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He no longer has his money or his prestige, but he has his reserve, and his corner apartment on the twenty-fourth floor. How many Ethiopians can you fit into an elevator? All of them. What do you call an elevator full of Ethiopians? An oxymoron. Once the elevator begins to move, the gossip begins. Speaking much louder than necessary, one woman claims to have seen Dr.
To make matters worse, she was sitting in the front seat. The news is followed by the customary tsking of sound judgment being passed. In one protracted elevator ride there are rumors of infidelity, abuse, drugs, unemployment. It all amounts to one thing: proof of a vanishing culture. Time, distance, and nostalgia have convinced these women that back in Ethiopia, we were all moral and perfect, all of which is easier to believe when you consider the lives that most of us live now.
By even the most liberal standards, I would easily stand convicted of the same crime.
I can count the number of Ethiopian friends still in my life with two fingers. I go out of my way to avoid the restaurants and bars frequented by other Ethiopians of my generation. My phone calls home are infrequent. I eat injera only on social occasions. I consider the old emperor to have been a tyrant, not a god. And of course there had been Judith and Naomi, who alone could have set every gossiping tongue on fire for months. Preservation comes naturally to my uncle. When I came home from school or work in the evenings, I often found him sitting on the recliner facing the couch, mending a pair of my socks or removing the stains from one of the two white shirts I had to wear as part of my work uniform.
For a man who before coming to America had rarely ever driven his own car, the role reversal was always noted with his customary irony. Although I would kill the both of us on our first trip out. Those letters, unlike any of the others, are personal, although they grow increasingly distant with time. The ones written in the past five years are simply the letters of a concerned and active citizen Berhane is not, in fact, a citizen—only a permanent resident, which he will remain until he dies, because in his heart, he will always be in Ethiopia. In tone and in content, they are no different from any of the other letters concerning policy that he has written to other government officials, great and small alike.
I was small for my age back then. Small and skinny, without even a trace of facial hair, and a voice that still broke, especially when I was frightened. I had volunteered to pass out flyers to people I could trust. I was only sixteen at the time.
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I took nothing with me but a small red cloth sack stuffed with all of the gold and jewelry my parents owned. I pawned and traded each item in order to make my way south to Kenya.
Sepha reading Dostoyevski with Naomi in his store during his break from school…. Our insecurities run far too deep and wide to be easily dismissed, and Judith, without knowing it, had hit that central nerve whose existence I was reluctant to admit, but that when tapped, sent a sudden shock of shame and humiliation beneath which everything else crumbled. I was not that man. Sepha not an educated Mauritanian professor who was somebody, who attended academic conferences, etc.
I rarely left the apartment, nor did I want to. I refused to acknowledge the charm of a sunset or the pleasure of a summer afternoon. But how could we not have been? You should have seen us then.
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We were young, and we were skinny, and in our eyes beautiful. As that first night in the store wore on, our conversation grew increasingly grand, our ambitions and desires for the world limited only by imagination. I rode the buses until the crowds began to thin out, and then I would get off and take another crowded bus back in the same direction.
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Eventually, I came to know which buses were the busiest at which times of day, which buses could be counted on to always arrive on time or full to the brim, and which ones always left me wanting more. It was enough to feel that for twenty or thirty minutes I had locked myself into the same fate with dozens of people who, like myself, could barely move their hands out of their pocket or shift their weight from one foot to the other without pressing against someone else.
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Instead, I would have said that I felt safer on those buses than I did anywhere else in this city. Joseph from the Congo as a Congolese Dante, lover of poetry. Joseph working at the Colonial Grill as a waiter, where politicians and elites dined, etc. I know these blocks as intimately as I know any other streets in this city. While so much has changed, these twenty blocks have remained obstinately the same.
So, this is the city that I have made my life and home. It seems important now to think of it in that way. To consider it not in fragments or pieces, but as a unified whole. Sixty-eight square miles, shaped roughly like a diamond, divided into four quadrants, erected out of what was once mainly swampland. Its resemblance to Addis, if not always in substance, then at least in form, has always been striking to me.
Ninety square miles, most of which was a vast urban slum built around the fringes of a few important city centers. The two cities share a penchant for circular parks and long diagonal roads that meander and wind up in confusion along the edges.
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Even the late-afternoon light seems to hit D. In two more hours, it will dissolve into long, dark red tendrils of light that will stretch across the sky, and this day will have finally ended.
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Ah, Mauritania. The words had a certain rhythm to them, just like celebrating Christmas in Connecticut and the verts and gerts of German poetry that he claimed to find so beautiful. A poor illiterate man who lived in a slum. And you know what that makes him in Africa? A continent full of poor illiterates dying in slums.
What am I supposed to miss? Being sent into the street to beg white tourists for money? If I die today, my sister in Nairobi will get one hundred thousand dollars. Someone will have to come and move the furniture out of my apartment. My suits will be shipped back to Kenya for my cousins. You, Joseph, will get my car. The only thing my father owned when he died was a picture of Jomo Kenyatta. His great leader.