Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sketches of a trip : Eritrea 2011

Sketch Four

One of the many things that I do in Eritrea is to dig more deeply into the story of my paternal great uncle, Fitewrari (a title) Fessehatsion Beyene. On this trip, I received some more pictures which I added to my documentary film. I had never seen some of the pictures before. Even though the documentary is still ongoing, I have a clearer picture about his life than when I started it in 2006.

While growing up, I had heard bits and pieces of stories about my late great uncle. Even though I’ve been asking off and on about the little pieces that I’ve heard many times, the replies were either not satisfactory or non-committal. I realized that I had been asking the wrong people or the wrong questions (some of the people whom I had asked were two of Fitewrari Fessehatsion’s late sisters. One of his sisters was in Italy in 1929, in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1940s, London, England in the 1950’s and the U.S. in the 1960’s) until I got a positive and tangible reply from my good friend, Dr. Uoldelul Kelati. That’s when I started to seriously document my great uncle’s life. Pieces of the stories that I had heard included the information that he was a pilot (with a ballad to go with it), had many children from different women (during filming of a family gathering to discuss Fessehatsion, my colleague, Azmera from AVIE, commented that my great uncle was a “human multi-system”), was the best dresser of his time, that women fought over him (with a ballad to go with it), etc.

A couple of years ago, after I returned from a visit to Eritrea, I got an idea and decided to ask Dr. Uoldelul if he could look into the Italian archives and find out anything about Fitewrari Fessehatsion. He wrote me back and mentioned that his friend, Dr.Alessandro Volterra, author of Sudditi coloniali: Ascari Eritrei 1935- 1941, had written a few pages in the aforementioned book on Fitewrari Fessehatsion. I was thrilled to find out that my great uncle had received a pilot’s license from Italy in 1928. Finally the ballad about his flying was confirmed. From what I have gathered so far, he was a modern man (for his time), an intelligent and a very complex man. He was a musician, a cook, a speaker of many languages, a pilot, a “ladies man”, a driver, elegant dresser, etc.

There are many missing parts to the jigsaw puzzle, but let me give you some of the highlights of his life. I’m leaving out some juicy and intriguing parts for now. Some of the highlights were pointed out to me by Dr. Uoldelul. I would like to thank him for that. I would also like to thank Dr. Alessandro Volterra for sending me copies of Fessehatsion’s file which are housed in the colonial archives in Italy and Dr. Massimo Zaccaria for sending me the link for the history of aviation in Yemen.

  • Fessehtsion Beyene was born in Keren, Eritrea in 1890.
  • He spoke Tigre, Tigrigna, Arabic, Italian and Amharic.
  • He moved to Asmara after working as a cook in Keren.
  • In Asmara he became a driver for an Italian official in the early 1920’s. It is believed that there were only 4 or 5 Eritreans who had driving licenses at that time.
  • In 1921, Fessehatsion went to Italy as a driver for the Montenero family.
  • He went back to Eritrea on December 1923 (it is not clear if this was by choice or a necessity imposed on him).
  • His son, Claudio, the product of a relationship with an Italian woman, was born in March 1924. One could imagine the scandal that ensued from public knowledge about this union.
  • Fesshatsion went back to Italy in 1927 as a translator for Yemeni army pilot-trainees. This aviation connection was unclear to me until my good friend, Dr. Massimo Zaccaria , explained to me that it was the new policy of Jacopo Gasparini, the Italian governor of Eritrea of the time, who masterminded a regional policy based on good relations with Yemen, hence, the presence of the army-pilot trainees in Italy.
  • In 1928, Fessehatsion obtained his pilot’s license.


Fessehatsion (second from left) with Yemeni army-pilot trainees in Italy.

Jacopo Gasparini, the Italian governor of Eritrea (1923-1928)
From the book "Italian Colonialism in Eritrea" by Zemhret Yohannes in Tigrigna.

  • In 1929 he was sent to Somalia (though not as a pilot, but rather as a foot soldier) and remained there until 1936. By this time his son Claudio was 12 and, by virtue of his mother, an Italian citizen. Fessehatsion in the meantime had also married a Somalian lady in Somalia and had two sons with her.
  • In 1937, he managed to have his son Claudio with him in Somalia, though he could not acknowledge him as his son (a colonial 'subject' could not acknowledge an Italian citizen). Fessehatsion was able to obtain residency for his son, but at the same time Fessehatsion was forbidden to go back to Italy forever. This seemed to be due to the embarrassment the Fascist government had in dealing with the fact of a black man having a son with an Italian lady. In fact, the military records of Fessehatsion do not mention any misdeed and, on the contrary, kept stressing his unusual skills, cleverness, etc. At a certain point, official records became silent on the fate of the two. But it seems that the colonial administration found it unacceptable for an Italian citizen (Claudio Ricucci) to live together, in a father-son relation, with an African man. This would explain why Claudio ended up in a boarding school, whose costs were paid for by Fessehastion.
  • He was kicked out of Somalia and settled in southern Ethiopia where he died in the early 1960's.

Next, Part Five.