Editor’s Note: It is to be recalled that we have published a review of the translated version of the book Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab on the December 15 issue of our Newspaper. Following is Alemseged Tesfai’s speech during the Book Launch event at Hotel Emba Soira on 14 December
On behalf of the author, Tesfaye Gebreab, his wife Haben and their lovely children, I would like to thank you all for honoring our invitation. Tesfaye, who has been looking forward to this occasion with great anticipation, cannot be here with us tonight as he is undergoing medical treatment in Kenya. The good news is that he is doing well and that he will soon be back amongst us to continue to do what he does best – produce good books.
Before Yenurenebi Mahder, I had read several of Tesfaye’s books – The Silence of Burka, The Writer’s Notebook, The Journalist’s Notebook, The Exile’s Notebook and Jemila’s Mother; all in Amharic. Like many readers, I was amazed by the beauty of his prose, the conciseness and clarity of his language usage; and his superb storytelling technique. But I was also intrigued by his curiosity and the adventures in literature that his natural inquisitiveness often leads him to. Here is a writer who cannot resist the urge to delve deep into an interesting story, uncover its source and essence, spice it with his imagination; and go ahead and publish it. From Emperor Haile Selassie’s birthrights or wrongs, however, one may see it, in Jemila’s Mother; to some shocking details within the officialdom of the former EPRDF Government in Ethiopia, in his Notebooks … and more, Tesfaye’s books often unravel the stories untold; and the tales and memories that royal chronicles and public records choose to ignore or conceal. He therefore seeks and thrives in controversy.
The Silence of Burka, which established him as a historical novelist, exposes the plight of the Oromo peoples under successive Ethiopian regimes. With that work, he has placed himself on the frontlines of the movement that has been rocking the very foundations of the dominant narrative put in place by old Imperial Ethiopia with the question, “Whose history should prevail?” It is the age-old controversy that begins with the hunt – “until the lion tells its version,” goes the old saying, “the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Through an intricate interaction between known and imagined facts and events, historical figures and created characters from the past and present; and a crafty and engaging narration, Tesfaye told the story, not of the hunter, but that of the hunted; thereby turning Burka into a virtual manifesto for many Oromo activists. For this contribution, he and the other Eritrean student of Oromo culture, Professor Asmerom Legesse, were invested with the title of “Abbo.” “Abbo,” I believe, is equivalent to a knighthood in Britain; Sir Tesfaye, therefore, to many an Oromo.
But, inevitably, Burka has also earned Tesfaye the ire and resentment of the other side who have accused him of everything from highhandedness with his treatment of history to malicious prejudice against the old Amhara establishment and the then ruling TPLF/EPRDF. A cursory look at his Facebook account even today will show messages of support and adulation being rivaled by vitriolic attacks on his person and character. Sometimes, I feel that Tesfaye is himself a hunted man who, unlike the lion, does get to tell his side of the story.
It is with this general background that I read Yenurenebi Mahder in 2017, in the Amharic original. I had, at the time, just published the third of my trilogy of books on Eritrean history. For almost two decades, I had been leafing through old and dump newspapers, public documents and private correspondence; interviewing scores of knowledgeable people, many of whom had forgotten important events; checking on the accuracy of dates and information; authenticating and footnoting every statement that I was making … in short, going through the drudgery of history writing, which must be only surpassed by the drudgery of lexicography.
I read Nurenebi with a great deal of interest, often getting amused by how historical events and personalities that I had written about were being placed in imagined frameworks and interacting with fictitious characters, all in a relaxing and enjoyable manner. I read it, I must also admit, with a tinge of envy at the space and freedom available to the historical novelist, a luxury that the historian cannot afford. I may also have paused a couple of times to ask myself why I had shifted from law to history, instead of the novel. I suspect that my legal background, which allows no room for digressions from facts and evidence, may have had a lot to do with my attraction to the demands of historical accuracy.
Sometime in early 2018, I agreed to translate Nurenebi from Amharic to English and, when I turned from a casual reader to a translator, my perception of the story changed accordingly. The freedom of the historical novelist that I had been envying a while back, was now an issue I had to come to terms with. Tesfaye had suggested that, as a historian and a storyteller, I go for a liberal translation, free to alter and edit, where necessary, both the style and content of his novel. That would have meant rewriting parts of the book and compromising its original form, flow and force. I declined the offer. If I were to translate, I would go for a literal version that would sound as if I had written myself as an English original.
But I did paint over the issue of whether, as a historian, I should be translating a work of fiction that deals with my own subject matter. I was even briefly tempted to reconsider my earlier decision. But I felt deep inside that, despite my doubts and hesitation, The Nurenebi File was an important book, a landmark in the history of the novel on Eritrea, that should not be confined to the Amharic original or a Tigrinya translation. I reasoned that it was a boost to the Eritrean narrative that I had been, and still am, toiling to help establish over the past three or more decades.
That narrative tries to tell the story of Eritrea through the words, actions and experiences of Eritreans themselves. It tries to trace that line of history that led to the growth of Eritrean nationalism and the birth of independent Eritrea, without losing sight of the historical connections between Eritrea and Ethiopia; and why, instead of creating a common identity, those connections pulled the two peoples asunder.
In a region dominated by the Ethiopian narrative, complete with its myths, imperial exploits and religious benediction, it has been a hard act to follow. The Ethiopian narrative, bolstered by major treatises by an array of national and international historians and scholars, had attained a level of spiritual unassailability until the Eritrean challenge of the 1940s. This domination especially in the mass of written literature on the Horn has been of such magnitude that Eritrean historians are yet to make a significant dent into that formidable structure. For me, writing in that atmosphere of established historiography sometimes feels like swimming in turbulent waters against the tide.
But a people’s right to tell its own story, to develop its historiography, is a human right. In the 1940s, the fate of Eritrea was decided, not by Eritreans, but by a group of Western nations led by the US and Great Britain. Eritreans had not been privy to that decision over their fate. Their previous history, stuffed inside the Ethiopian narrative had not been put into any consideration or studied in any meaningful way. The sacrifices that they were forced to pay to right that wrong form a part of the history that has made Eritrea. This story, with all the ugly things done unto Eritreans, including, by the way, whatever Eritreans might have done unto each other, forms the Eritrean narrative; and it needs to be told. Eritreans need to tell their own story. This is where Tesfaye and I come together and that is why I have translated The Nurenebi File.