Derg era photograph of a student protest that caught my eye at the Red Terror museum in Addis Ababa. The sign on the right roughly translates to “we will not occupy the people of Eritrea”.
by ARACELIS GIRMAY
for cousin gideon, who drove us to massawa
Two sisters ride down with us
to Massawa’s liberation celebration.
One sister is the color of injera; her teeth are big and stuck-out.
One sister is a cinnamon stick.
Their almond eyes are the same.
The ink black hair falls beautiful down their backs.
I see that you love one of them & change my mind
many times about which I choose for you.
Months later, I will show their photographs to my father
who will laugh & say he knows,
‘It is this one,’ he will say, surely, pointing to the woman whose teeth stay in her mouth.
(What man will choose a woman
whose mouth is stronger than his hands?)
But, cousin, for you I choose the older one
whose teeth might be bullets of ivory;
I imagine that from this mouth:
ax equal to lace, the yellow & lick
of a jar filled with
the sweet of stinging bees.
It’s 1997 in Seattle’s Yesler Terrace, and 10-year-old Abai is on a quest to find fresh batteries for his Casio keyboard for one last music lesson with his older brother Sam before seeing him sent back to their native Eritrea indefinitely.
|Principal Cast:||Joseph Smith, Natnael Moges, Rahwa Habte, Eyobe Alemu, Shiwanesh G. Hadgu|
Recognize this smile? Chances are if you grew up in/around an Ethiopian or Eritrean community you have seen this smiling face before. The iconic portrait of the “Beni Amer boy” was captured by photographer James P. Blair sometime in the 1960’s. The image is as familiar in Eritrea as it is in Ethiopia. This is due to the politics of the time the picture was taken. Although the picture was taken in Eritrea, at the time “Beni Amer boy” was simply from “northwestern Ethiopia”. Another reason why this image is iconic is because of the endorsement by the Ethiopian Tourism Commission. The Ethiopian Tourism Commission adopted the “Beni Amer boy” as the face of “13 Months of Sunshine” tourism campaign.
“When the piece of a body is left (or a home is left) then the body begins being a constellation: one piece is there! one piece is there! If I leave my hair in the comb in my mother’s house & walk out the door to go to the airport, then all of a sudden the body is everything between me & that lost piece. The body is made up, then, of roads & crickets & azucena & mud. How large we are. How ramshackle, how brilliant, how haphazardly & strangely rendered we are. Gloriously, fantastically mixed & monstered. I have been asking myself to be more attentive & porous–to pay attention to the way every inch of me is animal, every inch of me is earth. I am trying to remember this. Where is my cloud? Where is my sea? What do the lungs hunt? What does the eye have in common with the teeth?”
– Aracelis Girmay
By Warsan Shire
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011)
Well, I think home spat me out, the blackouts and curfews like tongue against loose tooth. God, do you know how difficult it is, to talk about the day your own city dragged you by the hair, past the old prison, past the school gates, past the burning torsos erected on poles like flags? When I meet others like me I recognise the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.
They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket. I hope the journey meant more than miles because all of my children are in the water. I thought the sea was safer than the land. I want to make love but my hair smells of war and running and running. I want to lay down, but these countries are like uncles who touch you when you’re young and asleep. Look at all these borders, foaming at the mouth with bodies broken and desperate. I’m the colour of hot sun on my face, my mother’s remains were never buried. I spent days and nights in the stomach of the truck, I did not come out the same. Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.
I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing, I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing. I am the sin of memory and the absence of memory. I watch the news and my mouth becomes a sink full of blood. The lines, the forms, the people at the desks, the calling cards, the immigration officer, the looks on the street, the cold settling deep into my bones, the English classes at night, the distance I am from home. But Alhamdulilah all of this is better than the scent of a woman completely on fire, or a truckload of men who look like my father, pulling out my teeth and nails, or fourteen men between my legs, or a gun, or a promise, or a lie, or his name, or his manhood in my mouth.
I hear them say, go home, I hear them say, fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really this arrogant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second and the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its return. All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side.