS; and so on.

If this millennial sloganeering seems, in 2008, somewhat counterintuitive, blame it on the Ethiopian calendar which, thanks to its Coptic origins, shoehorns in an extra month (Ethiopia: Thirteen Months of Sunshine!) and thus, at the moment, lags seven to eight years behind our own. It’s not that they’re behind the times—more like they keep their own time.

“So, what about the obelisk? You guys must be excited about that.

“Obelisk?” Ephrem looks briefly distracted.

“The obelisk up in Axum. Remember?”

It’s the whole reason I’m here, but Ephrem gives a laissez-faire, to-each-his-own wave of the wrist, as if it’s too exhausting a project to keep track of the flimsy, confusing desires that draw white people to Africa. I’m a little confused myself. Ostensibly I’ve come to pay witness to yet another resurrection—that of the “Axum Obelisk.” Which is not technically an obelisk at all, but rather a two thousand year old granite grave pillar of incalculable national and historical value, looted by Mussolini’s army in 1937 and recently, after the mother of all international custody battles, returned from Rome. In the celebrations that followed, the patriotic fanfare and vindicatory hoopla, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that the Ethiopians had not exactly treated the obelisk as an immaculate treasure in the first place—at the time of its plunder, it had lain tumbled and broken in pieces for centuries. But such lapses and lacunae prevailed on both sides. The Italians, for instance, despite their own aggressively litigious campaign against the Getty (among other museums) to retrieve artifacts illegally excavated from their soil, seemed more or less content to leave the Ethiopian obelisk right where it was, standing watch over a traffic circle behind the Circus Maximus, choking on soot, pigeon shit, and Vespa exhaust while seven decades of protests, petitions, bilateral negotiations, and international entreaties slipped noisily by. In the end, it took an act of God (a lightning bolt that struck in May 2002, on the very eve of Ethiopian Independence Day) to persuade the Italians that, basta, this was one piece of Nile Valley statuary they could do without.

“This is the beginning of a new chapter,” the Italian ambassador announced. “Our colonial period is over.”

But returning an obelisk from exile turned out to be a complicated business. First the Italians had to disassemble it for transport, cut the granite into three sections of eighty tons each, reopen the joints, remove the dowels, and insert jackscrews along the breaks. Then a plane strong enough to hoist all that weight had to be found. There were only two options: the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, which thanks to a certain ongoing fiasco in Iraq was unavailable, and the behemoth known as the Antonov AN-124. If you’re looking to transport a bull elephant, say, or a blue whale, or a locomotive, yacht, or NASA launch vehicle, the Antonov’s your plane. But of course it was too large for the tinker-toy Axum airport, so another runway had to be built. Then followed the three harrowing flights to deliver the stones. When digging to prepare the foundation finally commenced at the Axum site, a vast, chambered necropolis was discovered below; it had to be studied and assessed by UNESCO and then structurally reinforced by Italian engineers before the drilling could resume. After which it was observed that the neighboring obelisk, like a rivalrous sibling, had begun to shudder and tremble and generally call attention to itself—so that too had to be reinforced.

By now three years had passed. The crowds were long gone, the foreign media ditto. Even the peppy and informative website had vanished. The obelisk, last anyone knew, was lolling around Humpty Dumpty–like in some tin-roofed hut, in the process of slowly being re-erected, or slowly not being re-erected, no one can say. And save for the intrepid dilettante journalist with too much time on his hands, no one seems to care.

Though hardly luxurious by western standards, the Ghion is a very nice hotel indeed. Of course by local standards—given the $150 median annual income—it’s a palace. To ensure the locals don’t suffer too much resentment over the pampered lawns, the sparkling pool, and the spacious lobby full of leather sofas and mirrored columns, the hotel employs a formidable security detachment to keep them out. It’s a job for one or two people tops, but there are at least a dozen guys hanging out at the gate, playing cards and chatting away in the guard house as we pull up. The dread Derg with their thuggish socialist ways may be gone, but the national fabric retains some of the old pink dye: hey, jobs and uniforms for everyone!

No doubt this accounts for all the stewards, busboys, cashiers, and other staff members loitering in the breakfast room, looking dignified and forbearing in their snappy burgundy outfits and doing nothing much at all. The waitresses skate past—slender women with somber, heart-shaped faces—bearing silver pots of coffee and foamy pitchers of milk. Macchiatos. For all the brutal wreckage of Il Duce’s Abyssinian Campaign—the mustard gas and phosgene, the forced labor and random decapitations, the roughly three-quarters of a million dead Ethiopians—he did leave behind some enduring niceties, in the form of better housing and roads, a more dependable electrical grid, and a really great way with espresso drinks.

Unfortunately the buffet this morning shows little else in the way of Italian or any other culinary influence. Not that I’m worried, what with half a dozen vials of Immodium, Pepto Bismol, Cipro, and various pricey anti-malarials clicking away in my cargo pockets like castanets. In truth I’m feeling pretty indestructible, happy to be back here in the Ghion with the businessmen and missionaries and NGO types—all these other travelers who are, like me, too cheap to spring for the Hilton.

And then there are the Ethiopian children, with their new, adoptive, European and American parents. Adoption has become big business here since countries like China and Guatemala have cracked down on illegal trafficking, but as awareness of the commoditization and export of children grows, along with the sense that a lot of money is changing hands in the process, some slow-burning resentment has begun to build. It’s no longer quite so sweet and benevolent a picture, in the eyes of the Ghion staff, to see these Ethiopian kids loading up their plates at the buffet and then ignoring the food in favor of their new picture books and action figures and Barbies. Every so often the kids sneak a glance at the tired-looking adults across the table, as if to make sure they’re still there—these pallid beneficent creatures who have descended from the skies with their digital cameras and bulging North Face backpacks, and who are now, it seems, by virtue of some mysterious and perhaps even slightly sinister process, their parents.

And I know what I’m talking about. Three years ago I was one of them, sitting in this same breakfast room with my wife and our own newly adopted Ethiopian daughter, dopey with jet lag, marveling at how smoothly we’d managed to slip the bonds of our honeyed, cloistered New England village to assume other bonds: e.g. this new daughter of ours—one of approximately four million orphans in this country—whose own socio-cultural-familial bonds we had with the best of intentions seriously loosened, if not severed completely.

At bottom you see this is a story of returns. I, too, like the Italians up in Axum, have returned to the scene of a stolen treasure, though whether in triumph or penance or to make restitution of some kind isn’t clear at the moment even to me.

There are a number of things to be said about Addis Ababa, but few that would make anyone choose to live here or, for that matter, visit. The place is chaos itself, a city of filthy air, undrinkable water, open sewage, and collapsing shanties in twisting, unmarked lanes; a city of diseases so atavistic and exotic they must be seen in the poor, malformed flesh to be believed. “A look of timeless decrepitude,” Paul Theroux sniffs peremptorily in Dark Star Safari, “dirty and falling apart, stinking horribly of unwashed people and sick animals, every wall reeking with urine.”

Looking straight up the face of the obelisk as it rises into the blue sky. Up close it can be seen that the scalloped pattern comes from shadows cast by button-like discs that emerge in relief from the surface.
Bela Tibor Kozma / iStockPhoto

Such claims are, of course, not just lazy but willfully blind to the flip side of the record—the modest but ingenious sidewalk commerce, the resilient good humor of people squashed together in appalling circumstances, the crazy quilt of condo housing going up beside, and often inside, the worst slums. Addis at a glance is a kind of teeming, bizarro-world Los Angeles: you’ve got the sprawl and smog, the tacky sun-blasted congestion of the basin; but then, as you ascend into the surrounding foothills, the clutter falls away; the lovely cough-drop scent of eucalyptus wafts over you; and suddenly there’s a light moisturizing mist against your skin, like a promise of good things to come.

We’re on our way to see the eminent Ethiopianist Dr. Richard Pankhurst—the founder of the Axum Obelisk Return Committee, and for the past thirty-five years the most prominent, eloquent, and insistent voice in the chorus of international protest. So eminent is Dr. Pankhurst, such an oft-quoted name in Ethiopian studies, that everyone keeps assuring me he’s been dead for years. But no, he’s very much alive, rather jolly even, when I call to get directions to his house. On our way we twice lose our bearings and have to call Professor Pankhurst again for directions. Each time it’s as if we’ve woken him from a nap, and I’m forced to explain all over again who I am and why I’m coming to see him. For a historian he appears to have a pretty short memory.

Ephrem frowns with impatience, thinking of all the ongoing entrepreneurial ventures he should be attending to: his driver/translator business, his videography business, his wedding-planning business, and the open-air video game/foosball/Ping-Pong arcade in the alley behind his house. Also in his spare time he writes screenplays and, as they say, wants to direct. He’s a busy guy. It’s because of the economy, he says: the price of injera has quadrupled; the bus costs three times what it did last year. Meanwhile the Chinese are out there flooding the markets with cheap goods. Accusingly, he points to the tiny wand-shaped tape recorder in my shirt pocket. “No way,” I say, “it’s a Sony.”

“Still: Chinese.”


“The Chinese know how to sell things,” he says. “They are everywhere now. They walk into a store and see what we do not have, and the next week there it is on the shelf. We never do this for ourself.”

It’s true that the Ethiopians appear to lack the temperament for good capitalism. They’re gentle, soft-spoken; they eat from the same plate not just figuratively but literally, with the fingers of one hand. It’s a culture of small portions, polite accommodations. Their manner, the highly ritualized ways they conduct business—the brewing of coffee, the washing of hands, the elaborate alternate-side-of-the-cheek kissing on the street—seem guaranteed to enfeeble an economy. The men stroll dreamily down the street, holding hands. So do the women. So do the children. Everyone’s draped around everyone else: it’s like the whole concept of personal space has eluded them. Though arguably, in a city of five million shanty-dwelling residents, there’s simply no space for personal space.

At last, up in the hills, where the air’s clean and cool and embassy compounds sprawl complacently behind stone walls (inlaid at the top, for security purposes, with shards of colored glass), we find the personal space we’ve been looking for: the Pankhurst house, a large, lushly gardened estate ringed by pomegranate and false banana trees. No sooner do we arrive than Ephrem ducks away to make some business calls, leaving me to greet our hosts, Richard and Rita—a hale, bemused-looking British couple in their late seventies who have either just finished lunch or are politely pretending to have finished. They welcome me with courtly, practiced humor. While Rita sees to the coffee, Richard directs me along the flat stone path, through a yard full of tropical flowers, to a tilting pagoda with a thatched roof, the beams cantering at weird, precarious-looking angles. “Our own little Pisa,” he sighs in a low, plummy voice. “Not to worry. It’s tilted this way for years.”

“How many years?”

“You’ve heard of Lucy? We were neighbors once.” I laugh politely; clearly it’s a line he trots out for first-time visitors. “Now,” Richard says, getting down to business, “I understand you have an interest in obelisks. But I’m afraid you’ve come rather too early. The re-erection is not complete.

“I was there in ’05, you know, when the last piece arrived. Very dramatic. The Italians flew it in on that big Ukrainian plane. The air was so thin they had to land early in the morning when it was still cool. There were no lights on the airstrip. It had to be done promptly at dawn. We were all there waiting.” He leans back, his eyes smoky behind his glasses, squinting. “At first it was just a tiny spot in the sky. Then it got bigger and bigger until it seemed the very largest thing on earth. Then it landed, and the front cargo panel opened, and they slid the obelisk out onto the trucks and drove to the site. We all gave speeches for the television cameras. The Italian ambassador was there. He was very relieved, of course. It had been quite an adventure.”

“And now? The adventure’s over?”

“Oh dear no. Not until the re-erection is complete. And there are a number of additional treasures we’d like to see returned. Most of the National Archives are still in the possession of the Italians.”

“What about that colonial-chapter-is-now-over stuff from the Ambassador’s speech?”

“I’m afraid that colonial chapters don’t end as cleanly as that. The Brits too ransacked an enormous amount of loot back in 1868, you know, from the old capital Magdala. Took it out by the trainload. Half the silver from the Bank of Ethiopia. Illuminated manuscripts, icons, artifacts. Go to the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert: it’s there to this day. Of course we’re not demanding they send it all back—only those objects that were stolen.”

“But isn’t that kind of a fine line? Aren’t the world’s museums full of stolen treasures?”

“One has to start somewhere,” he says mildly. “Of course it’s easier to ask for what belongs to you than to return what belongs to someone else. But the Ethiopians don’t lack for patience. They’ve been patient since antiquity. They’ve had to be. The problem is we’re so grossly out of balance here—financially so very poor and culturally so very rich. Overpopulation keeps eating up development. But the Muslims, the Catholics, the Patriarch of the Church, and of course your American government policy—they’re all against population control. What’s needed is some kind of regional, Horn of Africa federation. Some new way of gover—”

“What’s needed is education,” Rita announces brightly, emerging from the garden with a tray of coffees. “Particularly for girls. We simply can’t wait anymore; there’s too much of the future at stake.”

Surely there’s some irony or paradox in the way these transplanted intellectuals with their cosmopolitan outlook have become, in their high villa, such fierce advocates for a strictly nationalist position regarding cultural property. But never mind. For the moment I’m content just to sit here in this tilting pagoda, enjoying their hospitality and wit and their passion for this beautiful beleaguered country they’ve adopted. Eventually I tell them about my daughter, as I suppose I knew all along I would. Both Pankhursts light up at once. “How lucky you are,” Rita says. “How wonderful for you.”

True, true. Nonetheless I’m compelled in the interest of neurotic thoroughness to air some guilt and anxiety anyway. As in: Isn’t international adoption, for all its good intentions and often commendable results, at bottom another form of imperial theft? Transporting precious and irreplaceable treasures to foreign shores? What does it mean that such adoptions are unheard of in Islamic countries, where relatives are obligated to take care of the child? Isn’t it possible in short that people like me are contributing to the very problem people like them (the Pankhursts) have been fighting all these years?

“It is a difficult issue,” Rita says. “But you must not make it too complicated. You’re saving a child from a highly depressed upbringing.”

Richard looks a little depressed now himself, his eyelids gone red rimmed and baggy, in need of some downtime. Time to go. We gather up the coffee things and carry them into the house, past the old photos and ceremonial-looking Out of Africa–style masks and shields that decorate the living room. Over the mantel there’s an arresting tapestry of His Most Virtuous Highness Haile Selassie. He stands on a lush, tree-lined driveway, beside a handsome white woman in a white hat. “My mother,” Richard informs me proudly. “The Emperor was a frequent guest at our house in those days.”

The Emperor. To say the Emperor remains a living presence in this country, thirty-three years after his death at the hands of the Derg, would be a ludicrous understatement. And yet most of what I know about the man is not the heroism and dignity he showed during the Italian occupation and the war years, but the bizarre, operatic, final-days material in Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book The Emperor—his brutal whims and caprices, his Nero-like fiddling while the empire crumbled around him. When I mention this, my host makes a sour face indeed. “Utter nonsense,” he snaps. “Sheer sensationalism.”


“You must remember, Mengistu’s people had just murdered the man. It was in their interest to spread these foolish stories. But Kapuscinski bought every word. Either he was naïve or he had his own agenda, thinking of his own country. But if he wanted to write about Poland, he should have written about Poland. The fact is he caused a great deal of damage to this country with that dreadful book.”

Suddenly we’re all acutely aware of me and my little Chinese-made Sony recorder, ready to peddle more sensational neocolonialist nonsense about Africa. For the second time that afternoon it’s clear I represent as much the problem as the solution. So I thank the Pankhursts for their warmth and hospitality and go.

Later that evening I take a stroll around Meskel Square. Disconcertingly, a man attaches himself to me outside the Ghion, offering, if not threatening, his services as a guide. I tell him no thanks, but he tags along anyway, pointing out sights I can see perfectly well myself—the statues and banners that line the square, the side alleys behind it where the animal markets conduct their business and mounds of freshly flayed goatskins lie stacked like pancakes, the enormous condo developments going up across Kenyatta Street (Sunshine Construction: Seeing Is Believing). And now, he says, he wants to show me something very special, a very important cultural show from all over Ethiopia.

I catalogue for myself all the reasons this is a bad idea. I’ve got a thrumming jet-lag headache, it’s getting dark, I have no interest in cultural shows, loathe cultural shows in fact, or would if I had any idea what a cultural show even was. Nonetheless I follow him, in my reluctant, conflict-averse way. We proceed down an all-too-literal dark alley, where men sit chewing khat leaves beneath a plastic tarp, their red, batlike eyes blinking through the gloom, in a way that seems only to confirm that I have now wandered into some Paul Bowles–like distant episode that will end with me barking like a dog in some dusty forsaken hole. After five minutes or so we arrive at a small stucco house with a satellite dish on the roof and some faded travel posters (Lalibela’s buried churches, the Axum Obelisk restored to its full glory) Scotch taped to the door.

A dark-skinned old man leans on a cane as he walks. Nearly all of his features are out of the frame: we see only his enveloping white garment and one wrinkled hand. In the background are the lower bodies of two other people walking across the sun-drenched dirt.
Turkairo / CC BY 2.0

The interior, like most here, is feebly illumined by a bare low-wattage bulb. There’s a Chinese action film on the TV, dubbed into English and subtitled in Arabic. Nobody’s watching. My guide vanishes behind a beaded curtain, then returns in the company of three stunning young light-skinned women in white dresses, their arms ornamented with sinuous, henna-like tattoos. He beams, as if to say, Is this a culture show or what? These women, he announces with a flourish, are “here to give whatever you want.”

As if on cue, they come forward, my three fates, shyly, eyes averted, and greet me with the traditional handshake, delivered in a solemn half bow, the right wrist cradled in the left. Herodotus, something of an authority on such matters, claimed the Ethiopians were the most beautiful of all the world’s peoples. No one who has seen them would disagree. The security officers at the airport, the maids in the hotel, even the women trudging down Entoto Mountain hunched under eighty-pound loads of firewood—all look like supermodels without even trying. And these women are trying. Languidly they begin to prepare the coffee ceremony, an elaborate affair that often takes close to an hour, and involves spreading long scented grasses over floor tiles, roasting beans over a charcoal fire, shaking off the husks, grinding them by pestle, and brewing them in a round black clay pot. While I wait, they urge me to sit on the couch. My guide too urges me to sit on the couch. The couch itself, with its mellow, shapeless indentations, seems eager to receive me. For a few minutes I perch there on the cushions, not quite sitting and not quite not-sitting, looking on. It’s one of those dreamlike moments that seem to be happening to someone else.

Then all at once I remember a scam I read about in the guidebooks. An unsuspecting tourist gets lured into a private home, where he’s offered food, drink, and entertainment; then, just as he’s getting comfortable, some very large, unfriendly person barges in and demands money. “I gotta go,” I announce, springing abruptly to my feet.

“But the show has not begun,” my guide protests, in a voice so plaintive I almost feel guilty.

“No, I really, really gotta go.”

I don’t expect him to follow me all the way back to the hotel, but he does, only slightly subdued, as if nothing in the capricious behavior of Americans surprises him. It occurs to me that maybe it wasn’t a rip-off after all. That maybe, in my effort not to come off as ignorant and naïve, I’ve overshot the target in an ignorant and naïve way. At the gates of the Ghion I reach for my wallet and produce fifty birr. My guide shakes his head; he wants a hundred. So we haggle. It’s my first night in Africa, and already I’m experiencing the full complement of discomforts—fatigue, ignorance, shame, and the sense of impending receipt of some minor unspecified punishment. I give him the hundred and go off to bed.

The next day, on the flight to Axum, the seats around Ephrem and me are full of businessmen, missionaries, monks in brown robes. It’s the Ethiopian Air religious-heritage tour, making stops in the holy cities of Gondor, Axum, and Lalibela. I pass the time chatting with Hanok, an amiable Ethiopian fellow in his thirties, on vacation from his nursing job in Sweden. I ask if he’s heading up to Axum for the re-erection, and his face goes blank. Re-erection? He’s heard something about this but the details are fuzzy. Like other members of the Ethiopian diaspora he gets his home-country news from either relatives or the internet, specifically the political blogs, which are full of colorful invective against the Meles government and the farce of the recent parliamentary (like everyone here, he brackets the word in air quotes) “elections.”

He lowers his voice to a whisper; there’s a rumor Meles’s sister is on the flight. Why take chances? Then abruptly he breaks off the conversation altogether, it having occurred to him that I might well be one of those chances he doesn’t want to take. A few minutes later I hear him shooting the shit, albeit discreetly, with Ephrem.

The plane’s belly rumbles; we have begun our descent. The missionary in the next row dog-ears her book (Money Cometh to the Body of Christ) and puts it away. Below spread the brown hills of Eritrea, fields of teff and sorghum punctuated here and there by round tukul huts. Ephrem clutches the armrests. He’s never been on a plane before.

The top of the obeslisk against a pale blue sky.
Turkairo / CC BY 2.0

Later, waiting for the shuttle bus, he regains his equanimity. I ask him what he and Hanok were talking about. “He asked me if you are a Jew,” Ephrem says. “I say yes, you are. He tell me not to trust the Jews—you are here to steal our antiquities, he say.”

“Great. What did you say?”

“I say you are okay. You are like my family, I say.”

“That’s a good thing though, right? I mean, you like your family?”

But Ephrem doesn’t hear me; he’s stopped in front of the terminal, rubbing his long, handsome jaw as he reads over the inscription on the statue of the airport’s namesake, King Yohannes IV (1837–1889):

O! Sons of Ethiopia! Bear in mind that this Ethiopia is firstly your mother, secondly your crown, thirdly your wife, fourthly your child, and fifthly your grave. Hence rise up and defend Ethiopia which is like the love of a mother, the glory of a crown, the kindness of a wife, the joy of a child, and restfulness of the grave.

Ephrem frowns. He knows nothing about this king, he says gruffly. Why has he never read this before? He seems to take this gap in his knowledge as both a personal and professional affront. “Why do they not teach us our own history?” he complains. “Why do we not bring the children here, and show them these things?”

Axum at midday is sleepy and torpid, a dusty frontier town in an old western. Three thousand years ago this was one of the great commercial powers of the ancient world, a rival of Rome, India, and Persia. Now the houses are mud and sticks, with roofs of flimsy corrugated iron. There’s only one good road, and we’re on it: a broad, palm-lined strada imperiale left over from the Italian occupation, a former supply line running from Gondor to Asmara. Here the small commerce gets transacted: the banks; the post office; the travel bureaus; the souvenir shops selling Axumite crosses, carvings, and jewelry. Camels trudge past single file, spindly and lugubrious. The mercato is sparse, a few anemic mounds of onions and herbs set out on blankets in the dirt. A man in a gray suit strolls by, carrying a live chicken under his arm. Lunch, presumably.

Our hotel, the Remhai, looks clean but deserted. A couple of blue-and-white UN minivans are parked outside. Ephrem’s room goes for the local rate; I pay the inflated one for foreigners; and then we sit watching East African Idol on the Eritrean channel, waiting for our guide, Sisay, to take us to the stele fields.

He’s right on time: a skinny, long-fingered young man in a pink pin-striped suit and pointy fake-leather shoes. Sisay has an arrangement with the local hotels; they supply him with the names and arrival times of their foreign visitors, and he takes care of the rest. With his air of busy, somber, and impersonal efficiency, Sisay seems well suited to both his vocations. For in addition to dealing with tourists he’s also, he makes clear right away, an ordained priest. Whether he’s a priest who moonlights as a tourist guide or a tourist guide who moonlights as a priest is a nuance he doesn’t address. For a guy in a pink suit, he’s pretty straightforward, Sisay. All business.

Dutifully he takes us around the historical sites, rattling off names and dates in a rapid, mechanical way. The dank subterranean palace of King Kaleb, its stones quarried seven kilometers away and transported by elephant. The monastery of Pantaleon, where a barefoot monk in a yellow hat displays his crumbling illustrated texts. The Queen of Sheba’s bathing pool, where women stand knee-deep in water, filling plastic jugs. Everywhere we go small children follow, shouting something in Tigrayan that sounds like “Pen! Pen!” I ask Sisay for a translation. “They say, Pen, Pen,” he says.

It seems the UNESCO- and NGO-types who comprise, along with the Italian engineers, the entire white-person contingent in Axum prefer to hand out pens instead of money.

He leads us through a dirt field to a fourth-century monolith inscribed in Greek, Sabean, and Ge’ez, the ancient Semitic precursor to Amharic. All three of which tongues Sisay happens to speak fluently. By way of demonstration he closes his eyes and chants a psalm. It has many verses. Ephrem and I look at each other, bored. It’s been a long day already; we’re antsy to get to the stele field. It doesn’t help that Sisay, who seems to be unclear about the nature of our relationship, keeps addressing himself to Ephrem in Amharic instead of to me in English.

To speed things along I take out my digital recorder and ask Sisay for his opinion about the return of the obelisk. This turns out to be a mistake in at least two different ways. First because Sisay becomes, if possible, even more pedantic, intoning sonorous platitudes into the microphone as if sermonizing to some vast but inattentive congregation. “This is an extremely important event for us, you see, a very important occasion for our entire region. It is an event that will inspire our national pri—”

Alas, the rest of what Sisay says here—the rest of what everyone says here—is something of a blur, as this was the moment I lost my grip on the accursed Sony, which flew out of my hand and skittered across the ground, smashing its cheap mike. Hence any quotes that follow have had to be at best painstakingly reconstructed and at worst dubiously improvised if not conjured out of thin air—which God knows is probably fitting, given the theoretical if not fictional nature of the obelisk itself.

To wit: when the three of us troop over to the stele field at last, the obelisk I’m here to see isn’t, um, there. The field, with its unruly stands of fuchsia and bougainvillea, its crumbling granite slabs jutting up at weird angles through the dry, tromped-down grass, looks like what it probably is: an old, ill-tended cemetery. Whatever else the slabs might signify—celestial icons, phallic/fertility symbols, sacrificial altars, ancient timepieces—the obelisks are thought by most scholars of the period to be tombstones, or “stairways to heaven.” Most of the stones are only a few feet tall, but three are enormous, inscribed with laddered geometric patterns denoting what look to be windows or doors, effectively making each into a multiple-story written work, a vertical memory book attesting to the wealth and power of the aristocrat buried below.

A pair of obeslisks, side by side, of about the same height. One is in good shape, while the other appears to have been weathered down to be largely featureless. The sharper-looking one has a large sling attached to some bracing that encircles the obeslisk at its midpoint.
Turkairo / CC BY 2.0

Stele Number One, among the largest hunks of stone ever quarried by human labor, stands thirty-three meters tall, or rather would stand thirty-three meters tall if it weren’t lying toppled across the ground in a broken heap. Then there’s Stele Number Three, about thirty yards away, cradled for the duration of the project in an elaborate slinglike harness anchored at the base by mounds of netted stone. “Okay I give up. Where’s Stele Number Two?”

“Is there, see?” Sisay points out a sprawling tin-roofed shed at the far end of the site, where two beefy engineers from Lattanzi SRL (the firm UNESCO has contracted, for the duration of the project, with the now amiably contrite Italian government footing the bill) straddle a stone base-block, shedding sparks with a blowtorch and shouting cheerfully at each other in Italian. “Look how hard they are working for us now,” Sisay adds proudly.

“But the ceremony’s in three months. Shouldn’t they be further along by now?”

Sisay shrugs: three months, on the biblical scale he favors, seems nothing to get worked up about. Why am I taking him out of his comfort zone, poking my nose into tiresome secular areas like politics and construction? I might be disturbing the eternal rest of Sisay’s own ancestors as I clamber back and forth over the ancient stones in an effort to attract the attention of the chief engineer, a ruddy, athletic fellow in a pin-striped shirt and baseball cap.

Finally he notices, squinting up at us warily: two polite, reticent Ethiopians and one middle-aged American with an inquisitive look.

“So how’s it going?” I shout. “Any chance we can come over and take a look?”

The chief engineer takes a couple of steps toward the fence, then stops. He’s not supposed to talk about the work; the UNESCO people don’t like it. Also his English is not good. But as for how it’s going? It’s going good, very good. He nods over his shoulder in a fond, knowing way, as if the obelisk is some balky misbehaving child who happens to be in Time Out at the moment but whose various issues will, with patience and craft, soon be corrected. The most difficult work has been accomplished. Now they will secure the base stones, join them with bars of carbon fiber, and then the first blocks will be linked to the foundation by cables and cranes; the others will follow. After this only some minor cleaning and surface restoration will be necessary. So you see? They will finish for the deadline, no problem.

And indeed, watching the team at work over the next three days, welding and cinching things together, it’s difficult to doubt either their competence or their commitment. And why would you want to? Unless of course you’ve come to Axum hoping for a fiasco, a comedy of errors, a botched burlesque. Hoping the obelisk will remain in pieces forever. But why would any decent person hope for such a thing?

It’s a question that dogs me all afternoon, as we stalk around the stele field taking photos, as we tour the town and its outskirts, as we bravely sample the muddy, half-fermented local beer. At last we cross the road, three weary pilgrims, to Saint Mary of Zion, a garish, onionlike basilica built over the ruins of a fourth-century church, the oldest in Africa. Here, if the Kebra Nagast, or Ethiopian Royal Chronicles, can be believed, the greatest relic of all—the Ark of the Covenant—has been housed for three millennia, ever since Menelik, bastard son of Sheba and Solomon, hauled it off to Axum as his birthright. Another theory dates the Ark’s arrival in Axum to the fourth century AD, after hundreds of years secreted away on an island at Lake Tana. Another (advanced in a popular nonfiction book called The Sign and the Seal, on sale at the Ghion gift shop and referenced, or so it seems, by virtually every literate Ethiopian I meet) has it seized during or after the Crusades by the Knights Templar, under the delusion or conviction that the Ark is in fact the Holy Grail—but frankly it’s a bit too Da Vinci Code–ish to follow. Point is, in their own version of an ancient-stolen-treasure story, Ethiopia’s not the victim but the perpetrator, refusing to return the Ark to Jerusalem, its proper home.

Ephrem and I circle the small granite chapel known as the Treasury, where the Ark, or some facsimile of it, or some symbolic object anyway, is housed. The only security is a thin metal railing. Sisay looks on with dismay as we toy with the idea of hurdling it and peeking in through the windows. Only the holy priest of Axum, he says, is permitted to lay eyes on the Ark. So why do we persist in such foolish behavior? Do we wish to burst into flames?

The moment he says this, a door opens in the back of the chapel, and we go absolutely still. A monk in yellow robes and sandals comes toddling bowlegged down the path. I give him a little bashful half wave, and the monk nods back, a bit bashful himself. Then, with the pinched, purposeful look of a man about to relieve himself, he ducks into a corrugated metal hut behind the chapel.

Ephrem glances at his watch and sighs. Ark, shmark; Liverpool’s playing Chelsea tonight, and, in the unlikely event that the power stays on in the Remhai’s “grand ballroom,” he’s hoping to watch. Sisay perks up at this: turns out he’s a Liverpool fan too. This gives him and Ephrem something to chat about over dinner, while I sit there moodily eavesdropping on the Esperanto-like chatter from the other tables—the Dutch tour group, the Italian engineers, the Uruguayan UN helicopter pilots—and wondering if the rumbling in my stomach is due to some parasite in the filthy homebrewed beer I sampled earlier.

After dinner, in the hopes of working a homeopathic miracle, I head over to the bar to drown the toxic residue of that afternoon’s beer with several more nutritious evening beers. Which is where I meet Jos, an electronics salesman from Rotterdam. Jos is one of those pale, gloomy, fervent-looking loners you meet in hotel bars, the kind who cultivate private grudges and dreams, and concoct elaborate and uncharitable theories about virtually everyone they meet. We seem to have a lot in common. He says he’s not sorry to have come to Ethiopia. “I see how the people have nothing, but they share and are happy. This western individualism means nothing to them. No one is alone at mealtime. There are always other people. I do not think when I get back to Holland I will have the words for this.”

The thought of his imminent return makes Jos gloomy and dyspeptic. He glugs back some Castel. Then, belching softly, he begins to complain in earnest. I complain too, not just about my stomach, but about the many journalistic tasks I’ve left undone: I’ve yet to find a UNESCO official willing to talk to me on record; I’ve yet to find an Italian engineer willing to talk to me on record; I’ve yet to find a government representative willing to talk to me on record; and even if I had found them, the little Sino-Japanese device that was supposed to help me put things on record isn’t recording. Jos nods inattentively. He has no interest in obelisks per se, and prefers talking about AIDS orphans. There’s an orphanage he saw down in Gondor, founded by a Dutch nun; it’s run differently from most of the others. The children aren’t separated from their community, but live in family-style group homes and attend local schools. Unfortunately he can’t remember the name of it, or the name of the nun who runs it, but he’ll find these for me, he promises, in the morning. Then he stumbles off to bed—apparently he’s had quite a number of Castels already—and I proceed to the hotel ballroom to watch Liverpool play Chelsea in the company of Ephrem, Sisay, and eleven hundred Tigrayans, who rousingly applaud every good play no matter which side they’re on.

Next morning, our last in Axum, Ephrem and I head over to the re-erection site one last time. We wave goodbye to the Lattanzi guys as if we’re all old friends (when in fact they’ve taken to avoiding us completely), and also to Sisay, who we’re happy to see has already found his next customers: a Spanish couple with an Ethiopian baby, for whom he’s running down his historical spiel with his usual concentrated solemnity. Then we buy some souvenirs to bring home—woven baskets with Tigrayan designs from the sad-eyed women who display them, some Welcome Home Obelisk T-shirts for our respective kids. Finally, on our way out, we stop in at the Axum Cultural Museum, which UNESCO has erected nearby.

A weathered sign displays an obeslisk with a girl standing in front of it. The fabric of the sign has partially torn loose from its rusted frame.
Turkairo / CC BY 2.0

It’s a dank, dismal little gallery with a few paltry artifacts on display: Axumite coins and glasses labeled with three-by-five note cards full of multilingual misspellings and lacunae. The walls are rough plaster; the light fixtures consist of bare bulbs, dangling wires. Would it kill them to spruce things up a bit? Honestly, they have a lot to learn around here about showmanship. Even the famous “Lucy” skeleton back at the National Museum in Addis—the most high-profile historical artifact in the country, if not the world—looks, alas, like some half-assed middle-school science project thrown together in the basement. (It didn’t help that the bones, on the day I saw them, were only copies, the originals having gone off on their own controversial, ill-attended tour of B-level American science museums.) Maybe it would be easier to get outraged on Ethiopia’s behalf about the whole stolen-treasures issue if they took better care of the treasures that were still in their possession. But then taking care of treasures costs money, and money is hardly the Ethiopian economy’s strong suit.

For that matter, it’s hardly any economy’s strong suit these days. “We have the same problem in Egypt, you know,” I was told by a cultural attaché from Cairo. “We too lost our obelisks, thanks to Napoleon. There’s one on the Champs-Elysées, and one in Central Park. The feeling is, we want our antiquities back, but there’s some skepticism about the politics, like maybe we’ll just spend a lot of money we don’t have on lawyers, and annoy a lot of museums that have been our partners in the past. And then there’s that bigger question: Even if we get the stuff back, what will we do with it?”

On the flight back to Addis, I tell Ephrem about my conversation with Jos, and that orphanage in Gondor he mentioned. As it happens, Ephrem knows of a similar place, Selamta, down in Addis. We arrange to go see it when we get back.

Selamta lies in the wild western outskirts of the city, where the roads are unpaved and the primary mode of transport is mule-drawn cart. The Selamta people have bought eight houses out here and converted them into group homes. Each house is comfortable and spacious, with good furniture, immaculate bedrooms, and neatly swept courtyards in which women can be found cheerfully cutting up beef and vegetables for that day’s lunch, as opposed to the usual shiro and injera at most orphanages. But then this isn’t exactly an orphanage. “We wish the children to feel they are in a home,” explains the director, Getachew Ashagre, a somber, soft-voiced man in his forties. “A new family that will be a permanent one. In each house there is a ‘mother’ and an ‘auntie.’ The children are all ‘siblings.’ They go to school close by. We do this so they will be part of the community, and not have so much confusion in the future.”

“What kind of confusion?”

“So many of our children go away to be adopted,” he says, looking not at me but at Ephrem. “Then they grow up, and become confused who they are.”

He lays out some of Selamta’s objectives. To reconnect the children with their extended families. To bring in sibling groups and older children, who are often turned away by traditional orphanages. To develop partnerships with medical clinics and health-care NGOs to provide medical and emotional support to both the children and the surrounding community. To employ and professionally train local staff. To establish a replicable model for all this so it can be adopted widely. In other words, to help repair a social fabric shredded by poverty and disease.

It’s a plan so ambitious, and at the same time so wonderfully reasonable and comprehensive and well outlined, I’m ready to enlist in the cause myself. Later, driving back to town, we pass the Save the Children compound with its friendly and familiar logo of arms spread wide. A noise escapes Ephrem’s throat. It’s a sound I’ve come to recognize, a little rumble of reluctant disapproval. “What?”

“Maybe we do not need you to save our children so much,” he says.

“Isn’t it good to give them a chance at a better life?”

“Yes, it is good for them. But maybe we wish to save them ourselves.”

“And if you can’t? If the problems are too large? What then?”

We’ve been together for a week now, and I can tell by his expression that he’s tired of answering such questions, tired of orphans, tired of obelisks, tired, in truth, of schlepping around visitors like me. If I came to Ethiopia looking for cheap drama, for some high sacrificial purpose born of hardship and struggle, this wasn’t going to be it.

As for the obelisk, it will go up in September, more or less on schedule, but in Ethiopian fashion, amid puddling rain and heavy wind, with a lot of rhetorical car honking and aimless milling around. The newspapers will complain about the cost. The crowds will climb all over the steles, taking pictures with cell phones, in the process chipping away shards of ancient stone, pieces of the very cultural inheritance they’ve spent half a century waiting for. Even the final unveiling of the Axum Obelisk, when it comes, will remain stubbornly partial: the banners of red and yellow and green will fall but the scaffolding will remain.

Scaffolding surrounds the well-preserved obelisk. Men stand at its base, looking out on a small crowd gathered. Behind them are signs of an even larger gathering.
Shanidov / CC BY-NC 2.0

The night before I leave I have dinner at the apartment of my daughter’s aunt, or grandmother, or cousin—even three years later, the limbs of her extended family tree remain blurry, impressionistic—on the outskirts of Addis. A dozen or so relatives and friends come forward to greet me, eager for news. I pass around some photos. They inspire gasps, tears, commentary of an almost talmudically intense nature. How much she’s changed. But when will we see her, they want to know. When will she come back.

“Soon, soon,” I say reassuringly, and then change the subject. In truth, the longer she is away, the less clear it becomes, when and under what conditions my daughter will return to Ethiopia. True, her life seemed in ruins when we claimed her, but speaking to her family and friends here, the line between ruins and treasures is less clear to me than ever. I wonder if the obelisk, during its long sojourn in Rome, grew fond of the place, and began to think itself Italian. Did it want to go home? Did it even know, at a certain point, what in the world home was?

“I was happier when it was in Italy,” my daughter’s cousin Mesfin confides. “Maybe if it was still in Italy people will come there and learn about Ethiopia. But if it is in Axum, maybe no one will come see it.”

“But now you can go see it,” I say.

He smiles. Then he tells me that he has entered the visa lottery and would be pleased if I could help him come to the States.


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