(pre-revolutionary Ethiopia, on the road from Addis Ababa to destination unknown)
The rutted one lane road outside Addis wrenched the wheel of the four-wheel drive travellall, bucking and jouncing along as we headed somewhere that I was too small to understand. In hindsight, I suppose we were headed for Axum. My father was working with Ethiopia Airlines as an aeronautics and business consultant on sabbatical from Purdue University. I believe the car was either an International Harvester or a Land Rover, those proto-SUVs we all know from countless Wild Kingdoms – at any rate, there was room for my mother and father and a pair of colleagues as well.
No-one had been in the country long enough to have developed a good command of Amharic. While there were as yet no rumblings of the 1974 revolt that would displace Hailie Selassie, the hinterlands were a place that my parents recall to me as little seen.
At any rate we were some distance out from the precincts reckoned as safe. My mother was somewhat nervous, concerned about the advisability of this drive out into the unknown. The fascinating reality of Ethiopia’s relationship to both the Christian and Judaic cultures of Europe was too powerful a draw, overcoming her concern with curiosity.
Within Ethiopia, it’s long been a point of pride of the Christian kings to claim custody of no less a relic than the Ark of the Covenant and the tablets of the law. Archeological evidence has come to light that at least makes a possible case for the presence of this relic – or stand-ins for it of genuine ancient heritage – in the town of Axum, in northern Ethiopia.
The theoretical provenance of the Ark begins in the Old Testament, when the contents of the Holy of Holies in the temple at Jerusalem were removed for safekeeping, probably not from the Romans but from an earlier conqueror.
The Old Testament story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (I Kings, 18-19; 2 Chronicles 9) is held in Ethiopia to recount a historical event which led to the founding of an Ethiopian Judaic kingdom under Menelik, the son of Solomon. The descendants of just such a culture group were largely evacuated to Israel both in the 1980’s and again in the wake of the collapse of the Ethiopian revolutionary government in the early 1990’s. The oral traditions of the Ethiopian Jews recount that the Ark came to Ethiopia through Egypt.
Sometime thereafter, A Christian kingdom arose in northern Ethiopia. The Christian Ethiopians defeated the Ethiopian Jews militarily, and both peoples agree that this is how the Ark came to be in Axum, under the protection of Ethiopian Copts.
As I recall my parents explaining this to me, they politely withheld judgement of the possibility that the Ark might factually have become part of the patrimony of contemporary Ethiopia. Yet, they always carefully noted to me that the narrative is of crucial import to the idea and cultural identity of Ethiopianness, and made it clear to me that the tale deserves the respect due to oral histories and religious beliefs.
The intricate, fascinating wall hanging depicting Solomon and Sheba, and Menelik’s visit to Solomon and return home which returned with us to our home fascinated me. Using figures and a layout strategy drawn from eastern Christian traditions and anticipating comics in the use of captioned serial narrative, I longed to be able to read the Amharic words under the feet of the persons depicted in golden, brown, brick, and coffee colors.
Of course as we jounced along the track, none of this information was available to me, small as I was. We came to a halt. A tree lay across the road. A man emerged from cover by the side of the road, carrying a weapon, a rifle of some sort.
Through the lowered window, he made it quite clear he intended to collect a toll.
My father left the car, and went around the front of the hood to speak to the man. Pulling out his wallet, he cascaded an accordion-folded document out for the man to inspect. Festooned with ribbons, stamps, and signatures, the document measured a good foot-and-a-half in length, six or seven folds zig-zagging in the African sun.
My father began to jabber, angrily, poking his finger abruptly at the document, then at the car, then the road, then the man with the gun. His tone of voice was outraged, commanding.
My mother’s hands flew to her face, and she went pale as the blood left her cheeks. The interior of the car was deadly silent, the only sounds my father’s bewildering stream of incomprehensible syllables through the window and the engine of the auto.
With a final flourish, my father gestured angrily at the tree.
As my father had spoken, the man with gun had listened with growing amazement, his eyes widening in concern and alarm. He shouldered his weapon and moved quickly to move the tree out of the road as my father got back into the car, shushing the passengers curtly as he seated himself again.
As we drove by the baffled, worried toll-collector, the man snapped a salute to the car. A salute! As we sped away, someone naturally thought to ask what my father had showed the man. He pulled out his wallet, and with a huge grin, displayed his Ethiopian driver’s license and travel passes, multiply endorsed, stamped, sealed, and signed.
And what had he told the man? “I told him to move the tree,” my father said, his tone of voice implying how obvious that was. Yes, but in what language? No one in the car had been able to understand it.
“Oh, that?” he said, “I just made it up.”
Whereupon he began to chatter and jabber away, demonstrating his ability to do just that. Laughter filled the car as it continued down the road, rooster tail of dust marking its’ passage.