Listening is a skill many people do not develop. Often, people assume that they are listening while what they are actually doing is hearing. They do not understand many factors hamper them from listening effectively. They do not realize their wrong assumptions about the speaker, and the issue renders their listening ineffective.
A story by Mr. Siltan Kebedom, the author of Hiywetwen Dob Alowa (Literally, Even Life Has a Limit), a collection of Tigrigna stories, brought this truth home to me. The story, Xilalot Rizvan Lukas, (The Shadow of Rizvan Lukas), is the story of a beautiful young woman with an uncommon Eritrean name. Audacious and with keen knowledge of her beauty and the power this gives her on men, Rizvan ensnares rich men and fleeces them of their wealth. They are ensnared (one after another) despite the warning they receive from her victim.
Hiywetwen Dob Alowa is a collection of 12 stories, most of which have women characters, most of whom do not share much with one another. Some old, others young, some cultured, others unexposed to modernity, they represent the various sections of the society. In short, Hiywetwen Dob Alowa could be taken as a study of Tigrigna women.
Through one story, Mr. Siltan has us read about the troubles of a rape victim. Living in a society that is not sympathetic to such victims, she keeps her agony to herself, keeping it a secret from the two closest people in her life (her husband and her friend). The woman wrestles with her conscience whether to reveal the secret to her husband and her friend, and agonizes about the consequences of such a bold and uncommon decision. Hade Kem Lekatit is a commentary on a society that stigmatizes victims of rape, and how such indifference contributes to its unhappiness.
In Fiori Nimen (Who Should the Flower Be), Mr. Siltan tells the story of a young man, misunderstood by the woman he loves deeply. Without condoning the failures of the young man, the author describes the young woman as unforgiving and as unsympathetic, who doesn’t try to put herself in his shoes. His pleas fall on her deaf ears and she judges him as unsuitable for a mistake he once committed.
One of the strengths of Hiywetwen Dob Alowa is that it is a thought-provoking book, with stories that show us how we are behaving as human beings, and where this may lead us. In a futurist story, Masao, Eti Koskuasi Tekli, (Masao – the Gardner) with a Japanese scientist, as its main character, and his Eritrean assistant as its narrator, he shows how technology may transform life (music, travel, literature, etc.), and how such transformation would have a catastrophic effect on human beings, on their well-being. Through this story, which depicts a crazy world where criminals, aided by technology, evade justice, he suggests such life to be not worth-living, and reminds readers that people (with their selfish lifestyles) are fast approaching that frightening future. It is noteworthy that the story has no woman as a character, while the two men make a complex computer, which reveals the future for them.
It won’t be true to suggest, let alone state, that Hiywetwen Dob Alowa depicts all women as unfriendly, unsympathetic, and unreliable. It has stories in which they are depicted as loving and understanding human beings. In Maiteb ZarTonay Askale (ZarTonay Askale’s Faith), Mr. Siltan tells us about a woman, kidnapped by a young man, whose father, a priest, was unfairly treated and murdered. She, finally, brings about his reconciliation with the community and makes peace between her husband and the community. Similarly, in Godena Hifret (Shyness Street), Mr. Siltan has the picture of a typical Tigrigna woman, who kept her love for a young man, her school mate, to herself until they accidentally met again in college. By the end of the story, the author makes us ask: “Why should she wait all these years if she loved him?” and opens our eyes to how oppressive the Tigrigna culture is, which discourages women from expressing their feelings for men they love.
This is not a matter that should be treated lightly. And it is not also just about the liberation of women. Neither is it about individuals, but about the whole society. A society’s happiness depends on it. A woman who can’t choose her life partner is not only not-free but is also unhappy. Her unhappiness spills over to the rest of the family and affects her husband and her children.
In Gahmi Libi (Blindness of the Heart), Mr. Siltan recounts the story of a man named Amare and a young woman named Yanet. Both Amare and Yanet meet at a New Year party, and she immediately falls in love with him, as he with her. On his part, he takes an initiative to build a relationship but doesn’t succeed as he hoped. Similarly, Yanet tries to reach him but fails in the same way. He meets her again about two years later. By then, she has married another man and has a child. Unbeknownst to him and her (that they had met before), they have a chat in which she complains of her husband: “We have lived together for two years and five months. Now, it is surprising that he still doesn’t know where I spend my Sunday afternoons!”
Honestly, most of the stories are very readable, and, in fact, you read one or two of them more than once. Such are Gahmi Libi and Xilalot Rizvan Lukas. However, it is the stories whose main characters have unpleasant characters that grab our attention, and make us question if Mr. Siltan has been fair to women in his depiction of them. Most certainly, Rizvan Lukas is not the kind of woman that walks the streets of Asmara. Neither can she represent other Eritrean women, for she is a very ruthless woman, a very rare kind of woman. The other woman, an unnamed one, (referred to as Regu’s wife), is morally unacceptable to most Eritreans. She is the kind of woman who has not divorced her husband but has started to live with another man when her husband lived far away. Her actions become all the more unpleasant as her husband and her son pay dearly for the comfort of the family. One cannot fail to notice the similarity between Regu’s wife and Yanet, for both thought the author doesn’t tell us why Regu’s wife abandoned her husband; it could be because she was not happy with him.
In short, Hiywetwen Dob Alowa can be taken as a study of Tigrigna women for the author has taken lots of care depicting the life and character of Tigrigna women, and they appear prominently in his stories. It is the women who stand out; even in some of the stories they may not be the principal characters, pointing to Mr. Siltan’s purpose.
Hiywetwen Dob Alowa makes an interesting reading, and through it Mr. Siltan not only entertains us but also opens our eyes to the factors that limit women’s lives. As long as women do not overcome these obstacles, we are made to think, they cannot be happy. And they cannot be happy, we are made to conclude, if they cannot make their own (small or big) decisions.
I don’t, however, think readers will be able to derive untainted joy out of their reading. One passes through the pages as if one were driving through a road with many potholes. One is reminded of a ride, made uncomfortable by the potholes in the road. Truly, some of the letters used in the place of another spoil the readers’ pleasure, and sometimes one is annoyed by the little mistake one encounters in the stories.