Friday, March 2, 2012

Sketches of a trip : Eritrea 2011

Final Sketch

In 1993 I attended a book signing ceremony in Asmara. While there were very few young people in attendance, most of the attendees were elders. Observing this, I remember asking a young man about the book signing and he told me that he was “dragged “there by his grandfather and didn’t understand the significance of it. That was then and this is now. Things have changed so much since then that Michael Adonai’s book signing ceremony that I attended in Asmara at Ambasoiera Hotel (which has become the routine venue for book signing) was a standing room only event with all kinds of people: young, old, women and men. The books that the publishers (Hidri) brought to be signed were all sold out. As a matter of fact, the revenue from books sales has risen to the millions per year, which indicates that reading culture has improved dramatically in Eritrea. Michael Adonai is not only a renowned author with books such as Keyah Mesobay, Ferdi Gobo A’rey, Mesakuti Mai Men’e and etc., but is also a brilliant artist whose works have been displayed around the world.

The Master of Ceremonies at Michael Adonai’s book signing was none other than my good friend, Elias Amare. Fortunately, he is visiting the U.S. and I’ve asked him to be a guest writer and to write briefly about the status of Eritrean literature today, the aforementioned and the subsequent event by Mr. Nurredin Farah, the renowned Somali novelist’s visit to Asmara.

First, I would like to give a brief comment about the book signing ceremony which was well attended with people from many walks of life. After a brief introduction Elias invited Atsbehet Yohannes (the actress who plays the grandmother in “Sidra Bet”) to give a comment. She briefly described her experience working with Michael Adonai and Michael Adonai’s modus operandi. After Atsbehet, Wedi Adonai, as he is affectionately called, spoke briefly and thanked people for coming to the ceremony. Elias then introduced Mesghun Zerai (Wedi Feraday) to critique Michael’s book entitled Kab Tshufat Hane’ta: Ekub Tewa’esotat from Hagerawi Bea’lat. From the Writings of Haneta: Compilation of Theatrical performances from the National Holidays. Michael Adonai’s book(two stories from the book) was also critiqued by Tesfalem Gebreselassie (Chare)(1)and Amanuel Berhe in “Haddas Eritrea” (2)Wedi Feraday’s critique was unique and brilliant, indeed. Wedi Feraday used live actors to amplify his critique. He picked two (“Tsehefto Haneta”: “From the Writings of Haneta” and “Ab De’ro” “On the Eve”. The same stories critiqued by the aforementioned journalists from “Haddas Eritrea”) from the eight stories in the book (The book is the first of its kind. It is a compilation of eight theatrical performances). For his critique, Wedi Feraday used “Brechtian device” (Also known as the “distancing effect” or in German, “Verfremdungseffekt”, is a performing arts concept coined by playwright Berthold Brecht* which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer”.)(3) Throughout the critique, Wedi Ferday guided the audience on and off by letting them in and out of the stories. During his critique, Wedi Feraday was analyzing “Tsehefto Haneta” in terms of triangles and triangular chains, which led me to wonder off to film critique Pauline Kael’s use of “Circles and Squares” to critique Andrew Sarris: the person credited for popularizing “the auteur theory” in the United States (4). Wedi Feraday admired Michael’s use of triangles to create chains of relationship in his stories. To illustrate, Wedi Feraday pointed out that in “Tsehefto Haneta”, the three characters, Haneta, Zewdi and Narge had connections in the story and this triangle created another chain which becomes a triangle itself. In the second triangle the relationship between Haneta , Negasi and Kifle creates a new triangle and thus creating triangular with varied chains of relationships.

Above: A visual representation of Wedi Feraday’s interpretation of “Tsehfeto Haneta’s” triangular chain relationship.

What was interesting was that Wedi Feraday went beyond the above mentioned relationship and used the same triangular relationship to formulate and understand Michael’s work, thinking and the role of actors and actresses in the following:

Tegbar (deeds): Easy to act
Seme'it (Emotions): Difficult to act
(Ideas):difficult to put them together

Pauline Kael’s circles.

The second story that Wedi Feraday picked was entitled “Ab De’ro” “On the Eve”, that is the eve of independence. Wedi Feraday commented that by not giving names to the main characters who had been imprisoned by the Derg (the former Ethiopian Military Junta) for different reasons (mundane reason to the point of being comical and beautifully acted), Michael had brilliantly moved the story fast forward by eliminating the character’s religion and beher (nationality). This point was also raised by journalist Amanuel Berhe in his Haddas Eritrea article. In the story, the two inmates are represented by numbers 54 and 103, respectively.
In the above article, Amanuel mentions that Michael uses brilliant strategy in all his writing style of not identifying the characters so that the audience does not pre-judge them based on their religion and beher, but judge them solely on their deeds.

Cover of Michael Adonai’s book. The art work is also by Michael Adonai.

On the eve of independence # 54 and # 103 had not eaten for a couple of days and as a result had lost weight. The prison guards had left the prison. The inmates were not aware that the Eritrean independence fighters had liberated Eritrea and the Ethiopian rule over Eritrea has come to an end. Once they were discovered, suddenly, they became heroes who had not only “survived the brutal prison system, but also “hunger!” Their survival and “heroism” became talk of the town and the story spirals out of control. The debate between the two inmates gets hilarious. #54 wants to keep the story going and wants to enjoy the new found popularity, while # 103 wants to expose the “truth”. It’s a very brilliant work of twists and turns. This part of the story reminded me of another translated comedy that I saw in Eritrea in 1994 entitled Jeppe Wedi Gobo (Jeppe of the Hills: written by Norwegian writer, Ludvig Holberg, Baron of Holberg in 1722).

Eritrean playwrights have over the years had inspirations from many writers. To mention a few, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, Ludvig Holberg, Anton Chekov, Ngugi Wa Thiongo and many others. Except for one or two translations* in Tigrigna, who is missing from the above mentioned writers is Alexander S. Pushkin (the maternal great grandson of General Abraham Petrovich H(G)annibal, the long lost son of Eritrea. I hope Eritrean playwrights translate all of Alexander S. Pushkin’s works and all his works be integrated in the Eritrean school system.

1. Tesfalem Gebreselassie (Chare). “Haddas Eritrea” pg. 10. July 2, 2011.
2. Amanuel Berhe.”Haddas Eritrea” pgs. 2 and 4. July 4, 2011.
3. Wikipedia: accessed on February 4, 2012
4. Pauline Kaen. “Film Quarterly”, Vol. 16, No. 3 (spring, 1963) “Circles and Squares”

*Berthold Brecht was a German playwright, poet and theatre director.

* Haddas Eritrea is the official newspaper written in Tigrigna. It means “New Eritrea”

* “I Will Marry When I Want” is another Tigrigna translated play that I saw in Asmara in 2000 during the Against All Odds Conference. The play was translated from the work of the renowned Kenyan author, Ngugi Wa Thiang’o. Atsbehet Yohannes played the main female character.

* So far, I’ve found only two Tigrigna translations of Pushkin’s works. The first was translated during the fight for Eritrean independence and republished in 2010 (a collection of 18 short stories from various coutnries) under the title of "Tensa'e" the second one is a translation of “The Tale of Tsar Sultan Belkin" by Ghirmay Gebremeskel in 2009.

To check out Michael Adonai's works,


  1. Hello! Im Csaba from Hungary and Im writing you as I need your little bit help: I've a blog on and collect the flags of my visitors' countries but had no visitors from Eritrea,yet so that flag is still missing for me. Would you be so kind and visit my blog? I think you know how this flagcounter works: one clicks on the blog and her current yountry's flag will appear there.
    Thank you very much for your kind help in advance and sorry for disturbing you with this thing but it's really hard to find somebody from there.
    Cheers, & take care

  2. This blog is a fresh of air. Keep up the good work.