Rebecca Haile, Held at a Distance: My Rediscovery of Ethiopia

   (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2007), 195 pp.

 A Review

 By Ayele Bekerie, PhD

Rebecca’s Held at a Distance: My Rediscovery of Ethiopia is a well written, incisive and pleasant to read autobiographical, historical, and diasporic narrative.  It is indeed a memoir of dislocation, migration, and rediscovery after a revolutionary upheaval and change.  The narrative is inspired by and is based on her four weeks trip to her homeland Ethiopia after twenty-five years of absence.  Rebecca meticulously narrates how she and her family succeeded in overcoming traumatic experience and rebuilt their immensely productive lives in the Diaspora while they remain connected to the motherland.  Her narrative is in fact therapeutic and, hopefully, it will encourage thousands of silenced Ethiopians to voice their sufferings from the state sponsored violence of the Derg period.  Rebecca’s initiative in this regard is commendable.

Rebecca initiates narrowing the distance that kept her away from the country of her birth as a result of the repressive years of Derg.  She also celebrates her successful and empowered life, a life that has risen way up beyond the punitive, vindictive and destructive power of the military regime.   Rebecca’s innocent and ideal childhood was rudely and violently violated by a reckless and murderous regime – a regime that massacred thousands of Ethiopians, young and old, in the name of an ideology that it barely understands or able to describe it beyond stupefying and yet deadly slogans.  Those who disagreed with the slogans or refuse to shout them at every meeting paid with their lives.  This shallow and foreign ideology – the ideology that presided over the tragic killing of thousands of Ethiopians – came to a sudden vaporization with the collapse of the then Soviet Union.  Organized and fierce resistance against it also halted it. Rebecca, by taking advantage of what she calls the healing passage of time, thinks and writes about the horrific outcome of state-sponsored violence as well as about the healing, perseverance and triumph of the human spirit.

Rebecca’s book has three parts.  Part one focus on the story of her extended family.  She reflects on her reunion with her grandmother, aunts, and uncle. It also includes an engaging story of her uncle, Engineer Tadesse.  The Engineer argues for the strengthening and expansion of local institutions and traditional practices.  He believes that economic transformation will lead to political transformation.  Part two retraces the historic north or what she calls the remains of an empire, an empire that left a legacy of visible monuments, written records and dynamic religious and cultural institutions.  Part three is labeled intersections of a globalized life.  It deals with issues of two lives, two laws, and two dreams.  These three parts are accompanied by prologue and epilogue that allow the reader to see the interconnectedness of the parts as well as the perspective of the writer.  Rebecca is an independent thinker and she does not mince words in expressing her opinion on many and diverse issues, including current political issues at home.

Rebecca supplements her insightful narrative with great black and white photographs of her family and the historic north.  The cover of her book carries a smiling and confident self-portrait.  The picture of her aunt, Iteye Ityobia, moves me.  I am not sure if her aunt succeeded in obtaining a visa to travel to the U.S. to see her brother, Professor Getachew Haile.

Rebecca, who is the daughter of the distinguished scholar, the winner of the McArthur Foundation Genius Grant for his research on ancient Ethiopian manuscripts, the speaker of several languages, the author of several books on the literary, religious, linguistic traditions of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church’s representative to the World Council of Churches, the Cataloguer of the Ethiopian Manuscripts, the champion of the Liberal Social Democracy principles and practice, not only pays a moving tribute to her father, parents and extended family, she is also coming of age in her own right to claim her motherland.

Rebecca, a graduate of Harvard Law School, a former clerk of a Federal Judge and a lawyer who work in major law firms in Washington D.C. and New York, is eager and willing to return to Ethiopia in a meaningful way, to become part of a new Ethiopia where the rights of all citizens are guaranteed by law and respected, where the rights of women, including the right to participate in the political decision making, the right to live free of sexism, sexual abuse and exploitation, abuse in the work place , both locally and globally, particularly in countries, such as Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the Gulf States, to promote the rights of free speech and to solving political difference by peaceful means.  She wants to bridge the gap that held her at a distance for more than two decades, the gap that forced her to seek new life in America. 

Rebecca is now a proud mother of two children, happily married to Jean, a Greek Armenian (Ethiopian orthodox church maintains one of the longest relationships with the churches of Greece and Armenia).  Jean accompanied Rebecca in her historic journey to Ethiopia, a journey that took her back to her family and to the northern part of Ethiopia. Rebecca’s memoir is also remarkable in combining her family story with the story of the motherland.  It is clear that she has become a woman of substance, integrity.  She is articulate, assertive, critical and open-minded.

Rebecca limited her reflections on Ethiopian history and historical sites to the northern part.  I hope in due course she will be able to visit the southern western and eastern parts and be able to expand her rediscovery.  Rediscovery is a way of coming to terms with shocking and tragic past experience.  It is an attempt to overcome trauma, psychological and physical dislocations triggered by radical social upheaval.

Rebecca’s narrative on her uncle, Engineer Tadesse, is moving.  His determination to continue to live and build bridges in Ethiopia, even under the most trying moments of the Derg, is quite exemplary.  I certainly share his vision of putting the abundant water of the Abay River to large-scale irrigation agricultural development.  A leader who puts his vision into reality will be a true national leader, comparable to President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who built the great Aswan Dam in Egypt.  Thanks for the Dam, Egypt is not only generating massive amount of electricity, but it is turning vast tract of desert land green.

Rebecca’s interaction with her grandmother and aunt also provide ample examples of the strength of family values and its capacity to sustain and nourish the family members.

Rebecca made several observations during her visits of Ethiopia:  narrow policy in Aksum, misguided racial myth of the Ethiopians, the crude policy of the American Embassy.

Held at a Distance is a great accomplishment.  It is a triumphant and hopeful memoir.  Rebecca has taken steps to narrow the distance and to re-link with extended family members and country.  It certainly presents a balanced life of the author, a balance in which she displayed an American face to the world while she nurtured a private identification with Ethiopia that she kept mostly to herself.

Modified and Expanded on October 13, 2007

Ayele Bekerie, PhD

Cornell University

The views reflected in the above  essay are solely of the author and are not necessarily shared by Meskot. You may contact Dr. Ayele Bekerie for comments at XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX