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(I) The Self-Colonizing Mission: Names and Naming in Eritrea

(I) The Self-Colonizing Mission: Names and Naming in Eritrea

By Yosief Ghebrehiwet

The last time I set foot in Asmara, one day as I was waiting for a bus, I struck up a conversation with this young lady with a few months old child in her bosom. After a brief exchange on the usual curiosity questions, I shifted my attention to the child and asked her what his name was. She proudly replied, with a reassuring smile to back it up, “Kevin”. Surprised (I honestly thought it could be one of those archaic Jewish names that the young generation keeps obsessively excavating from the Bible – like Levi, or its Tigrigna version, Lewie), I said, “I have never heard of this name before,” all the time thinking about Tigrigna names only. But her surprise was greater than mine. Eyes wide-open, she said, “You don’t know Kevin Costner!” And I knew where her surprise was coming from, as I could hear her thinking, “And he says he is from America! How could he possibly miss this great actor? Fara!” And she happened to be a poor lady and single mother (and with little education, if ever, from what I surmised from our brief talk) who had never ventured outside of Eritrea. Look at what surface encounter with modernity has done to her! No wonder, decades of physical and mental dislocation is leaving its alienating mark among Eritreans. In this rather innocuous looking baptismal act, we see the self-colonizing mission of the ghedli generation emulated in miniscule; it just happens to be an exotic version of that perennial search for disparate alien identities that essentially characterized the Eritrean Revolution in its totality.

I bet you Aklilu Zere’s “good Kebessa woman” in the Italian colonial Eritrea1 would never give her son such an alien name, however exotic it sounded to her ears; after all, it was in the homes of Baratollos, Mellotis, Giovannis, Marios, Molinieris, Binis, Fenilis, Denadais, Merenghis, Salinas, and Costas that Aklilu nostalgically recalls that she was working as a maid or factory hand. Remarkable enough, it never occurred to her to borrow some of those exotic Italian names she was too familiar with at her working place. She was too anchored in her habesha culture to even entertain it as an option, let alone to act on it; that is, even as the signora of the house for whom she worked might have found convenient to call her with an Italian version of her name (Fortuna, Rosa, Lucia, Anna, etc.). She instinctively understood that naming and identity were too intimately tied to one another as to be tampered with in such a frivolous way. Even though she had gradually changed in many ways as she adapted to the modern colonial world that she was forced into, it never occurred to her to tamper with the very essence of her identity. (As Aklilu rightly reminds us: “… even though the woman would not compromise on her faith and village values, she was open to modernization.”2)

Here then is a great paradox for the ghedli romantics to ponder: it is not the fathers that lived through the colonial era that abandoned their roots, but the generations born in postcolonial era. Unlike the fathers, who were at peace with modernity (adopting aspects of it gradually without letting go of their roots, as the “good Kebessa woman” did) that left their identity intact, it was the postcolonial generations’ perverse reaction to modernity that led to their identity crises. It doesn’t mean that the fathers came out of Italian colonial era totally unscathed, but that the scar on their psyche was not deep enough to make them doubt the very essence of their identity. For the confused, self-doubting postcolonial generations though, to absorb one (modernity), they had to entirely let go of the other (their roots). They didn’t realize that in between the “letting go” and the “picking up” a huge existential chasm was created that would suck in a whole nation into a free fall that has so far lasted for 50 odd years. Despite an equally 50 years of Italian rule, the bastardization of names that one finds among many colonized people never took hold in Eritrea. Our proud fathers stuck to the good old habesha names; except in extremely rare cases, you don’t hear of any Italian names adopted during this era. Ironically, this bastardization of names has been taking place in “liberated” Eritrea among the children and grandchildren of the ghedli generation.

The reality is that, often camouflaged in revolutionary rhetoric, the ghedli generation set out to finish the colonial task that the Italians had left incomplete. This task is better understood if it is put in contrast to what the fathers did the first chance they got, right after the Italians left, to decide on their own: embittered and outraged by what the Italian colonial oppression had done to them, they wanted immediately to reconnect with their past. Those fathers who are now derided by their children as “andnet sellouts” for seeking a reconnection to their past were never taken by the superficialities of modernity. They were the ones who actually lived through the horrors of colonialism, and did all they could to reclaim their proud past. If colonialism did damage to the Eritrean psyche, we have to seek it in post-colonial generations. These were the ones who took a diametrically opposite direction of what their fathers did: offended and enraged by the “backwardness” of Ethiopia, they wanted to reconnect with their colonial past! (Aklilu Zere’s article is a clever attempt to do just that3) It all started when the ghedli generation began to look back nostalgically at the Italian era, with Asmara as their inspirational focus. Soon thereafter, outraged by what their fathers did, they tried to erase everything that tied them to the traditional past that they associated with their fathers (the hagheresb, the habesha, their history, the Tewahdo Church, Ethiopia, etc). All they wanted to preserve was their colonial heritage, not only in the obvious sense of retaining the colonial Map in its totality, but also that of the “modernity” that they churlishly associated with that Map. It is in this sense that they became the willing bearers of the “civilizing mission”, as they took “the white man’s burden” upon themselves, with nothing but the reconquest of Eritrea (and the poor ghebar as the colonial “native”) as their goal – both physically and mentally.

Here then is the critical difference in between the two diametrically opposite directions that the fathers and their children took that we should always keep in mind if we are ever to grasp the true nature of ghedli: whereas colonial oppression was the cause for the fathers’ attempt to reconnect with their past, colonial inspiration became the cause for the ghedli generation to wage a revolution to reconnect with the Italian colonial past.

In this part of the article (Part I), we will look at the subject matter of “names and naming” to throw light on how two generations, one in colonial era and the other in post-colonial era, reacted differently in face of modernity; the main point being that the real colonization of the Eritrean mind took place after the Italians left – all in reaction to modernity, belatedly inspired by the legacy of Italian colonialism. We will see how the self-colonization (if you will, the reconquest,) goes, with alien names of various types flooding the society in mainland Eritrea being the focus of the analysis. I will confine myself to newly emerging names among the Tigrignas, both of the Christian and Muslim types. Even though this analysis will be limited to names and naming only, it will be made clear that this is emblematic of the greater malady of self-colonization that is blighting the nation in all aspects imaginable.

Even though I have made Aklilu’s article as a starting-off point to look at the self-colonized mind of the Eritrean elite, in general, and the ghedli generation, in particular, it is only in Part III that his article will be made the main focus of the analysis. In Part I and Part II, the entire focus will be on “names and naming” as it is surfacing in today’s Eritrea.

Growing appeal of Western names: symptomatic of a greater malady

To my Asmara brief encounter with frivolous naming mentioned above, one might respond that since Western names in Eritrea are still very rare, one cannot make a generalization based on those few cases; after all, the overwhelming majority hasn’t abandoned Tigrigna names. But this misses both the growing appeal of this frivolous naming and the various other ways this kind of alien-naming is making its presence felt among the larger society.

The appeal of Western names in mainland Eritrea is a growing trend. And I am not talking about the few remnant Italian names such as Rosa, Fortuna, Roma, Lucia, Fiori, etc that have been there for decades, albeit in small numbers. This time around the inspiration comes from as far places as Hollywood and international soccer teams. A good example of that would be how the drama “Sidra” starts, with four characters lamenting alien names such as “Messi” and “Ronaldinho” – two international soccer celebrities, one from Argentina and the other from Brazil – making their surprising appearance among the Eritrean society. I have also heard of a Muslim version of this frivolous naming, Zidane (the French soccer player, of Algerian extract) being one such case. As for movies, I have heard the name “Ben-Hur” extracted from the classic movie Ben Hur, used as a boy name among young couples in Asmara. Another one is Hannibal, be it derived from the movies or history books. Then there are the “normal” Western names such as Diana, Jennifer, Veronica, Monica, Jane, Betty, Becky, Suzanna, Laura, Debra, Mary, Tamera, etc that are increasingly finding appeal among the young, especially women – all in Eritrea proper. Further, there is this tendency to Anglicize habesha names whenever possible: John, Joseph, Peter, Isaac, Jacob, Mike, Joshua, Rebecca, Paul, Jonathan, Dave, Sam, etc.

What we are looking at is that, even though still in small numbers, Westernized trivial naming is a growing trend. But, so far, when it comes to its scope, there is not much to lament about; its perniciousness mainly comes from the fact that it is a symptom of an ailing environment that made it “normal” for this kind of names to appear among the society. For instance, in the old times, parents who would dare to name their son “Ben Hur” would be looked askance by the society; that is, the intolerance level for such kind of naming was high. Now, after decades of social uprooting, anything goes seems the norm. If so, what needs to be looked at is the deluge of normalized alien names that has found its way into the society and, in turn, made this kind of obvious trivial naming currently acceptable. In fact, what needs lamentation is what is not so glaringly obvious in its alien aspect: when this malady comes dressed up in its Tigrigna and Arabic grab, because of the sheer number of names that each category involve.

Although the drama “Sidra” has rightly diagnosed one aspect of the malady of frivolous modernity, its attempt to replace these names with ghedli-inspired names shows that it fails to grasp the depth of the problem, for all it attempts to do is replace one aspect of this frivolous modernity with a similarly detached one. This tells us that a name in Tigrigna does not necessarily mean a Tigrigna (or rather, a habesha) name. If we include in this category the religiously motivated detached names (both Christian and Muslim), we end up dealing with a large number of names; so much so that they are displacing the old habesha names at an alarming rate. If so, a further question would be whether this has anything to do with encounter to modernity, and whether that happens to be a reflection of a greater malady that afflicts the society at a wider and deeper level. In particular, we will ask whether it has to do with the self-colonizing mission of the post-colonial generations. There is no better place to witness this alien-naming phenomenon than in ghedli and religious realms. Let me start with the latter.

Religiosity and alien names among Christian Tigrignas

Suppose an expert on names and naming (let’s say someone who makes an analysis based on names only) is provided with a list of names of a people in a detention camp, and asked to find out: who those people are and where their detention happens to be. Here is a sample of the names upon which the expert’s conclusion was based: Selihon, Aaron, Yonathan, Nardos, Sophanios, Abigail, Absalom, Agar, Shushan, Ehlena, Danias, Biniam, Mikkias, Matias, Nahom, Nathnael, Naomi, Aster, Hanna, Yosief, Yafet, Eden, Joshua, Daniel, Amanuel, Michael, Kaleb, Yared, Rhoda, Rohanna, Dinah, Deborah, Yehuda, Yehudit, Tsion, Solomon, Menassie, Nehmia, Bethania, Samrawit, Rahel, Lea, Yerubabel, Saron, Ariam, Adiam, Megdelawit, Eren, Ararat, Noel, Yordanos, Fermon, Yonas, Robel, Yerusalem, Bethlehem, Sinai, Israel, Isaac, Ephrem, Gabriel, Ruphael, Ezekiel, Gideon, Miriam, Mattewos, Nazareth, Natanim, Abimelech, Elnata, Naphtali, Elias, Martha, Yohanna, Lydia, Surafiel, Milak,Yodit, Iyassu, Abraham, Rebecca, Mussie, Abiel, Adonai, Milka, Ezra, Bethel, Elshi, Iyob, Filmon, Abner, Ebenezer, Delila, Bethsheba, Yonael, Tabetha, Fanuel, Benyam, Yoas, Miriam, Isaias, Eskias, Hermon, Yacob, Eyoab, Yoakim, Yohannes, Paulos, Petros, Rahel, Ruth, Meron, Samson, Hose’e, Sara, Sem, Sharon, Simon, Zecarias, Lewie, Yoel, Barnabas, Asier, Eldad, Niphtalem, Yishay, Haroni, Edom, Elshaday, Eliyu. Hosana, Alazar, Sirak, Goliad, Lemuel, Samuel, Arsema, Henok, Afomia, Kirubel, Eyael, Eyoel, Eyobel, Matusala, Yaskobed, Yanet, Yonadab, etc.

After thoroughly going through the list, here is a report of our expert: except for a few anomalous names that he has discounted or found an alternative explanation, he firmly believes that these are the names of Israelites under detention by one of their various persecutors in their history; and further concludes that, in this instance, the detention to have most probably taken place in the early years of Spanish Inquisition (late 15th and early 16th century A.D.). He discounts the most recent purges, like the Holocaust, because modern Jewish names from non-Jewish derivations are lacking (for instance, those with German suffixes –berg –stein, or –man). He also discounts the distant past, like those in ancient Egypt and Babylon, because there are some Christian names from the New Testament included, probably of newly converted that attempted to escape the persecution but nevertheless were not spared from the wrath of the Inquisition. As for the anomalous names like Bereket, Tesfay, Ghilay, Senayit, Abrehet and Akberet that he encountered in the list, he theorizes that another unfortunate minority sect might have also been included in this persecution that mainly targeted the Jews (like the gypsies in the Holocaust). But the disproportionate number of Jewish names convinces him that this persecuted group is indeed Jewish. As a result, he would be very much surprised to know that these are in fact names of modern day Eritreans. Ironically, one such detention camp can easily be located in modern day Israel – populated by Africans with names more Jewish than the Israelites themselves, abhorred and detested by the very people they keep imitating! To drive this point even further: had this list been made of young Evangelical Christians imprisoned in Eritrea, our analyst’s conclusion would have looked to him even more certain.

I doubt that some of these Hebraic names appeal to modern day Israelis, given that they are either archaic or denote geographic locations. Names like Sinai, Jordan, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and Israel look like itinerary stops in a map of the Middle East. It is not hard to imagine a family with three or four of these names in today’s Eritrea. Who would ever call his children Adi-Ghebray, Kudofelasi, Adi-Keyih, Kohayin, Tsorona or Emba-Derho? (After I posed this rhetorical question in this article, a friend actually informed me that this kind of “territorial naming” did become a trend in Eritrea after independence, and that he in fact knows of a father who named all his ten or so children after villages and towns in his vicinity – names that tie identity firmly to the land. Imagine these poor kids carrying the burden of the territorial identity infecting the nation that a clueless father has imposed on them for the duration of their lives). And if we look at the proportion of ancient Hebraic names to modern (and secular) ones used by modern-day Israelis, it is possible that Eritreans might beat them on that soon, given the rate at which they are excessively quarrying the Old Testament for these names.

True enough, there is nothing wrong with naming inspired from the Bible or any other Holy Book; after all, there are many names derived from the Bible that have always been part of the traditional naming. And as in any other Christian culture, one would definitely expect a number of names to originate from the Bible among the Tigrignas. Names like Abraham, Sara, Daniel, Yohannes, Iyob, Yakob, etc have been a staple in the naming tradition of the society, some as long as Christianity has been in the land. Others like Ghebe-Egziabher, Wolde-Mariam, Habte-Ab, Ezghi-Amin, Ande-Tsion, etc, although not copied word for word, happen also to be inspired by the Bible. It is only when a whole generation keeps fanatically excavating the Bible for all kinds of odd names that were never heard in the culture before (like Ebenezer, Abner, Haroni, Yanet, Selihom, Arsema, Eyael, Sinai, Lewie, etc), all at the expense of traditional names, that one looks suspiciously at this phenomenon as a symptom of an uprooted mind in search of alien identity.

There are two kinds of Eritreans infected by this urge to quarry names from odd corners of the Bible that has given this type of alien naming power in numbers. There are the religious conservative kinds who have gone “fundamentalist” on these names, seeking them in their literal biblical purity. And then there are the frivolous ones who are not that religious to begin with, but nevertheless go to the Bible to pick up anything that sounds “cute” or even “modern” to their ears without violating their nominally Christian sensibility. What both of them share is the utter disdain they have developed to traditional naming. The sheer number of these biblical names and the astounding rate at which they are appearing among the society have already pushed out a huge chunk of traditional names, some of which are being rendered extinct with the dying out of the old generation.

One way of looking at this phenomenon as an epidemic sweeping through the Eritrean society is by examining if this trend of obsessively excavating the Bible to come up with ancient biblical names is being matched by any other Christian society well-grounded in its culture. It is easy to compare it with the first names of young Italians, Germans, Swedes, Greeks, Armenians, etc. Although a lot of their names happen to be biblically inspired, there is no such mania to replace one’s traditional names with ancient Israelites’ names in these societies. Again, the point is that this mania could only be motivated by a search for alien identity; or rather, by a distaste that a generation has developed towards one’s own traditional names – which amounts to the same thing. This indeed happens to be symptomatic of an uprooted people. The pathology has grown to become so deep and so vast that neither the name givers nor the name carriers seem to realize what has motivated such a deluge of alien names to bury the habesha names of the past at an astounding rate. They don’t realize that they are behaving like the slaves of the old times that used to pick any names they hear in their masters’ world, only in the Eritreans’ case the uprooting is being done by themselves – thus deserving the apt name, “self-colonizers”.

If the above makes sense, it means that the colonial mind also happens to come in its religious grab, as we have been witnessing in the current naming trend among the Christian Tigrignas. So has it been with the Muslim Tigrignas.

Religiosity and alien names among Muslim Tigrignas

The good old names such as Hagos, Abera, Kahsay, Ghidey, Gu’oy, Lemlem, Burur, Berhan, Hidego, Qelati, Gu’eash, Ti’ebe, Aqlu, Haykel, Aquay, Dehab, Qaflay, Shewit, Desta, Hiyabu, Abeba, Mebrat, Bahro, etc that the old generation of Jeberti was fond of are being quickly discarded for their “habesha” component. Their replacements don’t necessarily come from the old traditional Islamic names like Mohammed, Ali and Kedija. They are rather derived either from frantic excavation of the Koran, especially if they are of the fundamentalist type, or from slavish imitation of Arab names that are not necessarily religious. In the former case, it is easy to see the similarity with their Christian counterparts, who also keep slavishly quarrying odd corners of the Bible for unheard of names. In the latter case, we notice a different trend, even though still religiously motivated: for the Muslim Eritrean elite, whatever name in Arabic is being equated as Islamic. Here are some of the new girl names emerging among the young Muslim Tigrigna generation: Aaleyah (exalted), Abeer (fragnance), Ahlam (witty), Huda (right guidance), Firdus (garden), Ilham (intuition), Intessar (triumph), Jana (harvest), Maha (with beautiful eyes), Manal (achievement), Manaar (guiding light), Nadiyah (announcement), Nafishah (precious gem), Nasimal (gentle breeze), Ranya (conquerer), Siham (arrows), etc. So is it with boy names now increasingly favored by the Jeberti: Adil (just, honest), Ammar (long of age), Faaiz (prosperous, victorious), Fuad (heart), Jabir (consoler), Mourad (desire), Naadir (rare, precious), Nabil (noble, generous), Najeeb (of noble birth), Miftah (key), Tariq (a late visitor), Thabit (firm, established), Wafiq (successful), Walid (new born child), Yasir (wealthy), etc.4

The problem with such secular (or not necessarily religious) Arab names is that they can be used by both Muslim and Christian Arabs, thus denying their Eritrean imitators the religious context that they crave. Thus, what this slavish imitation of anything that is Arab in naming leads to is that, if presented with the same nonreligious “name” – that is, one with the same meaning in Tigrigna and Arabic – the new Muslim generation unequivocally prefers the latter to the former. For instance (to make it easy on me, for examples, I will limit myself to girl names only), if presented with Lemlem and Khudrah (both meaning, “lush greenery”), with Burur and Lujaina (both meaning “silver”), with Hagosa and Furhanna (both meaning “happiness”), with Abeba and Jasmina (both meaning “flower”), with Timnit and Aamal (both meaning “aspiration”), with Nighisti and Malika (both meaning “queen”), with Hiyab and Nowal (both meaning “gift”), with Qisanet and Radiyah (both meaning “content”),with Selam and Salma (both meaning “peaceful”), the young Muslim generation of the Tigrigna type have been opting for the latter ones without any hesitation. Here then is an irony worth noting: as many secular-minded Arabs search outside of the Koran to look for names to their children, Muslim Tigrignas embrace those very names for their “religious” aspect, simply because they equate anything Arabic with Islamic. No such confusion takes place in other non-Arab Muslim cultures that are well anchored in their own past.

Neither the Turks nor the Iranians display this tendency to imitate the Arabs slavishly, even though they are as close to the Arabs (historically, religiously, geographically, etc) as a people could possibly get. A long overlap in history is apt to produce a lot of commonalities in language, in general, and in naming, in particular. Yet, for most part, except for the traditional Muslim names derived from the Koran and a few commonly held in linguistic overlap, the rest of their names happen to be in their respective languages. For instance, we have the following girl names in Turkish for which I have found their Tigrigna counterparts: Adile (justice) – Danayit, Armagan (gift) - Hiyab, Adeviye (goodness) – Senayit, Canan (loved) – Fiqirte, Cavas (sun) – Tsehay, Erike (throne) – Zewdi, Ece (queen) – Nighisti, Deniz (sea) – Bahro, Dilak/Emel (desire or aspiration) – Timnit, Fulya (flower) – Abeba, Gul/Verda (rose) – Tsighereda, Fahrat (joy) – Hagosa, Haline (calm) – Selamawit, Kumru (dove) – Rigbe, Ktsal (holy) – Qidisti, Mahpeyker (moon-face) – Werho, Melis (honey) - Mi’aro, Nuhbe (best) – Tiblets, Nuriye (light) – Birhanna, Sabriye (patience) – Tighisti, Kutley (blessed) – Birikti, Burcu (fragnant) – Meaza, Guzide (select) – Hiryti, etc.5 Except for two or three names that seem Turkish corruption of Arabic names (or linguistic overlap, I am not sure which), the rest are in Turkish. Given the huge vocabulary in Arabic, it would be easy to find Arab counterparts to all these names. The point, again, would be the same: unlike the Turks, given a choice, there is no doubt that the young Muslim Tigrignas would prefer Arab names to Tigrigna names in almost all these instances.

One can easily take a “mathematical look” at this problem: one can look at the proportion of Arab to Turkish/Persian names, and compare it with that of Arab to Tigrigna names among the Jeberti. While in the former case, the Arabic-derived names still constitute a small proportion, in the Eritrean case, it happens to be the other way round. [An easy way of finding out that the overwhelming number of Turkish and Persian names is in their respective languages is to google “Turkish names” and “Persian names”, as many of the links provide the origins of these names, be it Arabic, Turkish, Persian or any other language.] And at the pace that the Tigrigna names are made to “disappear”, Jeberti naming tend to get closer and closer to the 100 percent Arab-names target – which brings us to the subject matter of purity of identity through purges, which in fact happens to be at the root of this problem.

The crux of the matter is this: it is not adopting some Arab names per se that is at the root of the problem, but doing so with the intention of purifying one’s identity. Even though we find a lot of Arab names among many Muslim Africans (Senegalese, Somali, etc), this tendency to purge names in one’s own language with such fanaticism and thoroughness doesn’t exist among them. Not so with the Muslim Tigrignas, who have been increasingly associating a name in their language with Christianity or habesha, and hence dead set to free their naming from any vestiges of the Tigrigna language.

Notice that this almost visceral urge to “disappear” habesha names has a strong family resemblance with the same urge displayed by Shaebia, only in the latter’s case the “disappeared” happen to be actual human beings. Sometimes I feel that these names going extinct actually need their own “endangered species list”, with the poachers (of both Christian and Muslim types) promptly identified; and if rendered extinct, with the disappeared names’ own Book of Martyrs that tells their stories of how they got sacrificed for alien identities for generations to come.

The end result of this purging process among the Muslim Tigrignas is the same as with their Christian counterparts: the colonization of their minds by an alien culture, all self-induced. At such moments, we can describe the uprooted state of mind characterizing both population groups only in a discordant way as happily self-colonized.

Purity through purges

This quest for purity is not unique to the Jeberti, as the malady happens to afflict the whole nation. The Eritrean revolution has never been about seeking equality of rights, but about seeking difference in identity. The underlying logic of the Eritrean revolution can be summed up as: “We are different than you”, “you” being the Ethiopians. And if you want to keep that difference alive, it would be through purification; that is, by getting rid of the undesirable elements that compromise the purity of the Eritrean nation. The problem is that, since there is no discernable mark between the pure and impure (given that it is entirely fabricated), once started there would be no end to this purification process.

First and foremost, whatever holds us in common with Ethiopians has to be purged thoroughly. Once the undesirable Ethiopians are purged from Eritrea, the purging of “the Ethiopian in us” follows. That ugly phrase “tsuruy Eritrawi” is nothing but that purification process as applied to bloodline. But what is worse is when the purification process takes a categorical turn: history, culture, religion, language, politics, education, family, etc have all to go through a detoxification process that has yet to end. So when the Muslim Tigrignas went for purifying their names, they are just emulating this insane goal for purity in identity that has become a national preoccupation. Only this time, the ones that they don’t want to be confused for are their Christian kin within Eritrea proper – so much for hadnetna! It is not surprising that a revolution entirely motivated by how different Eritreans are from Ethiopians, once left alone, should go inward to seek that difference. This is because differences are always to be found wherever you seek them; and whenever you think there are not enough of differences to be found to convince fellow others (or even oneself), you could actually invent them.

When the Tigrigna elite of Eritrea couldn’t find enough of a difference with their habesha kin across Mereb River to warrant their “we are different” mantra that inspired their revolution, they had to invent it. All the revisionist history was invented for that purpose. Even in areas where hardly such a difference could be discerned, such as the Tigrigna language spoken on both sides of the Mereb River, it was not the glaring commonality that was stressed but the slight difference in accent or dialect. Similarly, when the Muslim Tigrignas can hardly come up with any difference to warrant a separate identity (say, as a different biher), they have to entirely invent it. One such invention is the kind of naming that we have seen above, one that has to be imported wholesale from outside. After dragging in these alien names from across the sea, now it would be easy for them to claim (say, a generation or two from now), “See, how different we are – all you need is to look at our names”. Another such wholesale invention under the subtitle of “Facts that support the question of Jeberti Nationality”, the writers discover differences in all places imaginable: in language, in mode of dress, in eating habits, in values, in life style, etc.6 And this is not something that some kind of a freak group has come up with, since I have heard these arguments, in one form or another, many times before.

I grew up among Jeberti in Mendefera, and I never saw anything but injera and tsebhi in Jeberti households. If eating habits during Ramadan would turn one into a different biher, I wonder what biher would vegetarians belong? If there are any people entitled to claim biher based on eating habits, I would say it is the vegetarians – see how trivial things can get when one depends on trivial markers to create an identity! So is it with” dressing mode”. If conservative Jeberti women increasingly dress like Arabs, would that be taken as a marker for a separate identity (as in the case of imported names)? And what would become to their braided mothers, who looked like the quintessential Kebessa woman in their dressing (except for the colorful mekne’at)? And now that mekn’at has become trendy among Christian women, would the biher that depended on that piece of cloth disappear into thin air?  And would the mothers be made to belong to a different biher than their conservatively dressed daughters?

Look how frivolous the making of this identity gets as you push it both ways in adding and subtracting tidbits from it. Even when you point at added tidbits to claim a difference in identity, the others might deny you that difference by adding those very tidbits to their identity. That is what happened when mekneat became fashionable across the religious divide. So is it with eating habits, as younger generations are ignoring old taboos to eat “Muslim” or “Christian” meat. So is it with language. The die hard nationalists who based their Eritrean nationalism on such trivial markers might be undergoing an existential anxiety as the Tigrigna language is getting standardized, sounding more and more similar on both sides of Mereb River. See what happens when an entire generation bases its nationalism on the difference between hiji and hizi (for “now”): when the new generation could not find or see that difference, it gets terminally confused.

Even though all these identity markers (differences in eating, dressing, naming, saluting, etc) that the group mentions to claim a different Jeberti identity are so shallow that they would disappear with the next trend, we should not miss the critical point: all this trivial markers of identity are invoked not because the Jeberti are different, but because the Jeberti elite want them be different. The same way the Eritrean Tigrigna elite used to invoke a non-existent difference between their Tigrigna language and their kin’s across Mereb to assert their uniqueness, the Jeberti elite are invoking a difference that is not there using similar strategy. Indeed, the ghedli chickens have come home to roost!

But if we want to know where all these tidbits of additions are meant to eventually lead, one needs to look at what the group has to say regarding language difference7:

“… due to foreign borrowed words, the languages of the two Biheres are also different as different as Saho and Afar are. That is why, the members of ‘Johar Ibrahim Sisto Group’ referred to Jeberti’s language as Al Jebertia”

Again, if my memory on my Mendefera experience serves me right, there was not an iota of difference in the language I heard then. If the use of few Arabic words makes a language different than it was before the foreign tidbits are added to it, so much so that it warrants a different name, then the Asamarino Tigrigna should be called a different language than what the rest of Tigrignas speak simply because it is spiced with some foreign words (Italian, English and Arabic).

But there is more to it that betrays the depth of the nature of this search for alien identity that motivated this fabrication in the first place: when someone claims that his language is different because of few foreign words in it, it is because he has given those few alien words a heaviness that they never possess outside that context – not even in their original language. When a few Arabic words have been invested with so much power as to alter a language into a totally different one (Al Jebertiya!), it is because the investors want to identify themselves more with that alien language than the language that is supposedly altered by the tidbit additions. Thus, the new language (and the other trivial markers) is desired not simply because it puts a distance between the Jeberti and the rest of the Tigrignas, but because that same traversed distance brings them closer to the Arab world – which brings us back to the issue of self-colonization. The 100 percent Arabic in naming is targeted as a goal because it is easily doable (you need neither to speak Arabic nor to legislate for that). If this is driven to its logical end, the next step would be to aim for the language itself (where the hard work lies). We can easily see how this search for Arab identity comes in the form of linguistic colonization, when one imposes an alien language (in this case, Arabic) on oneself, be it in naming or dragging a native language closer to it or even outright preferring it to one’s own language.

But there is one part the group emphasized that I liked because there is some revealing truth in it, even though they failed to grasp its implications8:

“… The loyalty to a small plot of land made the Bihere Tigrigna micro-regionalists. On the other hand, the Jebertis’ loyalty was to the whole nation of Eritrea, conducting business within its borders, and that was why they were more nationalists than any ethnic group in Eritrea. They were all over Eritrea, unlike the other ethnic groups and were/are known in all places as Jebertis.”

They don’t seem to fully comprehend where the logic of their argument would take them: if being “all over” the land as merchants is a reason for being more nationalist than others, then why limit to Eritrea only, since the Jeberti also happen to be “all over” Tigray and beyond? But it is exactly what this implies that I liked. The Jeberti, indeed, unlike the localized ethnic groups, had the cosmopolitan seed to go beyond the loyalty that a certain locality calls precisely because the nature of their profession took them all over the place. For instance (again drawing from my Mendefera experience), the Jeberti had no problem associating and intermarrying with their Tigrean or Gondar kin – which I find it to be phenomenal. This came natural to them because there was no “regional barrier” that the other ethnic groups were enslaved to. In fact, I believe, the Jeberti were ready to take off as an entrepreneurial population group fully to reckon with at a national level (Ethiopian, that is), with their connections spread all over the land – next to the Gurage and Aderie – had their elite not been attracted to a parochial nationalism laced with Islamism and Arabism that quickly killed off that cosmopolitan seed. That is to say, what prevented them from venturing further than the land that they have limited themselves to was that they felt their search for alien identity may be seriously jeopardized if that cosmopolitan urge was not reigned over – that is where the inspiration to be “nationalistic” primarily came from, and not from being “all over” a land artificially circumscribed by a map, one that would naturally hamper the free movement essential to their trade.

As in the case of their Christian counterparts, the Muslim Tigrignas were lured by what the Map promised: an alien identity on the cheap!

Self-colonized in the attempt to “liberate” oneself from

Let’s not be confused by the rhetoric of biher-politics of equality that seem to motivate the above-mentioned quest for separate identity; this kind of self-colonization always comes in the attempt to liberate oneself from others – that is, it is in the attempt to put a distance between oneself and others of one’s own kind that one ends up embracing an alien identity. The self-colonization of the Kebessa elite materialized in the very attempt to distance themselves from their Ethiopian kin. So is it with the elite of the Tigrigna Muslims: their self-colonization is also materializing in the very attempt to distance themselves from the Tigrigna Christians of Eritrea. In both cases, what are getting discarded are their authentic selves. It is easy to see this “distancing” process as applied to names and naming. We have seen how that goes with the Muslim Tigrignas. One can also note the same kind of “distancing” among the Tigrigna names used by Christian Tigrignas.

Of course, the first names in line to be purged are supposedly the non-Eritrean ones, which in the parlance of ghedli have always meant exclusively “Ethiopian”. Amharic-derived names that have been part and parcel of Tigrigna naming culture for generations like Belaynesh, Alganesh, Birinesh, Mebrat, Nega, Belay, Worqinesh, Tsehaye, Taddesse, Zenebesh, Amare, Dinqinesh, Asegedech, Elfinesh, Layne, Kebede, Embaye, Amaresh, Kebedetch, Semaynesh, Beletesh, Awetash, Alemash, Bizunesh, Demeqesh, Asefash, Desalgn, Tareqe, Tadesetch, Yirga-Alem, Aberash, etc are being quickly dropped to meet the demands of the nationalistic fervor gripping the land. If you have noticed, some of these names have been part and parcel of the Tigrigna naming culture for such a long time that they have been used more frequently among the Tigrignas than among the Amharas (used rarely, if ever). For instance, those names that end with -nesh and -ash – Belaynesh, Alganesh, Semaynesh, Awetash, Alemash, Aberash, etc – have evolved into full-blown Tigrigna names through some kind of quirky linguistic transference lost in history (not unusual for two peoples that had historical, cultural and linguistic intimacy for long). The replacements of these Amharic-derived names don’t necessarily come from authentically Tigrigna counterparts. The rule of thumb seems to be: anything but Amharic (or Ethiopian). Imagine then the post-independence situation where you find it easier to be accepted as an authentic Eritrean (tsuruy Eritrawi) with a name like Furhanna, Mesi, Ronaldinho, Silvana, Lewi or Kevin rather than Alganesh, Mebrat, Amaresh, Yirga-Alem, Embaye or Belay. The linguistic distance that one wants to traverse just to run away from its closest kin language is rather amazing: Saudi Arabia (Arabic), Argentina (Spanish), Brazil (Portuguese), Italy (Italian), Israel (Hebrew) and the US (English)!

I had the Mereb River and the Red Sea in mind when I wrote a version of the following stanza in Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism I:9

Tortured Identity

When an idea
unable to wade through a shallow river
to meet a relative,
attempts to swim across a sea,
sharks claim it as their own.

The naming trend above shows us exactly how this would go. Look around, if you will, at the variety and number of Eritreans who want to traverse long linguistic distances just to run away from the closest linguistic relative beyond the Mereb River. And when this is applied to the Tigrignas across that same river, that linguistic distance doesn’t even exist. And the results for such a foolish endeavor are out there for everyone to see. The entire ghedli insanity has been about swimming across the sea in search of a brand new relative. And now, we are witnessing the young generation as they literally enact the wishes of their fathers (the ghedli generation) on the ground: as they actually cross the sea, with all kinds of alien names attached to them, they are being met by sharks of all kinds, not least the Arab Bedouin of Sinai.

Once this purging of names starts with the Amharic-derived ones, there is no stopping it. Next in line in this purging binge would be the authentic Tigrigna names of the past, now increasingly replaced by all kinds of alien names – “modern” and “religious” ones, as we have seen above, and revolutionary ones, as we will see below.

Ghedli fundamentalists and alien naming

Now, if we include another part of the puzzle, “revolutionary” names of persons derived from ghedli – Harnet, Netsanet, Erdi, Erdina, Semhar, Awet, Dejen, Fenkil, Finan, Haben, Denden, Beylul, Metkel, Adal, Fre-Sewra, Salina, Bana, Fre-Qalsi, Fithi, Yikealo, Dahlak, Setit, Zula, Homid, Sewra, Merih, Bdiho, Demsas, Desawit, Walta, Mahta, Nakfa, Maebel, etc – the colonial dislocation becomes even more entrenched, for these names are derived from none other but the self-colonizing process itself. Even when parents give their children names as such Qisanet and Rahwa, reflecting their individual aspiration for peace and prosperity, the same names are rendered “revolutionary” when contextualized to the larger world of ghedli that they cannot escape. That is to say, nobody can escape the emerging reality on the ground that partially or wholly provides meaning to those names. And it is with that intent that the “revolutionary” naming of individuals is being replicated in the naming and renaming of everything else in the land.

If one carefully observes the naming and renaming of streets, buildings, institutions, etc that has been going on with such zeal since independence, the objective has been how to tie the identity of the nation to ghedli by wiping out anything from the past. For such a task, ghedli concepts, dates and heroes are used, of which few are mentioned here: Bahti Meskerem (square), Harnet, Nakfa, Biddho, Sema’tat (avenues in Asmara), Fenkil, Sahel, Afabet, Shebah, Qelhamet, Aligena, Embahara, Felket, Gerger Sudan, Mogorayib, Ayget, Ararib, Adetat, Warsay, Teghadelti, Adal, Denden, Hager, Bologna, Abhani, Amberbeb (streets in Asmara); Qeyih Bahri, Ibrahim Sultan, Woldeab Woldemariam, Hamid Idris Awate, Harbegnatat, Netsanet, Bana, Denden, Sema’tat, Orota, Lalimba (schools); Hawashawit, Badme, Denden (bars and clubs); Bologna (hotel); Orota, Halibet (hospitals); Hidri, Segen, Ararib, Himbol, Raimok, Harena, Ghedem, Harat, Aser, Adulis (corporations and companies); Nakfa (building); Dukan Rit’ie (government run shops); etc. Not even the currency is spared, it has to be named “Nakfa” to remind the masses of ghedli on daily basis; that is, it is with that kind of omnipresence in mind that the naming was undertaken. The Ghedli Spirit has to infuse everything in the land; and, willingly or not, everyone has to feel it.

The Shaebia foot soldiers never fail to remind us of the border war; for to them, it happens to be a continuation of the struggle years. Cognizant of that, the regime has come out with names that would remind us of that recent past too; Alitena-Mereb Road and Igri-Mekel Street in Asmara would be good examples of that.

If you google-map Asmara, and zoom in until you see the names of the streets, you will notice two categories mainly making up the naming of the streets. First are the ghedli-derived names mentioned above. The other half have to be as close to the ghedli derived ones as possible, without being obviously so. If you carefully look at those names, the overwhelming number of them happens to meet the craving for territorial identity that characterized the Eritrean revolution. Here are some of these streets and avenues: Senhit, Bimbina, Seraye, Hamasien, Rora-Habab, Adrbe, Embasoyra, Segenyti, Denkel, Areza, Elabered, Adi-Quala, Keskese, Arbate-Asmara, Beleza, Mereb, Marsa-Teklay, Adi-Yakob, Hazemo, Mogolo, Merafit, Adi-Hawsha, Adi-Ebrahim, Tesseney, Senafe, Marsa-Fatma, Rora-Habab, Barka, Massawa, Ruba Anseba, Dgsa, etc. You can easily see how ghedli and territoriality have come to fill in the jigsaw puzzle of what Asmara streets have turned out to be. If you dare ask the question of what was ghedli for, the streets of Asmara would have a resounding answer for you: the one half will point to the liberation of the land, and the other half to the replication of ghedli on that very land. With the whole of Eritrea condensed in the streets of Asmara, you are made to meet all the itinerary stops ghedli had to pass to reach the city on the mountaintop, with the whole nation carried on its back. With these heavy reminders everywhere you walk in the city, there is no way you could ever miss the omnipresence of the Ghedli Spirit hovering above the city – and that happens to be exactly the point. The objective of this rebaptism is for the entire population to steer away from the traditional past using alien reference points that come from the ghedli era only. When this task is driven to its logical end, its nihilist undertaking becomes crystal clear: erasure of all that was there so as to start a new “brave” world from scratch – a befitting symbolism of the larger task that the ghedli generation undertook.

Notice who happens to be embracing ghedli names with such fanaticism: obviously, the Christian Tigrignas. The Dejens, Erdinas, Waltas and Metkels as names of their newborns are making their presence among this population group as in no other group. Ghedli as an end in itself has been the obsession with the Kebessa elite; so much so that they have tied their identity to it. That is why the ghedli fundamentalists come mainly from this population group. When a whole generation runs from its roots without having any clue with what to replace it with, it baptizes its children with the “virtues” it has acquired along its ghedli journey (that is, along the self-colonizing mission) – Metkel, Dejen, Haben, Walta, Ma’ebel, Awet, etc – and renames its streets with mountains and valleys or anything else it met along that journey – Qelhamet, Adal, Nakfa, Mogorayib, Ayget, etc. Thus, the confusion among the Kebessa elite is double of their Muslim counterparts, who at least had a definite idea where their new identity would come from – the Arab world. Consequently, in the case of the former, identity is sought anywhere but their past, even if the route they take leads into a dead end – as in ghedli cul-de-sac (the only street I would happily name after ghedli).

Escape routes from modernity

Do not be fooled by the seemingly different routes that the post-colonial generations have been taking in naming, since all of them happen to be reactions to modernity; the debilitating self-doubt that motivated their search for alien identities starts from this reaction. The religious fundamentalists, the ghedli fundamentalists, the pan-Arabists and the modernity imitators have been reacting to the uncertainty in their identities brought by the encounter with modernity by creating an imitation world of their own making in which they want to hide: the religious fundamentalists reject all aspects of modernity (as much as they practically can) to find refuge in the archaic world of pre-modern Arabia that they could only recreate in its imitation form; the ghedli fanatics try to reinvent a world that remains “revolutionary” at a permanent level based on temekro mieda (the national service is all about replicating the Sahel of mieda years), one that happens to be equally archaic and brutal; the pan-Arabists want to reinvent their world within an entirely Arab reference points, not surprisingly a poor imitation of the real Arab world (for instance, no real Arab would confuse secular names for religious ones); and the frivolously modern try to find their secure haven in an imitation world of the very world they have been running away from – that of modernity. All of them are joined at a deeper level: in order to escape from the “non-modern” habesha world (an existential anxiety caused by encounter to modernity), some seek refuge in ancient Arabia of the Koran, some in present-day Arabia; some in ancient Israel of the Old Testament; some in Sahel of ghedli years, and some others in a frivolous “modern” world concocted from its surface appearances only. The various types of naming of present day Eritreans mentioned above happen to be emblematic of this greater malady of the make-believe world that the post-colonial generations have been inventing in order to run away from their roots.

It might sound odd to equate the concept of colonialism stretched to include religious and ghedli ones in the Eritrean context, but the family resemblances are too striking to be ignored. To begin with, these happen to be two faces of the same malady that afflicts mainly the student body. It was when the new generation began to read (a modern phenomenon – not simply the reading per se, but the reading en-mass that came with widespread formal education) that they went literal with the Holy Book (be it the Koran or the Bible), in the religious case, and with the Map, in the secular case. And literalism and fundamentalism go hand in hand. After all, it is the religious fundamentalists that insist the literal interpretation of the Holy Books; and the ghedli fundamentalists, of the Map. Only this time, they are applying it to naming. That it would never occur to our peasant fathers to excavate the Holy Books for names with the fanaticism that the young generation is doing says it all. Similarly, it would never occur to our peasant fathers to seek their identity in a Map; their map-illiteracy spared them from the kind of lunacy that attempts to make reality fit to a map, and not the other way round. The abnormality of the students’ fanaticism is to be seen in the normal world (with normal names) they keep excluding, all in the process of frantic search for alien identities.

At the core of the perniciousness of what the religious and ghedli fundamentalists attempt to accomplish is the attempt to hold “an ideal era” constant irrespective of time and place, which of course goes contrary to the temporal nature of any human experience. While religious fundamentalists want to hold the pre-modern Koranic or Biblical world constant, the ghedli fundamentalists want to recreate the revolutionary era in today’s Eritrea. As in the religious case, whatever happened in the ghedli era is not to be criticized or contradicted, but to be literally emulated. The problem is the values derived from temporal experiences of ghedli era are not amenable to categorization; that is, no generalized guidelines (no imperatives) extracted from that era could be made to work on current Eritrea – a reason why the only way one could get the lessons of this era is by replicating all the experiences of that era on the ground. The national service is nothing but the literal interpretation of ghedli experiences as enacted on the ground in modern day Eritrea. Such quixotic efforts undertaken by all types of fundamentalists (both religious and secular) have invariably led to tragedies of epic proportion. The reason is rather simple to understand: instead of letting the language reflect the reality on the ground, the reality is made to fit a detached language (or Map) of their own making or choosing.

The flight from reality that underlies these tragedies brought about by all sorts of fundamentalism is now being reflected in the alien names that Eritreans are being made to carry around. First, these names are extracted from alien sources, independent of the lived reality that gives them their meaning; then, they are “artificially” grafted to the Eritrean body. Notice that there is not the slightest bit of improvisation with these alien names to meet the demands of the reality on the Eritrean ground. Our fathers, for instance, freely improvised to meet the demands of the lived experience even when they were inspired by the Bible. They would come up with names like Ghebere-Medhin, Habte-Tsion, Lete-Yesus, Tesfa-Mariam, etc – names that don’t appear in the Bible in their literal form. Not so with the young generation, whose literacy has handicapped them to copying names word for word from the Bible. Think, for instances, of the names starting or ending with “El” (Hebrew for “God”) that the new generation is infatuated with: Eliyu, Eldad, Elshaday, Yoel, Eyobel, Noel, Eyael, etc. Our fathers were not such slavish imitators; instead, they came out with names like Ezghi-Amin (the trust of God), Ezghi-Harya (chosen by God), Fre-Ezghi (fruits of God), Ghebre-Amlach (slave of God), etc, where the Hebrew “El” was Tigrignanized into “Ezghi” or “Amlach” before it was attached to a particular wish in one’s own language. To the contrary, literacy has deprived the new generation the courage to tamper with the Bible to make a connection with their surroundings on the ground. Even the idea of coming up with Tigrigna versions of those Jewish names, let alone improvising on them, is considered taboo. Given their weightlessness, it seems that these grafted names would drift with the slightest breath of the wind – as it happens to be with their grafted modernity.

It is no coincidence that all those who have been running away from true modernity happen to be the very ones who have been running away from their roots (habesha or otherwise), the lesson being that it is impossible to adapt to modernity without having secure roots in one’s own traditional world (history, culture, language, etc). There is no Archimedean point outside the traditional world that allows one to erase that world and replace it with a modern one. If one attempts that, one would be unable to survive the free fall that such a foolish attempt would certainly result into – as has been the case with Eritreans for the last 50 years. Thus, the remarkable adaptability of “the good Kebessa woman” to the modern world that colonialism brought, while still remaining grounded in her traditional world, contradicts everything that the ghedli generation did – a lesson entirely lost on Aklilu Zere (more on that in Part III). Nothing was superfluous about the good woman; all aspects of modernity that she gradually acquired were relevant to her living, and necessarily made to be connected with her heritage. Anything that compromised her heritage was rejected. Not so with the superfluous generations that are fascinated with modernity (either by coiling from it in repulsion or by getting attracted to its surface appearance only) independent of its applicability, as their alien names amply testify.

In between, what is irretrievably being lost

What is, indeed, irretrievably being lost in this frantic search for alien names, symptomatic as they are of the alien identities that the baptizers want to identify with? What is the normal world that is increasingly being excluded with the crowding out of traditional names by alien ones?

If we are to imagine “the good Kebessa woman” during the colonial era that Aklilu so poignantly portrayed, her daughter’s name would have come from this type of list: Lete-Mariam, Abrehet, Akberet, Lemlem, Harege-Weyni, Ab-Seala, Lete-Kidan Mihret, Hiwet, Ezgi-Haria, Haregu, Werho, Hansu, Birikti, Tisge-Weyni, Tirhas, Mizan, Mebrat, Alganesh, Zewdi, Ghidey, Ghenet, Yihdega, Nighisti, Lete-Tsion, Adhanet, Tiebe, Amaresh, Legest, etc. And if she was to give birth to a son, his name would have come from this type of  list: Ghebre-Mariam, Uqbay, Ande-Berhan, Teklay, Wolde-Ab, Hadgu, Meharenna, Yebio, Misghena, Fessaha, Kahsay, Berhe, Sium, Belay, Beraki, Zerai, Fistum, Tukuabo, Tsegay, Hadera, Adhanom, Tesfa-Michael, Tewelde, Russom, Nugusse, Hagos, Yihdego, Ahferom, etc. What holds in general with these names is that they are put within the context of the reality on the ground; so much so that a Tigrigna proverb puts it as “shim yimerh, twaf yeberih”.

There is one example in Tigrigna literature that provides us with a rare window on how our fathers used to seriously take the naming of their children during the Italian colonial era. In the first Tigrigna novel written on the colonial experience of an ascari (written in 1927, but first published in 1950),10 a mother who had already lost five children dreams of a strange hand with a sickle that keeps cutting one flower after another but stops short of cutting the sixth one, as Medhanie Alem intervenes promising that he will spare her sixth child. Based on that dream, she names her child Tuquabo Medhanie Alem (Tuquabo, for short) – meaning, the Alms of God. Here we see all the mother’s wish condensed in that name, so much so that a carrier of such a name will never fail to notice its heaviness through the duration of his life; and whenever he fails to live up to his mother’s dream, that name would keep nagging him, or rather, keep leading him to the right direction (as in shim yimerh) – so would his mother hope.

As in the example above, naming in the traditional society was so seriously taken that it had to reflect the lived reality in various ways. Naming a child after someone in the family – a great grandfather that his descendants fondly recall, an uncle who had no children of his own, a beloved friend who passed away early in his/her youth, etc – as a way of remembering them was a common phenomenon. Naming a child after a great historical or mythological figure was also common. Others come from lived experience. If it was a difficult birth, the child would be named either after the patron saint of the day or another secular name that reflected that event, such as Mehari or Mihret. Another case where a child was given a patron saint’s name was if he/she was child of mebts’a. A parent’s yearning for an heir would be reflected in a name such as Hadgu. The remarkable beauty of a girl infant would be reflected in the name Ab-Seala (“God painted her”, one that goes beyond creation!). Another girl name invoked with similar poetic inclination would be Werho (an anthropomorphized moon!). If a son was born in an entirely female household, then a prefix Ande was tied to his name, hoping that he would be the pillar of the house. Even obvious religious names had to be contextualized to the secular world to provide meaning; that is why we don’t find “Lete-Mariam” or “Ghebre-Eghziabher” in the Bible, however deep and wide we excavate. The idea of being a slave (“lete” for girls and “ghebre” for males) to Jesus, God, Mariam, Tsion or even Life (Hiwet) itself was another common phenomenon in the traditional habesha culture.

Names with prefixes – Ghebre-, Tekle-, Tesfa-, Lete-, Ande-, Haile-, Wolde-, Fre-, etc – that used to adorn Habesha names are quickly disappearing for sounding “non-modern”, or too habesha. Their Geez roots don’t help either; for a generation running away from its past at full speed, anything that reminds it of its past has to be discarded. With the disappearance of these prefixed names, a way of generating numerous names by juxtaposing these prefixes with various saint days in the Geez calendar is also gone. For instance, if one is born on the 21st of the month, -mariam would be added to any of the prefixes above, depending on the child’s gender. So is it with -michael if it is born on 12th and“-ghiorghis on the 24th, -gaber on the 5th, etc. Such religious suffixes were many in number: -tsion, -selassie, -egziabher, -medhin, -haimanot, etc. Now if you add suffixes that are not necessarily religious that can be added to the above mentioned prefixes, such as -berhan, -hiwet, -alem, -selam -kidan, etc, then it would be easy to see how dozens of names could be generated this way. Ominous of the extinction that this kind of naming is facing now is the fact that the Geez calendar upon which they used to depend for their innovative juxtaposing has been rendered obsolete in revolutionary Eritrea.

Content, be it of the historical, traditional, religious, memorial, experiential or aspirant type, is the last thing invested in the detached names that are emerging in today’s Eritrea. Not so with our fathers – that is, even when they came up with odd sounding names. For instance, when mothers came up with the “ugliest” of names imaginable, it was still done with all the good aspirations for their children that one could possibly imagine attached to none other but that “ugly” name. For instance, if all the sons that a mother had given birth to kept dying one after the other, she would name the next one “Godefa” (“dumpster”) or “Adgoy” (“donkey”) to ward off the Angel of Death, who might find the names too ugly and hence too repulsive to bother with him.

In all of the traditional types of naming mentioned above, it is the parents’ wish on their children that we see encapsulated in the names they are made to carry through the duration of their lives – hence for the heaviness that each such naming carries. Not so with the frivolous or detached names that the young generation keeps excavating from strange alien places that don’t reflect the lived realty on the ground – entirely motivated by the kind of alien identity they want to belong to; be it the “modern”, the ghedli, the Arab, or the fanatically and frivolously religious.

Now add the fact that there are no last names in the habesha culture; and you will realize that within a generation or so the old habesha or other traditional names will be rendered extinct – see how misconstrued encounter with modernity does a neat job of burying a rich past.

The modernity link: not necessarily colonial

I started this essay by pointing at a riddle: it is not the fathers and mothers that lived through the colonial era that abandoned their roots, but their children and grandchildren born in post-colonial era. This tells us that the link between colonial occupation and identity crisis – that is, the abandonment of roots (or the disdain of the past) – in Eritrea is not as direct as many take it to be.

What makes the Eritrean revolution a great paradox is this: On the one hand, the entire narrative of ghedli is that the Eritrean case was a colonial question. Eritreans across the isle happen to be emphatic on this issue, even as nothing that remotely resembled colonial occupation was there before the revolution started. On the other hand, the revolution seems to have gotten all its inspiration from Italian colonialism. The struggle was all about reconnecting with its colonial heritage, not only in the obvious sense of keeping the colonial Map, but also in the search for alien identities that such a Map promised the two population groups – to one half, a “modern” one, to other half, an Arab one. Thus, the Ethiopians were rejected not because they were oppressors but because they would be unable to satisfy those quests. For the clueless Kebessa elite, they were not modern enough to satisfy their “modernity quest” – they reminded them too much of the “habesha backwardness” they desperately wanted to run away from. For the Muslim elite, they were seen as a huge obstruction to the larger Arab family they wanted to join. Within such a revolution, the struggle could never be for seeking equality, but for attaining purity – be it “modern” purity or Arab purity. The “oppressed” did not want to demand equality from the Ethiopian “colonial masters”; rather, the goal was to dissociate their superior selves from the backward or habesha rulers – a total inversion of the narrative of oppressed masses familiar to leftists’ literature.

Another lesson that we can draw from the above mentioned paradox is that if the fathers that were under the direct rule of Italian colonialism escaped the confusion of modernity (and the identity crises that goes with it) that their sons and grandsons were later to chronically display, it seems that one could also find the modernity malady in many non-western societies that were not colonized, though with variability in depth and scope. Often, this is caused by the kind of social uprooting brought by rapid urbanization.  Ethiopia is prone to this kind of uprooting because of the tenuous link that holds between the urbanized generation and the traditional world – be it in history, culture, religion or the balager.  But let me stick with names and naming, so as to seek parallels with that of Eritrea. Many aspects of the naming malady in Eritrea mentioned above are increasingly making their appearance among the young generation in Ethiopia – among both Christian and Muslim types, both of the frivolous and the conservative sorts. Let me confine myself though to the frivolous kind of naming that is clearly linked to surface modernity to drive my point

Frivolous modernity is well and alive in Addis as it is in Asmara. For instance, there is hardly an Amharic drama that is not peppered with silly English words or expressions, which the writers churlishly associate with modernity. And when it comes to name and naming, all you need is to look at the dreary aesthetic sense of those who come up with these names that carry their silliness in their sleeves –Titi, Lili, Meti, Chuchu, Nini, Chachi, Tobi, Abuli, Kuku, Pookie, Cookie, Fufu, Fifi, Kikie, Mopie, Poopie, etc – to grasp how far misguided modernity has turned rampant in Addis. In all these improvised names, all that matters is how “modern” or “cute” they sound. Grown up adults call each other with what would be clearly taken as “baby talk” names in Western societies, and confuse that for modernity – infantilism in face of modernity! Leaving aside familiar Western names that have found their way to Addis (Betty, Veronica, Silvia, Evana, Monica, Suzanna, etc), let me go to the downright silly ones: I have heard of “Mona-Liza” as girl name and “Junior” and “Winner” as boy names – when it gets downright silly this way, one doesn’t even know what the imitating is all about. In face of all this, one need to soul-search the habesha psyche for what it has failed to do. In this sense, what has made the Eritrean modernity problem unique is, first, the vicious circularity that it has created and, second, the pernicious identities it has morphed into.

The vicious circularity started with ghedli; the ghedli generation went way beyond such silly urban escapades to meet its need for frivolous modernity: this “modernity”, which they thought could only be attained by making a reconnection with the colonial past, became an inspiration to wage war of liberation that lasted five decades. That is, they tried to capture modernity within the confines of a Map! They thought that if they venture outside those confines, modernity would be unattainable. Similarly, they wanted to attain modernity not by looking to the future but by going back to the Italian colonial past! This as close as fundamentalism could get when applied to modernity. Furthermore, the social uprooting caused by these 50 years of madness has become a self-sufficient cause for the mental dislocation that now characterizes the further search for alien identities – an identity crisis begets an identity crisis. Never has such a trifle of a cause brought so much misery!

The Eritrean Revolution had two beginnings, both undertaken in search of alien identities. Even though Jebha, whose entire raison d’etre had been the search for Arab identity, was defeated in 1980, that aspiration is still alive and kicking among the Muslim elite. The Kebessa elite had a less tangible aspiration, one that was befitting to a generation that didn’t know what it actually wanted. They started their revolution in search of “modern identity” that they thought Ethiopia was incapable of providing. Given this incoherent beginning, they had no clue what that search would lead them into. Even though they marched all the way to Sahel in search of Asmara (that is, in search of the Italian colonial legacy), they were ready to swap it for ghedli identity entirely based on temekro mieda. Given the nebulous nature of the frivolous modernity that inspired the ghedli generation to pick up arms, it is not surprising that it soon morphed into a more pernicious goal. While the resilience of ghedli identity is what is causing havoc in today’s Eritrea, a much more resilient Arab identity is waiting its turn to do the rest of the damage. (In fact, a young guy of relatively recent arrival told me that ghedli names are already losing their appeal in Eritrea; thanks to the horrors committed by Shaebia on daily basis, ghedli is losing its luster fast.) Thus, while frivolous modernity has as much presence in Addis as it is in Asmara, so far the former has been spared of the two pernicious roads this search for alien identity has morphed into in the case of Eritrea.

There is no surprise in the fact that religious and linguistic colonialisms happened to be the other two faces of the territorial colonialism that has strafed Africa. What is surprising is when the sons of Africa take it upon themselves to bring that colonial mission to its completion. There is no better place to see that than in Eritrea, where the self-colonizing mission has been brought to its logical end. And a look at “names and naming” has provided us with a glimpse of how that domestic colonization goes on – all in colonial terms of modernity, religion and language. And what makes it tragic in the Eritrean case is that the entire self-colonizing mission has been undertaken in the name of liberation!

So far, we have been looking how the normal world is being crowded out of existence by a deluge of alien names. Another way of approaching this problem would be by looking at the nature of the abnormal world with which that normal world is being replaced – that is, a world where even authentic names are made to lose their original meaning. We will do that in Part II.

N.B. My gratitude to all those who helped me collecting these alien names!


[1] Zere, Aklilu; What (Italian) Colonialism Did To My People of (Eritrean) Kebessa; January 13, 2013; XXX
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] The meanings of these Arab names for girls are easily accessible in the internet if you google it under Muslim or Arab names. It required asking around though to get the ones frequented now by Eritrean Muslims.
[5] The meanings of these Turkish names for girls are also easily accessible in the internet if you google it under Turkish names for girls.
[6] Johar Ibrahim Sisto Group; Wedi Temenwo vs Wedi Bilata; July 09, 2013; XXX
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism I;
[10] Hailu, Gebreyesus; The Conscript; Ohio University Press; 2013; p.5.


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