Saturday, December 6, 2008

General Abraham P. Hannibal, General Ivan Hannibal, Alexander S. Pushkin and Descendants

FROM THE ERITREAN CAMEL TO THE RUSSIAN DOUBLE-HEADED EAGLE TO THE BRITISH LION: The Odyssey of Abraham P. Hannibal, Alexander S. Pushkin and Descendants.

Part Two


Joel A. Rogers, the famous African American historian of Carribean descent wrote in his book, Great Men Of Color (Vol. II) that destiny had been good to Hannibal from the beginning (I'll use the complete quote at the end of the introduction). But has fame been fair to Abraham Hannibal when it comes to being known for his accomplishments, at least, for English language readers? I tend to think not. Unlike the norm, whereby the achievements of off spring have been overshadowed by famous parents, here is a case of a renowned literary genius, Alexander S. Pushkin, whose achievements overshadow those of his maternal great grand father, a "great man of color", the brilliant military and civil engineer, Abraham Petrovich Hannibal.

In my last post, I mentioned that two books had been published since I wrote a series of articles on Abraham Hannibal and his descendants in 2003. Thanks to the works of Hugh Barnes and Frances Somers Cocks, English language readers can finally read in detail about this incredible historical figure. In Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg, Hugh Barnes brings Abraham P. Hannibal out from the shadows of Alexander S. Pushkin, and projects him into a full blown biography. Like a good eye surgeon, Barnes removes the cataract that had been obstructing us from seeing the complete life of Abraham P. Hannibal. Barnes succeeds in removing most of the cataract that had been the cause of the blurriness before. However, like a cataract that has not been fully removed and keeps coming back, Barnes' Gannibal's original birthplace remains opaque. To be fair though, it is understandable that proving a birthplace is very difficult given the unavailability of original documents and strong evidences from 17th century Africa.

It is normal when people or countries tend to claim renowned personalities as their own. In Africa, the number of countries claiming Hannibal or Pushkin (through Hannibal) as their own is increasing. The latest addition to the fold is Cameroon. One thing should be clear, though. First of all, all of Africa should be proud of the extraordinary lives and brilliant accomplishments of Hannibal and his descendants, because as you will see, their stories should not be confined to a particular place and time, but should be hailed as a triumph for the resilience and perseverance of the timeless human spirit.

Historian Dieudonne Gnammankou is the first advocate of Cameroon as the historical birthplace of Abraham P. Hannibal. He believes that Logone-Birni, which is located south of Lake Chad is the birthplace of Abraham P. Hannibal. Gnammankou wrote his book on Hannibal in French, therefore, I couldn't follow his argument first hand. However, through Hugh Barnes and Frances Somers Cocks (both of them visited Logone-Birini for their respective books), I am able to follow the argument of Logone-Birini as Hannibal's birthplace. Since this is not a book review, I'm not going to go in detail and argue as to why Logone-Birni is not a potential place as Hannibal's birth, but rather I will put forth the argument that Eritrea is the best candidate as Hannibal's origin of birth.

Oral Tradition/Orature (Oral Literature)

Oral history has a long tradition in Africa. It is important to note that there is a tendency to believe that oral tradition is suspect when it comes to recording history. Even though oral tradition might raise a red flag, it should not be dismissed outright, however. Oral tradition can be preserved in the form of poetry, songs, music and stories. Before people invented writing, their history was preserved and communicated to the next generation through oral tradition. Eritrea has a long history of both written and oral history. As a matter of fact, Eritrea is one of the very few countries in Africa that has its own script and has a long written tradition.

Early on, written tradition in Eritrea was limited mostly to the clergy, therefore, churches were the main depositors and chroniclers of local history. Eritrea also has a long history of customary laws. These customary laws were both written and oral. Many villages in Eritrea had their own customary laws (Note: For more discussion of Eritrean customary laws by Memher Tewoldebrhan Amdemeskel, check out my post entitled "Eritrea: sketches of a trip" Sketch four, part two). Since Eritrea was and still is an agrarian society, these customary laws addressed land issues, such as land usage, etc; they subliminally also addressed genealogy and census. Therefore, in Eritrea there is a long tradition of knowing one's genealogy. To give you an example from my family, I can recite up to twelve of my ancestors on my father's father side and more than ten on my father's mother side and also ten on my mother's side, which were all written and handed down to me.

In 2000, I videotaped my late grand-mother-in-law, who was 92 years old at the time and who recited for me the genealogy of her husband's famous great uncle, Degieat Bahta Hagos, the Eritrean patriot who fought and was killed by the Italians in late 19th century. In the same conversation, she also told me stories of Diegeat Bahta that I had never heard before, from oral tradition. In part one of the series that I am writing now, I mentioned that the village of Lagwen had published its own genealogy. As I have tried to argue above, oral and written tradition about one's genealogy (whether at the family or at the larger society level) is not unique but the norm in the narration of Eritrean history.

Logon, Logo, Logone, Lagwen, etc.

Looking at the number of villages that start with the letter "L", it would not be surprising if all the villages in Africa that start with the letter "L" claim to be the origin of Abraham's birthplace.
How did the letter "L" became the first candidate? The main source of the story is Abraham Hannibal himself. In a letter addressed to Czarina Elizabeth in 1742, Abraham mentioned that he was born in a place called Lagone in Africa. He also mentioned that he was the son of a local ruler, hence the source of the idea that Abraham was the son of a ruler or was a prince. The last part could be an exaggeration on the part of Hannibal since he was petitioning Empress Elizabeth in the same letter for the rank of the nobility. The notion that Abraham Hannibal was the direct descendant of the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, was first advocated by Abraham's son-in-law, Adam Rotkirkh. Abraham, it must be noted, did not add Hannibal to his name before he went to France. Rotkirkh is also believed to be the source of the"Abyssinian birth" of Abraham.

Abyssinia is the former name of Ethiopia. With the "Abyssinian birth" theory the area of Mereb which borders Eritrea (Ethiopia directly ruled Eritrea from 1962 to 1991) was the main candidate as the birthplace of Abraham. Hugh Barnes and Frances Somers Cocks both visited potential villages that would have qualified as the birthplace of Abraham. None of the people who had ever written or searched for the birthplace of Abraham ever visited a village called Lagwen, which is located 12 kms. outside of Asmara(the capital of Eritrea). That means all the researchers had been searching in the wrong area. None of the places (Logo, Logo Sarda, Logone..) that were visited by the aforementioned authors or the previous authors claimed that Abraham was from there. Even Logone-Birini was not aware of its "famous son" until researchers came and start asking them about Abraham and Pushkin. Unlike all the other potential villages, Lagwen, on the other hand, has an oral history and written genealogy of Abraham Hannibal. According to the oral tradition of Lagwen, Abraham was abducted from a small hill called Gobo Una Mariam. Lagwen's claim should be studied thoroughly.

Turkish Rule

Abraham was taken from Africa and then taken to Turkey. Hugh Barnes pretty much has covered Abraham's life from the time he left Turkey up to his death in Russia. How did Abraham get to Turkey? What was the relationship between the countries who claim Abraham's birth as their own and Turkey? Again, Eritrea is a much better candidate than Cameroon for the following reasons.

1.Parts of Eritrea (especially Massawa and the coastal areas) were under the direct rule of Turkey for centuries. Turkey's incursion into highland Eritrea is also known (Lagwen is located in the highlands of Eritrea). One might hear the term "Gez'at Turki" (the rule of Turkey) in Eritrea. This is in reference to an authoritarian and brutal domination that Eritrea went through under the rule of Turkey.

2. Geography. Eritrea which is located in the Horn of Africa on the Red Sea coast is much closer to Turkey than Logone-Birini's which is located south of Lake Chad in West Africa.

3. Abraham was taken by ship to Turkey. Massawa, a major port in Eritrea, was under the direct rule of Turkey. Massawa was a major port for exporting slaves and other commodities to the rest of the world. Most of the slaves taken through Massawa were taken to the Middle East and India. (Note: There are a group of people in India known as Habishis who had been in India for four centuries who claim the area of the Horn of Africa as their homeland).

Finally, I highly recommend that people read Hugh Barnes' Gannibal : The Moor of Petersburg for detailed life of Abraham P. Hannibal. There are several important findings in Barnes' book. The first is the information of the newly found book written by Abraham Hannibal entitled Geometry and Fortification and an unpublished book entitled Artificial Fireworks. The second important information concerns Abraham's life in France. Abraham knew leaders of the French Enlightenment. According to Barnes, Montesquieu even praised Abraham as the "dark star of Russia's enlightenment". Third is the fact that Abraham's role in using fireworks to investigate the military potential of rocketry is highly significant. Barnes in his book quotes works by Simon Werret entitled Projecting Modernity: A Social History of Rocketry, which argues that (H) Gannibal's work on the 'secret howitzer' paved the way for the development of the first military rockets by the British inventor Sir William Congreve in the early nineteen century. And much more.

Below is what I had posted in 2003.


Double-headed eagle of Imperial Russia

J. A. Rogers in his book World’s Great Men of Color Vol. II starts Abraham Hannibal’s story like this: "History contains few figures more extraordinary than Abraham Hannibal. Stolen from his parents in Africa and sold into slavery, he became general-in-chief of one of the leading white empires of his day. Destiny was so kind to Hannibal from the beginning; instead of being sent to America, where he would have been at best a house servant, he was sent to Turkey…”

From Turkey he was taken to Russia where he became a general and one of the leading engineers of Imperial Russia. Abraham P. Hannibal’s odyssey begins in 17th century rural Eritrea. The Atlantic Slave Trade that took African people into bondage to the Americas and the Caribbean was beginning on the west coast of Africa. Turkey was ruling part of Europe and Asia. The coastal areas of Eritrea were also under Turkey. The Arab Slave Trade on the eastern part of Africa which predates The Atlantic Slave Trade had shown no sign of slowing down.

The destinations of the African people taken from East Africa were Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and India...). This was the situation of the world in which Abraham Hannibal was born. When he was eight years old he was kidnapped from Lagwen, Eritrea- according to Tweldi Lagwen from Gobo Enda Mariam- and was taken to Turkey. On his way with his abductors, legend has it that, his older sister followed them to Massawa and drowned in the Red Sea while trying to rescue her brother.

Once he was taken to Turkey he was sold as a slave to Sultan Mustapha II in Constantinople. While he was a slave at the palace, in a far away Russia, Czar Peter the Great (I) at the age of 25 was trying to “modernize/westernize” "old" Russia. He wanted to make Imperial Russia among equals of royals of Western Europe. He thus traveled disguised as a simple private individual among a Russian delegation of 250 supposedly headed by three ambassadors. Peter’s secret mission was two-fold. One, to secure Holland’s assistance in any future conflict with Turkey, and two, to apprentice himself and his men to Holland’s superior ship builders ( Lavlenko). This opportunity led him to personally witness the advancement of the various technological feats of Europe. He also witnessed the cultural aspects of the various European empires that he visited. As a sign of the times among royals of Europe, to have a portrait taken by famous artists with their black page boys was a sign of fashion, haute couture and vogue.

Back in Turkey, Russia’s Ambassador, Count Savva Raguinsky, was finishing up his duty and was returning to Russia. Being a “cultured” man himself whether through bribe or actual purchase he took back page-boys to Czar Peter. One of the pages was Abraham. It is not clear if Count Raguinsky took the boys from Turkey on his own or by a request from the Czar. Czar Peter was so determined to modernize Russia(the wife of Abraham or someone in her family) wrote the following : He (Czar Peter) wished to make examples of Russians and put them to shame by convincing them that out of every people and even from among wild men-such as “negroes”, whom our civilized nations assign exclusively to the class of slave, there can be formed men who by dint of application can obtain knowledge and learning and thus become helpful to their monarch.”(Pushkin Genealogy)

To Russia

Once in Russia, Abraham was unusually bright for his age. He quickly picked up the Russian language and alphabet. His inquiring mind was curious with numbers. The Czar realizing the potential of Abraham put him under his wings. Abraham started to accompany Peter through out Russia and foreign countries. It was during one of those trips, in 1707, in Vilno (Vilnius, Lithuania) that Abraham-since his days in Turkey was called Ibrahim- was re-baptized in the Russian Orthodox faith. His Father-in-Christ was none other than the Czar himself and Christina the Queen of Poland who became his god-mother (Hugh Barnes disputes that Christina Queen of Poland was even there).

In 1717, when Peter went on his second European trip, he took his god-son and private secretary, Abraham, to France and left him in Paris to study for a career as a military and civil engineer. He studied at the Ecole d’ Artillerie of la Fere under Bernard Forest de Belidor and afterwards, at the Ecole d’Artillerie of Metz, an institution founded by Sebastian le Preste, Marquis de Vauban. While in France a war broke out between France and Spain. He joined the French against the Spaniards and fought in many battles. It was in one of these battles in a place called Fontaine d’Arabie that he was hit in the head. After the war was over he returned to Paris. In Paris, he became the talk of town. With the women folk of Paris, shall we say, he was the most sought after, with his tall, dark and handsome complexion. His friends were people like Duke d’Orleans, who was the regent. According to J. A. Rogers, the Duke even asked him to remain in
France for a high position in court if Abraham transfers his allegiance to Duke d’Orleans. Abraham's allegiance was of course to Czar Peter.

To Russia with Love.

After his studies, it is believed that Abraham took with him over 400 volumes of books to Russia (Troyant). There is some debate whether the name Hannibal was added after he returned from France or when he was baptized in Vilno. After returning to Russia, Abraham Hannibal was appointed an officer in the perobrajensky guard-regiment. He became an engineer –lieutenant in the bombardier-company of which the Czar himself was the captain (Albert Parry). His career in Russia seemed to be promising. Czar Peter the Great appointed Abraham Hannibal to be the tutor of the crown prince, Peter II. His influence in the palace of Peter the Great became great. Consequently, with that influence came the jealousies, the distrust, and the hatred, ten-fold. Even though, he moved back from France to Russia with love to build Russia and serve his monarch, for those involved in the court intrigues, the response was from Russia with hate.

Tackling the Russian Bear.

On Czar Peter's death in 1725, the throne was seized by his wife, Catherine I, grandmother of Peter, the real heir (who was set aside). However, the real power was held by Prince Menshikov (J. A. Rogers). To diminish Abraham's influence on the real heir, Hannibal was first sent to Kazan and then to the Chinese frontier, where, under the pretext of being put in charge of fortification works, he was left to stagnate in a dreary exile (Troyant). Hannibal was sent to tackle the Russian bear (symbol of Russian beauty, wilderness, cold, country) in the hope that the bear would devour him. It was believed that Abraham would not survive the exile. The exile was imposed on him after Abraham declined a bribe from Menshinkov for trying to influence the real heir to the throne, Peter II. He was to remain in exile until the death of Catherine I in 1730. In the meantime, he was appointed to be in charge of the fortress at Pernau. It was here that
Abraham P. Hannibal resolved to marry Eudoxia the daughter of a Greek captain. After their marriage Eudoxia had a baby from a white navy officer. As a result Abraham asked for a divorce (which was ugly). The divorce would take almost five years to finalize.

Upon hearing of the ascension to the throne by Peter II and that of his old friend, Dolgouriki, Abraham decided to come back. But, he was arrested at Tomsk. Dolgouriki feared Abraham’s influence with Peter no less than that of Menshinkov's (who had been exiled). As a result, Abraham was held at Tomsk until Peter II’s death (J. A. Rogers). Peter was then succeeded by the niece of Peter the Great, Anna Ivanovna. Anna fearing that Abraham Hannibal belonged to a faction who wanted to put Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great(the real heir to the throne) wanted to arrest him. Field Marshall Munich, a friend from his France days, smuggled him out and sent him to the Swedish border near the city of Reval (modern day Tallinn in Estonia), where he would spent the next twelve years of Anna’s reign, forgotten (J. A. Rogers). In the meantime, in domestic life, Abraham Hannibal had remarried. His second wife, the daughter of a Baltic German captain, was called Regina Von Schellberg. Abraham and Regina had eleven children. And they were: 1. Ivan 2. Yevedkia (girl) 3 . Elizabeta 4. Anna 5. Peter 6. Ossip (grand father of Pushkin) 7. Agribna (girl) 8. Issac 9. Ekaterina (Catherine) 10. Yacov (Yacob) & 11. Sofia. I guess Abraham, despite being away from his birth place, had not forgotten the Eritrean psyche, Qol’U b’ Edlom iyom zAbyu , (children will grow up on their own luck), to heart.

General Abraham P. Hannibal (Barnes believes this is a picture of a white man not that of Abraham Hannibal's)

Engineering equipments of General Abraham
The Seal of General Abraham P. Hannibal

A Big Russian Bear-hug and an Offering of an Olive-branch from the Double-Headed Eagle.

While Abraham Hannibal was in exile and members of his family were increasing, Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great came to the throne. Instead of being devoured, Abraham had tamed the Russian bear and the bear had offered a big Russian bear hug. From St. Petersburg, the seat of Imperial Russia and home of the double-headed eagle (coat-of-arms of the Romanov's), Abraham was offered an olive branch. In her gratitude to Abraham's unswerving devotion and loyalty to the family of Peter the Great, Elizabeth Petrovna, Empress of All Russia, showered honors and riches upon him. Among the riches is found a vast property in the province of Pskov, where the estate of Mikhailovskoe is located. Mikhailovskoe would play a major role in Pushkin’s life. And it was in Mikhailovskoe that Pushkin would write his greatest works. The riches also included ten villages, with thousands of white serfs (Parry). Since all that exile life had worn Hannibal out he politely declined offers by Empress of All Russia, to stay in the royal court. He asked permission to return to Reval, for semi-retirement, where he was made a commander. With a border dispute between Russia and Sweden, he was recalled to active duty and was appointed head of the Russian commission.

By 1756, Abraham Hannibal had attained the rank of a major general. In 1759 he became the main director of the Lagoda canal, Kronstadt, and Rogervik construction projects. In 1762, fearing the “German coup” at the palace, Abraham retired to one of his estates in Suida(near St. Petersburg). Just before his death, around 1781, fearing the palace intriguers, unfortunately, he burned his memoirs. Speaking from his experience, Abraham advised his sons not to join the army, because of the intrigues involved. Finally, after a long extraordinary life, the lost son of Lagwen, Eritrea died in his estate in Russia. Allison Blakely in his book Russia and the Negro concludes General Abraham Hannibal' s life like this: "Hannibal appears to have been the first outstanding modern engineer in Russian history. He is credited with the building of a number of important fortresses, and his knowledge of canal construction surely made him a leading pioneer in an enterprise which had proven to be of utmost importance for Russia. As for Hannibal’s personality, it is difficult to see how he could have won such loyalty from his friends, allowing him not only to survive but to prosper during the turbulent politics of his era, if it had been devoid of positive traits."

General Abraham P. Hannibal’s study
The main house at Petrovskoe

The main house at Mikhailovskoe.

Next, part three.

Tackling the Russian Bear: the Second Generation
The Odyssey Continues

Saturday, November 22, 2008

General Abraham Hannibal, General Ivan Hannibal, Alexander S. Pushkin and Descendants.

“I shall not wholly die-but in my songs my spirit will, incorruptible and bodies,

survive-and I shall be renowned as long as under heaven one poet yet remains alive”.
Alexander S. Pushkin

In mid-July 2008, I promised that I was going to re-post the articles that I had written in 2003 about General Abraham Hannibal, General Ivan Hannibal, Alexander S. Pushkin and his descendants . I waited until today to start reposting the articles, because I had to wait to confirm a good news that I was aware of for some time. With the news confirmed, I'm elated to let you know that a monument of Alexander S. Pushkin and a Pushkin Center (Library) will be erected in Asmara by May 2009. The agreement was signed between Asmara Administration and the Russian Federation earlier this year. It is worthwhile to note that the Russian delegation visited Lagwen and also Senafe area historical sites. The location of the monument of Pushkin will be adjacent to the Asmara Public Library and the Center(Library) will be adjacent to Milano Restaurant. According to the agreement, the pedestal of the monument, which is going to be from granite is going to be built by Eritrea, Central Zoba Administration, while the Russians are going to provide the life-size bronze statue.

A model statue of Alexander S. Pushkin to be built in Asmara, Eritrea.

Alexander S. Pushkin monument's future site.

Alexander S. Pushkin monument's future site.

The original articles that I wrote in 2003 had five parts. I will start reposting with part I. And in part II, I will add some new information, because two new major books in English had been published about General Abraham Hannibal since I posted the articles. I am keeping the original titles of the articles for old time sake.

Here is part I.

FROM THE ERITREAN CAMEL, TO THE RUSSIAN DOUBLE-HEADED EAGLE, TO THE BRITISH LION: The Odyssey of General Abraham Petrovich Hannibal, Alexander S. Pushkin and Descendants

Seal of the Government of Eritrea



At the outset, I would like to note that this is an on going research that needs more fillers. The animals mentioned in the title are/were the symbols of the governments of Eritrea, Imperial Russia and Royal Great Britain, respectively. Even though, there was no country named Eritrea in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the protagonist (using film terminology) in this story, General Abraham Petrovich Hannibal, who was the maternal great grandfather of Alexander Sergeyevitch Pushkin, was born in a place in what is now Eritrea. (Troyant, Blakley, Fienstien).
When I decided to write this article -even though I had written about Abraham Hannibal for Haben in Tigrigna before-I thought hard as to how to approach the subject because I had to decide which part to write and which part to leave out. I must admit it is difficult to do. Therefore, I decided to start it with this long introduction, I hope you don’t mind. I even thought how much harder it would be to direct a film about the life of Abraham. In film, whether you are following the Hollywood genre which follows the Aristotelian (three act dramatic structure) focusing on plots with its protagonist/antagonist, catalyst,confrontation, plot-point, mid-point,
climax and resolution; or the European(Italian, French , Swedish..) model whereby the film concentrates on characters; or on the Soviet model with their own theory of editing (Kuleshov , Pudovkin, Eisenstein); or focusing on realist theory with its mise-en-scene; or formalist(fictional ,fantasy) with its montage ,the dilemma would still be the same. The lives of Abraham Hannibal and his descendents , Ivan, Ossip, Nadezhda, Pushkin ... touch all the theories that I mentioned above.

In 1994, when I was volunteering for the Research and Documentation Center (RDC) in Asmara, I wrote an article in Tigrinya on Abraham Hannibal for Haben, a publication of the Association of the War-Disabled Veterans of Eritrea. A few days before I finished my assignment at RDC and was ready to return to the United States, I got a telephone call from tegadalai (a Tigrigna word for a person who fought for the independence of Eritrea) Solomon Dirar (of the Eritrean Commando fame), who was editor of Haben. Solomon told me that there was another tegadalai who read the article and had some information on Abraham Hannibal. I was surprised, to say the least. I got the name and phone number from Solomon and called. Unfortunately, tegadalai Kahsai Russom was leaving for Keren on a job related trip. Nevertheless, he was kind enough to give me names to contact who would know more about the story through oral tradition.

When I returned to Eritrea in 2000, I still had the notes that I had taken from Kahsai in 1994. The notes had not left my wallet for six years. I called on my friend Solomon Dirar and decided to visit one of the persons on the notes. We set out to visit Lagwen and to talk to Aboi (respect form for elder) Abraha Gebre-Amlak, a retired judge of Lagwen. I had been waiting for this visit for six years. As the moment of truth was approaching I began to get nervous, because I have been researching Abraham Hannibal, Pushkin, etc., since the mid 1980’s, therefore I was anxious to find out what kind of new information, or if any, awaited me. Lagwen is a quiet small village located some 12 kms. south of Asmara. It did not take us long to find out where Aboi Abraha Gebre-Amlak lived in Lagwen. We found the house located near the village church. We found Aboi Abraha reading and he was surprised by our visit. After we explained to him the purpose of our visit, he opened a wooden trunk and pulled out a book wrapped in plastic. The title of the book was “Tiwlidi Lagwen” (The Genealogy of Lagwen). The village had published its own history during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. How that book was published is a story by itself for another time.

Aboi Abraha Gebre-Amlak of Lagwen in front of his house in January 2000.

The Book of Genealogy of Lagwen

Aboi Abraha on top of gobo (hill) Una Mariam showing me the area where according to oral tradition of Lagwen, one of its son “Abrha Zerai wedi inkab Adi Lagwen” [Abraha Zerai son of the village of Lagwen] was kidnapped. It is also the vicinity where old Lagwen used to be located.

Back in 1994, Kahsai Russom, recalling from oral tradition that he had heard from the elders, indicated to me that Abraham Hannibal was kidnapped from a small hill called Una Mariam. I asked Aboi Abraha about it. He turned to the book of Lagwen to page 11. To my surprise, not only did it mention the place but also the name of the real Abraham Hannibal.

It says,“a certain ‘Abraha Zerai wedi inkab Adi Lagwen’ [Abraha Zerai, son of the village of Lagwen]was kidnapped and sold and then taken to Turkey. From Turkey he was taken to Greece and from Greece back to Turkey. He was then taken to Russia, and in Russia he became the right-hand man of Peter the Great. He became popular because of his bravery.
So were
descendants, who among them became generals and intellectuals.”

This was a shocker! This was a unique finding in all my research for the following reasons:

1. The original name never appeared. There were arguments whether his name was Abraham or Ibrahim. At least, Tiwlidi Lagwen’s version testifies to the argument that the name of Ibrahim emerged in Turkey and reversed back to Abraham when he was re-baptized in Vilnius (modern day Lithuania).

2. Greece was never mentioned.

3. The origin of Abraham’s birth was debatable, even in discussions in Dehai forum. For example, Abraham indicated that he was born in Lagon (with its so many variation in Russian, French, German, Latin, Italian, English, etc., translations) the focus had been to the south. Adi Logo (near Debarbua), Logo Sarda, Logo Chiwa, etc., were among the major candidates. And here, in Lagwen, not too far from Asmara, is a small village that had written its own history and claimed Abraham Hannibal as its lost son. Incredible if you ask me.

4. During our discussion with Aboi Abraha, he mentioned that Lagwen in the earlier times had been looted, burned, etc., by various conquerors, and had to move to its present location -- it used to be located not too far from where it is now. Because it was located at a crossroads, it had become the punching bag of various rulers and conquerors. I think the University of Asmara’s archeology department should look into this story.

5. At the end of our visit, Aboi Abraha was gracious enough to take me to gobo (hill) Enda Mariam, where Lagwen claims that one of it’s sons, Abraha Zerai, was kidnapped from and taken to Russia via Turkey to become one of the greatest generals of Russia who had among his descendants, Ivan Hannibal, Osip, Nadezhda, and the soul of Russia himself, Alexander Sergeyevitch Pushkin.

This is their incredible story that would put any Hollywood film to shame. If the claim of Lagwen is proven, then Lagwen and its long lost son and his descendants would be the only village and
family in the world who would claim royals in Russia, England, Germany, and etc. as their relatives.

ABRAHAM P. HANNIBAL: The Odyssey Begins

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Conversation with Mr. Costas Stylianidis

Mr. Costas Stylianidis

Note: All pictures are courtesy of Mr. Costas Stylianidis.

Issayas: Can you tell us briefly about yourself?

Mr. Costas : I was born in Asmara in the mid-forties. My father was a Greek from the island of Lemnos who, at the age of 14 in 1910, arrived at Massawa to join an elder brother in search of a better future. Those days Greece was still suffering the burden of occupation and Lemnos was still under the heavy influence of Turkish rule.

At Massawa with his brother, he started by making ‘Greek coffee’, a trade he had picked up from his mother and father in his native land. With a lot of hard work and personal sacrifice, he managed to establish himself as a merchant, opening trade with Greece and Italy and establishing a cigarette factory and retail business. Sadly when Italy declared war against Greece during the Second World War, he saw all his wealth disappear from one day to the next after the devaluation of the Greek currency, leaving him a relatively poor man with broken dreams but still lucky to have a roof over his head and a family with a faithful wife and five children.

I grew up when Eritrea was under the English administration but Italian was still a dominant factor in the market place. I was thus able to pick up simultaneously three languages which were spoken at the time. Greek spoken at home, Tigrinia spoken with the people that worked with my family at home, and Italian which was spoken everywhere else.

During the first six years of my school life I attended the local Greek Elementary School. I then progressed to Comboni College which in those days was headed by Father Gasparini; an outstanding and educated personality who was able to deliver a speech in fourteen languages. Comboni was a microcosm of society as it was in Eritrea at that time. A blend of Eritreans, Greeks, Italians, Indians, Jews, Christians, Moslems.. all working together in love, respect and harmony. Regrettably I was not able to learn Tigrinia at School because after 1952, Amharic was the compulsory language instead. Upon completing my High School at Comboni, I started work in Assab as a ‘Shipping’ clerk. Languages being a catalyst for my employment.

In 1967 with a lot of soul searching I took the ‘heavy hearted’ decision to look elsewhere for my future and I came to the UK. My knowledge of languages and my experience in shipping enabled me to find employment with the Greek Airline Olympic Airways. Thus I had the opportunity of traveling around the world and meet with other people from Eritrea who shared the same background as mine.

I discovered that almost all those who left Eritrea, treasured three things; their love of Eritrea, their love of the people of Eritrea (both natives and expatriates) and their insatiable appetite for ‘zighni’.

Today, 40 years on, I take advantage of these friendships and with my website I try to stimulate their support for various good causes that need the support of these good ‘Friends of Eritrea’.

Issayas: Many people are aware of the Greek presence in Ethiopia before 1974. If I’m not mistaken there were about 4000 Greeks in Ethiopia. There were also a large number of Armenians. But Greeks in Eritrea? Can you tell us briefly about the Greeks presence in Eritrea before? As a follow up, are there Greeks in Eritrea now?

Mr. Costas: Greeks may have been present in Eritrea from the fifth century BC when Aeschylus left the first known record of the Eritrean Coast describing its seas ‘gentle ripples that are a warm caress’. In the year 522 , the Egyptian Greek known as Cosmas Indicopleustes ‘the Indian navigator’ described the caravan route to Axum and other ancient cities. Today you can see the ‘Greek’ features in present day Eritreans. You can see a similarity with Greeks when it concerns their pride and their stubbornness!

In Eritrea Greeks arrived as early as the mid 19th century. They settled down in Eritrean cities such as Keren, Agordat, Massawa and Asmara and established various businesses. At some stage Asmara had about 400-500 Greeks leaving there. They run their own School and a Greek Orthodox Church and lived in harmony with the local community and its people. There were several Armenian families too who because of the similarity in their religion, were very close to the Greeks and a lot of them worked with Greeks and studied in Greek Schools. At the moment however, there are only a few Greeks left. The Greek Church is closed and what used to be the Greek School, now houses the Greek Consulate. Many children of Greek mix marriages now have Eritrean Nationality.

Note: For further history on Greeks in Eritrea, check out the following url:

D. SOUVLIS,was the founder of the famous DONGOLO WATER FACTORY.

The Greek Orthodox Church in Asmara, Eritrea

The former Greek school.. Now the Greek Consulate in Asmara, Eritrea.

Issayas: Eritrea as you know is a name given by the Italians based on the Latinized version of a Greek word for the Red Sea. It was a Greek merchant who wrote the "Periplus of the Erythrean Sea" in 1st Century AD. Therefore, the connection between Greek and Eritrea is long. Is Eritrea known in Greece today?

Mr. Costas: Because of its connection with Ethiopia most Greeks do not differentiate between Eritreans and Ethiopians. In Greece there is a considerable number of Eritreans and Ethiopians who live and work there. I have met with some of their children who now have Greek Nationality. There are also a number of authentic Restaurants specializing in ‘Zighni’ and other delicacies and to my surprise they are quite popular with the local community.

Issayas: People of European descent who were born in Eritrea and left Eritrea before 1974 have been meeting regularly since then. Do you have an organization? What are their numbers? Where do you meet?

Mr. Costas: In Eritrea many nationalities lived and worked in harmony with each other. It was a very Cosmopolitan environment where everyone respected each other both in terms of culture as well as Religion. Italians of course were the vast majority of this population but there were Greeks, Indians, Arabs, French,Jews, British and Americans too. The bond of friendship that was formed in Eritrea lingers on to this present day. An Italian bi monthly magazine called MAI TACLI which is distributed to its members throughout the world.

To check out the website of the magazine:

Mai Tacli Magazine

Mai Tacli organizes every year around May, a get together in Italy, generally a place near Rimini called Riccione. There have been 33 similar gatherings so far. Attendance to these meetings has declined in the recent years from the 500 to 600 people to a few hundred delegates at present. A similar gathering is organized by an Italian website called At these meetings which take place over a long weekend people from all over the world as well all over Italy came to meet old friends and acquaintances and renew old friendships. There are various causes linked to present day Eritrea which are sponsored during these events such as the School at Massawa, the Church at Keren and various individual efforts to support local people in Eritrea.

34th annual Mai Tacli reunion held in Italy, May 2007.

There is an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia for the people and the country that was once their place of abode. Of course no get together is complete without the traditional dish of ‘Zighni’in its menu. I must mention that apart from these meetings, ‘Asmarinos’ take any opportunity to meet wherever they may be and many a time we have had ‘Zighni’ evenings even in Athens.

Issayas: If your common denominator is Eritrea, do you consider yourselves as "the other Eritreans"?

Mr. Costas: Most of the people have kept their European identity, however I know some who have since applied and obtained Eritrean citizenship. All of them however feel like part of the ‘Eritrean diaspora’.

Issayas: Have you been back to Eritrea?

Mr. Costas: The last time I was in Eritrea it was in 1971. I hope however to be able to go early next year in time for the inauguration of the project that I have co-sponsored …’The St Francis of Assisi School at Massawa.’ which is being built by Father Protasio.

Issayas: What is the main objective of your foundation, mybaobab?

Mr. Costas: MyBaobab is a website which is used as a platform for reviving lost friendships and its aim is to maintain contact and networking with ‘Friends of Eritrea’.

It is also a platform for sharing views, news and exchanging ideas, but above all one that will pass on to the younger ex-patriate generation the wealth of experiences that we have had throughout our lives and so to enable them to form a better identity of themselves which I hope, will give them a firm base on which to construct their future.

Mybaobab aims to contribute towards the well being of those less fortunate than ourselves, to sponsor various good causes in Eritrea and to maintain an update of the projects now in progress.

Issayas: What is the symbolism of the Baobab?

The Baobab tree, also known as the ‘upside down tree’ is known to live well over 1000 years. It is a tree which grew in the regions of the Eritrean savannah where Greeks once lived. One of them particularly in Keren is a shrine to the Madonna and is a landmark of the region with a long tradition of the Christian faith and its beliefs.

As the Baobab is able to live such a long time, it must have witnessed Eritrean History with all its hardships and its good times. I thought that ‘MyBaobab’ therefore would carry these attributes in its contents!!

Issayas: Can you tell us about the status of the School that you support in Massawa?

Mr. Costas: This was a ‘project’ that I decided to support with after meeting Father Protassio at one of the MAI TACLI meetings at Rimini. An impressive commitment which started in October 2005 and which is nearing completion early next year. This wonderful establishment will educate about 400 students of all walks of life and religious belief. It will provide them with all their educational needs and train them as well in the Hotel and Catering Industry which will hopefully develop and flourish at Massawa. Of course ongoing help will be required also in the future and this regards people who may volunteer as teachers, trainers, craftsmen who may be willing to pass on their knowledge to these students who are so ‘thirsty for knowledge’ and who are so keen to learn.

Plan of the school in Massawa.

The present status of the school in Massawa.

Issayas: Mr. Costas, thank you for your time.

Mr. Costas: You're welcome.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Interview with Dr. Nicole Saulsberry

Last week I stopped in Chicago on my way back from Springfield, Illinois to California. I visited my good friends Dr. Nicole Saulsberry and Merhawie Woldezion. I interviewed Nicole for a short time. It must be recalled that I interviewed Nicole a while back. And here are some of the excerpts:

Issayas: First, thank you for your time. It is nice seeing you after all these years.

Dr. Saulsberry: Don’t mention it. It’s my pleasure.

Issayas: Can you briefly tell my readers about yourself?

Nicole: I was born in Chicago, Illinois. I graduated from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And then I went to Stanford University and got my Ph.D in history. After graduation, I moved back to Chicago, Illinois. Now I'm a Special Assistant to the President of Cook County. Cook county is the second largest in the country after Los Angeles County.

Issayas: Have you forgotten the fidel? Can you still read Tigrigna?

Nicole: No, I haven't forgotten to read ,but I need to speak the language frequently. Therefore, I need to practice the language with Eritrean people.

Issayas: How did you get interested in Eritrea in general and Aboi Woldeab Woldemariam in particular?

Nicole: Well, when I first entered graduate school I wanted to study South Africa, since it was the “in” thing to do at that time in 1993. But after I thought about it a lot more, I soon realized that South Africa was over-researched and had plenty of historians in that area. So I switched to Ethiopia because I had a familiarity with Ethiopian history as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was taught by Bahru Zewde, a well-known Ethiopian historian. My advisor, Professor Kennell Jackson suggested that I study Eritrea since it was a newly independent country. The name rang a bell because of the course I had taken in undergrad. I started reading books on Eritrean history. The first book I read was Amrit Wilson’s book on Women in the Eritrean Revolution. I was hooked!

In the summer of 1994, I went to Eritrea on a Foreign Languages and Area Studies Fellowship (FLAS) to study Tigrinya. My tutor was Tuqabo Arresi, who wrote the English-Tigrinya dictionary. It was such a wonderful experience for me because the Eritreans were so hospitable and thought of me as an Eritrean. Eritrea was the first African country that I visited. As an African-American that is very rare and odd because, generally, most of us visit Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and other places in West Africa, primarily because of the historical transcontinental connections. But I wanted to study something that was cutting-edge, and Eritrea definitely fit the mold. Not many people had heard about Eritrea. Whenever I told people that I conducted research in Eritrea, they would say, “Who? Where?”. I thank God that I chose Eritrean history as my major field of specialty.

With respect to Woldeab Woldemariam, his name was just mentioned incidentally in the literature on Eritrea. I just figured that if he is revered as the Father of Eritrea, why hasn’t someone written about him? So I decided to take it up as a dissertation project.

Issayas: What kind of resources did you use for your dissertation?

Nicole: There were tons of interviews at the Research and Documentation Center (RDC) in Eritrea, such as interviews with Aboi Woldeab, his journal/newspaper articles, speeches, radio broadcasts from Cairo and Syria, secret Ethiopian documents, telegrams and British sources. I conducted research in Rome but I didn’t find too much there, just several documents to contextualize the time period. There were tons of sources at the London Public Records Office (PRO) about the British period.

Issayas: What kind of information were you able to find, especially in the British archives, about Aboi Woldeab?

Nicole: I found documents pertaining to his role in the political parties. The British made note of all of the political parties and their stand on Eritrean independence and domestic issues, who the leaders were, how various leaders from different parties felt about each other and their motives. There was mention of Woldeab specifically in some of the documents, but mainly I wanted to use the British archives to contextualize the period from 1941-1952.

Issayas: From your research on Aboi Woldeab, can one also understand Eritrea’s political history of the era of the 1940s through the 1960s? Can you give me an example?

Nicole: Most definitely. The period of the 1940s was very tumultuous for Eritrea. Eritrea was at that time thrown into the midst of a political whirlwind in terms of deciding for its future. There were several options on the table during the 1940s, i.e. total independence of Eritrea, union with Ethiopia, the Bevin-Sforza plan which would have partitioned Eritrea between Ethiopia and the Sudan, Italian trusteeship, Eritrean union with Tigray, etc. It is in studying this period that one can gain an understanding of international politics and how the West and Ethiopia determined Eritrea’s political future. Geopolitical interests were the primary factor in deciding the fate of Eritrea. One can also gain an insight as to the strategies that Ethiopia used to try to eradicate Eritrean self-determination, such as terrorism throughout the 1940s to the 1960s, and the illegal annexation of Eritrea in 1962 with the acquiescence of the UN. Moreover, in reading Woldeab’s newspaper articles, you get an understanding of how he operated within the context of Eritrean nationalism. He not only expressed his political concerns, but articulated his opinions about changing Eritrean society. He addressed the need for Eritreans to uphold values such as love, honesty, hard work, perseverance, education, and discipline. Woldeab had a heart for all Eritreans, especially the youth.

Issayas: I understand that there was a special Ethiopian intelligence/surveillance unit called “Mereb” whose assignment was to track down Aboi Woldeab, in places like Cairo, Marseilles and other places. Could you tell us about that?

Nicole: Sure. Ethiopian authorities had their own intelligence unit called Mereb that infiltrated Eritrean organizations and spied on the whereabouts of Woldeab and other Eritrean nationalists. The intelligence unit even reported quarreling amongst Ibrahim Sultan, Idris Mohammed Adem and Woldeab Woldemariam in Cairo. There were also rumors in Asmara that Woldeab would ask for pardon from Haile Selassie and return to Eritrea. People who were in contact with Woldeab through letters feared for their lives. As an example of Ethiopia’s sinister-like capacity to inculcate fear, this specific intelligence report ended by stating: “We have let the rumor spread widely.”

Ethiopia’s subversive strategies were exemplified in a top-secret letter to the Emperor from an Ethiopian intelligence member. It read: “I bow and kiss the land and wish God the Savior to elongate your age and bestow health to you. So as to spy on the Eritrean rebels abroad, we had devised a means by which we could take pictures of them and capture their worthless agents here in Asmara. So as we and the Ministry of National Administration could work jointly on this matter, I have sent the copy of the documents to Dejazmatch Kiflie. These documents not only are useful here in Asmara where they helped to capture the agents, but also in our intelligence work abroad. Most of all is the documents’ importance. It is a great thing to have infiltrated the Eritrean rebels.”

The government’s repressive activities forced Woldeab and others to develop code names in Tigrinya for Eritrean nationalist exiles, Ethiopian authorities and their sympathizers, various cities and Ethiopian and Eritrean political parties. This tactic permitted effective communication amongst the Eritreans in exile. For example, the code name for Haile Selassie was teKula (the wolf); Tedla Bairu’s code name was wo’Ag (the monkey), Governor Asfaha Woldemichael, Hasema (the pig), etc. Woldeab’s code name was Letezghi, and Tsehaye Abraha, another Eritrean exile in Cairo had the code name of kokeb (star). The list goes on and on. Woldeab and his associates were very shrewd in this respect.

Issayas: Was he such a threat for Ethiopia that they had to follow his activities in exile?

Nicole: Most definitely. Ethiopia considered Woldeab a threat because of his previous support base that had been built on his career as an educator and journalist and editor. According to one spy report, Woldeab was bent towards peaceful protests and political discourse and could, therefore, spark student and labor strikes and “threaten the status quo.”

Issayas: Did you find any intelligence information (Ethiopian or otherwise) that would reveal about the assassination attempts on his life?

Nicole: In terms of assassination attempts, I found the evidence mainly in Woldeab’s interviews and in the British records. Woldeab was able to vividly recall what happened with each attempt. For example, after the fourth assassination attempt, he was relocated to the Milano Pensione in Asmara. Since he was confined to his hotel room, two members of the Independence Bloc were assigned as his bodyguards and were responsible for twenty-four hour protection. However, eventually Woldeab was betrayed when they tried to poison him. Woldeab stated: “The assassins were so worried about where to get me. They were wandering around my hotel. Even the police knew, but they didn’t want to be involved in this case. At last, they wanted to bribe my guards by giving them 40 genae [pounds] each and promised to take them out of the city to join with the bandits if they helped them in the assassination. So when the guards brought me my meal they put poison in the food … I didn’t feel hungry. I just tasted the food. I only ate a morsel…Right after I ate the food my body… stopped moving. Tsehaye and others called a taxi [and took me] to the hospital.” This is really telling because here you have 2 bodyguards from the Independence Bloc who were supposed to be protecting Woldeab and yet he couldn’t trust them! This says two things: 1. the extreme length that Ethiopia went through to subvert the Eritrean independence movement, and 2. there were enemies within the Eritrean movement for liberation who conspired with Ethiopia in the 1940s.

Issayas: What can one learn from the life of Aboi Woldeab?

Nicole: By analyzing Woldeab’s life, one can trace the evolution of Eritrean protest politics. Woldeab was a pragmatic nationalist and one of the very few open-minded Eritreans who were prepared to try different political routes. This point shows that nationalists did not take a clear-cut line or linear road, and that the process of nation building is complicated and messy, oftentimes requiring compromises.

Furthermore, Woldeab is a fascinating figure because he served not only as a political figure, but also as a public intellectual who was interested in creating a new kind of Eritrean citizen. Woldeab is unique in that he is considered the Father of Eritrea, and yet he was not the leader of a political organization with significant power and control over international and local forces that were shaping Eritrea’s destiny. Most nationalistic father figures were presidents with direct access to the political power that was necessary to shape the outcome of events. Although Woldeab remained politically active throughout the armed struggle, he was in exile; and for the most part, he was unable to exert much authority on the ground.

All in all, what made Woldeab Woldemariam a father figure was his dedication and perseverance to the Eritrean armed struggle, and his constant encouragement to Eritreans at home and abroad that left an indelible mark on the memory of so many Eritreans. Moreover, his impact as a teacher, his newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, and the seven assassination attempts he survived each played a crucial role in his reverence as a political figure.

Issayas: How can one get to read your dissertation?

Nicole: Well it is in the library at Stanford University. But I have plans to publish the dissertation, preferably by a well-respected publisher. I pray that all will go well.

Issayas: I hope you transform your dissertation into book format soon so that it will be more available to people who would like to know more about this extraordinary man. Nicole, again thank you for your time.

Nicole: You are quite welcome. And thank you.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lagwen, Eritrea and Vilnius, Lithuania : A Connection?

Vilnius, Lithuania.
I'm sorry that I've been away for so long. I went to Lithuania at the beginning of July 2008 for work related business.A tee-shirt that I bought in Vilnius (the capital city of Lithuania) asks, "where the heck is Lithuania?" And you might say, "who cares?" Hold on. But, did you know that there is a connection between Eritrea and Lithuania, but specifically between Lagwen, Eritrea and Vilnius, Lithuania? I didn't think so!

What's Lagwen, a small village outside Asmara (the capital city of Eritrea) got to do with Vilnius, Lithuania? It's not because of sister-cities or sister-city/village connection. And the connection is not now. Let's say the connection was in 1705 AD. And 1705 isn't a typo. In other words, what's Lagwen and Vilnius, a city founded by Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania (who based on a dream of an iron wolf that howled like hundred wolves) have in common? In short, Abraham Petrovich Hannibal.

You might ask who was Abraham P. Hannibal. Even though many countries claim him to be from their respective countries (Cameroon is the latest addition to the list: Eritrea, Ethiopia and Chad also claim him) but the strongest evidence places Eritrea as the birth place of Abraham P. Hannibal. Many renowned biographers of various nationalities of Alexander S.Pushkin (the great grand son of Abraham Hannibal) also support Eritrea as Abraham's birth place. In short, Abraham was kidnapped from Lagwen, Eritrea and was taken to Turkey and later to Russia. In Russia he became a general and became the maternal great grand father of Russia's greatest poet: Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin. I wrote a five parts series on this subject a while back on, and Using this article as a spring board, I will re-post the previous five parts soon.

I started writing this article from Hotel Narutis, which claims to be the oldest hotel in Vilnius (ANNO 1581) and finished it in the United States.

Hotel Narutis on Pilies Street, Vilnius, Lithuania.

Old town section of Vilnius is full of rich history. Tomas Venclova's City Guide is an excellent source about the richness of the city. Each building in the old section carries a multi-layered rich cultural and historical secret. Walking down the narrow alleys and roads, one feels like a time traveler. While I stayed in the old town, I dined at various Gothic cellar restaurants. The thought of Abraham Hannibal, who might have dined in one of the cellars, or who might have walked down one of the alleys of old Vilnius sent shivers down my spine.

Hotel Narutis is located on Pilies Street. It faces St. John's church: the church of Vilnius University (one of the oldest and most famous universities in Eastern and Northern Europe which was established in 1579). From Hotel Narutis going north on Pilies Street, there is a square where vendors sell their products. It is at this square that Pilies Street turns into Didzioji Street. On the left hand side is an old Russian Orthodox Church of Paraskeva (Piatnica). It was in this church in 1705 that Czar Peter I of Russia baptized Abraham P. Hannibal as his god-son. Every time I passed by the church, I got a sense of awe. A sense of tingling. Just think about it. In 2008, I knew how I got there and why I was there, but for a small boy who was kidnapped from Lagwen and ends up in Vilnius in 1705 to be the Son-in-Christ of a Russian czar is mind boggling!

Pilies Street, Vilinus, Lithuania.

Pilies Street turns into Didzioji Street

The Russian Orthodox Church of Paraskeva where Abraham Hannibal was baptized in 1705.

A plaque outside the Russian Orthodox Church indicating that Abraham Hannibal was baptized there in 1705. General Abraham Petrovich Hannibal.

At the main door of Vilnius University.

Inside St. John's Church of Vilnius University.

Formerly the summer home of one of Alexander S. Pushkin's descendants. Now Pushkin Museum, Vilnius, Lithuania.

The statue of Pushkin in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Narrow alleys and roads.

Examples of some of the magnificent buildings of Vilnius.

Finally, as I've mentioned earlier at the beginning of this introductory article, this will be a segue to re-post the previous five articles that I wrote about Abraham Hannibal and his descendants, soon.

As a footnote, however, I would like to add the following. Vilnius is not the only city that Lagwen, through Abraham Hanni
bal, had a connection with. Reval (now Tallinn the capital city of Estonia); Pernau, Estonia; Amsterdam, Holland and Paris, France were also some of the many other connections. General Abraham was a military commander of Reval for ten years from 1742-1752. Lagwen, through General Ivan, Abraham's oldest son, had also a connection with Kherson in Ukraine. General Ivan was one of the founders of the city of Kherson. Through the descendants of Alexander S. Pushkin, Lagwen's connections with other countries include Germany and Great Britain.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A conversation with Eritrean filmmaker Ambessa Jir Berhe

Ambessa jir Berhe

Issayas Tesfamariam: Can you tell my readers about yourself?

Ambessa Jir Berhe: I am an independent filmmaker based in Washington DC. I was born in Eritrea where I spent my early childhood and came to America through Ethiopia. When I think of it now, the seed of my film making career started as far back as Mendefera, Eritrea. Since I was very little, I have always loved films. I used to be very determined to see all the films shown in the local movie theaters even though my family thought movies were a distraction for my education. They never allowed me to watch as much as I desired hence I was a handful and obsessed with movies. Somehow I always found a way to watch all the movies in town at the expense of getting the whooping from my mom for staying late at the movie theaters watching new Indian films.

At the same time, I was equally intrigued listening to my grandmother and relatives storytelling’s; mainly during their visits I use to stay up all night listening to their stories about the villages and the bandits. From a young age, our people manner and methods of imaging the stories had me fascinated.

All throughout my education and especially in Junior high, I watched numerous movies and dramas while remaining an avid reader as well as short stories writer. However I never really seriously considered film making until I was in college after going through my freshman year in complete confusion, where I had the opportunity to discover my true call. From then on, I didn't even hesitate to pursue my objective because I knew in my heart that I was making the right decision for my life. Since then, I was able to graduate from Scottsdale Community College majoring in Motion Picture Production, continued studying film production at Howard University to finally obtain both my BA and MFA in film production.

Since I had to support myself, I had odd jobs as I continued to write, direct, and edit short narrative films like Africa (1998), Wondering (1999), My Fate (2000), Spice my What? (2001), Last night (2003), Shigara (2005), and Shikorina's Date (2006), A-Weight-With-Words (2007), Fragmented Lives (2008). Those films have been screened at the South West Film Festival, The Eritrean Film Festival in Washington, D.C., Prosperity Media College Film and Video competition, Paul Robson Award, Rosebud Film Fest, and DC Shorts Film Fest and Regal Cinema.

Issayas: What do you think of Eritrean films and Eritrean filmmakers?

Ambessa: This is certainly a hard question to tackle because talking about Eritrean films, I can only sound very pessimistic simply due the number of years I have spent studying film and my strong opinions. After many years of studying films, I am very critical of any film mostly those bad Eritrean films. It truly irritates me. Well, please let me warn the readers that this part of the answer might be critical, thus might be considered offensive or outright arrogant but if you want to know what I feel about Eritrean films, here it is:

To me filmmaking is a very serious medium, which allows us as filmmakers, storytellers and individuals to take on a responsibility on how we can project our own stories.

With Eritrean films, this misconception of producing quality film is only becoming impressive in technical terms but doesn’t mean that Eritrean films are improving or progressive. Quality and content have to be integrated for the film industry to grow. Of course when it comes to production quality in terms of clarity of image and sound, Eritrean movies have improved, though the value of the crisp high definition (HD) or digital video (DV) image is useless if the cinematic language and story telling is absent. This is what I call a waste of time, money and talent.

I allow myself to address the issue of content because story telling is firstly about content regardless of the medium. I have been examining most of the Eritrean films since the Independence of the country. In the early nineties, the content was all about the Ethiopian occupation and the effect on Eritrean people. Then in 1998 came the war, and most of the films switched to stories about “Weyanies” and their evil deeds. Unfortunately the last four to five years, it seems Eritrean filmmakers are mostly repetitively cliché love stories. I am unsure of the outcome for the next ten years though I can affirm that it is lacking a voice. I haven’t seen any Eritrean filmmakers with a unique voice, doing something interesting and revolutionary.

Although I feel like Eritrean films need to obtain their identity first before entering the International arena, even if I hear from friends why Eritrean films are not recognized at the international level. I do believe Eritrean people have a strong identity, but I don’t see it translated into our films. As people we have our own culture and tradition and complexities. We have our own storytellers who entertained us for centuries, telling our own stories through our own methods from generation to generation. It seems that our generation has disconnected and lost the traditional way of story telling. I remember growing up, my mother, my father, and my grandmother used to tell us the Eritrean stories, about the legends and mythology and they all had a unique way of telling it.

Our fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers didn’t have radio or TV to entertain them, rather each village if not family, had storytellers to provide historical stories, fictitious tales, fables, riddles (Tsintsuway, hinkil hinkilitey) complex poetry, jokes and messages oriented stories towards kids. They use to seat under the tree in the middle of the village and tell each other mostly unpreserved stories. Every ethnic group in our country has developed a way of telling stories and here we are with our generation that has forgotten the traditional way of storytelling. The irony is that the tradition and the culture is still around us dictating our daily existences.

This change is mostly due to our contemporary storytellers who are busy trying to be modern (what ever that is), they never developed those authentic stories and storytelling’s. For me if we start from there, our uniqueness will be really authentic and based on our reality.

I will give a simple example about love. A young man is in love with this young woman and he approaches her after such an ordeal refusal, finally she agrees to go out with him and one day he goes to her neighborhood to take her out. He couldn’t knock on her door because he is afraid her mother will catch him so he sends one of the neighbor’s kids to call her and she comes out to tell him to follow her from a far. So she starts walking towards the Lovers’ cafe on the other side of the corner street, and her lover follows walking one block across her in parallel and at every cross-section, they waited for each other until they glanced at each other from a block away to continue towards their destination. For the people who saw them, they were a block away from each other but for them it’s like walking side by side. When they get to their destination in a secluded area, they are able to seat together and enjoy the company of one another. To me this story will tell every thing about the society those lovers live.

In this day and age, the filmmakers are just copying Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks love stories with complicated plot into Tigrinya, with
Celine Dion’s and Whitney Houston’s soundtrack on the background, which has nothing to do with our concept of love and the intricate habesha relationships. When you finish the film, you have no idea what the hell is going on. Now, it doesn’t mean that young Eritrean don’t express their love openly, which they really do. Nonetheless they do against the strict culture and tradition and no one is delving into that complexity and exploring it. I feel as storytellers we don’t yet have the core grip so I feel as an Eritrean filmmaker a need to bring out in our films, stories that are from our own experiences. We must also have ways of telling a story.

Another example is to look at the Iranian film industry, which is so respected around the world. Iranian filmmakers usually tell a story about their people, their traditions and the complexity of their culture as well as the modern world. They are very successful despite their difficulties with censorship and religious restrictions.

Therefore to me, until we recognize our older storytellers and are able to transfer their method into cinema we will be making a Tigrinya remake of Hollywood romantic movies. In fact it is also the problem with other African countries.

Issayas: What is your short film about? (Note: two clips from "Fragmented Lives" are presented at the end of the conversation).

Ambessa: “Fragmented Lives” is a 30 minute professionally produced short film. The story is about an Eritrean family in America. The story follows a young Eritrean American (played by Senai Medhani) who finds out that his father had left his troublesome younger brother back home in Eritrea when they went for vacation. As the film progress we see the effects of the abandoned little brother issue and how it manifests in the family and their different reactions toward that action. The mother is torn between her children and her husband, which shakes the already fractured Eritrean-American family that is already falling apart. The father is firm in his decisions. The older brother refuses to accept his brother’s abandonment thus confronts his father and decides to bring him back. The story is merely a glimpse of our problems as immigrants and dislocated people, though at the heart of the film the principal subject matter are communications and families.

All pictures courtesy of Ambessa jir Berhe

Behind the scenes : "Fragmented Lives"

Ambessa and Rob "Fragmented Lives"

Jordan Tesfay and Senai Medhane "Fragmented Lives"

Actor Senai Medhane

Actress Jordan Tesfay

Filmmaker Ambessa jir Berhe

Issayas: What do you think the role of Eritrean filmmakers (who studied film in the Diaspora: like you, me and etc.) be in the improvement of Eritrean films inside Eritrea?

Ambessa: I would've said enthusiastically yes we would help improve Eritrean films because we studied film in some university. But the reality is that we are very few and un-organized, scattered around the world doing our little film projects here and there. I don't know if the improvement of Eritrean films will come from the Diaspora Eritrean filmmakers. I think the improvement has to come out from the Eritrean filmmakers who are writing and directing in Eritrea right now. The Diaspora filmmakers are not making a Tigrinya film every month most of us in the Diaspora spend years to produce and get a project off ground.

As Eritrean filmmakers in Diaspora we can share the knowledge we acquired over the years and give film production workshops. Also we can crate an organization, start sharing ideas, information, and collaborate with promising local filmmakers. Well first we have to get a hold of our big egos in both ends and learn from each other. My believe is filmmakers who say they know everything about filmmaking, should stop making films. You learn a new experience from every film you make regardless of your prior experience.I think as Eritrean filmmakers in Diaspora if we tell our story properly and one at a time that should be a contribution.

Issayas: There are lots of Ethiopian films ( in Amharic) that are coming out, what do you think of them?

Ambessa: I get this kind of question all the time, except it is usually stated differently. People would ask me to compare between Eritrean and Ethiopian films. Some people get a kick knowing one side of film is better than the other side.

My mom told me this saying, if I remember correctly. A peasant was asked to choose which bandit is better, between a ruthless bandit from his village and a cruelest bandit from his neighbor’s village. His answer was ኩሎም ሓደ ኩሎም ሽፍታ kulom Hade kulom shifta (all the same, all bandits). So every problem that I stated above about Eritrean films also applies to Ethiopian films.

There are few Ethiopian filmmakers out side the Ethiopian film industry making interesting films. One of them is Haile Gerima a world-renowned Ethiopian filmmaker, he is making films that are internationally acclaimed and even used for film studies in universities. I might add that I have been fortunate enough to study under him and became his film student. As a filmmaker and storyteller he has tremendous influence in my progress.

Issayas: Film is a visual medium. Do you think there is a lot of dialog in Eritrean films?

Ambessa: What dialog? Every Eritrean film that I've seen is dialog- driven. I would’ve been ok if the dialog that I've seen on those films is real to life, but it's not. To me everything is spelled out and acted like a theater play. Which is also very dangerous for audiences, because audience stop participating in the story and wait for the filmmaker to spoon-feed them in a dialog format.

Film is a visual medium there is now way around it. Now if we are talking about soap operas then it’s a different question. I will demonstrate with a short scene written both ways with a lot of dialog and with limited dialog and more visual action.

An Example of dialog -driven scene.


ABEBA and KESHI TESFATSION are eating enjera.

Please eat. You haven’t touched your food.

Bless you my child. I am eating.

Let me add some stew. You didn’t even touch
in front of you.

Abeba adds more enjera and stew

It’s enough. I have enough.

You have been out side all day. You must be hungry.

Bless you my child. Bless this house.

Abeba adds more Siwa.

You are not drinking enough. Didn’t you like the
test of my siwa.

Its good. It’s testy.

Abeba's ten years old son MERON comes and stands at the door wanting to eat but couldn’t say it. Keshi Tesfahtsion sees him.

Come eat with us Meron.

No, he just ate his lunch.

He is a kid he can still eat.

Son, go out side and play with your brothers.

Meron walks out.

Now lets see the same scene, but visually driven with limited dialog.


ABEBA and KESHI TESFATSION are eating enjera. On his side of the trey it’s getting empty. Abeba sees this and adds a fresh enjera on the top of it.

She adds more stew on it. Keshi Tesfahatsion tries to stop her grabbing her hand holding the spoon full of stew.

It’s enough my child.

Come on eat. You must have a long day.

Abeba puts away the spoon and adds more Siwa on the almost full Keshi’s glass. Keshi Tesfatsion picks the glass to stop her from filling it all the way.

MERON Abeba’s ten years old son comes into the room. He stands at the entrance and looks at the food they are eating.

Keshi Tesfahatsion catches Meron looking at the food and he feels uncomfortable.

Abeba catches this and she gives Meron the evil eye, which translates that you will be in trouble after the guest leaves the house.

When Keshi Tesfahtsion looks at her she immediately softens her look and smiles like nothing happen.

Meron understands the danger of this situation and he is terrified. He starts backing out.

My son Meron, come eat with us.

Abeba furiously looks at Meron. Meron looks at the ground.

I am full. I just ate.

Meron runs out of the room.

I have more freedom and weapon to tell my story the way I want, if I make sure the story is communicated visually.

As people ,especially Habesha people, we don’t say what we really mean. If we must communicate a scene through dialog we should make it as complex as our daily lives and give the audience something to work with.

Before I end this question I have another example about telling story through visual method. When I was young ,my mom asked me to read a letter she received from a relative. I start reading very loud until I reached the third paragraph, suddenly I stopped reading. Little did I know the letter was carrying a bad news. The bad news was about a death of a sick relative. I remember standing there speechless and couldn’t continue with the letter. I knew that person was a very dear family to my mom so I couldn’t dare tell her his death. My mom could read my body language and she didn’t have to ask me what is on the next paragraph. She knew exactly what it was and she started crying uncontrollably.

If I decide to put this scenario in a movie, I am not going to waste time stating it with a dialog. The actions and reactions between me, my mom and the letter are there, all I have do is apply them into the film. So life is full of visual stories, as filmmakers we just have to look deeper than the surface and bring them alive into our stories.

Issayas: Ambessa, thank you for your time and your thoughts. I hope to see more of your works on the screen.

Ambessa: You're welcome.

Two clips below from "Fragmented Lives"