A book Review
“Blue Daughter of the Red Sea”
By Meti Birabiro
The University of Wisconsin Press
Some have commented that Ethiopians are secretive. While such generalizations are fraught with flaws as most generalizations go, one may cautiously accept that and find universalizing instances to support it. Many cultures generally abhor washing their dirty linen in public. This may pertain to family issues, but might include the difficulty of opening the window into one’s perceived “shame”, private life and sorrow.
Again, tentatively accepting a general trait about secretiveness among cultures like ours, one may extrapolate that into explaining why many AIDS victims in our country refuse to know if they have the virus, and those who know, why they hide it to their grave (dying of accidental causes instead), and why finally, the society is largely unaccepting and devoid of much needed compassion. Such a vicious circle.
In our culture, the question of sex itself is shrouded in mystery, myth, and secrecy. We have yet to fully welcome sex as a biological need, and the anatomies involved in it as parts of the body to be enjoyed in a safe and pleasant manner. We have yet to fully open our windows to let someone, close or distant, family or stranger, gaze inside at our heavily-protected secrets. It unburdens us. We get a sense of relief. We get closer to the truth. We banish the demons that have been bedeviling us. At last, we get others to contemplate their own private “shame”, and by coming out, create a solidarity of “shame victims” to find solutions to common problems, which afterall, are not unique to one person or one family.
It is in this light “Blue Daughter of the Red Sea”, a book/memoir by Meti Birabiro has to be seen. She is a young Ethiopian writer born in Dire Dawa, and now probably in her late 20’s.
The genre of autobiography/memoir by itself is a new and emerging addition to the genre of Ethiopian literature. Authors in this pantheon include Mengistu Lemma, Haddis Alemayehu, Amanuel Abraham, Hareka Hareyo Oda, and to a lesser extent, Nega Mezlekia, who also hails from the Harar area like Meti (Jijiga in particular), and whose 2001 part autobiography and part social history “Notes from the Hyena’s Belly –an Ethiopian Boyhood”was widely read. At the end of his book in his “brief epilogue”, Nega shares his family’s “shame” such as his inability to help needy family members and a court scandal among family members over inheritance.
Meti starts the book on p.5 by sharing with readers her private “shame”. Describing an incident one day at school in her pre-teen days, she says: “..there is a wet feeling in between and on the back of my thighs and on my buttocks. I can tell clearly that it is not pee since pee feels warm on the skin and this sensation is rather cool…the wet feeling intensifies on my skin throughout my lower body….” As this “shame” of hers happens in the middle of a class, the reader can imagine her distraught at that tender age. Finally, someone in the administration office tells her that the flat, yellow sticks are tapeworms.
For Meti, even Dire Dawa’s “shame”, and by extension, Ethiopia’s, is not spared from the public gaze: barefoot children running against a background of feces-embedded roads and the newborn babies that are abandoned are examples. She even tells us that she is (or might be) the offspring of an indecent proposal by a Dirg officer who for sexual favors with her mother spared the life of a young cousin during the terrible days of the Red Terror.
She habitually pokes fun at parts of her body, especially her high forehead. Then comes, probably, the most intimate part of her life that she lets us on: “Esu’s ( a disguise name of a boy she met at a Christmas party in 1999 in Italy) body took the space beside mine on the sofabed. We borrowed the y2k subject from the news and conversed about the possibilities of crashes and terrorism. In the meantime, I would feel my body grow tense. Somewhere down our conversation, his hands started to caress my neck, and then his lips invaded my neck and lips. He kissed me and kissed me until our tongues formed only one taste. His hands fished for any skin on my body, depriving me of my clothes. They undid my bra and found their way to my breasts. His mouth gently suckled on my nipples. He kissed his way down my body, pausing at my belly. And the entire time, I watched him in the fullness of his act, with my eyes wide open, analyzing his every move. He kept his eyes shut…again, he kissed his way back to my lips…Then, his hands unbuttoned my pants..”
“No, Esu. I have never done these things.” I said.
“Don’t Worry”, says he. His fingers entered the door of my vagina. It hurt. It hurt really bad. He took his fingers out, and his hands took mine and guided it to his penis and he let me shake hands with it and left me to my fate. I held it in my hand not knowing what to do with it. I was shocked at its erectness and dared not to stoop to look. Instead, I looked at Esu for direction. But he was in ecstasy and paid no attention to me. I freed my hands of the penis, and forced myself to concentrate on the kisses. He stripped me of my underwear. I let him but I panicked when I felt his erect penis on my belly.
“No, Esu, no. I don’t want to.” I said. He repeated : stai tranquilla (stay calm?). His penis brushed against my belly and I became terrified because I did not know what it felt like when a man entered a woman and what if he was inside me already. Then, he endearingly ordered me to go down. “Va giu”, he said, and pushed my head in the direction of his phallus. I made an effort to brush it lightly with my lips, smell it, and look at it. It had an eerie appearance. Its shape reminded me that of a fist in every sense of the word: it seemed to carry many a bad intention. I abruptly jumped my way up to kiss his belly and regressed to his lips to see if I could gain my innocence back. (p.123-124)
The lovers heard their friends coming, and the footsteps broke the suspense.
This is not at all a sleazy pornographic depiction of an encounter. It is the only place in the book where Meti shares what almost always takes place between any two lovers. One has to appreciate this narration as one coming from a 15-year old girl born in Ethiopia. Sharing her intimate experience, her first, and according to the book her last at least until she was 21.
In the book, Meti narrates in smooth and brilliant language her misery-filled upbringing in Ethiopia, and later her migration to Italy and the US. In Italy, she chronicles her life in a Catholic boarding school where she had her first menstruation, with the Italian nun warmly welcoming her into womanhood with a big hug, sanitary pads, new pairs of underwear and sweets. Meti sourly comments “back in Ethiopia, a young girl bleeds and friends console her as if it is her funeral”. (p. 76)
Then, onto the US where she is jailed in L.A. by immigration officers for traveling with a fake passport. After a kind immigration judge lets her free, she has nowhere to stay. In L.A., she bounces from an old Hispanic couple’s house to a shelter in Hollywood for troubled teens. As I read this part, I started wondering why Meti did not attempt to locate an Ethiopian family in a city where reportedly over 30,000 Ethiopians reside. Later, somewhat clumsily and probably as an afterthought, Meti inserts a one sentence mention of an Ethiopian family that briefly cared for her.(p.164)
In jail, she makes good friends with female Hispanic and Chinese prisoners where she picks up Spanish. After bumping through Texas, Europe again, Mexico and the US East Coast, Meti seems finally to physically settle down. However, because many of her emotions, plans and feelings are not sorted out, she started seeing a therapist for a long while.
This bright young woman is not as hopeless as her unsettled mind portrays. Although she did not give us the details, a caption under her picture in the back of her book reads “Meti Birabiro studied comparative literature at UC Berkeley. She currently lives in the US.” In her book, it is not clear if Enat Ghela ( a name a family member gave her when she was little) has immersed herself in Ethiopian literature, art and history. If she has not, as probably is the case since she left Ethiopia at a tender age and her life since then has been claimed by many aspects of an immigrant’s routine, a deep reading of our literature and history may perhaps solidly anchor her into her culture, and exorcise some of the demons that make her restless.
By sharing her intimate life in a memoir, Meti has trailed a blaze which our young generation and generations to follow should use as a template for openness.