Sunday, 30 September 2012

Eritrea - Absent Heroes and the source of Astier's Anger

Eritrea is the 25th place that I've blogged about and I'm really surprised that I've managed to get this far without delving into drama, as a reference source for my research.  Whilst officially studying English (literature) and Linguistics at University College Dublin (UCD), unofficially, I spent most of my time in Dramsoc (the university's Drama society), producing, directing and even acting in plays, not to mention all the off-stage dramas, parties, friendships and learning about life.

African drama

African drama is an unknown quantity to me so, as part of my research for this blog, I got myself a copy of Contemporary African Plays (ed. Banham and Plastow, 1999 from Methuen Drama).  Drama is an integral part of African culture and the development of modern dramatic forms in Africa has been heavily influenced by developments in the political world.  Eritrean drama developed somewhat in isolation from the rest of Africa and draws more on the naturalism of 19th-century European dramatists like Shaw and Ibsen, than on indigenous forms of expression.

So what is the other war?

The collection includes Eritrea's most famous play - The Other War by Alemseged Tesfai. It was first published in Tigrinya in 1984 and became the first ever play to be translated from Tigrinya to English.  As a rather unexpected echo from elsewhere on my blog, I was interested to learn that Tesfai was studying for a PhD at the University of Wisconsin, when he broke off his studies and returned to Eritrea to fight for independence with Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF).

The EPLF recognised the importance of winning a 'cultural war' against the Ethiopians, as part of the wider struggle for independence.  The Ethiopians, for their part, also recognised the importance of winning the other war against Eritrea and, culturally, they wanted to wipe Eritrea off the map, by imposing Amharic language and encouraging Amharic soldiers to inter-marry with Eritrean women.

More than merely agitprop

This other war is the subject of Tesfai's play and he approaches the subject cleverly, clearly marking out his support for the Eritrean cause, without resorting to the unsophisticated agitprop that revolutionary socialist theatre usually relies on.  Although the play leaves no one in doubt of the fact that the young Eritrean woman, Astier, is a traitor to her country and the Eritrean cause - Tesfai presents a context which explains her position, without excusing it.

Video from YouTube documenting EPLF

The source of Astier's anger

To Letiyesus (Astier's mother), her daughter's behaviour is unforgivable.  Not only has she brought an Ethiopian husband into their home, but she has also had a baby by him, a boy called Kitaw (Amharic for punish them).  When Astier returns to Asmara with her new husband and baby, Letiyesus refuses to bond with the child, seeing him as yet another weapon in the Ethiopian war on Eritrea.

Astier returns to Asmara to work for the Ethiopian regime and, very quickly, she becomes a symbol of repression and hate for the neighbours and friends that she grew up with. Perhaps not wanting to be seen as weak by the Ethiopians, she displays more cruelty towards her fellow-Eritreans than is necessary.  We learn that, at some point during her time living in Addis Ababa, Astier decides to throw her lot in with the Ethiopians.

An EPLF revolutionary song - this time in Tigre language

Tesfai gives her a reason for doing so, ie. she is escaping an abusive marriage to an Eritrean man who was twice her age, one that her parents forced her into when she was too young to know any different.  Astier's betrayal of her own people comes from a bitterness against the way her 'own people' treated her.  When Letiyesus tries to appeal to Astier's sense of national pride, Astier responds:

My family? Who are my family and my people? Don't you realise that you and father, especially father, have left me with a scar (Touching her heart) I will never be able to get rid of, all my life?

What's brilliant about Tesfai's portrayal of Astier is that, whilst he recognises the intensely nationalistic atmosphere of Eritrean society would never allow for the sympathetic portrayal of a character who works for the Ethiopian regime - he allows Astier a context that would, at least, explain her behaviour.  In a way, she is fighting a personal war against all Eritrean men and marrying the enemy is her biggest act of defiance.  Ultimately, she chooses the wrong side and what she says as inevitable (Ethiopian rule over Eritrea) is not inevitable after all.

Planting the seeds of war

Whilst he first comes across as being rather reasonable, Assefa, Astier's Ethiopian husband, quickly reveals his true colours and is incredibly direct in terms of his understanding of his relationship with an Eritrean woman.  He tells her mother:

I, Assefa, planted my seed in your daughter's womb. Kitaw was born . . . My roots are firmly planted in Eritrea and no power can ever pull them up.

A world of 'absent heroes'

Plays I read as part of my research
Astier's betrayal of her country is sharply contrasted with the patriotism of her brother Mika-el.  Although he never appears in the play, Mika-el's presence is felt throughout.  Assefa calls him a wembedie or 'bandit' but to Letiyesus and her neighbours, Mika-el is a true Eritrean hero.  This theme of  'absent heroes' seems to be quite common in Eritrean drama.  I've also read a very slim volume called Three Eritrean Plays - containing plays written by Solomon Dirar, Esaias Tseggai and Mesgun Zerai, all ex-fighters with the EPLF who were wounded and turned their attentions to the cultural battlefield.

In Dirar's The Snare - the main character doesn't appear until the very end of the play.  In Zerai's A Village Dream, the female villagers, who are the heroes of the play, absent themselves from the village, much to the men's consternation.  Of course, it's easier to idealise 'absent heroes' - Mika-el's character only exists in the memories of others - he's practically a martyr, although we never learn whether or not he has been killed on the battlefield.  By contrast, Assefa is very much present on stage, with all of his faults and weaknesses exposed.  It's an interesting portrayal of heroism, in a society occupied by foreign men.

I really enjoyed reading Tesfai's play and those of Dirar, Tseggai and Zerai.  If you have never read an Eritrean play, then I would recommend The Other War in particular, as a milestone in modern Eritrean theatre.

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