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Tesfaye Gebreab Speaking for Justice in Ethiopia

We talk to the renowned Eritrean journalist and editor in the Ethiopian printed press. In Eritrea, however, amongst his fellow Eritrean citizens, he is mainly known for his books and his attachment to the Oromo ethnic group. Tesfaye Gebreab journalist and author, has written eight books –historical novels, true stories, short stories, and memoirs. His latest book, ‘Ye Nurebi Mahder’, ‘Nurenebi File’ has gotten a great notice from local and regional readers as he pens a hundred year long story of Eritrea and Ethiopia. Even though Tesfaye writes in Amharic he receives admiration from Eritrean readers.

  • -A small introduction of yourself please.

I was born on August 28, 1968 in Oromia, in the town of Bishoftu. My parents were Eritreans who in the 1950’s, migrated from Menedefera, Eritrea, to Ethiopia. I worked as a journalist in the past, but at the present time I am a full time writer. I have authored more than eight books.

  • -There is a language barrier in your books; a readers’ discretion to what you write. You use Amharic and only few can relate. Why do you do so? What about young Eritreans who want to read you?

I started writing in Amharic because of historical circumstances. The readership in Amharic is not small in number. The Ethiopian population is estimated to be around 100 million, and most of them use Amharic language. Being born and having spent most of my life there I used Amharic as a tool for my writings. Be that as it may, the language is not a matter of concern. With translation a wider audience can be reached.

  • -I know you are translating your works, but translation won’t be as savory as the original works. Have you thought about it? Don’t you worry that readers who are eager to finally get a hold of your work will be disappointed?

It is obvious that a translation cannot be as factual and accurate as the original version. However, I have no choice. I am not sure that the standard of my Amharic writings can be achieved in the other languages. I have never tried it. I think literary language is not easy in a second or third language.

  • -Can you, kindly, mention what stage you’ve reached with the translations of the new book ‘Nurenebi File’?

The historian and author Alemseged Tesfai has already finalized the translation of “The Nurenebi File” in to English. I have read part of it. He has managed to do a very clean job within a short period of time. I am very lucky to have the book translated by such a well-known and capable Eritrean author, Alemseged. The book has also been translated into the Tigre and Tigrigna languages. I am planning to have it translated also to Arabic. The readership I saw with my latest book is really encouraging.

  • -Any idea when the translated version of the book will be printed?

For the Tigrigna and Tigre versions of the book I am looking for funds; so I hope very soon. As far as the English version is concerned my aim is to look for an international publishing firm.

  • -You wrote a book about your experience as a journalist. What was your experience in Ethiopian context?

Actually, based on my own personal experience, I have already published three books. They have been widely distributed in Ethiopia. I have put facts in my books, which in reality should have been published in newspapers. When I was a journalist in Ethiopia I was exposed to various dangers. I was able to expose the crimes which were being committed by the TPLF and more. It is true that before my escape from the Woyanes I had written and published Yeburqa Zimita, “The Silence of the Burqa”, exposing the cruel oppression of the Oromo people by the ruling party of TPLF. This is why I had to run away because I was singled out and had become a main target for the TPLF.

  • -Has your book, The Silence of The Burqa, been translated? I know it was a sensation for the fact that you exposed the ethnic discrimination exceedingly common in the Ethiopian context and recurrent in its history.

Yes. Dr. Berhe Habetgiorgis has translated it to English. Danile Habetemarima has also translated it to Tigrigna. Moreover, it has been translated to Oromo language by Qajelaa Mardasa and AbaChala Lata. I am looking for publishers.

  • -Why are you sympathetic to the Oromo? You are indeed extremely fond of them and connected.

Similar to other Ethiopian ethnic groups, the Oromo people have not yet found the rightful place in the Cushitic race. History proves that despite being a civilized and democratic society by tradition, they have not yet been recognized nor given the respect they deserve as members of society. I was born and raised in the Oromo society; therefore, in time, I became part of them and their culture. I am a free author, I try to be a voice to the voiceless and oppressed people of Oromo. My feelings are not exaggerated.

  • -What is the reaction you receive from Oromos? They must be glad to have someone who tells their side of the story.

When I wrote and published on social media The Silence of the Burqa, many young Oromo boys and girls felt incredibly touched. The book was actually published thanks to the funds raised by countless Oromo people. They organized tours for me to many countries and cities. They approve of me and I am fortunate for that. Me writing with an aim to expose the concealed truth of the rulling party in Ethiopia and historical disasters witnessed as regards to ethnic discrimination has no political influence what so ever. I write because I am a journalist and also because I feel the urge of telling the truth in my books.

  • -In your latest book you give an account of a long history of Eritrea and partially Ethiopia. An era that extends from the occupation of Italians to almost independence. What are the pros and cons? You dared to summarize a long history in 400 pages. Why?

I was able to condense the 100 years of Eritrean and Ethiopian History in 400 pages because it is based on the history of one family. I traveled along with the family starting from Halhal Bogos to Massawa in 1890. I was given the history of the family from the custodian of the family documents and the eldest son of the Gabriel family, Debessay Gabriel. That is why I have been able to cover the 100 Year Eritrean, Ethiopian history. The horrible event of the 1890 hunger is the beginning of the story. The coming of the Italians in Eritrea, the rebellion of Bahata Hagos, and then the battle of Adwa, after that the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy, the 2nd World War, the British occupation of Eritrea, and then the federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea, the desolation of the federation, the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie, and then the Eritrean Armed Struggle culminating in Independence. I have been able to write the above historical sequence thanks to the story of a family.

  • -As a writer, who are the authors whose style inspires you the most?

I am mostly inspired by Russian authors like Lermontov, Ivan Gacharov, Dostoyovisky, Maxim Gorky, Pushkin, and Tolstoy. I strongly feel something real towards these authors, who have strongly inspired me in my literary works. Of course, there are also authors I admire and look up to from the Far East and Africa.

  • -In the new book some people say that you have a positive attitude towards Italian colonialism. Why did you create a stage for possible controversy? In reality no colonial power has ever been denoted with positivism. What is your reason?

If you compare Italians with the British in Eritrea, with all their negativity, they were better. The British, even if they had allowed some sort of ‘freedom of speech’, are known for having destroyed what the Italians had built. I’d like to note, if you let me, that there is no favoritism in my book nor have I ever approved of colonial suppression.

  • -At the end, Tesfaye, from a writer’s point of view do you believe that the Eritrean history has been sufficiently covered?

Not at all. I really don’t think so. But attempts have been made. From Eritrean writers there is Alemseged Tesfai who has presented a 21 year political history of Eritrea extending from 1941 to 1962 in 2000 pages. Bcuretsion Haile’s The Collusion on Eritrea has a lot of information. Tekeste Negash has published useful books too. Yemane Mesghena’s Italian Colonialism and Zemehret Yohanes’s Italian Colonialism in Eritrea are must read books. Alamin Mohammed Seid’s Sewra Eritrea elaborates the start of the armed struggle. There are books recently published on the struggle too. Solomon Berehe, Akedir Ahemedin, Henok Tesfabrook have presented valuable information for history writers and the people at large. The books of Dr. Tekeste Fekadu are also of a huge contribution to the history of Eritrea. Ethiopian writer, Zewde Reta, gives subjective point of view on Eritrea. Westerns have also written some but, naturally, not in-depth. However, even if they have their own weakness and short comings some of the books can be considered good enough. Did you know that in Ethiopia, 32 books have been written and published over the course of 26 years?

Over all the Eritrean history has not been written yet. And I criticize Eritrean young writers. I get disappointed when I see capable young writers translating commercial English books. When walking in the streets of Eritrea, history stumbles you. I want to call on young Eritreans to research, dig out and document our history because it rightfully deserves to be told. I wish young writers could see past economic reasons and document our history as I know they are capable and talented far more than they even realize.

  • -Thank you for your time!


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