Held at a Distance: My Rediscovery of Ethiopia, Rebecca Haile

(Steve Davey, fellow blogger, has a nail-biting account of his quest to visit Axum and its surroundings in the north of Ethiopia. “I also want to visit the ancient monastery of Debre Damo,” he says. “Why? Because it is on a rock plateau in the middle of nowhere and you have to climb up a rope to scale a sheer cliff face to get in.” I wanted to comment on it earlier, but found that Steve’s summary of Ethiopian history, especially as it relates to Christianity, perfectly complement this book. And it has great photos! Read it on the Perceptive Travel site here.)

In this compact book from a lawyer who has no agenda as trying to “make it” as a writer, Rebecca Haile has presented a personal and intelligent story that is refreshingly simple. While I’m as much an addict of travel literature as the next wanderlust victim, it’s good to be reminded sometimes that these stories are valuable more in their ability to force an understanding of some tiny sliver of the world, rather than to engender excitement at the traveler’s daring. Haile has accomplished this, and more, in a slim volume whose chapters are each like a breath of fresh air in their honesty and clarity.

Haile’s family was forced from their home in Addis Ababa in 1976, two years after a military coup ousted the sitting emperor. Like countless intellectuals and hopeful humanists all over the world time and again, Haile’s parents (her father a professor of Ethiopian languages and literature, her mother a secretary for the Oxford University Press in Addis Ababa) hoped that the coup would be a “catalyst for progress” — democratic, social, and economic. And like those countless idealists, they were proved wrong and eventually were forced to flee the country, having been marked as enemies of the government. They settled with Haile and her sister in, of all incongruous places, Minnesota.

In 2001, with trepidation, excitement, and a little self-doubt, Rebecca Haile returned from Ethiopia after 25 years of exile. In the first days back, she is overwhelmed by memories, memories that wash back over her as she walks through the house her parents had lovingly built in happier days, and memories that overtake her in a more Proustian fashion as she becomes reacquainted with Addis Ababa, “a city of hidden sanctuaries.”

What I loved about the Haile’s narrative was her fearless assessing of her own sense of self, of character and personhood and identity. It’s a process that many travel writers have abandoned in favor of raging adventure travel or tales in which they play the star bumbling fool in the wilderness. Haile stares in the face what it means to her to be Ethiopian, contrasted with what it means to have been Ethiopian.

Central to this question is that of religion. Ethiopian Orthodoxy is a lynchpin of the country’s identity. Not only that, but Haile’s parents are deeply rooted in the church and she attended Ethiopian Orthodox services when practical as a child in Minnesota. Being, however, as she states, a Westernized woman, she is both respectful and wary of religion.

Haile and her husband travel to many of Ethiopia’s most famous religious centers, including Axum, where the Ark of the Covenant is reputed to be guarded (by a priest raised from boyhood to the task — no other people are allowed in the church); and Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile and a heart of Ethiopian Orthodoxy. Her descriptions of these places are not those of the travel writer looking for unique language and evocative imagery, but of an open-hearted person seeking a spiritual connection to her own land and people. But in her travels, and among her family in Addis Ababa, she still feels a stranger to the religion that is so crucial to the people she knows and loves.

If there is a weakness in a book that is so highly personal, it is in Haile’s attempts to assess Ethiopia’s current problems and its possibilities for future solutions. In her critique of the seccession of Eritrea, for example, as well as of other regions that are seeking greater autonomy partly based on dominant languages, she betrays a perhaps too-Western sensibility of what it is that makes people fail to get along, to live together and work for a better future. It’s hard to tell whether Haile gets this slight idealism from her parents or from the America that is now her home. In any case, as with the rest of the story, she sets forth her own ideas and experiences of the situations honestly, without punditry or any real judgment, just a wistfulness for the potential of her rediscovered Ethiopia.

Haile ends her book on an upswing, her hopes for Ethiopia’s future. “The discovery that Ethiopia can and is changing in response to its outsiders opens the door to an entirely new and unexpected relationship with my old country. Now, I have reason to hope that the conservative, objectionable aspects of Addis Ababa culture that I can never accept might someday fade. … I have reason to think that despite a violent departure and thirty years abroad, my family can once again call Ethiopia home.”

I’ll hope with her, even though I can’t help but contrast her Addis Ababa with the slums detailed in May 2007’s issue of Harper’s (I wrote about it here.) By that account, it is certainly a city that could use some hope.

(The paperback of Held at a Distance was published in the US in May 2007, and is available through Amazon from the US, UK, and Canadian sites.)

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