“Mr. Ghirmazion has lauded the role of women during the armed struggle in his ‘Lul Kab Af Gebel’ and has richly rewarded us, women,” states Ms. Ghenet Seyoum (Shigom), commenting on Hanqewta, a collection of short stories by Michael Debrezion and Ghirmazion Kidane. “I exhort all women to refer his books,” she adds.
Is this book by Ghirmazion Kidane like the other stories I have so far read about the armed struggle? Is it like those books in which women use their feminine beauty and charm to get secrets out of unsuspecting Ethiopian army officers? Or does the story present another kind of woman? How will Mr. Ghirmazion’s book be different from the others written about the role of women during the armed struggle? I was hooked and decided to read the book to find out answers for my questions.
Lul Kab Af Gebel (literally translating as “A Pearl out of a Python’s Mouth”) recounts the experiences of a fictional young man named Estifanos Michael. Leaving the peculiar issue of his search for his identity aside, it can be taken as the biography of most Eritrean youngsters living in Asmara during the 1980s and early 1990s. Estifanos, a student at Asmara Comprehensive Secondary School and brought up by a woman, has no clue about who his father was or about his father’s whereabouts. Due to an incident in his classroom, Estifanos got arrested and was taken to a police station, where his classmates’ parents came to their children’s rescue. Estifanos had no one. His mother had died four years before and his father didn’t know if his son was alive or not. Neither did Estifanos know whether his father was dead or alive. Seeing the peculiar way that he answered his questions, the interrogator (at the police-station) orders Estifanos’ immediate re-arrest. In Mariam Ghibi, the infamous prison in Asmara where he was kept, he meets a man whose influence brings a complete change on Estifanos, and he is released a changed man.
The book also narrates the story of a woman named Sara, to whom Ms. Ghenet refers, whose husband gets killed in what looked like an accident. She had no doubt, however, that the Ethiopian Government was behind his killing. Therefore, she decides to open a bar, which she uses for her own purposes. This doesn’t come as a complete surprise to readers as much as it does to Sara’s family. Mr. Ghirmazion has successfully hidden her thoughts from readers and we do not know why she, a respectable Eritrean woman, should disgrace herself and her family. Unless, readers are made to conclude, Sara has some weighty purpose, she cannot take such a dangerous and shameful decision. It must be for such a purpose, we conclude, that she decided to bring up her daughter, Hiwet, Estifanos’ classmate, and later sweetheart, in such an unhealthy and dangerous climate.
Our conclusions are proven correct when Belih, an undercover Eritrean freedom fighter based in Asmara, whose background we are given through bits and pieces of conversations, begins contacting Sara. Through a note left by an Ethiopian policeman, which we read in its entirety almost at the end of the story, we are given information t h a t confirms our suspicions.
The title of the book conjures up the image of a man or a woman, inadequately armed to snatch a precious pearl out of the clutches of a ferocious f ire-spewing dragon. The scene in ‘Shrek’, in which Shrek goes to the dragon’s castle to free Princess Fiona, best describes the image the title conjures up in the reader’s mind. The dragon of the Ethiopian colonial army tries to swallow Sara, Belih, and their comrades in Asmara. As the story shows, the dragon had swallowed many, and would devour many more, if unstopped. Sara, Belih, and their comrades want to do just that. Stop the dragon and drive him out.
In telling the story, Mr. Ghirmazion, though he foreshadows the final events of the story, such as the Ethiopian policeman’s secret activities and the cruelty that visits Belih’s family, doesn’t give the events the coverage that they deserve. In other words, the events are only foreshadowed and do not receive the emphasis that Hiwet’s, Sara’s, and Estifanos’ experiences do. The significance of these events is kept hidden from the reader, preventing him or her from assessing how they impact the other characters. For example, Mr. Ghirmazion keeps the reader in the dark about the identity of Estifanos’ father until the last few pages, which makes the story less believable. In short, we are made to believe that Mr. Ghirmazion has chosen to use the deus ex-machina of classical Greek drama to resolve complications of the story.
In the story, Mr. Ghirmazion describes a scene in which two Eritrean thieves plot to frighten and rob Estifanos and Hiwet. Knowing the intentions of the robbers, we follow their actions with interest and are keen to find out the results. By showing the intention of the two robbers, he keeps us in suspense and we continue reading with interest. Mr. Ghirmazion doesn’t give us such an opportunity with Belih or Tadesse, or during Estifanos’ life as a baby. He fails to reveal the thoughts of important characters such as Tadesse, Fekadu, and Belih, especially in some critical parts of the book. Ultimately, this hurts the credibility of the ending.
Lul Kab Af Gebel is a fictional work based on real events. I suspect that Sara, who reminds me of Weizero Ethiopia in Engineer Tsegai Teclemichael’s N’Mntay, who also owns a bar and keeps it for the EPLF, is based on a real Eritrean woman. She serves as the Front’s eyes and ears in the bar, which is frequented by Ethiopian military men. Sara and Weizero Ethiopia work in such similar ways that one comes to the conclusion that the two stories were likely based on two very similar real stories. In other words, in an attempt to stay true to the original story, Mr. Ghirmazion has been unable to free himself from the oppression of the real events he describes. I believe that, to some extent, the real events which he recounts have undermined his creativity, particularly since he could have created another kind of woman who doesn’t use her feminine beauty and charm in her service to the armed struggle.
I think it is unfair that Eritrean women are often portrayed as bar women, as if they didn’t serve the Revolution in other capacities or through other ways. It can be argued that whether they served as bar women or as freedom fighters, they served the Revolution. But it should not be forgotten that art greatly influences our attitudes. It should also be recalled that such portrayals of Eritrean women (especially in our books) is degrading. It creates the impression that women cannot serve in other capacities and, therefore, cannot be equal to men. This is an attitude that many countries, including Eritrea, are trying to eliminate.
It is true, as stated by Ms. Ghenet, that “Mr. Ghirmazion has lauded the role of women during the armed struggle in his ‘Lul Kab Af Gebel’ and has richly rewarded us, women.” However, the story would have been more powerful if the author had given some serious thought about its narration and portrayed women in a broader, more creative light.