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Eritrea: Remembering Abraham (MIT), Remembering a Generation

This article is written in memory of Abraham Ghebreghiorgis (aka Abraham MIT) on the first year anniversary of his death. Abraham, one of the dynamic writers gracing asmarino.com as early as 2000, had been a regular contributor to the article section of the website for many years. He passed away on Sept 10, 2014.

Abraham’s story happens to be a quintessential Eritrean story of the generation that has lived through all the ups and downs of the Eritrean revolutionary journey. In it, we find all the phases that many of that era’s generation underwent as the Eritrean political and social landscape kept undergoing dramatic upheavals. In particular, his story gives us a synoptic picture of how diaspora students responded to the Eritrean call, best exemplified in the militant student organization known as Eritreans for Liberation in North America (EFLNA), more popularly known by its Tigrigna acronym “ENASEA” (ኤናሰኣ). Thus, in telling the story of Abraham in the US, we are also telling the story of the student organization and vice versa, for their respective trajectories in the political transformations they underwent happen to overlap to a great extent; that is, their stories will be used to throw light on one another so as to develop a better understanding of both; and, thereby, on that revolutionary era.

Below we will, first, briefly go through Abraham’s academic achievements. Second, we will take a closer look at EFLNA; in particular, at the ethos of sacrifice that defined it throughout its duration. Third, we will look at Abraham’s EFLNA years, and how he responded to the “Eritrean call”. Fourth, we will look art how painful was the organization’s breakup from the EPLF, and Abraham’s critical role in midwifing this divorce. And, fifth, we will go over some of Abraham’s contributions in asmarino.com.

In this article, asmarino staff will focus only on the “political” Abraham. For the “family man” Abraham, we have asked the family members to write a brief profile to be added to this article; thus the best part comes in the last section.

Academic excellence

If there is one phrase that describes Abraham’s school years from elementary to higher learning, it would be: academic excellence.

Abraham was born in Adi-Quala to his father, Ghebreghiorgis Ghebreyohannes, and his mother, Sebene Kahsai on July 7th, in 1949. He grew up in Asmara, where he received his elementary (1955-1962) and junior secondary (1962-1964) education, at Geza Kenisha and Biet Ghiorgis respectively. He ended both his elementary and junior secondary education with great distinctions and received many awards. In one instance of early academic achievement, Abraham was awarded a prize by the hands of Lt. General Lij Abiye Abebe who was the representative of Emperor Haile Selassie in Eritrea during the Federation era.

As such, he easily managed to enter the prestigious General Wingate High School (1964-1968), with full scholarship. The school used to select exceptionally gifted students from the provinces. Abraham highly enjoyed the General Wingate School and developed voracious reading habit there that stayed with him for the rest of his lifetime. He also excelled in his Matriculation Exam, with straight ‘A’s for all the eight subjects he took, a rare achievement that earned him the Haile Selassie Prize Award. He received an Omega golden watch from the hands of Emperor Haile Selassie and 100 Birr per month allowance (equivalent to a teacher’s monthly salary at that time) in his campus years.  In 1968, this award for unusual academic excellence was shared with only one other student in the entire country.

Continuing this tradition of academic excellence, Abraham won Fulbright Scholarship from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970-1973) while he was a second year student at Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa (1968-1970). He happened to appreciate the dedication and competitiveness of MIT student life. His forte was in modeling and rigorous mathematics. But it was not all academics, for it was in MIT that he was exposed to the intricacies of the Eritrean liberation movements and the Eritrean Diaspora in Boston. As a result, for the first time in his student life, he started becoming active in politics. He graduated from MIT with Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering.

And again, consistent with his academic achievement in the past, Abraham was given full scholarship for PHD in Mathematics from John Hopkins University. He declined the offer. This was the first time that Abraham prioritized something else over his academic pursuance. He believed that there was greater need for him somewhere else: the struggle for the liberation of Eritrea. Here, we witness a tangible enactment of the ethos of sacrifice that was to define the Eritrean community in North America during the 70s.

Abraham was to return to campus only after the demise of EFLNA. He entered Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1980, and achieved a Master’s Degree in Law and Diplomacy in 1982.

Those who knew Abraham in his school years remember him as a very serious student singularly focused on his studies; that is, even in his early years. A friend at Biet Ghiorgis School remembers him as a sober student, and somewhat introvert; that he was more of a listener than a talker, rarely initiating response on his own and often the last to respond in class. Another friend from his Wingate years similarly remembers him as a hard working, studious student. And those who knew him at the university in Addis Ababa remember him as remaining totally apolitical throughout his campus years [to the resentment of some of his peers], and entirely focused on his engineering studies. The tumultuous leftist student movement of that era, which was very active in those years, hardly affected him. This is indeed in great contrast to his EFLNA years; that is, Abraham became politicized not in Eritrea, not in Ethiopia, but in the USA – which, by itself, is an interesting phenomenon.

In 1983 he was employed at Verizon, and had been working there for 25 years, first as an economist, then as financial analyst until retirement in 2008. He passed away on Sept 10, 2014 as a result of colon cancer.  He has been survived by his wife Azezet Abraha, his sons Andom and Semere and his daughter Zied. 

Now, let us look back at those intense EFLNA years, with the spirit of sacrifice that defined a whole generation as our primary focus, since only within that background would the Abraham’s story that we want to tell make sense.

A generation’s sacrifice

Often, when the subject of “sacrifice” in the Eritrean context arises, it is the sacrifice of the teghadallti (the guerrilla freedom fighters) at mieda that is mostly pointed at. To a lesser extent, the larger population in mainland Eritrea that supported the struggle in various ways and had to go through many hardships is also mentioned. But to fully grasp how the spirit of the times engulfed the Eritrean mind, there is no better place to see it than in diaspora; and among the diaspora, the student organization in North America.

In the 70s, a nationalist fever engulfed the Eritrean students in North America. In its strict adherence to its self-imposed revolutionary principles, a quasi religious atmosphere prevailed among EFLNA’s members. Some would even go as far as saying that it was more of a cult-like climate. When one of the leaders of the organization interviewed for this article was asked on how this cult-like phenomenon evolved, he says that it should be looked at from the greater context of the times, and that we shouldn’t be judgmental. Globally, it was an idealistic era, with the idea of revolution finding resonance among many of the so-called enlightened groups. And then, of course, let’s not forget that in mainland Eritrea, the revolution was framed in similar terms: the oppressed Eritreans fighting against the Ethiopian imperialists. Besides, peer pressure and guilt consciousness had a great role to play, he adds.

But there are others who disagree, and instead invoke not only the idealist era but also the participants’ young age to fully grasp the unusual realty that emerged then. Another friend of Abraham, who was also part of the broader leadership, objects to the label “cult-like” altogether; and instead points to the fact that almost all of the members were young, in the ages between 20 and 30, and hence that the then prevailing atmosphere has to be looked at with that particular extenuating circumstance in mind.

Whichever way the era was described though, there is one thing that all seem to agree: that it undoubtedly was an era of sacrifice. All agree that a highly disciplined student community whose sole priority was securing the liberation of Eritrea emerged in those years, making sacrifice the ultimate virtue. Some sacrificed their education; others their livelihood; others family life, and still others postponed all kinds of private life. The goal was to emulate the ascetic life of the freedom fighters in the fields of Eritrea.

The ascetic life was to be seen everywhere, in almost everything that the students did. All kinds of excesses were denounced and frugality was championed across the board, with the critical difference in time, resources, money and even emotion to be sacrificed; with all that had been “frugally saved” being promptly channeled to the revolution. In short, one’s private life had to be almost given up for the Greater Cause. Anyone that dared to wear flashy or expensive clothes or who frequented nightclubs or other entertainments was frowned upon. Eating community prepared meals at meeting places of the organization was encouraged. Many others lived in crowded apartments, trying to save as much as possible from rent.

The payoff of this across-the-board sacrifice was to be seen in the staggering amount of money they used to collect. Besides the amount of money that each chapter was assigned to raise, there were competitive donations that were made in various occasions. In an organization of around 800 members only [the Eritrean diaspora population in North America was very small at that time], and for that made up mainly of students, the money channeled to the coffers of the EPLF was of huge amount. For instance, by 1979, when the organization decided to disband, it had almost one million dollars in the bank; money that eventually was to be forwarded to the EPLF.

The role the diaspora money collected [not only from the students in North America, but also from the housemaids in Italy and Middle East] played at mieda shouldn’t be underestimated, especially since it came at a very critical time. With the expulsion of Saleh Sabe from the EPLF, the money source from the Arab world had dried up. Thus, the diaspora money arrived when the EPLF was facing a dire financial crisis to meet the minimum demands of the extensive guerrilla warfare it was conducting then.

This self-imposed frugality was also to be witnessed in the precious time the students were willing to spend in the service of the Struggle. Every Sunday, there was a general meeting with its emphasis on political education that everyone had to attend; no excuses were accepted. If one was unable to make it, he/she was heavily criticized in the leftist format of “criticism and self-criticism”. Any straying from the party line was a no-no – the endless meetings were meant to instill this fact above everything else. In addition to the general meetings, each one was advised to be active in at least one of the various committees. Every member had to take turn in attending to the household chorus in the meeting places, such as cooking, dish washing and cleaning. In short, the life of the students seemed to revolve around this single issue of the Struggle; everything else became secondary.

But this ethos of “sacrifice” is understood best if it is stretched to include the emotional involvement that one was willing to invest. That is, one’s emotional displays towards others – one’s own family members, friends, lovers, acquaintances, etc – had to be frugally saved for the Greater Cause. One of Abraham’s friends, while reminiscing on that era, provides a memorable example. He says that they were not even allowed to mourn the death of their dear ones properly, the rationale being that one shouldn’t put one’s personal loss above the national one. He was speaking from his own experience; when his father died, he had to keep the pain pent up within himself, any emotional display being taken as sign of weakness. At a time when thousands were getting killed at mieda in the war of independence, focusing on one’s own individual losses was totally discouraged.

The EFLNA members were so engrossed in their Cause that the rest of the world was shut out. They did this in two ways: by making a minimal social contact with Eritreans who were unwilling to be part of the organization and by ignoring the larger world in whose midst they were living. Thus, a somewhat insulated world was created.                                                                                                                             

Above, we have been looking at the 70s era of sacrifice as embodied in the Eritrean students of North America, in almost everything they did: from the cheap clothes they wore, the shared foods they ate, flashy entertainments they avoided, crowded apartments they slept, precious times they spent on the Cause to the communal lives they lived. Now, we will see how that era of sacrifice exhibited itself in one man, Abraham Ghebreghiorgis.

Abraham’s sacrifice

We see the generational sacrifice described above in Abraham EFLNA years in three areas: education, career and family. This is because he felt that he would need all his resources – time-wise, financial, mental, emotional, etc – should go to the Struggle. The fact that Abraham was not only a member but also one of the leaders also provides us with a unique perspective to understand that era better.

The strive for education curbed

When Abraham finished his undergraduate studies at MIT, as pointed above, he was given the option of joining the prestigious John Hopkins University, with full scholarship for a PHD in Mathematics. But he declined the offer believing that it would derail him from serving the Eritrean cause in his capacity as one of the EFLNA leadership. When Abraham was asked by EFLNA to join the leadership, he had convinced them to let him finish his undergraduate study first given that it was only one year left for him to complete it. After that, there was no way he could plan for a post-graduate study. As many of his other colleagues, it is clear he had to curb his ambition in education and career for the sake of the Cause.

Once he became one of the five in the leadership position, he had to commit himself totally to the Cause. That means this was to be a full-time job. As a Political Commissar, he was in charge of the political education of the members. And as a militant political organization, it was imperative that the organization had to build the political consciousness of the members to a high level. As such, Abraham was selecting and preparing (and sometimes translating) topics for studies, reading and tutorial. This included Eritrean history, the then current situation in Eritrea and, of course, the indispensable theoretical framework of Marxism-Leninism through which prism everything was assessed.

So how did the leaders who were committed full-time to the Cause manage to live? Well, it goes without saying that they had to lead by example. The five leaders used to live in one bedroom apartment. All they used to get was $200.00 monthly stipend from the money collected from members. Even though their rent was also paid by others, you can imagine living in New York (out of all places!) with that kind of money. No wonder then that their lives were extremely ascetic, proudly reflecting the life at mieda. These self-imposed hardships made sense to them because the benchmark of comparison was always the hardships of the freedom fighters.

In many instances, this demand for sacrifice was not only imposed upon themselves, but also upon their beloved ones. In fact, there is an interesting story to tell that sums up this ethos of sacrifice that defined that era that didn’t even spare one’s own family – a “farewell letter” that Abraham sent to his parents years after he decided to fully commit himself to the Cause.

The farewell letter

Abraham came from a modest family and all his adult life he strived to help his parents as the eldest child; that is, except for that brief era of sacrifice. His attempt to financially support his family started when he was a student at Haile Selassie University. Being fortunate enough to get 100 Birr a month allowance for his academic excellence, he was able to financially help the family at that early age. Once he was given a scholarship abroad though, he was forced to discontinue that help for he had to save for various expenses, however painful to him that decision was. Nevertheless, he started to help his family again as soon as he found his footing in the US; that is, while he was still a student. It is important to know all this background, for what he was about to do was radically the opposite: he was willing to stop all the financial help to the family in order to divert his energy to the Cause. The spirit of the time as embodied in the Eritrean students in North America seems to be encapsulated in this unarticulated motto: the greater Eritrean family over the nuclear family! This “nuclear family” has to be understood in two senses: not only were the parents and siblings one already had were to be bypassed, but the family that one wanted to have was to be postponed [Abraham was married in 1984].

When Abraham decided that the nation came ahead of the family, he cut off his contact with his family for years. In his letter, he provided a belated explanation why he had to do this. The statement that notoriously summed up his state of mind in that letter was: “The family problem cannot be solved until the Eritrean problem is solved.” And he acted upon this strange belief that defined the times: he went on to solve the national problem (as he understood it), fully deferring the family problem. His father understandably got furious, and he purportedly said, “How dare he equate me with the rest of the nation? Wasn’t I who brought him up to this position?”

Abraham’s brothers tried to reconstruct the letter from memory:

 መልእኽቲ ኣብርሃም ገብረጊዮርጊስ ኣብ 1977 ድሕረ ምምላስ ካብ ቀዳማይ ውድባዊ ጉባኤ ንስድራ ቤቱ ዝለኣኾ ደብዳቤ

ክቡራት ስድራ ቤት

ብመጀመርታ ብዙሕ ናፍቆት ዝበዝሖ ሰላምታ፡ ቀጺለ ድማ ን 3 ወርሒ ዝኸውን ኣብ ሜዳ ኤርትራ በጺሐ ከምዝነበርኩ ክሕብር ይፈቱ። መጺእኩም ክትሪኡኒ እዃ እንተበሃግኹ፡ ናይ ሰውራ ጉዳይ ብሚስጢር ክተሓዝ ስለዘለዎን ሓደጋ ከይበጽሓናን ብምሕላይ ኢየ።

እምበኣር ንነዊሕ ዓመታት ብምጥፈኤይ ከይገረመኩምን ከይተሸገርኩምን ኣይተርፍን፡ የግዳስ ኣነ ንሃገረይ ክገልግል ስለዝመረጽኩን ስለዝተወፈኹን ኢየ። ኣነ ብመጀመርታ ንኣቦይን ንኣደይን የፍቅር፡ ፍቅሪ ወለደይ ድማ ንሃገረይ ከፍቅር ደሪኹኒ። ትምህርተይ ተከታቲለን፡ ስራሕ ሰሪሐን ሽግርኩም ንክፈትሕ ምፈተንኩ፡ ግን ናይ ሃገር ሽግር ክይተፈትሐ ሽግርኩም መሰረታዊ ፍታሕ ክረክብ ስለዘይክእል ንሃገረይ ተወፍየ ከገልግል መሪጸ።

ብኩነታተይ ብዙሕ ኣይትሻቐሉ፡ ዓወትና ናይ ግድን ስለዝኾነ።

ምስ ብዙሕ ሰላምታ፡

ወድኹምን ሓውኹምን

ኣብርሃም ገብረጊዮርጊስ  

This idea of giving oneself totally to the Cause, with no divergent attention demanded by family or career, clearly depicts the state of mind of the EFLNA. And for those at leading position, this self-imposed demand was no less than 100 percent. That is why Abraham felt that he had to divorce himself from family matters completely if he was to serve the Struggle in his full capacity as one of the leadership.

The schism

Even though Eritrean students in North America began to organize themselves around 1970 under the name of Eritrean Youth for Liberation, it was done locally and lacked a unitary structure. To redress this, in 1971, the organization conducted its first congress, and renamed itself as Eritreans for Liberation. It took one more year for it to adopt the name by which it has been known ever since – EFLNA. Even though it had made contact with the EPLF since 1971, it took five years more, in 1976, for it to officially identify itself as part of the EPLF body. And in 1977, as part of that body, the student organization sent its delegates to attend the Congress at mieda. Abraham was one of the 9-members group of the EFLNA that went to join the 1977 Congress.

After the student delegates came back, the climate was positive and upbeat. Andemichael Kahsay came to visit the organization with a message of solidarity from mieda. It was not until 1978 that cracks began to appear. The breach was based on the relationship of the Soviet Union and the Dergh vs. Eritrea. The members couldn’t understand why on earth the EPLF would refuse to condemn the Soviet Union, even as the latter kept arming its mortal enemy, namely Ethiopia, to the teeth. The students invoked a theoretical framework to their help: given that to forgo communism was unthinkable, they labeled the Soviet Union as “revisionist” and “social imperialist”. This way, they could keep their communist ideology as they kept condemning the Soviet Union, with China or Albania filling in the gap for ideological guidance. The crisis reached its final stage when in 1978 the EFLNA leadership and members condemned the EPLF leadership and dissociated the organization from being part of the EPLF body.

Till the day of the split, even during the years when it was unambiguously part and parcel of the EPLF body, EFLNA had kept its organizational autonomy and was publishing its own periodicals. This fact made the dissociation easy to perform at a technical level. That cannot be said though at the emotional level.

Soon after the breakup, an existential crisis began to emerge in the organization: What was EFLNA supposed to do after having severed itself from the freedom fighters in Eritrea? How was it supposed to retain a link with mieda once it had cut off the connection with the only movement the members had believed to be the vanguard of the revolution? The lack of clear purpose that emerged as a result of the split was almost killing the organization. It was not long before many of the members began to wonder whether they had gone too extreme in totally severing the link. Already, many had defected to the EPLF camp. And the rest needed a framework that would provide them with an honorable exit without capitulating to the EPLF. And here is where Abraham, who was still part of the leadership at that time, came up with a brilliant compromise.

Characteristic of Abraham, what he recommended was the two consecutive steps that have been the hallmarks of his workings: first, to undertake a rigorous study in regard to the problem (and involved the members in the undertaking of the study) and, second, to seek consensus or compromise before offering a solution. As such, Abraham was central in developing the Timre-Temkro – that is, the appraisal of the decisive resolution taken by the organization and its results – which was critical in finding a resolution to the dead end brought by the organization’s new radical stand against the EPLF. Basically, it was a summation and evaluation of the organization’s one year experience after the schism with EPLF.  

The Timre-Temkro comprised of two important points that, looking back, should be considered quite new phenomena in ghedli experience. First, the leadership admitted mistakes taken in both strategy and tactics, making EFLNA the only Eritrean organization that evaluated its experiences and left a summation of its achievements and mistakes in print. No other organization from the ghedli era has ever done that. Since this self-critical approach is still lacking among the opposition camp, this step taken by EFLNA is not to be underestimated in terms of the legacy it left for future organizations to emulate.

Second, Abraham cleverly postulated on who is “nationalist” in a way that would allow the EFLNA to pass in between the two horns of the dilemma it had created for itself. At those times every Eritrean group and organization were accusing other organizations as non-nationalists and reactionaries. Abraham’s reformulation was that “a nationalist is whoever is struggling to make Eritrea free”. Hence, for the first time in EFLNA, the ELF, EPLF and other Eritrean groups started to be taken on equal standing within the organization. This is indeed a great step for the organization, which until then believed the EPLF to be the only vanguard of the revolution.

It is not that others before Abraham failed to equate ELF with EPLF; actually many did. Thus, the merit of Abraham’s approach is to be found not in the equating itself, but in the categorical approach that allowed this equating, albeit at a lower level, within the organization – among others. Let’s see how the invoked distinction achieve that.

The honorable exit that EFLNA members were seeking was to be found in this new distinction between being merely nationalistic or patriotic and being the vanguard of the revolution. It required being fully revolutionary in all its communist sense to qualify as the latter, while any force that fights the enemy in the name of the nation would qualify as the former. An example that Abraham invoked in his defense of this distinction was the Chinese experience. In the fight against the Japanese occupiers, the brief alliance between the Communists and Chiang Kai-shek imperial forces provided a theoretical/ideological framework for EFLNA’s resolution, the rationale being that it was OK to make alliance with nationalists when there is a bigger enemy that threatens the nation.

Given that the EPLF had failed the revolutionary test (after having failed to denounce “revisionist” Soviet Union), it was downgraded to being merely a nationalistic movement. Now, instead of total severance, this downgrading made three things possible. First, it made sense for the EFLNA to continue working with the EPLF, if the latter would allow it. Second, it made the ELF as acceptable as the EPLF. Third, the analysis would leave EFLNA as the only true vanguard of the revolution.

Looked at retrospectively, all this might sound like semantic splitting. But at the time, any solution had to come in its communist grab, or it wouldn’t be found acceptable by the members. But however ingenious was the solution, it depended on the movements at mieda to provide purpose to the EFLNA’s mission. Needless to say, both ELF and EPLF rejected the extended hand, albeit in its qualified form, of the organization; the former still smattering from the years of antagonistic stand it faced from the student organization and the latter totally outraged by the audacity of the upstart students. Deprived of its mieda link, it was clear then that the student organization wouldn’t last long. On the year of 1978, it came to its final dissolution. Thus, even though the distinction provided many members clear conscience with which they would be able to cut off their former revolutionary link with EPLF, in the end they couldn’t find enough of a purpose to hold their organization together.

Years passed between Abraham’s EFLNA years and asmarino.com (as a writer) years; and there is no better comparison to look at for the radical political transformation that Abraham underwent.

Asmarino years

In his Asmarino years, Abraham wrote on a number of subjects, both under various pennames and under his real name. As early as 2000, he was critical of Eritrean intellectuals, of having failed across the board in challenging the regime in Asmara in its humanitarian abuses and in its economic, political and war policies. But the three subjects that mattered to him most, and to which he kept coming back again and again to address them exhaustively, were those of the “constitution”, “rule of law” and “national language”.

He was very logical in his approach, and at times it required courage to address them. Now compiled in his website eritreanmereb.blogspot.com, its entry makes it clear: “The Eritrean Mereb advocates for constitutional liberalism, the respect of the rule of law, the protection of property rights, peace and free trade in Eritrea.” If one goes by the content of this website, it is clear that Abraham was consumed by the rule of law and constitutionalism. Even the subjects of language, religion and minority rights are addressed within the parameters of rule of law and constitutionalism.

Abraham believed that, in spite of its shortcomings, the ratified constitution should not only be the base upon which the future democratic Eritrea has to be built, but also could be effectively used as a rallying point for the opposition. He thought that, given the fractured nature of the opposition, the constitution could be the minimum program upon which all could converge:

On the rule of law, the most memorable quotation says,

“We know that there is no rule of law in Eritrea, worse; there are no known rules of any kind, only arbitrary edicts and decrees. In fact the very People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) itself does not abide by the rules of its own organization. It is an organization that is gliding haphazardly without political radar even of the socialist kind.” [The Coup D’etat in Eritrea]

Even though he was a vocal proponent of democracy, he didn’t fall into the wrong description of the regime that the majority in the opposition subscribe, namely that the problem of Isaias regime is merely the failure of democratic credentials (or the non-implementation of the constitution). Even though he was an ardent believer in the ratified constitution, he did realize that the extent of the malady that afflicted the system went beyond the failure of its implementation. The fact that the organization cannot even follow its own rules means that it could only thrive in an arbitrary world symptomatic of highly authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Thus, according to him, the Eritrean masses are not simply the victims of lack of democracy, but of lack of any kind of rule of law that you find even in absolute monarchies or various dictatorships. Abraham’s phrase “a regime that doesn’t even follow its own rules” aptly captures this abnormal phenomenon that has victimized the nation for years on end.

Another principled stand that Abraham courageously took was against the standard view of the majority that had to do with the status of Arabic as a national language. He firmly believed that was a short sighted stand that had no logical basis and that would have dire consequences in the future. Again, he was being scrupulously logical in his approach, as he kept demolishing one argument after another, without giving in to public opinion or political correctness. He always considered that religion and national language should not be linked in any way with one another, a pitfall that Eritreans keep ignoring to their peril.

Instead, he boldly proposed that English should be the working language of Eritrea. His approach, though scrupulously logical, was entirely pragmatic; his assessment was based on the merits of adopting English language in the 21st century: as the most universal language, as a language of science, as a language of books, as the language of future, as a language of internet, as a language of trade and commerce, etc. 

His mixing of rigorousness in study with flexibility in suggestions that have been his hallmark in finding resolutions to problems can also be seen when he amended his proposal to meet the plausible demands of many of his readers:

“In my first post, I received some constructive criticisms by wise and astute compatriots. I went back to the drawing board and did further research. Now, I admit that one cannot conduct affairs that are of cultural and national nature in a foreign language, though this is usually of a symbolic nature, for example the conducting of as simple as a national anthem. This involves matter of national identity, dignity and pride. That is also how Singapore addresses its working language issues; that is English is the working language of all matters; however, when it comes to issues of identity then affairs are conducted in Malay, one of the three official languages along with English. I reconsider my original position of sticking only to English as the working language of Eritrea. Instead, I recommend that English to be one the working languages of Eritrea, along with Eritrean native languages. As to the native languages, my personal desire is to designate Tigrinya and Tigre as the official languages of Eritrea because of their wide coverage of the Eritrean population.” (The Language Question Revisited)

One thing that seemed to be frustrating to Abraham was Eritreans’ tendency to look at things collectively rather than individually. Abraham realized that a collective approach to the recalcitrant problems of Eritrea was doomed to fail; hence his holding the individual above the collective in matters of “rights”. For instance, in the land issue, he persistently advocated for private ownership, even as he sympathized with the collective grievances that the regime’s land policy engendered. So is it with minority rights; he advocated that individual rights would address most of the collective concerns.

Conclusion

There is something enduring that characterizes Abraham both in his consistency and transformation, however contradictory that may seem at first look. If one looks at his “methodology” throughout his ELFNA years or in the years since, what remained consistent is the two-step approach we have noticed above: first, undertaking a rigorous study of the problematic subject matter; and second, seeking a consensus or compromise in the solution offered. We have seen how this methodology was applied not only in the EFLNA crisis, but also in all the issues he addressed in his asmarino.com years: the constitution, the language issue, the land issue, the minority rights issue, etc.

But consistency in methodology doesn’t mean consistency in political outlook; hence, his political transformation. In his EFLNA years, especially in his leadership years, as a political commissar, Abraham was the one who was not only selecting the leftists reading material for political consciousness, but was also translating Stalinist literature. On the other hand, in his asmarino years, he became an avowed advocate of individual liberty. To grasp how big this transformation had been, one need only realize that Abraham’s most quoted writer was none other than Friedrich Hayek, a man famously known for his defense of individualism and classical liberalism. From collectivist ideas of Marx to the individualist world of Hayek, that is indeed the longest road one could transverse in the political world.                                                                                              

Thus, if there is one phrase that aptly describes Abraham, it would be: scrupulously logical and principled without being dogmatic.

So long, Abraham – Asmarino misses you!

Asmarino Staff

09/25/15

To again remind our readers: In the above, it is clear that asmarino staff focused mainly on the “political” Abraham. For the “family man” Abraham, we have asked the family members to write a brief profile to be added to this article. Below is what his dear wife, Azezezet Abraha, with the collaboration of other family members, has written:


 

Abraham, the Family Man

(Collaborated by the family, and narrated by Azezet Abraha)

Seated at the head of the dinner table, Abraham steadfastly read the New York Times, while placemates, plates, forks and hot food clanked in front of him. The table was set-up, and our family sat down at the dinner table: I was seated to his right with Zied seated beside me; Andom sat to Abraham’s left with Semere beside him.

Although the table was set-up, and everyone was seated, Abraham continued to read the paper. “Please, put the paper down,” we bemoaned.  He was usually fixated on the paper or a book, and it always took a little coaxing for him to put a piece of writing aside.  As he put the paper down, we asked if he had any good stories to tell us. “Yes!” he said with widened eyes. The dining room table had become a space of conversation and debate: everyone participated in the discussion, and every subject was raised from current events to religion to TV shows and movies.

Abraham’s childhood stories were an especially big hit. “Did I tell you about the time I was chased by baboons?” he said. We all shook our heads in confirmation. “On the route to school, my schoolmates and I passed by a forested area where there were baboons. Usually, we hurriedly passed them, but one day we took a couple of rocks and started hurling them at the baboons. To our surprise, the baboons returned the favor and hurled sticks and rocks back at us.” Shaking his head, he said with a smile, “we had to run very far to escape them.”

We laughed and ingested every detail of this part of Abraham’s life, one that we could hardly imagine. He was not just the stern scholar with the New York Times in hand, but a young, playful boy, or as he said, “a true Idaga Arbi boy.”

These stories provided us with unending enjoyment, allowed us to learn more about one another, and most importantly spend quality time with each other. Despite Abraham’s workload and travel time to and from work, devotedly, he made it to the dinner table every single day. And, from his seat, at the head of the table, he could look upon everyone, which is exactly what he did in his day-to-day life: nurturing and caring for us. Abraham was a constant, consistent force in our lives, the crux of our family.

Abraham understood our vast assortment of needs and readily fulfilled them. One way he cared for the family was that he always thought of our safety.  Abraham and I, for instance, went on evening walks together, and sometimes I would trip or fall.   Because of this, Abraham would carefully observe the sidewalk and point out each crack in the pavement for me.  I was so grateful for such a husband and friend who took it upon himself to remind me without fail. Sometimes, this overwhelming care would cause Abraham to relentlessly worry in funny, loveable, over-the-top ways. Like when Andom went to Mauritius for a summer job, and he didn’t call home for three days after his flight from NY. Before leaving, he told Abraham and I that he would call as soon as he could, but that it would be very difficult to call right away; so, we shouldn’t worry. However, as soon as Andom did not reach us on the first day Abraham became frantic and started calling him multiple times every day. On the third day, he couldn’t wait any longer. He searched for the American embassy’s number in Mauritius, alerted them that he couldn’t reach his son, and simply wanted to know that he was well. Of course, Andom was fine. He hadn’t called yet because he wasn’t able to get any service.  Once we found out that Andom was ok, this story became dinner-table-talk. We would laugh and wonder about how Andom reacted when the US Embassy contacted him at his job to tell him one simple thing: “your father is worried about you.”

Because of this caring nature, he constantly thought of how to make our lives as easy as possible. Whenever I would multi-task or finish multiple obligations in a day, he would respond, “Eyetetahawekhi.” So, when family or friends came over to visit, he would suggest that I order food so that I don’t have to cook. He wanted me to spend time with family without having to work so much in preparation of their arrival. For thanksgiving, for instance, he did some research and found out that we could order a lot of Thanksgiving food from the store.  So every single year, he would order the food and in doing so made events easier for myself and the family. Another way, he made our lives easier was by making multiple trips to Philadelphia to pick Zied up. When Zied had to go back and forth from college with suitcases, he insisted that he drive there to pick her up.

“I don’t want you to carry a big, heavy bag. Please, call us, before you leave,” he would proclaim.  Zied would insist that she could manage to travel back and forth on her own, since there were a lot of transit options.  Most parents only drive their children to college once or sometimes twice in a given academic year, and the rest of the time, students would take the bus or the train. Despite knowing this, Abraham persisted. If ever she had too many bags, he insisted that he pick her up from Philadelphia, so that she doesn’t have to carry the load. His willingness to ease our life through such thoughtful and kind deeds are typical experiences with Abraham.

Furthermore, Abraham cared for the children’s overall well-being by helping them set and achieve their goals, especially as they related to academics. When Semere, Andom, and Zied had to take the SATs, he gave each one an offer: to wake them up at 6 a.m. every morning before work and sit alongside them for moral support while they studied.  Semere accepted the offer. And, as promised, Abraham woke Semere up and sat beside him every single morning until Semere took the test. Abraham always considered the needs of his children and sacrificed his time and energy to ensure that those needs were met. From him, we learned that “caring” is not a feeling, but continuous, selfless action.

Alongside setting academic expectations, Abraham understood that education is necessary for personal freedom and development, and he inspired everyone to develop an interest in reading. One way he did this was by sharing his interests in literature with us. When he enjoyed an author, he would recommend that we all read the author’s books together. At one point, he became very interested in 19th century Russian literature and bought a collection of Anton Chekov’s short stories. Each of us would grab one of Anton’s books, sit in the living room, and read together. He also spread his passion for learning by gifting his nieces and nephews with books.  He would send our young relatives creative fiction by Roald Dahl or preparatory books like “What Your 6th Grader Needs to Know.” Very often, moreover, Abraham, simply by speaking, would stimulate people to develop a passion for learning. He could answer any question on politics, history and economics.  His knowledge was so expansive that he inspired everyone to try and attain a portion of it. Semere even dubbed our house “AAU,” Abraham-Azezet University, because our home was as educational as any institution of higher learning.

Furthermore, while many parents struggle to discern whether they should prioritize their family, their job or social life, Abraham unequivocally devoted himself to us. He scheduled his work life around us. At different points in his career, Verizon offered him promotions, and he turned down every one of them because they required him to travel or work too many hours. He refused, since it would take him away from us for periods at a time. He provided us with his time and undivided attention. As a father, Abraham was never too tired to shuttle the family to school, birthday parties, play-dates, sports and chess tournaments.

As a husband, Abraham provided me with the same devotion. We were married for 30 years. I felt that I was cared for, loved and respected. He was always physically and emotionally present, especially during my darkest moments: the deaths of my mother, father and sister.  He supported and advised me on how to deal with the sorrow, and he helped me bear the pain and the loss of my family members.  In all instances, big or small, I believed and trusted that he really felt for me. His loving, caring, and kind presence made me feel that the bad times will pass, and that, as he would say, “Everything will be all right.”

This simple phrase is one that we have to remind ourselves of, now more than ever, because we miss him terribly. We miss him for so many reasons that I’ve tried to describe: his love, care, devotion and curiosity. And yet, there are so many more indescribable parts of him that we yearn to see again. His sweet smile. His innocent eyes. His authentic laughter. His comforting scent. His hugs that always ended in three pats on the back. His specially-crafted, Abraham-made words like “Ofrah” instead of “Oprah.” He has meant so much to us and so many other people.

I think that’s the reason that he has had so many nicknames over the years; one just wasn’t enough.  Depending on who you are and when you knew him, you might know him as one of the following names: Abraha, Abrahaley, Abraham, MIT, Dad, Abos, Deda, Abe, and other various names. All of these names represent different periods in his life, and the different roles he has had. Some of his family and those who knew him in his youth know him as Abraha or Abrahaley, which is his original name. If you met him after he went to primary school, you might know him as Abraham. He got this name after the teacher mistakenly called him Abraham instead of Abraha, and it stuck. During the Eritrean struggle, he became known as MIT for the University he attended. Some family members gave him the affectionate nickname Abe. For his children, he is Dad, Abos, and Deda. And, lastly, those who know him for his most recent revolutionary writings know him by different pennames and his real name.  All of these names represent a different identity based on how each person remembers Abraham’s presence. For us, we know him by all of these names. We remember him as a great presence, the axis of our family, the one who occupied the head of the table, who cared and nurtured the rest of us.

Azezet Abraha & Ghebreghiorgis family

Mount Vernon, New York

09/25/15

 
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