A most ominous question among Eritreans: ‘What do you do’?

Author: Berqi from Asmara

It was a year or so ago that I watched the movie Cleaner starring Samuel L. Jackson acting as Tom Cutler. The movie starts by showing Cutler heavily dressed as if he were a quarantine officer or a scientist walking into a nuclear radiation zone. The high-tech gears that he takes out of his Samsonite and the infrared goggles that he wears after removing everybody out of the rooms to which he is called for his professional attendance give the first impression of a sophisticated expert whose job is yet to be known. Cutler runs his own shipshape business, Steri-Clean, and he is very serious when he is approached for his professional intervention. His specialty takes him to work in crime scenes and he has to be alone to do his flair. Almost halfway through the movie, Cutler unveils his job title; he is a man who specializes in Biomedical and Biohazard Abatement Services. I had to rewind the DVD to hear him again; in fact, I had to read some reviews of the movie to understand what Cutler does. I was confused only because what I saw him do alone in the crime scenes is totally different from how he does it and who he identifies himself as. When someone is killed, Cutler is called to the crime scene to clean up the mess after the body has been taken away. So a Biomedical and Biohazard Abatement Services expert is simply someone who cleans a messy crime scene. Period.    

Cleaner reminded me of a story line that I had seen in another movie – The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks, acting as Viktor Navorski. Navorski can’t get out of JFK International because he suddenly becomes stateless after war breaks out in his country, Krakozhia, and the US refuses to recognize the new government. He starts to think of ways to earn money in order to buy food inside the airport and suddenly notices that by retrieving vacant trolley baggages, the machine at the end of the trolley row gives a 25-cent reward to the retriever. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Head Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) is angered by Navorski’s discovery and wants to prevent Navorski’s adventure with the machine and thinks of ways to remove Navorski from the airport.  Dixon, thus, ‘offers’ the job to one of his employees. Seeing that this ‘job’ does not actually need someone with special training, he quickly decides to baptize it with a name to give it some semblance of a novel airport work and declares that he would be creating a new position at JFK: Transportation Liaison for Passenger Assistance. So when our liaison goes home and his wife asks him what he will thenceforth be doing, he can’t tell her that he will be gathering trolleys and put them back to their appropriate place to be rewarded 25-cents by a machine, but that he has been offered a new job by JFK’s CBP Head; he is JFK’s Transportation Liaison for Passenger Assistance.

The Cleaner-Terminal job title thing got me into thinking about how I and other Eritreans like myself view our jobs and the jobs of others. It is now almost conventional truth that ‘what do you do’ is among the most ominous or detested questions that Eritreans, mainly those in diaspora, like to be asked these days. My lack of exposure in knowing other nationalities stops me from stating that this is the same everywhere as we know it is true about asking a woman about her age and a man whether it is true he is becoming baldheaded. About Eritreans (especially Asmarinos, one of whom I am) and what they do, though, I am almost sure about the question ‘what do you do’.

It looks like we have become victims of our upbringing. In Eritrea, we grow up made to dream to be a doctor, a pilot or an engineer. Not more, not less. A kid would be forgiven to dream to be one of these, but sticking to this even at an adult age is impractical at least and inane at most. It is true that these are coveted jobs, universally so. Who hasn’t dreamt of being a surgeon, or an astronomer, a president, or a Pelé (Lionel Messi, for the new generation)? Similarly, who, amongst those of us who grew in Asmara or the other Eritrean cities, has not grown up belittling road sweepers (asfatsini) (they are now called Street Orderlies, by the way), cactus fruit pick-seller (sheqati beles), cart pusher (defa’i ‘arebya), gatekeepers (guardia, or wardia as we used to call it), and masons (manuale, or minewale as we used to call it)? The streets of Asmara witnessed many a joke, and many a derision too, based on these and other lowly professions.

Nevertheless, for many of my readers, I am confident, today could be the payback time. Like the boomerang, that primitive attitude towards jobs is haunting us as we cave inside ourselves when people remotely hint at asking us what we do. I have met Eritreans of all types, those in Eritrea and those in diaspora and I can still see that we have not yet extricated ourselves from that demon of belittling others’ (in fact, one’s) job.

The cover-up ranges from a vague presentation of one’s job to an outright lie.

Vague presentation comes in many forms. Some tell you the name of the firm they work in and, knowing it is such a famous company, the questioner is left impressed. “Where are you working?” asks the curious friend from Asmara on a chat with his friend who has recently arrived at the US. “Dell,” is the dry answer. Or “Bank of America”. Only the latter and his boss know what he actually does at Dell or BofA. Others tell you that it is not a type of job that is known in Eritrea by describing what the firm they work in does. “So what are you doing?” the question goes. “Well, I am in nanotech. I am sure you guys back home do not understand it. It is too complex to explain.” Okay, it is a nanotech company, but what was he employed in that company for? Others in the ‘vague answer’ group give a brief lecture that what actually matters in the West is that one earn a decent amount of money and that even highly educated people are not afraid to be employed in bars, restaurants or even nightclubs. These vague responders edge towards being diplomats in the ask-for-his-job politics. The final group of vague responders uses the Cleaner-Terminal job title euphemisms that I mentioned above. No description of their jobs, just the title. I will list some such titles if they many be of help to those who want to somehow please themselves with some colorful titles used in many companies: Tonsorial artist or appearance engineer is the title for hairdresser; utensils maintenance assistant (UMA) for dishwasher; head of vocal communication for receptionist; victualer’s assistant for barmaid; wet leisure assistant for lifeguard; post-abattoir delivery operative (PADO) for butcher; refuse collector for dustman; ambient replenishment assistant (ARA) for shelf stacker in a supermarket; refined petroleum distribution associate for those who fill tanks in gas stations; building access control operative (BACO) for guards at bars or restaurants;  transparent-wall maintenance officer for wall cleaner; senior citizen services operative for an employee in a geriatric house or who attends the elderly; sanitation engineer for a janitor; rodent officer for a rat-catcher (so named since 1944); canine control officer for a dog-catcher; modality manager for a nurse etc. For those of us who are unemployed, the term is that we are between jobs.

The other style of cover-up comes in the form of an outright lie. What a shame this is. Only a week ago, I heard the story of an Eritrean who came from Germany to visit family in Asmara. He told his friends and family that he designs eyeglasses back in Germany. Alas! A friend of his came and broke the bad news that he fixes alarm bells. For those who are liberated from this shame, the reflex is to say “what’s wrong with fixing alarm bells?” Well, only our eyeglass designer knows why. And only the reader knows if he has ever lied or been lied to when it comes to describing his (her) job.

I am not intending here to tell my readers sraH kbur iyu or advise them that there is no shame in doing any type of work under the circumstances the readers are living in or that only unethical, conscienceless or criminal jobs are to be despised. That would be condescending. I would like, however, to discuss the motive behind the vague or untrue descriptions of one’s job that we Eritreans find ourselves in. I guess that it has less to do with the lowliness of one’s job than with the unhealthily competitiveness that we Eritreans tend to possess. It is not usually about us, it is about what others think or feel about us. The better others think of us, the less insecure we feel and the more insecure they feel. The less others think of us, the more insecure we feel and they feel victorious. What a reversed psyche! The problem is not with the responder to the ‘what do you do’ question only; it is the same with inquirer too. If my reader has wildly laughed at the stories or the euphemisms that I mentioned above, should I take it that he (she) is infected with the virus of ‘Eritreans and describing their jobs’? Do you feel down about the nature of your job because you think you deserve better or because you are haunted by the potential roar of laughter of fellow-Eritreans who must not know what you do? By the way, have we noticed that we are open to describe ourselves and the nature of our jobs to non-Eritreans, especially whites?

This unhealthy competitiveness reflects itself not only in describing one’s job. It stretches from telling one’s major in college or university to how we view Eritrean political groups opposed to our view (say the government in Eritrea or a rival Eritrean political group or party abroad).

About one’s major in college or university – now that I am in the process of ‘liberating’ myself from this stupidity – it is hard to understand why we grew up belittling some fields of study and idolizing others. Now that we live in a world where the true potentials of human mind and the simple steps of unearthing it have become daily news and in a new world where the true test of one’s success is delivery and not grades or subject of study, many of us are still stuck in the old anecdote: ‘Eritreans and hard science’. An Eritrean who is a former engineering or pharmacy graduate who has shifted into studying nursing or plumbing will most likely not tell what he (she) is studying. I remain open to being advised what is the best field of study in the world.   

About political opponents, I have been reading the government and opposition websites for a number of years. It is the same root of unhealthy competition that reflects itself in most of the articles and news stories published daily in these websites. The groups seem to take more pleasure in identifying the fly, or a hoard of flies, in the stew of others than in telling us how delicious their stews are. Can, for one moment, we focus on ourselves? The ruling group in Asmara has made it its job description to tell us the world is in bad shape; the opposition tells us what a monster the Asmara gang has turned itself into. I believe that there is nothing wrong with telling the audience that you are the best alternative – I guess that is what Romney and Obama often tell their audiences. For those of us in dispora, let us please not insult the intelligence of our people back home by telling them stories of abuses inside Eritrea that they are firsthand witnesses to. Let us tell them what we have in plan in store should the good day come. This they would love to listen to or, if they are like the test of us encouraged by the fault of others, they should listen to.

Back to where I started. What do you do?


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